Andrew Hammond is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.
Supporters of a more liberal society than what's currently on offer in Egypt were given a boost Feb. 7 when Egyptian civil rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim was ordered released by the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest appeals court, and given a retrial. Scenes of jubilation followed the announcement, as assembled diplomats, journalists, rights activists, lawyers, Ibrahim's family and even curious passersby enjoyed the sense that a bit of justice finally had been done. Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years in jail last summer on charges of defaming Egypt's reputation by publishing rights reports on sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims; intending to monitor Egyptian parliamentary elections; forging voting documents; and illegally receiving funding from the European Commission. His guilty verdict, however, was widely regarded as politically motivated against someone who had severely embarrassed the government and President Hosni Mubarak himself with his vocal public campaigns for more civil rights.
Western diplomats say they have been doing many things behind closed doors to secure the 63-year-old sociologist's release. Ibrahim's American passport made him a cause celebre in the West. But he could be back in jail as soon as the retrial begins, meaning the authorities have a weapon against him to ensure he keeps his mouth shut in the coming months.
The government immediately set to using Ibrahim for its own ends. A week after his release, a parliamentary discussion about prison conditions included filmed testimony gleaned from Ibrahim during his 10 months' incarceration that conditions were no worse than "the most advanced countries"--something he must have willingly agreed to do while incarcerated.
While in jail, Ibrahim found himself rubbing elbows with an intriguing combination of jailed Islamists, convicted homosexuals and former MPs jailed in corruption scandals. The day of his release, he recalled, "I heard cheers through the whole ward. That cheer used to only come when Egypt was playing soccer and scoring. But I looked at my watch and it was too early for a match and Egypt had already been eliminated from the Africa Cup. All of the big cases go to this jail"--and all of them feel they have been wronged by an unjust state. The Islamists in particular gave him a warm welcome. In interviews afterward, Ibrahim spoke of a "special rapport" with the Islamist prisoners--some of whom he'd studied for years while on the outside. "By the time I got there," he said, "they knew my case inside and out. I didn't have to explain myself."
During his 10 months in prison, Ibrahim had plenty of time to ponder just what it was he'd done to draw the government's wrath. At the time of his arrest, the general speculation was that it represented a warning shot to keep the rest of civil society timid in advance of upcoming elections. The handling of his conviction, however, and the fierceness of the accompanying media smear campaign against him led many to conclude there was a much more personal motivation behind the scenes. Ibrahim speculates that it was the combined effects of several of his activities and comments--including election monitoring efforts, studies of Muslim-Coptic tensions and his notorious interview in spring 2000 with a Saudi magazine about the royal tendencies of Middle Eastern republics. "As I was going along in the last 10 years," he said in public comments, "I was alienating one influential actor after another."
Ibrahim emerges into a world very different from the one he left behind. Locally he faces a civil society and human rights scene that has been partially demoralized by his arrest and incarceration. Globally, he faces a world irrevocably changed by the events of Sept. 11. The ensuing American war on terrorism has fueled a steady stream of Western calls for a reformation in Middle Eastern thought. "The expectation is that I will be back, resuming all my activities, and now that I have an even higher moral ground to stand on, I will take a leadership role," he said, although he has no immediate plans to reopen his Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies. …