Interviewed November 2010
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is professor of sociology and one of Egypt's leading voices for democracy and human rights.
Ibrahim was born in 1938 in Mansura, Egypt. He studied at Cairo University, and later in the United States at the University of Washington. He was initially targeted by the Egyptian government after suggesting on a radio show that President Mubarak would attempt to hand power illegitimately to his son Gamal. Ibrahim was charged with “defaming” Egypt abroad and accepting funds from the United States for election monitoring without permission and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Many foreign governments, including the United States, called for his release. Although Egypt's highest court eventually threw out his sentence and ordered him released, the ordeal severely damaged Ibrahim's health. Under threat of re-arrest, Ibrahim left Egypt in 2008 to live in the United States.
Ibrahim is the author or editor of more than 35 books in Arabic and English and has published more than 100 scholarly articles.
Well, you know, many people do not realize that the democracy movement in Egypt and the Arab world go back a long way. As a matter of fact, the first election and the first parliament in the region was in Egypt back in 1866. And I say, “1866,” because some of your viewers, especially Europeans, would appreciate the fact that Italy did not exist as a country.
So, here was Egypt, an African Arab Muslim country, had its first parliament at that time. And that’s exactly four years before Italy became a country. Before Germany became a country. Because both Italy and Germany attained statehood in 1870. So, here is a country like Egypt, that is now, you know, always viewed as a third-world country, yet it has its very early experimentation with democracy.
Now, unfortunately, that experiment came to an end as a result of foreign-- intervention. The British occupied Egypt in 1882, and that brought that first liberal experiment to an end. And for the first 40 years of British occupation, Egypt was ruled directly by the British. However, as soon as it got some kind of independence in 1922, they resumed the march of democracy. So we had, in 1923 a new constitution, a new election, and that lasted for nearly 30-plus years from 1923 to 1953.
That was a second liberal age. So, there was one liberal age in the 19th century, a second one in the interwar period, and a third one that we're still fighting for nowadays. So, that is the history. Now, what happened in Egypt was echoed in some other Arab country. Not in all, but in a country like Tunisia, for example. Under a visionary leader at that time called Heredin. It was echoed in Iraq at the time under-- again, a visionary leader by the name of Daoud Bashar.
So, you had three countries in the region that experimented with democracy early-- in the 19th century. And then they will-- some of them will do that again in the interwar period, and now they are battling with it. So, what I'm trying to say is that our people, in one country or the other, whenever they had an opportunity to fight for democracy as they did, and whenever they had the opportunity for a free and fair election, they eagerly embraced it.
Until the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution, Egypt was governed by President Hosni Mubarak, who took power in 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. For all of Mubarak’s time in office, and even since Mubarak’s resignation, Egypt has been under “Emergency Law,” which allows the government to suspend constitutional rights, including limiting political activity and restricting free speech. Emergency Law also allows the government to use summary arrests against political opponents.
For four successive terms, Mubarak was reelected in referenda without an opponent. In 2005, under domestic and international pressure, Mubarak proposed a constitutional amendment to allow Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential elections. Because the amendment would have imposed severe restrictions on the eligibility of opposition candidates, opposition groups boycotted the vote on its approval. Mubarak ultimately won the September 2005 presidential election with an official 88 percent of the vote amid widespread allegations of fraud and vote rigging.
The main opposition leader, Ayman Nour, was subsequently prosecuted by the government for forging signatures on petitions and was sentenced to five years in prison, provoking protests from the United States and other democratic countries. In January 2011, large protests swept the country culminating in Mubarak’s departure. On February 11, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had resigned. Since President Mubarak's resignation, the de facto power in Egypt has been the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.