Thursday, November 13th, 2014 | A post by Camille Otrakji
When “the Arab Spring” showed up in Syria I felt that Syria’s leadership needed that pressure/push to help accelerate its not-very-impressive rate of change and progress. But I was also totally convinced that the extent and direction of change demanded by the real owners of the Arab Spring (the Brotherhood and their Turkish and Qatari sponsors) was going to lead to bloodshed, violence and chaos not only for Syria but for different countries in the region. (see my interview or quotes on Qifanabki, the New York Times, and the Guardian).
At the time (and since 2006) I was an author and moderator of my friend Joshua Landis’ Syria blog (Syriacomment) which was widely read by western journalists, academics, diplomats, decision makers and analysts. So I tried to help promote moderate and secular Syrian opposition figures to our blog’s readers hoping they would be interested in giving them a chance at the expense of Turkish and Qatari supported Syrian Islamists.
Today (Nov 13th 2014) Louay Hussein was arrested and charged for “weakening national sentiments” إضعاف الشعور القومي ووهن نفسية الأمة” in his latest article (link here). The same charges that landed Michel Kilo in jail in 2006 (for “”weakening national sentiment and encouraging sectarian strife.”) after writing about sectarianism in Syria.
I will spare you the political correctness (“I am opposed to any arrest of peaceful political activists” etc) and tell you my true feelings, which include being displeased with news of his arrest, in addition to many other mixed feelings.
First, I’ve been often liking Louay’s articles and opinions (posts on Facebook) recently. He is one of the smarter Syrian politicians and one of the better communicators too.
His 2011/2012 positions, however, were based on many wrong calculations and that is why Syrians who sympathize with their government’s positions, are generally not willing to forgive Louay for his earlier choices, some of which, can be rightly described as opportunistic.
But that is ok … politicians (in government or opposition) are often opportunistic. On the other hand, the fact that some get arrested by authoritarian governments does not make them saints.
So did Louay do something exceptionally wrong this time?
He has been writing a weekly column at Al-Hayat. A Saudi owned newspaper that generally promotes, or covers up for, Saudi Arabia’s criminally sectarian policies in the Middle East. Don’t take my opinion for it, read what Fareed Zakaria wrote: “If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia. It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world.”
Does this mean he deserves to be arrested? … not really. Many of you might remember that President Assad’s advisor Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban used to write a weekly column in another sectarian Saudi Propaganda outlet: Asharq Alawsat when Saudis were fully on board with the Bush administration’s regime change (“Syria is the low hanging fruit”) campaign from 2004 to 2008.
If you search for Dr. Shabaan’s articles in Asharq Alawsat you will find my comments always on top (by “Camille Alexandre”), consistently criticizing her: Dr. Shabaan knew that Asharq Al-awsat would not allow her to criticize Saudi Arabia or defend Syria’s policies and values, so she wrote every single week about the trees that the zionists were uprooting in Palestine and the Iraqi civilians the United States’ army was killing in Iran.
One of Asharq Alawsat’s editors at the time, Mr. Faisal Abbas (currently editor in chief at Al-Arabiya TV) was an online friend. In one of our conversations, I pleaded with him to try to not use their highly popular Arab newspaper for attacking Syria because their intense anti-Syria campaign was hurting the image of both his paper and Saudi Arabia itself. Faisal replied: I don’t know what you are talking about Camille, don’t you realize that we have a Syrian government minister as one of our opinion writers?
Dr. Shabaan’s working for Asharq Alawsat gave them the ability to claim their Syria coverage was balanced, even though the word “syria” probably never appeared anywhere in the Syrian minister’s weekly articles. In that sense she was being used against her country.
The same applies, to a considerably larger extent, to Louay Hussein, Michel Kilo and all the other Syrian opposition figures who write in Saudi or Qatari news papers. They are used by Syria’s enemies either directly or indirectly. In the case of Kilo and his other colleagues in the opposition’s coalition, there is real treason …
But that’s also ok. On the regime side they are not all saints either (corruption continues during the war).
The Syrian authorities continue to harm their own genuinely nationalistic cause by their lack of tolerance to political opposition. Let them write anything … just let them. Sometimes they are unfair and propagandist, sometimes their criticism is very valid and you need to hear it, not avoid it and silence it. Let us, the Syrian people, decide and if you want to help us see your (government) views, then try to learn to communicate more effectively.
And the “secular and peaceful” opposition figures who write in Saudi and Qatari media outlets … you are working for these two countries no matter how you manage to convince yourself that you are not. When they employ you, then you will not dare criticize them properly (occasional mild criticism doesn’t count). But you should be free to be a good Syrian or not.
Last month I tried to interest Haytham Manaa (whose opinions I very much like as well) to dedicate some time to debating his critics on my facebook page. I happen to have a large number of smart and highly educated pro-government Syrian friends who always criticized Mr. Manaa, especially for his statements in 2011 (which were also the generic Arab Sping variety). So I extended the invitation to him when our common friend Jihad Makdissi had dinner with him in Paris recently. The response? “I do large media only, I leave facebook to some of our young helpers”
Not very impressive for a regime critic. He, and almost all other figures in opposition, already allowed power to get to their heads. They never respond to, or even read, criticism. They became dictators before they got to assume power.
As for the Syrian authorities’ favorite charge against secular activists: “weakening the morale of the nation” .. it is not something limited to authoritarian governments.
Not many of you realize that articles 19 and 20 of the United Nations’ “international covenant on civil and political rights” actually support (to some extent) the placement of SOME government controls on freedom of expression. Read for yourself:
“The exercise of the rights provided for in [this article] carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
- For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
- For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
- Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
- Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
Opposition figures do not understand it seems just how far they contributed to anger/violence/sectarianism with their often exaggerated accounts blaming the Syrian army, government or specific individuals, for everything rotten under the sun.
Latvia is considered a democracy (see this list) but in 2008 when the nation was dealing with an economic crisis, the authorities arrested Dmitrijs Smirnovs, a 32-year-old university lecturer for being …. gloomy. In Latvia it is a criminal offense to spread “untrue data or information” about the country’s financial system.
In Dubai, when the rich emirate faced an economic downturn in 2008 and 2009, they passed a law that allowed them to arrest anyone accused of “disparaging” government officials or publishing “misleading” news that “harms the country’s economy.”
That was “The economy” …
In Syria we have a situation that is a bit more dire than “the economy” … we have “war” … a war that is viciously sustained by the same Saudis and Qataris that own the largest Arab media outlets where many Syrian “secular and peaceful” opposition figures write criticising Syria’s leadership and army that is facing the international coalition led by the Saudis and Qataris … perhaps it is not time to overdo it with the criticism? … can they stick to criticizing government when it fails to properly promote the political solution? since the only thing we can hope for today is a political solution. Today is not the time to demonize and to expose mistakes during Hafez Assad’s years … today it is time to help reconcile, not to widen the gap.
Back to Dubai … see below a screenshot from the Twitter account of the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs … urging his people to not criticize the Emir of Qatar, just like they make sure they never criticize their own rulers… and to not engage in politics because these are difficult times … “look at what is happening in other Arab states!”
Yet they use their newspapers and TV stations to promote a one sided view of Syria that is designed to produce more anger … exactly what they want to avoid in their own countries.
As for freedom of expression, let me share with you a few stories:
After spending hours every day moderating Syria Comment for 5 years (we outlasted all of the other Syria political blogs), in early 2012 I told my good friend Joshua that I have an exclusive interview with Syria’s first official (foreign ministry) spokesman, Jihad Makdissi (also a good friend). Jihad at the time promised me a newsmaker interview. Who wouldn’t want that?
Joshua didn’t want that. He told me : Look Camille, we have a specific line in Syria Comment. I cannot publish your interview with Jihad Makdissi.
The fact Joshua interviewed every Brotherhood supporter he could find or the fact I interviewed a number of opposition figures before I allowed my self to interview a government spokesman, did not help me publish Jihad’s moderate views.
Soon after I was out of Syria Comment, replaced with a number of Syrian opposition extremists and their western supporters who bullied anyone who challenged them. Syria comment which used to welcome any opinion (from right wing Israelis to March 14 Lebanese) when I moderated it, turned into a propaganda machine, the type that the horrible Syrian regime dreams of having. My friend Joshua is anything but a dictator, he always welcomed all opinions … but when the stakes are high, there is very little freedom of speech … here, or there.
This is only one story of course. Since the start of the American supported “Arab Spring”, American and western media acted like true dictators. With few exceptions, they used their power to silence any voice that challenged their views or their governments’ views. I was humiliated by western journalists for simply telling them my view that the Arab Spring will destroy Syria and the middle east. Deb Amos (who won an award for her work in Syria), called me “a mindless attacker” for criticizing her constant propagandist coverage of the Syria crisis. Rabi/Dr. Marc Gopin (a Syria expert and a humanitarian) who previously used to admire my work (I used to write under “Alex”) blocked me on facebook after I corrected him for the third time he published false information that his friends in Syrian opposition were feeding him (like: Assad killed former defence minister Habib). A BBC producer who called me to sample my opinions before a radio interview, realized I was “pro regime”. So she told me I should be ashamed. And of course she decided to not interview me.
This is western freedom of speech … not better than Syria’s by much .. you don’t go to jail but if you don’t copy their state department spokesperson’s directions, they practically silence you.
I wish the authorities in Damascus would learn to be just as civilized in their authoritarian use of power.
And I wish Syrian opposition figures would realize just how miserably they failed in understanding the situation Syria is in right now, or in improving over the authoritarian rulers they want to replace.
Free Louay Hussein in few days please.