Saad Eddin Ibrahim, recipient of the 2008 Danish Pundik Prize, participates in a plenary session of the Agenda for the New Millennium summit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, January 20, 2009 – Wikimedia/Agenda for the New Millennium
CAIRO – 5 January 2018: Becoming a hot topic for debate recently, Saad El Din Ibrahim, an academic and the founder of Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, has become a character worth studying.
Ibrahim became a topic for debate when he embarked on a journey, with some of his students, to Tel Aviv where he delivered a lecture. Ironically enough, the lecture tackled “some of Egypt’s developmental issues” and praised Saudi Arabia’s.
Why this is ironic is an investigation that dates back at least a decade.
Having made what he believed (at least that is how he portrays it) to be purely politically analytical remarks regarding Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Cairo, Ibrahim soon faced backlash and the government’s fury. Ibrahim was asked about his opinion regarding said backlash during an interview on February 11, 2007 by Alan Johnson.
Johnson asked Ibrahim why he believes his home was raided and he was arrested on June 30, 2000. Ibrahim explained that following an article that he had written for Al-Majalla where he outlined and discussed political leaderships’ habits in the Middle East, specifically Mubarak’s and the probable ascension of his son to presidency, landed him several years of trouble.
But those were only Ibrahim’s theories as to the reason why he was arrested. In reality, he was charged with many offenses, one of which was the “defamation of Egypt’s image”. “They said I had accepted a grant from the EU without state permission; that I was using this grant for voter registration, again without authorisation; that I had defamed Egypt in my writings; and that I embezzled this grant. But as a sociologist and political analyst I know that stated reasons at best overlap with real reasons,” he stated in the interview.
Ibrahim was eventually acquitted by Cairo Court of Cassation in 2003 after an appeal, but this would not be the end of it. He was later charged and sentenced again in 2008 for two years.
But what makes Saad El Din Ibrahim an exquisite character, distinguished from the numerous others who had done the same thing he did, was that the United States interfered and pressured the Egyptian state to release him. He must have been quite an important figure for them; it is not customary at all for a state to require another to release a national from their prison sentence. In fact, it actually breaks international law.
Let’s move in for a closer look at the man.
According to his interview with Johnson, Ibrahim was influenced by third world politics as a youngster. Of the figures he followed closely were “Gandhi, Nehru, Mao, Che, and Nasser (whom I met at an early age but who later stripped me of my nationality and declared me persona non grata when I was in my twenties),” he stated. Furthermore, his uncles “adhered to different political traditions, from Communism to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1940s and 1950s each sought to win me to his point of view. I found that fascinating!”
That last point would actually explain why he advocated and encouraged the inclusion of “democratic” Islamists “who would be willing to play by the rules”.
Nevertheless, when he travelled to take up further studies in the United States in 1963, the man transformed into an activist and participated in the campaigns of the time.
Now at this point in the interview, Ibrahim presented his first point of departure. “Point of departure” here refers to his departure from what were considered to be his steadfast beliefs and views on politics. The following is one:
“I supported the Palestinians but the defeat of the Six-Day War of 1967 convinced me that democracy was the missing piece of the jigsaw. Until then democracy did not take up much of my attention as an Arab. Democracy was always present in my work in America, where I was living in an open and democratic society, and benefiting from that, but it took 1967 for me to realise that so long as there is no transparency or accountability then we Arabs would suffer defeats. That was an eye-opener. The defeat agonised my generation. It caused us sleepless nights for so many years, actually until 1973. These were years that scarred our dignity, our psyche, our hearts, but also years of rethinking and self-criticism. I began to study the causes of the defeat and my first book was called The Sociology of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. We began to question some sacred cows, and that created problems for me back home. My activist and intellectual lives have intertwined and influenced one another ever since,” he told Johnson.
Following his lecture in Tel Aviv on January 4, Amr Adeeb, an Egyptian TV host and journalist, spoke of Ibrahim’s nature. “Like all great thinkers, his ideas undergo transformations, and it is possible for him [Ibrahim] to support one thing and then oppose it the next day. He has the right to judge and criticize us as well, but his lecture came at a point when Jerusalem is witnessing upheaval,” Adeeb said on “Kol Youm” show, which airs on ON E channel.
The point of departure here, or the transformation that his views underwent in a decade, is monumental. In 2007, Ibrahim referred to the “sleepless nights” that followed the 1967 defeat and then in 2018 he decided to visit Tel Aviv and deliver a lecture on the pitfalls of Egyptian development. Now one cannot deny, even if one was to adopt the benefit of the doubt, that the matter is suspicious. This is a man that had the U.S. intervene on his behalf to get him out of prison.
It’s miraculous; a decade healed his “scarred dignity, psyche, and heart”.
It is true that people undergo transformations of ideologies and conceptualization throughout their entire lives, but this transformation was just too drastic to be disregarded as usual.
Moving on to the second point of departure, another interview that Ibrahim conducted with Tamer Amin in 2014 on Rotana Masriya, held a similar stance. The man had invited into his home an Israeli official and the manner with which he spoke about the incident infuriated the host himself. With an expression of disdain and utter self-control, Amin had asked him why and how he could host an Israeli inside his home. “A man asked to come to my home, what was I supposed to do? Turn him away and say, ‘Get out of here, you son of a b****’?” asked Ibrahim. “What would you have done if you were in my position,” he proceeded to prompt Amin; “You would shut the door in his face, wouldn’t you?”
“Shut the door in his face? No. I would have said ‘get out of here, you son of a b****’ and then I would have shut the door in his face,” Amin rebutted.
Clearly Ibrahim was transforming for a while. Wanting to play the role of mediator is a dangerous liaison for a Middle Eastern political scholar – even if he has an American citizenship.
Point of departure two… being a famous activist, Ibrahim is involved in many civil societies and organizations; some of which are in Qatar.
In another interview that was conducted by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, he outlined some of his activities in the region at the time. “The main ongoing activity for me and my center (which joins that of a number of similar organizations) aims above all to put pressure on rulers in the region to democratize and to achieve more participatory governance. Some rulers, not very many, have responded positively, but most have ignored the call or have become hostile. More broadly, I am working on the development of philanthropy, working through a new organization in Doha, the Arab Democracy Foundation. It is to be a grant making foundation, and it has the blessing and endorsement of Qatar's first lady, Sheikha Moussa, who is helping to get it off the ground. So for various reasons I am spending most of my time in Doha these days, and when I am not engaged in the Foundation I am doing research and writing, and working more broadly to encourage civil society organizations to become better established and to develop.”
The same Qatar which has been charged with terrorism-funding, supporting, and launching for seven months now… Exactly what kind of democracy was Sheikha Mozah trying to “get off the ground”? Isn’t Qatar still a princedom?
Another point that seems to prevail in all the interviews he has done in that period is his steadfastness to Islamic politics and how to find a common ground of establishing democratic Islamic regimes. But isn’t this a contradiction in his character and beliefs? Aren’t Muslims strong opponents of Zionism at the moment, especially since the Aqsa Mosque, what is considered to be the third of Al-Haramayn Al-Shareefayn, is now in the “capital of Israel”?
Exactly what are this man’s beliefs? He preaches one thing, and does another. This is exactly why he is causing a ruckus, because it seems he is very similar to American political preaching. The very style that the U.S. adopted in causing a political stalemate in the Middle East, that is, in the period before declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel (now the stalemate has broken and developed into a rift with Israel on the stronger side). That is the style of speaking to each nation in its own tongue without writing anything on the wall; creating ripe conditions for dominance in an area that can’t find harmony within itself.