Twelve years ago, the Egyptian-American academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim was arrested and imprisoned by the Mubarak regime after The Majalla published his article “Al-Jumlikiya: The Arab Contribution to Politics in the 21st Century,” which discussed the Middle East’s ‘republican monarchies’: dictators who handed power on to their sons.
Recently, The Majalla caught up with the eminent sociologist and activist, and founder of Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and the Arab Organization for Human Rights, to discuss his relationship with the ousted Mubarak, the Arab Spring, Egypt, and the future of politics in the Middle East.
You were released from prison in poor health. How did you feel on your release, emotionally?
Victorious. I understand the importance of the sacrifices I made for the sake of the cause I am fighting for. In my lectures and discussions, I stress that revolutions and political struggle are no picnic. There is a price that needs to be paid. I paid the price for supporting my principles and not giving up. In my case, giving up would have been easy, as Suzanne Mubarak and both of her sons were my students, the former president used to know me, which would have helped in achieving some kind of conciliation.
How did your relations with the Mubaraks turn sour?
They were good until my article “The Royal Republic” was published, discussing the thorny issue of succession. The article provoked Mubarak, who forced Suzanne to choose between standing by her husband and supporting her former professor, and it was easy for her to make up her mind. I think if it weren’t for my previous acquaintance with the Mubaraks, I would have suffered more in jail.
Why did you choose to get that close to the Mubaraks in the first place?
Suzanne requested me as her supervisor for her master’s degree. In those days, Mubarak was a vice-president, and she used to introduce herself as Suzanne Salah Thabit, avoiding any mention of her connection to Mubarak. I discovered the truth by chance, and I admit that I respected the fact that she didn’t make use of her status.
Do you remember the first time you met former president Mubarak?
It was at a party Suzanne threw after her graduation. I was invited with a number of other professors and it was then that I met Mubarak for the first time and we talked about my debates with Suzanne before I knew her true identity. “She used to tell me about your debates with her, which amuses me,” Mubarak said to me. This was the beginning of my relationship with the Mubaraks. After that, whenever Mubarak needed my help with anything, Suzanne would contact me saying, “The vice president needs your help.”
Was it true that Mubarak had a ‘feeble’ personality?
Well, no. Mubarak was limited in terms of creativity and thinking capacity, and he didn’t care about changing that. He saw everything like a bureaucrat, as he ran Egypt just to barely keep it going, nothing more. He used to nag me, saying he will give me a ministerial post, and I used to refuse politely, which made him comment: “I know that a salary for a minister is nothing in comparison with your salary paid by the university.”
Did you regret writing your controversial article?
Never, as I strongly believe that getting involved in public affairs means you have to cope with the problems that follow, including being attacked, your reputation being tarnished, and even being subject to assassination.
Is it true that you were targeted for liquidation?
True. It was the last week of December 1999, when I read a lengthy report in the daily Al-Akhbar, titled “A Man for All Times,” which was full of accusations and attacks against me, saying that I altered my stances from Nasserism to follow Sadat, and that I visited Israel, in addition to having close relations with monarchies. At the end of that day, on my way to home, I had a car accident, and in hospital I learned from my driver that we were hit by a truck that fled the scene after the accident.
How did you know that it was a plot to take your life?
In the wake of the accident I was visited by my dear late friend, the Moroccan writer Mohamed Abed Al-Gabry, accompanied with Adel Hussain from the Labor Party, who was the uncle of the potential presidential candidate Magdy Hussain. Hussain assured me that it was a plot to take my life, stating that he was the subject of a similar plot and so was Moustafa Al-Shardy, the then Editor-in-Chief of the opposition Al-Wafd newspaper. Hussain revealed to me that the presidency had what he called “Death Squads” to track critics of Mubarak and his family.
Later, I received flowers from the head of State Security, who called me saying: “I am happy that you are safe and sound, Doctor. I assure you that we had nothing to do with that accident.” I then asked about the party involved, and he got nervous and quickly ended the call. When I narrated what happened to Hussain and Gabry, we all agreed it was a plot, and that the Death Squads were real and their mission was to humiliate and insult anyone who crossed the line.
What do you think of the issue of foreign funding for civil society institutions?
To start with, the Ibn Khaldun Center was repeatedly attacked and accused of treason. The Egyptian judiciary cleared our name beyond any doubt. As for the foreign funding debate, I would like to argue that the Egyptian government and military is the major recipient of foreign financial support.
You mean American aid?
Yes. Is it or isn’t it a foreign aid? It is definitely not divine assistance.
Isn’t the problem one of secret foreign aid?
This issue of secrecy has to be explained, and if it were secret funding, how the state learned about it. Secondly, civil society institutions which get local or foreign funding are subject to supervision by four major entities: the Central Auditing Organization (CAO), the tax authorities, the institution’s board of directors, and finally the entity funding the institution in question. So the question is really what they are doing with this funding, and are they actually supervised and monitored by any of the previously mentioned entities? In comparison, who monitors the military in Egypt when it comes to the American aid? This is one of the major problems hindering the drafting process of the constitution: they didn’t get used to being held accountable.
So why do you think this case was brought into the spotlight now?
It is simply because these institutions are the loudest critics of the military, its performance, and shortcomings. So they were being punished, or why else hadn’t the military discovered such a case before in its 11 months of ruling the country?
The Military Council
Obviously, you are not happy with the military council and its performance.
They have their positives, but they are overshadowed by their negatives. The millions who demonstrated asking for the military council to step down was a clear testimony of their failure, after enjoying prestige and a high status in Egyptian society. I published an article asking, “Why is the military not keen to preserve what is left of its status?”
What was the worst mistake made by the military, in your opinion?
Mainly, its failure to impose rule of law and restore security, claiming after each sad chaotic episode that a third party is meeting and plotting in the dark, which is a joke. They never conducted a serious investigation into any of the violence or rioting. On the other hand, they adopted a tough stance on the so-called foreign funded civil society. This is known in psychology as ‘searching for a scapegoat.’
How do you rate the new parliament?
So far, it can’t get more than five and a half out of 10. It is the most legitimate parliament in the history of Egypt. Also, the performance of the political factions represented in it has been rational so far.
What are the parliament’s points of weakness as you see them?
Mainly showing off during public sessions. The opening session especially made a very poor impression, instead of assuring the respect for parliament. Doing its job is not everything. The parliament has to win the people’s respect.
Hijacking the Revolution
Do you accept a government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), as they enjoy the parliamentary majority?
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) only joined the revolution five days after its outbreak, while the Salafis never took part in it, yet the revolution was totally hijacked by Islamists. This is not unprecedented in history: it happened before with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Egyptian revolutionaries made a mistake by not forming parties directly following the fall of Mubarak. They refused to take power; they were pure enough to leave the platform early before revolutionary goals were fully fulfilled.
Are you willing to give the MB a chance?
Yes, I am for giving a chance to everyone, as I assume goodness in everyone, until he proves otherwise. I wish the language of suspicion would disappear. Islamists have the right to be given a chance, but they have to learn how to commit to the rules of the game.
Are you optimistic about Egypt’s future under MB rule?
Yes, I think they will follow footsteps of the Turkish Justice and Development Party, which has a long list of achievements and has put Turkey shoulder to shoulder with the biggest economies.
Egypt’s next president.
What are the best criteria for a president of Egypt?
We are neither looking for an angel, nor a superman. We need a stable, mature person who can act as a role model for this generation and the coming one.
You make no stipulations about having experience or specific political views?
Experience isn’t a requirement. Everyone can learn.
Can Egypt bear a president with minimal experience who will learn by trial and error?
Why not? The youth deserve a chance. The 1952 revolution was led by young officers. Revolutions all over the world are usually sparked by youth, and they usually take power.
Whom do you support among candidates for president?
I was thinking of running myself to help cure the Egyptian fear complex in this concern, but according to the law I can’t, as I am married to a foreigner. I supported Al-Baradei, who left the race. Then I endorsed Hisham Al-Bastousy, who also left. I was for Ayman Nour, but it seems his legal status will prevent him from running. Now I see Abdel Monaiem Aboual Fatouh as the closest candidate to my heart.
He belongs to a different ideological background, why would you endorse him?
He was an activist during his university years and was jailed for supporting his principles; this makes him dear to me and proves he deserves the presidency. Also he has a great history of union activism, which means an accumulation of knowledge. I had the chance to know him, while I was head of the socialists’ union through Essam Al-Aryan.
Do you believe there is an understanding between the US and the Islamists?
Yes, their meeting with Islamists is a clear sign. When I was visited by foreign diplomats in jail they used to ask me if I could arrange a dialogue with the imprisoned Islamists, which was hindered by the jail administration in accordance with instructions given by the Ministry of Interior.
After getting out of jail, I managed to get both of the two sides to the same table in the Swiss Club located in Embaba, a local neighborhood. These meetings were held three times and attended by Abual Fatouh, Essam Al-Arayan and Gamal Al-Bana, the younger brother of the late Hassan Al-Bana.
What happened during these meetings?
The usual issues were raised about the MB’s stance on the Copts, women, and art. The MB gave assurances on all these issues. Also, now, the MB are doing their best to ease the West’s worries and state that Egypt will not undergo earth-shattering changes.
Troubles of the Arab Spring
How do you evaluate the Arab revolutions? They led to military dominance in some cases, the rise of Islamists in others, and chaotic situation in a third group of countries.
This is what Western writers call the ‘Arab Spring.’ Spring is usually known here for its extreme changes and sometimes-troubling weather. What is going on is nothing but the troubles accompanying the spring. Things are progressing easily in Tunisia, half as easily in both Egypt and Libya, two-thirds as easy in Yemen, a quarter easy in Syria. Generally the Arab Spring is a transformative stage for the Arab world, especially as it came 12 years late.
Because by the late 80s, early 90s, huge transformations were taking place in eastern and central Europe, Latin America, and Eastern Asia. Only the Arab world was left out then, which invited a new term, which has been used for 12 years, namely “Arab Exceptionalism”, as if Arabs are restricted mentally and emotionally. For years I fought against this Orientalist classification, explaining in my writings the late emergence of democracies in the Arab world, until the still waters started to move.
Do you see a connection between what is happening in the Arab world now and the term coined by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “creative anarchy”?
No. America is definitely not involved in developments taking place in the Arab world, and which was generated due to longstanding repression. The ousted regimes used to suppress their people by either tarnishing the reputation of activists and revolutionaries, or creating imaginary alien enemies like Israel. Moreover, the security institutions were extremely violent in dealing with people, which created a strong sense of fear and delayed change. Opposition at that time was very fragile, and more like an individual who throws pebbles that can do little harm. What happened is that the fear barrier was destroyed once and for all, affecting the way we think about the idea of revolution.
After the ‘Republican Monarchies’
As for the demise of the ‘republican monarchies’, what do you think about the future?
I think the number of republics are increasing, while ‘republican monarchies’ still operate in North Korea, a Caribbean country, and of course Syria.
Will the ‘republican monarchy’ in Syria collapse soon?
I think it will collapse from inside with no need for foreign military intervention. The Syrian opposition refuses foreign interventions, asking for no more than a no-fly zone, and the freezing of arms deals and the funds of the Syrian state.
How do you see the Arab future in wake of revolutions?
The fourth wave of revolutions in the world will carry on and disprove the ‘Arab exception.’ Actually, other countries will follow the Arab revolutions as a source of inspiration.