(www.freespeechdebate.com), which aims to be a genuinely global platform of debate on the principles of free speech, on which the majority of people might agree or disagree. The site put forward ten principles as draft proposals for people to discuss and add to.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Garton Ash provides insights into his project and the conditions of free speech in Egypt in the light of the rise of Islamists to power, revealing exaggerated fears and clichés about them.
Ahram Online: What are the motives behind the freespeechdebate.com project? Why is free speech so important at the moment?
Timothy Garton Ash: If you look at Egypt today, questions about free speech, freedom of expression are everywhere. Look to the newspaper’s front page, you’ll find five stories on free speech. Freedom of expression is not one freedom among many, it’s the Freedom, which makes all other freedoms possible, but that does not mean it’s unlimited. In every civilized country there are limits to free speech, to enable people to live together. In short we discuss all issues of freedom and have a genuinely global discussion, so an Egyptian citizen can come into the web site, write in Arabic and engage in a conversation with someone from China or India or France or the United States.
A.O: Who is it that determines the norms in free speech? Who decide what can and cannot be said?
T.G.A: Traditionally, people think it’s the state, the government. But the truth is that there are two other kinds of people that put the limits. First is what I call “private powers”, i.e. newspapers, television stations, Facebook, Google and Twitter, they all set limits to what to publish and what not.
The second is you and me; it’s the people who decide how we speak to each other, what we say and what not. So I may be free to insult you and your religion but I choose not to. So one of our principles in the draft is we speak openly and with “civility” about all kinds of human difference and it seems to me that in a country like Egypt which is now experiencing new areas of freedoms that’s very important.
A.O: Can Europe and the Middle East have the same limits on free speech? Are there universal laws?
T.G.A: Europe and Europe cannot agree on the same limits of free speech, the Middle East and the Middle East cannot agree to the same norms too. What you have in Egypt and what is in Syria at the moment is very different, what we had in Germany and England is quiet different so please let us not think in terms of great uniform monolithic blocs: here is Europe, here is the Middle East. Inside a country like Egypt or Britain there are great differences, but what I think is true is that for example, in a majority of Muslim countries, there are particular sensitivities about religion and it may well end up being a different norm or principles or limits. So we have to agree to basic standards which are universal. For example, we never say if you say that I will kill you; that should be universal however big our differences.
A.O: In any dialogue between east and west there is always this binary opposition of you and us. Egyptian thinkers used to express this relation in terms of a “dialogue between the I and the other”; is that the healthiest approach or we should we think in terms of a unified “we”?
T.G.A: We need to work on a new “we”, a larger “we”, in fact a human “we”. That would come as the basic idea of our project. On the other hand we know what humans are like, they constantly seek smaller identities to defend themselves against each others. I actually think that countries are not bad units to work with, it’s better to work with countries and to work out civilised relations between them, than to imagine units like east, west, Islam and Europe, Huntington-style, to imagine monoliths. We have seen the way that the west has imagined Islam over the last ten years and also the way Islam has imagined the west and it was very damaging indeed.
A.O: I know you met with a group of Egyptian journalists and bloggers, you listened to what they have to say about freedom of speech in Egypt. What conclusions did you reach and how do they differ from what is said in Europe?
T.G.A: Well, firstly, I concluded that you’re going through a dramatic period of contestation as happens after or during revolutions, all revolutions. Secondly, you know in the west there’s a fairly widespread view that the great danger of a freedom of expression in Egypt is Islamists - whatever exactly that means, but that what my friends says - and what strikes me is that actually it’s much more at the moment, about the military and the security state imposed by the people who are in power; and that’s something many people don’t understand. The other thing that struck me very forcefully is that normally in countries that pass through transitions, they have an external reference they’re looking to somewhere else but it seems to me that Egypt is looking to itself and that’s what makes it different, and it’s magnificent but difficult.
A.O: How do you see the transitional period in Egypt during the last year in comparison to your experience monitoring transition in the eastern bloc countries in 1989-90?
T.G.A: First of all, we’re sitting here not far from Tahrir Square, which became one of the great symbols of the 21st century – like the Berlin wall or the Bastille. This means what happened here is important not just for Egypt but to the world too. Secondly, all transitions are difficult but this one seems to me more difficult foremost because the legacy of the last 60 years is very heavy and you don’t have a very favourable external context. So in 1989 when you had the revolution in Eastern Europe, you had a growing world economy and very prosperous western Europe and north America waiting to help and open their markets and to give support. But none of that applies to Egypt…
A.O: Do you think the Arab Spring is going to be a benchmark in the history of the Middle East?
T.G.A: It already is a huge event, the most hopeful event of the early 21st century and in particular it gives the lie to the idea that that the majority of Muslim countries could never reach for freedom and democracy, which is a cliché of Samuel Huntington. You have the Arab Spring and it’s fantastic, but what happens next is another question. And what we’ve done in the perception of the Arab Spring ranges from naive optimism to naive pessimism. My sense is that what we will now see is a very long period that will take years and decades for a complex evolution of all the power structures which will still play an important role, Islamist parties of a different kind will play an important role, and the seculars too. The key question for me is what kind of Islamism evolves through these years, and here I go back to Turkey. If you got a civil government in 5-10 years it seems to me you will not be doing too badly, and then you can move on from there to continue the evolution.
A.O: You met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, what was your impression?
T.G.A: Clearly Islamists have the larger vote at the moment, therefore it was very important to meet them to understand the process. My impression is very mixed. There was a moment when they spoke of the position of women, I felt extremely unworried. But my extremely overwhelming questions are those of the economic, social and welfare issues; these are the issues that the poor neighbourhood needs. It’s about bread, it’s about rubbish and work, and being a political party you should know these are the big issues. The hope is that they prioritise these issues over the ideological and religious issues.
A.O: How does the west (in the geopolitical sense of the term) sees the rise of the Islamists?
T.G.A: Obviously we can’t generalise about the west but there are two views. The majority view is very worried, so a classic example of this is Condoleezza Rice comes to Cairo to give her speech on democracy, then you have elections and the Muslim Brotherhood does very well, Hamas and Hezbollah do very well and suddenly the Bush administration is not so keen on promoting democracy if that democracy will mean Islamists get elected. So this is something of a nervous position. The minority position, which I think is more intelligent, says give it a chance, these are quite conservative societies and they have to find their own way through and that is probably going to go through some sort of Islamic parties; and that is the optimistic version. I think the only thing Europe could do about it is to be more open to Egypt and the Middle East, but is Europe ready to do that at the moment? Not much.