12 February 2006

Reason Magazine on Middle East Transparent

On 9 February, Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut's Daily Star, published in reasononline a fascinating interview with Pierre Akel, who runs the popular website Middle East Transparent, a trilingual forum that seeks to give a wider voice to Arab liberalism. The interview, entitled No Red Lines, is also reprinted on Middle East Transparent. Here are few excerpts of what Akel had to say. Read the whole thing.
To understand Arab liberalism, one has to understand not only what it now represents but where it emerged from: In Syria, it mostly comes from the remnants of the communist or Marxist left—just like the Eastern European dissidents of 30 years ago. In Saudi Arabia, it comes from the very heart of Islamic fundamentalist culture, but also from the orthodox Sunnis originating in the Hijaz, where the cities of Jeddah, Medina and Mecca are located. Hussein Shobokshi is a good example. It also comes from the Shiite minority in the oil producing Eastern Province. In Tunisia, it comes from the reformed Islamic university Al-Zaitouna. In Egypt, liberals are inspired by the great liberal tradition that was crushed by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser....

In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a blog revolution. Arab culture has been decimated during the last 50 years. Arab newspapers are mainly under Saudi control. The book market is practically dead. Some of the best authors pay to have their books published in the order of 3,000 copies for a market of 150 million. This is ridiculous. Even when people write, they face censorship at every level—other than their own conscious or unconscious censorship. Meanwhile, professional journalism is rare....

When it comes to satellite television in the region, Al-Jazeera is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, while many of the rest are under Saudi control. Al-Arabiya, for example, is owned by the Al-Ibrahim, the brothers-in-law of the late King Fahd. Even the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation cannot cross certain Saudi red lines. Yes, you can hear a liberal point of view here and there. But, to take one example, both Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president who turned against the regime of President Bashar Assad, and Riad Turk, the Syrian dissident, have been under a Saudi ban from Al-Arabiya for the last month, because the Saudi leadership does not now want to annoy the Assad regime. For once, Al-Jazeera has also banned them, but for Qatari political reasons. Qatar is lobbying on behalf of the Syrian regime in Europe.

On the Internet, people can publish whatever they want: no red lines. They can use pen names if they want. People read, send comments, and they transmit information to their friends by email and fax, etc. The regimes' monopoly on information has been broken. Remember: Three months ago a Libyan writer was assassinated and his fingers cut for writing articles on an opposition Web site. The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism.

Of course, liberals cannot compete with Al-Jazeera. We do not have the financial means to start a liberal satellite channel. Hundreds of Arab millionaires are liberals. Only, they cannot stand up to their regimes. Arab capitalism is mostly state capitalism. If you are in opposition, you are not awarded contracts by states. So, for the near future, we do not expect much help from these quarters.
via Belmont Club

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