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On March 29, 2004 the Center for Middle East and North African Studies presented Saad and Barbara Ibrahim, who spoke on "The Struggle for Human Rights and Democracy in Egypt." This event was co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology, School of Public Policy, and Center for International and Comparative Law. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a distinguished Egyptian sociologist and founding director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, which promotes human rights and democracy in the Middle East. Beginning in June 2000, he was imprisoned several times. The charges included receiving funding without authorization, dissemination of false information abroad, and appropriating money by fraudulent means. The charges relate to the implementation of voter education and election monitoring projects funded by the MEDA Democracy Programme of the European Union. In early 2003, he was cleared of all charges and released.
His wife, Barbara Ibrahim, has been regional director for West Asia and North Africa at the Population Council in Cairo since 1991 where she has conducted survey research on adolescents and their parents as well as learning needs in rural areas. The following is a short excerpt from the event.
Saad: In the Third World you may be tolerated if you just talk, you may be tolerated if you just advocate, but if you talk and advocate, then you are really stepping on a lot of toes. And obviously I did step on a lot of these toes. Especially of the first family, Mubarak's family. And even though I have had close relationships with some members of the family but when it came to challenge people in power, all of these connections did not matter. So Egypt had been ruled by an authoritative regime that has a velvet feel to it. Mubarak's regime is friendly with the United States, friendly with the West, and therefore many of the autocratic, despotic practices of the regime are often ignored by western democracies. Now we live there, see them, and we were determined to fight some of these practices, or all of them. We were hopeful that we could change the regime peacefully. And toward that end, the Ibn Khaldun Centre has been working for a number of years, and has been raising some very controversial issues that had never been raised before in Egypt, or at least that publicly.
So that is the context under which we were operating when on June 30th, midnight, the year 2000, I heard the pounding on my door. Barbara was away, at a conference, and my son was away, and my daughter is away, married with children. So I was alone in the house. When I opened the door, some 30 agents, armed agents, stormed in, and it took me a minute or two just to comprehend what was going on, I was stunned. It never occurred to me that anything like that could happen.
But it did happen. They searched the house, and then at gunpoint they ordered me out, and then when I got out of the house I discovered the second surprise: The house was surrounded by some 200 security agents and probably 20 armored cars. All of this to arrest an intellectual, 62 years old at the time, and harmless. I thought I was harmless, but I guess they didn't share that perception. So that was the beginning.
Barbara: Initially you have an absolute sense of disbelief. This cannot be happening. I was away from Cairo, actually on the Red Sea, when I got the phone call well after midnight, from an absolutely terrified young man who had been the guard at the front of our house. And he was so choked up he could barely speak, and of course I imagined immediately that someone had died. It was just so horrific, this phone call. But I finally got out of him enough to understand that someone had taken my husband away, and he thought it was the police. But we weren't really sure, and I was many hours away from home. So I was sitting in a hotel room by myself trying to figure out what I could do. I had my telephone book with me and I started calling the numbers of anyone I knew in Cairo who was positioned so that they could find out something about what was going on. And, I have to put this in context by saying that for the three months leading up to this incident, Saad and I had been receiving daily death threats, anonymous callers who would phone our house or send us letters, purporting to be Islamicists who were going to kill us, kill the family. We were going to burn in hell, and they would say things like, "because you supported the cause of the Coptic Christians," or whatever. But it didn't add up for us, we didn't really believe that these were Islamicists. We took tapes of these messages out of our phone machines to the local police, Saad took them actually to higher levels of security. No one was willing to come and investigate, no one seemed to care that this was happening to us. So we have concluded that it was harassment by the state already. But you don't know, so when you hear that your husband's been taken away at gunpoint it could be anything. And fortunately, I think less than an hour after the first phone call my son called me. He had by then come home and had been able to piece together a little bit about what had happened, and he'd called my daughter and they were gathering at the house with my son-in-law. But close to dawn, Saad was allowed to make a call to us, and to reassure the children that he was being held at such and such a state security police headquarters, he thought it was just for routine questioning, although this is not routine at all. And to reassure us that's where he was and he was not in any physical danger.
I didn't sleep much that night, as soon as dawn was breaking I found a taxi driver who would drive me to the nearest airport. I talked my way onto an already fully booked flight. The name doctor was by my name and I said it was a medical emergency and I had to get back to Cairo, and they let me on the plane and I'm admitting this for the first time I think, that I lied in the cause. But it was Egypt Air and I was allowed on the flight. I think actually I got the last seat on the flight. My two children, my son-in-law and I just sort of immediately gathered and started making a list of the calls we needed to make and the things we needed to do. We lined up some lawyers who immediately went to the place he was being held, and as lawyers they were able to be present for his interrogation the next morning. We felt that it was very important to contact all of the remaining staff of the Ibn Khaldun Centre. Most of them had not yet been arrested, and to reassure them because they were terrified. So they began gathering at my house over the course of that day. But very early on it became clear to my daughter and me that some of these supposed staff members and friends of ours were actually insiders working for the other side. And so, in addition to everything else we had to worry about, we had to be extremely careful what we said and who we said it to, because some of these young people were clearly trying to entrap us and get us to say things that would make things even worse. But the loyal crew, the young staff who were shaken and shattered by what had happened, managed over the course of that day in our living room, to write a beautiful statement from the heart as young Egyptians about what this meant for them and how determined they were to continue on and to see, you know, what they could do to right this wrong.
Saad: I have been in and out of prison three times. And one of the prisons where I spent most of my sentence, I had frequented on different occasions, in different capacities. One of those capacities was research, in the 1970s, where I studied the Islamic militants, who were implicated for confronting the Egyptian state. And that research lasted from the mid-1970s to 1980. That was the first occasion. The second context in which I was a frequent visitor to this prison was as a human rights defender.
By the mid-80s we had established an Arab organization for human rights. I was one of the founders and I was the first secretary general. In that capacity we used to receive a lot of complaints, either from families or from prisoners, because of the violation of their own rights as prisoners, and we used to go out and investigate. That was the second way I encountered that prison. The third time around I went in as an inmate myself. So seeing that same place, encountering nearly the same people, on three different occasions, was quite a rich, if sad, experience. Because some of the people I studied in the mid-70s, even though they completed their sentences, they were still there. By that time some of them were grandfathers. They had gotten married, had children, their children had grown, had gotten married, had grandchildren. So that was also a heartbreaking experience. But to me as a prisoner, as an inmate, they were very welcoming, like old friends. These are people I have known for nearly 25 years. And they had been following my case. Prisoners are entitled to a small radio, and all of them were tuned to the BBC so they knew everything about the case, and of course they had known me personally. So when I arrived in prison, even though I was in solitary confinement, they found ways to send me written messages offering, not only their greetings and welcome, but also asking whether I needed anything in prison. By that time they had become old hands, they knew the system, they had developed their own informal system and they basically were running the prison. The administration was in charge of the building but all the services were run by them, by these Islamicists inside the prison. And it is through these services that they were able to get to me, even though I was in solitary confinement, and to pass messages and to receive answers to these messages. I had one of the most elaborate prison dialogues; I had one of the most fruitful sociological experiences in that context. I learned a lot from these inmates, I learned a lot from other prisoners, previous prisoners of conscience like myself, including people like Nelson Mandela, and others. And their memoirs were sent to me in prison and it resonated, it sounded very similar to mine. You discover that people who are fighting for freedom everywhere go through similar experiences, similar sentiments, challenges, fears, and how you manage your life once you find yourself confined to a cell. How you maintain your sanity, how you maintain your humanity, how you fight the system in your own way. You develop all of these skills as a prisoner.
To learn more about Saad Eddin Ibrahim, his wife Barbara Ibrahim, and the Ibn Khaldun Centre, visit <http://www.umich. edu\ ~iinet\ cmenas> or call 734.615.0629.