Muslim moderate freed

Human Rights | Egyptian-American activist for free elections and the rights of Christians released, but he faces a new trial; outcome "will be a bellwether" for others in the region

Issue: "Dick Armey's parting words," Dec. 14, 2002

Egyptian officials released a prominent Egyptian-American and unexpectedly overturned his seven-year jail sentence. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 63, faces a Jan. 7 retrial on charges of "tarnishing the state." Those charges--and the jail time--stem from his campaign for free and fair elections, along with advocacy on behalf of Egypt's Coptic Christians. An Egyptian court overturned the conviction on Dec. 3.

A Muslim, Mr. Ibrahim nonetheless took on the Egyptian government for failing to uphold the rights of the country's Christian minority and to protect them against attacks from Islamic radicals. His support of Coptic Christians gained widespread credibility because of his notoriety. Mr. Ibrahim is a political sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. He was a founder of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

In 2000 the Ibn Khaldun Center--which published a widely read journal on democracy and human rights in the Arab world--and other institutions issued a nationwide appeal demanding an end to discrimination against Coptic Christians. At the same time, Mr. Ibrahim was involved in a controversial project to create economic opportunities for former Islamic extremists. But what earned him a jail sentence was a project funded by the European Commission to increase voter participation in parliamentary elections that under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have been regarded as suspect. Mr. Ibrahim was found guilty of "illegally accepting foreign donations" and "tarnishing Egypt's image abroad."

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For those actions he has been lauded as the "paragon of courage" and the "most visible face of human rights in the Middle East," according to Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom. Mr. Marshall visited Mr. Ibrahim in prison during his first trial in 2000. "What happens to him will be a bellwether for other activists in the region," Mr. Marshall told WORLD.

The release came three months after President Bush protested the Ibrahim verdict in a letter to Mr. Mubarak. Mr. Bush said he would oppose any new aid to Egypt as long as Mr. Ibrahim remained in jail. U.S. diplomats also made regular visits to the activist's jail cell. Mr. Ibrahim has dual Egyptian and U.S. citizenship. His wife Barbara is also a U.S. citizen.

The turnabout came at a time when Egypt is renewing its role to mediate strife between Israel and the Palestinians.

Human-rights organizations applauded Mr. Ibrahim's release but said it wasn't enough. "The charges against him are politically motivated and should be dropped," asserted Freedom House Vice Chairmen Ned Bandler and Mark Palmer in a written statement. Already Mr. Ibrahim has been held since 2000. The January trial will be his third on the same charges.


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