The Plight of the Arab Intellectual

By Rejwan, Nissim | Midstream, April 2001 | Go to article overview

The Plight of the Arab Intellectual


Rejwan, Nissim, Midstream


By the time this reaches the reader, nearly a year will have passed since the opening of the trial of Saadeddin Ibrahim, sociology professor at the American University of Cairo and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies. One's impression is that the the Egyptian state prosecutor has never had a cogent idea quite what to do with a case in which the accused seems to be guilty of nothing more incriminating than conducting research in banned territory or opening his mouth and airing a piece of his mind.

Ibrahim's arrest and prosecution started in June 2000. At 10:30 one Friday morning, the AUC professor was arrested, allegedly for "receiving foreign funding with the intention of smearing Egypt's image." Charges against him also included drafting reports on the internal situation in Egypt and other Arab countries for which he was paid with "money from abroad," receiving bribes from foreign donors, embezzlement, and forgery. The state prosecutor also accused Ibrahim of "exploiting the Ibn Khaldun Center ... to establish contact with a great number of countries and fomenting internal problems that could threaten Egypt's stability." Ibrahim was also charged with obtaining "several million Egyptian pounds from foreign parties under the pretext of conducting research work in various fields."

The principal accusation brought against Ibrahim is that he received around $220,000 from the European Union to finance a documentary on parliamentary election participation that was regarded as "harmful to Egypt's reputation." Ibrahim was also accused of having instructed researchers at the Ibn Khaldun Center to register fictitious voter names on some 1,700 forged electoral cards said to have been seized in his house -- an operation with which Ibrahim denied any connection, blaming researchers at the center for any and all infractions.

Less than a fortnight after Ibrahim's arrest, more arrests were made, and the total number of those in custody reached 11, including staff members of the Ibn Khaldun Center and the Women Voters Support Center. Human rights groups described the arrests as an attack on human rights activists and civil society organizations. The US State Department saw in Ibrahim's detention a human rights issue, indicating that "freedom of expression is at stake." Ibrahim's American wife, Barbara, was quoted as saying that her husband's investigation had taken on "a purely political nature ... rather than a legal matter."

While Ibrahim's case has certainly been the gravest of its kind in Egypt in recent years and posed a danger even to the small measure of freedom of expression the authorities usually tolerate, it is nevertheless not unique. As a matter of fact, intellectuals have always been a subject of controversy in the Arab world, and the intellectual's role in society and politics remains a point at issue among the educated classes there. The ongoing controversy about the issue of relations with Israel and the subject of "normalization" often plays an important role here, with the almost complete ban imposed by both Egypt and Jordan -- the two Arab countries that signed peace treaties with Israel -- on any moves toward such normalization.

The eruption of the Gulf crisis with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces in August 1989 served only to intensify the debate, what with some academicians, political writers, and intellectuals taking sides in favor of this party in the conflict or that. In Egypt, especially, intellectuals came under heavy fire -- and from all directions. Groups and circles opposed to Iraq's move assaulted those who showed sympathy or even leniency toward Baghdad, while these tried to defend their stand in the best way they could, considering they were swimming against the stream and against their country's stand.

More instructive were the sharp exchanges between the intellectuals themselves. Mutual recriminations and accusations were thrown around, and Julien Benda's famous work on "the treason of the intellectuals" was often mentioned and presented as proof and justification for one's own stand. …

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