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Egypt's Sakharov

The conviction of Egypt's Saad Eddin Ibrahim provides the first real test of President Bush's liberation theology.

12:00 AM, Jul 31, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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BAD CASES make bad law, they say, and so good cases ought to make good law--or in this instance good U.S. policy. Egypt's conviction on trumped up charges of Egyptian-American academic and pro-democracy intellectual Saad Eddin Ibrahim and several associates ought to be an ideal test for President Bush's new strategic principle: that liberty and justice are the birthright even of people who live in Middle Eastern autocracies.

Sentenced this week to seven years' imprisonment after a highly dubious legal process, Ibrahim is Egypt's leading promoter of free elections and as such threatens the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Yet until recent years, Ibrahim was actually an establishment figure.

Egypt's government, like all despotisms, was pleased to able to point to a respected liberal, and to his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development at the American University of Cairo, as proof of its tolerance. Ibrahim advised Mubarak's top aides and hosted a weekly TV show on issues relating to development. It suited the regime to have him travel to international conferences on civil society to show how enlightened Egypt was.

Some observers say that what finally provoked the authorities--more than Ibrahim's exposure of fraud in the 1995 legislative elections, or his monitoring of government treatment of the Coptic minority, or his denunciation of official corruption, or the short film he made encouraging Egypt's young to seek freedom through elections--was his observation that Mubarak's son Jamal was being groomed to succeed the president, just as if Egypt were some backward dictatorship like Libya or Syria or Iraq. This apparently was too close to the bone.

Now, Ibrahim, 63 and in poor health, faces the prospect of rapid decline in an Egyptian jail, unless one remaining appeal should succeed or President Mubarak exercise clemency. The United States should use its abundant leverage with Egypt to secure that end.

Apparently Mubarak and company don't fear Washington. They seem to believe they will get away with making an example of Ibrahim and so silence others inclined to offer civilized criticism of the status quo. So far--and the case has dragged on for two years--diplomatic protestations out of Washington, the European Union, the United Nations, and numerous human rights groups have not stayed the Egyptians' hand any more than criticism in the international press. What would?

The United States gives Egypt $2 billion a year in military and development aid. Yes, Washington needs Cairo's cooperation in crucial security matters like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war on terrorism--but if President Bush is serious about his new liberation theology, he ought to insist on decent treatment for a courageous American citizen as well.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.