Dissident in Exile
Egypt’s leading public intellectual, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, risked everything to reform Hosni Mubarak’s antidemocratic regime. Even his freedom. By John T. Ward
Saad Eddin Ibrahim pauses just inside his Seminary Hall classroom doorway on an overcast autumn afternoon to find that none of the early arrivers for his weekly seminar on Middle East politics has bothered to turn on the lights. “Is it meant to be dark?” he asks, scanning faces. No reply. So, reaching out with the same hand that holds his cane, he flicks a switch, and a smile straight out of Maurice Sendak spreads across his face as fluorescent light blooms.
Leaning heavily on the cane, Ibrahim makes his way to a table at the front. His right leg has permanent nerve damage—the result, he says, of abuse by authorities in an Egyptian prison a decade ago. Before then, he was a runner. Of course, before President Hosni Mubarak or someone in his regime decided that Ibrahim had morphed from a merely provocative academic and democracy advocate to someone who needed shutting up, he was also once an adviser to Mubarak.
Throwing him in prison in 2000 on trumped-up charges, subjecting him to water and noise torture and slapping him with more allegations in 2007 didn’t stick, however. Egypt’s largely autonomous civil courts have repeatedly given Ibrahim the due process denied him by the still-extant “emergency” courts set up when Mubarak replaced the slain president, Anwar Sadat, in 1981. Nor did it shut him up—not by a long shot. In fact, it generated outrage around the world and a spot for Ibrahim’s name on the short list for the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize (it went to one of his heroes, Jimmy Carter), giving Ibrahim a bigger stage from which to call out the failed political and economic promises of the Mubarak regime. But what one human rights organization has denounced as a “continuous prosecutorial hounding” by Egyptian authorities did drive Ibrahim into self-imposed exile almost three years ago. That led him to the United States, where he has had second citizenship since the late 1960s, and to his current one-year visiting professorship at Drew.
The weight of all that, though, is nowhere in evidence as Ibrahim settles in for class. Thickset and Brillo-bearded at age 71, he’s got Javier Bardem eyes that flicker as he nudges along a discussion about the differences between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, and about the “deep state” cabal said to secretly rule Turkey. They flash some more as he parries with a Muslim student over the question of whether Muslim women should be required to wear, or be banned from wearing, the hijab. Ibrahim does not lecture, preferring the Socratic method to elicit ideas and answers from students, says political science major Nathan Chase C’11.
“He always hears somebody out,” Chase says. “He will never sit there and say, ‘Well, I know better than you do.’ He’ll listen to people.”
Even in exile, Ibrahim, a political sociologist and a founder of Egypt’s civil society movement, which aims to displace military and religious hegemony, is routinely referred to as that country’s most prominent democracy advocate. A persistent thorn in the side of Mubarak and other Mideast leaders, he has for decades lobbied for open and fair elections and the inclusion of women and minorities in the political process. It is the role of the dissident to speak truth to power, Ibrahim says, and his message to Middle East tyrants of all stripes is that “there is going to be no peace or prosperity unless there is democracy in the region. And the cornerstone in that process is the biggest country in the region, Egypt.”
But speaking truth means calling allies to task too. Shortly before Barack Obama took office as president, Ibrahim praised his plan to visit a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office. “Delivering a message of U.S. reconciliation with the rest of the world may as well begin with the 1.4 billion Muslims,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. Barely nine months later, though, after Obama visited Mubarak in Cairo, and as the White House readied for a reciprocal visit, Ibrahim wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Obama had already lapsed into “old-style foreign policy with Arab tyrants,” turning a blind eye to their misdeeds.
Ibrahim’s views often put him at odds even within the opposition to Mubarak. Because he believes even radical voices must be tolerated in a democracy, he supports the electoral participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is widely regarded as a petri dish for terrorism and is officially banned in Egypt, while he simultaneously champions equality for Christian Copts, who are frequent targets of violence by Muslims.
Daniel Pipes, a scholar on the region, has called Ibrahim “one of the freshest, bravest and most interesting analytical voices coming from the Middle East.”
“He marches to nobody’s tune but his own, which sometimes upsets people,” says Dina Guirguis, executive director of Washington, D.C.–based Voices for a Democratic Egypt, which she co-founded with Ibrahim. “But I don’t think he’s too concerned with pleasing everyone at all times. He says and does what he believes.”
“Sometimes, your behavior precedes your attitude,” Ibrahim says, after his students have cleared out of the classroom. “Like jumping and then becoming courageous after your jump.”
He’s explaining how he, the child of apolitical Nile Delta farmers, became an activist. It was an encounter with President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1955 that set him on his path, Ibrahim says. Then just 16 years old, he had won a national essay contest that put him on a stage with the man who had ousted Egypt’s last monarch in a coup three years earlier. Ibrahim brought Nasser up short and drew gasps from the audience, when, in answering a question from Nasser about the revolution, Ibrahim said that it “had been bloodless,” but that it no longer was because he knew of a young man who had recently been picked up by state security, beaten and locked up for unknown reasons. Nasser, Ibrahim says, took out a pen, wrote down the victim’s name and said his administration had still not weeded out the worst elements of the king’s security apparatus. Shortly thereafter, the man was released, Ibrahim says. The experience made Ibrahim an “avid Nasserite” and stayed with him when he came to the United States as a graduate student at UCLA and the University of Washington, as it underscored the importance of speaking up. “I was very impressed by Nasser’s behavior, the fact that he took me seriously and that he had acted on this grievance I had presented,” he says.
Ibrahim spent 13 years here, beginning in 1962, marrying an American, Barbara Lethem, and absorbing the anti-establishment fervor of the time, participating in civil rights demonstrations and protests against the Vietnam War. He became president of the Arab Students of North America. But after he criticized Nasser over Egypt’s loss of the Six Day War with Israel, Nasser stripped Ibrahim of his citizenship and confiscated his family’s property. Five years after Nasser’s death in 1970, Sadat undid those moves, and Ibrahim returned with his wife to Egypt, where he began a long run teaching at the American University in Cairo. He also sat in on several meetings with Sadat.
Like Mubarak, Sadat “shouted at me as well, but he never harmed me,” a grinning Ibrahim recalls.
After Sadat was slain, Ibrahim had occasional access to Mubarak through the first lady, who had been a student of Ibrahim’s at the American University. Ibrahim said he was initially hopeful that Mubarak would follow through on promises of demilitarizing the government and opening things up for fair and contested elections. In 1989, Ibrahim founded the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a think tank, and built it into what The New York Times called “a leading exponent of democratic reform and intellectual freedom in the Arab world.” But with the passing years, Mubarak, now 81 years old, merely extended his reign to the country’s third-longest, after Rameses II and modern Egypt’s founder, Muhammad Ali, and the regime ossified. Repression of dissent continued, and election victories remained the province solely of Mubarak’s ironically named National Democratic Party.
Ibrahim’s first visit from state security forces came late one night in June 2000. He was arrested at his Cairo home and charged with accepting foreign funds without authorization, disseminating false information harmful to Egypt’s interest and embezzlement—allegations stemming from the Khaldun Center’s acceptance of a $250,000 grant from the European Commission to produce a documentary film on voting rights and electoral fraud. More than two dozen colleagues from the center were also swept up and jailed.
The charges were universally denounced as bogus. His real offense, Ibrahim says, was to have authored a magazine article critical of contemporary Arab dynasties, and then to have repeated some of his observations on the subject during his commentary on live television coverage of the funeral of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. In both, he said that Mubarak was, despite regime protests to the contrary, greasing the skids for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. Talking about Mubarak and his son may have been beyond the pale for the president. Ibrahim says he learned through trusted sources that Mubarak ran screaming to his wife, magazine in hand, “Next, he will be in our bedroom!”
Ibrahim was convicted by Mubarak’s security court and sentenced in July 2002 to seven years in prison. But five months later, the civil Court of Cassation, the nation’s highest tribunal, overturned his conviction on procedural grounds and ordered him retried. This time, the high court itself heard the case and acquitted him. After 14 months in prison, Ibrahim and his colleagues were freed; he left prison in a wheelchair.
But that wasn’t the end of either his outspokenness or his legal woes. In June 2007, Ibrahim and other dissidents met with President George W. Bush in Prague, and Ibrahim urged that the United States withhold development funds from Egypt, which, after Israel, is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid; the administration had, in fact, in 2003 suspended $150 million in aid to press for Ibrahim’s release from prison. As a result of his suggestion, Ibrahim soon was up on new charges: communicating information about state security to a foreign leader and defaming the country abroad—acts regarded as high treason. Ibrahim supporters said a prison term would be tantamount to a death sentence. In 2009, after another trial on specious evidence, his conviction and two-year sentence to hard labor on those charges, too, were tossed on appeal. The exoneration came just two days before President Obama’s visit to Cairo.
Ibrahim, who was unable to tell a driver how to get him from the Drew campus to the nearby university-run condo he’d been living in for six weeks, is at home jetting around the world, tirelessly prodding for a greater civil voice in the Mideast. At the time of the class described earlier, he was just back from Morocco, where he’d attended a planning session for a meeting of global thinkers and leaders, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who were about to gather for the sixth time. Their aim, he says, was “preparing the region for democracy.” The following week, he was off to Qatar to meet with that country’s first lady, who had put up $10 million in seed money for yet another Ibrahim creation, the Arab Democracy Foundation.
His influence, it seems, is greater than ever. Ibrahim has been interviewed by Charlie Rose and David Frost, and he has lunched with Sen. John McCain. His is not an unfamiliar face on CNN, Al-Jazeera and Al Arabia. He writes a weekly column syndicated to 16 newspapers throughout the Mideast. “Even though I am banned by the official Egyptian media, I still have access to the populace,” he says.
That kind of pull makes participating in Ibrahim’s seminar what student Nate Chase calls “a singular experience.
“You realize that you’re sitting with the one person who’s the prominent authority on Middle Eastern democracy, on Middle Eastern human rights, in the world,” says Chase. “You’re sitting with someone who knew Saddam Hussein personally, who was summoned by the leader of Hamas, by Presidents Sadat and Mubarak, who knows the King of Morocco personally. You realize that you’re sitting with a giant. But the really interesting thing is that he does not have the ego to go along with his status.”
Well, maybe a little ego to go along with an impish, even reckless streak. Ibrahim’s eyes widen in delight as he describes how, in his most recent column, he tweaked an Egyptian government official for being a reliably anti-democratic apparatchik. And a 2001 New York Times Magazine cover story about him recounted how, in the mid-1990s, Ibrahim invited Mubarak to a meeting of intellectuals but upbraided him in front of onlookers for showing up late. Despite such boldness, and certainly because of it, Ibrahim believes he cannot return home. Though he acknowledges that “there is a margin of freedom in Egypt,” prosecutors at the bidding of the controlling party have made it plain that they are prepared to bring new charges against him should he return. Exile, “difficult though it is, emotionally and socially, it is still better than prison,” he says.
In March 2008, early on in his exile, Ibrahim resigned his post at American University. Since then, Indiana University, where he taught in the 1960s, and Harvard have given him temporary haven. He came to Drew to be the first Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the urging of Christopher Taylor, the religious studies department chair who for years has regarded Ibrahim as a “hero.” Meantime, Ibrahim says, he has grown to appreciate his American citizenship more deeply.
“I have seen what oppressive, authoritarian regimes can do, and so I value the experience of American democracy and liberty more than I did before,” he says, resting both hands on the handle of his cane. “You take these things for granted until you are deprived of them. Then, they loom very large.”
John T. Ward is a freelance writer based in Red Bank, N.J.
- Drew’s Ted Johnson interviews Saad Eddin Ibrahim
- A Wall Street Journal editorial by Ibrahim criticizing President Obama for receiving Hosni Mubarak
- Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldun Center website
—Drew Magazine, Winter 2010