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An Egyptian Activist's Long Struggle

By Nora Boustany
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page A18

S aad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt's most prominent activists and human rights crusaders, acknowledges that the Bush administration has had an effect on the talk of democracy in Arab countries.

President Bush "midwived a process that was already in formation," said Ibrahim, 66, but that is a small part of the story.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim says U.S. efforts are a small part of democracy push.

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

Ibrahim has challenged his country's leaders for most of his life. He was imprisoned from 2000 to 2003 on charges that were criticized internationally as being politically motivated. Ibrahim is writing his memoirs as a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Ibrahim was the first of several Egyptians to announce that they would challenge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his bid for a fifth six-year term this fall. "We do not have a chance, but we wanted him to open up the system," Ibrahim said. His goal is "to trigger debate and to break the barrier and the wall of fear Egyptians have felt. I think we have succeeded."

Recent protests in Cairo, he said, have been organized with the chant of a new movement -- "Kifaya," Arabic for "enough." Kifaya is "a code word for wanting to seize our own destiny," he said.

Ibrahim's decision to run for president came even before Mubarak said Saturday that he would permit the first-ever multiparty presidential elections in Egypt . It was "a good and necessary step but far from being sufficient," Ibrahim said. "The man is under tremendous pressure. He is behind and he is trying to catch up."

Ibrahim described his formative years, including a confrontation with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1955. As a high school student, Ibrahim won a national essay competition about the Egyptian revolution. When he met Nasser, the president asked him why he spoke about the 1952 revolution in the past tense.

Ibrahim talked about government repression and asked Nasser a question: Why had his schoolmate Abdelwahab Hassanein been tortured in jail? Weeks after the meeting with Nasser, the youth was released from jail, but was admitted to a mental institution.

After high school, Ibrahim came to the United States and trained as a sociologist, attending UCLA and the University of Washington. He also was president of the Organization of Arab Students in America. Ibrahim and his fellow Arab students participated in the U.S. civil rights movement and in protests against the Vietnam War.

Decades later, he was a founding member of a group of Arab intellectuals who met in the Tunisian resort of Hammamat in 1983 in response to the suppression of demonstrations throughout the Arab world protesting the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. That group of intellectuals continues to meet to discuss human rights issues.

Ibrahim has been a professor in the sociology department at the American University in Cairo and director and chairman of the board of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

He was arrested on June 30, 2000, on charges of defamation for having questioned Egyptian electoral procedures. He also was accused of accepting funds from abroad to monitor the 1995 presidential election.

Ibrahim said he still suffers from physical disabilities from his imprisonment. He said he had a number mini-strokes as a result of torture and confinement that affected his motor abilities.

He said that he was subjected to sleep deprivation and that during one particularly harsh period, he was forced to listen to recordings of the screams of people being tortured.

He kept his sanity, he said, by counting the floor tiles in his six-by-six-foot cell, walking forward and backward, standing on one leg and then the other -- activities to keep him from giving in to his jailers' demands.

He said the memoirs of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years by that country's apartheid government, brought him "solace and inspiration."

Mandela's reflections on fear sustained him, he said, and reinforced his will. He also recognized a parallel between Mandela's life and his own, their common background of growing up in rural villages. "Spending time and growing up in a village gives you spiritual stamina," Ibrahim said. "It roots you in the soil and gives you ruggedness."

As a result, he found serenity within and fought to maintain it. "Even in the midst of a rowdy crowd, you can just close your eyes and go into yourself, and in moments, you can restore yourself," he said.

In the end, he said, Ibrahim's interrogators were "digging for a treasure they could not find." After intense international pressure, he was released in 2003, along with 27 research associates at the Ibn Khaldun Center.

Ibrahim was one of seven children born into a family of landowners in the village of Beddine in the Nile Delta. His father was "chief notable," a leader among the villagers. His mother, Jowhara, was not educated but had "instinctive sharpness and insight, love and compassion for the poor." He was her favorite, he said, and she raised him to be an idealist. From her, he also learned tolerance.

"All people are exactly the same . . . with the same rights, weaknesses and vulnerabilities," he said.

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