Cowardice and Honor: Mubarak’s Trial and the Pathologies of the Arab World

One of the most depressing things I read about honor-killings – a pretty depressing topic – was that, at least in Jordan, on suspicion of having done something wrong, the family kills the daughter (after all, the crime is blackening the family’s honor, which is about reputation, not deeds). Then you find out at the autopsy if she’s a virgin. If yes, the matter ends there; if no, you go after the suspected lover.

What this means in the clan context is, since the daughter’s own clan (her “protectors”) kill her, there’s no fear of retaliation. No one (not even international feminists) are going to defend her. The male lover is a bigger problem: he and his clan might retaliate for an unjustified killing; so you have to be more careful. As an articulation of a pathological honor-shame world, in which you concern for family honor is so great that it overrides any affection for the daughter, or even concern about whether she’s guilty or not, it’s those without protection who suffer most cruelly. A coward’s rage.

I thought of this today when I read the following analysis by Zvi Mazel about the trial of Mubarak.

Analysis: Mubarak’s trial is about the future of Egypt
08/07/2011 01:49
Will the image of an old, ailing man on a stretcher in a cage become the defining event setting Egypt on a new path?

On the first day of Hosni Mubarak’s trial last week, after the whole world had seen the ousted Egyptian president brought on a stretcher and his emaciated face peering through the bars of a huge cage, representatives of all political movements in Egypt enthused about what they called a momentous historic event.

In their own ways, they hailed justice being done and the triumph of the people of Egypt over corruption and abuse.

On behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Saad Katatani emphasized that the trial ushers the phase of reconstruction and development of his country.

For the Wafd, Issam Sheikha, a member of the party’s Supreme Council, stressed that this was not vengeance but a public display of justice and a clear warning to all those who would rule Egypt in the future.

For Sayed Abd Alaal, secretary- general of the Tagammu party – the united national progressive movement that is the party of the Left – the trial is the beginning of a new political life and the people have shown that they can bring to book those who abused them.

Going one step further, Issam al-Islambuli, a member of the Nasserist party, declared that this was an enormous step forward on the way to the construction of the new Egypt about to rise on the basis of democracy, freedom, justice and the respect of law.

Ayman el-Nur, founder of the El Rad (tomorrow) party, said that the revolution had succeeded in creating new rules for justice and retribution.

Last but not least, a member of the January 25 youth coalition declared that Mubarak’s trial was “the pinnacle of justice” and that it was “an historic event for the whole world and not just for Egypt.”

Indeed high sounding words such as politicians love to use to accompany important or founding events in the life of a country. Words befitting a revolutionary period that brought down Mubarak’s regime and also – perhaps – the 60-years rule of the army. Words defining the mood in the country today, and its hopes for the future.

There is only one problem.

The representatives of all these parties conveniently forget and try to make their country forget how Egypt descended into today’s calamitous situation.

The Muslim Brotherhood does not want to remember that it, together with the Fascist movement Young Egypt, threw the country into chaos in the 40s, bringing to an end the only democratic episode in the history of Egypt and precipitating the Officers Coup of July 1952. It also forgets to mention the platform today of its own party – Justice and Freedom – calling for the establishment of an Islamic rule based on the Koran and Shari’a (Islamic Law), in other words a theocratic dictatorship that would make Mubarak’s regime sound like the embodiment of liberal democracy.

The representative of the Wafd forgot to mention his party’s failure to install a viable parliamentary regime during its rule – from the 20s to the 40s – a failure that, coupled with the subversive activities of the Muslim Brothers, led to the aforementioned Officers Coup.

The member of the Nasserist party – which somehow managed to keep afloat throughout the Mubarak years – did not see fit to mention that Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime was a hard-core dictatorship: Freedom of speech was abolished, ordinary people lived in fear of the Muhabarat secret police coming to make arrests at the crack of dawn – a technique that Nasser learned from his friends in Soviet Moscow. Nor did he mention the executions of the enemies of the regime – something that Mubarak never did. Perhaps worse, he forgot that the nationalization of the industries by Nasser dealt a death blow to the Egyptian economy and was largely responsible for today’s disastrous situation.

Lastly, the representative of the January 25 coalition deludes himself if he believes that humiliating Mubarak is an historic event for the whole world that will change the course of history.

That is not to say that Mubarak does not bear his share of blame for the abysmal political and economic situation of Egypt after 30 years of his rule.

However, the people of Egypt should also keep in mind the social and religious factors that have been and still are the main stumbling block preventing democracy and economic progress in Egypt – and indeed throughout the Arab world.

In many conversations between Westerners and Egyptian friends in Cairo, one of the main topics was why did industrialization stop at the frontiers of Islam. Why is there no developed Arab country? Why is the Arab region one of the poorest of the world? The answers given by the Egyptians were unequivocal: There were two main factors that prevented progress: first, Islam, and second, the feudal/tribal makeup of Arab societies. These two factors froze a medieval way of life and set up a screen of sand between the Arab region and Europe where progress was taking place at a rapid pace – this in spite of their proximity and of the developed commercial exchanges in the Mediterranean. The Arab world was left behind while Europe moved ahead.

The big question is what “new Egypt” is going to emerge from the events of the January 25 Revolution.

Will it be a country willing to go to the roots of the problem and to tackle the main obstacles to its progress? This would be a painful process, lengthy and convoluted, fraught with controversies and perhaps difficult conflicts. A process that may seem impossible in the foreseeable future, though it is the only one that can save this great and important country.

If, on the other hand, as all the politicians said, the trial of Hosni Mubarak – the image of an old and ailing leader on a stretcher in a cage – becomes the defining event setting Egypt on a new path, then there is nothing to hope for.

Zvi Mazel was ambassador to Egypt from 1996 to 2001 and is now a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Mubarak is, as Arab dictators go, what Austin Powers referred to as “the diet coke of evil.” As Qaddafi and Assad illustrate, there’s far worse, and the only reason Mubarak fell into this situation was because he was already old and sick (and his major Western ally threw him under the bus). Putting him on display in a cage is pathetic, and the idea that this is a turning point in Egyptian history is grotesque.

(You have to wonder what these same Egyptians thought when Great Britain released the Lockerby bomber for reasons of compassion.)

This isn’t about justice, it’s about symbolic revenge, and the bodes ill for any “democratic” direction. It’s about a society (or groups within) venting their impotent rage on a broken man. It’s a symbol of a pathological honor-shame society, ready for the next (new?) form of despotism that rules a people who have no self-control and no mercy.

UPDATE: For a good example of the exquisite sensitivities (and hatreds) of the Palestinians, see this latest from PalWatch.

One Response to Cowardice and Honor: Mubarak’s Trial and the Pathologies of the Arab World

  1. Rich Rostrom says:

    when Great Britain released the Lockerby bomber for reasons of compassion.

    ITYM when Great Britain released the Lockerby bomber for “reasons of compassion”.

    It’s pretty much an open secret that Britain’s claimed reason for the release of Megrahi was a faked-up excuse, and that the real motive was to make nice with Libya on oil contracts.

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