Sociology professor and political activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was one of the first to criticize the notion of “presidential inheritance” in the Arab world. In 2000, Ibrahim was jailed for three years in a case that many observers believed was motivated largely by his vocal opposition to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
In 2007, four years after his release from prison, the professor left for the US, returning to Egypt last summer in order to test the political atmosphere. He currently faces 28 pending legal cases against him in Egyptian courts, which his supporters say are politically motivated.
In an exclusive interview, Al-Masry Al-Youm spoke to Ibrahim about his controversial support for presidential scion Gamal Mubarak's right to run for the presidency, reform efforts currently led by ex-IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, and the prospects for Egypt's political future.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What is the nature of your visit home this time?
Saad Eddin Ibrahim: It’s a short visit for Christmas vacation to examine the atmosphere; to see if the authorities would leave me in peace or not. And so far, it has been peaceful. I'll come back to the country after four years abroad next May. I still have one semester to teach at a University in New Jersey.
Al-Masry: Did you encounter any difficulties during your last visit?
Ibrahim: No, there were no serious difficulties, although I was followed by secret state security agents. But because I have nothing to hide, it didn't bother me.
Al-Masry: What about the 28 legal cases filed against you in the courts?
Ibrahim: All of these cases are over except one related to taxes charged during the three-year-period I spent in jail.
Al-Masry: Many of your supporters were surprised by your recent decision to sign a petition in support of a Gamal Mubarak presidential campaign. Did you expect this reaction?
Ibrahim: They have the right to resent it, but they should have read what I really did. All I did was express support for his right to run for the presidency like any Egyptian citizen. Of course, the state-owned media didn't put it like that.
It was an expression of support for his right to run–not in support of him as a candidate. I myself was disturbed by what government media made the incident sound like.
Al-Masry: Weren’t you afraid that by linking your name to this message you might dilute your own stance against so-called “presidential inheritance”?
Ibrahim: I was the first person to warn the public about the succession plan, for which I was imprisoned in August, 2000. Following my warnings, they fabricated a case for which I was imprisoned for three years.
The people have the right to resent and be disturbed by the person who first raised the problem of presidential succession and then seemed to show support for a certain candidate. But, again, I support Gamal Mubarak’s right to run–not his candidacy.
My initial denunciation [of presidential succession] was a message not only to the public, but to the Mubaraks–letting them know that the son would be refused by the people for two reasons: for his father’s long-term rule in spite of the fact that people want political change; and President Mubarak’s failure to prove that he has the Egyptian public’s best interests at heart.
Al-Masry: On Saturday, reformist Mohamed ElBaradei declared that the public needed to act on their own volition and not depend on him alone for political change. What do you make of the former IAEA chief’s change in tone?
Ibrahim: In my opinion, he's overcautious and expects too much from the people. He doesn't appear to want to take risks, and this is very disappointing to many people. It’s also disappointing for me personally, as I was among his first supporters even before coming to Egypt.
I see him as a respectable figure who is difficult to dismiss as others, such as [opposition Ghad Party founder] Ayman Nour, have been dismissed.
I wish he was bolder and more ready to assume a leadership role, rather than waiting for the people. The leader's role is to mobilize the people, but, if he wants the people to come readymade, this is too much, and it reflects a lack of adequate understanding of Egyptian society.
Within the last 30 years, the people have been unable to organize themselves. There are still laws on the books prohibiting more than seven people to assemble–even if they aren’t strictly enacted–but the government uses these laws when it wants to. These emergency laws prevent the Egyptian public from mobilizing for mass movements.
Requiring people to be more active is fine, but we should ask ElBaradei to be more ready to take risks and assume a leadership role.
Al-Masry: What is your take on Egypt’s recently concluded parliamentary elections? Were you among the first to call for electoral monitoring?
Ibrahim: First, the low levels of participation were notable. Only ten percent of eligible voters participated, so, if 90 percent didn’t participate, that's a message for the regime. It tells them that the people see the elections as a ludicrous stage play. Some 90 percent of the public doesn’t support this regime, and it's important for someone like ElBaradei–or other political leaders–to use this fact to attract this 90 percent, or even half of them.
Al-Masry: How do you see today’s reform movement in Egypt?
Ibrahim: According to statistics over the last ten years, the number of popular demonstrations has increased steadily from 15 protests per year one decade ago to around three hundred per year nowadays. Observes of the phenomena must conclude that the Egyptian people do have some political will.
This movement is searching for a leader, and we had hoped that ElBaradei would be that leader. But he seems to be a hesitant leader, or a leader that demands too much from the people.
Al-Masry: Where do you see yourself during 2011 presidential elections?
Ibrahim: I will be in Egypt. I hope that upcoming presidential elections will be more hotly contested than what we saw in 2005. I hope that there will be more popular participation.
We always accuse the Egyptian people of being passive, but they aren’t. If they saw a real and fair competition, they would participate in it. That's why football games attract wider audiences. Even elections for sporting clubs see greater participation–because people feel they are fair.