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Having the Last Laugh

4 minute read

The idea might have seemed funny at the time. Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim wrote a magazine article on what he sarcastically called “the Arab world’s contribution to political science.” He dubbed it gomlokiya, squeezing together the Arabic words for republic and monarchy. His point was how the new President of Syria had assumed office automatically after his father died, even though the country hadn’t been a hereditary kingdom for centuries. Readers also chuckled at the pun: it rhymes with molokhiya, a word for a vegetable soup that Egyptians use with comic effect to describe a mess.

What happened next is no laughing matter. Ibrahim may have made a mistake in suggesting that President Hosni Mubarak, marking his 20th year in power, might also fancy having a son as his successor. Soon after the article appeared last June, police paid Ibrahim a midnight visit and hauled him away for 42 days in detention without charge. Hinting he’d be booked for spying, the authorities accused him of illegally receiving and misusing funds, planning to bribe officials and tarnishing the reputation of Egypt. This week Ibrahim, 62, wraps up his defense in a six-month trial in the Supreme State Security Court. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years at hard labor, a sentence likely to trigger protests in Egypt and beyond. Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador in Cairo, has criticized the case for doing “great harm.” A conviction could hurt U.S.-Egyptian relations, since Ibrahim holds dual citizenship and teaches at the American University in Cairo.

Ibrahim’s supporters contend that the trial’s aim is to end his 25-year-career as one of the Arab world’s leading democracy advocates. The charges, including those brought against 26 Egyptian and one Sudanese co-defendants, stem from work carried out by Ibn Khaldun, a research center founded by Ibrahim in 1988 and supported by a board that reads like an Egyptian Who’s Who. Prosecutors say its projects were illegally funded by foreign sources, and that by alleging election fraud and discrimination against minority Coptic Christians, they undermined Egypt’s standing. A press campaign smeared Ibrahim as a crooked traitor with ties to Israel who deserves stoning as punishment.

The case has halted Ibn Khaldun’s work on issues ranging from population control to rehabilitating Islamic militants. It is also having a chilling effect on other advocacy groups, coming not long after restrictions were imposed on nongovernmental organizations seeking to develop a “civil society” outside government control. “People are afraid to be forward now,” says veteran Egyptian commentator Salama Ahmed Salama. “They do not want the same thing to happen to them.” Activists say the message that Egypt tolerates liberals little more than it does Islamic fundamentalists may dim the prospects for democracy elsewhere in the Arab world.

Many speculate that the government arrested Ibrahim to prevent his center from monitoring last November’s parliamentary elections. The center documented a host of irregularities during the 1995 balloting, which led losing candidates to challenge the ruling party’s victory in court. While it forms no part of the charges, many suspect that Ibrahim’s gomlokiya wisecrack did him in. That may seem odd, since the President has laughed at the notion that his son is a pharaoh-in-waiting, and the professor has been on cordial terms with the First Family. Ibrahim taught Mubarak’s wife and both of the couple’s sons, and has served as an occasional unpaid consultant to the presidency. “I have a lot of regard for him,” Ibrahim says.

Some wonder whether coziness with powerful people, combined with a jocular streak and a touch of intellectual arrogance, led Ibrahim into trouble, across so-called red lines set by Egypt’s security establishment. Before his arrest, he liked to jet around to global conferences and sound off in the Western and Arab press. A friend recalls once recoiling when Mubarak arrived late for a meeting and Ibrahim demanded to know why he had kept them waiting. His first defense lawyer quit after Ibrahim detailed his detention in a public lecture dubbed, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” “He has guts,” says Egyptian political writer Mohammed Sid Ahmed. Huffs an official: “Who does he think he is?”

Whatever the court’s verdict, Ibrahim told TIME last week, he has no regrets about pressing for greater freedom in Egypt. “My only limitation is my conscience and my integrity as a social scientist,” he said before giving an undergraduate lecture on revolution. “Democracy is sweeping the world. History is on our side.” That’s serious talk, reflecting Ibrahim’s hope that Egyptians continue moving toward their goal, as best they can. But will they manage to keep their sense of humor along the way?

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