Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 March - 1 April 2009
Issue No. 940
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Amr Hamzawy

Impediments to positive change

Demagoguery and totalitarianism are what forestall, in the Arab world, the spread of a culture of democracy and human rights, writes Amr Hamzawy*

At the beginning of this year the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), an NGO dedicated to promoting respect for the principles of human rights and democracy in the Arab world, issued its first annual report with the title, From Exporting Terrorism to Exporting Repression: Human Rights in the Arab World in 2008. The three-part report covers in detail the systematic violations of human rights by the governments of eight countries, some in the grips of armed conflict, such as Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, and others in the grips of authoritarian regimes of varying severity, such as Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Syria. The report further examines how the governments under study responded to international pressures aimed at promoting a positive change in the human rights situation in the Arab world. It considers, on the one hand, the degree to which the enthusiasm of the moral and practical response to such pressures corresponded with the extent of the regimes' dependency on Western interests and, on the other hand, how successful Arab governments were in neutralising such pressures by means of individually and collectively pursued strategies focussing primarily on the rejection of outside interference in Arab internal affairs.

Yet the finest part of the report was its third section, in which my professor and mentor, Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, examines cultural shifts in the Arab world from the perspective of human rights. His study hones in on three factors: first, the relative shift of certain influential political trends, notably the Islamist, the pan-Arab and radical left, away from ideological justifications of violence and towards the principles of human rights and democracy; second, the change in the order of priorities among intellectuals and shapers of public opinion in a manner that casts to the fore such issues as the respect for religious, sectarian and ethnic plurality (i.e. among Muslims and Copts in Egypt; the various Sunni, Shia and Christian denominations in Lebanon; Arabs and Kurds in Iraq; and Arabs and Africans in Sudan) and that gives greater emphasis to the logic and spirit of democracy in dealing with such issues; and third, the shift in the structure of public discussions of social, political and religious issues towards greater respect for the freedom of expression of opinion and for the right to differ.

Said's superb treatment of the various ways in which Arab culture appears to be opening up to human rights issues and democracy (I strongly advise readers to have a look at it along with the rest of the report, which can be accessed on the CIHRS web site: ) has inspired me to pick up the analytical thread he has offered and to consider aspects of Arab culture that are being shaped and moved by processes, ideas and trends that flagrantly contradict with the spirit and substance of human rights.

To begin with, while acknowledging the trend away from ideological justifications for violence, which in the past were associated with certain political movements, it nevertheless is clear that in many cases in Arab society the culture of a peaceful management of difference remains nonexistent or, at best, of limited effect. Democracy, in essence, involves an outlook and procedural approach for the peaceful management of difference that permits for a plurality of ideas, beliefs and participants, and for the peaceful rotation of authority within the framework of the rule of law, popular participation and respect for the value of the individual as a human being and a fellow citizen. There is no peaceful management of difference in countries plagued by armed conflict, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, when people cross the red lines set by the political and sectarian forces that are forever ready to suppress divergence within them and outside of them. There is no culture for the peaceful management of difference between ruling regimes and opposition forces in stable countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Syria, regardless of the relatively "soft" despotism in the first three and the more direct and harsher despotism in the latter. The ruling establishments in all four countries have yet to reach a strategic conviction in the possibility of a process of consensus-making with the opposition founded upon the commitment to safeguard the vital interests of society and a set of shared values and principles that would allow for the rule of law, the peaceful rotation of authority, and the participation of all individuals in their capacity as citizens with an equal interest in the management of public affairs through the mechanisms of periodic elections and public supervision of civil institutions.

The absence or negligible impact of a culture of peaceful management of difference in Arab countries inherently feeds the ongoing militarisation of politics and society, which fundamentally conflicts with the principles of human rights and democracy. In the relatively stable countries, the security/intelligence facet of government has become so bloated that it overshadows all other branches of executive authority and abolishes all autonomy of the judiciary and legislative authorities. In the cases of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, the process of militarisation permeates society from the political elites through the primary sectarian and ethnic bonds, with which it has become so interwoven as to create states within states, like cancerous cells poised to consume the whole. Can one credibly speak of a public sphere with a growing faith in human rights and an increasing willingness to embrace a culture of mutual acceptance and democracy at a time when political reality in the Arab world is best encapsulated in the image of the gun or the noose? The concept of citizenship has been voided of all true substance and the word has become the clichéd common currency of authoritarian elites and religious and sectarian cliques that have no esteem whatsoever for the humanity of the individual and the right to life. Can one really generalise about Arab culture's growing openness to democracy under such circumstances?

Secondly, although -- as Said rightfully observed -- there is increasing public discussion of human rights, the blight of Arab totalitarianism that we have inherited from long decades of authoritarian rule remains stubbornly resistant to eradication. I am convinced that this ill is associated above all with a demagogic approach to society and history that is fundamentally at odds with the principles of human rights and the concept of democracy. The particular danger of demagoguery is that its prevalence among various political trends and its absorption into the ideas and theories of intellectuals and opinion-shapers make it virtually impossible to check.

The demagogic outlook has little patience for political and social subtleties, and it will readily sweep them aside in the name of ideological formulations, whether secular or religious. For example, following the wave of electoral victories of religious parties and forces many Arab leftists, Arab nationalists and even liberals shrugged off the phenomenon. With no small degree of oversimplification, they chalked it up variously to "a false mass consciousness", a transitory phase, or evidence of the political apathy of the "secular majority" which left the field open to well- mobilised Islamist forces. The anti-democratic demagogic bent here resides in the readiness to divorce facts from their social substance and bend them to ideas that suit the convictions of the speaker. The demagogic approach to history is evidenced in the crude handling of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The ongoing denial on the part of Arab intellectuals and opinion makers with religious leanings of the universally recognised and thoroughly documented horrific acts of genocide and crimes against humanity is a revolting example of a totalitarian interpretation of past events that flies in the face of the spirit of human rights. Indeed, we continue to see the same anti-humanitarian demagoguery in much of the discussion revolving around the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Darfur.

The foregoing testimonies to the absence of a culture of peaceful management of difference and the intractability of the plague of Arab totalitarianism does not refute Said's observations with regards to the current processes of transformation in Arab culture. However, they do add the shadows that help create a fuller and more realistic portrait of the current situation. These dark, bleak shadows represent impediments to openness towards the culture and principles of human rights and democracy.

* The writer is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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