“Why did I use the phrase ‘The Ugliest of Them All’ to describe the Arab decision-makers? The reason for that comparison between ‘The Ugly American’ and ‘The Uglier Israeli,’ opposite ‘The Ugliest Arab’ is that the first and second are important because of their arrogance and the brute force that they used. They at least did this, from their perspective, in the service of their countries’ national interests. As for our friends, the Arab governments, they, first of all, colluded against sister Arab countries. Secondly, they did this not for the sake of serving the national interests of their countries, but in order to serve their personal and family interests.
“For the sake of this, they are inclined to comply with the demands and orders of the American master – even if this serves his spoiled child, Israel, and even if the price is the blood of thousands of killed, injured and displaced Lebanese. For this reason they are in the eyes of their people, ‘The Ugliest of Them All.’”
– Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, in his 2006 essay “And the Arabs, the Ugliest of Them All” (1).
As professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo and author and editor of numerous articles and books on Arab society, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s scholarly and academic achievements are impressive. It is not that part of his résumé, however, that continues to land him in hot water with the government of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
The part that does reads: Founder and chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, an independent research institute promoting democratization, government accountability, minority rights, and political and social development in Egypt and the wider Middle East; founder of the Arab Organization of Human Rights; advisor to the Project on Middle East Democracy; human rights activist, democracy advocate and political dissident.
On Aug. 2, an Egyptian court sentenced Ibrahim in absentia to two years in prison for “tarnishing Egypt’s reputation” after publication of opinion pieces authored by him decrying the lack of democratic institutions and political freedoms under Mubarak. This and similar lawsuits are routinely brought forth against the regime’s critics by members of Mubarak’s own National Democratic Party who, acting as private citizens, attempt to silence them with these lawsuits. The obfuscation in using private citizens as surrogates for the state in legal proceedings is permitted under Egyptian law yet remains a transparent attempt to disguise the real force behind them.
“I can’t believe the vindictiveness of this regime, of President Mubarak. No one can do this except him,” remarked Ibrahim (2), who, in fear of his own security, has lived in self-imposed exile since 2007.
Indeed, he faced the exact same charge in 2001 after claiming Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to succeed him (a tradition of political succession Ibrahim equally accused other Arab dictators of following). He was tried, convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. After a series of appeals and court appearances, he, along with more than two dozen of his colleagues from the Ibn Khaldun Center, were acquitted of all state charges and released in 2003.
“I was the first to write about the possibility of inheritance of power in Egypt. Since then, my troubles with the regime haven’t ended,” said Ibrahim.
And what may have contributed to those troubles was a scathing editorial published in The Washington Post on Aug. 21, 2007, titled “Egypt’s Unchecked Repression” (3).
In it, Ibrahim reiterated his previous allegation:
“Like other autocrats with declining legitimacy, Mubarak is trying to tighten his grip on power. His family is grooming 44-year-old Gamal to succeed his father. Any real or potential competitors, especially ones with charisma and name recognition, are to be defamed, jailed, driven from the country or otherwise eliminated.”
The Plight of Dr. Ayman Nour
The most notorious example of this is the case of Dr. Ayman Nour, independent MP and head of Al-Ghad (the Tomorrow) party. Campaigning on a platform of political reform and curbing of presidential powers, he dared challenge Mubarak in Egypt’s 2005 presidential elections, even after having been imprisoned on trumped-up charges of forged paperwork earlier in the year. Nour managed to garner 7 percent of the vote and the claim runner-up position in a country where anything but 99.9 percent of the vote for the incumbent is considered an unacceptable margin of victory. As such, and only a few days after the election, he was convinced and sentenced to five years of hard labor on the previous charge of document forging. His real crime of course, was his potential to challenge and ultimately defeat Gamal Mubarak in any future election.
Nour remains jailed in poor and declining health. As is custom for prisoners who have completed half their sentence, he would normally be eligible for a pardon (along with murderers, extortionists, spies and other criminals) by Presidential Decree. Unlike the real criminals though, he was exempted from the decree issued on July 23 since the alleged forger is considered a security threat (4). His freedom has been one of Ibrahim’s persistent demands.
A Blind Eye, and A Lot of Cash
Egypt is the second largest recipient of United States foreign aid after Israel. For all its bellicose talk on the need for democratization in the Middle East, the U.S. has consistently thrown its weight, and money, behind one of the region’s most undemocratic rulers.
In The Washington Post article, Ibrahim recounts Mubarak’s manipulation of Egypt’s role in the Arab-Israeli peace process and skillful “exploitation of Islamophobia” as a way of acquiring these billions of dollars in aid. Although he supports making U.S. assistance to Egypt conditional on improved political and human rights conditions, he mocked the idea that his brief chat with President Bush in May 2007 was the reason the U.S. House Appropriations Committee withheld a small portion of it. Unsurprisingly, the $100 million of Egypt’s $2 billion annual stipend withheld was later waived by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
A Voice For One and All
Ibrahim has been an equal opportunity advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised. He has spoken out on the importance of the Muslim Brotherhood partaking in the political process—a party officially banned by Mubarak—despite being ideologically at odds with them himself. He likewise champions the rights of Egypt’s Coptic Christians and Sinai Bedouins, and even extended an apology to the Arab world’s Shia Muslims after Mubarak questioned their loyalty (5). Such disparate groups have found in Ibrahim a person who demands justice and the participation of all political, religious and socioeconomic groups for the betterment of Egyptian society.
27 Years of Emergency Law
Ibrahim likes to point out that in Egypt’s 6,000-year history, Hosni Mubarak is the country’s third-longest ruler. And since assuming power in 1981, he has ruled by Emergency Law. This grants him the ability to arrest without warrant and indefinitely hold any citizen, censor the media, restrict assembly and decidedly silence dissent. Amnesty International estimates 18,000 people are currently being held without charge or trial under the provisions of the Emergency Law, and in some cases, even after their acquittal by the courts (6). Ibrahim has chronicled the disappearance of journalists critical of the regime or their apparent “suicide” while incarcerated. High-profile politicians or anyone seen as a possible successor to Mubarak outside his son have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity and jailed.
Abetting the Siege of Gaza
Mubarak too is complicit in the suffering endured by Gaza’s Palestinians as the Rafah border crossing at Egypt’s door remains closed, forcing the inhabitants of one the most densely populated areas on earth to dig tunnels in order to bring in needed food and supplies. These tunnels have been promptly destroyed when discovered by Egyptian security, oftentimes killing the young boys still digging them.
This epitomizes the concept of the ‘The Ugliest Arab’ so well articulated by Ibrahim in the opening quote. U.S-sponsored tyrants like Mubarak, in a purely self-serving manner, do the bidding of America and Israel at the expense of their fellow Arabs; whether acting impassively as Lebanon burned in 2006, inhumanly by participating in the siege of Gaza, or despotically against their own people.
The tireless campaign of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim has shone a bright light on the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. If Ibrahim’s crusade has taught us anything, it is that Mubarak can rightfully be called ‘The Ugly Dictator’.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri (at) yahoo.com.
1. “And the Arabs, the Ugliest of Them All.” Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. 2006.
2. “Sentenced to prison, activist calls Egyptian leader vindictive.” The National. 7 August 2008.
3. “Egypt’s Unchecked Repression.” Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. The Washington Post. 21 August 2007.
5. “My Apology to the Shi’a.” Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. 2006.
6. Amnesty International Report 2008: Egypt.