DeliberatelyConsidered’s Hope against Skepticism

One of the questions I put to Ziad Majed in my last post was shaped by what I learned reading Jeffrey Goldfarb’s book, The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times.  Jeff tells me that he has started a blog, DeliberatelyConsidered, with help from some of his colleagues at the New School for Social Research.  The blog promises—and delivers—”informed refection on the events of the day.”

Here’s recent piece by one of the blog’s contributors, Hazem Kandil, on the situation in Egypt.

Revolutions break our heart, whether they fail or succeed. Will Egypt’s revolution escape this grim prophecy, or will it follow the ‘human, all too human’ pattern of disappointment and betrayal that has haunted the great majority of human revolts? Cautious observers along the Nile banks and elsewhere are waiting anxiously for Egypt to recover from its revolutionary hangover and comfort them by answering a simple question: Did the Internet savvy demonstrators accidentally push the restart button? Is this July 1952 all over again? Read More

Ziad Majed on the Middle East & Democracy

An Interview with Ziad Majed

To get a better perspective on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, GonePublic’s author, Noelle McAfee, interviewed Lebanese intellectual and activist Ziad Majed, who has been working with other Arab researchers and activists for the past ten years to elaborate a regional democracy agenda. More recently he helped found the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy, which brings together researchers and activists from Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco to study democratic transitions and raise democratic awareness. Majed left Lebanon in September 2005 and now teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Paris. He regularly visits Beirut and other Arab capitals.

Noelle McAfee: How might — or might not — the year 2011 be the Middle Eastern equivalent to Eastern Europe’s 1989?

Ziad Majed: We can definitely consider that 2011 in the Arab World is comparable to 1989 in Eastern Europe. Popular uprisings are overthrowing despotic regimes, hopes for freedom and dignity are unifying men and women from different cities and social classes, and a wind of change is blowing through the whole region.

In that sense, one can say that the fall of the “wall of fear” in most of the Arab countries today is equivalent to the fall of the “wall of Berlin” 21 or 22 years ago.

Nevertheless, the international context is different and many characteristics of the regimes in question are also different (while Eastern European regimes adopted “soviet socialism” economically, regimes in Egypt and Tunisia for instance have been through economic liberalization for more than four decades now). In addition, democratic transitions might take longer in the Arab World as the political processes, the socio-economic challenges and the regional situation are more complex.

NM: You know, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe varied according to what kind of history and memory of civil society the various countries had — with Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia having a great deal, but Romania having very little.  The Romanians executed their leaders, whereas the other revolutions proceeded peaceably. The more history of civil society, the better the revolutions fared, during and afterwards. Are there any lessons here for the Arab world?

ZM: There are lots of lessons from Eastern Europe and from Latin America for the Arab World.

Police states, terror, censorship, corruption, the cult of personality (for rulers) were and are common trends in many of the regimes in question and understanding ways in which they were deconstructed in the different Eastern European cases is very useful for Arab democracy activists in the current phase.

What might be crucial, however, in influencing transitions in the present Arab situation — more than the history of civil society and its level of development — is the degree of social cohesion in the concerned country. Whenever a despotic regime relies on a sectarian or tribal basis, overthrowing it peacefully becomes difficult due to the fact that the clientelist networks and the military/police ones that the regime built are concentrated in this sectarian/tribal basis, and its members consider themselves directly threatened by the regime change. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries (and in Libya), while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, countries with deep vertical divisions might confront more challenges than those with horizontal ones.

NM:  Many observers worry about religious extremism in the Middle East, thinking that a secular dictator might be better than an Islamist state. But of course the United States. has many religious fundamentalists vying for political power, or at least for their religious values to shape public law. Is this an apt comparison?  In your view, does Islam pose a different kind of challenge for democracy in the Middle East than Christianity does in the West?

ZM: There are three levels that need to be addressed while answering this question.

The first concerns the fact that the argument about “preferring” secular dictators to an elected Islamist party or to an Islamic revolution appeared as a “Western” political stance only after the Iranian revolution in 1979. This contradicted a long US/western “trend” that supported for instance the Islamic Saudi Arabia in its confrontation with the secular Nasser of Egypt (during the inter-Arab rivalry years and the cold war context), and the Islamist Ziya ul-Haq in Pakistan in his coup against the secular Ali Boto. It also contradicts the continuous support to Saudi Arabia – a country where religion supposedly rules over the state and the society — until this moment.

Moreover, this same logic led to the support of Saddam’s Iraq in the war against Iran (from 1980 to 1988) that killed more than a million people on both sides and that politically consolidated both regimes in Baghdad and in Tehran. The consequences are still ongoing…

The second is that those who are considered “secular dictators” contributed to the “Islamization” of their societies for different reasons, among them: Islam as a political identity became a refuge for many of those marginalized or excluded from the political and economic arenas; the dictators and their regimes had — each time their legitimacies were questioned — to show that they were the “real” Muslims (more Muslims than the Islamists), allowing thus censorship by religious institutions in the name of Islam to hit many cultural events and to reduce all margins of secular thinking. Dictators also allowed religious social networks (that do not adopt political positions) to expand in order to attract lower classes and bring them away from Islamist groups (those who have political agendas).

One can already see (from movies, books, newspapers, and social “taboos”) that religious conservatism progressed in most countries where regimes played (and blackmailed) on this false equation: “secular dictatorships or radical Islamists.”

Third, it is not true that democratic transformation in the Arab World will automatically see the Islamist movements on the rise. Neither is it true that these groups all look the same. They are groups with different backgrounds, agendas, priorities and organizational structures. They are nevertheless there, more organized than others, with more resources, with simple slogans and lots of promises, and at the same time with few concrete political, financial and economic proposals. They might play important political roles, but they will be competing with other old or emerging secular groups, with a young generation of men and women thirsty for jobs, for freedoms, and in touch with the World through the Internet, social networks and satellite TV that no one can control. They will have to run for elections, to please voters and to know that people discovered their way to the streets, to the public space where they can demonstrate and express their opposition to any policy that they do not approve, and no one will be capable of forcing them back home.

Therefore, without denying the fact that political Islam (in its different forms and schools of thought) is a serious challenge in most Arab countries, I think that Islamists in general are not the alternative to despotism, and they will only be strong political tendencies or currents among others.

As for comparing Islam to Christianity or to other religions when it comes to coexisting with (or challenging) democracy, I personally do not believe in culturalistic approaches, nor in civilizational cleavages. There are historical contexts and economic developments that shape peoples and their cultures. I think the Arab-Islamic geography where one empire has been brutally replacing the other for centuries now, oil and rentier economies that dominated modern formation of Arab States, and patriarchal-tribal social structures that survived many transformations have together influenced our societies more than Islam. They weakened citizenship, individual freedoms, work and production ethics, marginalized women and substituted transparency and accountability with a distribution of wealth based on loyalty and primordial ties. Military coup d’etats and despotism, conflicts, occupation and wars all continued to shape this Islamic/Arab saga in last decades. Decadent interpretations of Islam constitute in that perspective only one reflection of a severe malaise in our societies following its different failures. And of course, any religious discourse can create more impact on people due to the “symbolic capital” a religion carries, and to the fact that it deals with intimate beliefs and collective emotions.

NM: Conceptually, can a religious people have a secular state? Does Turkey pose a good model, one that might work in other predominantly-Muslim countries?

ZM: The Turkish model is becoming more and more a reference for many Islamists in the Arab World. Turkey’s AKP party in power today has a Muslim brotherhood background, the same as most of the largest Islamist parties in Arab countries (overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim societies). I think a compromise is possible, and it will depend on the balance of power that democratic secular groups would be able to impose in the long political processes to come, so that no attempts by any group (including the military) at monopolizing power would be possible.

It is important to add here, and this is also related to the previous question, that the Arab and Islamic political literature from what was called the renaissance era – in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – carries brilliant texts on religious reforms, on rejecting religious and political despotism, on women’s rights and on citizenship. They present within the Islamic scene the best response to obscurantist discourses and groups.  People like Al-Afghani, Mohamad Abdo, Al-Kawakibi, Ali Abdel Razek, and Kassem Amin left a great heritage that many Muslim scholars, like the late Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid of Egypt, further developed in recent years. Their work should be revisited today and better presented to new generations.

NM: Thank you, Ziad.

After Nonviolent Protest…

As nonviolent protest rolls across the Middle East—now in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran—we see governments convulsing and fighting back, violently, but in a way that shows their ultimate lack of power. Today’s New York Time’s reports on how the quiet American intellectual, Gene Sharp, took Gandhi’s ideas and compiled them into a primer on nonviolent protest. One lesson he takes is that nonviolence is a good pragmatic tactic. “If you fight with violence,” Sharp told the NYT, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”  Alas, even with nonviolent protest, there are still many brave and dead heroes these past few weeks, 365 in Egypt alone. Still, nonviolence  is probably the most effective method for it hits autocrats where they are most vulnerable, unveiling their complete and utter lack of popular support and legitimacy and ultimately deposing them.

A couple of years ago I met with some of the staff of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which has its roots in Gene Sharp’s work.  The work they are doing is great and important, but I wonder:  What happens after the revolution? If nonviolent protesters remain in the posture of beseechers rather than as actors, they will remain supplicants, begging whoever steps into power for higher wages, more freedom, and a better life.

Autocratic regimes treat “their people” as subjects not citizens. Over generations, it’s easy to take that lesson to heart, to become a supplicant rather than one who with others creates a new world. Subjects may rise up nonviolently, but sustainable change won’t happen until subjects turn themselves into citizens.

Whither Egypt?

Will Egypt go the way of the Iran?  Will religious extremists take over the country?  Will the vacuum left over from a dictator’s departure pave the way for religious and ethnic conflict and extremism? What kind of regime will take over now that Mubarak has departed Cairo?

These are all the wrong questions. Whether Egypt can become democratic or not is not a matter of whether it can install a democratic regime. By definition, no “regime” can be democratic. To the extent that a regime is a kind of top-down leadership that permeates the practices of a society, a regime of any kind is hostile to democracy.

Democracies are bottom up. That’s why we can call the lie to supposedly “democratic” countries countries that allow for elections, but are anything but free. It’s not enough to hold an election if there is no space for free and open public discussion and association. Democracies require a civic culture, habits of cooperation and open discussion of matters of common concern.

So the real question is whether Egypt has or can quickly develop a civic society and set of practices that can become democratic. My guess is “yes.” From what I gather  from conversations with secular Arab democracy activists (some of whom have started the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy) there is this potential in the Arab world. Even the Muslim Brotherhood seems to see the need for a civil space to “play in” rather than one to dominate. And with support of perhaps 20 percent of the population, the Brotherhood has little chance to take over a democratic society. But more importantly the other 80 percent also seem eager for creating a strong civil society.

And notice all the women who were on the streets, the women behind the scenes. Does that look like a repressive civil society?

The best comparison is not Iran or Iraq but Turkey, a country that can be both religious and secular, that recognizes the religious roots of the term secular itself: having to do with matters of the world rather than matters of God. Secular does not mean anti-religious; religious and secular are not oppositions nor mutually exclusive. The term “secular” has its roots in Catholicism. So to all those who worry that Egypt might go the way of Iran I say, think again. The people on the street weren’t just changing their leaders, they were changing their country.

From 1989 to 2011

Happy Day!!!  Today 2011 joins 1989 as a year in which public power has overthrown autocratic power.  In 1989 in Eastern Europe civic groups formed in the space left by crumbling Soviet power.  Those civic organizations stepped up and called the lie that the state socialist governments were the “People’s” governments. The public communicative, rather than coercive, power that these groups created was a force that the top-down autocratic governments could not overcome. Public power that revoked any cloak of legitimacy undid governments in the space of a few weeks.

And now, in 2011, in just 18 days of public uprising in Egypt, a vast de-centered and almost anonymous power formed that even Mubarak couldn’t overcome.

1989 had Vaclav Havel; 2011 has Mohamed ElBaradei. Where Havel was more of a leader of the 1989 uprisings, ElBaradei had no role in creating the movement that emanated from a faceless cadre of young people using the distributed power of new media. ElBaradei lent this faceless cadre a face and credibility that  the world recognized. So while 2011 joins 1989, it represents something altogether different: communicative public power that coalesces virtually and then spills onto the streets en masse.