Special Dispatch Series - No. 1193 June 28, 2006 No.1193
Interview With Editor in Chief of the Reformist Website Metransparent.com
Pierre Akel, founder and editor of the influential reformist website
metransparent.com, discussed the role of liberal Arab voices in shaping the
Arab public opinion  as well as the ideological and moral "death" of
dictatorships in the Middle East, in a recent interview.
The following are excerpts as they appeared in English on metransparent.com:
"An Independent Web Site was Necessary to Allow People to Write What They
Really had in Mind, Not Merely What They Were Allowed to Write"
"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
"Akel himself has written for Arabic newspapers in London and Paris. He
moved to France in 1976, after studying economics at the American University
of Beirut and philosophy at the Lebanese University. He also took history at
the Sorbonne. He finances the site himself, and for the moment, only the
enthusiasm of his readers and writers keeps him going."
Pierre Akel: "In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, it seemed
to me that Arab liberals had to take a stand against the barbarian wave
threatening to engulf the region. The danger was imminent I myself was much
more familiar with the Islamic fundamentalist movement than with liberal
currents. I had talked to the 'Londonstan' leaders, read their writings, and
explored the many fundamentalist Web sites in Saudi Arabia.
"Metransparent was an attempt to explore such liberal currents as exist
inside the Middle East. I discovered the different strains of Arab
liberalism along with my readers. An independent Web site was necessary in
order to allow people to write what they really had in mind, not merely what
they were allowed to write. It was also necessary as a forum for the diverse
currents in the region."
"To Understand Arab Liberalism, One has to Understand Where it Emerged From"
Akel: "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 Saudi Arabia, it comes from the very heart of
Islamic fundamentalist culture, but also from the orthodox Sunnis
originating in the Hijaz, where the cities of Jeddah, Medina and Mecca are
located. Hussein Shobokshi is a good example. It also comes from the Shi'ite
minority in the oil producing Eastern Province. In Tunisia, it comes from
the reformed Islamic university Al-Zaitouna. In Egypt, liberals are inspired
by the great liberal tradition that was crushed by the late President Gamal
Question: "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 Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates per
week, a bit more from Egypt, and many more from Syria, which has a
formidable civil society movement. Tunisians also contribute quite a bit, as
well as Moroccans, especially Berber intellectuals, and Yemenis, Algerians,
"I Believe We are the Most Daring Site in Advocating an Islamic Reformation"
Akel: "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 Shi'ites, 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 liberal movement. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two
countries where calls for an Islamic Reformation are the most advanced."
"Dictatorships are Dead"
Question: "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 Soviet Union and now to
Arab dictatorships as well. Dictatorships are dead; they lost the
ideological and moral high ground years ago. The battle is between
fundamentalists and liberals. Liberalism is the wave of the future. The
Middle East is not like Afghanistan, if only because of oil, and [it] cannot
be allowed to turn into a Taliban-led region. Since 9/11, both Afghanistan
and Iraq have been liberated. This is the trend."
Question: "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 Saudi Arabia, is certainly a liberal. He wrote stunning
articles in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, but then was shelved. He was
probably 'advised' by the religious scholars to stop writing. Mansour
al-Nogaidan and the great Wajeeha al-Khuweider, the best Arab feminist
nowadays, are brilliant Saudi liberal examples. Ali Doumaini is another. In
Egypt, I already mentioned a few names, and can add to them Sa'd Al-Din
Ibrahim, Abdel Moneim Said, Ali Salem, and others.
"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 [leftist] Party,... 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 Shi'ite
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 Lebanon
and in Syria. Kassir was the intellectual most aware of the organic
relationship between the modern democratic movement in the contemporary
Levant and the 19th-century Arab liberal renaissance known as Al-Nahda."
"The [Arab] Book Market is Practically Dead"
Question: "How has the Internet been able to affect political attitudes in
the Middle East? "
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
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 "
The Regimes' Monopoly on Information has Been Broken; There are No Red Lines
on the Internet
Question: "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 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...[Al-Jazeera is owned by the Qatari government].
"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
[forward] 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
"Of Course, Liberals Cannot Compete With Al-Jazeera"
Akel: "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, [but] 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."
Question: "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 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
Question: "Liberals have been among the most severe critics of the war in
Iraq. However, one might say that for the first time the U.S. has rejected
alliances with regional despots; that Iraq was a start; and that liberals
have missed an opportunity by so vocally opposing the U.S.? How would you
Akel: "Most liberals, at least among our writers, favored the U.S. military
intervention in Iraq. I myself have written articles in support of it,
before and after the invasion. I didn't support it because of Iraqi WMD ,
but for democracy. We would have liked President George W. Bush and Prime
Minister Tony Blair to say openly that they were invading to liberate the
Iraqi people. Remember, even Riad Turk was not against the U.S.
intervention. A Syrian, Abdul Razzaq Eid, who spent most of his life in the
doctrinaire Syrian Communist Party of Khaled Bekdash, even wrote articles
welcoming it "
"It's Either Democracy - or Many Future Osama bin Ladens Striking U.S.
Akel: "It's either democracy or many future Osama bin Ladens striking
against U.S. interests.
"I admit some liberals took longer to overcome the Arab-Islamic taboo
against approving foreign intervention. This is increasingly behind us. Yet,
what Iraq proved was that the U.S. could not do the job alone. Internal
democratic forces had to be mobilized. We are part of this 'internal'
process. I should add that outside intervention should not only be military.
Ideally, we would like something like the Helsinki Accords, where the
international community's relations with the Arab world involve spreading
democracy, defending Arab dissidents, human rights, women's rights and
minority rights. Syrian dissidents have been calling for this for years.
Last year, Metransparent circulated a petition asking the United Nations to
create an International Court to judge the authors of fatwas condemning
people to death."
The Major Challenge for Arab Liberals: "Managing Relations With the
Question: "If you had to cite in one sentence the major challenge for Arab
liberals in the coming year, what would it be?"
Akel: "Managing 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. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim in Egypt and Riad Turk in Syria are wagering
on a similar development in the Middle East. You bring Islamists into the
open, encourage them to take part in the political life of a country, and
they are bound to disintegrate into their various component elements.
"For example, the leader of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali
Sadruddin al-Bayanouni, recently opted for peaceful negotiations with Israel
and even for a possible recognition of Israel. This would not go down well
with other Syrian Islamists. Dissension shall occur over issues like this
one and others. It is either this or the Assad and Mubarak regimes will last
for a long time. The same applies to Hamas.
"Co-opting Islamists is a risky proposal, of course. Where liberals should
never make concessions is where Islamists tend to be harshest: the status of
women. In that domain no concessions should be made."
 Metransparent.com, February 9, 2006.