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Opinion: A right to lampoon Arab leaders

Kings of Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia could speak more freedom into the law with a single royal statement.

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