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Don't Stifle A Rare Arab Voice of Moderation

Opinion by Rami Khouri

TORONTO, Jul 05, 2000 (Globe and Mail) -- The arrest of the respected Egyptian academic and human-rights advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim this past weekend is sad and troubling, for Egypt and for Arabs in general. It reflects an unfortunate combination of political desperation and intellectual hooliganism by an otherwise honourable Egyptian state. More troubling is that this may reflect a wider battle taking place throughout the Arab world, one that pits independent civil-society institutions and activists against state and society forces that would rather not live with differing opinions.

Dr. Ibrahim, the founder and director of the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies (which focuses on human rights and democracy issues) and a professor of sociology at the American University of Cairo, has pioneered important studies of civil society in Egypt and the Arab world, and has influenced a generation of young Arab thinkers, writers and civil-rights activists.

Arrested late Friday, Dr. Ibrahim, an Egyptian-U.S. citizen, was charged with preparing a European Union-financed documentary about elections that harms Egypt's reputation and receiving foreign funds without government permission. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years with hard labour. (The same order was used in February to indict the secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights for accepting money from Britain's Parliament; the case was dropped a month later.) On Saturday, authorities closed Ibn Khaldun.

It's hard to believe that prosecutors made these accusations with a straight face. The charges are absurd, an insult to the intelligence and dignity of all Arabs.

Dr. Ibrahim and his colleagues have conducted top-quality research that stems from a combination of loyalty to, and affection for, Egypt, and a commitment to Arab human and civil rights. Most such work in the Arab world is financed by foreign grants, because few local sources of funds are available. For a state that owes its survival to massive foreign aid, accusing Dr. Ibrahim of using foreign money inappropriately is laughable.

This ploy by Egypt to stifle a credible indigenous voice for democracy and human dignity is paralleled by similar signs in other Arab countries. Independent, credible, civil-society institutions are non-existent in most of the Persian Gulf, Syria, Iraq and Libya, and operate under heavy state controls in Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen. Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt are the Arab countries where civil-society institutions have had the best chance to develop; this is precisely where we witness troubling signs of society's tendency to dampen the emergence of such independent actors.

In Palestine, the government of Yasser Arafat has been waging a battle to bring non-governmental organizations under its control through a new law, which civil-society activists have resisted. The government has also tried to divert foreign-donor financing from the NGOs to the Palestinian state authority. In Jordan, the state has occasionally tried to influence or play down the work of independent institutions, notably the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan that has long been guided by Mustafa Hamarneh. Non-state forces (such as the bar association) have also attacked credible individuals and institutions for accepting foreign funding; the most recent target has been rights activist Asma Khadr.

The fact that some prominent Jordanian newspaper columnists supported the charges against Dr. Ibrahim indicates that independent activists and institutions in Arab civil society face a powerful double threat: the heavy-handed frenzy of slightly confused or insecure states that seem to fear independent views, and the neo-McCarthyist intellectual terror and intimidation of even more confused and insecure political forces and personalities.

The Saad Ibrahims, Mustafa Hamarnehs and Asma Khadrs of this world represent the finest Arab tradition of intellectual excellence, activism for the public good, pride in one's country and culture, and mutually beneficial interaction with other cultures, especially the West's. They and many others like them represent the enlightened, cosmopolitan Arab citizen who is deeply rooted in local cultural values and equally comfortable in the pluralistic, liberal modernity of the West. For various quarters of the modern Arab state and society to try to discredit these people and the institutions they have built is a disgraceful display of the intellectual intemperance and political violence that still plague so many aspects of the modern Arab world.

Dr. Ibrahim's arrest reminds us that one of the leading sources of instability and political-economic distortion in the Arab world is the unchecked use of state power, combined with the state's whimsical ability to use the rule of law for its own ends. The antidote to such a terrifying combination of the modern Arab state's moral drift, self-serving juridicial thuggery, and political heavy-handedness is what Dr. Ibrahim and his colleagues have been working for -- greater decentralization and accountability of power. His arrest only accentuates the validity of his work.

Rami Khouri is a Palestinian journalist based in Amman.
from: Yemen News, 6 July 2000, #334