An Egyptian Sakharov

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is Egypt's most prominent social scientist--and the most independent-minded in a conformist society ruled by President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. For years, Prof. Ibrahim headed the Cairo-based Ibn-Khaldun Institute, which undertook, with the European Union's encouragement, pioneering studies on women and minority rights, as well as electoral practices, in Egypt. In a country where the President has been consistently re-elected with 97% of the vote since 1980, Ibrahim's institute is the only academic research organization that dares to ask troubling questions about the way Egypt is run.

Two years ago, Prof. Ibrahim, together with practically all of the Ibn-Khaldun Institute staff, were arrested and put on trial before a State Security Court on trumped up charges. The allegations included financial irregularities, receiving EU funds without the proper ministerial authorization, and "tarnishing Egypt's image."

Prof. Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. After diplomatic pressure was applied by the United States (through his American-born wife, Prof. Ibrahim holds US citizenship) and the EU, he was granted a re-trial. This ended days ago with the old verdict reaffirmed: seven years in prison.

Twenty-seven of the Institute's staff members also received jail sentences, and the Institute is now practically destroyed. Any dictator, from Saddam Hussein to Robert Mugabe, could take pride in this abuse of power. But because Mubarak regime's is considered moderate, pro-Western, and helpful in the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the West's response to this and other abuses remains muted. Indeed, the US Charge d'Affaires in Cairo expressed mere "disappointment" at the verdict--a response that gives understatement a bad name.