Foreign Exchange, Fareed Zakaria with Saad Eddin Ibrahim

Fareed Zakaria: Welcome to Foreign Exchange; I’m Fareed Zakaria.

First, we’ll talk with Saad Eddin Ibrahim to hear why he thinks America has turned its back on democracy in the Middle East.

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All this and more on Foreign Exchange….

In Depth: Democratic Hopeful

Fareed Zakaria: With Iraq in increasing chaos, President Bush’s democracy project appears to have been turned on its head. Countries in the region now look at Iraq as a powerful example of the perils of democracy. To discuss the struggle for freedom in the Middle East, we are once again joined by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a one-time political prisoner and long-time human rights advocate in Egypt. Saad is it true that people look at Iraq in the Middle East and say my goodness; is this what democracy is? We don’t want any part of it?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: That is definitely part of the popular reaction to events in Iraq. And it’s a reaction that has been fed by events but also fed by the autocratic rulers of the other world, who have no use or interest in democracy and who want to turn people against democracy, so they use Iraq as a negative example and we as democracy advocates have to fight that. It’s making our task far more difficult but we keep citing Turkey, we keep citing Morocco, we keep city Malaysia, we keep citing Indonesia because these are Muslim countries–to make the point that yes, democracy could be installed, could be internalized, could evolve and the example of Iraq should be viewed as a–rather the exception that is an unfortunate series of mistakes done by the invaders of Iraq or the conquerors of Iraq and by the occupation and also that Iraq had problems to start with and what the invasion or occupation did was to open up many of these dormant conflicts that had always existed but were always managed in an authoritarian fashion. Now they are playing out publicly.

Fareed Zakaria: Such as the–the division between the Shia–

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Sunni and the Shia and of course ethnic division between the Kurds and the Arabs, so there are many cleavages in Iraq to start with and they were maintained or kept dormant so long as it was a powerful central government. We wish there was also a powerful central government but a democratically elected one and there existed one before in the liberal age in Iraq–there was.

Fareed Zakaria: In the fifties?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: In the forties and fifties, yes, yes.

Fareed Zakaria: Do–do you think there is also part of the reaction to Iraq of fear among the Sunni in the Arab world, who after all are the overwhelming majority? They look at Iraq and they say my god, this is–this is all about the rise of the Shia? The King of Jordan made a statement calling–calling this the rise of a Shia crescent and this fear that–.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Right; there is that. Luckily it is not shared by the grassroots. This is not only the King of Jordan but also the President of Egypt, Mubarak, who raised that issue about four or five months ago by casting doubt on the loyalty of the Shia citizens to their own country assuming or at least making the allegation that they take their clues and their orders from Iran and many Shia Arabs were very offended by that statement and I have written about it myself and many others have written almost apologizing for Mubarak’s rather unfortunate comment on the Shia loyalty to their country. But yes, this is a line that is being propagated by the Sunni establishment both in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt and also by some of the rulers like as you mentioned King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mubarak of Egypt, and certainly by the Saudi monarchy as well. There is that apprehension about what Iran has in mind and that of course coincided with the Iranian nuclear issue, so there is apprehension among the power. But as–as far as the grassroots are concerned that issue is not really very alive or very pressing; if anything, the masses in the Arab world seem to be more accepting of an accommodation with the Shia than the establishment itself. And I think the events in Lebanon has proven that–the fact that Hezbollah even though Shia-based stood up and fought brilliantly against the Israeli incursion–was admired by the grassroots all over the Muslim world whether they were Sunnis or Shias.

Fareed Zakaria: What lesson do you draw from the–the nature of Iran’s democracy? I mean you’re a great student of democracy in the Middle East; is Iranian democracy a sham, is it–is there a genuine participatory aspect to it because we in the United States really can’t understand Iran. Does some–you know the neoconservatives tell us it is a pure theocracy but then you have Ahmadinejad who is an elected President and seems a rather populist figure and what to make of that?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Well yes, it’s a very complicated example, an example that–in which there is a limited participatory governance; that’s no doubt about that. There is regular elections and there are losers and winners but it is a contrived competition; it is an engineered competition within certain players, so it is not the open free liberal experiment that one would have wanted or wished to have and that’s what we’re fighting for. But definitely it is more democratic than countries let’s say–than like Egypt.

Fareed Zakaria: Than any other Arab countries?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Than any other Arab country short of–

Fareed Zakaria: Lebanon and Iraq?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: –Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon–these are more open competition. But in–in Iran it is a contrived competition–as I said they were–it’s an engineered competition since it is always a higher echelon that determines who are going to run for election but within that limitation the race is competitive. Say well these are the five players–five players allowed to run let’s say for the Presidency. Other than those five, nobody can for multiple reasons they give, but among the five there is a free competition and people did–do enjoy the competition. One–one thing we have found Fareed in the year 2005 especially is that there is a hunger for participation, so all of those who have stood against elections for example in Palestine or in Iraq or in Egypt because it is a sham, it’s a Western ploy–they did not; they did not resonate with the public. People went out and voted even when they realized it is imperfect, it is deficient, and yet they wanted to participate, and that’s when Hamas made the turnaround after having called for a boycott of the election a year earlier when it–when the call for the boycott was not heated, Hamas realized that there is a magic for the ballot so to speak. So the turned around, changed their strategy and tactics and decided to run. The same thing happened with the Muslim Brothers and with other Islamic groups. They realized that the public wanted to participate.

Fareed Zakaria: So when you look at that–that experience of 2005 and 2004 you had elections in–in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Iraq–

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: In Iraq–

Fareed Zakaria: –and in all of those places you have the–the empowerment of very liberal forces–Hamas, Hezbollah, and in–in Iraq, [Inaudible]–in liberal parties with their own militias who now become–

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Yes.

Fareed Zakaria: –part of the government and actually make it impossible to continue the process of genuine liberal democracy building because they won’t disarm their militias. If you think of Hamas, Hezbollah and Muqtada, it’s all the same problem that you can’t get the disarmament of the–of the militias because they are now part of the government. What does this–what lesson do you draw from the experience of these elections in the last 18 months?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Well these are unique experiences; we don’t have any other precedence to draw on except [inaudible] where a militant arms struggle was gradually brought into the mainstream process of participatory democracy. It could happen despite what you mentioned once there is a greater internalization or deeper internalization of the practice of at least resorting to the ballot of a way of managing the conflict even there is still an armed wing to this or that movement yet just getting people used to arbitrating through the ballot is a step forward. And as I said, in our part of the world in the Middle East or the Arab world this is unique and we’ll have to live with it. We don’t have too many precedents to draw on. We just have to play it out.

Fareed Zakaria: But in Iraq–but in Iraq every election has resulted in the further recourse to bullets–not ballots. You see what I mean; that–that–?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Well that’s one way of looking at it; the other way of looking at it is that more and more people are getting into the process. In the early–the first election we had the Sunni complete boycott; in the second there were only partial boycotts; in the third election there was nearly no boycotts.

Fareed Zakaria: So the political indications were–were good–increasing but you had–as the politics was getting better the violence was getting worse, the–

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Yes.

Fareed Zakaria: –the sectarian conflict was getting worse; the Sunni versus Shia element was getting worse?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: And therefore you have to look for other external [inaudible] factors to explain this chaos and that is in my mind so long as there is an occupation and so long as there is no alternative plan to phase out that occupation I think there will be–that mix of foreign elements coming in to set this course with the Americans, plus genuine patriotic impulse among the Iraqis who do not like to see they’re getting occupied–as simply as that.

Fareed Zakaria: But you think the Americans are causing the Sunni/Shia split?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: No; I don’t think so. I don’t go that far that they are fermenting it but their very presence without a clear plan, without a clear vision, and without having worked out some kind of a minimal consensus among the Iraqis is contributing to the bloodshed.

Fareed Zakaria: Let me ask you about your own country.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Yes.

Fareed Zakaria: In Egypt some people around Mubarak say that they are now trying a more gradual evolutionary process of modernization–that they are reforming the economy, they are beginning to make constitutional changes to make it a more–more of a society ruled by laws rather than men; do–are you hopeful that this is a genuine movement toward reform?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: I’m hopeful, however there is a lot of skepticism about the regime and the sincerity and the continuity and the sustenance–sustainability of what they’re talking about, partly because for 25 years we have heard similar statements from the regime, from the Mubarak regime, and people are asking and legitimately if he has not affected change in 25 years what reason is there to believe that he will affect change in the next two or three or four or five years? So there’s a lot of skepticism but looking at the indicators, especially the economic indicators I have to give them credit for having moved forward with greater privatization and getting the economy moving. The gross rate is doing better–five and a half-percent every year, which is good, and there is confidence in the Egyptian economy that did not exist let’s say three or four years ago. Foreign exchange [Laughs]–the name of your program–is always a good indicator; the Egyptian Pound has been–has held its standing vis-à-vis the Dollar over the last two years. That’s–these are all good indicators and as much as I’m critical of the regime I have to give them credit whenever they do something right. When–do you see these reforms translating beyond the economic realm yet?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: So far–no; and the disturbing news yesterday and today is the incarceration of Talat Sadat, the nephew of the late President, Anwar Sadat. Again representing a liberal voice in Parliament and like [Inaudible], a predecessor, like myself, the regime seems to be systematic and determined to destroy any liberal alternative between the Muslim Brother on one hand and the Mubarak regime on the other hand, leaving people no choice but to sit through–sit for Mubarak or endorse Mubarak for fear of the Muslim Brother or the–the Islamist, and that’s very disturbing. And that is what casts doubt on the sincerity of the regime as far as the reform is concerned.

Fareed Zakaria: So even as Mubarak pursues economic reform, he–he cracks down on the political center on reformers, on liberals–

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Right.

Fareed Zakaria: –and gives a choice between–gives a choice to his people and to the Americans–between the Islamists on the one hand and his–the regime on the other?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Right.

Fareed Zakaria: Do people in Egypt understand this game that he is playing?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Increasingly yes because you know we of course–people who are advocating a democratic–a full blown democratic agenda are pointing to that and we have a marginal freedom that we can–which we can express ourselves and thanks again to other independent satellites even if we cannot go through Egyptian official media to our people, we are doing it through other means. Of course we don’t have as much access but we have at least partial access and we are making that known to the political class in Egypt.

Fareed Zakaria: Looking at things in 2006 with Iraq as it is–with Lebanon as it is–with Palestine as it is–are you hopeful?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: You know as an activist Fareed, I’m always hopeful. Am I as hopeful as I was here last year the first time, the first installment of your program, no; I’m not as hopeful as I was last year, partly also because of the American and Western reluctance to continue their pressure for change and in the direction that should be pursued, i.e. greater opening and greater democratization.

Fareed Zakaria: You think we’ve lost faith because of Iraq?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Yes, because of Iraq and because of the unjustified fear of modern Islamists. I argue that modern Islamists have to be dealt with, have to be engaged, have to be–

Fareed Zakaria: You mean Hamas has–?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Hamas, Hezbollah, Muslim Brothers–these people you cannot get rid of; you have to deal with them. You cannot exterminate them. In Algeria, some 12–13 years ago they tried to exterminate them. It took 10 years out of the Algerian life and 200,000 people were killed in the process. And yet, after that very bloody detour they had to come back to square one and to deal with everybody–to include everybody in the process. So the name of the game is inclusion and without any [inaudible] conception let people learn and let–just open up the space and let people learn from their mistakes.

Fareed Zakaria: On that note, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, you don’t–you don’t lose faith.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: As we say thanks God; thank you very much Fareed.