Visiting the Powder Keg: A Chat with Ayad Al-Qazzaz

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2002-07-01 12:00:00

AYAD AL-QAZZAZ: The Arab countries are extremely oppressive. They do not allow people to express themselves. In Egypt I went for the Friday prayers to the famous Azhar Mosque three times. It's surrounded by police, soldiers, and military cars, preventing anybody from going out to demonstrate in the Cairo streets. People on the street are angry - mostly toward Israel, rather than the US. But the government is afraid that the anger will be directed against them for not taking action. The moment these demonstrations go out in the street, the troops start shooting. There have been deaths in Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain.

METTA SPENCER: Could you compare the extent of government oppression to that in Iraq?

AL-QAZZAZ: In Iraq the situation is much worse. The Iraqi situation is a sui generis situation, especially since 1990. One thing has changed in the Middle East since 20 years ago - satellite television today is part of their environment. One station, Al Jazeera, is mobilizing public opinion. Everyone watches it. I watched it myself. They tried to censor it but many people have access to it. The man on the street now has more weight than ever before, but he cannot express himself because of government oppression.


SPENCER: How much access does, say, a street food vendor have to satellite TV?

AL-QAZZAZ: In Egypt probably none. But if you are a college or high school graduate, not poor, you may have access. One of your neighbors will have it and you can go have coffee and watch satellite. Poor people get it through a second or third source.

SPENCER: Evidently Canada is more authoritarian. A new court ruling forbids us to have satellite service from outside the country. They call that "protecting Canadian culture."

AL-QAZZAZ: Well, these regimes have learned that you cannot really control satellites, so they use it as a source of money. If you want satellite, you pay a tax. The regimes use it to let people get things off their chest. There are also a couple of newspapers where anybody in the government except the president can be criticized.

SPENCER: How much access is there to the Internet?

AL-QAZZAZ: In the Emirates, everybody has it. It's a wealthy country. When I went to the sociology department, everybody had it. When I went to Bahrain, more or less everybody had it, although, I didn't talk to the poor people. In Egypt it depends on wealth. The professors of the American University in Cairo have internet access. Most university professors at Cairo University don't have it. There are Internet cafés everywhere but it costs money to use them.

Egypt is a powder keg waiting to explode. The problem is economic backwardness. It's unbelievable. I have no idea how people survive. The population of Cairo is about 18 million. Three million are below the poverty line. They spend an average of 50 cents per day. I wonder why there is no revolution. Vivian Gornick has talked about Cairo and she says these are the conditions in New York that generate a lot of crime. But crime in Egypt is much lower. She speculates about the role of the family and religion and the belief that everything comes from God. The life style of the Egyptian rich is not distinguishable from that of rich people anywhere else - they are the same jet set, with ties to big corporations.


The Egyptian bureaucracy is terrible. The average Egyptian bureaucrat works five minutes a day. But everyone who works in the government has a second or third job because the pay is not enough to survive. Taxi drivers have college degrees. They work five to seven hours in the government and then have taxi jobs in addition because they cannot survive working in the government. This is a vicious circle. The government doesn't raise salaries because they know that everybody has another source of income. A newly appointed professor at Cairo University makes about $200 a month, so they give private lessons or write textbooks. In America publishers are responsible for marketing textbooks, but in Egypt the professors are responsible for marketing their books. I was told by one Egyptian professor that when students take a course, they have to submit a receipt to show they bought the professor's book!

SPENCER: What kind of ideology would inspire a revolution? I don't think many of them are deeply into Marxism these days.

AL-QAZZAZ: No, the ideology of Islam is gaining ground. People are receptive to Islamic ideas about the economy, the role of women and the government. Islamic militance is the product of a certain environment. Unless we study these environments, we are not going to come up with a solution. You are not going to get rid of suicide bombers by killing them. You have to know the causes. It is like a disease. You can treat the symptoms but if you don't know the causes, the symptoms keep coming up.

SPENCER: So there is not a high crime rate but a growing Muslim fundamentalist movement?

AL-QAZZAZ: That is like what happened in Iran in 1979; the government doesn't allow political participation or alternative perspectives. If they allowed these things, Islamic perception would not be the same. Had they allowed different political parties to function, I can guarantee you that the perception of Islam would be very different. I don't like to have an "Islamic" government. I don't like to have a government controlled from A to Z by Islamic interpretations of life. But because we're not allowing other alternatives to evolve, Islam is becoming the alternative. Islam has been with them for fifteen centuries; Islam has its own history and institutions. Once it was a high, powerful civilization. People feel it has to become a big deal again. The movement is a right wing one.


SPENCER: Would it involve more women wearing scarves over their heads and long dress and so on?

AL-QAZZAZ: Yes. That's a good question. I'll tell you something that you may not like. I hope you will not misunderstand me. When I was in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Emirates, I did not feel the presence of women. I saw them everywhere at Cairo University but I did not think of them as women because of the way they presented themselves. Many of them did not wear perfume or make-up. They did not wear chadors but wore a scarf and had no body parts showing. Compare that to my classes at Sacramento State University in the summer. Most sociology students are female. Most of them wear shorts, make-up, perfume. I am constantly reminded that they are women. These things did not exist in many of my encounters in Egypt. On the other hand, I went to the opera house in Egypt three or four times. The audience is a certain slice of society. There I saw the latest fashions, make-up, perfume, and so on. So there were more sexual stimulants. By the way, men have to dress properly too. Two years ago I visited Jordan and I brought shorts with me, but my hostess told me not to wear them because I would be taken as a tourist or an Israeli.

Another surprise to me was the declining role of Arabic. The language of the University of Bahrain is Arabic but many subjects are taught in English. In the United Arab Emirates, when you take a bus they give you a ticket that is printed in English.


SPENCER: How many people on the street understand English?

AL-QAZZAZ: In the United Arab Emirates, the Arabs are a minority. Eighty percent are of some other origin - from over 100 countries. Most business is conducted in English, Urdu, or Persian. And Bahrain is almost the same. In Egypt, instruction is in Arabic but they have a lot of foreign words. When I came out of the airport, I saw a restaurant saying "Take-Away Food" written in Arabic. They say cafeteria, supermarket, bye-bye, okay.

The decline of English instruction is creating a problem. At the pyramids I started talking to a local English teacher. I said, "Good, you can practice with me." He said, "I cannot. In Egypt they teach us grammar, translation, and writing, but not to speak English." Another problem is that a lot of text books and other important books are not being translated into Arabic. If you're going to keep Arabic, you have to enrich it, update it.

Religiously, the Egyptians are more observant than Bahrain or the Emirates. People practically pray in the streets. There are lots of big mosques everywhere, full on Friday. In Bahrain the mosque was full, but the way Egyptians practice is stronger. People in all those countries believe that the United States is not really conducting a war on militant Islam, but a war on Islam itself, using terrorism as a cover-up.

SPENCER: Let me play the devil's advocate by mentioning a new book by Bernard Lewis, a top authority on Islam. He argues that Islam is a religious culture that hasn't been willing to modernize - not just locally, but that Islam is backward almost everywhere.

AL-QAZZAZ: Bernard Lewis is not their favorite author. He is progressively becoming anti-Islam and Zionist. There are two schools of thought about Islam in the US. One school is headed by Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes, who equate Islam to terrorism. The other school, headed by John Espositos, argues that there are bad apples everywhere. You have terrorists in Islam, terrorists in Judaism, terrorists in Hindu-ism. But the majority of the people, though they may be backward, do not have a terrorist attitude.

SPENCER: I don't know that these are contradictory. I agree that fundamentalists of all religions are pretty similar, with the same conservative opposition to modernism. I think Lewis is just suggesting that Islam is too fundamentalist, rather than that they are terrorist.

AL-QAZZAZ: I agree, but when you talk about Jihad, you associate it with fundamentalism.


SPENCER: There is talk about how the United States is going to attack Iraq. Do you think it will happen?

AL-QAZZAZ: It will happen - for one simple reason. Now we don't need Saddam as a villain. We have already found another larger villain, so we can justify whatever we want to do.

SPENCER: That depends on whether you think Osama is alive. If he is dead, you don't have a focal point.

AL-QAZZAZ: Terrorism is the focal point.

SPENCER: Yes, but that's an enemy without a face.

AL-QAZZAZ: That's why they tell people there's no end. Now terrorism is everywhere worldwide and we have to be ready. In the past we created these villains - Saddam or Ghadafi or Iran - and they are small players. But now we have found a big one, so if we want to get rid of Saddam, we can. The intervention probably is going to happen, but there are problems, so it is being postponed. The Arab masses are not convinced that you can equate the Palestinians with Bin Ladin, as the US government is trying to do.

SPENCER: I don't think most Amer-icans consider Palestinians as terrorists.

AL-QAZZAZ: Correct. That's part of the dilemma. Public opinion is ahead of the American politicians. The polls have indicated that. Anyhow, the politicians think the time has come to get rid of Saddam, but the Israeli situation is a problem. The second difficulty is the man on the street in the Arab world. The man on the street now has a little weight - twenty years ago he didn't - and he doesn't think intervention is justified. He is scared about it. He knows that they accuse Saddam of weapons of mass destruction, but Israeli has them. Double standard. Why don't they say the same thing to Israel?


Also, there is no resistance from within, no army within, as there was in Afghanistan. We don't have a Northern Alliance. There are the Kurds but we don't know what they are willing to do.

SPENCER: Suppose they do get rid of Saddam Hussein. There's no alternative.

AL-QAZZAZ: That's true. The United States wants a dictator who will go along with our ideas. We talk about democracy but it is easier to deal with a dictator. It was Kissinger, not I, who said that during the 1973 disengagement agreement between the Arabs and the Israelis, when he went to Egypt, he only had to convince Sadat. When he went to Israel, he had to convince everybody in the cabinet, in the parliament, and every garbage collector. He was exaggerating, but that's what democracy is all about - differences of opinion. When it comes to a government like Egypt or Arabia or Syria, you need convince only one person.

SPENCER: Does the average person care about democracy there?

AL-QAZZAZ: I think so, given a chance. They are not prepared for it, nobody has encouraged it, but deep down, many of them want to express their opinions. In the long run, democracy will function best. I am more and more convinced of the value of alternative opinions. I don't know everything. You don't know everything. We can read something and come up with our own interpretations. Through discourse we can come to some common views. We may still disagree but we will be respectful of each other. People need the opportunity to argue. But democracy is a process and it's not going to come all of a sudden. They may not be ready for it but if they don't get it, we will pay for it in the long run. It's not coming, though.

SPENCER: Would you say the US can influence whether the Middle East becomes democratic?

AL-QAZZAZ: Whatever the US says has an impact. It promoted democracy in Eastern Europe during the Cold War because it was to their advantage. They have never done that in the Middle East. Two or three years ago I was convinced they were not interested in intervening, but now they have found another alternative, so they may do so. Bush is trying to avenge his father. People criticized his father for not finishing the job. Maybe that's one reason why he lost the election, so George W. wants to be shrewder. But I don't think that's a big motive. There are reasons for the postponement. The main thing is the Israeli government. The second thing is the man or woman on the street. A third reason is the opposition of the European governments. A fourth reason is not having local support. You can keep bombing but are you willing to go in on the ground? The answer is no. So we will use an alternative that is easier for us. For that, all I can see is the Kurds, but I don't know whether that works to their advantage.

SPENCER: I would think one might conclude from all these reasons that they may not do it.

AL-QAZZAZ: Right, they may not. But they are more interested in intervention now than two or three years ago. And another alternative for intervention is through Iran. In a few years Iran will be our friend. They can exploit the animosity between Iraq and Iran.

SPENCER: Get Iran to attack?

AL-QAZZAZ: Not exactly to attack, but there are some opponents of Iraq inside Iran. They are trained. Some of them could be used. I am opposed to intervention. I don't like Saddam and I wish he would disappear today, but if you want to encourage democracy you don't do it by intervention. Second, US intervention is not motivated by human interests but by oil.


SPENCER: What about another possibility - the way they got rid of Milo-sevic? They imported Gene Sharp's methods of nonviolence to groups of Serbian youth and that succeeded.

AL-QAZZAZ: I don't think that's a viable alternative in Iraq. There's no indication that there's a serious opposition within the country. There may be some underground that we don't know about but in Serbia there was an election that was a fraud and there was a lot of anger. We don't have that in Iraq.

SPENCER: Will they keep the sanctions forever?

AL-QAZZAZ: Yes. They have changed them a little, but they will keep sanctions as long as Saddam is there because that is one way to micro-manage the Iraqi economy. I am not optimistic.

SPENCER: If he is killed, who is waiting in the wings?

AL-QAZZAZ: One of his sons.

SPENCER: Is he any better?

AL-QAZZAZ: No, he's probably worse, but he's younger. People sometimes learn lessons. There will be a power struggle, so the son will not be as strong as his father and the possibility of change will be greater. The opposition outside Iraq is completely discredited because many of them had been friends of Saddam or they had backgrounds that are not very clean.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace Magazine.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage