From the Woodrow Wilson Center
As the inspiring “Arab spring” burst into bloom earlier this year, one man at the Wilson Center watched with particularly keen interest. Saad al-Din Ibrahim, a recent public-policy scholar at the Center, is one of the heroes of the long and often lonely struggle for freedom and democracy in Egypt. The 66-year-old sociologist, the founder and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies of the American University of Cairo, paid for his years of activism and dissent with a jail term in an Egyptian prison.
After the successful Iraqi elections in January and the subsequent popular protests in Lebanon that forced Syria to end its 29-year occupation, all eyes are now on Egypt. There, the Kefaya (Enough) movement has forced the autocratic government of long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak to open, if only slightly, the country’s election process to other parties. Ibrahim has hardly been alone at the Wilson Center in hoping that the upcoming September presidential election will mark the beginning of a period of positive political change in Egypt, but he is the only one who can claim to have had a significant role in making that change possible. He has even spoken of challenging Mubarak at the polls.
Over the years, the Center has been privileged to host distinguished people from many walks of life as visiting scholars in residence, including academics, journalists and other writers, and practitioners from the worlds of government, business and non-governmental organizations. The list includes former United States (US) senators and representatives, cabinet officers, and ambassadors, and from abroad, former presidents and prime ministers. All have seen their courage tested in many ways, but Ibrahim is one of a small number of our visiting scholars who have been called to put their lives and liberty at risk in pursuit of freedom and democracy. Among the others are Galina Starovoitova, a specialist on ethnicity and a longtime activist on behalf of Russian democracy and political reform who ran for Russia’s presidency in 1996 and was serving in the State Duma when she was killed by two assassins in 1998; Dai Qing, a Chinese engineer who was jailed during 1989-1990 for persisting in her campaign against Beijing’s environmentally destructive Three Gorges Dam; and Bronislaw Geremek, a Polish social historian who was a close adviser to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa during the labor union’s daring challenge to Poland’s Communist regime during the 1980s, and who went on to serve in various positions in the government of free Poland, including minister of foreign affairs during the late 1990s.
Ibrahim, slowed only slightly by small strokes he suffered while in jail, speaks with the enormous authority that only experience like his can confer, yet he retains a mischievous charm and an irrepressible optimism about the possibilities in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. He believes that change is coming, and he bluntly credits US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq with having “altered the region’s dynamics.” He also firmly believes that the region’s many popular Islamist political parties are prepared to join the democratic process. “These parties understand the social transformations under way in the Middle East that are leading towards democracy, and they want to take part,” he wrote recently. “In my view, we may be witnessing the emergence of Muslim democratic parties, much like the rise of Christian Democratic parties in Europe in the years after World War II.”
Ideas and action are the key elements in the struggle for freedom around the world, and the Wilson Center, in the great tradition of the president it was established to honor, has always been strongly committed to supporting both. To find the two embodied in a single person is a rare and inspiring thing.*
* Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 edition of the Wilson Quarterly. It is reprinted by permission.
Chair, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars;
United States Ambassador to Switzerland, 1989-1993