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Is Egypt The Best Place For Obama's Speech?

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Is Egypt The Best Place For Obama's Speech?

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Is Egypt The Best Place For Obama's Speech?

Is Egypt The Best Place For Obama's Speech?

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Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a well-known Egyptian dissident who was imprisoned for political activities. He's a professor at Harvard University and has lived in exile for almost two years. An Egyptian court has overturned his most recent conviction for defaming Egypt. Ibrahim talks with Renee Montagne about whether President Obama should be making his address to the Muslim world from Egypt.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of those Egyptians looking for change. He's a well-known dissident who has spent time in prison there for his political activities. For nearly two hears he's been in exile here in the U.S. An Egyptian court has overturned his most recent conviction for defaming Egypt. But he is critical of President Obama's choice to visit his homeland. And he joins us now. Good morning.

Mr. SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM (Middle Eastern Studies Professor, Harvard University): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin just with a little background. What crimes were you accused of? What does defaming Egypt mean exactly?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, having published critical articles of President Mubarak and his regime, any criticism is construed as criticism of Egypt. Luckily, the court saw otherwise.

MONTAGNE: Being critical of President Obama going to Egypt, it's perhaps understandable for a person in your situation with your history, but is there not a possibly that he can make a difference by going there?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Sure, sure. No, no, not at all. How about I just correct the record? What I said is that he should not start with Egypt, an autocratic country, because the place of the speech is part of the speech. The place is a message, and my advice is to start with a Muslim-majority country that is democratic.

And my recommendation was start with Turkey or with Indonesia, and then Cairo later when they do some reform. Well, luckily, he started with Turkey. So I hope he will succeed. He has a lot of goodwill on the part of the Egyptians, the Arabs, and the Muslims. They are disposed to listen to him and support any initiative that he may take to tackle the main problem of the Middle East, which is Palestine.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about human rights in Egypt at this moment in time.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, it leaves a lot to be desired. This is according to the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, you name it. And of course, you are speaking to one of the victims of the regime, a 70-year-old professor who has nothing except his pen and his voice. And as Deborah Amos has noted, anyone even to question Mubarak's health - here is a man who's 80, nearly 82-years-old - and yet if any reporter raise a question about his health, that reporter is liable to end up in prison for one year.

MONTAGNE: Egypt gets hundreds of…

Mr. IBRAHIM: Two billion.

MONTAGNE: How much?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Two billion dollars.

MONTAGNE: In aid.

Mr. IBRAHIM: In American aid, yeah.

MONTAGNE: A year?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yes.

MONTAGNE: You have suggested that U.S. should limit aid until the human rights situation improves. Do you think that's realistic?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Why not? You know, do it imaginatively. And there are precedents in the American foreign policy. After Second World War, the U.S. had Marshall Plan. It was a conditional plan to reconstruct Europe if it goes democratic. Thirty years later in 1975, there was the Helsinki Accord, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. And the U.S. said yes, we'll give you aid, trade, facilities and technology if you observe human rights. Within ten years, that was goodbye to the Eastern Bloc without a bullet. So that was an imaginative conditionality. And that's the kind of thing I'm calling for.

MONTAGNE: Are you planning to return to Egypt?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, if they suspend some of the cases against me, I have six more cases. I won one last week, but there are six more pending and I'm waiting and I'm hoping that President Obama will take that up in the closed meeting with President Mubarak.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Sure, it's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Saad Eddin Ibrahim is now living in the U.S., teaching at Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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