The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East » Chapter 2- Better Saddam's hell than America's paradise
“Better Saddam’s hell than America’s paradise”
In contrast to the history of Western thought during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there has been no great manifesto of liberal reform in the Arab world. There is no Arab equivalent of John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, William James, and the many other political philosophers who created Western liberal thought.
Of course, Arab liberals can use these existing works rather than having to recreate them but this, too, is a problem since these Western-originated ideas are not adapted to Arab experience, historical references, or conditions. Thus, they and the institutions based on them are cultural imports, viewed suspiciously and easily discredited by the many who wish to do so.
For example, even pro-democracy efforts by Western foundations can be perceived or portrayed as imperialism. An Egyptian academic points out in the country’s most important newspaper that by making support for reform, democracy, international cooperation, civil society, and gender equality a major element in determining their grants, such institutions as the Ford Foundation and World Bank control the Arab world’s research agenda. Especially since local funds or those promoting alternative views are not available, research centers that serve the Western priorities become richer and more powerful.1
But the author does not even mention the fact that regime support—and sometimes Islamist money–remains by far the most powerful source of financial aid and means for success in promoting ideas. Nor does he note how the government put the most successful liberal think-tank director, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, in prison precisely because his success at raising foreign funds gave him a degree of independence from government control.2
In addition, despite the relatively tiny efforts of Western foundations and governments to support democratic and liberal thinking, only a narrow circle of people in the Arab world have even a limited familiarity with such concepts in the first place since these works and others in that tradition are not widely available in Arabic. Access to them requires a good knowledge of Western language and sophisticated background in understanding those countries’ cultures and history, both in short supply. In contrast, it is easy for any Arab to accept a simple, emotionally appealing nationalist or Islamist doctrine more in accord with his education and experience.
At least those Arabs who studied or lived in the West might be expected to have more comprehension and sympathy for its institutions. Some of the most energetic liberals do fit this pattern. But in many other cases such experience pushed people further toward antagonistic doctrines, like the wealthy Arab students in Europe who were recruited as September 11 hijackers. And much of the educated, articulate elite, the kind of people who usually became advocates of democracy elsewhere—intellectuals, teachers, journalists, union officials—were instead servants of dictatorial regimes or of anti-democratic doctrines.
Furthermore, even when Western political concepts were integrated into Arab thought, some of its other products—Marxism and fascism—had far more influence than did liberalism. The Arab nationalist Ba’th party, which long ruled Syria and Iraq as well as being influential elsewhere, was shaped by both. Aside from Communist parties and radical leftist revolutionary sects3, Arab nationalist regimes also borrowed a great deal from Marxist concepts, as with the Nasser government’s “Arab Socialist” policies and by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein modeling himself on Stalin.
Even radical Islamism took up Marxist-derived notions of imperialism and class struggle, revising them for its own needs. Equally significant is the fact that Islamist ideas and movements have usurped the role liberals could have played as the existing system’s main opposition.
An example of the problems which arise from such a situation can be seen with the liberals’ struggle to define freedom in their countries. In the Arab nationalist conception, freedom is something for the nation as a whole—freedom from external control or interference—and not for the individual. By freedom, Islamists mean the right to practice “proper” Islam and to impose that duty on everyone else in society. For example, Bin Ladin claimed that Bush lied when he said that radical Islamists hated freedom but he explained this meant freedom for “our nation,” that is Islam as a state-community.4
Thus, in Saudi Arabia, the official definition of freedom is to be able to live under Islam’s proper laws, a slavery (Islam means submission) to the will of God. In their respective definitions of the concept, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Islamist Iran, and Wahabi Saudi Arabia are countries with freedom.
For almost every other place on earth, however, freedom is defined as a set of individual rights: freedom of speech, freedom to practice or not practice religion, and so on. In the Western world even nationalism usually appealed to people as a way of achieving a state where they would have more individual freedom, with the American revolution a perfect case in point. The liberal Arab definition is the same as the Western one. It may be what many Arabs want, but it has not yet been defined publicly as the main goal of society in their countries.
The space left for liberalism contracted to a minimum, with its appeal based on three relatively weak arguments, each of which its enemies found easy to counter.
First, the liberals insisted, other doctrines’ failures showed that change was a necessity. The establishment response, however, was that the defeats had been due to foreign subversion, the faulty application of nationalist ideology, or the need to take an Islamist approach instead. At any rate, the lesson was said by them to be that the Arabs and Muslims must fight harder for their cause.
Second, liberalism was the system which had worked elsewhere in the world. Again, the nationalist establishment and Islamist opposition responded that such an alternative was uncongenial to Arab and Islamic needs, innately hostile to their interests, or had actually produced a bad, immoral society in the West rather than one worth emulating.
Finally, liberals claimed their approach was most logical and best fit reality. But their audience’s lives had prepared them for a different world view and set of premises.
At any rate, the liberals’ voices remained faint, drowned out by their enemies’ demagogic arguments and the masses’ interpretations of ideas or events in the context of what they had been long taught and told. Consequently, events did not match the hopeful expectations of Arab liberals and their supporters. Even Arab liberal thought itself remains fragmented, advocated by largely isolated individuals and with little systematic expression. There is no powerful liberal media or organization transcending countries or within any country. A relatively high proportion of its advocates live outside the Arab world and even those inside are often only able to express their ideas fully through English-language Arab newspapers.5
Despite being constantly accused of acting as Western agents in gigantic, all-powerful conspiracies, the liberals have far less funding than do their opponents. They have little influence in universities, less in secondary schools. Television and radio are largely, though not completely, closed to them. The most common form of liberal expression is the newspaper column or opinion article. Even here, their arguments must be diluted to avoid censorship or punishment and
distorted to be even possibly acceptable to a suspicious, hostile audience. On top of this, every word they wrote or said is overwhelmed by a tidal wave of opposing utterances through every conceivable channel of communication.
True, the internet extends their potential influence, especially by providing Arabs with much greater access to Western materials, albeit in foreign languages. But, again, there has been no great liberal Arab enterprise in that sphere either. Islamists have made far more effective use of the internet than have liberals, owning many sites producing a constant stream of material both religious-political (fatwas, theological works) and political-religious (Islamist analyses of events and conditions, advocacy for specific groups).
As a result, the liberal case is heard by only a tiny portion of Arabs, its small space hedged about with the thorns of its enemies. They are also deprived of many specific tools. For example, since nationalism is already a monopoly of those who define it in authoritarian terms domestically and in radical, confrontational terms externally. Thus, one key option for nineteenth century European and American liberalism–a populist-oriented liberal nationalism–is now foreclosed.
Ironically, another lost alternative for recruiting liberals is the decline of the Marxian left, which proved a transitional stage for many who would later become liberals, like Kanan Makiya, Afif Akhadar, Sa’ad Eddin Ibrahim, and Hazem Sagiya. This is because Marxism and Communism were Westernizing influences for Arab intellectuals, something that taught them new and distanced them from both tradition and Islam. The left’s demand was for fast, thorough change toward a Western-model, albeit the Soviet one. As a result, leftists were the Arab world’s most avid modernizers. Today, though, the “left” has been reduced merely to the most rabid Arab nationalist extremists. Without a viable independent left, only Arab nationalists and Islamist are left to win young people’s loyalty and shape their thinking.
Finally, liberals face constant harassment and slander. Their opponents’ main argument is that the reforms and institutions liberals want are foreign implantations unsuited to their societies or downright harmful to them. The liberals are said to be traitors and saboteurs, heretics and atheists who had sold out for money or at least been seduced by an egoistic desire for Western praise.
These ideas would actually block Arabs from their proper goals (defeating the West, destroying Israel, uniting themselves, maintaining their identity, and revitalizing Islam). On a social level, they would bring a total breakdown by weakening Islam and promoting political and ethnic strife. In political terms, a weakened government would collapse into chaos or a radical Islamist takeover.
A good example of this type of vituperation came from Faysal al-Qassem, host of an al-Jazira television show, who complained that Arab liberals, “Stand to the right of Fascism and Zionism,” are close to those American leaders “who are destroying the world,” enemies of Islam and Arabism who despise their own countries, and mistakenly absolve foreign enemies “from being responsible for the backwardness of the Arab world.” On top of all that, they are the ones who were truly intolerant, more “fundamentalist and radical than Usama bin Laden.” In summary, they were nothing “more than a fifth column,” seeking to destroy the Arabs.”6
Thus, Arab liberals face the tough task of converting a far larger number of those holding hostile beliefs while being constantly denounced and harassed. How can they best handle these problems? In response, reformists developed two groups of arguments. The direct argument openly sets out the advantages of major reforms in terms similar to the way they have been presented elsewhere in the world and in Western history. This has the advantage of clarity but
the problem of being more easily refuted by Arab nationalists and opposition Islamists, as well as more incomprehensible or unpalatable to the masses whose most cherished ideas are challenged.
More often, then liberals use indirect arguments which they try to fit into existing doctrines. They insist that reforms will strengthen the regimes and ensure that Arab nationalism succeeds by beating the Zionists, Americans, and Islamists. Thus, they try to persuade the rulers that democratization is in their interests and so they should support it. This strategy may be more acceptable to their rulers and audiences but also makes the liberals likely to be manipulated or coopted by the regimes. By partly supporting the very ideas and goals that maintain the status quo, reformists risk reinforcing the status quo and adding more bricks to the walls blocking real change in the Arab world.
Another technique used by both approaches was to try to turn their enemies’ arguments against these adversaries by insisting liberals are the true patriots while their rivals are responsible for the Arab world’s sad and weak situation. Only be moderating and adapting could Islam remain strong in the people’s hearts. Only through reform could the Arabs keep up with the rest of the world and avoid being even more victimized. To circumvent the accusation that liberal ideas are alien importations, reformers claim that the seemingly Western notions they favor were originally Arab-Muslim concepts, truly universal, or at least could be adapted at no cost to identity or values.
But their enemies ridicule this argument. For them, pragmatism is a sin, abandoning ideology and tradition for purely expedient reasons is a dishonorable surrender. Besides, their opponents continue, imitating the West is a trap and illusion. The West is against the Arabs and wants you to be disloyal. Liberalism is the problem, not the solution, a Western-Zionist plot of seduction. Why should one care what the West thinks? Since it is the enemy, everything it favors is bad; all that it opposes, good. To accept its standards would betray one’s own people.
The regimes’ supporters also insist that reform means instability and instability threatens chaos. This was a very real fear for the masses already, and the post-Saddam anarchy reinforced that concern. It was understandable that they wondered whether Saddam’s tyranny was preferable to the insecurities following the American invasion in 2003. Democracy and freedom were nice slogans but wouldn’t they be painful in practice? Look at the USSR and Yugoslavia which rejected functioning systems only to be plunged into national weakness and devastating civil strife. Leaders who allowed political reform ended up being overthrown or killed.
Widening free expression, much less free elections, could subvert not only the existing regime but society itself, say the status quo’s defenders. What if radical Islamists took advantage of this opening to increase their influence or even to seize power? What if ethnic or religious groups tore the country apart in a civil war? Wouldn’t free speech bring licentiousness and destroy morality and religion? Just look at what the Western world is like! Economic change could mean collapse in that sector as well since the existing backwardness makes it hard to compete with foreigners. Might not foreign investment also bring hostile outside political and social influences? The wealthy and powerful could easily feel such changes challenge their privileges; those just surviving may fear that reforms will make their situation worse.
Even if the liberals are 100 percent right this does not mean their arguments overcome these considerable objections. Even if their reforms may benefit the country as a whole they will damage the interests of those most able to implement these changes. Despite their attempts to soften the message, the truth is that the liberal analysis does threaten the Arab world’s rulers, the economically privileged, and the intellectual establishment.
After all, among the main things the reformers would change includes abandoning the ruling doctrine and ending the regime’s educational-cultural monopoly (which validates the intellectual elite), reducing high military spending (which keeps the armed forces happy), breaking up the statist economy (which enriches the regime and its followers), putting the corrupt and human rights’ violators into jail while firing the incompetent (thus threatening the government bureaucracy); and holding fair elections (which will throw the rulers and political elite out of power).
If the Arab world requires, in Rami Khouri’s words, a more responsive and efficient state, wider participation in decision-making; decentralization, accountability and competition, this is the death knell for the entire existing system and all who benefit most from it.7 As for such liberal ideas as building positive relations with the West, making peace with Israel, and modernizing or moderating Islam, would not such measures threaten the most cherished ideas dominating their societies?
In short, the liberals may pose as reformers but the Arab nationalists and Islamists, rulers and opposition, conservatives and traditionalists know very well that the implication of their program is revolutionary, indeed far more revolutionary than what took place in Egypt when the Arab nationalists came to power in 1952 or in Iran when the Islamists seized control in 1979.
Knowing the stakes to be so high, the radical nationalists and Islamists did not restrict their arguments to the merits of the issues involved. One of their main weapons, and central pillars of the system, is to use conspiracy theories. If Western and Zionist conspiracies explain all the Arabs’ problems there is no need to examine the political, economic, and social shortcomings that the liberals insist must be fixed.
Thus, their powerful opponents constantly charge that the liberals are a key part of the subversive efforts of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ foreign enemies. Heggy was not exaggerating when he pointed out that any critic of the system or advocate of democracy is immediately accused of treason, being called “an imperialist agent, an infidel, or a heretic.”
Liberals must battle these conspiracy thinking not only to defend themselves but also to break the control of doctrines whose appeal is based on xenophobia, paranoia, and irrationality. Thus, for example, Abd al-Mun’im Sa’id, head of the al-Ahram Research Center in Cairo, warned that conspiracy theories like the widespread attribution of an Egypt Air plane crash on a U.S. or Israeli plot: “Keep us not only from the truth but also from confronting our faults and problems.” Blaming problems on external elements blocks any hope for creating a rational response to solve them.8
The constantly cultivated sense of victimization by the West coupled with belief in endless conspiracies and coupled with government control poisons public discussion and makes many thoughts impermissible. Wrote Hazem Saghiya, a London-based former leftist now in the liberal camp, “When the facts do not reach [the public], rumors, exaggerations, fantasies, and fears develop. History is not debated.…The main issues are not subject to [serious] discussion.…”9
People were taught to ignore what was right in front of their noses on a daily basis—that is, the shortcomings of their governments and societies—and attribute what happens to shadowy behind-the-scenes’ forces. If the evils come from outside, the “victims” bear no responsibility for the problems and are unable to solve them. On the contrary, criticizing or altering the existing system weakens its ability to protect the people from the demonic forces that want to destroy them completely.
This belief runs across the political spectrum. Islamists view the issue as a conflict between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world, a combination of the Crusades and Jewish attempts to seize world domination. Arab nationalists and Marxists see the struggle as between imperialism and the oppressed nations. Ordinary citizens receive such indoctrination from every direction, including schools and mosques, media and gossip, government and opposition.
Heggy concludes: “Even the most outlandish statement, if repeated often enough, can…be accepted as true…in a society in which half the population is illiterate and the other half displays only a very modest standard of education and culture.” This situation provides, “A fertile breeding ground for the most untenable, demagogical and unfounded assertions to take root and flourish.”10
But conspiracy thinking disables more than it mobilizes, leaving a choice only between passivity or futile defiance. Consequently, Arab failures do not require a re-examination of methods or premises but merely even louder complaints against untouchable outside forces. Since the enemy is so powerful, invisible, and clever, the victim can only accept that defeat and humiliation is inevitable.11 In this context, Arab societies can justify believing they are in a permanent state of war for which terrorism is a reasonable defensive measure. But terrorism merely amounts to a form of vandalism, minor sabotage or ineffectual graffiti-writing on the mighty machine.
This type of paralysis, or at least the lack of any constructive response, is reinforced by what Ibrahim calls, “The message of rejection and suspicion of everything new that Arab intellectuals, religious leaders and politicians convey makes the Arabs as a people suspicious of all innovations.”12 Instead of effective actions, politicians merely provide emotionally powerful but illogical slogans which hypnotize the people, fueling hatred and leading to even more destructive impulses.13
As the real causes of problems and reasons for defeat—like paranoia, confrontation, and militancy–are ignored, the very errors that cause failure are glorified, justified, and reinforced. Anyone challenging this world view by advocating moderation, compromise, or reform is merely added to the list of those participating in the conspiracy.
Such warnings—often accompanied by threats—cannot be lightly disregarded and shape the way liberals present their message. An example was how Shafiq al-Ghabra, a Kuwait University professor at the time directing his country’s information office in Washington, became the center of a major controversy. Ghabra had almost finished a three-year term in this job when he participated in a Davos World Economic Forum seminar in New York. There were Israelis speaking on the same panel.14 Islamists and radical nationalists in Kuwait launched a campaign vilifying Ghabra as a traitor and demanding his firing.
A sign of progress was Ghabra’s ability to launch a public counter-campaign defending his actions. And while he did resign, the government kept him on to finish his term, making it possible to judge this a small victory for the liberal cause. But of the four basic ways Ghabra defended himself, two used mainstream arguments against his accusers: he was defending the Arab cause and following the regime’s policy. His other two points—attacking accusers’ methods and defending free speech—reflected more explicitly liberal goals.
To begin with, Ghabra employed traditional Arab nationalist arguments to justify his participation. The Arabs would be foolish to abstain from such opportunities to present their case, he explained. The Palestinian struggle was going through a particularly difficult period, requiring “a redoubling of effort to represent the conflict in an honest and sensitive way.” He had thus
served the Arab and Muslim cause by championing its standpoint to an important American audience.
Such actions were especially important after September 11, Ghabra warned, since the just Arab and Palestinian causes were being distorted by Israeli efforts to identify them with terrorism. Moreover, speaking on the same panel as Israelis does not imply any normalization with Israel. After all, he added, “”Egypt had even exchanged ambassadors with Israel without really normalizing relations. He concludes, “To defend truth, I say we should debate even with the devil….”15
So far, Ghabra follows a very orthodox Arab line. In fact, his strategy is to suggest that anyone opposing his strategy are those who are really sabotaging Arab efforts. Ghabra does not choose to say that he went to the seminar in order to hear what others think, understand Israelis’ views better, move his country closer to Western views, or encourage peaceful dialogue and conciliation. Rather, he explains his goal only as trying to convince influential Americans that the Arabs are right and Israel is wrong. This is one alternative position for liberals: to insist that they are achieving the usual Arab goals better than their rivals, but this means making largely cosmetic shifts in tactics and minor details, not a fundamental change in course.
A second conservative argument used by Ghabra is to insist that he is more loyal to the regime than his critics. He is defending the status quo; his enemies are the real rebels. Kuwait’s ruler, Ghabra points out, opposed normal relations with Israel but did let his country participate in conferences that included Israel during the 1990s’ peace process. Moreover, the hard-liners are the ones who take a “stubborn and haughty stand against the wishes of His Highness” in opposing his proposal to give women the vote. In this conception, liberalism is made to seem the defender, rather than challenger, of the status quo.16
At the same time, however, Ghabra also uses some explicitly liberal arguments. He says he is a defender of free speech always ready to listen to Arabs even if he disagrees with them. His totalitarian, anti-democratic critics who brand anyone who disagrees with them as an enemy deserving to be killed are those who lead the Arab world into backwardness, isolation, and even destruction.17
One cannot be critical of Ghabra, a consistently courageous and creative liberal thinker, for protecting himself by claiming to adhere to the orthodox approach. After all, his life and that of his family, as well as his career, were at stake. But this incident indicates the limits on liberal criticism, the continuing strength of taboos, and the difficult decision individuals must make every time they speak out on any controversial issue.
The irony, suggests Heggy, is that those who boast of their militancy and loyalty do the most to sabotage legitimate Arab interests. By rejecting reforms, radical nationalists and Islamists ensure Arab weakness. No country can have any international importance, he explains, unless it is internally strong and stable. Those who make big demands, reject compromise, and alienate the West are the ones who really make Arab failure a certainty. The hardliners can explain this away by passing “themselves off as warriors battling against impossible odds” but they are just “false prophets drawing the gullible into a net of false hopes and dreams.”18
This is the basis for the sometimes frantic frustration of the liberals. Why is it so hard to persuade their own people to adopt a position which, in Heggy’s words, is “based on reason, common sense and a realistic assessment of the situation?” Why is it so difficult to show the futility of a world view whose record is so abysmal?19
In contrast to these tough and unfavorable realities, many Western journalists, politicians, and intellectuals tend to underestimate the problems and act as if the liberals’ victory
will be quick and inevitable. Referring to Kuwait, for example, one American newspaper article discussed how “Liberals are on the offensive,” engaging in “a dramatic battle of ideas between the forces of modernity and…fundamentalism” there.20
True, Kuwait might be the place where liberalism most flourished in the Arab world, the only place truly without press censorship and with liberal parliamentarians and political parties. One such politician, Muhammad Jassem al-Saqer, chair of the national assembly’s foreign affairs committee, expressed confidence that since, “All over the world democracy rules…the same will happen in the Middle East, especially the Gulf states. Kuwait is the model. This is the way of the future.”21
But the future might be a long way off. The Kuwaiti liberal forces at their peak in 1999 comprised only about a dozen of fifty legislators, far outnumbered by Islamists, and declined sharply thereafter.22 The fate of the reform movement in Syria showed even more graphically that history was not necessarily heading in the liberals’ direction, at least with any assurance or speed.
After the early disappointed hope that President Bashar al-Asad would be more flexible than his father, the Syrian reform movement tried proving its loyalty to the regime. After the government largely ignored two earlier, more ambitious, reform manifestos in September 2000 and January 2001, almost 300 Syrian intellectuals, professionals, lawyers and political activists tried a new tack in a May 2003 letter to the president.
How did they hope to change his mind? By using traditional arguments and invoking the regimes’ own goals. Reform is needed, they stress, because Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza along with the U.S. occupation of Iraq threaten the homeland, which is caught between two strong enemies. Only reform would make Syria strong enough to handle this threat.23 In this way liberals hoped in vain to strengthen their case and reduce the risk of repression. Yet this more cautious and seemingly clever strategy also reinforced the very ideas that ensured the dictatorship’s continuity and the radical Islamist opposition’s strength.
Thus, the May 2003 letter argued that national survival requires reform. Arab governments are impotent or collapsing and Syria is surrounded by enemies, especially the “aggressive, racist, egotistical, and evil policies” of the United States and Israel. The only way for Syria to save itself and stop the United States from taking over the region is by a sweeping program of reforms that include the release of political prisoners, allowing all democratic freedoms, and reducing the security forces’ power.24 Asad was not persuaded.
Yet trying to turn traditional arguments against the establishment by purporting to be on its side was a favorite liberal tactic despite its lack of success. For example, a number of Arab writers, like the Lebanese editor Ghassan al-Tueni, suggested in early 2003 that Saddam Hussein must resign or initiate real reform in order to protect Iraq and the Arab world from a U.S. invasion.25 Other writers suggested that democracy would best ensure that Saddam and his regime stayed in power.26 This was a back-door way to advocate democracy and pluralism, demanding Saddam put Arab nationalist sovereignty above his own personal selfish interests.
Ghabra, too, tried to transform U.S. pressure for democracy into an acceptable Arab nationalist argument for reform. We must, he wrote, “conduct these reforms ourselves” precisely to avoid the need or likelihood—more establishment people might use the word “excuse”—for U.S. intervention.27
These arguments might seem more compelling that the ones made more typically in the late 1990s, that reform should be adopted mainly because it would benefit Arab societies and peoples by getting rid of the dictators. It was certainly easier to tell governments that following
liberal advice would ensure they remained in power and promise the masses that such reforms would more surely defeat the United States and Israel. Yet this approach did not seem to be any more effective in bringing reform from the top..
Moreover, governments and radical oppositions correctly perceive such steps would change Arab aims as well as weakening themselves. After all, if the Arab world wants the benefits of modernization and peace, it would have to make a compromise negotiated agreement with Israel, discard anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism as a tool, privatize an economy now designed to benefit government officials or supporters, dismantle the repressive apparatus that keeps them in power while handcuffing their societies, and rethink currently dominant interpretations of Islam.
All these problems are underlined by one of the most ingenious liberal critiques of the status quo, a fictional interview with an Arab leader by Naji Sadeq Sharrab, a Palestinian political science lecturer at al-Azhar University in Gaza City.28 The ruler explains that his family runs the country by hereditary right, a system that now applied both to monarchies—Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf states—and to so-called republics like Syria, Iraq, and perhaps Egypt. The leader then explains that he must rule forever because if he steps down, “The result will be anarchy, violence, instability, and a political vacuum.”
Q: “Aren’t you afraid that the people will revolt, protest, and rebel?”
[Ruler]: “What are the security apparatuses and police for? Why do we equip the army and buy weapons?”
Q: “How do you choose your ministers and deputies?”
[Ruler]: “According to the principle of their loyalty, from among my relatives and from among those who listen but do not see.”
Q: “What is your opinion of democracy?”
[Ruler]: ….”We have our own democracy that is based on obedience and loyalty to the ruler, and thus the people work and produce in order to support the regime, and enslave themselves so as to protect it….
Q: “How do you see the future of your people?”
[Ruler]: “Their future is linked to my future and to my remaining in power….We have no opposition….But we will not let them harm the regime….”
Q: “Have you advice for your [fellow] rulers?”
[Ruler]: “…May Allah help you against your peoples….”29
But while this was satire, reality rather closely mirrored it, as shown by an actual interview with Muhammad Moussa, a member of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party and leading figure in parliament. He explained that Egypt needed no reform because it is already fully democratic. “What is it we are lacking that we are asked to implement such reform?” Everyone was “perfectly free to vote” and could express themselves on every issue. The courts ensured the honesty of elections, there was a multi-party system, and “one of the best” constitutions in the world, the envy of other states.30 Everything was just perfect, thank you very much.
At their May 2004 summit meeting in Tunis, Arab governments were supposedly producing their own reform program to prove that outside interference to encourage democratization was unnecessary. In fact, only 2 of the 21 paragraphs of this statement dealt with this issue. One merely gave a general endorsement to human rights; the other said the regimes would continue their efforts to consolidate democratic practice, broaden participation in
political life, and strengthen civil society. Liberal Arabs hardly found this sufficient and rather as another example of how the rulers tried to stall and discourage real change.31
Another version of a regime suggesting that progress required no change was a 1990s’ Syrian slogan advocating “development without change.” No one denounced this concept’s absurdity.32 Thus, appeals to leaders to reform themselves are unlikely to produce results. A Bahraini writer, Muhammad Jaber al-Ansari, explains that even if some Arab leaders wanted to implement reforms, they would be blocked by the majority of their colleagues who had held power so long that they have “gone rotten in their thoughts and conduct.”33
Another skeptical analysis comes from Hossam Itani, a Lebanese writer who, in June 2003, explained that all the talk by governments about democracy is intended to “avoid U.S. pressures without depriving the regime of any of its powers.” Democracy has just become a cover word for regimes doing as they please and simply calling it their own version of democracy.34
The regimes might take into account public opinion, he continued, but without giving the masses any real “share in power.” This in-between status is a breeding ground for extremism. The people have no means to express peacefully their opinions. The gap is dangerous, with satellite television stations stirring up people whose needs their economies and political systems cannot meet.35
This is especially so since people know how bad things are even if they don’t agree on why. Mustafa al-Fiqqi wrote in a UAE newspaper that Arabs are in “a state of humiliation and disintegration.” Yet Fiqqi shows how easy it is to straddle the line by contradictory statements, first demanding change, then depriving it of all meaning: Thorough reform is required but it should not threaten the existing systems and prevailing ideas. Reform must be gradual but any delay would be disastrous; rulers should not fear reform but it will doom them.36
Similarly, Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradhawi, one of the most influential Islamist thinkers, combines demands for reform with a hard-line position. He blasts “oppressors and tyrants” who so badly mistreat the people but then holds out hope they might learn a lesson from what happened in Iraq and transform themselves.37
But being under so much pressure, Arab liberals also understandably engage in wishful thinking in the hope that the regimes will take up their cause. A good example of the reform-is-in-the-regimes’ interest approach comes from an Iraqi journalist, Ghassan al-Atiyya. “Under wise leadership,” he explains, “crises become opportunities to effect reform and change.” For Saudi Arabia, “the current state of drift” is more dangerous than the bitter pill of reform. Unless changes are made, both dynasty and state might collapse. In contrast, if the Saudis reform they will have more influence in the Arab world. He praises the late King Feisal, a notorious reactionary, as a modernizer and cites his oil embargo during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the height of the kingdom’s anti-Western activity, as a great success.38
Atiyya seems to overestimates the regime’s need for liberal reform in order to survive and underestimate how much conservatives would rebel and jeopardize the regime’s survival if it did embark on reform. In trying to make his case that the rulers might really want to become liberals, he incredibly–but not untypically–blames the United States for the rulers’ preference to appease the Islamists instead.39
Appealing to incumbent rulers to make such alliances is a liberal tactic to avoid repression, get government support, and pose as the system’s savior from the Islamists. Yet the distance between Arab nationalist rulers and Islamists is in many ways narrower than that which divides them both from the liberals. The radical Islamist opposition does not criticize the system
as such but only complains that the regime is too timid and mistakenly fights for nationalism rather than Islam. It does not reject the rulers’ goals or institutions but just wants to give them a different flavor. Caught between these twin authoritarian forces, the tiny democratic opposition is constantly faced with choosing the incumbent government as the lesser of two evils.
Much of the population is in the same situation. In contrast to the large numbers of people who adhere either to the regime—whether from fear of change or genuine belief—or Islamist opposition, few see the liberal democratic alternative as legitimate or preferable. Even many pious Muslims think the radical Islamists hold heretical ideas and prefer the existing Arab nationalist dictatorship to risking such a revolution.40
Understandably, whether rightly or wrongly, expecting a major reform effort to bring more chaos and violence, many people are not ready to support such a change. And that, perhaps, is the biggest victory of the rulers and Islamists in their battle against the liberals.
1 Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, a Cairo University political science professor, al-Ahram Weekly, February 25, 2004.
2 See Chapter Three.
3 Including the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf, the Arab Nationalist Movement, or the South Yemen National Liberation Front.
4 Text of bin Ladin statement,Washington Post, November 1, 2004.
5 It can be argued that Western television programming—music and entertainment mostly—is available on Arab-language television, radio, CDs, tapes, and books, in both imported versions and local imitations. This material is also a cultural influence but presents ideas far more indirectly and, of course, not necessarily the best that the West has to offer. On this cultural battle, see Jihad N. Fakhreddine, Beirut Daily Star, Sept 9, 2004.
6 June 15, 2004, al-Jazira television. Translation by MEMRI, No. 759, August 6, 2004. http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP7590.
7 Rami Khouri, Jordan Times, June 30, 1998.
8 Akhbar Al-Youm, November 3, 2001. Translation by MEMRI, No. 302, November 20, 2001.
9 Al-Hayat, July 29, 2001. Translation by MEMRI, No. 257, August 17, 2001.
10 Tarek Heggy, “Critique of the Arab Mind,” Cairo 1998. “The Arab Mindset & the Conspiracy theory.”
12 Ibn Khaldun Center, Newsletter, May 1998.
14 Abd al-Mun’im Sa’id, head of the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, also participated.
15 Shafeeq Ghabra, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 15 2002.
18 Al-Watani, July 7, 2002.
20 Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 2002.
22 See Chapter One, above.
23 Robert Rabil, Daily Star, June 9, 2003.
24 Akhbar al-Sharq, June 1, 2003. See also http://www.reformsyria.com/documents/Intellectuals%20appeal%20for%20Syria%20reforms.pdf. The basic line of argument is strikingly similar to that of the Saudi democracy petition of the same year. See Chapter Ten.
25 Tueni, born in 1926, is publisher of al-Nahar newspaper. A former member of parliament, cabinet minister, and ambassador to the UN, he spoke out for free speech and Lebanon’s independence from Syrian control. See http://www.annahar.com.lb/NAboutUs/pg3.htm and http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/transcripts/2003/jan/030106.seelye.html
26 Ayed al-Manaa, al-Watan, September 15, 2002.
27 Al-Rai al-Aam, September 30, 2002.
28 Naji Sadeq Sharrab, “Interview with an Arab Leader, al-Quds, May 5, 2003, Translation by MEMRI, No. 524, June 19, 2003.
30 Muhammad Moussa, al-Ahram Weekly, May 28-June 3, 2003.
31 Text of Arab Summit final resolution, May 23, 2004. See http://www.albawaba.com/headlines/TheNews.php3?sid=277498&dir=news&lang=e.
32 Tarek Heggy, “We…and the Reality Around Us,” al-Ahram, May 11, 2003.
33 Mohammad Jaber al-Ansari, al-Hayat, June 8, 2003.
34 Hossam Itani, al-Safir, June 20, 2003.
36 Mustafa al-Fiqqi, al-Khaleej, June 17, 2003.
37 Yousef al-Qaradhawi, Qatar Television, June 13, 2003, downloaded from www.qaradawi.net
38 Ghassan al-Atiyyah, Daily Star.
40 Taufiq Abu Bakr, “The Arab Liberal Trend and Its Moment of Opportunity,” al-Ayyam, May 28, 2003.