Arab Public Opinion Taking a New Turn

Related to US-American pressure to put forth democratic reforms, Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy (Free University Berlin) sees Arab intellectuals changing their stance. Cultural and political relations to Europe and the US are, however, still a subject of controversial debate.

Related to US-American pressure to put forth democratic reforms, German-Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy sees Arab intellectuals changing their stance. Many of them are calling for reforms; cultural and political relations to Europe and the US are, however, still a subject of controversial debate.

The variety and intensity of the issues currently being discussed by Arab intellectuals is surprising. From the search for explanations for global Islamic terrorism, the debate about the future of the Middle East in the light of the stagnating Arab-Israeli peace process and the current Iraq crisis to the heated controversy about relations with the West, the range of issues being discussed is broad and reveals a variety of opinions.

Unlike the debates of the 1990s which, for example, focussed on the compatibility of Islam with the modern age and the universal applicability of western democratic models, and in which the differentiation between secular and Islamic arguments was of enormous political significance, the current positions of Arab intellectuals cannot be clearly assigned to either of these schools of thought. They instead reflect another dichotomy, the relationality of which inspires confidence: a reform-oriented stance, which is supported by a majority, confronts a retrogressive, conservative position.

Against the backdrop of a regional situation that is considered threatening and the massive pressure to democratise exerted by America on the regimes of countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the duality of reformers and conservatives is characteristic of the overall pattern of Arab intellectual interactions. The most frequently debated questions in this context are the envisaged social change, the feasibility of democratic reform and, finally, the evaluation of the West’s Middle East policy.

In the light of the flagging democratisation process, reformers courageously tend to question the normative principles of contemporary societies in Arab-Islamic countries including the political status of religion and the modernisation role of the nation state. Conservative approaches, on the other hand, denounce the link between local reform proposals and western ideas. The essence of this approach is the reproach that is always made against dissident intellectuals in times of crisis: namely that they are the agents of a foreign enemy.

Criticism is predominantly sober

In view of their dwindling support among the Arab public, conservative authors repeat familiar accusations against the West: the pursuit of a brutal policy of defending their own interests, the protection of authoritarian leaders that are considered useful or acceptable and, consequently, the prevention of democratic development. By employing the rhetoric of the eternally cheated Arab nation, it is possible for them to embed their views in the impenetrable spheres of the collective memory. All of a sudden, analogies loaded with negative connotationssuch as the crusades and the colonial periodare drawn between the current situation and previous encounters with the West. Apocalyptic visions of the possible final battle between the Occident and the Orient are once again held up as a potential scenario for liberation from a state of continual humiliation.

Nevertheless, the volume with which this anti-western point of view is expresseda view that is broadly propagated in the American and European media because of its stereotypical naturemust not be allowed to distract us from the fact that it is at present the view of a minority group. Despite the drums of war and political tumult, the debate surrounding the West’s plans for the regionsuch as the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) announced by the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 12 December 2002 in his address to the Heritage Foundationis dominated by practical arguments. The key requirements of this plan are democratisation, economic liberalisation, improvement of educational systems and the empowerment of women.Several high-profile reformers such as Abdel Munim Said, director of the renowned Cairo Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and the Lebanese political scientist Waddah Scharara have expressed their unequivocal solidarity with Powell’s ideas. They consider an active American Middle East policy that promotes democracy to be the only way out of continuing Arab stagnation. Others, however, like the Syrian thinker Akram al-Buni and the Egyptian writer Hazim al-Biblawi, support the basic principles of the proposed reform of state structures and the expansion of political participation but warn against the dangers of an interventionist American policy.

This time, as a matter of fact, the strategists in the American administration are making it easier for Arab intellectuals to react positively to their ideas. Powell’s references to the Arab Human Development Report in the aforementioned address are less disconcerting than the previously-employed term ‘Axis of Evil.’ In an article published in the Arab daily newspaper al-Hayat, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns made a point of pledging that this development report, which was compiled by Arab authors and was presented to the UN, will determine ‘the agenda for the region and consequently America’s Middle East policy for the next 25 years.’

Even conservative forces do not deny the need for reforms

There would appear to be a definite turnaround in the Bush administration’s current discourse on the Middle East: instead of focusing exclusively on the war against Islamic terrorist groups, broad political and social issues are once again being taken into account. This approach is falling on receptive ground in a region where a self-critical search for answers to the simple question ‘what did we do wrong?’ began as part of the process of overcoming September 11. The assertion circulating in the western media that Arab intellectuals perceive the new reform rhetoric from Washington as nothing more than an ideological smokescreen for the upcoming war does not do justice to the dynamism of current debates.

Even conservative critics who distinguish themselves through their otherwise categorical rejection of American ideas, are now referring to the core principles of the American policy. The remarks made by Salama Ahmad Salamas, who writes leaders for the Egyptian daily newspaper al-Ahram, are typical of this stance. In his column ‘Up Close’ on 16 January, he initially discredited Powell’s initiative as empty words that sought to distract the Arab peoples from the planned invasion of Iraq. A few days later, however, he stressed that the themes of reform, development and good governance are highly relevant to the Arab situation. The pan-Arab-oriented Mustapha al-Fiqi, chairman of the Egyptian parliamentary committee for foreign relations, has also emphasised in several contributions to al-Hayat and al-Ahram, that the American plans mercilessly highlight ‘the weaknesses of contemporary Arab states in the fields of political modernisation, education and the empowerment of women’.

Nevertheless, in terms of the state of Arab societies, reform-oriented and conservative intellectuals react to the controversial assessment of the American and/or western policy with different arguments. The Qatari politician Hamad al-Kauaui provides illustrative ideas for approaching reform. In concert with the official line of his government, he speaks out in favour of accepting the American proposals and working together with the Bush administration to stem the fatal effects of September 11. His statements are very similar to the criticism of the state of development of Arab nations outlined in Powell’s speech. He extensively rebukes their negative characteristics, and in particular their continuing stagnation, lack of planning and non-existent democracy. From al-Kauaui’s point of view, these characteristics are proof of the undeniable failure of the nation state’s attempts at modernisation and indicate that the time has come to explore alternative routes with the help of friendly foreign countries.

In contrast to this unrestrictedly affirmative stance, Abdel Hamid al-Ansaris, deacon of the Faculty of Law at the University of Qatar, is more cautious. In an article in al-Hayat entitled ‘Continual dialogue with America is feasible and desirable’, he praises the ‘American efforts’ in the region and criticises the unfounded Arab tirades of hatred against the USA whether it be for reasons of their supposed responsibility for the creation of Israel or for their continual support for America-friendly dictatorships. Nevertheless, al-Ansari stresses that both sides must learn from each other in order to introduce political and social reforms in the Middle East. On the one hand, he points out, the Arabs have had some positive experiences with democratic transformation over the past few decades. Take, for example, Morocco and Jordan. On the other, he claims the Americans lack an accurate knowledge of the special characteristics of the Arab political culture, such as the widespread leadership cult. If these characteristics are not taken into account, he says, all attempts at change are doomed to failure.However, even more influential than al-Kauaui’s or al-Ansari’ position among the Arab public are the views of countless reform-oriented intellectuals, which can be summed up as follows: ‘although America’s proposals are not incorrect, we Arabs have better answers to the continuing crises in our societies’.

While the Egyptian writer Nawal al-Saadawi concedes that democratisation, political empowerment of women and the state of the educational system are obviously problem areas in most Arab countries, she vehemently rejects the assertion that the peoples of the region need ‘foreign experts’ to guide the ruling elite out of their current plight. Al-Saadawi presents a significant argument that is shared by reformers such as the Lebanese sociologist Salim Nassar and the Tunisian philosopher al-Tahir Labib: in view of the fact that America does not enjoy a good standing among the Arab masses as a result of its pro-Israeli policy over the past few decades, it would be wrong to want to mobilise these masses behind the banner of American discourse in order to achieve social transformation. For this reason, Al-Saadawi would like to release the necessary reform projects from the negative terms of reference of the USA to ensure that they are accepted by a broader social base.

The Lebanese leader writer al-Hayat Hazim Saghiya believes that there is an ‘unhealthy fatalism’ in the unilateral pro-American calls for reform. Warning against the ever-changing pillars on which America’s Middle East policy rests, he believes that the USA’s current efforts at achieving democratisation and development will be checked in the next crisis. However, if Arab intellectuals want to articulate a really continuous momentum for democratic change, they must do more than simply express their support for it, they must also focus on local and regional reform ideas.

The Saudi author Khalid al-Dakhil and the Egyptian expert in cultural studies al-Sayyid Yassin emphasise different aspects. Both thinkers consider the (re)discovery of the value of self-criticism in contemporary Arab thinking to be an overriding prerequisite for social reform. They are of the opinion that the basic assumptions of both a nation state’s secular and religious concepts for progress and non-state development projects must be questioned before future plans can be discussed. Furthermore, al-Dakhil and Yassin refuse to generalise the role of the West in the Middle East as either promotive or preventive of democracy. They call for a clarifying, tolerant discussion about relations to the ‘other’ culture, without which any dialog between the Occident and the Orient is impossible.

Both al-Dakhil and Yassin clearly distance themselves from America’s reform proposals. Firstly, they criticise the obvious eurocentrism of the proposals, which consider a complete transfer of the western liberal democratic model to the region to be the primary condition for reform. They are of the opinion that both the historical and cultural uniqueness of the Arab-Islamic region makes it necessary to adapt every imported body of thought to suit the local situation. Secondly, Yassin in particular underlines that western states are currently painting a one-sided, negative picture of Arab reality. Despite significant deficits in the shaping of a modern political landscape and the consolidation of civil societies, it cannot be denied or ignored that countless important advances have been made in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain.

Three main points can be gleaned from the remarks made by reform-oriented intellectuals. Firstly, they are all trying to position themselves with regard to a powerful global discourse about their region. Whether they agree with the Americans or qualify their proposals, the majority are convinced that the key ideas highlighted by the Americans are essentially correct.

Secondly, unlike earlier Arab debates, the emphasis on the democratic ideals of the USA and/or the West now constitutes an important pillar of reformist thought. Despite some critical remarks on the West’s Middle East policy, the reformers are beginning to realise that the countries in question are pluralist nations whose foreign policy actions are continually being questioned and monitored by state and civic control bodies. The Arab public’s previously undifferentiated image of western societies as a homogenous entity would appear to be crumbling in places.

Thirdly, there is a clear renunciation of the previously widespread belief in the nation state as the motor of social modernisation. Reform-oriented intellectuals place much less trust in the creation of liberal state structures than in democratisation and transformation projects initiated by civic society. Hopes are now pinned on human rights organisations, women’s movements and youth associations.

Tendency to accentuate the negative side of things dwindles

And what about the conservative intellectuals? For the most part, they persist in adhering to the comfortable theory of large-scale western conspiracies and don’t dare to think about necessary reforms. The fatalism on which these theories are based is dubious. For example, the Palestinian thinker Munir Schafiq and the Egyptian writer Salah al-Din Hafiz see Arab societies as beingand remainingthe victims of mighty, despicable enemies from whose grip they cannot hope to escape. They paint a depressing picture of Palestinian and Iraqi civilians who will either be driven from their countries or massacred within their borders. Finally, they claim that an imminent American general attack would destroy everything that is holy to Arabs and Muslims.

This and other similar pessimistic scenarios are losing support among the Arab public. In fact, the reformist school of thought would appear to have considerable potential for dissemination. On 13 January 2003, in the run-up to the Arab Summit, the Saudi government announced the launch of an initiative to establish a new Arab social contract. This initiative received much media coverage at the time. The three obligatory basic principles of the contract are the rejection of violence, self-criticism and the expansion of political participation. If, as the Saudi initiative unmistakeably indicates, the winds of reform have succeeded in touching even the most conservative of all Arab regimes, we can with a clear conscience thank the Bush administration on this one point at least.

This lecture was given within the "Reform and Debates about Reform" lecture series at the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) in Cairo, Egypt.

Dr. Amr Hamzawy works at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin and is currently teaching at the University of Cairo.

Translation into English: Aingeal Flanagan

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