Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Saadeddin Ibrahim on trial

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-AhmedFollowing the announcement that Saadeddin Ibrahim would stand trial, his defence attorney, Farid El-Dib, publicly rebuked his client for "overstepping the limits of his job as a university professor" and for ignoring his advice to "avoid inciting public opinion against the state." Quite apart from any ethical reservations one might have about a defence attorney attacking his client on the eve of an important trial, I disagree with Mr El-Dib's stand from the point of view of substance. Professor Ibrahim has all along maintained that the case against him is political, not criminal, and has adopted a course of conduct consistent with this belief, shifting the spotlight to the political dimensions of the case rather than allowing deliberations to focus on the legal violations, whether true or not. In fact, highlighting the fundamentally political character of the trial is of crucial importance in absolute terms, not only for Saadeddin Ibrahim.

The issues at stake in this cause célèbre call to mind a heated debate that arose at the time of the communist trials in the early 1960s. The debate centred on how the defence should be conducted, with part of the leadership arguing that, as the trial was purely political, the defendants should proudly admit to being members of the party and defend its line openly and frontally, and another part arguing that a political defence did not necessarily entail admitting party membership, and that any chance for acquittal should not be thrown away wantonly. Events were to vindicate the arguments of the first group, as it soon became clear that legal arguments were of no help in getting anyone released from prison.

An interesting footnote here is that the secretary-general of the party, Abu Seif Youssef, who had successfully avoided arrest for a couple of years, declared at the time of his arrest that he was "the general secretary of the Egyptian Communist Party and responsible for all the party's policies." His stand was highly appreciated by Nasser, who intervened personally to ensure that Abu Seif got a proper job when he was released.

Saadeddin Ibrahim attributes his arrest and trial to his declared intention to set up a committee to monitor the upcoming parliamentary elections. Whatever the truth of his assertion, it is a fact that all previous parliamentary elections were ruled unconstitutional by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court. This led President Mubarak to entrust the supervision of the forthcoming elections to the judiciary, thereby raising public confidence in the electoral process and encouraging a record number of candidates to compete for seats in the People's Assembly, not only from the ruling NDP but also from the opposition parties, with a considerable number running as independent candidates.

In the context, the timing of Ibrahim's trial is ideal for all concerned, both for the state and for the accused himself. Whether the decision to go to trial was prompted, as Ibrahim's attorney alleges, by the high-profile stance he has adopted since his release, attending seminars, delivering lectures and giving press interviews, which made it difficult for the authorities to shelve the case quietly, or whether it was because the case eventually had to be tried in a court of law regardless of what Ibrahim did or did not do, a public trial should be seen as a welcome development by all concerned. It will provide an opportunity to dissipate misunderstandings and ambiguities and allow Ibrahim to clarify his aims before public opinion as well as to test his assumptions concerning shortcomings in the electoral process.

If it is true that Ibrahim wanted the elections to be monitored by foreign observers, his ambition has in a way been fulfilled -- albeit not as he would have hoped. Trying him against the backdrop of the elections is the best way to draw the attention of international public opinion, which is concerned with his personal fate, to the elections themselves.

The case will be tried by a Supreme State Security Court, whose decisions, unlike those of a military court or other courts of an exceptional nature, are amenable to appeal. This is a clear indication that the state is keen to have a public trial that anybody, including the Western media, will be able to follow directly and with no obstacles.

Another problem raised by the trial, whose outcome will determine the fate not only of Ibrahim but of the Ibn Khaldun Centre he heads, is the problem of the future of civil society. No less important than the issue of the elections, this issue is part and parcel of the ongoing phenomenon of globalisation, which gives legitimacy, and hence authority, to non-governmental organisations -- particularly those that stand up to state repression, whatever the state, and to violations of international agreements concerning human rights.

The defence in the case of the Ibn Khaldun Centre is bound to invoke the human rights angle. Indeed, the trial is a golden opportunity to bring up human rights abuses of which the state has been accused. The defence is probably counting on a sympathetic panel of judges to uphold its claims, in much the same way as the Supreme Constitutional Court helped expose the unconstitutionality of the election process.

The trial of Saadeddin Ibrahim also provides an opportunity to put these issues on the agenda of the electoral campaigns. It is an invitation to develop a national debate aimed at fine-tuning these issues and at enhancing democracy in order to overcome its current loopholes and shortcomings.

One issue that is bound to come up during the trial is the funding of NGOs. The prosecution has levelled specific charges against Ibrahim in this respect. He is accused of receiving money from abroad in exchange for preparing reports about Egypt's internal situation. Accusations of bribery, embezzlement and forgery have been directed at members of the centre's staff. He personally has been charged with receiving $237,000 from the European Union to produce a video film on parliamentary elections, which the prosecution has described as hostile to Egypt. According to the prosecution, this is a violation of military order No. 4 of 1992, which prohibits accepting money from foreign sources without authorisation. Perpetrators of such a crime could be sentenced to life imprisonment.

I do not want to touch upon this specific aspect of the enquiry, because it deals with legal infractions that the court alone is entitled to decide upon. But the principle that NGOs are entitled to receive money from abroad, which is actually happening, cannot be denied to the Ibn Khaldun Centre, not least because the legal characterisation of the centre is a company, not an association, which absolves it of the statutory requirement to obtain permission to receive money from abroad. In any case, this is an issue that needs to be clarified totally.

In principle, foreign funding cannot be prohibited in the conditions of globalisation. Indeed, it is not only NGOs that profit from transactions involving such financing but also state organisations, agencies and institutions. Forbidding specific organisations from receiving money from abroad is incompatible with the spirit of defending and expanding the private sector and of encouraging the investment of foreign capital in the country.

But the state is very apprehensive as to how foreign funding is used, especially when it comes to NGOs operating in the field of human rights. The state is worried that campaigns concerning the violation of citizens' rights, particularly ill treatment and torture of people under arrest, could eventually serve foreign interests and harm national security. These violations can sometimes be the legacy of a totalitarian past that is difficult to uproot over a short period of time. That is why it is so important to establish unequivocal rules of the game. Some NGOs recently decided to sacrifice the foreign money they get to stop being harassed. Saadeddin Ibrahim's trial might be an opportunity to bring to an end ambiguities in this field, to the benefit of both the state and civil society.

Related stories:
NGO case un-closed 28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000

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