Shutting Arab Minds and Mouths Leads to Disaster

An important reason for the frailty and turbulence of the modern Arab World was highlighted this week by two events in Jordan and Oman.

Is there a single thing that helps us understand why the Arab World has turned into such a horror show of dictatorships and authoritarian governments, state and private political violence, corruption on a massive scale, social polarization, state fragmentation, and the associated phenomena of terror organizations and huge flows of refugees and displaced people? We can point to many candidates for this dishonor, including the legacy of military and family rule, presidents for life, and continuous foreign military interventions. But one underlying issue is the most important one that must be confronted and changed: the right of individuals to speak their mind freely and participate in the mechanisms of decision-making and consensus-building in the public sphere.

An important reason for the frailty and turbulence of the modern Arab World, in my view, was highlighted this week by two events in Jordan and Oman. It is that ordinary Arab men and women are totally isolated from the decision-making processes of their government, and unable to make their voices heard on important discussions of issues that impact their lives, whether on domestic or foreign policy.

The two events in Arab countries this week that shed light on this structural problem in our region were the assassination in Amman of Nahed Hattar, a Jordanian journalist and vocal critic of the government and Islamists; and, in Muscat, Oman, a court permanently closed a newspaper which had reported on alleged judicial corruption, and jailed three of its journalists. In both cases, the underlying weakness that has long plagued modern Arab states since their establishment in the past century was this three-pronged monster: the very loose manner in which freedom of expression and media laws are defined; the enormous leeway the government has to interpret any journalist’s work as potentially dangerous or just offensive to others in society; and, the recent linkage of freedom of expression to national security threats, as part of the global expansion of the U.S.-led global war on terror that supports Arab and other governments in the developing South that routinely suppress their citizens’ rights to speak out, mobilize, and engage in civil society activism, in the name of fighting terrorism and promoting security.

The inability of Arab citizens to speak out freely in public and help ensure that their national policies actually reflect the values and sentiments of the people also means that citizens cannot hold accountable government officials, private sector companies, and foreign countries or institutions whose actions may cause problems in society. When citizens cannot freely express their views and grievances, contribute ideas to promote national development, or hold wrongdoers accountable in a meaningful manner, the result is what we see in many Arab countries today. Small numbers of people who are close to the ruling elite live comfortable lives and engage freely with the world, while growing numbers of less well-connected citizens suffer lifetimes of marginalization, helplessness, and vulnerability.

The Jordanian and Omani incidents happened just in the past three days; dozens or even hundreds of similar incidents that suppress citizens’ freedom of expression occur routinely every month across the entire Arab World. The Arab governments, courts, and security services that do these things get away with them by saying they are merely enforcing the law, which is precisely the heart of the problem.

The existing laws allow people to be arrested, charged, tried, and sometimes jailed on the basis of laws that forbid actions, or just published texts or Tweets, that “undermine the prestige of the state” or “disrupt social cohesion and national unity,” or some such vague wording that can be used to prevent citizens from expressing themselves on any issues that the state deems inappropriate.

Nahed Hattar was arrested and taken to court on charges of insulting religion and God, and the extremist Muslim former preacher who shot and killed him clearly was upset by the cartoon that Hattar had reposted on social media, and that had ridiculed the hypocrisy of extremists in the Islamic State (ISIS). Hatter had previously been charged with other offenses, including insulting the royal family. When the government itself jailed and indicted him in court for such actions, it sent the message to all society that he was acting in a criminal manner. His killer interpreted that to mean that it was okay to kill him, which is what he did.

In Oman, Ibrahim Al-Mamari, editor-in-chief of the privately owned Azamn newspaper, and two colleagues were fined and jailed for actions that included undermining the prestige of the state, disturbing public order, misusing the internet, publishing details of a personal status case, slander, and publishing a report that defied a government ban on reporting on Mamari’s arrest. The same newspaper had extensively covered corruption cases in 2014.

The Arab World needs the participation and ideas of all its citizens to generate the national consensus and developmental momentum required to break out of the cycles of violence and polarization that plague us. Existing laws and government practices in most Arab countries achieve exactly the opposite effect: They intimidate citizens from speaking out, jail and fine those who do speak their minds freely, and reward all those who conform to the government’s narrow political line that accepts no serious peaceful challenges or questioning.

Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global