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Good News from a High Court

Egypt's Sakharov, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, is aquitted by Egypt's highest court.

12:00 AM, May 22, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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TEN MONTHS AGO, the man The Daily Standard called Egypt's Sakharov was sentenced to seven years in prison for his work promoting democracy. Last week, Saad Eddin Ibrahim passed through Washington a free man, and recounted his remarkable acquittal on appeal by Egypt's highest court.

It's a heartening story on several counts. The outcome is a new lease on life for one of the most articulate, tireless, and personable promoters of democracy in the Muslim world. Ibrahim is in his mid-60s and in poor health. He would have emerged from prison an old man had he been forced to serve his seven years; and he might not have survived.

His release also demonstrates that a degree of judicial independence has survived in Egypt, even through decades of stifling, despotic, presidential rule. Unlike the politicized State Security Court that convicted Ibrahim, the High Court (or Court of Cassation) is still capable of defying the executive. "The fact that I was acquitted," Ibrahim told a group hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy on Friday, "shows that there is a margin on which to fight. The High Court is a legacy of the liberal age" in Egypt, before Gamal Nasser's 1952 coup.

Ibrahim praised the High Court's "fair, impressive" proceedings. "The judges listened, and challenged the prosecution and the defense," he said. "They had studied the case better than the lawyers. The chief judge had read my books. And two weeks after they acquitted me, they issued a magnificent 35-page opinion calling the government on its trumped up charges."

Ibrahim's supposed crime was conspiring to receive funds from the European Union to enrich himself, as well as to fund fraudulent research designed to make Egypt look bad. The High Court's decision--available (in somewhat peculiar English) hererejected every point. The E.U. grants, it held, were perfectly legal under an agreement between the European Union and Egypt; no evidence of financial mismanagement had been produced; the research was valid sociological work on subjects like elections and the rights of the Coptic Christian minority; and to expose problems and engage in "constructive criticism" not only is consistent with the right to free speech (which exists on paper even in Egypt) but is actually good for "the national fabric."

Not least impressive, the decision summarizes five of Ibrahim's books, along with two reports critical of the 1995 Egyptian elections by his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and several other private groups. These summaries add up to an extended, rational indictment of one-man rule, election fraud, the use of torture and other police-state tactics, discrimination against the Copts, and the government's 22-year resort to emergency rule.

Ibrahim's story is encouraging, too, in another way: He argues that his imprisonment prompted a response from Washington that in the long run proved constructive. While his acquittal was purely the work of the court, he says, American pressure apparently helped put "the issues we were fighting for on the agenda." After Ibrahim's conviction, President Bush refused to seek an increase in aid requested by Egypt. Since then, President Hosni Mubarak's government has (1) announced its intention to do away with the State Security Court, (2) appointed the first woman to the High Court, and (3) for the first time made Coptic Christmas a national holiday.

Skeptics still scoff at Bush's liberation strategy for the oppressed people of the Middle East. Ibrahim worries, instead, that we may be fickle or clumsy in our support for freedom and democracy. But as for the basic thrust of American policy post-September 11, he insists the best thing we can do is clearly and consistently champion for others "all that Americans say they hold dear."

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.