The Battle over Arab Public Space and Ideas

One of the most significant battles taking place these days in the Arab region is about how wide or narrow is the public space available for citizens to express themselves and offer views that differ from or challenge the state.

It is not a good sign when a government says it promotes democracy yet sends its police to intimidate and arrest journalists and prevent peaceful public demonstrations. In this vein, the Egyptian government’s storming of the Egyptian Press Syndicate’s offices on May 1 is only the latest and most dramatic move by Arab governments to use a variety of means at their disposal to control what citizens have access to in their media.

This is not a new trend, as Arab governments have tried for sixty years—since the Egyptian invention of the Ministry of Information in the 1950s—to shape the minds and actions of citizens, so that they conform to what the government believes is appropriate behavior. The danger today is that many Arab governments, very much led by the Egyptian example, simultaneously seek to limit the content of the traditional media while also clamping down on free expression through free-wheeling social media or civil society activism.

The European Union was correct to warn Egypt on Monday over the storming of the press syndicate and the arrest of journalists who had been holding a sit-in as a show of solidarity with other detained journalists. It said that this “worrying development continues a trend of restricting space for civil society and the freedom of expression,” noting that, “freedom of assembly and press freedom are essential for democracy, to guarantee that all peaceful voices are heard and respected.”

The importance of maintaining reasonable degrees of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in Egypt and all Arab countries reflects the fact that parliaments, the judiciary, and other means of promoting political pluralism and citizen participation, and holding state and private sector power accountable, have largely lost their credibility and impact. Egypt last year banned any public protests that were not approved by the state, and has systematically imprisoned civil society activists or shut their offices.

The police said they entered the press syndicate building to arrest two journalists who were accused of organizing protests to “destabilize the country.” This followed several incidents when the government prevented labor movements from holding public demonstrations on May Day, which prompted statements by independent trade union leaders urging the government to allow greater freedom of assembly.

The press syndicate headquarters, like the lawyers’ syndicate, has often acted as a focal point for independent protests against government controls that restrict freedom of expression or assembly. Several thousand demonstrators at the press syndicate last month publicly protested the Egyptian president’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, which drew many protests from Egyptians.

Maintaining reasonable degrees of freedom of expression and assembly in Arab societies is critical because these are the last lines of defense against total state control of people’s minds, actions, and lives. The Arab World has experienced the destructive dangers of total state control of power and ideas, as witnessed in the modern history of states like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and others, where authoritarian rule sapped society of its dynamism and pluralism and eventually hollowed out both state and society.

Arab governments since the 1950s have used their law-making monopolies to restrict press freedoms and other expressions of political, social, or cultural views that do not adhere to state guidelines. The counter-revolutionary moves by many Arab governments to beat back the wave of popular protests that erupted in our region in 2011 usually include attempts to restrict media freedoms, such as increased licensing requirements that allow the state to control what is available for citizens to hear, see, or read.

One ongoing controversial move now sees human rights and press freedom organizations challenging an initiative by the International Federation of Journalists, in collaboration with the Federation of Arab Journalists and the Arab League, to form a special mechanism to support media freedom in the Arab region. Activists opposed to the move fear that embedding any such mechanism within the Arab League would see it controlled by Arab governments to serve their policies. The civil society activists issued a statement last week noting that “in spite of all serious violations that happen every day in the Arab region, the Arab League, the Arab Commission for Human Rights, the Arab Network of National Institutions for Human Rights, and the Arab Parliamentary Union have all failed miserably and have not been able to issue a statement condemning even one incident of those violations.”

Instead, they have called for the involvement of the United Nations and the European Union in agreeing on a precise definition and clear mandate for the envisioned media freedoms-promotion mechanism, including how to ensure its independence and efficacy in the Arab region.

One of the most significant battles taking place these days in the Arab region is about how wide or narrow is the public space available for citizens to express themselves and offer views that differ from or challenge the state.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

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