Press freedom changing Arab world

But newspaper bureau chief still offers bleak outlook for Middle East

Scenic view of the Nile River in Egypt. Cairo is the largest capital city in Africa.
Scenic view of the Nile River in Egypt. Cairo is the largest capital city in Africa.
Ahmed Kayssi
Ahmed Kayssi

CAIRO—A column about politics in the Arab world is bound to be over-ambitious. Several volumes at least are needed to fairly encapsulate the complex and intricate history of a region plagued for centuries by war and oppression.

And yet an understanding of Arab politics is of vital importance in the West, since what happens in the Middle East affects energy prices, international security, and the welfare of hundreds of millions of people living in the region and beyond.

Earlier this week, I interviewed Mohamed Salah, the Cairo bureau chief of Al Hayat, a hugely influential daily Arabic newspaper based in London and published internationally. Following is an attempt at summarizing the conversation.

According to Salah, Arabs are suffering because of the absence of democracy and public participation in the political process. This was exacerbated after the attacks of September 11, when Arab regimes scrambled to preserve themselves by becoming even more subservient to America and using the terrorist attacks as a pretext to suppress any local opposition.

Political reforms that have been imposed on dictatorial Arab regimes from abroad have been largely superficial and ineffective in bringing about positive change. This has demoralized Arabs and led to widespread corruption as people lost trust in the ruling elites. Subsequently, apathy and lack of interest in a better society have become endemic in the Arab street.

Such circumstances provided a fertile ground for the growth of the modern Islamic parties that are a major player in every Arab country today. Although political Islam has long been part of the political landscape in the Middle East, it is increasingly emerging as the only credible alternative to the decadent systems in power.

In this deeply conservative part of the world, many people are drawn to such parties because of their simple religious message and charitable social services. Throughout the Arab world, Islamist parties provide cheap food, clothes, schooling and healthcare for the needy. For example, a visit to an Egyptian healthcare clinic run by Islamists costs five Egyptian pounds, equivalent to one Canadian dollar. The only other alternatives available to Egyptians are state-run hospitals—which are vastly under-resourced—or private clinics—at which they can expect to pay upwards of 200 pounds, more than an average Egyptian’s monthly salary.

Salah said that Islamic parties finance their work through an intricate system of fund-raising. People who join these parties have access to jobs at businesses and companies run by similarly-minded people in their own countries or elsewhere in the Arab world or Europe. In return, they are expected to give regular donations back to their parties, which then use the money for grassroots work.

But the success of Islamic parties has often meant oppression by hostile Arab regimes, which have never tolerated any threat to their influence. The mass arrests, torture, and killing of Islamist thinkers and activists throughout the Arab world over the past few decades has led to the radicalization of the movement in many countries, and the birth of violent splinter groups that use resistance and religion as a pretext for terrorism and indiscriminate killing. It is such groups that are most familiar in the West.

But where are the secular Arab thinkers and intellectuals? Why are there no other ideas for progress in the Middle East? Salah said that there is no shortage of scholarship on political progress in the Arab world, but that, just like Islamists, secular intellectuals are also oppressed by Arab regimes. Many are driven into exile in the West, while some face torture and execution.

Furthermore, the immense unpopularity of American foreign policy in the region has made it more difficult for Arab proponents of democracy to be taken seriously. Because the American government used the establishment of democracy as one of its excuses for invading Iraq, a country that is currently in the midst of a brutal civil war, many Arabs associate any talk of democracy with expansionist American ambitions in the region. This is further complicated by Islamist and nationalist opposition movements that dismiss anything Western as satanic and suspicious.

There have been some positive developments, however. In Egypt, Salah notes, Western pressure has led to significantly greater freedom of the press. Egyptian dailies now routinely criticize the government and even the president, Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for over 25 years. But this greater freedom has not led to much progress, however, because journalistic reports exposing widespread corruption are mostly ignored by government officials, who are accountable only to their indifferent superiors.

Salah does not think that a revolution or popular uprising can change the Arab reality, mainly because Arab dictatorships employ sophisticated and well-equipped security forces for their own protection. They are also backed by Western governments keen to maintain political stability in a resource-rich part of the world.

Mohamed Salah’s outlook is bleak, which is understandable, given that he risks his life everyday covering the news in an unpredictable and often harsh part of the world. However, I think that change is coming to the Arab world, albeit very slowly. The advent of the Internet and satellite television over the past decade has allowed Arabs from Morocco to Iraq to share ideas and discuss change like never before. Everywhere in the Middle East, women are gradually getting more rights, and enrolment in post-secondary education is steadily increasing, a sign that people want progress despite the oppressive regimes that make their lives miserable.

Finally, for those interested in reading more about Middle Eastern politics, I recommend the brief special report on the Arab world in the October 21 issue of the Economist magazine. Also, an excellent book about the challenges facing Arabs in defining their place in the modern world is Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity, available in paperback through any major bookstore.

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