Intellectuals and Democratization in the Arab World

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Egyptian and Syrian thinkers have stressed the role of Arab intellectuals in bringing about the aspired democratization in the region, and called upon them to mingle with their societies, work in close association with their people, and respond to the true public concerns so as to achieve the anticipated change.

The call came in the framework of a seminar organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) in late November 2005. The seminar was moderated by Bahey Eddin Hassan, CIHRS Director, under the title “Intellectuals and democratization in the Arab World”. Ahmad Abdelmoa’ti Hegazy, a renowned Egyptian poet and writer, presented a historical perspective for Arab intellectuals. “Intellectuals established the state in the West; whereas in the East the state established intellectuals; that is why we have been witnessing dependent intellectuals”, he started off. Refa’a El-Tahtawy, for instance, returned from his mission in France fully enthusiastic about western notions and concepts like patriotism and democracy; however after the embryonic national project was aborted and following the death of Muhammad Ali, “Khedive Abbass I” took over and reassigned Tahtawy to Sudan as a mere primary school headmaster. Unsurprisingly, Tahtawy had nothing to do there except writing petitions and grievances to the Pasha so that he would put an end to his expatriation, narrated Hegazy. Before the British occupation of Egypt, The Egyptian intellectuals movement had burgeoned and flourished until the Egyptian Independent state was established in 1923. Throughout this period, Egyptian intellectuals managed to stay independent from the state which had fallen in the grip of the British colonialism. They established the Egyptian University in 1908, developed the idea of a national parliament and constitution, leading to the creation of the first-ever parliament in 1866. After 1952 when the military junta managed to demolish all existing democratic institutions, Egyptian intellectuals tended to retreat and take a back seat, as any bureaucrat would do. The painful outcome had been and still is hack writers and bureaucrat professionals in every walk of life. Thus, argued Hegazy, we cannot be talking about intellectualism or democratization as the case when we talk about Voltaire, Emil Zola, or Jean-Paul Sartre. Likewise, we should not be talking about an exceptional intellectual like Taha Hussein, who stood up against the conspiracy in which Al Azhar collaborated with the monarchy to extract the seat of the Ottoman caliphate from Turkey to Egypt, after Ataturk wiped out the caliphate in Turkey.

The Sectarian Intellectual
“Stop talking! Humanity has been toiling under the burdens of your errors,” the Syrian intellectual Radwan Ziadah, the prominent thinker, inaugurated his speech quoting an eminent philosopher. Mr. Ziadah was highlighting a new input that has to be considered anew; i.e. the end of the role of intellectuals in the public sphere. Practically speaking, the role of the intellectual emanated from the great western influence on Arabs who traveled to be educated in the West. Hence, and unsurprisingly, founders of all the ideological parties in the Arab world, with the advent of the nineteenth century, shared western cultural backgrounds. Anton Sa’ada, founder of the Syrian Social-Nationalist Party and Michelle A’flaq, founder of the Arab Ba’athist National Party as well as other party founders are good examples to this western influence. Upon their return, those intellectuals ushered the birth of a new notion: the “sectarian intellectual” who acquired the truth and was fully committed to its dissemination in his homeland. Amidst social movement and economic activity, the returning intellectuals succeeded to acquire an influential status in the public sphere and one way or another they created a political field in the Arab world. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of military coup d’états, a kind of compromise and balance occurred between the symbolic power of the intellectuals on one hand and the forceful power of the military juntas. The influence of those intellectuals started to gradually diminish until it came to an end by the eighties and nineties of the twentieth century. Subsequently, the concept of the hybrid intellectual was born. This hybrid intellectual is not fully dedicated or committed to knowledge; rather, he became a political activist who is more concerned with human rights issues. In this light, a debate was raised on the distinction between an intellectual, an activist, a politician, and a patriot.

According to Mr. Ziadah, the involvement of an intellectual in the democratization process practically evolved from his realization of the ongoing social transformations as the majority of Arab societies had been toiling under severe despotism in all aspects of life, including culture, media, and economics; consequently, when intellectuals attempted to assume the role of “rebels against despotism”, they were always unheard and unable to communicate their ideas effectively. Mr. Ziadah called on intellectuals to reconsider their role and function; from total engrossment in knowledge to going down in the street and mingling with the people. To build a civil society that is able to stand up against severe dictatorship and achieve the required social change, Mr. Ziadah demanded that intellectuals would communicate with their societies and augment the capacities of human rights groups. To this end, an alliance should be built in the coming phase between all civil society groups and organizations, pro-change activists, and human rights advocates, Mr. Ziadah suggested.

Great dilemma
Mr. Mohamed Sayed Said, Deputy Director of Al-Ahram Center for Future and Strategic Studies argued that intellectuals are substantially philosophers and if their performance doesn’t live up to that level, they would be considered scientists, experts, or even spiritual men, but still their mission has to be producing knowledge and inspiration in full commitment and bias toward their values and stances. Mr. Said explained that when intellectuals become biased, their knowledge is distorted and they, subsequently, turn into politicians. An intellectual is one who doesn’t possess authority, and when s/he has access to authority, s/he turns to something diametrically opposed to his/her own self. By seeking access to authority, an intellectual is contradicting with him/herself and splitting him/herself into two personas – one who is devoted to knowledge and the other who has access to the ruler, and provides counseling to the regime. According to Dr. Said’s taxonomy, such a person belongs to the rank of “experts”. The intellectual is in a real dilemma, he emphasized.

Since the military took over, intellectuals pulled back to the backdrop of the public scene in general, and the political scene in particular. Intellectuals held divergent positions in the public scene, and even played roles that they didn’t necessarily had in mind. And in the Egyptian case, after the intellectual was compellingly driven away from his/her leading position in the public scene, the middle class eroded after it had always constituted the medium, or the carrying waves, between the intellectual and the public. Responsibility of the intellectual extends well beyond encountering the tyrannical power to encountering his/her own community and sometimes his/her people, and in this light, a new cultural field is shaped, i.e., the culture of debate, dialogue and argument. Devastation of our countries and destruction of their social fabric, assassination of human dignity through torture and incarceration referring to corporal and moral punishment that have been prevailing, all have generated bitterness deep inside the people. The best an intellectual can do is to shed light on the scope of choices that were historically viable with all their confusions and tribulations. Democratization is not entrusted with the intellectual in his/her capacity as a “knowledge producer”, rather in his/her capacity as a human being “who lives in the world of his people and interacts with them”, he added. Humanizing the social and political practices is the mission that should be assigned to the Arab intellectual in this particular moment of history. Restoring human empathy, and providing for the rule of rational productive and just law are two fundamental goals that should be achieved so as to restore the human status even in its simplest sense. Ziadah ended his word by emphasizing that human and public rights advocacy lies within the definition of the intellectual’s role as a human being.

Aktham Na’issa, Chairman of the Committees for Human Rights Advocacy in Syria, shed light on the drastic changes witnessed by the Arab region and Syria in particular. “Syrian intellectuals have always led all anti-tyranny projects in their country. However, a large group of them were closer to the drastic changes and had been fighting for a notion that they deemed to have been the truth and that it would lead Syria toward the aspired-for society till everyone realized at a particular turning point that they were fighting for an illusion”, expatiated Mr. Na’issa.

Mr. Na’issa expressed his belief that a certain kind of detachment, on the political level, existed between the intellectual elite and the public, which gave rise to the question of the relation between intellectuals and their societies and their credibility. According to Mr. Na’issa, Arab intellectuals have never been productive and have always been recipients, whether for the repertoire of great notions that were born in the west or political and social transformations that ensued there. Talking about democratization in Syria, he invited intellectuals to pluck up more courage and valor to produce and formulate new notions and concepts. First and foremost they should renounce all the political and intellectual projects that had been in place for ages under the presumption that they carry the truth, he advised. Taking such a courageous initiative would provide Syrian intellectuals with vitality and dynamics and would allow for new notions to be conceived and new projects to be created, he proposed. It is imperative on intellectuals to get rid of the phobia of the external world and renounce the prevailing notions which have always portrayed the external world as an enemy, and to stop propagating the concept of duality between the “internal” and the “external”. The “external” is part and parcel of a universal civilization to which we have always voluntarily belonged by virtue of our human existence.

Historically speaking, the ongoing debate about intellectuals and their role has witnessed many successive waves in our modern history, highlighted Editor-in-chief of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawlia quarterly (International Politics), Mr. Osama el-Ghazaly Harb.
In Egypt, during the sixties, the same argument about intellectuals was deployed; relation with the revolution, and allegiance for the regime and for revolutionary principles was major criterion upon which intellectuals were evaluated. Under those circumstances, intellectuals were split into two clear-cut categories –“intellectuals of allegiance” vis-à-vis “intellectuals of experience”. In reference to their attitude towards socialist transformations, the debate at that time split intellectuals once again into two definite categories- “dedicated intellectuals” versus “undedicated intellectuals”, recounted Mr. Harb. Nowadays, the issue of democratization has ushered in a third wave of debate about intellectuals and their role.
In order to understand the significance of the current moment of democratization in the Arab world, it should be examined in the light of the political developments that had occurred in the region over the past fifty years or even a little earlier, suggested the chief editor. That period witnessed transformation from colonial regimes into stumbling short-term liberal ones followed by military systems under the pretext of revolutionism and progressiveness; such slogans led us by the nose toward the current state of affairs of which we are seeking salvation to restore true democracy.

The battle for democracy is an inseparable combination between internal and external pressures; hence this single definite fact gave the present moment its own idiosyncrasy, Mr. Harb expounded. No one can claim that those who press for democracy from outside the Arab world have bona fide commitment to spread democracy in our societies; on the contrary, the United States –US- and the western colonialism had never been in favor of democracy in the region as they always supported the most tyrannical and dictatorial regimes since World War II. They supported extremist Islamic powers in their battle against communism; nevertheless, after the collapse of the Soviet Union they found themselves facing the very same powers. In the aftermath of September 11th attacks, they came to realize that absence of democracy is a major problem in the region that normally leads to political spillover on the US and the West.

In absence of democracy at this historical moment, we cannot hope for any true development in our Arab and Islamic spheres. And according to Harb, the road is paved for us at the present moment to build up influential pressure to achieve the long awaited democracy. Likewise, we cannot be talking about true democratization in absence of an effective and potent role for intellectuals. In this regard, the exceptional role of the intellectuals should be scrutinized within a careful and comprehensive study on the role of different classes of our societies, he recommended. Intellectuals should espouse self-criticism and should be more decisive and able to shoulder a more vital role in the upcoming period. Mr. Harb blamed Arab intellectuals for being indecisive and uncertain in many of the issues that are facing our nation like the conflict between the state and the religion and modernism as opposed to traditionalism. This crucial question must be decisively and seriously discussed and resolved as it had been in focus a century ago.

Unfortunately, a lot of negative features were associated with many intellectuals. In Harb’s opinion, some intellectuals joined the so-called law–tailors who have always conspired to defend the regime and its domination of power, whereas others pursued personal interests at the expense of public interests. If intellectuals really seek a solemn role, they have to be self-critic to live up to their historical responsibility as they rightly represent the conscience of the nation and the goad of its awakening; the “internal” and the “external”

In our current endeavor, there is a dire need to come up with a definition of the term “intellectual”, demanded the Syrian intellectual Tayeb Tiziny. According to my definition, an intellectual is an active thinker and a reasonable actor. On the one hand, he takes action in the context of producing knowledge; and on the other, he possesses knowledge in the context of action. Otherwise, we will face a metaphysic duality, which will entangle the intellectual forever in the maze of absolute knowledge and will leave him totally paralyzed when it comes to actions, he warned.

Regarding the relation between the internal and the external, Syria has been witnessing an extensive argument after the issue had developed pragmatic dimensions in additional to its historic theoretical dimension. However, he warned, it is not by all means an open pinky relation, so we are not expected to accept the external as is.

Mr. Tiziny argued that the west, just like the east, is not a sole entity, rather there exists two or even more “Wests”. So, only through careful analysis will we be able to distinguish one west from the other, otherwise, how do we explain having Western forces supporting Arabs against the war on Iraq?

Mr. Tiziny regarded the west as the first geo-political or political focus that has been destined to have influence on us. In order not to be expelled, this focal point had to exercise its influence through internal mechanisms. Additionally, the west should obtain response to their intervention from within the internal environment; otherwise, we would be talking about invasion not intervention. The invasion scenario has been realized many times since Napoleon’s campaign on Egypt up till now – the matter that testifies to the authenticity of the theory of duality between the internal and the external in the Arab mind.

Despotism, which was developed post World-War-II, aimed to secure power and wealth domination. Even worse it sought to dominate public references, i.e.. Truth and formation of public opinion. Such quadric tyranny, which blocks the horizon from top to bottom, is what Syria has been toiling under since the creation of the “security state”.

Mr. Tiziny ended by saying that when we untie the invasion association between the internal and the external, we will be able to avail ourselves of the product of that external. Nevertheless, inviting the external to break into us and giving him a carte blanche, is an invasion that will eventually bring the curtain down on the internal for the interest of that invading external.

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