Voices From The Arab Press: Is Iran ready for reforms?

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

FORMER EGYPTIAN president Hosni Mubarak testifies during a court case accusing ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi of breaking out of prison in 2011, in Cairo on December 26. (photo credit: REUTERS)
FORMER EGYPTIAN president Hosni Mubarak testifies during a court case accusing ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi of breaking out of prison in 2011, in Cairo on December 26.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Al-Mada, Iraq, December 29
In his recent speech, the Shi’ite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is considered the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq, prohibited his followers from celebrating the Gregorian New Year. He described the celebrations on December 31 as “contradictory” to Muslim belief.
When asked about participation in non-Muslim holidays and celebrations more broadly, the cleric suggested that it is up to the Muslim believer to use his or her intelligence and interpretation in order to make a decision on whether participation in such an event constitutes the promotion of a different religion. His main point was that celebrating holidays of other faiths, or even acknowledging their existence, undermines one’s own devotedness to Islam.
Clearly, the ayatollah hasn’t heard of Western civilization, where people can come together for celebrations that aren’t necessarily their own. Everybody in Iraq knows that many families celebrate the New Year, not out of adherence to Christianity but as an opportunity to bring together family and friends and wish each other a happy new year. This is true of other countries in the Middle East as well. Those who celebrate the Gregorian New Year may do so for religious or nonreligious reasons. Some are devout Christians, who do so out of deep religious belief, while others are nonbelievers, who do so for cultural reasons. This includes people who are secular, atheist, or non-Christian.
New Year’s celebrations were banned in Scotland until 1958, under the pressure of the Church of Scotland, and in the Soviet Union until 1989, because of its opposition to Western culture. Today, however, these celebrations take place in virtually every corner of the world.
Participating in New Year’s celebrations is an expression of unity and solidarity, reflecting the tolerance that exists between different religions today. This should all the more so be the case in the Middle East, where the rights of Christian minorities have been undermined for decades, and where Christian communities have been displaced or destroyed.
It is also important to note that the celebration of New Year’s Day in Iraq is officially allowed according to the law of public holidays from 1972, which designates the first day of January of each year as an official holiday, in solidarity with the “Christian brothers” in Iraq and around the world. Anyone traveling through Baghdad Airport will therefore find a Christmas tree welcoming all passengers. This is also true for visitors of the Iraqi parliament and a wide host of government buildings across the country.
We should all be proud to celebrate the New Year and the unity it brings, even if just for a day. Happy New Year, Iraq!
Lahi Abd al-Hussein
Al-Youm el-Sabea
, Egypt, December 29
One month ahead of the eighth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak appeared at a Cairo court this week in order to testify about the events leading to his ousting.
Mubarak, who celebrated his 90th birthday this year, showed up to his testimony confident and proud. Unlike previous court visits in which he was wheeled in on a chair or a hospital bed, Mubarak entered and left the courtroom this week on his own two feet, as a dignified statesman. He did so as if to prove that the January 25 Revolution did not strip away his many achievements as the republic’s former president, who governed the country for three decades.
There is a lot to be learned from Mubarak. When public pressure against his regime had mounted, the former president did not flee Egypt. Unlike many of his ministers and aides, Mubarak insisted on staying in Cairo. He accepted the calls to place him on trial and appeared in court as an ordinary defendant – wearing a prison uniform and sitting in a metal cage – only to be exonerated at a later stage. Even in the hardest of times, he remained loyal to his people and to his nation.
In court this week, Mubarak showed up for the first time not as a defendant but as a witness. He spoke with coherence and reason. His voice was that of a distinguished leader who has seen Egypt grow from its very first days following independence until today. It was clear from his words that he cares about Egypt and holds no resentment for the decision to put him on trial. Indeed, it is Mubarak himself who, years earlier, laid the foundation for the state institutions that have become an integral part of Egyptian society today, including the judiciary.
Mubarak’s testimony in court was a vindication to all that he was put through since his ousting in 2011. He left the courtroom tall and proud, just as he left the presidency.
Samir Atallah
Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, December 26
As the protests in Sudan enter their second week, I am beginning to get deeply worried. What we are seeing unfold against our eyes in the streets of Khartoum, where antigovernment protests are staged day after day, reminds me of what we witnessed eight years ago, during the Arab Spring. Protesters are angry over rising commodity prices and a shortage in cash, caused by recently enacted government plans aimed at reforming the Sudanese economy.
While I do not advocate ignoring the public’s demands, I want to remind all of us how dismally the Arab Spring has played out for all of us, wherever it happened. The so-called spring turned into a summer, which turned into widespread bloodshed, upheaval and instability. The public’s demands for reforms and the improvement of living conditions were quickly hijacked by extremist forces that ended up destroying their respective countries.
If you ask people in the Arab world whether they prefer their current governments or their old ones, I am confident that a vast majority of them would respond by saying that they long for the regimes that governed them before the Arab Spring.
Any reform, especially an economic one, is painful, especially in a country that is already in crisis mode like Sudan. Decision-makers can either address the long-term structural problems at hand, usually in ways that create short-term pains for the public, or ignore those issues and apply Band-Aids to a bleeding wound. Historically, these temporary solutions became useless within a short period of time.
Sudan has the potential to live through its current reforms and come out victorious. It has fertile soil that is rich in minerals and can generate a robust agriculture-based export industry. It has a large and vibrant labor force. It even has oil and gas.
The problem is that Sudan has suffered many wars and terrible mismanagement throughout the years. This leaves little choice for the current government but to take painful steps to heal the country. Toppling the current government would only push Sudan into a downward spiral. It would most likely give rise to an extremist regime, led by a force like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Therefore, the Sudanese government must choose between two options: persistently pursue the economic reforms that will heal the country, or turn to quick fixes that will satisfy the public. Only the former will work. I hope with all of my heart that Sudan will not join the list of countries ravaged by promises of an Arab Spring.
Muhammad al-Sheikh
Ad-Dustour, Jordan, December 27
In a recent interview with the French press, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif challenged readers to come up with a single statement made by an Iranian official threatening or pledging to destroy Israel. He gave a new reading to what the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, said about Israel, suggesting that Israel will find its end by its own destructive policies, and not by the active doing of other states.
While I want to believe the Iranian minister and accept his novel interpretation of Khomeini’s texts, I have no doubt in my mind that the Iranian statements against Israel have unequivocally called for the latter’s destruction through the use of force.
However, I think that the minister’s statement is telling, in that it reveals the beginning of a formal shift in Iran’s positions toward Israel, and the tendency to view the latter as a “normal state” in the region.
Tehran was never really concerned with destroying Israel. This was all part of an orchestrated propaganda campaign aimed at boosting its agenda and increasing the regime’s popularity at home.
Whether Israel responded so vehemently to these threats out of a genuine fear or as a strategy to grow closer to the moderate Arab countries is unclear. Whatever the case is, Iran’s commitment to the Palestinian cause has been superficial at best.
The current Iranian leadership understands very well the need to reintegrate Iran into international markets and normalize Tehran’s relations with a wide hose of states. This was the path it has set upon after signing the nuclear deal with former US president Barack Obama and the European Union. However, President Donald Trump’s policies shattered these hopes. It pushed the reformists in Iran against the corner.
I believe that Zarif’s recent interview is a direct response to the recently renewed sanctions in his country. He is interested in sending a message to the American administration and assuring it that Iran is ready to make concessions and reforms. However, it can do so only if Trump agrees to extend his hands in peace.
– Arib al-Rantwai
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