'Traitor to Palestinian struggle': Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim causes uproar after Tel Aviv visit

'Traitor to Palestinian struggle': Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim causes uproar after Tel Aviv visit
Breaking a major taboo in the Arab world, famous Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim went to Tel Aviv this week to give a lecture. He knew it would be controversial.
5 min read
03 January, 2018
Saad Eddin Ibrahim advocated further normalisation with Israel in his lecture [Getty]

Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim caused controversy after giving a lecture in Israel. 

The 79-year old sociologist was received on Tuesday as a rock star in the packed auditorium at Tel Aviv University. Around 600 people turned up to hear him, but soon it transpired - not everyone was happy.

Ibrahim was in Israel to participate in a two-day academic conference about Egyptian society, with his topic of discussion titled: "Lesson from 100 years of changes in Egypt".

A long list of Israeli and other foreign academics participated in what was described as an international conference.

Ibrahim's participation was, however, a major blow to the anti-normalisation movement in the Arab world.

Not only was the Egyptian sociologist a known human rights activist and a strong proponent of a widening of civil society in his home country, Ibrahim, as opposed to most other activists, had also paid the ultimate price for his fight against oppression.

In the year 2000 ex-president Hosni Mubarak threw him in jail for, among other claims, "defaming Egypt's image abroad".

"Thank you for inviting me," he told his Israeli hosts. While strong in spirit, it was clearly a physically frail man who greeted the Israelis. He said his years in prison had ruined his health. He could hardly walk, even after five surgeries. And while laughing and smiling, his voice was weak.

You are a traitor to the Palestinian struggle... You are a paid agent


But no sooner had he started speaking, a protest erupted in the auditorium. A group of around 20 Palestinian Israelis had listened quietly to the three Israeli Jewish academics speaking ahead of the Egyptian, and then got up and shouted insults against Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

"You are a traitor to the Palestinian struggle," shouted one. "You are a paid agent," shouted another. 

The protest lasted for about five minutes, while the academics remained seated at the podium. Then the demonstrators stormed out.

The Egyptian sociologist was not visibly moved by the protest. 

"If I am a paid agent, it would be nice if they at least would pay me," he laughed. 

The more serious part of his lecture, though, sought to place the Egyptian revolution in 2010 in a historic perspective.

He said the historic Kefayah-movement prior to the revolution actually had predecessors already in the 1880s and at the turn of the previous century, in both cases wide sections of Egyptian society mobilised politically.

Most of his lecture, however, was a personal journey of how the dramatic days of the Egyptian revolution had felt for him. He was in the US when the demonstrators first stormed into the streets.

He recalled how he was invited to Washington to explain the street protests to the US government, and how then president Barack Obama joined the session to listen in.

After another few days in the US, "my wife, who spent every day at Tahrir Square, ordered me home". He got on a plane and three hours into the flight the captain announced that president Mubarak had agreed to step down. 

"The whole plane turned into a big party. Never have the hours on a plane passed so fast," he told the Israelis.


Ibrahim described the optimism he saw at Tahrir Square, the hopes for democracy, freedom and a more just society. But soon he said, he got worried. 

"When I asked who the leaders were, they said no one, we have no leaders. That is when I started worrying that the revolution would be hijacked," using lessons from similar cases, like the Russian revolution, to explain what he meant.  

Ibrahim is, however, still an optimist, while clearly acknowledging that the process of democratisation will take a longer time. As the Middle East is undergoing major turmoil, he said even state leaders are starting to recognise the need for change.

Before him Israeli professor Shlomo Avineri, who Ibrahim called "my mentor", spoke. Avineri, an expert on Marxist political thought, looked at the revolution in a comparative perspective, from Latin America to Central and Eastern Europe, and said it was not the size of the demonstrations or the anger expressed that was the pointer to look at.

"When we look at which countries made the transition, we see that it was the countries with a functioning civil society that were most successful," he said.

Avineri emphasised the importance of developing a tolerant political culture. He said that Egypt was different than other Arab countries, since it had an ancient state-culture, but added that the state had become an impediment for the development of a culture of freedom.


Even before the two-day conference started on Tuesday, Egyptian media had taken notice of the event. The fact that Egypt's foremost social scientist, the founder of the Ibn Khaldoun center in Cairo, had travelled to Tel Aviv, had created an uproar. 

In his speech in Tel Aviv, he even advocated further normalisation with Israel, suggesting the country should be economically integrated into the Arab Middle East

Nearly 40 years after the peace agreement was signed, cooperation between Israel and Egypt is still limited mainly to the top state leaders. In 1994 Egyptian playwright Ali Salem visited Israel, and wrote a book about his journey. In response, he was soon expelled from the Egyptian Writers' syndicate, and was never again to have his plays shown on stage. 

Ibrahim, on the other hand, is today a world-known Egyptian academic, and not similarly vulnerable to local boycotts. In his lecture, Ibrahim also undermined attempts amongst academics in Europe and US to boycott Israeli universities. 

However, Ibrahim didn't stop with that. In his speech in Tel Aviv, he even advocated further normalisation with Israel, suggesting the country should be economically integrated into the Arab Middle East. 

"I hope you guys are all for it," Ibrahim said to his Israeli listeners at the university. They answered him with enthusiastic clapping.

Roger Hercz is the Middle East correspondent of the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen.