Sunday, May 16, 2004

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The one-upsmanship of conference presenters

For some of this weekend I attended an Olin conference entitled, "Tyranny: Ancient and Modern." Most of the presenters were quite illuminating, but there was one amusing monent. It centered on what role the Bush administration played in the release of activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim from an Egyptian prison (click here for more on Ibrahim).

The question was whether U.S. economic pressure (in the form of reduced foreign aid) hastened or delayed Ibrahim's release. The following is, to the best of my ability, a recreation of the factual debate between two of the presenters who shall go unnamed:

PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL #1: I have it on good authority that U.S. pressure played a constructive role in Ibrahim's release.

PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL #2: I discussed this with Ibrahim's wife, and I'm quite sure U.S. pressure was counterproductive.

PI#1: My source is Ibrahim himself, so I'm pretty sure of my claim.

PI#2: I had Ibrahim in my office this week, and I stand by my version of events.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Oh, yeah, well I have Ibrahim on the phone right now!! (general laughter).

I was half-expecting an Annie Hall-like moment for Ibrahim to suddenly walk on stage and embarrass one or the other speaker.

The grand irony was that Ibrahim had been in that very room approximately thirteen months earlier. If memory serves, he did thank the U.S. government, although one would also have expected him to do this. [And, it should be noted that regardless of the effectiveness, both of the speakers applauded the administration for its efforts in this matter.]

posted by Dan on 05.16.04 at 08:29 PM


I don't see how PI#1 wins this argument. If he is right, and American pressure did lead to Ibrahim's release, the Egyptians won't admit it for fear of being criticized for yielding to American pressure when the American government is unpopular with the Egyptian public. The State Department won't confirm the story in detail for fear of losing its ability to secure Egyptian cooperation on other matters (or with other dissidents). Even Ibrahim is unlikely to make a big deal of this publicly, out of concern for other dissidents now being held in Egypt. And possibly to avoid a domestic quarrel. It can be such a downer to get out of prison only to get into one of those.

Sometimes good deeds have to be their own reward.

posted by: Zathras on 05.16.04 at 08:29 PM [permalink]

That's funny stuff.

posted by: dellis on 05.16.04 at 08:29 PM [permalink]

Ah yes, the joys of conference comments: Enough about your paper, let's talk about me!

posted by: lancer on 05.16.04 at 08:29 PM [permalink]

Thanks for sharing this delightfully humorous moment.

posted by: ch2 on 05.16.04 at 08:29 PM [permalink]

You are on the same trajectory Dr. Drezner. Trust me. You will be in the position of #1 or #2 in just a few years. Being invited to an esoteric conference sponsored by an esoteric foundation, and then bragging about it publicly, is the path to academic hell.

posted by: Weber's Ghost on 05.16.04 at 08:29 PM [permalink]

I asked local activists if a letter writing campaign to the Bush admin to help on Ibrahim would help or harm, and I got a 50/50 response. His wife, the head of the Population Council Cairo Chapter, I believe did indeed feel it would do more harm than good. Some Israeli activists whom I am also in touch with were very involved in helping and tried to do so unobtrusively in order to not make the situation even worse. Middle Eastern politics are really, really difficult. He's out now, and we should all be happy, whether or not Bush had anything to do with it.

posted by: Anna in Cairo on 05.16.04 at 08:29 PM [permalink]

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