#IJF16 – El-Baghdadi Iyad: an interview with the Arab Spring tweeting father

di Riccardo Cincotto e Nicolò Brugnera

Iyad El-Baghdadi, as he describes himself in his blog, is a writer, human rights activist, and career entrepreneur who became prominent for tweeting and commenting on the Arab spring. In 2014 he was ordered to leave United Arab Emirates, where he was living with his family,  with no reason given. He now resides in Norway, where he has received asylum. At the moment, he is working on The Arab Spring Manifesto, a two-volume book detailing his vision of an Islamic libertarianism which he envisions to be a potential post-Arab Spring ideology.

Last saturday, at the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia, El-Baghdadi explained his ideas about the Arab Spring and the future of the Arab world with a speech entitled The terrible triangle: tyrants, terrorists and foreign interventions in the Arab world. In his opinion, tyrants, terrorists and foreign interventions buck up each other in a vicious circle: terrorists justify their actions saying that they are actually fighting against a tyranny or a unjust foreign intervention; tyrants justify their oppressive ruling saying that is necessary to face terrorism and avoid foreign interventions; foreign interventions are accepted to eliminate tyrannies and terrorism.

The 2011 Arab Spring represented the struggle to reject the “terrible triangle” through native reforms and, even if “the triangle” has been established again in most of the countries, some things have changed.

First, the regimes are not as stable as they were. For instance the International Monetary Fund announced that Saudi Arabia could go bankrupt by 2020. Secondly, El-Baghdadi shows that extremism in the Arab world in not as spread as western medias describe it: in facts the “ISIS fighters per Muslim citizens” rate is a lot higher in Finland, Sweden and Belgium than it is Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tunisia. Indeed, islamic extremism kills more muslims than any other religious group. Lastly and most importantly, the Arab population has changed and keep changing faster. For example, the literacy rate of Arab senior citizens (>65) is under 30%, the literacy rate of Arab youth (aged 15-24) is 93%. Moreover, the Arab society is more connected than ever: in 2015 internet penetration rate rose to 49% in the Arab countries; Saudi Arabia is the world’s top YouTube nation. These data are also related to the fact that protesters, in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, mainly share their opinions on-line. Even though sometimes they are persecuted anyway, such as in the case of El-Baghdadi.

 After his speech in Perugia, Mr. El-Baghdadi has proved willing to answer our questions.

Good morning and thank you for having accepted to speak with us. In your speech you have underlined how much the Arab world has changed in these last years. However, the West doesn’t believe in a change in the Arab World since the failure of Arab Spring protests: why is this happening?

First there is the Arab Spring failure, which is caused by unrealistic expectations, as I have remarked in my speech. Today Europe is peaceful, democratic and tolerant, but you have to remember that it passed through two world wars to become democratic. Sadly, this is how democracy looks like. Talking about Arab Spring failure, we are actually talking about unrealistic expectations of what could have happened after a very long history of tyranny. Second thing, let’s not talk about protests, let’s talk about challenging the government, and this is manly happening online right now: if you want to actually see what arabs really think, and you look at the streets or at Parliament, maybe you are not getting the right image, you should go online and then see how the conversations really look like.

In your speech you gave an example of a very famous entrepreneur of Saudi Arabia [Essam Al-Zamil] who was publishing his criticism online, on Twitter. Can you just repeat that example and explain it?

He is a very successful entrepreneur and he has 700’000 followers on twitter, which is ten times my audience. Basically he is challenging the government decision to sell the oil to fund a kind of transaction to a post oil economy, but the problem is – he said – that you cannot take this decision on your own; and if even you want to institute a referendum, there is no point of having a referendum without freedom of speech. These are the kind of conversations that go online, and the point is not about what he said, it is about the amount of attention that people give it, it is the amount of support to the idea. This is why I believe Saudi regime is one of the worst in the region, probably one of the worst in the world, but Saudi society is extremely dynamic.

How did the regime respond to these types of publication? 

We do not know for sure but they took down the tweets. The tweets reappeared as screen grabs. We have some indications that he got a warning: if he continues with this kind of criticism he will not be allowed to write in local newspapers and that if continues it could get worse. But the message is out, that’s the point.

It takes a lot of courage to publish these criticisms against the regime, you had to face consequences for your blog, you were expelled from your country to Malaysia, so how difficult is for people to speak up?

If you are having your own supporting network online, you need to continue to work on it, because if you provide a certain kind of support system for people to speak out, then more of them will come out, they will know that if something happens they will be supported. This is why I said that in order to help us to break the triangle from within we need to know we are not going to be imprisoned, to be shot, or whatever. We need support by some of those governments that actually have international legitimacy and probably have good relationships with western countries. At some point some of these governments have to say no, you cannot do this.

Do you think that the Arab Spring affected Saudi Arabia?

The Saudi regime actually proofed to be quite resilient and I have to admit I was really impressed by its resilience. The point is that the instability in Saudi Arabia is driven more by economy. The political economy is the classical rentier state and in rentier state there are not citizens, but subjects. What is happening in much of the Arabic Gulf is that they are feeling the pressure to transform from an oil economy, a rentier state to a business model based on citizenship and based on a post-oil economy. This transition is very important, very interesting, but also very difficult.

In your speech you have shown to have a good capability to foresee the future of this area: so in your opinion what will be the future of Saudi Arabia? This transition is going to happen or not? 

I know for sure that they are seriously going to attempt the transition to a post oil economy, and not only because they are under pressure. However I don’t completely trust their ability to manage it, and this is why Saudi Arabia looks quite volatile. A lot of pressure on them comes from ISIS, because ISIS attacked Saudi Arabia several times. I mean the public narrative is that Saudi Arabia funds ISIS, but is not true. It funds Wahhabism, which is an ideology, so maybe it does in an indirect way, but Saudi Arabia is actually under pressure from ISIS. However, the most interesting thing here is that the trend [the fact that the Arab world is more and more connected to the Internet]I showed you in my speech is actually accelerating, and not just in Saudi Arabia, but in the whole area. Many talk about Arab Spring as a social media revolution, but the fact is that most of us went online after the Arab Spring. In 2014 alone 44 million additional arabs went on Facebook, an enormous number. This trend is accelerating, and with this much volatility it is difficult to issue any kind of prediction now. But I just want to say that this is a very dynamic society, a very promising society. Some of the more interesting reforms in the Arab world are going to come out from Saudi Arabia. Interestingly some of the strongest anti-salafi, anti-wahhabi voices are saudis. They are very smart, very sophisticates, because they grew up as wahhabis so they know how to challenge it.

Which are the tools that western societies can use to make Saudi Arabia accept liberal values and freedom of speech?

In Saudi Arabia in particular, I think Western countries are maybe doing well in a sense that there are certain highly publicised cases that have made it more difficult for Saudi regime to replicate the formers decisions. However it is different when it becomes a fighting issue. For example, if you take a case like Raif Badawi or women driving you’ll note that the dynamics within Saudi Arabia are not all homogeneous. There are the religious conservatories who have privileged positions, the reformist, and  the rest of society. Most of society is basically regular people who just want to educate their children, go to work, make a good living and most of all live a decent life. The point is that when you take an issue and make it highly public, instead of getting a concession the position will harden even more, and without knowing it you might be hurting the person involved. This is what happened in the case of Raif, and in the case of women driving as well: if it was not such a public case they could make the change, but as the situation is right now certain people would lose too much if they back down, and this is why they don’t back down. And, in this sense, it is better to not be sensationalist about this.

So you are saying that Western medias reporting on Rafi Badawi are actually being counterproductive?

No, I think we need two lines of reporting: we need the reporting about the regime and we need another set of reporting about society. Because what happens when you criticise the regime is that the regime is clearly the object of your criticisms, but when you say Saudi Arabia, just Saudi Arabia, the regime will immediately deflect the criticisms and it will make it seem that Westerns are attacking society. This is why is very important to make the distinction.

What about the Bahrein situation?

People talked about the failure of the West to defend democracy in Egypt or the failure of the west to stop bloodshed in Syria, but the first failure was actually Bahrein; especially when the United States legitimised Saudi occupation of Bahrein. Imagine if the transaction that was going on in Bahrein actually worked, imagine if they pushed in the direction of reform, imagine the ripple effect among all the arab countries. The problem is that it was very easy to say -given the sectarian narrative- that was not a revolution, but just sectarianism, which is completely false. This could happen because after all in Bahrein the is majority Shia ruled by a Sunni ruling family, which reminds a little bit of Iraq when was under Saddam. We tend to forget; there are even some people who don’t count Bahrein among Arab Spring countries, and I think that is a big disservice.

I’ve been talking with a former Bahrein member of parliament  and he told me that a lot of opponents of the regime are being deprived of their citizenship…

Yes, Bahrein does this a lot and basically is strapping people of citizenship and sending them away. Nobody is talking about this, nobody is challenging Bahrein because there is a very important military base there, the U.S. fifth fleet is boxed there. We are talking about people who are from that country being stripped of citizenship while the regime is bringing people from abroad, makes them citizens, and make them army officers. We have to notice that this is how the regime survives: you radicalise opposition, so you can say they are terrorists, so you can legitimise your-self because you are fighting terrorism. This is what they did: from the middle of 2011 to the middle of 2012 the leaders of all the islamic groups used to be in jail at the time of the revolution and them they let them out after the revolution, they knew exactly what they were going to do. This is the track, this is what they are keep doing.

Thank you.

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