A prominent Egyptian scholar whose persistent calls for democracy landed him in jail urged Middle East governments to grant their citizens greater freedoms in a speech at GW Thursday.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, was released from an Egyptian prison last spring following a three-year trial that ended in his acquittal. He was charged with tainting the reputation of the government for his public criticisms of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Ibrahim, who broke his ankle while in prison, needed a cane to ascend the podium of a room in the Elliott School of International Affairs building.
After being asked by Elliott School Dean Harry Harding if democracy could flower in the Middle East, Ibrahim told the 100 people in attendance, “People in my part of the world believe that democracy is not only possible, but doable, achievable, and they must help to bring it about …We have every reason to believe it can come soon, in five or ten years.”
“We have a democratic history … we have a growing middle class, which in the West is the backbone of pluralistic politics,” he continued. “A wave of democratic transformation has begun. Close to one-hundred countries (in the world) went from dictatorship to democracy. This wave cuts across all cultures, all religions.”
He dismissed “racist arguments that this or that people is not fit for democracy,” noting that such comments were made about Germany and Japan following the defeat of the two countries’ despotic regimes in World War II.
“Two-thirds of Muslims live under democracy,” said Ibrahim, referring to Muslims in Indonesia and India, among other countries. The idea that Muslims cannot be democratic “is used by dictators to justify their tyrannical rule.”
He blamed armed conflict and dictators for suppressing women’s rights, knowledge and education.
“The Cold War made the United States and the USSR support dictators,” Ibrahim said. “After the war, the United States continued to support its old friends. It was only after 9/11 that the US has begun to recognize that its old friends were partly responsible for what happened.”
He praised President George W. Bush for “repenting the United States’ longstanding support of the tyrannical regimes” in a speech Bush made last November.
But he added, “We don’t want democracy through F16s, through armed force. All we want the West to do is withhold their support of dictatorships. We have to do the fighting.”
He ended his speech by asking the audience members to “tell your congressman or a journalist that you will not listen to dictators who call Arab states failing states.”
Ibrahim answered audience members’ questions for nearly an hour, and said public clamoring for democracy could lead to its spread to Middle Eastern countries.
He told an anecdote about Jordan, where Islamists in the cabinet began making “absurd” laws for women and were forced to resign under the pressure of political opinion.
Asked what action the U.S. government should take in the Middle East, Ibrahim said, “Conditions for giving aid and investment should ask for reform, privatization, free trade, support for the peace process, and political reform.” But he criticized sanctions, such as those imposed against Iraq following the Persian Gulf War, as “punishment.”
GW professors who attended the event praised Ibrahim for his dedication to democracy in the Muslim world.
“He’s not only endowed with knowledge, but also with something very rare in the Middle East: good humor and optimism,” said Walter Reich, the Yitzhak Rabin professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior.
“Without those two qualities, you can’t see a way out a lot of the problems that upset the region … Maybe he is nave, but it there’s any chance at all for what he’s working for, it’s a kind of navet,” Reich continued. “A sophisticate would give up.”