Democracy's Critical Voices

A brighter future for the peoples of the Middle East rests largely on two achievements: a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and greater democracy in an area long dominated by autocrats.

Hopes on the latter front took a blow last week with the conviction of Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Mr. Ibrahim, who also has American citizenship, has for decades been a leading voice for democracy in the Arab world.

It was a voice, apparently, that Egypt's ruling elite, led by President Hosni Mubarak, was tired of hearing. The activist's recent writing about the tendency of Arab leaders to groom their sons for succession (with a pointed reference to Mr. Mubarak) may have been the final straw for Egypt's sensitive authoritarians.

Ibrahim's work over the years focused on making Egypt's parliamentary system function more democratically. He probed electoral corruption. He championed the rights of the country's Coptic Christian minority.

Everything Ibrahim did was aimed, ultimately, at making Egypt a stronger, more just society - not at defaming the country, as his prosecutors alleged. At trial, his lawyers were not even able to fully present their evidence before the sentence of seven years at hard labor was handed down.

Egypt's government, sadly, is hardly alone in the tendency to silence the voices that, if heeded, could do the most good. Human Rights Watch notes recent legal and police attacks against rights activists in Ethiopia, Morocco, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few countries.

Courageous individuals like Ibrahim deserve support inside and outside their countries - not least from powerful democracies like the United States, which have leverage with the governments involved.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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