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West Can Encourage Greater Democracy in the Arab World, Says Renowned Egyptian Human Rights Activist

In an address Monday (June 20) at the American University in Cairo, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a forceful call for democratic reforms in the Middle East. She said that for the past 60 years, the United States pursued stability in the region at the expense of democracy – and achieved neither.

Secretary Rice said she was concerned for the future of reforms in Egypt because of the violence against peaceful demonstrators. She earlier met with President Hosni Mubarak to press him to ensure that Egypt’s presidential elections in September are free and fair.

Egyptian sociologist and renowned human rights activist Sa’ad Iddin Ibrahim described the Mubarak government’s steps toward Egypt’s first “democratic” election as being a move in the “right direction,” but not sufficient to produce the type of reform that he and other democracy advocates have urged for years.

Speaking on VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Professor Ibrahim said Egyptians believe their government will “try every trick in the book” to retain power. He said that Egypt’s kifaya – or “Enough” – movement is not enough, although it deserves respect as a grassroots movement whose members are willing to risk arrest and harassment. Professor Ibrahim said that academics, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals have been speaking up and together they are creating an atmosphere where the Mubarak regime may be forced to share power.

Professor Ibrahim also acknowledged the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood. Although it is the largest and best-organized opposition group in Egypt and is seen as legitimate by most Egyptians, the government has banned it from political activity. Even though he is a secularist, Professor Ibrahim said he defends the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to be “full players in the political game.”

Although Islamist parties are feared in the West, Professor Ibrahim noted that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has not engaged in violence in the last 35 years. Furthermore, it is a social service provider that has had success in some areas where the state has failed. But Professor Ibrahim also acknowledged that the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies might be anti-Western. However, he argued that if the West and the United States in particular want to see democracy flourish in the Arab world, they will have to accept the consequences of that policy, whatever the outcome. Sa’ad Iddin Ibrahim noted that the West has experience with pragmatic Islamists in Turkey and “it wasn’t the end of the world.” He believes it is one of great successes of autocratic regimes in the Arab world to have created an “Islamic scare” in Western circles, especially after 9/11.

Although he welcomes the Bush administration’s promotion of democracy, Sa’ad Iddin Ibrahim said he thinks Washington’s actions fall short of its rhetoric. He notes that reformers in the Arab world would like the United States to make its support for Arab governments conditional upon their pursuit of democracy and their protection of human rights.

Although there will be competition in the Egyptian presidential election this fall, Professor Ibrahim said he does not expect that it will be “completely fair and honest.” But he believes it will be better than the previous election.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here