The Wall Street Journal

  • FEBRUARY 26, 2011

A Democrat’s Triumphal Return to Cairo

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the former prisoner of the Mubarak regime, on the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s political future.

For 18 days, the people of Cairo massed in Tahrir Square to bring down their pharaoh. Many carried signs: “Mubarak: shift + delete,” “Forgive me God, for I was scared and kept quiet,” or simply “Go Away.” Barbara Ibrahim, a veteran professor at the American University in Cairo, wore large photographs of her husband—Egypt’s most famous democratic dissident—as a makeshift sandwich board.

Her husband, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, couldn’t be there. After being imprisoned and tortured by the Mubarak regime from 2000 to 2003, he went into a sort of exile, living and teaching abroad. But the day Hosni Mubarak gave up power, Feb. 11, Mr. Ibrahim hopped a plane from JFK International. Landing in his native Cairo, he went directly to the square.

“It was just like, how do you say, the day of judgment,” Mr. Ibrahim says. “The way the day of judgment is described in our scripture, in the Quran, is where you have all of humanity in one place. And nobody recognizes anybody else, just faces, faces.”

And what faces they were: bearded, shorn, framed by hijabs, young, old—and at one point even a bride and groom. “The spirit in the square was just unbelievable,” says Mr. Ibrahim, whose children and grandchildren were among the masses. “These people, these young people, are so empowered. They will never be cowed again by any ruler—at least for a generation.”

For the 72-year-old sociologist, the revolution against Hosni Mubarak has been many years in the making. His struggle began 10 years ago with a word: jumlukiya. A combination of the Arabic words for republic (jumhuriya) and monarchy (malikiya), the term was coined by Mr. Ibrahim to characterize the family dynasties of the Mubaraks of Egypt and the Assads of Syria.

He first described jumlukiya on television during the June 2000 funeral of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. Then he wrote about it in a magazine article that “challenged all the autocrats of the region to open up and have a competitive election.”

The magazine appeared on the morning of June 30, 2000. But it vanished from Egyptian newsstands by midday. By midnight, Mr. Ibrahim was arrested at his home. “Then began my confrontation with the Mubarak regime—the trials, and three year imprisonment, and the defamation, all of that. That was the beginning.”

Not a month before, he had written a speech about women’s rights for Mr. Mubarak’s wife Suzanne—Mr. Ibrahim had been her thesis adviser in the 1970s at the American University in Cairo, when her husband was vice president to Anwar Sadat. None of it mattered. In the end, some 30 people connected to Mr. Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldun Center—the Muslim world’s leading think tank for the study of democracy and civil society—were rounded up.

Most were ultimately released. But Mr. Ibrahim was tried in a cage within a courtroom, sentenced for “defaming” Egypt (criticizing Mr. Mubarak) and “embezzlement” (for accepting a grant to conduct election monitoring through his center). His stints in prison—always in solitary confinement and, for a period, enduring sleep deprivation and water torture—left him with a serious limp. The former runner now relies on a cane.

Yet he believes that his case helped create the atmosphere for this year’s uprising. “It started as a series of challenges with individuals. With me, with [liberal opposition leader] Ayman Nour . . . What you saw is the accumulation of all these incremental steps that have taken place in the past 10 years,” he says.

winterweiss“But to give credit where it is due,” Mr. Ibrahim adds, “the younger generation was more innovative and far more clever than we were by using the technology at their disposal. These guys discovered the tools that could not be combated by the government.” He notes that many of them, like Wael Ghonim from Google, operated from outside of Egypt. “That’s something new.”

With elections set for September, the most urgent question facing Egypt is how to structure the democratic process—and how dominant the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood may become. In a 2005 election, the Brotherhood won 20% of the seats in parliament. According to the Ibn Khaldun Center’s research, the group could earn about 30% in an upcoming vote.

Mr. Ibrahim thinks that holding elections six months from now is “not wise.” If he had his druthers, it would be put off for several years to allow alternative groups to mature. Still, he insists that the Brothers—some of whom he knows well from prison, including senior leader Essam el-Erian—are changing.

“They did not start this movement, nor were they the principal actors, nor were they the majority,” he says. When they showed up in Tahrir Square on the fourth day of the protests, most were members of the group’s young guard. Mr. Ibrahim points out that they didn’t use any Islamist slogans. “Their famous slogan is ‘Islam is the solution.’ They use that usually in elections and marches. But they did not.” This time, they chose “Religion is for God, country is for all.” That slogan dates to 1919 and Egypt’s secular nationalist movement.

What’s more, some Brothers carried signs depicting the crescent and the cross together. “One of the great scenes was of young Copts [Christians], boys and girls, bringing water for the Muslim brothers to do their ablution, and also making a big circle—a temporary worship space—for them. And then come Sunday, the Muslims reciprocated by allowing space for the Copts to have their service. That of course was very moving. ”

Maybe so. But this week Muslim Brotherhood member Mohsen Radi declared that the group finds it “unsuitable” for a Copt or a woman to hold a high post like the presidency. Then there’s the Brotherhood’s motto: “‘Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Quran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” Looking around Egypt’s neighborhood, it’s not hard to guess what life would be like for Coptic Christians, let alone women, under a state guided by Quranic Shariah law.

“That’s still their creed and their motto,” Mr. Ibrahim says. “What they have done is to lower that profile. Not to give it up, but to lower it.” He adds that the Brothers have promised not to run a candidate for the presidency for the next two election cycles.

To skeptics like me, such gestures seem like opportunism—superficial ploys aimed at winning votes, not a genuine transformation. I press Mr. Ibrahim and he insists that the younger guard is evolving, and that they are “fairly tolerant and enlightened.” Enlightened seems a stretch, but nevertheless, what other option is there? Banning the Brotherhood, as the Mubarak regime did, is a nonstarter.

If Mr. Ibrahim is a fundamentalist about anything, it’s democracy. And his hope is that participating in the democratic process will liberalize the Muslim Brothers over the long term. They “have survived for 80 years, and one mechanism for survival is adaptation,” he says. “If the pressure continues, by women and by the middle class, they will continue to evolve. Far from taking their word, we should keep demanding that they prove that they really are pluralistic, that they are not going to turn against democracy, that they are not going to make it one man, one vote, one time.”

He compares the Brothers to the Christian Democrats in Western Europe after World War II. “They started with more Christianity than democracy 100 years ago. Now they are more democracy than Christianity.” True, but the Christian Democrats never embraced violent radicalism in the way the Muslim Brotherhood has.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)—formerly the Virtue Party—is a more recent model. “The Muslim Brothers seem to be moving in the same direction,” he says.

That would probably be a best case, but it too is problematic. The AKP—and, by extension, contemporary Turkey—is democratic but hardly liberal. Over the past decade, it has dramatically limited press freedom, stoked anti-Semitism, supported Hamas, and defended murderous figures like Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

Still, the Turkish scenario is far better than the Iranian one—the hijacking of Egypt’s revolution by radical clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who returned from Qatar to Cairo last week. For his part, Mr. Ibrahim doesn’t think that Mr. Qaradawi—a rock-star televangelist with an Al Jazeera viewership of some 60 million—is positioned to dominate the new Egypt as Ayatollah Khomeini dominated post-1979 Iran.

Mr. Qaradawi had messages of Muslim-Christian unity for the hundreds of thousands who heard him preach in the square. But about Jews, he has said that Hitler “managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers [Muslims].”

When I asked Mr. Ibrahim about the scourge of anti-Semitism in the Middle East generally, he’s dismissive. “Have you seen any pogroms in Morocco or Tunisia or Egypt?” he asks rhetorically. As I point out, though, the Arab Middle East has had a negligible Jewish population since 1948, when roughly 800,000 Jews were expelled. It’s hard to carry out a pogrom when Jews aren’t around.

So what if the Brothers prove increasingly radical, not moderate? “I would struggle against them. . . . As a democrat and as a human rights activist I would fight, just as I fought Mubarak, like I fought Nasser. All my life I’ve been fighting people who do not abide by human rights and basic freedoms.”

Might he run for political office when his professorship at New Jersey’s Drew University ends in May? “I’m 72 years old. And I’d really like to see a younger generation.” But, he adds, “in politics you never say no.”

“I am more interested in having the kind of presidential campaign similar to what you have here or in Western Europe. . . . That’s part of creating or socializing our people into pluralism—to see it at work, to have debates, to have a free media,” he says.

One political role he’s already playing is as an informal adviser to Obama administration officials, his friends Michael McFaul and Samantha Power, scholars who serve on the National Security Council staff. But he doesn’t mince words about Mr. Obama’s record so far. The president “wasted two and a half years” cozying up to dictators and abandoning dissidents, he says. “Partly to distance himself from Bush, democracy promotion became a kind of bad phrase for him.” He also made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict his top priority, at the expense of pushing for freedom. “By putting the democracy file on hold, on the back burner, he did not accomplish peace nor did he serve democracy,” says Mr. Ibrahim.

‘Dislikable as [President Bush] may have been to many liberals, including my own wife, we have to give him credit,” says Mr. Ibrahim. “He started a process of some conditionality with American aid and American foreign policy which opened some doors and ultimately was one of the building blocks for what’s happening now.” That conditionality extended to Mr. Ibrahim: In 2002, the Bush administration successfully threatened to withhold $130 million in aid from Egypt if Mr. Mubarak didn’t release him.

So what should the White House do? “Publicly endorse every democratic movement in the Middle East and offer help,” he says. The least the administration can do is withhold “aid and trade and diplomatic endorsement. Because now the people can do the job. America doesn’t have to send armies and navies to change the regimes. Let the people do their change.”

Ms. Weiss is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.


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