A Politics of Inclusion: An Interview with Egyptian Democracy Advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is Professor of Political Sociology
at the American University in Cairo. He founded the Ibn Khaldun
Center for Development Studies and is one of the Arab world's
most prominent spokespeople for democracy and human rights. He
is the author, co-author, or editor of more than thirty-five books
in Arabic and English, including Egypt, Islam and Democracy:
Critical Essays (1996). Arrested by the Mubarak regime in
2000, he was sentenced to seven years' hard labor for "tarnishing
Egypt's image." The interview, excerpted here, was
conducted on February 11, 2007 by Alan Johnson, a professor
of Democratic Theory and Practice at Edge Hill University and
editor of the online journal, Democratiya, which published
Alan Johnson: Your home was raided in the middle of the night of June 30, 2000. You were arrested, imprisoned, vilified in the state press, and tried three times on the same charges, before Egypt's highest High Court of Cassation eventually acquitted you and your associates of all charges on March 18, 2003. Why do you think you were arrested in 2000?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: They said I had accepted a grant from the EU without state permission; that I was using this grant for voter registration, again without authorization; that I had defamed Egypt in my writings; and that I embezzled this grant. But as a sociologist and political analyst I know that stated reasons at best overlap with real reasons.
I think the real reason for my arrest was my challenge to the Mubarak family. On the day of my arrest I had published an article in Al-Majalla, a magazine distributed across the Arab world [speculating that one of Mubarak's sons might succeed him].
The article appeared on the streets on June 30 2000. Well, that morning all the copies were removed from the Egyptian markets, and that night I was arrested. So perhaps I was arrested because I had discussed the subject of succession in an open way -- 'naming names', so to speak.
Other people offered different theories. I had documented the rigging of [previous] Egyptian elections and was about to train 1,000 monitors for the 2000 Parliamentary elections. In fact, that training was due to begin the next day, July 1. And don't forget, they didn't just arrest me. They arrested all 27 people working in the Ibn Khaldun Center which was coordinating the training of the monitors. A third theory was that my arrest was due to my frequent defense of minorities, both in Egypt and across the Arab world.
Alan Johnson: You suffered several small strokes while in prison. How is your health today?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: After I got out of prison I was in a wheelchair for a year and for a further year I used a cane. I have undergone surgery three times at Johns Hopkins since I was released, and I am due to have a fourth operation. With each operation my health improves a little and now I can walk, albeit with some difficulty. I have to be very conscious of my balance, I tire easily, and my handwriting leaves a lot to be desired.
It was not the decline in my health that upset me most, by the way. It was the destruction of the Ibn Khaldun Center a day or two before my release. Documents and libraries were looted, pictures were destroyed. I had not cried in the previous three years but when I saw what they had done to the Center I cried for the first time during the whole ordeal. It was so senseless and vindictive.
The Court of Cassation, Egypt's High Court, cleared me. It was created in 1923 ñ a legacy of the brief liberal age in Egypt. The High Court has survived Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, and is a saving grace in this miserable country of ours. Not only did the Court acquit me and my colleagues of all charges, it also reprimanded the regime, which was highly unusual. It made it clear that if anyone had tarnished Egypt's image it had been the executive, and that it was the job of the state to answer charges made by intellectuals, not to imprison them! This was so gratifying. It made the three-year ordeal meaningful. The Court affirmed that everything the Ibn Khaldun Center was doing was legitimate, including receiving grants and publishing in foreign languages (the state had attacked me for writing in foreign languages and 'defaming' Egypt abroad). Indeed, you might say the manner of the acquittal was more important to me than the acquittal itself.
Democrats and Moderate Islamists: a Strategic Alliance?
Alan Johnson: You have argued for an alliance of sorts between democrats and 'moderate' Islamists. In December 2006 you complained about an 'unjustified fear of modern Islamists' and called for a policy of dialogue and inclusion, saying 'Hamas, Hezbollah, Muslim Brothers -- these people you cannot get rid of; you have to deal with them the name of the game is inclusion.' These views have raised some eyebrows. Can you set out your thinking?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: After September 11, 2001, I was engaging the Islamists in prison. Everyone was shaken up and so open to discussion. On my release, the comrades of these Islamists contacted me and proposed we continue the dialogue. We did for a few months and then one asked a question ñ why has the outside world raised such a fuss about you and not about our comrades, even though they have been rotting for 25 years? They asked why the BBC talked about my case but not theirs.
I reminded them that I was perceived as sharing core values with human rights groups around the world. They asked what these core values were.
I told them: belief in democracy, freedom, human rights, equality, tolerance, diversity. They claimed to share those values. I said, 'Have you guys forgotten that I studied you 25 years ago? You did not have those values then!' They claimed to have changed in prison, having rethought their ideas. I said: well, your image is still one of bloodthirsty, violent, intolerant, fanatics. They asked how they could change their image. I told them: the same way you created it, by your actions and rhetoric and writings. They claimed to feel morally responsible for what happened on September 11, 2001. I said: begin to write in a different way. They wrote four small volumes revisiting their beliefs, and these were smuggled out of prison and published. These were published under the name El Moragiat which in Arabic means the revisiting or the revising.
The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers held a press conference on March 30, 2004, fully supporting democracy. Of course there remain doubts about whether they are really committed. But at another level they do seem to have moved. I am optimistic. I say we should give Islamists a chance to show whether they are truly committed to these core values or not. There is nothing to lose. Instead of a bloodbath every generation, let us see if they can evolve.
Alan Johnson: But what of the danger of an Iranian development? Did the Iranian left not commit a grievous error in making that kind of alliance, literally digging its own grave? How can that be avoided?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Well, this is the question that is raised all the time. Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan are cases in which Islamists came to power not through the ballot box but through a coup or a revolution. But when Islamists were given the chance via the ballot box they have not reneged on the rules. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and other countries, Islamists who came to power through the ballot box left power through the ballot box.
Look, I am as concerned as you are, being a secularist and a civil society advocate. I hear your question ñ if they come to power will it be 'one man, one vote, one time,' or will they leave office if voted out by the majority? But I would like to keep that question alive, as an open question.
Alan Johnson: You are drawing a distinction between different kinds of Islamism and suggesting that there are forms of Islamism that democrats can work with. Do you have a larger strategic goal of realigning the political map of your region by realigning the relationship between the democrats and the 'moderate' Islamists?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Absolutely. I want to get the Islamists who are willing to play by the democratic rules into the mainstream.
I had an experience with King Hussein [of Jordan] that is important in this regard. I happened to be the Secretary General of the Arab Forum, in Amman, between 1985 and 1990. In that capacity the King would call on me occasionally, to discuss, to josh and joke. He felt able to let his guard down with me, I guess, being an outsider. When the food riots broke out in Jordan in 1988 he summoned me for my assessment. I beat around the bush, and talked about civil partnerships, freedoms and so on, but he interrupted and asked, 'Do you mean democracy?' I said, 'Yes, your majesty, I do.'
But then he asked the same question you have asked: 'Saad, what do we do about the Islamists?' I advised him to bring them in, along with all other political forces, and make them sign a kind of Magna Carta -- a National Charter detailing the rules of the game. A conference was called at which Islamists, Baathists, Nasserites, Communists -- everybody participated and agreed to a revised Charter. The first multiparty elections were duly held and the King's fear duly materialized: the Islamists won the biggest bloc of seats.
But then the Islamic Front Ministers overplayed their hands. A lot of women worked [at the] Education and Social Affairs ministries. When an Islamist Minister dictated that all [women] employees must veil, and another declared that none should go to a male hairdresser, the women got very upset and marched to the Royal Palace. The King called me and said, 'Saad, do you see what is happening?' I said, 'Yes, but that is democracy, your Majesty.' I advised him to say to the women that they have come to the wrong address, and they should be marching to Parliament or to the Cabinet instead. He met the women, expressed his sympathy, told the women that his wife and daughter were unveiled, and invited the women to redirect their marches. They did and kept marching for two weeks until they forced those Islamist cabinet members to resign. Everything was peaceful. In the following election the Islamists' vote fell.
Look, what is the alternative to engaging the Islamists? We can't engage in bloodbaths. Of course, I would not include people who do not agree to respect the rules of the game. But I would encourage those who say they do accept the rules.
The Relationship between Autocracy and Theocracy
Alan Johnson: Some of your most important writings have highlighted the symbiotic nature of the relationship between autocracy and theocracy. In what sense is the autocrat-theocrat relationship 'symbiotic' and what are the political implications of this?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: The public space is absolutely dominated by autocrats who have been entrenched for 50 years, and theocrats who have been challenging the autocrats for the last 30 years -- since the Iranian revolution. The small reviving constituency of the democrats is totally outmatched. Yes, I say the autocrats need the theocrats. How so? Well, the autocrats skilfully and cynically use the theocrats as a bogeyman to frighten not only the West but also their own middle classes and non-Muslim minorities. The autocrats believe that if they can continue to confront the west and their own people with a stark choice ñ the theocrats or us ñ then their power is secure.
I am worried when the West swallows uncritically what the autocrats say. The real antidote to the symbiotic relationship between autocracy and theocracy is a politics of inclusion and democratic governance.
Alan Johnson: When you were released from prison in 2003 you addressed a conference in Washington, DC on the theme of US support for democracy-promotion and said, 'I hope the United States will have the sustainability, the consistency to see it through, along with indigenous forces that will build their own democracy.' What would you have Western governments say and do?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: We don't want you to enforce things like you did in Iraq. Just withhold your support from the autocrats until they open up the system. You did that with economic reform but you did not do it with political reform. You imposed conditionalities to liberalize the economy but you hesitate to use conditionality to open up the political space.
First, tell the autocrats to open up the system. Second, tell the autocrats to end the use of 'emergency' laws (such as those that have been in place in Egypt since Sadat's death). Third, pressure the autocrats to free up the public space ñ we need freedom of association, expression, organization, and access to the media and cyberspace. Here, in the Ibn Khaldun Center, I can say anything I want to you. On Tuesday I can host the open forum, and everyone can speak their mind. But we can't organize a rally outside the building. I need a permit from the state security and I won't get one. And if I organize without a permit I get thrown in jail. Fourth, insist on free elections, internationally monitored. With these measures in place then in five years we would have a robust democratic life in Egypt. My plea to those who live in democratic societies is to pressure your own governments to abstain from supporting the autocrats until our political space is opened up. Use your liberty to help us obtain ours.
Update: As of August 6, 2008: According to the Daily News of Egypt, an Egyptian Judge sentenced Saad Eddin Ibrahim (in absentia - he is out of the country) to two years in prison for damaging Egypt's reputation by criticizing the Egyptian government abroad.