The director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre in Cairo, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, says that he has observed positive signs that Arab states are opening up to democracy. But, he says, the reform process requires that Islamists not be shut out of the political dialogue
Mr Ibrahim, European foreign ministers agreed in April that they should begin a dialogue with Islamist movements like Hamas or the Lebanese Hezbollah. What do you think of that development?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: I welcome the initiative. I advise anyone who is interested in democracy to take up the dialogue with the Islamists, whether they operate inside or outside the Arab world. Islamist movements are part of today's reality. It's hypocrisy to want to promote democracy while excluding these movements from it.
After all, their members are also citizens, with the same civil rights as everybody else. Movements like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have gained their legitimacy through their social projects and their political positions. They enjoy wide support among the people.
Can this dialogue strengthen civil society and democracy in Arab countries and in the whole Islamic world?
Ibrahim: Naturally. The more democratically one behaves, the more strongly democracy grows from within. That's also the answer to the claims that democracy does not fit with the Arab and Islamic tradition. The participation of Islamists in dialogue and in the democratic process will show who is only superficially supporting democracy. And the orientalists who put about the idea that Islam and democracy are irreconcilable will be proved wrong.
How can the European Union support reform movements in the Arab world?
Ibrahim: For one thing, they can assure them that they recognise all civil forces in the Arab region and that they will enter into dialogue with them, without requiring the agreement of the relevant government.
And second, the European Union must cease its financial and security support of repressive systems in the Arab world.
Thirdly, the EU should require Arab governments to work towards a free society and to draw up and keep to a timetable for introducing step-by-step democratic change. The EU should deal with the repressive and despotic Arab systems in the same way as it once dealt with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies when it initiated the Helsinki Agreement of 1975 and brought about the dissolution of the socialist system, without a single shot being fired.
Doesn't the position of the European Union towards Arab countries with repressive regimes, like Libya or Tunisia, cast doubt upon its credibility?
Ibrahim: Yes, but it's not just European credibility, it's also American credibility. Which brings us to the two-faced approach which is typical of Western countries. On the one hand they insist on the importance of the democratisation of the Arab world, while on the other hand most countries, if not all, put their economic and strategic interests ahead of their support for democracy.
But as someone who argues in favour of democratisation in the Arab world, I welcome any support, wherever it comes from, whether from India, Japan or the USA. These are pluralistic societies, and just as there are people who follow their economic interests in those countries, there are people who come out in favour of democracy and want to support like-minded people in the Arab region.
How do you judge the current state of the reform movements in the Arab world?
Ibrahim: There has been some movement. If you look back over the past twenty or even fifty years, you can see that the throne of the despots has become shaky, even if it hasn't fallen yet. The walls of fear which the Arab despots built up over the last fifty years are beginning to crumble. I see the cracks getting bigger every day.
Do you see the Lebanese citizens' movement, the Egyptian "Kifaya" movement or the tentative resistance in Saudi-Arabia as sings of hope?
Ibrahim: These movements are signs of the cracks in the wall. They are the evidence for the fact that Arab citizens are less frightened and have growing courage, even in countries like Syria and Libya, let alone Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi-Arabia. In Saudi-Arabia, the intellectuals Ali ad-Damini, Matruk al-Falih and Abdallah al-Hamid, about whom I've written with a Saudi author, have been arrested. We praise them at every opportunity, as do other human rights organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or the International League for Human Rights.
How are Islamist movement to be classified right now? They range from those who carry out acts of violence, like az-Zarqawi and his supporters, to the Muslim Brothers and other organisations which are now campaigning to bring about change in a peaceful way.
Ibrahim: Like other social movements, the Islamist movements also go through phases from their creation to their maturity—puberty, coming of age—until they finally appear with a mature personality. A movement like that of the Muslim Brothers, which was founded in 1928, has gone through all these stages.
I think this movement is now mature enough to take part in the creation of a peaceful, democratic society. Muhammad Mahdi Akif, the leader of the Muslim Brothers, laid great weight on this at a press conference at the headquarters of the journalists' union on March 13th 2004. He caused a considerable stir with his remarks.
He and other leaders of the movement have confirmed this line more recently. The Muslim Brothers want to be a legal party, to commit themselves to democratic values and to uphold the rights of women and minorities. The party, they say, should be open to all Egyptians, including the Christians.
That's why I call on everyone, at home and abroad, to allow an opening for the Muslim Brothers, and to encourage them to implement what they themselves have declared to be their aims. Other Islamist movements, like Hezbollah, the Dawa party in Iraq or Hamas in Palestine, have chosen the same route and have already moved a considerable way along it.
The Egyptian opposition is boycotting the forthcoming presidential elections. What's your view of their position?
Ibrahim: In principle, I'm against the boycott of elections. But since there are doubts as to whether the election will be free and fair, I have some understanding for the boycott call. What happened in Tunisia must not be allowed to happen again. The regime there said it would hold fair elections with a choice of candidates, but the Tunisians and the rest of the world knew that it was all just a joke. The government put up candidates against President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who made themselves laughable by calling on the electorate not to vote for them but for the president.
The Egyptian opposition assumes that, following the change in paragraph 8 of the country's basic law, the same thing will happen in Egypt. But it's not yet too late. I consider the parliamentary elections which are coming up in November to be particularly important. I'm calling for them to be under legal control from A to Z, starting from the electoral rolls and the documentation, through the campaign up to the vote, the counting of the votes and finally the publication of the results.
I'm calling for electoral observers who will oversee all the processes, inside and outside the polling stations. It must be prevented that, as happened in the elections in 2000, police were stationed outside the polling stations with the job of intimidating the voters. The judiciary is aware of the problem and has been considering the matter within its organisations for the past few weeks.
The judges have declared that they will only carry out the election observation which is called for in the law if they are given back their independence, which has been taken from them over the past decades. They also insist on a change in the law so that they will have the power to carry out a full observation of the election. They are also asking for their own police or another implementation organisation which would be under their authority and not under that of the government. If they had all that, there'd be no reason to boycott the elections.
You've put yourself up together with others as a challenger to President Mubarak in the presidential elections—why?
Ibrahim: That was an attempt to set the cat among the pigeons and to get an amendment to the basic law which currently says that the president can be confirmed in office by a referendum and his opponents don't have to go through a vote. The aim of my candidature was to trigger a debate about the whole political system in Egypt. I want to bring down the walls of fear of which I was talking.
Nawal as-Saadawi, who's a friend of mine, as well as three others, have joined me in my candidature. We are united in demanding a change in the basic law requiring that there should be a choice of candidates in the presidential election. Under pressure from at home and abroad, President Mubarak has had to give way on at least part of our demands. As a result, paragraph 76 was amended, so that now several candidates for the presidency will be standing.
However, parliament, which is dominated by the ruling National Party, has undermined this amendment. Members of the ruling party, who make up over ninety percent of the members of the electoral committees, will now have the right to decide who may stand for election and who may not. That means that I will be disqualified, as will Nawal Saadawi, Muhammad Farid Hassanain and the candidate of the Ghad party, Ayman Nur, who also intends to stand.
The government has attempted to destroy his reputation by making false accusations against him, the same accusations as they've been making against me for the last five years. Perhaps the smaller parties will put up someone. But the undermining of the constitutional amendment means that the Egyptian presidential election will be a farce like the Tunisian one was.
Interview: Saleh Diyab
Translation from German: Michael Lawton
© Qantara 2005
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a human rights activist, professor of social politics at the American University in Cairo and director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies. He was sentenced to imprisonment under President Mubarak. After three trials, the Egyptian Supreme Court found him not guilty on appeal. Ibrahim has published more than thirty books on democracy and human rights in the Arab world.