Opinion: A right to lampoon Arab leaders

CAIRO, Egypt — Every Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa has laws or policies criminalizing speech that questions or offends the head of state, according to data from Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders. By the time young journalists in Arab countries tackle their first reporting assignment, they’re well aware of this admonition: Don’t touch the folks at the top.

A blogger from Alexandria is serving a four-year prison sentence for insulting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the Islamic faith. In October, a Moroccan cartoonist and his publisher were given three-year suspended prison sentences and ordered to pay more than $360,000 for “failing to accord due respect to a member of the royal family,” after publishing a cartoon satirizing the king’s cousin. Even in Lebanon, roundly considered the most progressive Arab country, a journalist was fined more than $30,000 in the country’s publications court in 2007 for ridiculing the Lebanese president.

Perhaps worse from a Western perspective is the fact that in Iraq criticizing the country’s leaders is even more fiercely criminalized. “Iraqi laws,” writes Freedom House in a 2009 report, “allow for fines and up to seven years in prison for anyone who insults the parliament, the government, or public authorities.” These are wholly rotten laws in a fledgling “democracy.”

Expanding speech freedom in a Mideast minute

Given human rights’ trends in this part of the world, the fact that Arab heads of state persecute their critics may not seem novel. What is interesting to consider, though, is that, with a single utterance, any of these Arab leaders could decriminalize speech scrutinizing them and their policies.

Unlike entrenched laws in Arab countries demanding government licensure for journalists or constitutional provisions criminalizing criticism of Islam, laws declaring Arab leaders unassailable could be made meaningless tomorrow morning if the autocrats in question emerged from their satin sheets and reached for the phone.

I was thinking about this recently while I listened to Queen Rania of Jordan give a speech in Cairo. Rania is modernity incarnate. She looks like a Parisian runway model, speaks seamless English and cares deeply about meaningful reforms in Arab countries. But Jordan, although progressive compared to most Arab countries, is a police state in which royals and intelligence forces, not citizens, wield power.

When I wasn’t dazzled listening to Jordan’s stunning queen, I found myself asking her in my head, “You care so much about modernizing Jordan, correcting the worldwide image of the 21st-century Arab, and bringing more freedom to your people. Why not stand with your husband and announce, ‘Journalists can criticize, even ridicule, the first family and our policies’”? This would give Jordanians more say over their future, eliminate one of Jordan’s outmoded laws, and set a needed precedent for other Arab states.

When pushed to modernize, apologists of Arab regimes often claim that developing countries can’t do too much too fast, which is sometimes true, particularly in the case of certain economic and cultural changes. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, has favored a number of reforms that are too much for his conservative kingdom to accept. Even if he were inclined, it would be hard for Abdullah to announce the freedom of journalists to, say, lampoon the Prophet Mohamed, without evoking violent unrest among the people.

But Arab leaders can’t hide behind a slow-moving curtain when it comes to criticism of their personal theaters. The kings of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders could speak more freedom into the law with a single, royal statement. Doing this doesn’t take time, and their people have been patient enough.

Showing preference for consent, not coercion

Obviously, heads of governments that prosecute their critics don’t want to announce open season on their policies, because they want their orders to remain unquestioned.

But eliminating policies deifying Arab leaders is actually in these VIPs’ own interests. Rami Khouri, a prominent columnist and director of a public policy institute at the American University of Beirut, has said the Arab world suffers from a “crisis of legitimacy.” Many Arabs, Khouri rightly notes, feel their leaders aren’t the legitimate heads of their countries. They feel their nations are run by undeserving elites to whom they have few meaningful ties.

The more platinum privileges Arab leaders hoard for themselves, the more Arab masses feel the guy at the top doesn’t belong there. Economist writer Peter David points out that, while most Arab leaders don’t depend on the consent of citizens to stay in power, “the more they have consent and the less they depend on coercion, the more likely they are to remain in control.”

Egypt’s largest opposition newspaper reported in March that Mubarak’s administration ordered imams at Cairo mosques to publicly pray for the president’s health during Friday observances, as he was in Germany recovering from gall bladder surgery. This opposition outlet was, gently and without drawing the ire of security forces, highlighting the fact that the president is not like the layfolk. (This was also highlighted by Mubarak’s surgery being in Germany, a place most Egyptians don’t have a pharaoh’s chance of visiting for a medical vacation.)

Laws hoisting Arab leaders above the splashes of criticism estrange them from their people, and they need to go. And these laws don’t need acts of parliament or the blessing of the Arab League to fall; with a few words Arab leaders can greatly expand their people’s freedom to speak.

Some criticism of Arab brass does go unprosecuted. For example, despite sharply criticizing the policies of Arab authorities, I’ve never been arrested. But since I’m an American writer who reports mostly for Western media, my apparent immunity isn’t cause for celebration. It’s time Arab leaders grant their people the same distance from prison that I have, and this could be done today before quittin’ time.

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism & Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo. Contact him at [email protected].