The Prospect for Democracy in the Middle East:
A Conversation with Saad Eddin Ibrahim


Saad Eddin Ibrahim was arrested on June 30, 2000 and was convicted in 2001 on false charges that he embezzled funds and disseminated false information harmful to the interests of Egypt. Although sentenced to seven years, he was acquitted by Egypt's high court in 2003. Described as the Andrei Sakharov of the Middle East, Ibrahim has been a tireless human rights and pro-democracy activist not only for his native Egypt, but throughout the region as well. He is also a scholar who has deepened the understanding of Islamic thought and its relationship to democracy, modernity and liberalism. A staunch critic of the notion of "Arab exceptionalism" prevalent in the West and the clash of civilizations thesis, he advocates a universalist conception of democracy and human rights.

Ibrahim is the founder and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and is currently a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He is also a candidate for president in Egypt. This interview was held in March 2005 in New York City.

Q:  Hosni Mubarak has announced that there will be open elections in Egypt. I was wondering how you'd characterize these elections? Do they signal any kind of authentic political  change in Egypt?

A: They do, they signal at least a new direction and I am personally grateful this has  happened and while it is a baby step on a thousand mile journey, it is an important step.  As much as I criticize Mubarak, I have to give him credit when he does well and this is one of the rare good things that he’s done, after long protracted resistance. Until a month before his announcement he was saying there was no way that they would change the constitution to allow for contested elections. I don’t know how familiar you are with all this, but Egypt has had a constitution since 1971—which can actually be traced back 20 years earlier—which filled the office of the presidency not by contested election but with something called a “referendum” where only one name appears on the ballot and the citizens, if they care at all to participate, vote either “yes” or “no.” Of course, often people stay away and don’t even bother voting, and the ones who do go will usually vote “yes.”

That is why the state can always announce that Mubarak was elected by 99%, and of course in some cases 100%, of the voting population. Of course this was the same thing with Saddam Hussein. In Egypt, those who do vote have to provide their name and sign their ballot as well as provide their address.

So to allow at least some means to shape the process by which elections take place, by moving away from the referendum vote and toward contested elections, is, to me, a very important step, even though by any democratic standard it is a baby step.

Q: What do you think the reasons are for Mubarak suddenly changing his position and allowing contested elections?

A: Since I was released from prison I openly challenged the man. That challenge escalated about 5 months ago when I said if he dares, if he thinks he is popular, then let him run in a free and open election. I repeated that over and over and three other public figures followed me and declared that they would also run and they demanded that Mubarak debate with them.

So the four of us applied pressure and then the Parliament ratified the a draft of the amendment to allow contested elections.  But you see, the idea is to break that barrier of fear that is ingrained in the Middle East—not unlike the way it was ingrained in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, under totalitarian, authoritarian regimes—in which people live in fear and think that there is no alternative and that they have to subject themselves to a continuous system of oppression.

Now a few of us have dared to challenge that and to break that pattern, and some of us have paid the price for it. But we continue and I think I must say that over the last ten years it was a very confrontational struggle, the last half of which I was in prison, but it paid off and I think it was to signal to other Arab countries and other Third World. You can look at us as another Ukraine, another Czechoslovakia, another Georgia, another Poland, because these countries have gone through similar regimes of communism, even longer, for longer periods and have undergone even harsher political systems. So I am hopeful as an activist and I never will give up. And I see hope not only for Egypt but for the entire region.

Q: Does this mean a kind of expansion or a rebirth or even a birth of a kind of public sphere in Egypt? I mean will this lead to the level of newspapers, journals, the university system, the education system. Will this continue to spread?

A: It will. It is happening very slowly, but very steadily. I organized four rallies before I left Egypt and I think the first rally started with 100 people and the fourth one had a thousand people and now there are others organizing rallies and protests. This would have been unheard of two or three years ago, even one year ago, but now it is not. The first time there was a direct challenge to the regime happened only one year ago. The only kind of rallies that were allowed by the regime were anti-American and anti-Israeli rallies.

Q: And Mubarak has also opened new relations with Israel.

A: Yes, he did this when the US and Europe began making some noise about democracy in the Middle East. Mubarak thinks that if he defines his role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and if he mediates an Israeli-Palestinian deal, that somehow this will endear him to the West and get him off the hook and ward off the rising tide of resistance that is growing in Egypt.

Q: So should are we witnessing the beginnings of an authentic change in the region?

A: Well you have the Orientalists or some so-called Arabists, or area specialists who talk a lot about “Arab exceptionalism”: this idea that democracy cannot exist in the Arab world. Somehow the democratic changes that spread throughout the Third World starting in Portugal back in 1974, and then moved to Spain, and then to Greece, then to Latin America and back to East Asia and then to Eastern and Central Europe and what we social scientists called the third wave of democracy has not rooted itself in the Middle East. Of course, this third wave is now 31 years old and people wonder why has the wave not yet broken at the Arab shores?  And some people have said well, it’s Arab exceptionalism: that there is something about our culture, or Islam, which somehow defies democracy.  And of course a few of us who have been fighting for democracy in the region have taken issue with this kind of proposition. Arab exceptionalism? We are human beings like everybody else, and we can have democracy too.

Many people do not realize that Egypt, for example, had its first constitution and its first elected political party back in 1866—very few people recognize this or remember it. And we have had a liberal age from the middle of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th century, but because of the last 30 years, peoples’ memories—at least outside the region—have become tuned or conditioned to thinking that the problems in the Middle East must be a chronic condition, not that they are only 30 years old, and not realizing that the reason for the current state of the Middle East was first, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and two, the Cold War.

The Cold War made the United States and other western democracies look the other way when it came to political oppression and allowed them to deal with tyrants and dictators.  But even President Bush, with his limited reading of world history, or whoever writes his speeches for him, engaged in some courtesy of United States foreign policy in his big speech a year and three months ago. He said that for 60 years the United States and other western countries, sacrificed democracy for the sake of stability and for Cold War constituents. It was a big mistake, it was a policy that produced, in the long run, over 60 years, a lot of anomalies, including so-called Islamic militancy because religion became the only way to fight the tyrants and getting away with it. The state could not control hundreds of thousands of mosques and so the mosque became a platform. In as much as it was the case with the Catholic Church in Poland, it became a platform for dissidents who wanted to get away with opposition to Communism.

In the Middle East, the mosque has played that role. And of course the outcome of this was, among other things, 9/11. That the 19 people who perpetrated the attacks on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt--two countries that the United States has befriended—Saudi Arabia for the last 33 years and Egypt for the last 40 years is very telling. These are countries that the United States befriended and supported, backing tyrannical regimes. At the end of the day this produces human beings who are angry and hostile, not only to their own regimes, but also to the West which for so long has backed and supported these regimes.

Q: One of the other claims of the Bush Administration  is the role that the Iraq War has played in transforming the Middle East, that it has served as a catalyst for democratic change. What is your take on this?

A: Well, of course, the Bush administration—having failed to produce weapons of mass destruction or to establish a sort of a linkage between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda or 9/11—had to find something else to legitimize their invasion of Iraq, which, happily for me, is democracy. And I have to say that part of it, even though it is the wrong pretext for war, is the right thing for us: the democracy activists.

Removing Saddam Hussein has definitely helped the democratic forces in the region to feel that history is on their side and when I am asked about the role of Bush in this regard I see his role are more like a midwife for democracy. Remember, thousands, not hundreds, thousands, have been working for democracy for the last 40 years in this region of the world, and Bush comes into this game—and I am happy that he came—and his role is not unlike a midwife for a region that was already pregnant with the yearning for democracy and he helped to deliver it, although by caesarean.

 That is probably the closest, the most vivid of analogies that we have to use. Am I grateful to him? I am. Should we give credit to him for democratic change in the region? No. That would be unfair to people who died and people who went to prison and sacrificed for human rights and for democracy.

You have to remember, Radio Free America helped deliver democracy and freedom to Eastern Europe and ultimately to the Soviet Union. And this has to be acknowledged that there is a role for the West and in the same way we have to give credit to the Bush administration and to the Europeans who have been really working hard for democracy in the Middle East. 

Q: You’ve also done a lot of work on Islamic thought and you mentioned before that the history of democratic and liberal ideas in the Arab world stretches back to the 19th century. What do you see as the relationship or the affinity between these progressive ideas in Islamic thought, and those from western thought like the Enlightenment?

A: Like all relationships, you would find, in Islam, a lot of strain and at a defense of the alignment of political and intellectual forces anywhere, you can push the freedom which goes back to the Mutazillites in Islam. Most people don’t realize these were free thinkers, many of them were persecuted by Caliphs and they had to flee.  People like Ibn Khaldun himself, moving from one country to the other. So there is a conservative, reactionary strain in Islam that has always favored people in power. They will propagate a version of Islam that they push as the status quo, fueled with tradition, if you knew Arabic I could really say what phrase they use, and that is “to put up with a tyrant, is better than division.” So they call it in Arab tradition fitma the would rather put up with a tyrant that allows tradition (inaudible). And that would be the model of that strained conservatism. Don’t stand up to resist rulers because they may create division in tradition and they’ll set the Muslim nation, or the umma, back.

Q: But there is also a skepticism of reason, if one thinks of al-Ghazali for instance, of reason itself, a critique of the falsafa tradition which was promulgating rational interpretation of Islam and Islamic culture.

A: There were the three strains in Islamic thought, and now I will over-simplify. There were the free-thinkers, or the Mutazillites; a conservative religious strain that was favored by the Sultans; and there were the escapists or the Sufis and figures like al-Ghazali. These three strains have been preserved, and of course by the time you come to the 20th century you find again an attempt to revive the rationalist school with people such as al-Afghani and others. But very quickly they were marginalized.

Q: Why were they marginalized?

A: Because they were pushing for reform of Islam.

Q: It was political…

A: Yes. And this fits into what we are trying to do now at the Ibn Khaldun Center. We have one person there who is more of a Mutazillite, a free thinker—and he is now leading the movement for Islamic reformation. He has been influenced by many of the older thinkers from Islamic philosophy, that older current, but also from a more recent current, by thinkers such as Afghani and Muhammed Abdul.

The big discussion now is that Islam has not undergone a reformation. 

Q: So there are these two philosophical strains:  reason on the one hand and conservative reaction, fundamentalism, on the other. We could see a figure like Sayyid Qutb as a figure of reaction.  What is balance of power in terms of influence in the Islamic world between the two?

A: We are the weakest. Those that are calling for an Islamic reformation are by far the weakest.  However, our call is gaining in strength and there is a realization now that there is a need for an Islamic reformation.  Right now we have 30 Islamic thinkers who are meeting regularly, from Indonesia to Morocco. Our last meeting was in October, in fact.  The meeting was broken into by some reactionaries as well as state security thugs and was disrupted.  They accused us of being heretics and that we had no business talking about an Islamic reformation, that Islam had no need of reform. The very idea that Islam needs change or correction is an affront to them.

There is now one outfit in Washington called the Joint Symposium on Islam and Democracy, there is also the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo, and there are others as well. And we are trying to bring these people together into a network. So there is a movement which is gaining in strength. But compared to the other two forces of reaction, we don’t have the backing of the state and we have no access to mass media. The radicals can use thousands of mosques to preach, and the state can use the mass media, but we have neither so it’s a problem. 

Q: So according to this network of scholars—what exactly would a reformed Islam look like with respect to politics? In the west this began with the push for the separation of Church and State…

A: That is exactly what the Islamic reformers have enunciated. One cannot simply take from the west; the reinterpretation of Islam that is happening with this group of reformist scholars is also important. They are good Muslim scholars and can debate any technicality of religious law. They have come up with one important proposition: that freedom is a central Quranic value. From this, they are able to elaborate other values like equality, gender equality, human rights, democracy; for the separation between religion and the state. At the core of this is the idea that religion and the state corrupt one another—hence, their separation is vital for the survival of both.

Q: This was Luther’s argument as well…

A: Of course.

Q: One last question. What do you think America’s role in future should be in Middle East?

A: They should be concerned, but from a distance.  If they move too close, then they will discredit us, the reformers and the human rights activists and those pushing for democracy. What we need for the United States to do now is to weaken their support for the tyrants: for the Mubaraks, for the Abdullahs. We can do battle with them on our own terms if they do not have the backing and support of the United States or other western powers.

Look at Egypt: they get $4 billion a year, $2 billion from the United States and another $2 billion from Europe and Japan. This creates a rentier state where there is no accountability for the state to its people since it is supported from abroad. And they can get away with more. Of course, there should not be sanctions which only end up hurt the people. But the United States should condition its financial support for different countries on a timetable for genuine political and social change. Enable democratic forces to have at least a stable footing against the dictators. I don’t have access to a newspaper, the maximum number of people I can get in my Center is maybe 100 per week. So we need more support.

But things are moving. Not as quickly as I would like, but gradually, and peacefully. And that’s important: we don’t want violent change—like what happened in Romania and Ceaucescu. The region has had enough bloodshed. So we want to fight our battles peacefully, and the United States and western powers can aid in this reform for greater freedom and political reform.  And I think within five to ten years there will be major reform.