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Interviews : Saad Eddin Ibrahim

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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. 

With a history dating back to the 10th millennium B.C., Egypt has long played a central role in the Middle East. Egypt is the largest Arab nation and has an influential voice in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. Egypt has a diverse economy, but has struggled to create sustained economic growth and opportunities for its population of 84 million people.

The country has little experience with representative democracy. From 1956 to 1970, President Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt with a strong hand, nationalizing the Suez Canal and taking the country into conflict with the new state of Israel. Upon his death, Anwar al-Sadat became president. Together with other Arab nations, Sadat launched the October War against Israel in 1973. In 1979, Sadat signed a groundbreaking peace treaty with Israel.

From Sadat’s assassination in 1981 until the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Egypt was governed by President Hosni Mubarak. For all of Mubarak’s time in office, and for much of the time since his 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. Mubarak claimed to have 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.

Following the example of the Tunisian Revolution, large protests swept Egypt in early 2011. The military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), withdrew its support of Mubarak. On February 11, 2011, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had resigned. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi then assumed power in Egypt. SCAF dissolved the parliament and suspended the constitution.

In November 2011, Egypt held parliamentary elections that were reportedly fair and democratic. In June 2012, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was elected President, in part because liberal and secular forces failed to coalesce around a single candidate. Morsi’s popularity declined as he declared his orders immune from challenge, removed judicial review processes, and was accused of taking steps towards the implementation of Islamist policies. Conflict arose between those supporting Islamist policies and those seeking a more liberal and secular government. Protests occurred throughout his presidency until Morsi was ousted by the military in July 2013. Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested and their camps and offices raided. Until new elections are held, a SCAF-installed provisional government led by acting President Adly Mansour is in control.

In its most recent report, the independent watchdog group Freedom House classifies Egypt as “partly free.” On its scale where 1 is the most free and 7is the least free, Egypt earned scores of 5 in both the civil liberties and political rights categories.


More from Saad Eddin Ibrahim

Saad Ibrahim: Egypt's History The long history of democratic movements in Egypt. Saad Ibrahim: Nelson Mandela Ibrahim on Nelson Mendela. Saad Ibrahim: Difficulty with UN The difficulties of working with the United Nations. More + Saad Ibrahim: Impact of Technology The impact of technology on Egyptian democracy movements. Saad Ibrahim: Treatment in Prison Ibrahim describing harsh treatment in an Egyptian prison.