On Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Reda Hilal

About two weeks ago, Saad Eddin Ibrahim gave a remarkable interview to Democracy Now, the liberal American radio show. I say remarkable because in this interview not only goes further in opposing the Egyptian regime than he ever has, not only making the case for conditionality in US aid to Egypt (something he now faces several lawsuits over, of the same kind that have recently been used to target journalists) but also some serious accusations. In this interview he basically says the presidency is running a death squad that is responsible for the disappearance of the prominent liberal writer Reda Hilal -- something Ibrahim had mentioned before although not quite with this language:

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Well, I have been critical of President Mubarak and his regime, and it was a peaceful criticism, presenting a different point of view on public policy and on some of his actions to install his -- or to groom his son to succeed him after twenty-six years of being a ruler of Egypt, the third-longest ruler in our history, in 6,000-year history. And yet, he wants to groom his son to succeed him. And I blew the whistle simply on that.

I also blew the whistle on his attempt to eliminate any potential contenders or competitors with his son, including, you know, some journalists who are disappeared, including the nephews of the late President Anwar al-Sadat, who are about the same age as his son and who also are politically active, and they are potential contenders. And he stripped them of their parliamentary immunity. They were members of Parliament, elected for the second time. So he is trying to eliminate everybody. And in the process, he tried to eliminate me, as well. And we have heard rumors, rampant rumors in the country, that there is a death squad attached to the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: A death squad?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: A death squad. That explains cases of disappearances, unresolved case of disappearances, despite time lapses. And it is said that it is a death squad that resorted to these extralegal methods to eliminate opposition. And when I mentioned that in a newspaper article just to ask the government to speak on the subject, to tell us whether there is one or not, and if there isn’t, to deny it, and if there isn’t, why these cases of disappearance caused? The disappearances have not been resolved, despite the years that have passed by. So, because they could not answer these questions, they decided just to eliminate me, as well. And it showed all kind of things.

AMY GOODMAN: Your recent piece, “Egypt’s Unchecked Repression” –

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: -- begins, “This month marks the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of the Egyptian journalist Reda Hilal.” Who was Reda Hilal?

SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: He was, again, a journalist. He was actually the deputy chief editor of our daily newspaper called Al-Ahram. And he, again, spoke critically of the presidential family and especially of Gamal Mubarak, who is being groomed. So, this was in a cocktail party, but I think the criticism was a little bit off-color about his sexual preferences, and the following day he disappeared.
This interview brakes so many taboos -- about Hosni and Gamal Mubarak -- it's hard to imagine Ibrahim will be able to return to Cairo anytime soon, although his lawyers are preparing to fight the lawsuits against him (which are, the rumor mill says, financed by NDP bigwig Ahmed Ezz). But beyond these eye-catching tidbits it's also a very sustained campaign in favor of greater US action towards Egypt (in the form of political and economic pressure) that comes at a time of increasing uncertainty about the future, most notably the question of presidential succession. With a Gamal scenario ever more plausible (more about that later), and considering the respect with which Ibrahim is held by members of the US Congress and the Washington press corps, can we say that we've entered the first step of a serious Egyptian personality (it's too early to say group, even if there are sympathizers) actively lobbying against the Mubarak regime in Washington?

Another bizarre aspect of the current campaign against Ibrahim was the recent news that a group of 62 young Salafists were planning an attack on the Ibn Khaldoun Center. Several things seem strange about this story: first, the group's name is Takfir wal Hijra, the name of one of the first Jihadist groups to be created in Egypt in the late 1970s and one that Ibrahim did groundbreaking work on at the time, documenting its ideology while its members were in jail -- that research was republished in the 2005 collection of Ibrahim's academic work, Egypt Islam and Democracy: Critical Essays. To my albeit very incomplete knowledge there is no contemporary group called Takfir al Hijra operating in Egypt, unless the young men who were recently arrested were planning a revival. The original takfir wal hijra was a very specific ideological perversion of Islamism of the kind you don't see frequently anywhere today.

Secondly, the Ibn Khaldoun Center is an odd target for an attack -- certainly not what you might think would be a priority for today's al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist or in keeping with the recent focus of attacks on touristic establishments. The whole affair raises more questions than it answers.

Finally, should you want to dig deeper into the Reda Hilal mystery you could do no better than read this long investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which attempts to draw a picture of Hilal's disappearance and the subsequent rumors, investigations and theories as to his fate.