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Satire and the Arab Spring - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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During a party meeting held by the Tunisian Ennahda movement, Rafik Abdessalem, the Tunisian Foreign Minister, criticized the state of the media in his country, accusing a number of newspapers and television stations of launching smear campaigns against the performance of the Ennahda movement in government. He pointed out that “the government does not want to control the media, but on the other hand it will not allow it to transform into a platform for hostility.” Perhaps the essential question here is: hostile towards whom?

The Tunisian authorities recently issued an arrest warrant against a television director particularly famous for his satirical political show entitled “Ellougik Essiyasi” (Political Logic). This program criticized symbols of the Islamist Ennahda movement, which leads the ruling tripartite coalition in the country. The show featured singing and dancing puppets that resembled famous Tunisian political and governmental figures, such as Rashid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda movement, Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali, and Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian President. The program is nothing new; it was inspired by the British series “Spitting Image”, which was famous for mimicking political figures for more than a decade between 1984 and 1996. The idea was also replicated by a Russian version in recent years, until President Vladimir Putin’s government put a stop to it.

Do these developments not remind you of anything? Several weeks ago, Egypt ordered the imprisonment of both a newspaper editor and the owner of a television station, before President Mursi issued a legislative decree preventing those charged with publishing offences from being held on remand. These news stories highlight the extent of tension and the frustration felt by the new political leaders of the “Arab Spring” states towards the “uncontrolled media” as they call it, and this sentiment is justified to some extent. The authorities, at least in our region, are unable to handle the ridiculing and satirizing of their political symbols, but the truth is that the problem does not lie in the media, as these new leaders think, but in the continuing revolutionary state that some of these countries are still going through.

There is no doubt that were it not for the Arab Spring these political forces would not have come to power, but what is also true is that the continuation of this revolutionary state –with its chaos, loss of security and lack of the rule of law – is counter-productive to the interests of the country and only prolongs instability.

Does this mean that freedom of opinion should be compromised, or is it the right of the media to address these symbols of society? No, those rights must be preserved because they are part of the freedom of expression that must be guaranteed in a democratic civil society, but there is a difference between criticizing social figures through satirical caricatures, and vilifying and insulting them in order to discredit or undermine their position. Even in the West, which has experienced many decades of democratic political life, there are unwritten rules on how to deal with the political reality, and social indicators show the difference between criticism and ridicule or entertainment. Nevertheless, there are still those that want to discredit and slander specific individuals, and those that contribute towards developing the conduct of society and the practices of politicians in accordance with social rules and norms.

Despite the transgressions of some, politicians and parties must show patience and demonstrate a sporting mentality that is commensurate with the functions and positions they hold today in power. Part of this includes giving an opportunity to those who believe it is necessary to critique the ruling authority and its symbols. Moreover, the current stage requires a greater accommodation of those who disagree with the regime’s program, or those who believe that criticizing the regime is a necessity dictated by the practices of democracy. There is a lesson that the new leaders of the Arab Spring states must be aware of more than their predecessors, namely that you cannot, however long your reign, control the mood of the people, as well as their political and social choices. Likewise, you cannot gloss over the aspirations of your community or its fears. Here we can evoke an important fact, which is that power corrupts. Lord Acton (18934-1902), the late historian and politician in one of the oldest democratic nations, Great Britain, was wary of this fact when he said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Hence there must be moral and behavioural deterrents for those who are at the center of power. In this particular field it must be recognized that Arab Spring leaders are required, more than their predecessors, to produce satisfactory results first and foremost in terms of their domestic policies, before they can achieve the consensus or acceptance of their citizens.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing today is that the new regimes are more concerned than ever with sustaining their rule more than anything else. What is deeply worrying is that some of these politicians – mostly from the Islamist trend – are today utilizing the same practices that were used by their opponents in the past. They have not yet been able to achieve the minimum popular demands that the people demonstrated for. In other words, they are replicating the examples of the previous regime, rather than creating a new reality for their citizens.

Here we can note that the new “revolutionary” regimes have so far been unable to overcome the mechanisms of the past, for they – whether knowingly or otherwise – are seeking to restore the worst aspects of the former regime, including the monopoly over the political sphere. There are clear indications of this. For example, in Egypt around 17 presidential assistants or advisors have been appointed, mostly Islamists, and there is no clarification regarding their roles or job descriptions. Their appointments seem to be mere political compensations, for what will the president do with so many advisors?

Likewise in Egypt we are witnessing shifts and retractions in the balance of power. The Brotherhood has managed to exclude the military – perhaps only temporarily – from political activity, and has retracted some of its promises to involve other political forces. Even after a woman and a Copt have been appointed as assistants to the President, they consisted of a female professor at a university affiliated to the Islamist movement, and an obscure Coptic figure. Even though Essam el-Haddad has been appointed as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s guidance bureau, it seems that 18 months after the January 25 uprising, political participation in Egypt consists of less diverse social groups than we had first assumed.

Tunisia is also suffering from the same symptoms. The verbal bickering between President Moncef Marzouki and the Ennahda movement, particularly the President’s accusation that the movement is trying to control all aspects of the state, demonstrates that the “Arab Spring” is coming to an end, and its achievements up until now have been to simply replace one ruling military party with another from the Islamic Islamist trend.

In his recent article “The breeze of the counter-revolution phase”, Dr. Mohamed al-Rumaihi warns that the supposed liberal and left-wing revolutionary forces are widely dispersed, and the entities and alliances that arose circumstantially thanks to the popular uprisings are now expected to disintegrate in favor of the survival of the traditional powers, such as the Islamists, as the dominant force. In the near future the Islamists may even abandon some of the smaller parties or non-Muslim figures in the presidential institution or the government, since they will no longer be obliged to employ these cosmetic accessories.

Samuel Johnson, author of “A Dictionary of the English Language,”, once said: “The liberty of the press is a blessing when we are inclined to write against others and a calamity when we find ourselves overborne by the multitude of our assailants.”.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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