July 31, 2000 No.

Arrest of a Leading Egyptian Human Rights Activist Part II: Egyptian and American Reactions

By: Yotam Feldner*

The lion's share of the Egyptian press greeted the news of Ibn Khaldun Center head Prof. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim's arrest with great satisfaction. "Many in Egypt believe the legal actions taken against Prof. Ibrahim, came very late," wrote Abd Al-Wahhab Badrkhan a Columnist for the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi, "[this] is an annoying person who muddies clear water when he puts his hands in it."[1] Columnist Muhammad Mahoud, like many others, expressed his satisfaction with the arrest: "The distinguished doctor has been selling our pains for dollars for 15 years, in the name of democracy and the freedom of speech... The great catastrophe is that the relevant [security] apparatuses were long aware of what he was doing, but refrained from doing anything throughout this period."[2]

When Prof. Ibrahim was arrested, his relations with Israeli organizations were not part of the accusations against him. However, during the investigation a government weekly reported that the investigation includes contacts with Haifa University.[3] Many columnists who expressed satisfaction after the arrest focused on this issue. The attack on Prof. Ibrahim was led by the Editor in Chief of the Al-Usbu' weekly, Mustafa Bakri, who wrote detailed reports of Prof. Ibrahim's contacts with Israel and, in fact, presented him as a traitor who cooperates with the enemy – Israel. Such claims also appeared in the government press. Al-Akhbar reported that Khlaed Fayyadh, a senior employee at the Ibn Khaldun Center who framed Prof. Ibrahim, told the police that the Israeli consul and the [cultural] attaché in Cairo frequently visited Prof. Ibrahim and that they exchanged documents "in complete secrecy." [4]

Support for Ibrahim in the Egyptian Press

With the exception of playwright Ali Salem, support for Prof. Ibrahim only began to appear in the Egyptian press about ten days after his arrest. The Naserist columnist, 'Adel Gougari, was the first to state that he "objects to any arrest of an intellectual of the caliber of Prof. Ibrahim... Despite our disagreements on the issue of normalization [with Israel], I do not agree with this arrest." [5]

Most of Prof. Ibrahim supporters focused on the character assassination he was subjected to by Mustafa Bakri and others. Egyptian columnist Ibrahim 'Isa, wrote in Al-Hayat that despite his disagreements with Prof. Ibrahim, "what is taking place is an organized moral assassination of Prof. Ibrahim by the government-owned media, which precedes the investigation and trial... I defend Prof. Ibrahim and claim he is a political victim in this affair. I was hoping our intellectuals, despite the disagreements among them, would understand Prof. Ibrahim is being politically and morally massacred only because he dared to demand clean elections and democracy in the homeland."[6]

Member of the Higher leadership of the Al-Wafd party, Ramzi Zaqlameh determined that the character assassination of Prof. Ibrahim recalls the days of Nasserism. "The man was accused, tried, convicted, and slaughtered before the beginning of the trial," he wrote.[7] Some senior columnists in the government press took a similar approach. Dr. 'Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, the Head of the Al-Ahram Research Center, wrote: "Many preceded the legal system in convicting Prof. Ibrahim without examining the evidence and listening to his defense. In addition to the clear violation of the right of the authorities and legal system to investigate, accuse, and try, this is a character assassination... It takes us back to primitive prehistoric eras when people were accused on a whim... I truly believe in the Egyptian legal system and I wait for its just conclusion... There is not and there should not be anyone above the law... However, until the legal process is exhausted, the onslaught against the man seems to completely contradict the rules of justice and general moral principles, especially since the man cannot defend himself."[8]

Official American Response to Prof. Ibrahim's Arrest

As an American citizen, Prof. Ibrahim was permitted to have representatives of the American embassy visit him in jail. Observers commented that an American intervention would be futile because the Egyptian authorities are more interested in domestic public opinion rather than the American reaction, especially in the few months left before the parliamentary elections.[9]

The US State Department was forced to choose between two courses of action. First, they could have asserted that Prof. Ibrahim's arrest is a human rights violation and exerted public pressure on the Egyptian government to release him. Second, they could operate discretely behind the scenes and accept, at least publicly, the Egyptian government's claim that the arrest was legitimate.

US Ambassador to Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer, enthusiastically supported the latter approach. Kurtzer believed that it is important to protect the dignity of the Egyptian judicial system and the embassy's spokesman declared, accordingly, that he hopes the problem will be solved "in a way that will grant credibility to the Egyptian judicial system."[10]

In a symposium on American-Egyptian relations convened in Cairo during the heat of the affair, Kurtzer announced that "the American embassy cannot intervene in defense of a person who has dual Egyptian-American citizenship if he has committed a crime. We cannot defend an American citizen who commits a crime in a foreign state. As a rule, any American citizen or any American who lives in Egypt must abide by Egyptian laws. All the embassy can do is visit him in jail to make sure he is safe and the judicial measures that are taken in his case are appropriate."[11]

Ambassador Kurtzer's "behind-the-scenes" approach brought little result in the first month: Prof. Ibrahim's detention was twice extended for an additional 15 days. The American press did not view Kurtzer's approach favorably. He was perceived as neglecting and abandoning an innocent American citizen in distress. The Washington Post stated in an editorial: "...While the Jewish suspects in [the] recent Iranian espionage trial, for example, were declared innocent by US officials, a US official in Cairo said that the embassy was only concerned that due process be followed in Ibrahim's case and that the authorities decide quickly whether to press charges against him... Embassy spokesman, David Ballard... emphasized that Washington has not taken a stance on whether Ibrahim should be behind bars... 'What we are saying is that we are going to be watching the case and would like a speedy resolution and we are interested in due process... We cannot say the man should not be in jail. They have charged him based on Egyptian law.'"[12]

American and Egyptian Reactions to US Response

When The Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland demanded answers from the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher stated that Prof. Ibrahim's arrest belongs in the human rights, rather than the criminal, realm, because Ibrahim did not violate the law. Hoagland asked whether Egypt is violating the Warsaw Declaration that it had signed only three days before the arrest in which it committed itself, along with 105 other states, to work to increase democracy. Hoagland wrote: "The ink was still drying on Egypt's signature when the police arrested Ibrahim... [A] statement calling on Egypt to apply its Warsaw commitments to the Ibrahim case was volunteered to reporters by department spokesman, Richard Boucher... after I raised the first, muted response with Albright aides..." [13] Only after Prof. Ibrahim's detention was prolonged for a second time did the American embassy spokesman express his disappointment. Deputy State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker was more straightforward in criticizing the Egyptian regime. "The American citizen Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim is a leading human rights activist," he said, his arrest is "unjustified" because he was not officially accused of anything until now.[14]

The Egyptian press was unequivocal in its objection to any American intervention on behalf of Prof. Ibrahim. The only one to criticize Ibrahim's treatment by the American embassy was, again, the playwright Ali Salem in his short story about "the accusations warehouse" (mentioned above.) The character in the story is advised to tell the ambassador of his country about the situation so that the embassy can pay for his defense. However, after the accusation of "damaging the good reputation of the country" is chosen for the character, he asks to call the ambassador before entering the court, and the "secretary of the accusations warehouse" says to him: "This is the only capital on the face of the earth where your country does not have an ambassador. You are all alone here, as you have always been." [15]


Despite the diversity of accusations against Prof. Ibrahim, he believes that the catalyst for his arrest was his intention to monitor the November 2000 parliamentary elections. The Egyptian regime, which had already been embarrassed by Ibrahim's monitoring of the 1995 elections - elections that were later annulled by Egypt's Supreme Court - decided to prevent a repeat of this possibility. The answer to the question of whether this is a legitimate criminal investigation or a violation of human rights, is embodied in the nature of the main accusation against Prof. Ibrahim - "damaging Egypt's good reputation." Such an allegation cannot coexist with a legal system based on democratic legislation, since freedom of speech is aimed to protect the critics of the regimes and not those who praise it.

Veteran Egyptian human rights activist, Dr. Sa'id Naggar, encapsulated the situation when he wrote that the allegation of "damaging Egypt's good reputation" is "the most absurd of all." The purpose of the reports about Egyptian society is not to present a rosy picture, Dr. Sa'id explains, "The research centers are not tourist agencies that wish to present our lives in a heart-warming manner in order to attract tourists... I do not know who damaged Egypt's good reputation, the one who wrote the reports or the authorities who treated a respected researcher like a drug-dealer."[16]

Prof. Ibrahim's activities, including those for which he was under investigation, were carried out with support and cooperation from organizations in the West. A more rapid and substantial support for Prof. Ibrahim by those donors, and expecially by the EU might have been instrumental in the campaign for his release.

Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

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

[2] Al-Wafd (Egypt), July 22, 2000.

[3] Al-Mussawar (Egypt), July 22, 2000.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), July 22, 2000.

[5] Al-Ahrar (Egypt), July 22, 2000.

[6] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 14, 2000.

[7] Al-Wafd (Egypt), July 22, 2000.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 11, 2000. See also Salah Muntasar, Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 11, 2000.

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

[10] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 15, 2000.

[11] Al-Gumhuriyya (Egypt), July 13, 2000.

[12] The Washington Post, July 13, 2000.

[13] The Washington Post, July 17, 2000.

[14] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 28, 2000.

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

[16] Al-Wafd (Egypt), July 19, 2000.