Middle East: Egyptian Democrat Optimistic About Region’s Democratic Prospects

Middle East: Egyptian Democrat Optimistic About Region’s Democratic Prospects

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of the Arab world”s most prominent voices on behalf of democracy and human rights. An Egyptian, he was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to seven years but freed again in 2003 when Egypt”s highest appeals court declared his trials improper and cleared him of all charges.

Ibrahim is founder and chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sultan Sarwar spoke with Ibrahim at the Democracy and Security conference in Prague.

RFE/RL: You are optimistic about the long-term prospects for democracy in the Middle East. But how do you reconcile that with the current crisis in Iraq, which some critics say points to the failure of U.S.-led efforts to promote democracy?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: In the short run, the region seems to be in turmoil and this turmoil is bound to increase in the short run. But in the medium and long run, the region is discovering very slowly that democracy is a solution. The war in Iraq seems to have had mixed results. On the one hand, it gave dictatorships an excuse to say, “Look, pushing too quickly for democracy or foreign powers coming into the region to impose democracy has created havoc, has created confusion, and has led to war.” But at the same time, the very fact that a dictatorship in Iraq had fallen seemed to have put all other dictators on notice, and all of them are now talking about reform. Whether they mean it or not, at least the language of reform has become a prevalent language. So whether sincere or not, everybody is talking about reform, and everybody is talking about democracy.

RFE/RL: How do you evaluate developments in Afghanistan, where democratic forces confront fundamentalists?

Ibrahim: I think that the situation in Afghanistan will continue to be contested by these two camps, but I am taking comfort from the fact that the extremists, the terrorists, the violent ones are retreating; they are not making gains. They always come back, but they do not make net gains, so far. I hope that this will continue and that with the country”s social and economic development, people will become immune to the message of the Taliban and their likes.

RFE/RL: You are in Prague attending a meeting of democracy activists from many countries who are discussing ways to strengthen their efforts. Do you think this conference, where the keynote speaker is U.S. President George W. Bush, will have much impact on political decision makers in the Middle East?

Ibrahim: Well, everybody is taking note of it. My wife just talked to me on the phone. She told me that there is a lot of coverage in the Egyptian media on this conference and also a lot of criticism of me attending the conference, of why I”m invited to the conference and what I”m going to do or say to President Bush. They seem to be nervous, the government. The opposition, on the other hand, seems to be taking some comfort in the fact that at least a representative from civil society in Egypt is taking a prominent part in this conference.

RFE/RL: Let”s talk a moment about the situation in Egypt. There the only strong opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood. Why are there not also liberal opposition parties or, when they exist, why are they so often weak?

Ibrahim: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has an advantage and that is that they have the mosques. One hundred thousand mosques in Egypt, whereas the [Hosni] Mubarak regime has screwed down tightly on civil society, on the secular opposition, and therefore we could not operate. We could not do anything in the public square or in the street.

We could not organize rallies, we could not organize marches or demonstrations because of emergency laws. Emergency laws have been in effect since 1981, since the assassination of President [Anwar] Sadat. So for the last 26 years, these emergency laws have prevented secularists from going out and organizing and mobilizing.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brothers have the mosques, and that is an advantage that is without design probably by the regime, but it has played in their favor. Meanwhile, I do not like to exaggerate their constituency because despite the fact that they have freer space to move in, still their share in the last Egyptian parliamentary election was 20 percent out of the 20 percent [of registered voters who actually voted]. So, 77 percent of the registered voters did not like to vote for them, nor to vote for the regime. And that is a 77 percent that I consider to be the silent majority, the potential constituency for liberal-democratic parties whenever liberal-democratic parties are allowed full freedom to operate.

RFE/RL: Do you think that there is a future for liberal parties in Egypt?

Ibrahim: Absolutely. Kefaya — and there is a new party, a very exciting party called the Democratic Front Party that just obtained a license last week, and it is led by Dr. Osama Ghazali Harb and Dr. Yahia al-Gamal, two prominent public figures in Egypt, and young people have turned out in big numbers to join it. In a sense, it is like Al-Ghad Party, which was led by Mr. Ayman Nur, but since Ayman Nur is in prison, [the Democratic Front Party] is probably going to fill the vacuum that Ayman could have been able to fill had he been allowed some freedom.