A valuable addition from reader J.:
<$NoAd$>There are many indigenous forces that push for liberalization and democratization [in the Middle East]. These range from the moderate Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, to the old leftists–most of whom are quite tired by now–and the newer, human rights-oriented generation of activists and sympathizers. There are, in other words, plenty of people who are willing to make the sacrifices for democracy that this process will require, and are doing so now.
Perhaps because of distance, one tendency is to go for name recognition. … In the case of the Arab world, Saad Eddin Ibrahim has come to fill that role. And he has a certain heroic air about him in the U.S. in particular. But it should be made clear that he is primarily disliked not for heroically espousing freedom, but for accepting funding from foreigners and then apparently espousing their causes. This is more like U.S. congressmen and women accepting special interest funding and then moving legislation through government that benefits those interests. Ibrahim is linked especially to the deeply unpopular American policies that have had enormously negative impact on the lives of millions of Arabs.
At one point, while I was an impoverished graduate student here in Cairo, I freelanced as a translator for an NPR reporter who was asking people their opinions about the imprisonment of Saad Eddin. Nobody would speak to us. In fact, one man became enraged, saying, “why are you focused on Saad Eddin, go report on what is happening to the Palestinians.” This point isn’t worth more effort than this, but I just want to argue that people … should perhaps consider not making Saad Eddin Ibrahim the poster boy of democratization and liberalization. Shirin Ebadi of Iran is much more convincing as a poster girl, if we need such a person. Others exist, as well and should be given, as you say, very discreet support by people who are genuinely sympathetic to them and to their causes, not by intelligence types who are hoping to use them as wedges to crack open their respective societies.$noAd$>