Egypt: A great nation, on the edge of a great pity

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Egypt has always been known as an enigma. Now it may be moving dangerously close to becoming an embarrassment also, due to an Egyptian State Security Courts swift, wholesale sentencing of civil society activist Dr Saadeddine Ibrahim and his 27 co-defendants in a rather dubious quality trial in Cairo that ended last week. This case has more holes than a truck of Swiss cheese, and more questions than a years worth of Jeopardy games. Egypts reputation may be severely tarnished by what appear to many of us to be the petty intellectual hooliganism and the mockery of accepted international judicial standards that have been a hallmark of this trial.

Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years in prison, and the 27 co-defendants who worked at the Ibn Khaldoun Centre and other places were sentenced to varying prison terms of between one and five years. The four original accusations brought against Ibrahim by the State Security Prosecutor were: spreading false information about elections and religious strife that tarnishes Egypt’s image abroad; the Ibn Khaldoun Center illegally receiving donations from abroad without the permission of the state; fraudulent use of funds from the European Union; and conspiring to bribe television and radio employees to promote election activities.

I do not know the co-defendants in the case, but I do know Ibrahim and his work, and he is no more capable of carrying out the offenses with which he was charged than I am capable of writing a dictionary of ancient Chinese-Japanese.

This case should be assessed on both the legal and the political levels. On the legal level, the lawyers defending Ibrahim and his colleagues systematically refuted the accusations against them. For example, they showed that the script of the dialogue for an educational video urging people to cast their votes was harmless to Egypt’s reputation, and in any case was not written by Ibrahim. They showed that the Ibn Khaldoun Center, registered as a civil company that lawfully pays taxes and is entitled to engage in contractual relations with other entities like the European Union, is not a non-governmental organisation and thus is not bound by the 1993 military decree requiring government permission to receive foreign donations. And they showed that the European Commission had issued an official statement saying that it had no cause for concern for the way that the Ibn Khaldoun Center was using its grant, either financially or professionally, with all mid-term external audits in order.

The speed of the verdict, just hours after the defense finished submitting evidence, is also quite dubious, and it is questionable why such a case should be tried before a state security court. These defendants do not threaten the security of Egypt; rather, they strengthen it, by promoting a more democratic, pluralistic, and egalitarian society that is the right of every Egyptian and the hope and inspiration of every Arab. The real threat to Egypt and most other Arab countries comes from the abuse of power by elements within the state apparatus that want to prevent any progress on the issues that Ibrahim and his colleagues have been addressing — issues of democracy, equality, pluralism, tolerance, transparency, accountability, and others.

Ibrahim and his colleagues are a credit to all that Egypt stands for and that it can be proud of. The work they did through the Ibn Khaldoun Centre was a model for civil society and democracy development in the Arab World and the Third World as a whole. They should have appreciation medals pinned to their chests, not arrest warrants.

The legal dimensions of this case are thin to a microscopic degree, the political ones much more significant. Why should the Egyptian state move in this manner against such civil society and democracy advocates? What are the implications for other Arab countries, where similar movements are underway to promote greater democracy and pluralism?

This dangerous case can wipe out an entire generations work to foster greater democratic and egalitarian values in a leading Arab country. If the appeals court allows this verdict to stand, it may intimidate any other Egyptian from working to foster greater democratic values, free and fair elections, and dynamism in civil society. It will also hang a massive, frightening shadow over many others throughout the Arab World, for other Arab governments may latch onto Egypts actions as a precedent that gives them the legal and political cover to intimidate democracy activists in their own countries.

Egypt was the Arab country that pioneered modernity, elections, parliamentarianism, and constitutionalism in the Arab World a century or so ago. Conversely, Egypt today could emerge as a leader in the movement to retard these same forces and values, if the momentum of this case is not reversed. Arab human rights and democracy activists must challenge the Egyptian government on this issue, as should Egypts friends and partners around the world. This is no longer mainly about Dr Ibrahim and his colleagues. The outcome of this case has now been transformed into a political verdict on the quality of Egyptian governance and the exercise of political power by the Egyptian state — still a trend-setter in the Arab World.

A great nation balances on the edge of a great pity. Let us hope it pulls back from the brink, regains its composure, dignifies rather than degrades its own legal system, and honors rather than hounds its finest sons and daughters.

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