EGYPT: Despotism and persecution of the moderates: The case of Issam El Erian
Saad Eddine Ibrahim

Based on my direct experience in Mubarak's detention centers, and my close and accurate follow-up of other tens of prisoners of opinion and conscience, I became convinced that Mubarak's regime could not stand moderate, peaceful activists, who enjoy authenticity in the public opinion. Among the major examples of this in 2005 are Dr. Ayman Nour, founder and leader of the Ghadd Political Party, and Issam El Erian, physician and a leading figure in the Egyptian Brotherhood (Ikhwan) Movement.

Ayman Nour's case has attracted wide attention inside and outside Egypt. This was and still is something needed and desired. All evidence indicates that the case has been politically fabricated from A to Z. In this concern, it is almost a replica of the case of Ibn-Khaldoun's Center. As in the latter, the Court of Cassation will eventually exonerate Ayman Nour, even though he has been condemned by the court of Adil Abdil-Salam Juma, which has previously condemned Saad-id-Din Ibrahim and Ibn-Khaldoun colleagues, but within three years.

We return to Dr. Erian's case to answer two questions: 1. Why does Mubarak's regime prosecute the moderates? 2. Why did the internal, as well as external, reactions differ in Erian's case from that of Ibn-Khaldoun and the Ghadd Party?

With regard to targeting the moderates, Mubarak's regime is based on a number of pillars, including the police-intelligence state, plundering, corruption, and various kinds of local scarecrow to scare the allies. One of these pillars is to inspire two things to Mubarak regime's friends in the West (Europe and the US). First, Mubarak is the only one allegedly capable of maintaining stability and moderation in Egypt and the Arab World, and that should there be held free and fair election, the extremists would take over and turn Egypt into another Algeria, Taliban's Afghanistan or Khomeini's Iran. Thus, Mubarak's regime has been keen to undermine any moderate alternative, religious-Islamic or civil-liberal. Second, Mubarak's regime is the only one allegedly capable of sponsoring the peace process with Israel, and of mediation between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Consequently, Mubarak has done his best to undermine or defame any moderate alternative(s) in Egypt so that only the fundamentalists, extremists and the marginalized remain.  Mubarak's regime has become constantly in need of the fundamentalists and the extremists so it may justify its existence. If they are not there, the police apparatus immediately make them up or inspire their existence, exaggerate their danger and their plots to take over power, undermine the society, and vandalize the national unity, among other ready-made accusations.

Mubarak's regime has enough media control to turn pure lies and illusions to semi-facts. It also has a parallel system of "intelligence" (mukhabarat) each is described as "state security" to add seriousness to illusions in order to deceive the public opinion. For instance, there is the "Investigation Bureau of State Security", which is assigned to do enquiries. The enquiries usually start with "It has come to our knowledge that .", and the blank space is then filled with whatever the officer in charge may find of fake stories and illusionary or planted evidence. This apparatus also do the bursting, harassing and arresting the victims, especially late at night. The Egyptian political folklore calls them "dawn visitors". The apparatus may sometimes constrain the victims for several days in special cells at the apparatus' headquarters in Lazoghli, downtown Cairo, to be tortured and then sign whatever 'confessions', mostly fake, they want them to sign.

There is also the twin apparatus called "State Security Prosecutor Bureau", which does the interrogation with the "suspects" supplied by the "Investigation Bureau of State Security". Although the former consists of police officers and the latter of civilian, semi-judicial DA's, both apparatus work in incomparable harmony. In fact, both are two faces of one coin, in spite of the attempts to show them as independent from one another. The "State Security Prosecutor Bureau" tightens the grip around the suspect until the latter admits to the accusations leveled against him by the "Investigation Bureau of State Security". "State Security Prosecutor Bureau" also orders the 'accused' "to be put in jail for further investigation". This Bureau also renews imprisonment until the one who runs both apparatus orders a release or sending the case to court, that is, the "State Security Court".

The last move in the same old symphony repeatedly played in every political case is to remit it to this mentioned Court, the name of which became so notorious and embarrassing to the regime all over the world that it was recently abolished. However, the Court's districts and judges remained the same, including the district that tried and condemned the writer of this article to 7 years in prison, until the Court of Cassation, which also bitterly criticized the former Court and the entire regime, canceled the sentence. Nevertheless, Ayman Nour's case was remitted to trial before the same district with same chair judge and his two colleagues.

Mubarak's regime constantly emphasizes that all cases of opinion and conscience are not "political cases", but "purely criminal ones". This claim was repeated in the cases of Ibn-Khaldoun, Ayman Nour and Issam El Erian. In fact, these cases are all "vengeful", political cases, ordered, moved and run by the highest sovereign institution in the country, and each has its own circumstances and justifications in the mentality of this institution. So, why Issam al-Irian in particular?

I have known Essam al-Irian for the last quarter of a century, and my return from my Ph.D. program abroad (1975) coincided with the years of his activity at the school of medicine. Among my academic interest in Islamic movement, it was natural for me to meet him. He was one of its emerging symbols and a member of one of its active youth branch, that is, the Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood). The latter group had announced giving up violence in an unpublicized deal with the late President Sadat in 1972. Yet, only a few believed this announcement at the time, and probably till present. However, as an academician, I have always been ready to listen to the Ikhwan's point of view, while at the same time observing their actual behavior in Egyptian public life. I did the same with other branches of the Islamic movement, which split from the Ikhwan, like the Jihad, the Jamaa al-Islamiyya and the Takfir wa-l-Hijra. In all these academic efforts, Irian was a first-grade peer and debater. Although I was about 15 years older and ideologically different, a mutual respect and a warm, humane friendship has developed between us. We both became colleagues in trade union activity: me as chair of Sociologists, and him as secretary of Medical Trade Union. The headquarters of both unions were accidentally located in the same street (Qasr il-Aini) at that time (1986-96). I accepted his invitations and talked several times at the Medical Trade Union, and he accepted mine and talked at the Sociological Trade Union, the American University in Cairo, and the Ibn-Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies. We were also co-inmates in Mubarak's prisons at the beginning of my detention (2000-02) and around the end of his term in jail (2001). We often chatted about the witticisms, pains and anecdotes in prison after we had been released.

During the last couple of years, Issam El Erian and I met at two important conferences. The First was in April 2001, i.e., one month after the Cassation Court had exonerated me and 27 other Ibn-Khaldoun colleagues. That conference was a continuation of my dialogue in prison with Islamist groups. At that time, these groups were astonished at the international concern with the Ibn-Khaldoun case, while ignoring theirs. The logic I pursued in my reaction to their surprise was that they do not talk a language the world could understand, and that their image in the world was one of hatred, fanaticism and violence. When they argued to convince me otherwise, my answer was that what matters was to convince the world. When they became ready for this, I organized a one-day dialogue with a number of Western diplomats in Cairo, in which Erian was a brilliant star who captivated the Westerners, despite their disagreement with him over a number of issues.

The last occasion was in December 2004 in Jordan, at a conference organized by the Center for the Studies of Islam and Democracy, in which a number of Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, participated. Following the American method in the technology of conferences and peaceful settlement of conflicts, we were both asked to role-play and to defend positions that were not necessarily ours. Erian had to give convincing arguments for secular democracy and against the implementation of Sharia or establishing a theocracy. The surprise was that he did so brilliantly.

All along 25 years, I never heard Erian call for violence against, or hatred of, non-Muslims. Erian was a brilliant student of medicine as well as a brilliant trade union activist. He ran for parliament membership and his performance at the People's Assembly was excellent, as testified by his own colleagues from other political parties, including the ruling National Party. Probably because of his moderate attitude and his outstanding leadership qualities, Mubarak's regime put Issam El Erian behind bars. So, let all the free people in Egypt and the world unite with him.

Hands off Issam El Erian, Mubarak!

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is Chairman of Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo and a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. Courtesy of The Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (