Persecution Complex: Arab Intellectuals Remain Apart from Arab Spring

Michael Teague

The “Arab Spring”-- the new sensational shorthand employed by frenzied observers and scholars to describe the massive cry for freedom in the Middle East-- has shown not only the cruel nature of the Arab state in its treatment of ordinary citizens, now constantly on display on Arab satellite TV stations, new media outlets, and press reports, but also its humiliating treatment of Arab intellectuals.  As painful and positively nauseating as it is to see this reflexive practice of torturing and terrorizing protestors, it is much more immediately comprehensible and a little less complex than what the Arab state likes to visit upon even the most prestigious of its intellectuals. With the intellectual already written off by the authoritarian state, we cannot help but ask why most Arab intellectuals have been shamefully slow in condemning the criminal practice of their governments.

Whether in Egypt or in Syria, intellectuals are rarely paid any attention by the state, and the reason for this is that they have never been allowed to be part of a civil society.  The fact is that intellectuals have largely been co-opted into the system of official patronage, often being dependent on the state for their livelihood.  They are vulnerable and especially easy prey should they violate or withdraw their support for the state—at the very least they risk losing their income.  As for the question of why a good majority of Arab intellectuals have not come out in larger numbers to condemn the conduct of their governments, the answer can be found in the nature of the middle class, from which Arab intellectuals usually hail. It is a “salaried middle class” rather than an economically independent social and economic force, as was explained decades ago by the late American political scientist and bureaucrat Manfred Halperin.

Nothing better illustrates the vulnerability of the Arab intellectual than the treatment recently visited upon Yemeni, Syrian and Moroccan intellectuals, as was nicely illustrated by Abduh Wazen, the cultural editor of the Beirut and London-based Al Hayat newspaper. His column on the subject appeared in Al Hayat on May 9, 2011.

Abduh Wazen tells a frightening tale about Walid al-Rumayshi, a well-known Yemeni poet in the oral tradition whose preference for mocking and criticizing regressive behaviors rather than picking sides in political battles aligns him with some of history’s great poets.  Like many of the greats, he had to pay the price—last week, the chief of a tribe allied with the opposition ordered his tongue cut off, and so it was.  He was left to his own devices, bleeding on the streets of Sana’a.

Conflicting information has emerged from this hideous and profoundly antidemocratic event.  Naturally, “president” Mohammed Ali Saleh is trying to use the attack to highlight the barbarity of his opponents and justify his brutal suppression of them, while the opposition is claiming that Saleh is actually the one responsible (others have claimed that Rumayshi is “Saleh’s poet,” presumably in order to justify the attack).

Thankfully, the Union of Yemeni writers has taken what is most likely the sanest possible position on the matter.  They claim that al-Rumayshi was not particularly biased in favor of any group, but was simply exercising his ability to speak as he wished. Tellingly, they also denounced many other recent, though perhaps less gruesome, acts of violence that have been perpetrated against a number of Yemeni writers, male and female.

Rumayshi’s attackers did not want him to die; they wanted to make an example of him in his suffering -- a proud goal also espoused by other  prominent Arabs such as Saddam Hussein, who cut off the tongues of many Iraqis in his dungeons.  Unfortunately for them, the poet is apparently not willing to be silenced, and has decided for the first time to start writing down his poetry since he can no longer speak it.

If certain factions of the Yemeni opposition do not understand the meaning of the “freedom” and “democracy” for which they are supposedly clamoring, it is less surprising to see that the Baathist regime in Syria is almost an immovable object when it comes to the subject of free expression.  Omar Amiralay, Aref Dalila, Michel Kilo, Riad Seif and many others have recently been harassed or imprisoned.  Omar Kawsh, for example, is a journalist and intellectual whose writings appear regularly on the pages of many Arabic-language newspapers and magazines, including the Lebanese pro-Syrian Assafir.  In early May, he was returning from Ankara, where he had just participated in a panel on history along with 30 parliamentarians and intellectuals from 17 different countries.  Upon his return to Syria, he was immediately apprehended at the airport and whisked off to detention.  Prison has for a long while been a home away from home for Syrian intellectuals and artists (check out “The Artist in Syria” by Etel Adnan, reviewed by this magazine not long ago, if you need more details about exactly how this works).

Along with other distinguished Syrian intellectuals, Kosh is known for advocating a secular and rational culture.  And for this, along with many of his contemporaries, he is now in prison.

The prosecution of intellectuals has even begun infecting one of Hillary Clinton’s favorite examples of a moderate Arab country—Morocco (the ghetto otherwise known as the Western Sahara notwithstanding), where the government exploits the provisions of laws on the books to prosecute intellectuals.  For instance, the well-known poet and journalist Rashid al-Nini was recently abducted by the ubiquitous security services.  His crime: writing an article that upset the authorities (something at which he excels).  The contents of the article are not yet totally clear, and  though al-Nini has since been released, it is safe to say that they probably have something to do with corruption within circles close to the monarchy, as well as demands for greater civilian oversight of security services.  Whatever he wrote, it merited him the prosaic and predictable accusation of “endangering the security of the nation.”  His detention in Akasha prison not only galvanized dissident intellectuals, it provoked the by now familiar symptoms of serious civil disturbance, such as the creation of Facebook pages and increasing zeal in the organization of demonstrations that we have seen  come to fuition in Morocco as of recent.

It is worthwhile to reflect on the absurdity of these responses to a relatively simple demand for freedom, be it intellectual, political, religious, or otherwise.  The Baathist regime in Syria, when not preoccupied with nationalizing the 1982 Hama massacre, is currently imprisoning so many people that they have had to set up makeshift tent-camps to contain them all, and we have seen the same sort of sadism in the targeting of the medical community in Bahrain by some mercenaries generously donated by the GCC.  It is the clearest indication of how uninterested these various regimes are in any sort of dialogue.  Nevertheless, it is also a tacit admission that, despite all their bravado and stage-managed protests and appearances before parliament, the authorities recognize the seriousness of the situation with which they are faced.  This renders the question of whether the continuing persecution of intellectuals and artists is an instinctive reflex of Arab regimes, or an acknowledgement of the power of and potential threat posed by art and language rich with political statement.  When you corner a wild animal, it is bound to lash out.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64

© Copyright 2011  AL JADID MAGAZINE