BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak visited Washington, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote that Egypt could do no better for America than to play its historic role and lead the Arab world into modernity. But he notes when it comes to political freedom, many of Egypt's neighbors have passed it by. "There can be no genuine democracy in a country," writes Friedman, "where a man like Saad Eddin Ibrahim must stand trial for wanting the right to speak freely and press for change." He is the head of Cairo's Center for Democratic Studies and a hero to many, especially in the Western press because of the risks he takes by questioning official policy. OTM's Rick Davis offers this portrait.
RICK DAVIS: You don't need a reporter to tell you that in this world people mean and splendid exist alike, but in many parts of the world among those with power the mean do seem to outnumber the splendid. In over 20 years working in the Middle East I often felt a bit like Diogenes who with his lamp searched for an honest man. This is a tribute to such a man. He lives in Egypt. His name is Saad Eddin Ibrahim.
SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: If you believe in something, if you are a true believer, then you have to be prepared to take some risks, and I am-- I was prepared to took [sic] those risks. Still am.
RICK DAVIS: Why in a country of over 70 million people is Saad Eddin Ibrahim so rare, and why are his words so necessary to so many reporters? Susan Sachs of the New York Times has spoken with him often over the last 12 years on many issues.
SUSAN SACHS: Women's empowerment, clean elections, the role of religious minorities in Arab countries and Islamic fundamentalism -- these were all issues that he was interested in because he felt, I believe, that they would advance culture and society in Egypt.
RICK DAVIS: Deborah Amos of ABC News and now on PBS remembers how he challenged militant Islam in the '80s and early '90s -- its most violent period in Egypt.
DEBORAH AMOS: They were quite willing to kill people and they did. There was a politician who was assassinated; Egypt's Nobel Prize-winning writer had his neck slashed because the Islamisists said that his book was anti-Islam. So it was a dangerous time to go on the record and say anything about these groups, and Saad Eddin Ibrahim never shirked. He would always talk on the record about who they were and what they were doing.
RICK DAVIS: Again, Susan Sachs.
SUSAN SACHS: He is a patriot in the best sense of the word.
RICK DAVIS: But not in the eyes of the Egyptian government. Late one night in June 2000, a dozen state security police stormed into his house. 40 to 50 more surrounded it. Across Cairo, 27 co-workers at his research center were arrested -- lawyers, economists, social workers. One woman was jumped from behind, a bag thrown over her head. Soon they were on trial. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had taught at major universities around the world, been a consultant to the United Nations, was now a 61 year old man in a cage -- a large steel cage in a Cairo courtroom.
SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: For years I thought the threat to my life would be from Islamic militants. Now it is equally from my own government. But that is our fortune or misfortune in the Third World -- is that when you speak for freedom or for democracy, you are stepping on many toes.
RICK DAVIS: A highly-placed Western diplomat said Ibrahim's comments on state corruption and calls for democratic reform angered someone at the top or near the top. The charges he faced included embezzling funds donated by the European Union although the Union said no funds were embezzled. He was charged with tarnishing Egypt in the eyes of the world, and the government-controlled Egyptian news media joined the attack -- cartoons, editorials, fabricated stories -- among them that millions of dollars in checks were found in his office safe. One paper published a photo it said was of his American-born wife Barbara getting a standing ovation at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. She wasn't even in the country that night. And a more frightening story that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personally tried to intercede in his case.
SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: And that endangered my life in prison, because there are a lot of fanatics in prison, and my family screamed out! And yet there was no way of getting their voice or getting these editors in chief of the 3 daily newspapers to retract, even though they knew it was a big lie.
RICK DAVIS: Saad Eddin Ibrahim and his co-defendants were found guilty. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison. After 10 months an appeals court nullified the verdict and ordered a new trial. It is happening now. Ibrahim is back in a courtroom cage. Many journalists who know him or of him are speaking out in his defense. A Wall Street Journal editorial questioned the inaction of the U.S. government. Ibrahim holds an American passport. He is a U.S. citizen. Robert Pollock wrote the Journal editorial.
ROBERT POLLOCK: It's pretty obvious that the U.S. government has an obligation to stand up for its citizens being persecuted overseas. You know, whether that's a white native born citizen, or whether that's a, a person of color who's a naturalized citizen -- he's precisely the kind of voice we, we ought to be encouraging in the Arab world.
RICK DAVIS: But how much more can we expect of that voice? A series of small strokes during his first trial and imprisonment have slowed his walk. But his will is undiminished.
SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: As you grow older, maybe you get wiser, but you also get more determined that there's very little time left for you to carry out your agenda, and the agenda is still very long in this region - agenda for peace - for democracy - for development - for human rights - and as I look back on my life, despite the long years of activism--
RICK DAVIS: He paused. His eyes teared. I have interviewed him at least a dozen times and never seen that before.
SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM: --I feel there is very little that was accomplished that - of that agenda!-- and still more to be accomplished.
RICK DAVIS: This has clearly not been an exercise in unbiased journalism. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] It is a tribute to an honorable man. For On the Media, I'm Rick Davis. [MUSIC]