Because of Israel’s abominable behaviour towards Palestinians, most Arabs — myself included — have tended to direct our criticism less to the general situation in the Arab world than we might ordinarily do. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say, however, that once we start to look at what obtains in the Arab world most of us are fairly appalled by the over-all condition of mediocrity and galloping degeneration that seem to have become our lot. In all significant fields (except perhaps for cooking) we have declined to the bottom of the heap when it comes to quality of life. We have become an embarrassment, as much for our powerlessness and hypocrisy (for instance, vis–vis the Intifada, for which the Arab states do next to nothing) as for the abysmally poor social, economic and political conditions that have overtaken every Arab country almost without exception. Illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and unproductivity have increased alarmingly. And whereas the rest of the world seems to be moving in a democratic direction, the Arab world is going the other way, toward even greater degrees of tyranny, autocracy, and Mafia- style rule. As a result, more and more of us feel that we should no longer keep silent about this. Yet one scarcely knows where to begin in trying to ameliorate the situation, although honesty about what we have allowed to happen to ourselves is a good way to start.
A small number of instances illustrate what I mean more eloquently than lists of facts and figures, all of which, incidentally, would support what I mean here. A short time ago, the Egyptian-American intellectual Saadeddin Ibrahim, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo and director of the Ibn Khaldun Centre, was sentenced to seven years in prison with hard labour by a state security court. And this after two months of solitary confinement consequent on summary arrest, followed by several months of trial for financial misdemeanour, tarnishing Egypt’s image, tampering with the election process, stirring up confessional or sectarian sentiment, as well as being an enemy informer. These are major charges, of course, but what seems amazing is that the court rendered its judgment in a matter of hours after hearing evidence for months.
A huge amount of attention has been lavished on the case for obvious reasons. A prominent intellectual had been brought low in a country whose political centrality and size almost guaranteed much commentary and, especially in the liberal West, a great deal of negative judgement against the system that seemed to be persecuting a man for his independent, if not always widely popular, opinions. The few Arabs who defended him almost uniformly began by saying that they found his views and his methods distasteful: he was known to favour normalisation with Israel, he seemed to prosper financially because of what seemed to be his entrepreneurship, and his ideas in general circulated with more success outside, rather than inside, the Arab world. Still, it was meant to be clear to everyone that an example was being made of him; he therefore suffered unjustly, despite his on the whole rather special way of life and success.
I must be one of the few people who has followed the case from a distance, but who knew Ibrahim about 30 years ago and has not seen or heard from him since. I have visited Egypt and AUC several times in the last two decades, but his path and mine never crossed. I don’t recall reading anything by him, but I did know of his interest in civil society, his cordial relationship with the power elite in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere, as well as his interest in elections and minorities. All of this I gleaned at second or third hand, so I am not in a position to say anything about his ideas. Nor do I think they are really relevant, one way or the other. I assume that he has ideas, and I also assume that, like all intellectuals, he has generated as much hostility as support. That proves nothing and strikes me as entirely normal.
What appears incontrovertibly abnormal, however, is that he has been systematically punished by the state because of his fame and his criticism of several of the state’s policies. The lesson seems to be that if you have the temerity to speak out too much and if you displease the powers that be, you will be severely cut down. Many countries in the world are ruled by emergency decree. Without exception such rule must be opposed and condemned. There can be no reason short of absolute natural catastrophe to suspend unilaterally the rule of law and the protection of impartial justice. Even the worst criminals in a society of laws are entitled to justice and proportional sentence. In the United States, for example, many commentators on the Ibrahim case fail to point out that America (which is not ruled by emergency decree) is one of the worst offenders when it comes to unfair sentencing (usually affecting non-whites), capital punishment, and a horrible prison system that per capita is the largest and most punitive in the world. In other words, what Egypt does must be looked at from a perspective that includes so-called civilised countries, many of whose journalists have condemned Ibrahim’s treatment without also admitting that his case is not unique, whether in the Middle East or in the West. Thousands of Islamist militants are treated far worse, without much protest from liberal journalists who are passionate defenders of Ibrahim (such as Thomas Friedman) and who have nothing to say either about their own countries’ human rights abuses, despite the law, or about the fate of less visible Arab victims of state injustice than Saadeddin Ibrahim.
The point, of course, is that justice is justice, and injustice injustice, no matter who is indicted and mistreated. The travesty of due process in the Ibrahim case is an offense not because he is rich and famous, but because the offense is a serious one no matter who its victim is. And what is so significant about the case is that it speaks volumes about our current malaise and our sense of distorted priorities when it is assumed that any citizen at all, not just a famous academic, can be subject to the distortions of power in the Arab world. The case tells us that our rulers hold that no one is immune from their wrath and that citizens should maintain a permanent sense of fear and capitulation when it comes to authority, whether secular or religious. When the state is transformed from its role as the people’s property and becomes instead the possession of a regime or a ruler, to be used as it/he sees fit, we have to admit that as a sovereign people we have been defeated, and have entered a phase of advanced degeneration which it may be too late to repair or reverse.
Neither a constitution nor an election process has any real meaning if such suspensions of law and justice can take place with the relative acquiescence of an entire people, especially the intellectuals. What I mean is not just that we don’t have democracy, but that at bottom we seem to have refused the very concept itself. I became dramatically aware of this eight years ago when, after a lecture I gave in London in which I criticised the Arab governments for their abuse of human freedoms, I was summoned by an Arab ambassador to apologise for my remarks. When I refused even to speak to the man, a friend interceded and arranged for me to have tea with the offended ambassador at my friend’s house. What transpired was profoundly revealing. When I repeated my comments, the ambassador lost his temper (he happened also to be a member of the ruling party) and told me in no uncertain terms that, as far as he and his regime were concerned, democracy was little more than AIDS, pornography, and chaos. “We don’t want that,” he kept repeating with almost insensate rage.
Then I understood: so deep has the authoritarianism in us become that any challenge to it is seen as little short of devilish and therefore unacceptable. Not for nothing have so many people turned to an extremist form of religion as a result of desperation and the absence of hope. When democratic rights were first abrogated in the early years of independence because there seemed to be genuine security concerns, no one realised that the “emergency” would continue for half a century while showing no sign at all of abating in the interests of personal freedom. On the contrary, as the security state has become more insecure — after all, what state in our area can actually provide its citizens with the kind of security and freedom from fear and want that they are entitled to? — the level of repression increases. No one is safe, no one is free of anxiety, no value is preserved by law.
So low has the individual’s status sunk that even one’s basic right of citizenship, one’s right to exist free of personal threat from the state, has all but vanished. As a second instance of what I am describing as a worsening situation, there is the case of the Lebanese journalist Raghida Dergham, a capable Lebanese woman who has represented Al-Hayat in New York for several years. A fine reporter and commentator with an excellent reputation in America, she has brought credit to her profession and her country for several years. She has now been indicted for high treason in her country because she attended a public Washington meeting and debated Uri Lubrani, an Israeli Mossad operative who was one of (and perhaps the chief of) the supervisors of the occupation regime in south Lebanon. (Before that he had been Israel’s connection with the Shah of Iran). Dergham’s passport has been withdrawn, and if she returns to her country she will immediately be arrested. (Another Lebanese journalist, Samir Kassir, has had his citizenship revoked because something he wrote seems to have angered the authorities).
The Dergham case is an amazing act of perversity that suggests how far conceptions of the “crime” of “normalisation” — a stupid concept when overused either to divert attention from Arab indifference to the Palestinians, to attack other Arabs, or to promote ignorance, as I argued in my last article — can be taken. In the first place, Dergham’s debate with Lubrani was held in public, in the United States. There was nothing secret about it; it was nothing more than a debate, and certainly not a negotiation. To expect a normal, functioning citizen to obey laws that forbid even mentioning Israel’s name is mindless, to say the least. Besides, every Arab government that I know of has had dealings with Israel, secret or open. The whole world, and especially Israel’s Palestinian victims, knows that Israel, its army, agents, police and society exist: what earthly use is there in pretending that it doesn’t? But to call what Dergham did high treason is not so much to reveal that the notion of treason has been extended beyond reason and normal practice, but rather to show with what radical hostility the state views its own citizens, particularly those who carry out their professional obligations with skill and conscience. Besides, in most countries except ours, open debate is one of the ways by which the Arab viewpoint is made known. How can that be opposed?
But to Arab governments, sad as it may seem, an enlightened view is something they feel that they must oppose, especially if it displeases the ruler. One can understand and even accept that there can be an adversarial relationship between the state and its citizens, but there is now a situation of such profound antagonism whereby the individual citizen can be threatened with near-extinction by government and ruler, that the entire balance between various interests in the state has lost all meaning. Crime is no longer an objective act, governed by recognised, publicly codified procedures of evidence, trial, punishment and appeal, but has become the prerogative of the state entirely to define and punish at will.
At issue is the right to free thought and expression and, underlying that, the right to be free of ludicrously enacted restrictions against individual freedom. Both the cases I have cited were brought against well-known personalities who have the resources and connections to draw attention to what was so unjustly done to them. But a whole, mostly hidden, population of possible victims exists in Arab societies today, against whom similar measures can be and have been taken, either individually or collectively. For them such ridiculously overused rubrics as homosexuality, atheism, extremism, terrorism and fundamentalism have been used much of the time without sufficient care and nuance, just so that critics of the ruling groups could be silenced or imprisoned. Torture has been as common in Arab prisons, alas, as it has been in Israeli ones.
Most of us live in fear of such a fate, and this is why many intellectuals keep silent or thank their lucky stars that what has happened to Saadeddin Ibrahim and Raghida Dergham hasn’t happened to them. And certainly these two individuals have been singled out so that an example could be made of their humiliation and punishment. Foolishly, however, other intellectuals also hope that if they behave, join the chorus of condemnation, and be careful to say only the “right” things, they will not suffer a similar fate. At this point, I do not know which is worse: direct censorship practiced by the government, or the self-censorship of caution exercised by each and every one of us so that we can lead our lives inoffensively without going to jail or disappearing in the night. The other day I met a young Iraqi Kurd who had just escaped from his country. There, he told me, if someone wanted to do you harm, you could be reported to the police as an enemy of the state: the likelihood is that you and your family would thereafter just disappear. Of how many countries in the world today is this true, and how many of them are Arab? I am too embarrassed to ask.
As the Arab world spins into further incoherence and shame, it is up to everyone of us to speak up against these terrible abuses of power. No one is safe unless every citizen protests what in effect is a reversion to mediaeval practices of autocracy. If we accuse Israel of what it has done to the Palestinians, we must be willing to apply exactly the same standards of behaviour to our own countries. This norm is as true for the American as it is for the Arab and the Israeli intellectual, who must criticise human rights abuses from a universal point of view, not simply when they occur within the domain of an officially designated enemy. Our own cause is strengthened when we take positions that can be applied to all situations, without conditions like saying “I disagree with his views, but” as a way of lessening the difficulty and the onus of speaking out. The truth is that, as Arabs, all we have left now is the power of speaking out, and unless we exercise that right, the slide into terminal degeneration cannot ever be stopped. The hour is very late.