Salon Ibn Rushd: Entrenched authoritarianism in all countries of region has reaped defeatism among Arab populaces

In Human Rights Dissemination Program, Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

On 22 February 2024, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) held a panel discussion as part of the monthly Salon Ibn Rushd, titled ‘Can Palestine be Liberated without Liberating the Will of the Arab Populations?’ The session was hosted by Syrian writer and researcher Hazem Nahar and Lebanese writer and researcher Dalal al-Bizri, and moderated by academic and human rights activist Moataz el-Fegeiry.

The panel addressed the positions of Arab states on Israel’s genocidal assault on  Gaza, as well as the extent to which the national liberation of the Palestinian people intersects with the liberation of Arab populations’  will or their popular agency. It also examined the extent to which entrenched authoritarianism in the region restrains Arab peoples from supporting the Palestinian cause, in comparison to the freer and more democratic context in the West, which allows people to protest against their governments.

In this context, el-Fegeiry considered that the Israeli aggression against Gaza has not only sparked a profound discussion about the future of the global system as a whole and the international human rights system, and the alignment of international community interests in confronting urgent humanitarian issues, but has also exposed the significant imbalances in the regional Arab system, its ability to change or influence the course of events, or to have impact on the positions of the international community and international powers. “Arab governments, outside the framework of the international community, come together to demand from it as if they are outside it, and Arab peoples are outside the balance of global public opinion.”

Hazem Nahar shed light on the impact of authoritarianism on Arab popular interaction with alarming events in the region, describing this interaction as rooted in what he termed the “defeatism” ingrained in the Arab reality as a whole. Nahar outlined the consequences of the absence of a democratic nation-state in the region and its ramifications on the behaviour of Arab societies, peoples, governments, and consequently, the international community’s approach towards them.

According to Nahar, authoritarianism is the appropriation of power over the concept of the state, causing the state to dissolve into a system of authority based on individuals and limited groups. Consequently, societal behaviour becomes centred around appeasing authority and harmonising with its policies, driven by fear of repression. These autocratic regimes, monopolising decision-making, formulate their foreign policy according to the narrow interests of the ruling class rather than  national interests and the interests of their peoples. These narrow interests could be economic gains, religious dominance, or ideological hegemony, where decisions of war and peace are contingent upon violating these narrow interests. The other party (Israel or others) will only engage with these narrow interests and ensure not to obstruct them, as long as the ruling class turns a blind eye to the rest of the interests and needs of their peoples. This, according to Nahar, explains the patronising treatment, for example, by the US administration towards Arab governments. It deals with individuals rather than with a state (in its modern concept based on institutions and decision-making entities). Moreover, these governments do not rely on popular foundations in their countries, thus by balance of power standards, they are insignificant.

On the other hand, these authoritarian systems create a deteriorating economic reality, leaving wide segments of the population mired in poverty and need, preoccupied with the struggle for survival. Consequently, these disadvantaged groups develop a sense of apathy and indifference towards politics and regional issues. Moreover, in authoritarian regimes, the national issue is generally absent, and what is known as national belonging in its modern sense disappears due to its confinement, restriction, and high cost. This leads to the resurgence and spread of narrow sectarian, ethnic, religious, and ideological affiliations, reflected in myopic views of national and regional issues. Governance in these matters becomes driven by sectarian or religious considerations rather than the interests, freedoms, and independence of the people. In this climate, violent, extremist, and jihadist movements thrive. These movements imbue regional issues with a narrow religious or sectarian character; for example, Shiite groups do not see a problem with Iranian interventions in the region, and Sunni movements are not disturbed by Turkish hegemony, and the motivation here is religious rather than national interest.

In the midst of authoritarianism, what Nahar calls “superstitious awareness” is formed not only at the societal level but even among the elites, as there are no scientific or logical criteria regarding the notions of defeat, victory, profit, and loss. We claim victory as peoples, oppositions, and governments, while destruction festers within the region as a whole, as if we are living in a “quagmire of victories.” Not to mention the superstitious and illogical political analyses regarding ways out of any crisis, advocating for a policy of “inevitable victory” and the complete elimination of the opposing party, as vividly seen in political analyses promoting fantasies of the “end of the state of Israel” after Toofan Al-Aqsa! Nahar concludes: this superstitious awareness undermines logic even in its simplest truths. For example, you find that the majority of supporters of the Hamas movement in its armed resistance are themselves supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its crimes against the Syrian people.

Writer and researcher Dalal al-Bizri focused on how Western societies and governments perceive Arab peoples subjected to authoritarianism, comparing the Western defence of the rights of Ukrainians to their defence of the same rights for the Syrian or Palestinian people. Al-Bizri also cited a highly significant statement by a Western journalist, justifying this bias by saying: “Ukrainians resemble us. They vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers.” As for the Western perspective on Arab governments and the weight they carry in global decision-making, al-Bizri emphasised it by discussing what she termed “the red lines of the ruling group,” indicating that the ruling elite in Arab countries set loose red lines based on their interests, allowing Western aggression against the rights of their people or other Arab peoples, as long as it serves their interests. The loose red lines for Obama in Syria in 2013 allowed him to abandon, in agreement with Putin, the attack in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people, and by the same logic, Russia has been killing Syrians with its aircraft since 2015 at Assad’s request. This “depreciation” of the lives of Arab peoples has become commonplace because it is one of the fundamental aspects of the entrenched authoritarianism of our governments.

In conclusion, al-Bizri recommended the importance of paying attention to the cultural and intellectual impact of this authoritarianism, pointing to the crisis of rooted culture in the region, stating: “The prevailing mindset and mentality in the Arab world are characterised by superstition, regardless of Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Muslim Brotherhood, or Salafist doctrines or ideologies; is hostile to modernity, freedom, and democracy, a mentality that opposes modernity and rights. We need to move beyond the dominance of political Islam and extremist movements.”

Watch the full recording of the seminar here:

Share this Post