Dispatches > The Buzz

Democracy 'in a dangerous place'

Leading Middle East freedom advocate gets his day in court-and wins

Issue: "Beginning of the end," March 29, 2003

As things sometimes go, the man I needed to talk to about democracy in the Middle East was in court.

Saad Ibrahim, 63, directs the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a Cairo-based think tank. He also founded the Arab Organization for Human Rights and teaches sociology at the American University in Cairo. Mr. Ibrahim has taught at DePauw University and is married to an American. A Muslim, his work on behalf of Egypt's minorities-including Christians-won widespread attention.

For most of the last three years, that work has kept him either in jail or in a courtroom, defending himself against charges of "harming the image of the State." I dialed his number anyway. To my surprise, his graveled voice answered with sounds of celebration in the background. Only hours before, on March 18, Egypt's Supreme Court had acquitted Mr. Ibrahim. With this victory, he said, "I do have more hope."

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Egyptian security forces appeared at Mr. Ibrahim's home on a hot summer evening in 2000 and arrested him. They placed him in a Cairo jail cell along with 27 of his associates at the Ibn Khaldun Center. The charges: deliberately disseminating false information, spreading malicious rumors about the internal affairs of the State, harming the image of the State abroad, and illegally accepting funds from the European Union.

Those charges arose from a documentary that the Ibn Khaldun Center produced about voting rights and voter fraud in Egypt. Mr. Ibrahim would spend nearly a year in jail before a security court found him guilty and sentenced him to a seven-year prison term. A court of appeals ordered a second trial, but the verdict was the same. Then last year the high court abruptly released him and ordered a retrial. The EU submitted testimony that none of its $250,000 grant had been misused. And a former Supreme Court judge challenged the constitutionality of the 1992 military decree used to bring the original charges. The court on March 18 ruled Mr. Ibrahim and his codefendants "not guilty."

Mr. Ibrahim credits his freedom to the independence of Egypt's highest court. "Its members guard its independence with their lives," he told WORLD. He plans to work through the Egyptian parliament to abolish the lower courts created under martial law a decade ago: "Now the whole world realizes that in the Middle East democracy lives in a dangerous place."


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