Sociologist, dissident and now exile, Saad Eddin Ibrahim spoke to Daily News Egypt from the Qatari capital of Doha about his conflict with the Egyptian government.
Ibrahim believes that although his Aug. 21 Washington Post editorial may have irked the regime, it was the conference on Arab Democracy followed by the brief meeting with President Bush last June in Prague that was more provoking.
The 68-year-old academic who was imprisoned close to three years in 2000, was advised to stay abroad for the time being until a number of cases filed against him by National Democratic Party (NDP) members are dropped by the attorney general’s office. Ibrahim also highlighted the prison sentences passed down on the four journalists as proof of a regime-led crackdown that targets more than just the Muslim Brotherhood.
Daily News Egypt: Do you think the latest conflict between you and the Egyptian regime is a result of the editorial you wrote in the Washington Post in August?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: I think the confrontation started much earlier. It started with our conference on democracy and reform in the Arab world, which culminated in creating an Arab democracy foundation in Doha May 29, 2007. The regime for some reason thought that the whole conference was directed against Mubarak, when it actually dealt with democracy in the Arab world.
And the attacks began within a week of that conference; some 50 or more editorials in the state-controlled media targeted me in their attack, and to some extent attacked the Qatari sponsorship of the conference. So that is really when the confrontation began and then the fact that one of my researchers was arrested upon arrival showed that the regime has evil intentions toward the democracy movement not only in Egypt, but wherever it exists in the Arab world as a whole.
The problem was escalated by leaps and bounds after I met President Bush at another conference in Prague, the Conference on Democracy and Security. Again for some reason the regime became paranoid thinking that the mere attendance of the conference and the fact that I met President Bush – even though it was a very brief meeting – must signal a scheme for regime change in Egypt.
What was your impression of President Bush?
Well-intentioned but ill informed.
How did that famous Prague encounter go?
He was wondering whether Mubarak could actually change or help change Egypt. And Mubarak, according to him, keeps claiming that he is too old to change. I said that it’s not a matter of him being too old to change, whenever he wants to change anything, he does it despite his age. I gave him evidence in the fact that he amended 34 articles in the Constitution after having refused for the last 25 years to change even a single word. But because it suited his own scheme to groom his son, he changed large parts of the constitution in one stock. And that has surprised him [Bush] so he called on to his national security advisor Steve Hadley to ask him if this was the case and Steve of course had no idea but he said he would check it out. And of course later on they found out that its true. Anyhow that was the gist of all that transpired between us.
Do you think you are targeted by the regime because you are an outspoken dissident? If so, do you expect to be jailed upon your return to Egypt?
Well, you know the scheme of the regime is to orchestrate actions by several NDP members to file requests to the attorney general in Egypt to investigate me on all kinds of charges – ranging from tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad to undermining national security and the socioeconomic interests of Egypt, to treason. Now members of the NDP do not do these kinds of things willfully or spontaneously, they do it as part of a regime’s strategy or a plan to pursue what the regime considers not only as dissidents, but also as dangerous dissidents.
That is exactly what they did with the four journalists, the chief editors of four newspapers. Party members who claimed that the leaders of their party were insulted by these four newspapers filed the complaints. So now the regime has learned this new tactic – instead of pursuing someone directly, it gets citizens who are part of their own ruling junta to file complaints and then get an investigation underway. After that, they subsequently find a court somewhere, where the judge either wants something from the regime or will issue these kinds of sentences against the accused as we have seen already in the last two weeks.
So that is the plan, all my lawyers are afraid of is all these investigation requests. Meaning that upon arrival I will be arrested for questioning, for investigation, and then the regime will say you know in order to continue the investigation we will keep X, meaning Saad Eddin Ibrahim, under administrative detention for fear that he may leave the country before the investigation is over.
And we know people can stay in detention for as long as 13 years without being indicted, without being tried and that is what my lawyers fear. It was upon their advice that I should stay abroad until the attorney general drops these complaints or the investigation requests, or closes the file. The regime is known to be a very treacherous regime. It has done that with Talaat El Sadat, Anwar El Sadaat, Ayman Nour, Ibrahim Eissa and Adel Hammouda. It is a regime that is unsure of itself. It feels under attack, under scrutiny and it is fighting back viciously and brutally.
Please explain your previous statement in the Washington Post editorial on Aug. 21, 2007 that President Mubarak exploits Islamophobia?
What he is suggesting to the United States and the European Union is that he is a bulwark against Islamists and after 9/11 there is a fear about the spread of Islamic militancy everywhere. And he knows that he is exploiting it by suggesting that if he allows freedom – if he allows free and fair elections – Islamists will take over. Therefore he is pleading to have the green light in order to crack down on everybody, including the Islamists.
And, of course, he seems to have kind of a green light and he is cracking down on the Muslim Brothers. But in the process he is cracking down also on the free press and on people like myself, people like Anwar El Sadat and Talaat El Sadat, the MPs who have nothing to do with Islamic militancy or the Muslim Brotherhood nor do the four editors. But you see the regime has now declared all-out war against all of its opponents, all its critics.
Do you think that if a truly democratic system was in place in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will take over?
No, I don’t believe that under free and fair elections they will come to power. They will not get a majority. They will attain anywhere between 20-30 percent of the popular vote and of the seats in parliament. In Morocco, for example, the Justice and Development party got only 16-17 percent of the vote. If we judge by the case in Morocco that is roughly the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood; the same thing goes for Turkey. In Turkey they did not get a minority but they also did not get over 50 percent, they got 47 percent.
I say this after examining the last election results. That’s what I go by, empirical evidence not by fears. The politics of fear are what Mubarak is using, what I’m using is the politics of social science. You analyze, you see, you examine figures, you conduct your own empirical public opinion polling. On the basis of that, I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood – at least for this generation – will not win a majority that would enable them to rule. I think they will definitely have a fair share in any open competition.
But there are some who argue that even with allegedly rigged elections, the Brotherhood were able to win 20 percent of parliament. So if the elections were free and fair, would their parliamentary dominance be much more potent?
We are the ones who observed the elections with 4,000 monitors. This is not a statement of fear, it’s a statement of fact. They got 20 percent of the vote and they could have gotten 23 percent of the vote. S
o there is a margin of fraud and we documented all of that. If you read our report you will see it. So instead of getting 88 seats they could have gotten a hundred seats and this means 12 more seats. This represents one fourth of the Egyptian parliament.
Hypothetically speaking, if they do come into power, do you think they will allow you to express yourself freely?
First of all, they will not come to power in my lifetime, and second of all if they do come to power and if they deprive me of the freedom to express myself, I will fight them like I’m fighting Mubarak. I will fight anyone who deprives me of my freedom. They couldn’t be worse than Mubarak, that’s what I’m trying to say. The Christians in Egypt see them as the worst and Mubarak uses that also. He is using that fear in their hearts.