- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

On June 30, the Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eldin Ibrahim was arrested and imprisoned by the Egyptian authorities, who accused him, inter alia, of receiving funds from the European Union and other foreign organizations, and for making a documentary on voting rights for the Egyptian electorate. On Aug. 6, the accusations escalated to espionage for the United States. Yesterday, Mr. Ibrahim and his colleagues were freed on bail; in other words, they are still under investigation.

The first accusation is ridiculous and hypocritical, as the Mubarak regime is the second-largest recipient of American military and economic aid in the world. The second accusation reveals the nature of the Mubarak regime as basically against democracy, freedom and minority rights. And the third is also unfounded as the lecture Mr. Ibrahim gave at the Department of Defense took place in the presence of the Egyptian ambassador and his staff.

After all, the present regime in Egypt is rooted in the military coup d'etat of 1952, which banned political parties, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and thwarted all the basic freedoms of thought, speech, press and association. The outcome was the establishment of a police state backed by the military. In contrast, Egypt prior to 1952 had a political and an economic elite that was educationally and culturally open to the West, and where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony. The Nobel laureate for literature, the novelist and intellectual Naguib Mahfouz, whose formative years were before 1952, epitomizes in his writings and ideas that period of Egyptian enlightenment.

Since the military took power in 1952, it has attempted through the controlled media and the civics books taught in schools to erase from the memory of the Egyptian people the truth that Egypt had a democracy before the 1952 revolution. In fact, there were six free parliamentary elections during that period, with the last free elections held in January 1950. As Egyptians had free elections then, there is no doubt whatsoever that they could have free elections a half-century later.

Egypt needs to return to democracy to realize its full potential politically, economically and culturally. The custodians of this present regime in Egypt have been propagating the myth that the choice is between them and the Islamists. In reality, there is a third alternative; namely, those who truly believe in democracy and freedom, such as the New Wafd party, which is rooted in the old Wafd party, the only genuinely popular democratic political party in the Arab world. There are also a large number of independents from various groups of the liberal professions, businessmen and intellectuals, such as Mr. Ibrahim himself, who are totally committed to democracy and the rule of law.

To transfer power peacefully from the military to civilians, a la Chile, a transitional Cabinet should be formed to hold free and fair parliamentary elections, which should be monitored by international observers, to make sure that neither the partisans of the Mubarak regime nor the Islamists, who are of the same ilk ideologically in their antipathy toward democracy, would try to coerce or intimidate the voters and rig the elections, as they have done in the past. The parliament that would result from these free and fair elections could draft a new constitution, which would transform Egypt into a real democratic political system.

The United States, unfortunately, has been unwittingly supportive of the military regime in Egypt by providing substantial military aid as a consequence of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. This aid should be cut down drastically as Egypt has no more enemies to fear, for she is at peace with Israel, and the Sudan and Libya will never constitute a threat to Egypt. Only a civilian government, elected democratically and genuinely accountable to the Egyptian people, would be able to reduce the size of the Egyptian army and make it a professional, nonpolitical institution.

On a personal note, I have known Mr. Ibrahim as a close friend for the past 27 years. He is the model of the concerned academician who left his comfortable academic position in the United States to go back to Egypt with his American wife, Barbara, and his children, because he cares deeply for his country of origin. So it is preposterous for the Egyptian authorities to accuse him of trying to smear Egypt's image in the world, when the thrust of his research and activities has been for the protection of human rights (including the rights of the oppressed Coptic Christian minority), for the spread of freedom, and for peace in the Middle East.

This is a golden opportunity for the U.S. government to use its tremendous political and economic leverage to transform Egypt into a civilian, democratic polity.

Marius Deeb is a professor of Middle East studies at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

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