TOPICS > Politics

Clashing With Cairo

August 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The jailing of an Egyptian academic and activist has provoked a sharp response for the Bush administration. U.S. officials said yesterday the United States will stop new aid to Egypt as a protest against the seven-year jail term handed down last month against democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

That U.S. decision was denounced by the Egyptian government, which said it would not bow to foreign pressure. Ibrahim has joint Egyptian and U.S. citizenship and his wife is American. Ibrahim is accused of defaming Egypt and misusing money from the European Union.

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, the State Department voiced its concerns both about Ibrahim and political freedom in Egypt.

PHILIP T. REEKER, State Department Spokesman: We do not feel that it is resolved. We’ve met here, as I mentioned, including today. We met in Cairo with senior Egyptian officials to convey our continuing concern regarding the verdict in that case and the serious questions it raises regarding progress towards greater political freedom in Egypt. We followed the case very closely. We press our concerns with the Egyptian authorities in the hope of seeing Dr. Ibrahim’s release.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Saad Ibrahim, the impact his case is having in the Arab world and on U.S.-Egyptian relations, we get two perspectives. Mohammed Wahby is a retired Egyptian diplomat and is now a columnist for Al-Musawar magazine.

And we hoped to be joined momentarily by Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College; his most recent book, The Islamists and the West: Ideology vs. Pragmatism, will come this fall.

We invited the Egyptian embassy to appear on this segment but they declined. Mohammed Wahby, tell us a little bit about sad Ibrahim. What should Americans know about him?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: He definitely is one of the most well known sociologists in the Arab world, respected. But he is also given to making very controversial statements. He is fond of almost inviting on himself some problems. But having said that, there is no question at all that he is one of the most respected, if not the most respected, sociologist living now in the Arab world, not only in Egypt.

RAY SUAREZ: You are talking about his record as an academic. What about his work being outspoken about the state of democracy in Egypt? Would his reputation carry to other places in the Middle East in the Arabic-speaking world?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: I think so. As I said, he is widely respected everywhere in the Arab world, also widely known in the Arab world. But the problem, as I said, is how he goes about doing his work. He has of course established a very good think tank in Egypt. And he has also invited some money from other groups and from other organizations abroad.

The problem is that he has contravened, he has broken a certain law in Egypt, which stipulates that any individual or organization in Egypt receiving money from any organization abroad, this money should be reported to the competent authority, how much he has received, for what purpose it will be used and Saad has not done this.

And you know, there is a law very similar to this now in the United States, you know. This law was actually promulgated because of terrorist activities in Egypt. Egypt was exposed to terrorism much earlier than the United States.

And therefore this law was legislated in order to make sure that there will be know one from outside Egypt who would use money in order to infiltrate into Egypt and carry out some terrorist activities.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, before Ibrahim lost his court case and was jailed, was the United States, all along, pressuring Egypt not to send him to jail?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: The United States, in my view, the tactic it has adopted is counterproductive. From the beginning it used to receive press releases from the embassy in Cairo, condemning more or less or denouncing whatever the government has been doing.

MOHAMMED WAHBY: And this has already provoked not only the government but also has provoked even people on the street in the sense that no one would like a foreign power to interfere in a judiciary.

But also we should not forget the context, the context in which the United States has been doing this is extremely dangerous. The United States now is at the very low ebb in the Arab world because of its stand on Iraq, because of its stand on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as what it has done in Sudan. It has reached an agreement with Sudan and the southern liberation movement without consulting Egypt, without Egypt being in the picture.

But also there is also the fact that if the United States is so agitated about the human rights of one individual, whoever he may be, the United States is not agitated at all about the violation of human rights of three million people in Palestine. We have not heard anything about this. Very rarely we have heard anything about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Saad Ibrahim has the aspect that he is a U.S. citizen and a duel national, which complicates his case a little bit.

Fawaz Gerges, welcome to the program. Was the public nature of the pressure from the United States on Egypt complicating the Saad Ibrahim case for Egypt?

FAWAZ GERGES: Well, actually the… initially the Bush administration said very little about the sentencing of Ibrahim. But of course the administration came under considerable pressures by human rights organizations and of course leading editorials in major U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, to use the threat of aid to force Egypt to change its decision.

I think finally what the administration has done is to really pursue what I call a middle way approach, appeasing critics of Egypt here in the United States while not endangering a major relationship with a strategic ally in the Arab world.

FAWAZ GERGES: So instead of using the threat of reducing or stopping the nearly $2 billion in Egypt that Washington provides to Cairo, it says “listen, we will warn you, we will not provide you with any further new aid,” that’s almost $150 million requested by Egypt in the aftermath of 9/11.

So I think, yes, the administration is aware of the difficulties of applying pressure on Egypt and this is why it has, I think, pursued a middle way approach to basically appease both critics of Egypt and not to endanger its strategic relationship with a key ally in the Arab world.

RAY SUAREZ: So it sounds like you’re saying this was halfway measures all the way around; that they came late to the issue, and then only joined on it in order to appease domestic critics here in the United States?

FAWAZ GERGES: Absolutely. Absolutely, because initially, as I said, the administration said very little about the re-sentencing of Ibrahim. And the critical question here is the following:

Does the new step undertaken by the Bush Administration represent, I think, a fundamental shift in its approach to the question of promotion of human rights and democracy in the Arab Middle East? Does it signal a new awareness of the need to promote or advance the rule of law and transparent institutions for strategic, not tactical, reasons? Let’s remember here that Ibrahim is not the only political prisoner in Egypt.

There are thousands of political prisoners in Egypt and other Arab countries. And in fact, most of America’s Arab allies have little respect for human rights and in fact repress political opposition; and in fact this political repression tends to create what I call vacuums of legitimate authorities which tend to be exploited by militant elements like Zahawari and bin Laden’s variety.

One would hope here, one would hope that the United States pursues a consistent, a consistent and convincing policy to convince not just the American critics of Egypt but also to convince its critics in the Arab world that it really pursues the advancement of the rule of law and the respect for human rights as an alternative, as a framework, an alternative to militarism and authoritarianism in the Arab world.

RAY SUAREZ: Mohammed Wahby, how do you answer Professor Gerges’ question? Does this signal a change in America’s attitude toward political prisoners in the Arab world?

MOHAMMED WAHBY: I wish it could be a change for everybody in the Middle East not only to be targeting Egypt for one person and forgetting what is happening in the Israel. I mean that is what really rides all the Arabs, that it is only one direction.

You see, it is the double standard, which is so flagrant in this case, which is really making everybody angry. There is also another thing. Egypt has had a number of citizens here who have been locked up in prisons without charges, without even the benefit of having a lawyer or any kind of defense…

RAY SUAREZ: You mean in the detentions after September 11.

MOHAMMED WAHBY: Yes, after detention. Now, had Egypt come out publicly criticizing the United States for doing that? Does this case also have or doesn’t it have some human rights dimension? But Egypt is always trying to deal with the United States in a diplomatic and through the diplomatic channel rather than coming out and muddying the waters between the two countries. That is the difference.

You have not only one person. You have so many people. He is also talking about the thousands of Egyptians are who in prison. Who are they? They’re just like the counterparts of people who are imprisoned by the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, Fawaz Gerges.

FAWAZ GERGES: May I add a footnote? Unfortunately, it seems to me that every time there is a basic domestic situation, we also always have intellectual and public commentators who tend to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This particular conflict has not only muddied the water but led to what I call the consolidation of the authoritarian state in the Arab world – at the end of the day — at the end of day, the question of Ibrahim is a domestic question and it has to be dealt with in terms of what does it really mean for democracy and human rights if the Arab world?

Almost every single Middle Eastern country, as I mentioned, basically mistreats its people and oppresses and represses political opposition.

Let’s remember here that Ibrahim is not a rebel. Ibrahim is not a revolutionary. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ibrahim had very close relationship with the Mubarak government and the first family. He was the senior thesis adviser to Mubarak’s wife at the American university and the professor of Mubarak’s son at the same university. In fact, Ibrahim’s misfortunes stem from the fact that he didn’t recognize certain limits….

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Gerges, I’m going to have to cut you off because we’re out of time. Thanks a lot.