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memri
January 26, 2009 No.
2133

Egyptian Liberal Amin Al-Mahdi: Democracy And Peace Are Interrelated

In an interview published August 14, 2008 on the reformist website Elaph, Egyptian intellectual and peace activist Amin Al-Mahdi touched on numerous topics, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the war in Iraq, the situation in Lebanon, Islamist fundamentalism, and the Arab regimes. He argued that peace in the Middle East depends on the democratization of the Arab countries, and stated that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been a necessary evil.

Following are excerpts from the interview: [1]

Democracy And Peace Are Interrelated; The Arabs Have a Way of Rejecting [International Resolutions] - And Then Accepting Them When They Are No Longer Relevant

Elaph: "How do you see the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict?"

Amin Al-Mahdi: "...This conflict [started] when the Arab regimes rejected the international resolutions. Israel accepted the [1947 U.N.] Partition [Plan for Palestine], while the Arabs rejected it. Israel accepted [U.N.] Resolution 194, [passed in 1948], which called for the return of the [Palestinian] refugees... while Arabs rejected this [resolution]. The Arabs have a way of rejecting [proposals] and then accepting them when they are no longer relevant... when the circumstances have changed and the resolution has been completely forgotten.

"The [Arab-Israeli] conflict serves the oppressive Arab regimes. The question is this: When will we see [the end of] the expansionist forces on the Israeli Right, and, on the other hand, the end of the oppressive Arab regimes? As I explained in my book on the Arab-Israeli conflict, [2] [these two questions] are interrelated. Peace and democracy are not separate issues. When democracy comes to the Arab world, the expansionist forces in Israel will also cease to exist, and there will be peace. When Arab citizens receive their freedoms, there will be peace between the Arabs and Israel."

The U.S. Invasion of Iraq - the Lesser of Two Evils

Elaph: "You had a controversial opinion on Operation Iraqi Freedom [the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003]. Do you still maintain this position?"

Al-Mahdi: "...[Invasions] constitute historical moments of change for closed societies which have no way of changing or reforming themselves, and which cannot regain their strength under imperialist regimes that oppress their societies and spread anti-modern culture... The situation in Iraq before the invasion was similar to the situation today in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Libya. Their societies are in decline and are [practically] at death's door, while the state has become ugly and controlling.

"This is not [just] a moral issue to be either accepted or rejected... it has to do with people's lives. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was the only chance to bring change to this country and to the Muslim world [at large]. I think that it set in motion something that will not stop, despite all the Americans' mistakes... These mistakes are grave and have cost us dearly, as have the mistakes of the Arab regimes in the region. But [if the U.S. hadn't invaded,] the price would have been steeper still. It was a choice between bad and worse, 'bad' being the U.S. invasion of Iraq and 'worse' being the Saddam Hussein regime. For myself, I prefer the bad to the worse."

Lebanon Is the Victim of the Arab World

Elaph: "What is your take on the events in Lebanon?"

Al-Mahdi: "Lebanon is a barometer [that reflects the condition] of the Arab regimes, struggles and cultures. If Lebanon is a land of civil wars, where the state is weak and [people's] sense of citizenship is weak, we must remember that it reflects the condition of the [entire] Arab world... Lebanon is a victim of the Arab world. It is like [the Biblical] Joseph who was oppressed by his brothers. It is the victim of the Arab regimes in the region, just as the Palestinians used to be..."

The Clash of Civilizations Serves the Interests of Islamist Fascism

Elaph: "How do you view the struggle between Islam and the West?"

Al-Mahdi: "[This struggle] should be viewed from several perspectives... First, there is the perspective of the U.S., [which sees] a new world order with Islam taking the place of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. [This perspective sees things in terms of] a 'clash of civilizations' and 'the end of history'... and it is totally incorrect and unrealistic. [Then there is] the perspective of the fascist Islamic forces and Arab regimes. The idea of a clash of civilizations suits their [interests as well], so they have [also] adopted it and have started to talk of the mutual hostility between the West and Islam. But this is a distortion of the [correct] terms, and a misrepresentation of the forces [at play] and of the new world order.

"[This distorted perspective] obscures the main problem, which is the existence of a developed world versus a backward world, a free world versus a world that is not free, and democratic regimes versus oppressive imperialist regimes. The notion of a clash [of civilizations] serves the [political] Right, just as the Arab-Israeli conflict has served both the expansionist Zionist Right and the anti-democratic forces in the Arab [world]... The West is advanced and has a monopoly on science, technology, freedom and human rights... While we remain in place, they are moving forward, and [it is time] we realized the magnitude of our loss."

In Algeria, It Was the Arabization Program that Led to Fundamentalism

Elaph: "Your first book dealt with Algeria. Why did you pick a topic so far removed from [your own country], Egypt?"

Al-Mahdi: "It started when I took a trip to Algeria. I was surprised to discover that processes which had occurred in Egypt over a long period of time and over large geographic expanses had occurred [in Algeria] in specific places and within short periods of time. I discovered that the [Algerian] Arabization program [3] had actually turned Algeria into a fundamentalist [country].

"This is the same conflict that took place [in Egypt] between the Muslim Brotherhood and the fascist military regime [of 'Abd Al-Nasser and the Free Officers]... When Algeria was under imperialist French rule, it was considered to be 'Frenchified.' The Nasserist program for the Arabization of Algeria was a response to the [idea of] 'French Algeria'... This discovery prompted me to write the book, which explains the connection between military dictatorships and fundamentalism. [Algeria has duplicated the developments] that originally occurred in Egypt.

"'Abd Al-Nasser, who came to Algeria under [the slogan of] 'Arabization,' dispatched the Muslim Brotherhood and the sheikhs [to that country]. [This was done] as part of the Arabization program, and out of rejection of the [Frenchified] Algerian culture which arose as a result of [Algeria's] close ties with Europe and French culture.

"One of the best examples [of bringing Islamists to Algeria as part of the Arabization program] was the establishment of the Islamic University of Constantine, whose first president was Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was succeeded [as president of the university] by Yousef Al-Qaradhawi.

"About 1,500 Egyptian clerics served in Algeria as part of the Arabization [program], including Mutawali Al-Sha'rawi, Salah Abu Isma'il and Dr. Ahmad Kamal Abu Al-Majd. It was they who sowed the seeds of fundamentalism and changed the local mentality by supplanting the Maliki school of [Islamic] thought with the Hanbali-jihadist school.

"The military regime in Algeria benefited from this extremism, which came in the guise of Arabization - and this set in motion the train of terrorism, which led to the loss of Algeria's future. The same thing has happened in Gaza and in Islamabad, [Pakistan]."

The Arab Dictatorships Deny Social Freedoms

Elaph: "Why is it that, under the Arab dictatorships, there has been no economic and political growth, unlike in the case of the Southeast Asian and South American [dictatorships]?

Al-Mahdi: "The dictatorships of Southeast Asia and South America leaned towards European culture, with its capitalist model of growth and liberal renaissance. They were true dictatorships, yet they had tendencies and principles [anchored in] Western liberalism. Consequently, they encouraged economic growth, which [in turn] led to political development. Their societies have social freedoms, based on the [free] enterprise of individuals and families. Those are the seeds of capitalism, and that is why [these societies] have prospered...

"The Arab dictatorships, on the other hand, deny [their citizens] both social and political freedoms. In this situation, how is it possible to nurture individual creativity and establish capitalist regimes or social [bodies] representing [various] public sectors, which lead to the development of democracy? How is this possible when social freedoms are denied?"

Endnotes:

[1] www.elaph.com, August 14, 2008.

[2] Al-Mahdi's book, published in 2001, is titled The Other Opinion: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Crisis of Democracy and The Peace Process.

[3] After gaining its independence in 1962, Algeria launched a program of "Arabizing" Algerian public life, which had been heavily influenced by French culture. As part of this program, it brought in Arabic teachers from the Middle East, many of whom belonged to circles close to the Muslim Brotherhood.