- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

Egypt’s leading human rights activist remains optimistic that democracy can take root in the Middle East, despite his own three-year prison ordeal for promoting political reforms at home.

His voice occasionally choking with emotion, Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim thanked Washington supporters who helped keep up an international pressure campaign on Cairo about his imprisonment. Mr. Ibrahim, who spent more than a year in solitary confinement after his June 2000 arrest, was acquitted of all charges and freed by Egypt’s highest court on March 18.

“At times I thought this day would never come, that I might never see America again,” Mr. Ibrahim said at a gathering Thursday at the National Endowment for Democracy.

With his wife, Barbara, at his side, Mr. Ibrahim said he had “not only been acquitted, but vindicated, because our agenda itself has been vindicated.”

Mr. Ibrahim’s conviction proved a serious strain in U.S.-Egyptian relations, with President Bush last summer freezing some aid to the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime American ally, in protest.

Mr. Ibrahim, a frequent critic of the Mubarak regime, was convicted along with 27 associates of illegally accepting money from the European Union to finance voter education programs and for “disseminating false information” about the government abroad.

He said pressure from Western governments and human rights organizations kept his case in the public eye, but that Egypt’s own institutions, notably the justice system, deserved credit for defying the government.

“The fact that I was acquitted shows that there is a margin of freedom in which we can fight,” he said.

The Iraq war left the Arab world stunned and humiliated, Mr. Ibrahim said, but he rejected arguments that Arab and predominantly Muslim countries were incapable of forming liberal democracies.

He said similar arguments had been made about pre-World War II Germany and Japan, as well as many Balkan and predominantly Catholic countries that now are democracies.

Egypt and many other Middle Eastern regimes also boasted open societies and liberal institutions early in the 20th century, before giving way to authoritarian and military-dominated regimes.

“I take note of the difficulties, but I say they can be overcome,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

He played down fears that Islamic fundamentalist movements in Egypt and elsewhere stand to be the major beneficiaries of any liberalization in the region, recalling his own intensive “dialogues” with imprisoned Muslim activists via notes smuggled in the pockets of his dirty laundry while in solitary confinement.

Mr. Ibrahim predicted that many of the more radical Arab Islamic movements would be forced to moderate their policies in a functioning democracy.

“Democracy has a self-correcting mechanism built into it, so please give it a chance,” he said.

Mr. Ibrahim said the United States will have a huge influence on political events in the region in the wake of the Iraq war, but he called on Washington to apply its pro-democracy ideas more consistently than in the past.

He also urged the Bush administration to press for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, saying Arab leaders had used the conflict in the past to deflect domestic criticism of their policies.

U.S. pressure “has to be sustained to work,” he said. “You can’t have the short attention span so often typical of American policies in the past.”

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