Jewish World Review August 6, 2002 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5762

Terry Eastland

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President must take up cause of Egyptian democracy warrior | President Bush rightly recognizes that Western ideas have universal origins and application. He has said the right to "liberty and justice" is the "birthright of all people" and specifically emphasized that "all people" include Muslims. He has further said America will stand "alongside people everywhere determined to build a world of freedom, dignity and tolerance," adding that we will help "those in captive nations achieve democracy."

In "captive" Egypt - an ally of ours, yes, but still one of many Middle Eastern autocracies - there happens to be a man who is determined to advance the cause of freedom there and achieve democracy. His name is Saad Eddin Ibrahim; he is Egypt's most important human rights activist, and last week in Cairo an Egyptian court sentenced him to seven years in prison following an unjust prosecution.

State Department and White House spokesmen duly expressed "deep disappointment" in Egypt's treatment of Mr. Ibrahim. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, has been quiet. He ought to be speaking out. He is missing a major opportunity to advance liberty and justice not just in Egypt but elsewhere in the Arab world.

Mr. Ibrahim is a 63-year-old sociologist and a citizen of both Egypt and the United States. For years he has peacefully argued for the precise values Mr. Bush says should be spread throughout the Arab world: free elections, civic participation, freedom of speech and religion, and equal rights for women.

Mr. Ibrahim's advocacy of those values, and the threat they pose to the corrupt regime of President Hosni Mubarak, was his real crime. The actual charges brought against him are interesting mainly for what they say about the means the government uses to maintain power.

Mr. Ibrahim worked from a think tank he founded. It received contributions from outside Egypt - specifically from the European Union (roughly $250,000). A military decree from 1992 says a nongovernmental organization may not receive foreign funds unless the government first approves. Mr. Ibrahim was convicted of violating that decree.

Mr. Ibrahim disputed whether the decree actually applied to his think tank. Yet even if it did, there was no question that the government knew about and indeed approved the European Union funds.

The government's deeper problem with Mr. Ibrahim was what his think tank did, supported by those (and other) funds. That is clear once you consider the other major charge - that Mr. Ibrahim "undermined the dignity of the state." How? By publicizing election irregularities and discrimination against the nation's Coptic Christians - both of which subjects have been written about by others in Egypt, even government officials.

The laws used against Mr. Ibrahim are vaguely worded and can be selectively enforced - as they were in his case. They were designed to ensure the state's control over contrarian political activity. Indeed, they can be used to deny any real political role to the private sector. Which is to say they can be employed to effectively eliminate any authentic private sector - and thus the possibility of a democratic uprising.

The reason Mr. Bush ought to engage the inexcusable treatment of Mr. Ibrahim - and highlight the nature and impact of the laws used against him - extends well beyond Egypt. Writing from Amman, Jordan, Rami Khouri points out that laws of the kind used against Mr. Ibrahim "are common throughout the Arab world."

Mr. Bush thus has the opportunity to make arguments that will resonate among Arabs outside Egypt who share Mr. Ibrahim's views but who are, writes Mr. Khouri, reluctant to voice support of him because they, too, live under similarly "chilling" regimes. Significantly, if Mr. Bush fails to address the Ibrahim case, that could add to the consternation toward the United States felt by many democracy-minded Arabs who are quite aware that we send Egypt more than $2 billion in annual aid. Those Arabs especially will notice that the president has no public comment on the appalling misconduct of a regime he nonetheless is willing to support.

The Ibrahim case actually is a test of Mr. Bush's commitment to his own commitment to liberate captive nations. It simply isn't enough to have others in his administration communicate American protest. Subordinates never can pronounce as authoritatively as a president can, and the audience here isn't just the Mubarak regime but other Arab governments. Mr. Bush should speak up - now.

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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.

07/31/02: With each war, civil liberties are curtailed less

© 2002, Terry Eastland