Yesterday, Saad El-Din Ibrahim and his wife Barbara Ibrahim braved the snow to come to campus and discuss the successes and challenges of human rights in Arab nations. The talk centered around the Ibrahim’s experiences in Egyptian and other civil rights movements, including Saad’s three years in jail as a political prisoner.
Saad, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, spoke first, opening with the observation that “we live in exciting and sad times in the Middle East.” He reviewed the current situation of the Arab nations, illustrating the continuing conflict with statistics (the region has 7% of the world’s population but 35% of its armed conflict) and stories. One particularly illuminating experience came many years ago, when Saad talked at length with an old man on the latter’s frustration with dictatorships. The end of colonialism had offered a hope that a new environment that favored rights might arise, but instead new dictators had simply replaced the old. Saad spoke of his subsequent attempts to draw upon his experiences in the United States during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to form a civil rights advocacy group for the Arab nations. One of the larger early obstacles towards forming the group was simply finding a place to meet–none of the 21 Arab countries would allow he and his friend a place to gather until they finally were able to meet in Cyprus over a year after the initial idea for the group was put forth. Both Saad and Barbara stressed the huge gaps between American life and Arab life, noting that we Americans take such things as the right to assemble for granted.
Although progress has been slow, Saad believes that there is hope for the future of the civil rights movement. Today, the pro-Syrian Lebanon government resigned, likely prompted by the thousands of people who have marched and rallied in protest. Saad believes that it is possible for success in places like Lebanon to spread and that movements in individual countries will eventually join in their effects to become one unstoppable pro-rights tide. He closed by reminding the crowd that they really can help in some small way by writing to political prisoners. “Every time I got a letter or a card…it did a lot for my morale,” he said.
Barbara began by describing how the traditions such as patriarchy in the Arab world have helped to slow the spread of rights to all people even when political changes make possible the existence of rights. Young people must get any possible marriage approved by the family, and if they do not find a suitable partner, the family will find one for them. She went on to discuss the difficulty that rights groups have had in gaining a foothold in the Arab world. One of the bigger problems is that well-known activists are frequently jailed, and she went on to tell the story of how Saad ended up behind bars. It was a tremendous ordeal for all involved, she said, but with the support of groups such as Amnesty International and several individuals, Barbara and the couple’s two children were able to move Saad’s case through the corrupt court system of Egypt up to the less corrupt higher court, where he was finally acquitted after three years in jail.
A question and answer period followed the lecture, in which Saad explained that while countries tend to act in their self-interest, individuals can truly be altruistic. Thus, real change will come from committed individuals, not from the lip service paid by the USA and other western powers. The lecture was sponsored by the Provost’s office, the Cooper Foundation, and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.