Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Nothing Changes: Carrot and Stick Swap Roles

Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik gestures as he speaks carrot and stick
Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik gestures as he speaks during a press conference for the presentation of his new book “Tunisia, the load…” about former President Ben Ali and the revolution on April 21, 2011 in Tunis. FETHI BELAID/ AFP

Hakim Marzouki

When “Heart of Tunisia” chairman Nabil Karoui was registering his candidacy for the last presidential elections, he was accompanied by the Tunisian writer and journalist Taoufik Ben Brik. The pictures taken to the leftist valiant – who was known for his ferocious opposition to Ben Ali’s regimewent viral. In fact, Ben Brik accompanied a public figure known for being a symbol of corruption and mafias of media. The scene was full of messages and connotations about the relation between the journalist with a politician who is not yet in power. This incident was delicate in a brand new democratic climate where intellectuals are no longer forced to play along under political pretense.

Nowadays, intellectuals, artists, and a lot of people in Tunisia line freely up with politicians. They do that voluntarily more than any time before. This leads me to ask some questions: Has the stick disappeared and the carrot remained? Does the case go beyond this traditional dichotomy in another direction? Do we live in a tug of war between intellectuals and politicians? And if so, which party is going to win over the other to strengthen its views and serve its agenda?

We are talking here about Tunisia whose defenders are proud of its reputation among Arab Spring countries. Those people feel that Tunisia will remain an exception in the region. Braggers see Tunisia as a “democratic peninsula” among countries where Arab Spring is hardly known anymore. As for Egypt, which is the heart of the Arab world when it comes to ensuring significant political and cultural changes, the situation is extremely sensitive and complex. It is obvious that Egypt’s challenges are not of the same size as those of Tunisia.

An intellectual journalist like Taoufik Ben Brik knows for sure that he is not “Mohamed Hassanien Heikal”. Moreover, Bin Brik knows that the politician he supports is not “Gamal Abdel Nasser”. In fact, our era is not similar to the 1950s and 1960 where major regional and international challenges took place.

Why do we exaggerate this approach for ourselves, despite the historical similarities between Tunisia and Egypt? Those similarities are acknowledged by liberal thinkers and writers such as Taha Hussien, Ghali Shukri, Anis Mansour, Naguib Mahfouz and others, especially when they talk about “Renaissance Project”. Why don’t we acknowledge that the relapses that occur to the intellectual and the politician in Egypt would also occur to those in a small country like Tunisia?

Intellectuals – though scarce – were the partners of politicians in these two Arab countries. They were entrusted with a development uplifting project since the era of Khedive Ismail in Egypt and Monsef Bey in Tunisia. However, words such as “independence state”, “national sovereignty” and “facing the enemy” have spoiled the relation between culture and politics. That happened for the benefit of authority’s grandeur and its complex polarizations in the modern state.

We no longer see an intellectual so ferocious in his stand for a national project led by politicians. Moreover, we no longer see a politician incorporating his discourse with a cultural project. Rather, it is now the authority that recruits anyone who would write to serve the regime and preserve its existence.

The relation between intellectuals and politicians have been deformed to be either a cheap flirtation or an utter estrangement. Due to the malfunction that infected both parties alike, domestication and containment became the dominant language.

But wait a second… One should not deny that a culture is a form of seeking authority and influence. If not so, then how we can explain the doctrinal reference and the theoretical premises supervised by “Intellectuals” calling politicians in the executive circle not to deviate from it inside totalitarian regimes?

The majority of Arab intellectuals view their thoughts as holy beliefs. They revere them as utopian slogans, commandments and ideological tablets that rulers should preserve.

The majority of Arab intellectuals do not know that turning fertile ideas into reality needs political minds to transform the idea into effective solutions. Unfortunately, some of them are worshippers of ideology and Utopia. They practice some kind of “cultural masturbation” that is very distant from the available capabilities. In addition, they neither know the feelings nor the dreams of their audience aside of authority.

Now I return back to the example of Ben Brik and “his presidential candidate” Nabil Karoui. Who said that the later does what the first says to him? Considering the authority of the experienced intellectual over the naive politician, didn’t history witness intellectuals that made politicians look like puppets made from mud and idols made from sweets?

The entanglement game is reciprocal between intellectuals and politicians. Neither can get rid of the other, because interest is the master of the situation. Both parties are not innocent in this venture. The evidence can be tracked in the behavior of masses. Whenever a ruler is deposed, they curse entourage and advisors before cursing rulers and executives.

In Western Europe, the case is different. Everyone knows their status, value, and role without any greed or bullying. A French intellectual like Jack Lang accepted, for example, to be the Minister of Culture. He worked on his project without aspiring for the presidency. On the other hand, President François Mitterrand pursued his political ambition and sacrificed his major capabilities as a remarkable intellectual.

The Arab world did not go through the intellectual and social transformations that Europe witnessed. Consequently, intellectuals in the Arab world did not have the chance to go through the changes in the manner by which concepts are determined for European intellectuals. We must confess that we neither had any bourgeois liberation revolutions against feudalism and authority ruling in the name of religion, nor industrial and scientific revolutions. Moreover, the Arab world did not witness enlightenment eras upon which the virtue of powers separation can be built.

We lack respect for work and specialty. In fact, we are in a dire need to a culture of non-trespassing or sticking noses in others’ business. In addition, we need a new understanding for the changing political, cultural and technological givens. With the massive impact of information technology, the rapid and continuous developments have passed the dualism of intellectuals and politicians. Nowadays, there are new players with significant major capabilities to change. The list includes the owners of gigantic companies like Apple, Microsoft and Facebook.

In this context, writer Hassan Assi wonders: Who affects reality more, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and their ilk; or Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and other great human thinkers?

Now I return back to Tunisian and Egyptian models of the relation between intellectuals and politicians. The swapping roles of the carrot and the stick have not changed. The Tunisian intellectual’s desire for the carrot increased out of his own free will or a clear financial need. On the other hand, intellectuals in Egypt have grown more fearful from the stick (more than their desire for the carrot, and for the same reasons) in a climate of freedom oppression. Perhaps, western media exaggerated talking about that oppression. Nevertheless, it is a existing reality, and it may appear to be very difficult to justify.

Nowadays, encountering terrorism and darkness powers is the matter that concern observers and followers of intellectuals in both countries. In fact, these two factors threaten the security and freedom of both societies in Egypt and Tunisia. Tunisian intellectuals are more “subtle” than their counterparts in Egypt as the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorism is not at the top of their concerns. Rather, they are focused on the duality between the “Cultural Leadership” and the aspirations of the political leaderships that lack the cultural legitimacy. That legacy is much needed in a country where the “cultural prestige” has occupied a prominent position since the era of El Habib Bourguiba. That man – may be for narcissistic reasons – put culture in its rightful place in a country with modest natural resources and military capabilities.

This dualism may seem ancient and redundant. Nevertheless, there are important questions that I have to ask: Why the intellectual and cultural product was more worthy and beneficial before the “Arab Spring”? Should we link this to the need to define the boundaries between what is cultural and what is political? Or did the “excess ambition” spoil the issue?


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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