As he shuffles along the marble floor of his Cairo apartment, leaning on a walking stick to ease the pressure on his broken right foot, Saad Eddin Ibrahim doesn't look like a menace to society. Yet according to Egyptian authorities, the 64-year-old sociology professor and civic activist is one of the most dangerous men in the country. This week he is due in court to face sedition charges for a third time two previous convictions were overturned on appeal, and Ibrahim was released in December after a five-month prison stay (his third in two years). If convicted again of receiving illegal foreign funding and "tarnishing Egypt's image" by blowing the whistle on parliamentary election fraud and discrimination against minority Coptic Christians, he faces a sentence of up to seven years. Ibrahim says it's worth it, to dramatize the need for democratic reforms in Egypt. "I have resigned myself to paying the price," he says, "for what I have been fighting for."
Ibrahim's ordeal began with a midnight knock on his door in June 2000. It has made him a celebrated prisoner of conscience at a time of increasing pressure on the Arab world to democratize. Journalists and human-rights groups have called for the charges against him to be dropped. Ibrahim, who teaches at Cairo's American University, says he "was humbled and heartened by the support I got worldwide." He holds a U.S. passport but says he "did not ask the U.S. to interfere on my behalf although I am a dual citizen. I wanted to keep the battle lines clear and clean. I was fighting an Egyptian cause as an Egyptian on Egyptian soil." When the White House informed President Hosni Mubarak last August that Ibrahim's conviction jeopardized aid, Egyptians condemned the U.S. for meddling.
The head-scratching continues in Cairo about why the government is dragging out a case that has so damaged the country's reputation. Some speculate that Mubarak was goaded by an article Ibrahim wrote shortly after Bashar Assad succeeded his late father as President of Syria, lampooning Egypt's government as a beast halfway between a monarchy and a republic the implication was that Mubarak had similar dynastic designs. The episode may have provided an excuse for going after Ibrahim, but most observers agree that the government persevered because of Ibrahim's work at the Ibn Khaldun Center a think tank dedicated to peace and democracy issues. The center, which Ibrahim founded, was closed after his arrest. Several staffers were also detained.
Ibrahim's experience hasn't eroded his faith in the long-term prospects for Arab democracy. "I see positive change reluctantly coming. It may not be as dramatic as taking down the Berlin Wall, but I'd rather have steady, methodical change gradual democratization. Democratic forces exist, but every time they've had a chance to express themselves fully, they were silenced because of external issues." Foremost among these, says Ibrahim, is the Palestinian question. "At one point the slogan was: 'No voice should be louder than the battle for Palestine.' That permeated the language of discourse of all dictators in the Arab world Palestine first and then we'll get down to business. These issues were often used as delaying tactics."
While jailed in Cairo's notorious Tora Prison, Ibrahim interviewed inmates who were convicted Muslim militants. In Tora on Sept. 11, 2001 he was struck by the range of responses. "The first reaction of everybody in prison was shocked and sympathetic. It was the second moment that some of them began to express a delight, either open or secret, that America had been humiliated and was now tasting the bitter medicine that many of our countries have been experiencing all these years. The third moment came when America said the culprits were bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and people wondered: How can America accuse without evidence? I left prison at that moment. I went back six months later to a moment of critical assessment and grudging admission that yes, it could have been Muslims who did it and that they shouldn't have. It hurt Islam, it has given the West a pretext to smear the image of Islam and Muslims."
The Radical islamists Ibrahim got to know in prison defy easy classification. "Many of them are going through a serious revision of their thoughts," he reports. "Some have become committed pacifists, disavowing violence, regretful of what they did. Some have evolved into what you might call Muslim democrats." This turn of events is heartening for Ibrahim, who sees his own trial as part of a struggle between democratic and antidemocratic forces. "I am one of the forces for change," he says.
After several minor strokes, Ibrahim's physical force is now somewhat diminished, and his family is anxious for the government to allow him to travel to the U.S. for neurological treatment. The strokes happened while he was in prison, but Ibrahim says he harbors no bitterness. He delights in telling how his guards panicked one day last September when he fell and broke his foot two hours before receiving a visit from the U.S. envoy. "They got mad at me," he laughs. "The ambassador was stunned to see me in a wheelchair and in pain. I assured him it was an accident." Nobody will be shocked if he is sent back to prison again. But many Egyptians realize that both Ibrahim and Egypt will enjoy a healthier future if he is allowed to be free.