Saad Eddin Ibrahim prepared a statement to close his trial in front of the Egyptian Supreme State Security Court, but the judge sentenced him before he had a chance to read it. Ibrahim and his five codefendants from the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies are sociologists and researchers whose work on election monitoring and the persecution of Egypt’s ethnic minorities pushed them up against the so-called red lines of Egypt’s security establishment. On July 29 they received sentences ranging from five years in jail to one year suspended. Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years in jail with the possibility of hard labor. Had he been allowed, this is what he would have said to the court: “Perhaps we are being persecuted because we have been pioneers in discussing openly and practicing what we preach, and because we dared to say publicly what millions of Egyptians and Arabs think privately. If this is the price of pioneering, the price of transparency for the sake of civil society and democracy, then it is a price that I accept.”
Ibrahim was found guilty of receiving donations from abroad without government permission, embezzlement of funds and tarnishing Egypt’s image internationally. The donations come from the European Union, which has been funding the Ibn Khaldun Center’s election-monitoring program; the EU denies that any embezzlement has taken place. The charge of tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad seems especially absurd given that the conviction of the 63-year-old academic–who holds joint Egyptian-US citizenship–has done great damage to Egypt’s reputation. In the last two years the case has inspired more than 7,000 articles and news reports in papers and television stations across the world; the press of the English-speaking world have all condemned the Egyptian government’s choice. A series of editorials in the New York Times have suggested that America should reconsider its $2 billion annual aid package to Egypt. And the US State Department has condemned the verdict; even as the financial relationship between the United States and Egypt remains firmly in place.
Egypt has been under military rule since 1952. “In Egypt, the centers of power are not quite where they should be,” Issandr El-Amrani, the editor of the Cairo Times, told me. “Egypt has all the trappings of a modern state, but does not follow them.”
The Cairo Times is a weekly magazine in English. In wry columns and cartoons, it dissents from the Mubarak government line, which is slavishly followed by the rest of Cairo’s media. But its dissent is fairly gentle. The editors and staff understand that you do not cross the red lines: no direct criticism of Mubarak or the judiciary. Saad Eddin Ibrahim did not have such respect for the red lines. He was openly critical of Mubarak’s regime: He coined the phrase “Gomloukiya,” a mix of the Arabic words for republic and monarchy–making something like “republonarchy”–to describe the increasingly monarchic tendencies of Middle Eastern republics. Mubarak’s son, he hinted, was being groomed as successor to the President.
During a pause in the trial, I went to talk to Ibrahim in his office at the American University in Cairo. “In my humble opinion, so long as my work had no impact, they left me alone. When it began to show an impact, then it changed. This was no groundswell, but even with a limited impact, the regime became increasingly alarmed.” Ibrahim’s increasing publicity meant that he was no longer safely within the red lines. “I was doing multiple things: books, newspaper articles, TV shows, all over the world. I was using multiple media to get the message across. So long as I was writing and speaking, they did not care. When I went out, did voter registration, rallies, then it changed.” His work was public, and in English. It was read not only in Egypt but also abroad.
What does Ibrahim’s case tell us about Egypt? “This is a country with cultural and moral weight, and with tremendous potential that is blocked because of the lack of freedom and lack of democracy,” he told me. Ibrahim’s trial is a display of symbolic power by the Egyptian government, but the symbolism seems to be turning against it. Ibrahim walks with a cane and suffers from a degenerative neurological disorder; he will not have access to the proper medical treatment in jail. Immediately after his conviction on Monday, he was taken from the courtroom to a crowded transfer cell, where he spent forty-eight hours. On July 31, he was transported to Tora Mazra prison, south of Cairo. Ibrahim’s conviction and sentence is a savage parody of justice which truly tarnishes Egypt’s image.