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August 1, 2000 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 33

Arrest of a Leading Egyptian Human Rights Activist Part I: Underlying Issues

August 1, 2000 | By Yotam Feldner
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 33

On July 1, 2000 Egyptian security authorities arrested veteran human-rights activist and Head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development,[1] Prof. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim, professor of Social Studies at the American University of Cairo, along with a number of the center's employees.

Prof. Ibrahim, who holds dual Egyptian-American citizenship, was accused of various offenses such as: "establishing contacts with foreign states and providing them information detrimental to the economic, social, and political interests of Egypt; receiving funds illegally; operating as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) without a license; trying to provoke religious strife [fitna] between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt; and, acting to undermine the regime and the stability of the state and threaten its social harmony." A few days later, Prof. Ibrahim was accused of another offense, having "deceived international institutions in order to unjustly receive funds, in return for damaging Egypt's good reputation."[2] Several days later, it was alleged that Prof. Ibrahim cooperated with NATO's research center.

Prof. Ibrahim was arrested for 15 days at the end of which, his arrest has twice been prolonged for an additional 15 days. The Egyptian authorities stated that they intend to conduct "a speedy trial" before the 45-day administrative detention period permitted by Egyptian law expires.[3] He denies all the accusations and asserts that he is being politically persecuted. Prof. Ibrahim's claims are not spurious, as the Egyptian regime does not favorably view his activity on three sensitive issues: the monitoring of elections, the growth of NGOs that work on human rights issues and receive funding from abroad, and relations between Egyptian Muslims and Christians.

Monitoring Elections and Encouraging Democracy
Prof. Ibrahim monitored the 1995 parliamentary elections and concluded that they were rigged. These charges were proven true only recently when the Egyptian Supreme Court invalidated the 1995 election results and ruled that new elections should take place. (It is noteworthy that new elections were scheduled for November 2000 anyway.) When Prof. Ibrahim was arrested, the Ibn Khaldun Center was attempting to establish a system to monitor the November 2000 elections. It was claimed in the Egyptian media that Prof. Ibrahim had agreed with the Carter Institute and the American National Institute for Democracy on funding for this monitoring system.[4] Elements in the Egyptian media hostile to Prof. Ibrahim deemed this an American intervention in Egyptian domestic affairs.

Prof. Ibrahim's determination to monitor the elections posed problems for the Egyptian authorities. Mahmoud Kandil, a lawyer and an activist at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights explained that "the government does not want human-rights organizations to have any role in this, so it can continue to claim that the elections are pure, without allowing anyone to examine the veracity of this assertion."[5]

Another goal of the Ibn Khaldun Center was to encourage the Egyptian public, especially in rural areas, to participate in the elections. The central element in the campaign to increase the political involvement of Egyptian citizens was a short film, written by famous Egyptian satiric playwright, 'Ali Salem. The producers of this film hoped that it would air on Egyptian TV and encourage the public to participate in the elections. Egyptian authorities used the script found at the Ibn Khaldun Center as the primary evidence that Prof. Ibrahim wanted to damage Egypt's good reputation. They determined that the film "included political defamation and was detrimental to Egypt's good reputation in a way that endangers its national security."[6]

The script, which was published in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, describes a husband and wife who conclude that the elections are forged because the public allows it. They decide to take action and raid the election ballot disguised as thieves. Above the ballot there is a large sign that reads "The Election Committee of the Deep Sleep" and the committee members are all asleep. The villagers take a bunch of voting cards and put them in the ballot box. In the background, the wife says: "The people in the street determine the kind of government that rules them... There is not a government on the face of the earth that volunteers to be democratic. The people's insistence on participating in the decision making does it. Apathy is democracy's most dangerous enemy; apathy is freedom's most dangerous enemy. In countries that are in much worse shape than Egypt the public has managed to raise to power leaders that they can trust. Enter and become a partner in this nation. Participate in the elections and elect a person you believe in, be it a Muslim or a Christian, a man or a woman… and then demand accountability. Anyone who keeps his vote to himself, has no right to later ask for accountability…"[7]

The Ibn Khaldun Center & Government-NGO Relations
Issues regarding NGO human rights activity and their direct international funding is an area of dispute between NGOs and governments throughout the Arab world including Egypt. The focal point of this disagreement is the monitoring of donations to NGOs. While NGO activists demand latitude, the authorities attempt to monitor donations from the West, both to limit the NGO's monitoring of human rights violations, and to extract a portion of the funds. In 1999, the Egyptian parliament passed a bill forbidding fundraising abroad without government authorization. However, the Egyptian Supreme Court canceled this law arguing that it contradicts the constitution. A 1992 military decree forbade accepting unauthorized donations, but Prof. Ibrahim's lawyer explained that the Ibn Khaldun Center is a for-profit private company that is paid for its work by contracts, and does not receive donations.[8]

Egyptian authorities focused on their claim that Prof. Ibrahim deceived the international organizations that fund his research. The Egyptian General Attorney stated that Ibrahim is accused of "receiving funds from foreign organizations that operate in the field of human-rights, using deceitful methods."[9] Egyptian authorities were seeking to ruin the credibility of Prof. Ibrahim and of Egyptian NGOs in general. However, the EU, at least, rejected these allegations. Germaine Demian, press officer for the European Commission in Cairo said that "under the framework of an agreement between the government and the EU, we do have the right to fund out-of-government organizations." [10] While foreign donors may not be intimidated, many Egyptian NGOs are now wary of receiving foreign funding, despite official assurances that the investigation of the Ibn Khaldun Center is due to fiscal irregularities.[11]

Defending Human and Civil Rights of Egyptian Copts
Another aspect of Prof. Ibrahim's work that is a thorn in the regime's side was his advocacy for the rights of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. The government has always been extremely sensitive about this issue and particularly so since the Muslim-Coptic bloodshed that took place twice in late 1998 and January 2000 in the village of Kusheh. The dispute between Prof. Ibrahim and the Egyptian authorities begins in 1994, when he organized a symposium in Cairo about minorities in the Arab world. Prof. Ibrahim cited the Copts as a minority amongst Muslim majority. Egyptian authorities, insisting that Egyptian Copts and Muslims live in perfect harmony, vetoed the symposium which was then shifted to Cyprus.[12] The Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo has held similar conferences on an annual basis without interference.

The second clause of Egypt's constitution is a 1971 amendment that establishes Islamic Law (Shari'a) as the main source of legislation. In a February 2000 Cairo symposium, Prof. Ibrahim stated that he believes that the adoption of this amendment signaled the beginning of a new wave of sectaria strife. He never said, as quoted in some sources that the primary cause of Egypt's ethnic problem is this clause of the Constitution, nor did he ever demand its nullification.[13]

Muslim-Coptic relations may be the most sensitive issue in Egypt. The following statement by Salim 'Azuz, columnist for the opposition Al-Ahrar daily, is typical of the criticism directed against Prof. Ibrahim's activity on this matter. Salim 'Azuz wrote: "He used to fabricate facts and supplied the Americans with poisonous daggers to stab us in the back. He used to give them pretexts to interfere in our domestic affairs, such as the protection of minorities, after he had turned the Copts to a minority similar to the Kurds in Iraq. He treated them as a persecuted minority that swallows cups of humiliation. He used to wait for any incident in order to turn it into an ethnic issue." [14] Prof. Ibrahim's wife, Barbara, testified that in the last three months her husband has received death threats due to his treatment of this subject.[15] In a conference held at the US Congress in March 2000, under the auspices of the Freedom House organization and the Coptic community in the US, Prof. Ibrahim won an award for his activity in defense of human and minority rights.

A Pen Rises to Ibrahim's Defense
The playwright, 'Ali Salem, author of the script that was used as evidence against Prof. Ibrahim, was the first to stand by Prof. Ibrahim after his arrest. 'Ali Salem stated that he, "Takes responsibility on each and every word in the script politically and legally."[16] In an interview with Al-Hayat, Salem said the arrest is "a dangerous development that reminds me of the feeling which I thought I got rid of in the 60's, that feeling of going home asking yourself whether you would be arrested today or tomorrow."[17]

At first, Salem was not accused of direct involvement. He was to be called only as a witness. However, apparently due to his unequivocal support of Prof. Ibrahim and his denunciations of the authorities who arrested him, the regime also accused the playwright of "damaging Egypt's good reputation." The Egyptian prosecution accused Salem of "preparing and possessing a publication [i.e. the script] for the purpose of deliberately distributing false information and inciting propaganda that may disturb the general security and damage the national interest of the state."[18]

Salem referred to this allegation in a short Kafkaesque story he published in Al-Hayat in which he describes in first person a character – a combination of himself and Prof. Ibrahim - who reaches "a strange country whose language is a mixture of many languages." The character "understands this language, but has difficulty speaking it." Then, Salem describes a huge building - the investigation and prosecution headquarters - built like a maze in which the character trudges in search of the site of where he is to be investigated. Ultimately, he reaches the "accusation warehouse" and is told "to pick an accusation that suits him." When he asks if there isn't anyone whose job is to accuse him, it is explained to him that "we have passed this stage a long time ago. We do not have police or prosecution, just courts and judges. People here have live consciences and come here of their own free will and choose for themselves the accusation for which they will be tried." The character claims in defense: "I did not murder, nor did I incite murder, steal, lie, pollute the river, or spill oil on fire, and I love life." The "secretary of the accusation warehouse" ponders and eventually offers the accusation "damaging the good reputation of the country." "This accusation," he explains, suits you perfectly and it is waiting here on the shelf. It fits your measurements since you are tall and wide. Don't give me any trouble and don't make me look for another accusation. Just put it on and enter the courtroom... There are people who search for an accusation for years..."[19]

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.


[1] The Ibn Khaldun Center (founded 1988) focuses on the development of civil society and publishes the Civil Society magazine. Until Prof. Ibrahim's arrest,the Ibn Khaldun Center was very prestigious and two members of its Board of Trustees are ministers in the current Egyptian government. Abd Al-RahmanIbn Khaldun is a 14th century Muslim scholar regarded as the founder of social studies in Islamic and Arab culture.

[2] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 3, 2000.

[3] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 29, 2000.

[4] Al-Usbu' (Egypt), July 10, 2000.

[5] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), July 8, 2000.

[6] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 3, 2000.

[7] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 5, 2000.

[8] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 16, 2000.

[9] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 4, 2000.

[10] The LA Times, July 5, 2000.

[11] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), July 20-26, 2000.

[12] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 3, 2000.

[13] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), July 8, 2000.

[14] Al-Ahrar (Egypt), July 9, 2000.

[15] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), July 3, 2000.

[16] Al-Musawar (Egypt), July 7, 2000.

[17] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 4, 2000.

[18] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 25, 2000.

[19] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 22, 2000.

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