Egyptian Dissident Blasts Bush On Freedom Agenda

A leading Egyptian dissident says President Bush raised expectations high with talk of a "Freedom Agenda," but as Bush's term nears an end, the U.S. has little to show for it. Saad Eddin Ibrahim says Bush betrayed Arab democrats.

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Now, we're going to hear about an Egyptian dissident who says that he has been exiled for promoting democracy. He's advocated that the U.S. tie its foreign assistance to the issue. Saad Eddin Ibrahim argues that President Bush has little to show for his emphasis on spreading freedom.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It was in early August when Saad Eddin Ibrahim heard of his latest conviction. He was tried on charges of defaming Egypt. The evidence against him was an article he wrote in the Washington Post a year earlier, accusing Egyptian authorities of trying to silence detractors and urging the U.S. to link some of the $2 billion a year in aid to his country to democracy.

Professor SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM (Human Rights Activist): I am now technically a fugitive. The minute I go back to Egypt, if I do, I will be arrested and thrown back in prison. And that will be my fourth imprisonment.

KELEMEN: For now, the 69-year-old sociologist has no plans to go back. He's a visiting professor this fall at Indiana University and still going through daily physical therapy to help him fully recover from the last time he was in prison. He's not shined away from his criticism of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or of the Bush administration. Ibrahim told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that President Bush initially raised hopes with the so-called freedom agenda. But, he says, the U.S. retreated too hastily when the Palestinian militant group Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006.

Prof. IBRAHIM: He has betrayed the Arab Democrats or the Middle Eastern Democrats.

KELEMEN: President Bush does still continue to talk about the freedom agenda, and last year, he made a point of meeting with dissidents, including Ibrahim, in Prague. The Egyptian looks back on that meeting now and laughs.

Prof. IBRAHIM: Bush claimed that he was also a dissident like us, complained about Washington, about the democracy. And he said, look around, did I bring anybody from the State Department or from the Pentagon? No. These people are all against him and against my freedom agenda. That's why they have undermined that.

KELEMEN: Ibrahim says President Bush assured him in that meeting and in a separate private audience that he was still committed to supporting dissidents around the world.

Prof. IBRAHIM: At the time, he said, I still have 18 months in office, so don't write me off and you will see. Well, the 18 months are coming to an end and I have seen, nothing has happened.

KELEMEN: Egypt still gets billions of dollars in military and economic aid from the U.S., even as many of Ibrahim's fellow democracy activists and journalists languish in prison. Ibrahim says he is appealing his latest conviction in Cairo and will remain in the U.S. until he sees how that plays out. In the meantime, he's been talking to advisers of the presidential candidates here and the members of Congress, urging them to use what leverage they have to support democratic change in the Middle East.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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