Vaclav Havel Commemoration:

Living in The Truth

(Published in Hospodarske Noviny December 2012)

I first read Vaclav Havel’s essay on resisting a post-totalitarian regime, The Power of the Powerless in an English translation during the late 1980s. I was teaching at a university in Cairo while spending much of my time working for the newly created, though not legal, Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. The Mubarak regime we were living under was not in Havel’s sense “post-totalitarian,” but dictatorial where power was applied crudely and without pretence of ideological legitimization. A couple of years later I was arrested for my human rights advocacy, interrogated and eventually released by State Security after an international campaign led by the Guardian newspaper in Britain. What had come as a surprise to me during my interrogation was the discovery of who had informed on me. They included academics and opposition party politicians. People I would have thought would have no cause to be such willing state informers.

A year later, as a Fulbright International Scholar at a university in the United States, I prepared studies on Middle Eastern theatre, state censorship, and on the possible impact of emerging technologies of email, mobile phones and satellite television on the social and political conditions in the region. Then I found the work of Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis on media and its relationship to power to be instructive guides to action. Hopes for technology led change were reinforced with the rise of the World Wide Web. I drew inspiration from the work of Kurt Gödel, the mathematician whose Incompleteness Theorem seemed to suggest that no totalitarian system, however brutal, could ever control and systematise everything. There is always something that escapes structuring and therefore resistance is always possible. I wrote then that the Internet was the place where the authority of the dictators was least effective and that it provided a space where it was possible to imagine a better world and organize for its realization.

In 2002 a group of us set up a not for profit company registered in Beirut, Lebanon, that we named Arab Development and Media Network (ADAM as acronym) to raise funds to train journalists (at no charge to them) across the Middle East in media ethics (to reinforce personal integrity, Havel’s “living in the truth”) and Internet literacy (to distinguish truth from lies). For eight years we trained hundreds of journalists from Morocco to Bahrain on the Internet.

   I would like to think that our efforts contributed in some small measure to the Arab Spring that swept away some of the dictatorships in the Middle East. The vacuum left was quickly filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a party created in the 1920s and modelled on the Italian Fascist party of Benito Mussolini. If we were not in a Havel period of post-totalitarians in the previous two or three decades, we are there now. The Muslim Brotherhood is imposing an oppressive and undemocratic ideological on the countries where it is in government. These new regimes, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, and in some cases regimes in waiting in Yemen and Libya, and possibly Syria and Jordan are potentially no less autocratic than the regimes they replace. They are certainly more ideological. But unlike the situation in Europe under Soviet domination the Middle East lacks a powerful single overlord. What it does suffer from is medieval authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar who share a common ideology with Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and are willing to spend vast sums of money to prop up their ally. Military force has been replaced by the purchasing power of the petrodollar.

With these changes in the region Havel’s ideas in The Power of the Powerless have moved from the peripheries of relevance to centre stage. It is Havel’s notion of “living in the truth” that may be the most effective force to resist the post-totalitarian ideologies being imposed on the Middle East by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters. These days we see this wish for “living in the truth” with the return of protestors to Tahrir Square in central Cairo calling for greater democracy and for the rule of law. In this seemingly uneven contest we may still be struggling to unseat the autocrats, but because of the example of men like Vaclav Havel we know that we are far from powerless, and that knowledge for us is strength. 

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