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  Civilized Debate Versus Fascist Intimidation.




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By    Tarek Heggy

The Arabic version of this article was published in Al-Akhbar newspaper on 12/01/2000


Foreign students of contemporary Egyptian affairs believe there has been a marked decline in the civility of public discourse in recent years, particularly when two opposing points of view contend over an issue of public concern. I have given a great deal of thought to this phenomenon, which I tried to place in a historical perspective by comparing the language of debate in use today with that used earlier this century. My research centered on the now-defunct review, Al-Kashkool, specifically, on the issues which appeared in the period between 1923 and 1927. To my surprise, I discovered that the scurrilous language which I thought was the product of the last few decades was already in use in the `twenties. But further readings of the political and cultural writings of the period revealed that, side by side with the unfortunate tendency to resort to name-calling and slander, a tendency we suffer from to this day, was a sophisticated debating style that resembled that of the West. When Taha Hussein published his controversial book on pre-Islamic poetry, he came under attack from many critics. Some argued their case soberly, using civilized language and confining themselves to an objective critique of the book, but others stooped to unacceptable depths of calumny and personal attacks. One such was Mustapha Sadeq Al-Rafei, whose book, On the Grill, overstepped the bounds of decency in the virulent personal attack he directed at Abbas Al-Aqqad.

In other words, public discourse in Egypt was conducted along two tracks simultaneously: one track observed the rules of civility and objectivity, shunning the use of insulting language and personal attacks, the other belonged to the no-holds-barred school of writing, which had no compunctions about resorting to vilification and mudslinging to discredit the opposing party.

During the last fifty years, the objective school of public debate has gradually lost ground to a defamatory style based on hurling insults at the opponent, in which polemists find it easier to demonize the proponents of the opposing point of view than to argue their own case on its merits. Numerous examples attest to the prevalence of this phenomenon in our cultural life today, where differences of opinion over a specific issue are often expressed in the form of vituperative exchanges of accusations and personal insults.

Take the strident campaigns launched on a periodic basis by some opposition papers over one issue or another. All too often, these campaigns degenerate from an objective discussion of the issue over which they were launched in the first place into an all-out war against the person holding the opposing viewpoint, whose personal integrity and morality are called into question and who is accused of all kinds of private and public wrongdoing. At first, I thought this was because a public debate offers an ideal opportunity to give vent to the pent-up feelings of anger and frustration some of us harbour because of the many problems we face in our day-to-day life. I have since come to believe that, although this is certainly one of the factors behind the phenomenon, the real reason is a fascist trend that has marked public discourse in this country for close on half a century.

In the last five decades, public life in Egypt was strongly influenced by two main realities. The first is that the regime which came to power in 1952 was extremely intolerant of any opposition, indeed, even of the mildest criticism. I am not making a value judgement here, merely stating a fact. From the start, the regime brooked no opposition, using all the apparatus of state to crush dissidents, including the media, which launched devastating campaigns against anyone who dared raise a voice against the regime. The other reality is that the strongest underground opposition movement in the country was the Moslem Brothers, a party that was and still is notoriously averse to the least hint of criticism, dealing with whoever refuses to toe the party line either with an iron fist or with floods of speeches and writings that are no less fascist. Thus we were caught between a ruling establishment that crushed its opponents with all the means at its disposal and an underground opposition movement that destroyed its opponents both materially and morally.

In the context of a fascist climate where any divergent opinion was ruthlessly crushed, whole generations grew up with no knowledge of the rules of civilized debate, generations raised to believe that opponents and critics were fair game for the most ferocious attacks on their probity and honour, and that personal insults and abusive language were par for the course.

Such a climate is not conducive to the promotion of such values as tolerance of the Other, accepting criticism, engaging in self-criticism, expanding the objective margin in thinking and debate or genuinely embracing pluralism. There have been a number of notable exceptions to this general rule, but these are unfortunately far outnumbered by the examples of oral and written debates conducted along fascist lines, which represent the dominant trend in our public discourse at this time. It is a trend that is likely to remain dominant for some years to come, until the process of economic reform now underway has been successfully completed. The fundamental changes this is expected to introduce to the components of public life will make of those who now feed the fascist trend relics of a bygone time, products of a stage which left its mark on the attitudes of some members of our society until the new global changes divested them of their very raison d’etre. However, this is still several years down the road and, in the meantime, we will continue to suffer from the fascist trend that dominates public debate in Egypt today.

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