Being thrown in an Egyptian prison for a few years along with 20 co-workers might convince some activists that they needed to change their approach.
Not Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
Indeed, the leading human rights activist and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies brushes off the experience. He sees his incarceration and the recent rollbacks in civil liberties in Egypt as mere temporary setbacks in the creation of a stronger civil society throughout the Middle East.
“Twenty years ago when we first started promoting civil liberties, no one was even aware there was a problem,” he says on his way to an Al Jazeera interview in the evening Cairo traffic. “Today, there are over 100 groups like ours in Egypt and between 300 and 400 across the Arab world – some of them inspired by us. We have made a lot of progress, and we are still advancing.”
Dr. Ibrahim founded The Ibn Khaldun Center in 1988 with seed money from an academic prize awarded for his pioneering work in sociology. Before armed guards dragged away its employees in the summer of 2000, about 30 people worked at the center in programs ranging from democracy promotion to training for nongovernmental organizations on public policy issues.
Despite oppression at home and increasing wariness from Western governments over Arab politics, Dr. Ibrahim sees ample reason to be optimistic about the future of democracy in the Muslim world.
“We now have the ability to shape the agenda and are starting to get a Pan-Arab debate. The very fact that dictators in the region have to go through the motions of the democratic process is testimony to the fact that the language of democracy is becoming prevalent,”
He notes the first free and democratic elections held earlier this year in Mauritania. The success of the polls there shows that Islam can be compatible with democracy, he says.
Another positive development is establishment of the Arab Foundation for Democracy under the auspices of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missnedin of Qatar. The foundation, created in May at a Pan-Arab conference partly organized by the Ibn Khaldun Center, aims to provide material and organizational support for groups pursuing democracy in the region.
These recent steps toward restoring momentum to Arab democracy movements are significant, given that a key driving force in Egypt’s secular civil liberties movement was left in tatters for several years by the imprisonment of Dr. Ibrahim and his colleagues.
Many say that the Ibn Khaldun Center’s focus on election monitoring landed him in jail. The trial was seen as an attempt to muzzle civil society groups and prevent Dr. Ibrahim and the center from scrutinizing upcoming polls.
“Mubarak wanted to send a warning…to avoid publicity on electoral irregularities,” says Michael Dunn, editor of The Middle East Journal and former professor at Georgetown University.
Dr. Ibrahim was convicted in May 2001 for preparing slanderous reports about Egypt and receiving unauthorized funds from overseas, a ruling that sparked a storm of condemnation from the West. The case became a cause célèbre for both domestic and foreign human rights groups that threw the spotlight on the poor political reform record of the Mubarak government. This, along with the threat of the United States cutting off aid, were key factors in the acquittal of Dr. Ibrahim on all charges in 2003, says Dunn.
Around the time of his release, it appeared that liberal democracy was gaining more of a foothold throughout the Arab world not only within a secular context but also among religious groups. A party of Muslim democrats won power for the first time in Turkey, while a similar political organization made substantial progress in Morocco. Both men and women voted in Bahrain’s first elections since 1975, and Egypt held its first multi-party polls in 50 years in 2005. Dr. Ibrahim says the West can take some of the credit for this period of liberalization.
“After 9/11, there was a push from the United States and Western Europe to promote democracy in the Middle East as part of the war on terror,” he says. “We think democracy should be supported for its own sake, but the initial effect was to give added energy to our cause.”
But the long-awaited Cairo spring was to prove elusive. The message being disseminated by such people as Dr. Ibrahim struck a chord with Islamic-oriented groups, who had long suffered under the rule of authoritarian governments. The banned Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of seats in the 2005 election to form the largest opposition bloc, prompting the regime of President Hosnei Mubarak to quickly clamp down by throwing their leaders in prison and stifling political dissent.
In a recent example of the growing atmosphere of oppression facing civil society groups, the Egyptian Secret Service arrested in May 2007 members of a group, known as the Quranists, who were working to promote human rights and democracy from within a Muslim perspective.
“The Mubarak government has used the gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood as a pretext for rolling back democracy,” says Dr. Ibrahim. The government recently passed a series of constitutional amendments, which analysts say remove civil liberties and increase the risk of vote-rigging by removing the judicial monitoring of elections.
Dr. Ibrahim says the West is guilty of double standards when it comes to supporting democracy in the Middle East. A typical example is the case of Ayman Nour, the secular opposition leader who polled second to Mubarak in the 2005 elections. Policy-makers, including those in the U.S., have condemned the imprisonment of politicians like Nour who may pose a threat to the Mubarak regime but remain conspicuously silent on the persecution of Islamic Egyptian opposition groups.
“The West ought to be consistent and stay the course by continuing to promote democracy regardless of which groups gain political power – there should be nothing episodic,” says Dr. Ibrahim. “Human rights and democracy are a matter of principle, and they should be supported across the board.”
Indeed, the recent waning of enthusiasm for Arab democracy on the part of the West poses a danger to secular organizations like the Ibn Khadun Center. It “undermines the credibility of the democracy message and has the unintended result of making pro-Western groups fighting for civil liberties in the Middle East end up looking like agents of the West,” he says.
In addition to these larger challenges confronting pro-democracy groups in the Middle East, Dr. Ibrahim continues to be individually persecuted by the Egyptian government. On Aug. 2, 2008, an Egyptian court sentenced him to two years of prison for ‘defaming Egypt’. Although he is in the process of appealing the ruling, Dr. Ibrahim was forced to leave Egypt for fear of arrest and assassination.
Despite personal attacks and larger political obstacles, Dr. Ibrahim is hopeful that both the Arab world and the West can put their houses in order. “I’m confident we will prevail in the end.”