July 11, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 1981

Egyptian Liberal: It Is The Educated Who Are Responsible for the Lack of Democracy in the Arab World

July 11, 2008
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 1981

Egyptian liberal Dr. 'Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, published in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat an article[1] analyzing the reasons for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. In it, he accused Arab educated circles of failing to fill their historical role of promoting democracy. Sa'id stated that the educated had made a mistake by joining forces with anti-democratic elements in society, and that they were still unjustifiably devoting their energies to resisting foreign forces, rather than to building a democratic society.

The following are excerpts from the article:

Democracy and the "Arab Exception" Model

"The discussions of 'an Arab exception' have reemerged yet again, this time at the Library of Alexandria, where the annual conference on the Arab reform initiative took place. [This initiative] is a network comprising 10 Arab research centers, which undertook to investigate problems [related to] reform in the Arab world.

"It must be noted that this network is a vestige of the epoch when issues of democracy and of political and economic reform were of paramount importance in the Arab region, [i.e.] after the September 11 attacks – which, according to the prevailing view, were the result of the alleged Arab inability [to build democracy].

"At that point, it was necessary to meet this challenge by raising awareness of the need to oppose tyranny in the Arab region. That period was also marked by foreign pressures by those who believed that victory over terrorism was impossible without democratic reform in the Arab world.

"During the discussions held in many of the world's capitals, there emerged a term – 'the Arab exception' – which became increasingly popular after the Cold War, when many countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America had become democracies, while the Arab world had remained unchanged [i.e. non-democratic]. [Because] this term had a negative [connotation], portraying the Arabs as an oddity [rejecting] democracy, the Arab educated circles… preferred to use expressions similar in meaning but revolving around the notion of 'distinctiveness' – which is somewhat less insulting than 'exceptionality.'

"However, the two expressions, 'exception' and 'distinctiveness,' vanished from the international scene, as well as from the Arab lexicon, following the numerous developments in the world, which led both sides – the Arabs and the [the rest of] the world – to see each other for what they really were, leaving interpretations and political assessments to the academics.

"It is precisely [at that forum] that, at the Library of Alexandria, Arab academics submitted to being described as 'exceptional' or 'distinctive' – which was a sign of a sort of academic or intellectual indolence on their part – because as long as a situation is viewed as 'distinctive,' 'exceptional,' or 'abnormal,' it is becomes immediately exempt from the general principles governing scientific thought.

"It is very odd that there should have emerged an understanding between a group of Arab liberals and a fundamentalist group regarding the distinctiveness of Arab societies, which stems from what they refer to as 'transforming the Arab nation into a target' – sometimes by colonialism, at other times by imperialism, and invariably by Israel…"

All Countries in the World Have Experienced a Lack of Democracy

"Under scrutiny, this consensus between the Arab educated circles and the Arab academics emerges as one of the main reasons for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Indeed, there is nothing really exceptional in the world, just as there is nothing special in the rule of individuals in the Arab world. All the world's countries have tasted colonialism, imperialism, and various kinds of oppression, partition, disintegration, and economic backwardness. Nevertheless, thanks to the educated classes, thinkers, and statesmen, [the nations of the world] have mustered the knowhow and the courage to advance towards democracy.

"From the time of the Magna Carta to the present, ruling elites have habitually striven to hold onto power, deriving advantages from and abusing their positions, deceiving the public, and ruling sometimes by coercion, sometimes by submitting to pressures. However, the pressures [on the ruling elites] created by the [internal] contradictions have enabled the educated to intervene and effect... change, [bringing about] a transition from the status quo to an order that was more advanced, more democratic, and more tolerant. And there is nothing new about all this."

Arab Educated Elites Have Always Preferred to Oppose Foreign Forces Rather Than to Strengthen Society

"The suffering inflicted on the Arab world in modern times by different foreign forces is not much different from the suffering of other countries during different historical periods. What is [unique] to the Arab world is that the Arab educated elites have always preferred to oppose foreign forces, rather than to improve the situation within the Arab world by promoting developments in the economic, social, cultural and educational spheres, with the aim of making [Arab] societies more democratic and more advanced, and [consequently] more capable of resisting foreign provocations.

"It is precisely this point that was debated, in the 19th century, by Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani[2] and Imam Muhammad 'Abduh,[3] the former promoting conflict [with foreign forces], while the latter promoted constructive action [from within] through education. [Al-Afghani] referred to ['Abduh's] views as defeatist and failing.

"This controversy reemerged in the early 20th century between Mustafa Kamel and the National Party in Egypt, and also between Sheikh Muhammad 'Abduh and other Egyptian reformists. This controversy persisted in Egypt, and in one form or another in other Arab [countries] as well. [In Egypt,] the conflicting sides were the Constitutional Party and the Wafd Party, as well as 'Adli Yakan[4] and Isma'il Sidqi, on the one hand, and Sa'd Zaghlul[5] and Mustafa Al-Nahhas,[6] on the other.

"During the past two centuries, whenever argument arose over whether to oppose foreign [forces]… or to continue constructive action from within, the party that called for resistance and fighting foreign forces won a wider support. This approach, [however,] has been used as a lever to attain centralized tyrannical rule, [based on the principle that] 'no voice should rise above the din of battle.' This slogan is applicable not only in regard to Egypt's [Gamal] 'Abd Al-Nasser's statement following the 1967 defeat; indeed, it is still being used – here and now – by Hizbullah and by a large group of Arab academics, as well as by Arab and Lebanese politicians, who insist that they are the true voice of the nation, even at the cost of the destruction of the entire Lebanon and all its residents.

"[Similarly,] the main excuse offered by Hamas for its coup against the P.A. was that the latter had placed the forging of the government above the fight for liberation. [However, the Hamas coup] did not really bring liberation to either the individual or the land; rather, it was an act of revenge…"

Arab Educated Classes Are To Blame for the Lack of Democracy in the Arab World

"It seems that 'exception' and 'distinctiveness' are not attributes of either the Arab countries or the world at large; rather, these terms characterize the choice made by the [Arab] educational and political elites, which has been exploited by the ruling elites – whether they are in the government or in the [Arab] street – to gain power and control, and to delay the advance of democracy in the Arab [countries] until the end of all wars. [However,] there is no indication that these wars can be won [for many years to come], since Arab societies are essentially weak.

"To make matters worse, in addition to the problem of delaying the democratization process by [opting for] resistance… an unshakable belief has emerged that the state [is entitled] to interfere in the affairs of a private individual, whether under a well-known pretext of protecting national security, or for the sake of helping the poor, the needy, and the low-income – although it was the Arab states that initially reduced these groups to their miserable condition and abandoned them.

"It is thus the Arab educated circles who are responsible for the current situation in Arab societies, since they have failed to fulfill their historical role…"


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 14, 2008.

[2]A Muslim political activist in Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. One of the founders of Islamic modernism, and advocate of pan-Islamic unity.

[3]A religious scholar, jurist, and liberal reformer, who led the late 19th-century movement in Egypt and other Muslim countries to revitalize Islamic teachings and institutions in the modern world. As mufti (Islamic legal counselor) for Egypt (from 1899), he effected reforms in Islamic law, administration, and higher education.

[4]Sometimes referred to as Adly Pasha. An Egyptian political figure. Served as prime minister of Egypt, from the Free Social Constitutional Party, between 1921 and 1922, again between 1926 and 1927, and for a last time in 1929. Held several prominent political posts including foreign minister, interior minister and senate speaker.

[5]An Egyptian political figure. Served as prime minister of Egypt from January 26, 1924 to November 24, 1924.

[6] (1897–1965) Egyptian nationalist and politician, leader of the Wafd party. Was instrumental in the process leading to the establishment of the Arab League, one of his major achievements. The military failure in 1948 and the subsequent burning of Cairo in 1952 brought discredit to the whole political establishment, including the Wafd leaders. The 1952 military coup ended his political career.

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