No Red Lines
A Reason interview with Middle East Transparent's Pierre Akel
Lebanese Pierre Akel
hosts the popular Web site Middle East Transparent, which receives
50,000-60,000 hits a day. While the Paris-based site is trilingual (Arabic,
English, French), its particular value is that it has become a forum for Arab
liberals who would otherwise have no outlet for their writings. Akel himself has written for Arabic newspapers in
reason: Describe your Web site, Metransparent.com.
Pierre Akel: In the
aftermath of the
Metransparent was an
attempt to explore such liberal currents as exist inside the
To understand Arab liberalism, one has to
understand not only what it now represents but where it emerged from: In Syria,
it mostly comes from the remnants of the communist or Marxist left—just like
the Eastern European dissidents of 30 years ago. In
reason: What's your average day like when it comes to finding articles? Whose articles do you tend to run?
Akel: We get our
articles by email from practically every Arab country. Right now we have too
many opinion pieces and are late in publishing what we receive. Most of the authors—we
have more than 200—write exclusively for us; some send their articles to Arabic
newspapers and to us, and we publish complete, uncensored versions. I believe
we have something like 25 opinion articles from
I am especially proud to say that, soon, half of our writers shall be women. Usually, I receive letters from potential authors asking what "our conditions" are for accepting contributions. We answer back that we are a democratic and liberal Web site, with no censorship or red lines.
The Web site also has a reputation as a forum
for liberal Shiites, both Saudi and Lebanese. But, most importantly, I believe
we are the most daring site in advocating an Islamic Reformation, as
represented by such writers as Gamal Banna [the brother of the founder of the Muslim
Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna],
Judge Said al-Ashmawy, and Sayyid
al-Qimny, all from Egypt; and by many writers in
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Islamic reformers are part and parcel of the Arab
reason: Is there room for Middle Eastern liberalism today, between dictatorships and Islamists?
Akel: Remember the
novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch, where people open
the palace doors to discover that the dictator has been dead for a long time?
This applied to the
reason: Who do you feel are the liberal heroes in the region? Who do you find most interesting among political commentators?
Akel: You can
find liberals in unexpected places. Ahmad bin Baz,
the son of the late mufti of
Of course, in Syria Riad Turk is a brilliant example of Arab liberalism. Though he spent some two decades in prison for his communist convictions, I talked to him for four hours and he never once mentioned Marx or Lenin. He even criticized the Lebanese Democratic Left Party, with which I am close, because for him being of the left is not necessary at this historical moment; a democratic movement, he told me, was enough and more adequate.
The Tunisian Lafif Lakhdar is another radiant example. The Lebanese Shiite
Sheikh Hani Fahs is a
liberal writer. And of course the late Samir Kassir, whose assassination last June was a terrible blow to us all, both in
reason: How has
the Internet been able to affect political attitudes in the
Akel: In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a blog revolution. Arab culture has been decimated during the last 50 years. Arab newspapers are mainly under Saudi control. The book market is practically dead. Some of the best authors pay to have their books published in the order of 3,000 copies for a market of 150 million. This is ridiculous. Even when people write, they face censorship at every level—other than their own conscious or unconscious censorship. Meanwhile, professional journalism is rare.
In the future, I would like Metransparent to promote tens (or even hundreds) of blogs representing human rights and activists groups in many Arab cities. This has already started. Just to clarify a point about the Arab cultural scene. Freedom House writes a yearly report about the Arab world. It never mentions books. I have published official Iraqi censorship documents for the 1990s. Emile Zola, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas, and tens of 19th-century Western writers were banned by Saddam Hussein. The list even included Learn English in Five Days. The whole of classical literature was banned by the Baathists.
reason: In recent years the Middle Eastern satellite media has gained much prominence. How does the Internet compare to it, in your experience?
Akel: When it
comes to satellite television in the region, Al-Jazeera
is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, while many of the rest are under Saudi
control. Al-Arabiya, for example, is owned by the Al-Ibrahim, the brothers-in-law of the late King Fahd. Even the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation cannot
cross certain Saudi red lines. Yes, you can hear a liberal point of view here
and there. But, to take one example, both Abdul Halim
Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president who turned
against the regime of President Bashar Assad, and Riad Turk, the Syrian
dissident, have been under a Saudi ban from Al-Arabiya
for the last month, because the Saudi leadership does not now want to annoy the
Assad regime. For once, Al-Jazeera
has also banned them, but for Qatari political reasons.
On the Internet, people can publish whatever they want: no red lines. They can use pen names if they want. People read, send comments, and they transmit information to their friends by email and fax, etc. The regimes' monopoly on information has been broken. Remember: Three months ago a Libyan writer was assassinated and his fingers cut for writing articles on an opposition Web site. The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism.
Of course, liberals cannot compete with Al-Jazeera. We do not have the financial means to start a liberal satellite channel. Hundreds of Arab millionaires are liberals. Only, they cannot stand up to their regimes. Arab capitalism is mostly state capitalism. If you are in opposition, you are not awarded contracts by states. So, for the near future, we do not expect much help from these quarters.
reason: How is Metransparent funded?
Akel: We are not funded and are surviving by personal means. I have been paying all the expenses, because promises from a number of Arab businessmen never materialized. On many occasions I have thought of calling it a day and ending Metransparent. The burden is getting heavier every day. We are trying to get financial support free of political conditions, but that is not easy. The advertisement market is smaller when you are mostly an Arabic-language Web site. What keeps the site alive is the amazing reaction from the readers. Metransparent has 50,000–60,000 hits per day, with no publicity and no mailing campaigns on our part. This means there is demand. Plus, I find it hard to disappoint all those generous writers who have been with us for two years. Some of the Syrian writers do not even own a computer. They have to beg friends to type and email their articles. We shall keep on as long as possible. There is, probably, a light at the end of the tunnel. Or, we will close down.
have been among the most severe critics of the war in
liberals, at least among our writers, favored the
Things changed with the disaster that was Paul
I admit some liberals took longer to overcome
the Arab-Islamic taboo against approving foreign intervention. This is
increasingly behind us. Yet, what
reason: If you had to cite in one sentence the major challenge for Arab liberals in the coming year, what would it be?
relations with the Islamists. They are the liberals' adversaries but also, in
certain cases, their necessary partners. To take an example from a completely
different context: In the 1980s, French President François Mitterrand co-opted
the French Communist Party and accelerated its implosion. Saad
Eddine Ibrahim in
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is
opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in
From: "Ahmed Saad" <email@example.com>
Mr Akel initiative of starting METRANSPARENT site is a serious step forward and I am sure is appreciated by
its readers and certainly by me.
While it is interesting reading the interview with Mr. Akel and how he started the site and its objectives
etc., It is, in my opinion not right to express political opinion in the article, which is distributed to the readers (push model instead of pull model, if you know what I mean).
If Mr. Akel wants to express his opinion political or otherwise, he can use the site he brilliantly started
instead of using his position of trust to force his opinion down our throats.
Dr. Ahmed Saad
From: "Sami Joseph" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Having read 'No Red Lines' I am sorry to say
that I find it hard to believe that there are knowledgeable Arabs living in the
West who are not aware that the war waged against Iraq and wars in the planning
stage against Iran and possibly Syria are at Israel's behest to crush all
possible threats to its security, whether real or imagined. In the real world,
democracy in the English speaking West, has been
reduced to electorate electing representatives who serve alien
interests/masters and kowtow to
By the way, when I signed your guestbook, I recommended reading "The Controversy of Zion" by Dougas Reed which is available from www,whtt.org or visit:
By the way I am a Palestinian who is married to
a Lebanese. Apart from
With very best wishes in your endeavours.
"Mona Fayad" <email@example.com>
Je suis d’accord avec toi et je trouve que c’est tres important, que les dictatures ont deja decedees, et que dans notre monde arabe maintenant il y a 2 courants: les libereaux et les islamistes.
C’est tres juste
Mais pour les noms que tu as cite, tu as ete classique et avare
Ta conclusion est tres bonne
a reader drew my attention to the new book of Barry Rubin-'the long war for freedom-the arab struggle for democracy in the Middle-east'.
barry rubin was interviewed about the book by FrontPageMagazine.com ,november 2005.in the interview he explains that although the whole question of democracy in the ME has become a centerpiece of U.S policy-there was not a single work which acutally looked at the arab liberals.
in the book BR explains who the liberals are,what they believe,their debats with their enemies-on many subjects-relations with america,peace with israel,human rights,religion and so on...it is an objective book,worth reading.
(I admit the hasty judgement about friend Barry might be somewhat unfair, mea culpa------ Pierre Akel)
name = Richard Hunter
email = firstname.lastname@example.org
comments = Is there a way to make donations to your site (e.g. via paypal)? I
would very much like to support it in some small way.
From: "Abdelaziz Abdelaziz" email@example.com
1) Very thoughtful Indeed.
I enjoyed your interview as I always do your articles. I identify with the great message of your work. But, maybe now you have another type of liberal! Having lived out here in the USA for more than half my life, and having been active in the leftist circles here I don't have much faith in what someone may see as good intentions of the power brokers of Washington and the US foreign policy, in general. This in no way should detract from my loyalty and commitment to the great country that has granted citizenship, and made me feel equal.
However, as someone who is interested in the
rule of law, both local and international, observing the absolute selective
attitude towards human rights and other virtues we American like to believe our
government to promote. For example,
President Bush's notion of loyalty and patriotism 'if you're not with us, you
are against us' actually threatened the political discourse in the
So, as one of millions of Americans here I
would like to believe that we are promoting in the Middle East virtues that we
can ACTUALLY find amongst ourselves here in the US. At the end of the day, the interests of the
American people and those of the peoples of the
2) Just a thought on my part, have you thought of sharing the expenses issue with the readership and contributors? Because, your forum is a dream come true for all of us, and I speak for myself and for many friends who frequent metransparent, and who greatly appreciate your efforts. I also respect tremendously your resistance to any funding associated with political pressure.
5) Thank you for being a beacon for free speech.
Have a great day.