Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The collapse of the theory “they can speak, and we can ignore” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The regime of the former Egyptian President practiced a theory of media freedom, along the lines of “let them speak”. In other words let the press say what it wants, for they have the freedom to criticize, whilst the state has the freedom to ignore it. Today, the Egyptian regime has paid the price for this failed methodology.

Away from the controversy surrounding the numbers, and proportion of those demonstrating in Tahrir Square, and whether or not they represented all Egyptians, it is clear that media criticism, and its coverage of corruption, flaws and deficiencies in Egyptian institutions, which have failed to produce tangible solutions, has led to a popular uprising which affected the entire spectrum of Egyptian people. They saw the shortcomings in front of them, without any signs of reform, despite all that had been published [to the contrary] in the media. The regime believed that a policy of negligence, whilst “letting the [people] speak”, would appease matters and prevent an uprising. This was not the case, and the evidence of this failed theory lies not in the volume of demonstrators, but in their determination to be resolute.

The theory of freedom to publish anything, offset by the state’s right to ignore what is published, has proved unsuccessful. The youth revolution, and its wide ranging popular support, is testament to that. Of course, it was also not possible for the Egyptian regime, or other ruling systems in the Arab world, to pursue a policy of enforced silence and oppression these days, in light of modern means of communication, and a level of media openness which cannot be controlled as it has been in the past. The only solution was for Arab governments to shake off the dust of negligence, fight against their shortcomings and corruption, and deal with their problems seriously. If Arab governments had spent the same time and effort on reform as they had spent on denying or justifying certain practices, then the Arab situation would be in a much better state. If governments had responded to press criticism, and even utilized it as a watchdog, then the situation would be greatly improved, and our states would have avoided many problems. The Egypt lesson is a large one, and if one considers the mistakes made by the regime, and there were many, the most notable conclusion is that the freedom to neglect has serious consequences. It leads to social congestion, consolidates despair amongst citizens, and leaves the country vulnerable towards considerable losses.

Egypt is a significant country, in terms of its location, size and population, and likewise in terms of its thought. However, we have seen how the regime failed to understand its country’s youth, and how they think. President Mubarak was too late in acknowledging Egypt’s youth, for it was not until his third public address [during the crisis], when he finally directed his words towards the young people in Tahrir Square. Major Omar Suleiman pledged, before the President stepped down, to preserve the achievements of the youth revolution. Even western newspapers were not calling it a ‘revolution’ at that time, yet Suleiman acknowledged it as such. This shows that the regime realized it had not understood over half of its people [Egypt’s youth population], because it did not take them seriously, and had dealt with them by ignoring their demands. Yet how could the regime now claim to take them seriously, as long as people like Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali were saying, in the newspaper “al-Masri al-Yaum”, that a foreign organization was behind the protests, perhaps communist, Wahhabi, Shiite or Zionist? Imagine, is there anything more absurd than this, especially when these words came from a diplomat and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was even Secretary General of the United Nations?

Therefore, we can say that the theory “they have the right to say what they want, and we have the right to ignore it” has collapsed, and this has brought with it a heavy price. Will we benefit from the lesson?