Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

In defence of debate

It is better to have a bad debate than no debate at all, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Debates have a bad press in many circles and among many segments of the population. This is for four different reasons. First, they have a tendency to question taboos, to scrutinise and criticise the past, including the sacred figures of Egyptian, Muslim and Christian history. Second, they unleash dangerous passions and the more rational side or the most enlightened almost never wins. Good arguments seldom have the upper hand. It even looks as if there is a David Ricardo-like law (named after the 19th-century economist) to the effect that bad arguments always drive out good ones. 

Third, debates that more often than not leave wounds weaken the anti-terrorist front. This is especially true, we are told, when the population is suffering for economic reasons. Fourth, many observers, not only in the majority camp, say that the intellectual and media elites do not have an ethic of responsibility and are easily moved by irrational passions or, worse, by a predilection for the politics of the worst. Both their “ends” and “means” are bad.

The Egyptian scene has recently witnessed many debates, among them on religious, political, cultural, and historical questions. The commentator Islam Beheiri has criticised tradition, the writer Youssef Zidan has demolished the legend of Salaheddin, the founder of the mediaeval Ayoubid Dynasty in Egypt and vanquisher of the Crusaders, the same Zidan has criticised the ancient Coptic patriarch Kyrillos (Cyril) and his role in the slaughter of the ancient Greek female philosopher Hypatia, and of course there has been the heated squabble over the Tiran and Sanafir islands. There have also been debates on football. 

The eternal squabbles over former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat never seem to disappear. The last occurred when former foreign minister Amr Moussa evoked Gamal Abdel-Nasser in his recently published memoirs, apparently saying that he ate a lot of imported food. The reaction was furious and vociferous. This is always the case when Nasser and Sadat are attacked.

Parliament is now discussing a draft law that would forbid, and sanction, the “humiliation of the symbols of Egypt”. This has rightly caused uproar. Scholars, activists and many others have had a field day mocking this draft law. The idea is bad. And the technicalities are dubious since “humiliation” and “symbols” are vague terms in need of definition. Any comparison between two Egyptian leaders could be dangerous if this law is approved by parliament. The sanctions are severe. The MPs have tried to calm the uproar, saying that academics and scholars would be exempted from the law, but they have hardly succeeded.

Whether the law is passed or not, the discussion is an indication of the prevalent mood in conservative circles. These are dismayed by the violence of contemporary debates, the de-sacralisation of Egypt’s history, and the evolution of the language with its loosening of taboos. Many people now say what they feel, not what they feel they should say according to established norms, and so on. The conservatives have strong arguments in favour of a “repressive” approach. Cairo circles might be liberal or accustomed to debate, they say, but the rural areas of the country are not, and their opinions matter. I am not sure that this diagnosis is right, but it appeals to many decision-makers.

I have never bought some liberals’ arguments that the more rational argument always wins, that politics is the art of convincing people, and that repression is an admission of the weakness of an intellectual position. I understand that civil war and violent unrest can be real and ominous threats. I hate the perverted influence of some deeply flawed and malignant arguments on society, looking like a kind of efficient blackmail. I share the conservative assessment of many debates that they are awful and dangerous, but I would also add that the conservatives more often than not bear partial responsibility for them. 

Nevertheless, debates are necessary and healthy. I do not pretend to have a new case for defending such debates, but I do want to underline some points.

A lot depends on the assessment of the maturity of Egyptian public opinion. Many conservatives claim that this is immature, sectarian, dogmatic, fanatical and easily inflamed. This assessment has close links with the notion that the worst argument always wins. I would tend to say that this underestimates the public’s maturity. Egyptians have learned a lot from the debates of the last two decades. For some circles, these paved the way to the 25 January Revolution and the country cannot afford a re-run of this. 

I would tend to say that these debates played a major role in the demise of the ideologies that support terrorism and that the 25 January Revolution was a miraculous event and not a bad one. Over the last decade, the silent majority of Egyptians has mostly behaved in a mature and rational manner.

Of course, ideological minorities exist, and they can organise unrest or confessional strife. Once in a while, unrest can become an upheaval or a revolution. But does repression minimise that risk? Efficient repression comes at too high a cost, and I will not mention the social and psychological wounds of it and the lasting damage it can cause. Suffice it to say here that repression entails closing social-media outlets and controlling mobile communications. This would slow economic activity, among other things. 

In other words, the cost of efficient repression is too high, and its success is not guaranteed. The liberals and leftists have a point when they say that targeting them to placate the conservatives is the wrong approach and one that has consistently failed. Yet, many keep on trying it.

Let us suppose that parliament approves the new law. The authorities might then opt for an approach like that of former president Hosni Mubarak, making the law into a form of intimidation that will not be systematically implemented but might be useful against some selected targets. But this causes terrible damage to the rule of law. On the other hand, the authorities might mean business with the new law, and this would decisively stifle debate at least in the newspapers and on television. I do not see how they could effectively monitor social media. I’m also not sure that circumscribing the debates in the virtual sphere is a healthy idea, as passions here are much more violent. Moreover, a credible media is necessary if you want to counter the nasty effects of fake and malignant news.

This leads us to national security and considerations of the national interest. The present poor shape of Egypt’s once-celebrated soft power is an open secret. This soft power was Egypt’s main asset and a tool it could use to exert its influence. The conservatives seem oblivious to this. The present fierce debates may cause headaches and entail risks, but they are a main component of Egypt’s attractiveness. 


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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