Some Egyptian intellectuals and academics agree that the reasons behind the weakness of demonstrations in the Arab World protesting the American war on Iraq are not only due to government suppression, but also to other influences and cultural accumulations. The prevalence of cultural apathy, the fragility of political and cultural elites and their failure to influence the people, together, heavily influenced the poor turnout of Arabs to protest against the war.
This argument was raised during a seminar titled “Why Aren’t Arabs Demonstrating?” which was organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) on March 4th, within the framework of Ibn Roshd Salon.
The seminar began with a comparison drawn by Mr. Magdi El Naem, CIHRS Executive Director, between the poor demonstrations witnessed within the Arab world, which were most affected by current global and regional developments and possibilities of war on Iraq on the one hand, and demonstrations orchestrated in countries whose leaderships are leading this war. He mentioned that European capitals witnessed demonstrations surpassing one million protesters in most cases, such as those in London, Paris, Rome and Madrid.
He wondered whether those feeble demonstrations within the Arab region had taken place under paternalistic guardianship or were an expression of the opinions of citizens. He said that mere demonstrations were not enough. Rather its content, purpose and slogans it raised and whether they really expressed the people’s opinion or whether they merely mimicked the official discourse, or rather more extremist discourse.
Dr. Ali Mabrouk, professor of Philosophy at Cairo University, said that the issue raised for discussion was in itself erroneous, because it presupposed the presence of an Arab will among Arabs, and that this will chose not to demonstrate.
Dr. Mabrouk added that Arabs are going through a model historical moment that revealed the equal powerlessness of both governments and those governed.
He remarked on the justifications brought forward by some intellectuals. Namely that Arabs lack awareness, rationality and maturity, therefore some deviant thoughts can impel them towards corruption and perversion. He said that governments rely on those justifications to reject democracy within the Arab World.
He raised the issue that some governments are trying to embellish their image vis-à-vis the internal and external public opinion using some “democratic ornaments,” pointing out that the Arab mentality has beguiled the question of “lack of demonstration,” which eventually led the people to “counterfeit demonstrations.” This demonstration did not genuinely represent the people and their will, he argued, describing this situation as “demonstration behind bars.” Nations are like “chicks screaming inside their cages,” and considered demonstrations taking place inside the stadium and the university as a case in point.
Dr. Mabrouk criticized the phenomenon of raising pictures of leaders and presidents in Arab demonstrations. Deep-rooted origins of powerlessness in Arab culture are overlooked, while they surpass the mere presence of external pressures preventing people from demonstrating. He mentioned that the roots of the culture of powerlessness are relegated to a culture that acknowledges only the capability of a single despot that is disguised under the people’s belief that power and will lie with the One, Unique, and Peerless.
Dr. Magdi Abdul Hamid, commanding figure at the Popular Committee for Supporting Palestinian Intifada, gave evidence that Egyptians have been engaged in public affairs since the 1940s in a genuine and concrete way; either as a national cause, represented in driving colonialists out of the country, or at the level of democratic and class struggle. Mr. Abdul Hamid held the July 1952 Revolution responsible for what he described as a change in Egyptians, which was marginalized and dealt with as an object and not an active partner in forming its own life and future, based on the belief that a national authority was already delegated to resolve problems and conduct matters on its behalf.
He also argued that since the 1952 Revolution till today, the pattern of political development is responsible to a great extent for the situation the Egyptian people are finding themselves in currently. He indicated that there were moments that bore witness to some exceptions and departure from the context, such as the post-June 1967 Setback period and the people’s feeling of the disaster. Thus, it engaged in public action, which was manifested later during the seventies. Mr. Abdul Hamid considered that the political Left-wing, which had an influential political presence, played a great role and managed to endow its distinctive mark on political life. Thus, this period witnessed sit-ins, strikes, demonstrations and conferences in universities and workers’ gathering places.
The late 1970s and 1980s witnessed an overwhelming defeat of the socialist projects and its practical application epitomized in the Soviet Union. This coincided also with the powerful ascendancy of the Right-wing all over the world. Simultaneously, the Arab region experienced an increase in Islamic expression, due to the fact that they do not place much emphasis on the role of the people and the popular movement on the street, but rely on belief as its fundamental weapon in its relationship with its audience.
He mentioned that Islamic political forces, at the heart of which were the Muslim Brothers, were able to impose their imprint on political life. The Muslim Brothers were able to mobilize more than one hundred thousand citizens at the Cairo Stadium behind one idea. It was also able to perform a “show of force” and highlighted its presence both internally and externally. However, this force was equipped to serve their elite followers, and thus did not have a clear influence in participation in public and day-to-day political life.
There was also a reference made to a “reversing mentality” among political elites, based on the possible occurrence of unexpected and sudden changes by means of a technical “coup de grace” (knockout). It stressed that the genuine belief in the popular power is non-existent and is dealt with by all elite factions in an exploitative way, without raising popular awareness and urging people to participate through elections.
Abdul Hamid warned against the reliance of some intellectuals on the mechanisms of seminars and conferences as being the essence of political action, indicating that this mechanism has played several roles in forging some perceptions and concepts over issues. However, to perceive it as being political action is erroneous and could criminal, according to him. While emphasizing the importance of seminars and debates, they would never substitute day-to-day political action and involvement with the people.
Abdul Hamid pointed out that during the last couple of years, and more specifically since the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada, we witnessed the birth of the Popular Committee for Supporting Intifada.
Despite its action within the elite framework, it has been able to break the wall of silence to offer a new model of real popular action. He maintained that Left-wing forces leading those forms of action attempt to lead new kind of democratic left that believes in self-criticism, democracy and the people.
He said that for the first time we have found the left organizing popular delegations to include intellectuals and artists, protesting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations, and Parliament headquarters.
Mr. Nabil Abdul Fattah, at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, offered this question: why should Arabs demonstrate in the first place? He expressed reservations over the comparison between demonstrations taking place in Europe, which counted in the millions, and the situation in the Arab region, referring to his reservation to the differences between the political and legal systems in both cases.
He argued that the issue there is governed by a well-entrenched political culture and a culture that demonstrates, consolidates and manages its demonstrations. In addition to relations between political systems and its citizens, there is that which surpasses the idea of inchoate relations that governs the relationships between Arab nations and their ruling political regimes.
He added that to find a target for demonstration is one of the tools of bi-partisanship. It embellishes a legitimacy and legality on demonstrations, which also represents part of modern liberal political culture. This culture does not consider them as mere “levée en masse” (insurrection), but rather as a pattern of collective political behavior, whether of a group, associations, professional, racial, or partisan links.
Abdul Fattah indicated that there are three patterns of demonstration, the first one being orchestrated against the rise in price, for instance what happened in Egypt in 1977, as well as in Tunisia and Argentina. This type is applicable to both developed and underdeveloped societies.
The second pattern is nationalistic, racial, or gender-related demonstrations, which demands some economic, social, or cultural rights. He mentioned several examples, such as demonstrations of Berber and Amazigh in Algeria, as well as demonstrations of indigenous populations in Australia and Canada.
The third and last pattern, according to Abdul Fattah, is that of peace demonstrations against war and pro-human rights. This type he considered as the uppermost since it is a political and cultural expression of a group of cultural and political values.
Abdul Fattah considered that government and pre-planned demonstrations do not belong to this pattern, providing evidence to this from demonstrations of the Ba’ath Party in Syria, the Popular Committees in Libya to support the Intifada, and the NDP demonstration in Egypt in support of Iraq.
He also maintained that in order to achieve the third pattern of demonstrations, several objective conditions should be present. These include a well-entrenched democratic political culture fostered under a liberal regime, the forging of political awareness at the level of citizens, and the vitality of civil society and its effective powers, including associations, professional and partisan links. Add to this, respect of state security of this demonstration and the development of the culture from the beginning till the end without violating the rights of those taking place in it.
He also said that demand for the last pattern of demonstrations is still elitist in the Arab World, but could probably have some popular features, albeit, still limited up till this very moment.
He went on to say that the authoritarian state pattern in the Arab World gave birth to a group of policies based on suppression. This gave rise to a culture of abhorrence to politics because any negative association brought with it harm and punishment to the practitioner, and his/her relatives.
He added that this matter also led to some sort of political recline on the state, which removed people and produced a culture of irresponsibility.
He considered that policies of political stagnation in Egypt particularly created despair that politics could strike any change, which ultimately led to apathy among citizens vis-à-vis their relationship with public affairs.
He pointed to the presence of more demonstration-like manifestations, such as political jokes, insults addressed by the public to politicians, in addition to the use of the internet by younger generations to express their opinions, which opened the door for new forms of political expression.
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