His name was Mohamed Bouazizi. He would have been 27 years old, had he refrained from changing world history four years ago this December by immolating himself in the midst of traffic in Sidi-Bouzid, Tunisia, in a protest against the humiliation he suffered at the hands of the police.
Bouazizi the fruit vendor – who later died from his injuries – became the spark that set the Middle East and North Africa on fire. 
Starting in Tunisia, the protests spread to other Arab countries. Demonstrations, uprisings, and revolutions spread like wildfire. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya the rulers were toppled. In Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain vociferous popular protests were the order of the day. The waves of massive popular protests were felt as far away as Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan.
And now, four years later, perhaps the time is ripe for contemplation. The uprisings led to bloodshed and, in some countries, armed conflict, which is most pronounced in Syria. Was it worth the price exacted?
Four prominent personalities descended on Copenhagen last November in order to debate this issue. For almost three hours, the question of how to best promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East set the agenda. What is the best way forward – revolution or reforms?
They arrive one by one, settling in front of an excited audience in the impressive Queen’s Hall of the Royal Library. On one side, the reformist-team: A world-renowned Syrian poet and a Jordanian former minister of state. One the other side, the revolutionary team: An Egyptian political scientist and leader of the opposition and a Bahraini human rights activist.
The differences between the two teams are striking. The reformists are men with greying hair. The revolutionaries are young women. The poet is world famous for more than twenty collections of poetry, making him a repeat candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature; the human rights activist has more than 100,000 global followers on Twitter.
But they have something in common, too: A profound engagement with the current situation in the Middle East and a burning desire to create change. Hence, they have agreed to participate in the debate today.

Religion Is a Perilous Matter

About the Debate

The public debate at Queen’s Hall in the Royal Library was coordinated by KVINFO, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, and Berlingske newspaper. The debate took place in November 2014 and the article was first published in Danish following the debate.


Adonis, nom de plume of Ali Ahmad Said Esber, Syrian poet and repeat-nominee of the Nobel Prize in literature.

Maryam Al Khawaja, Bahraini-Danish human rights activist and acting director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

Dr. Muhyieddeen Touq, former minister of state in Jordan and current head of CADER, an Arab think tank on change.

Dr. Rabab el-Mahdi, lecturer at the American University of Cairo and a prominent activist during the Egyptian Revolution.

Watch interviews with three of the debate’s participants here:

Adonis (in Arabic)

Rabab el-Mahdi (in English)

Muhyieddeen Touq (in English)

Photo: Jacob Basbøll, The Danish Institute for Human Rights

English translation by: Maria Zennaro

Prior to the debate, the Danish audience has already encountered the first of the four speakers. In today’s issue of the Berlingske newspaper, Adonis, the Syrian poet, essayist, and translator, explains why he is so incensed by the current situation in his home country of Syria – a country, which had him imprisoned in the 1950s, and which he has since abandoned for decades of exile.
The sore point for Adonis, nom de plume for Ali Ahmad Said Esber, is the role of religion in society, he explains in the newspaper article entitled One Dictatorship Is No Better Than the Other. He believes democracy is an impossible proposition in the Arab countries due to the conflation of religion, state, and individual. The 84-year old Adonis repeats this key point in the Queen’s Hall.
– Arab societies are founded on a religious structure. It is impossible to transform society without the deconstruction of this foundational structure. It is thus pointless to talk about “revolution or reforms” as long as this structure is in place, he says and indicates that this issue is of particular relevance to Iraq and Syria.
A democratic society is characterised by having considered, inclusive, and just principles for selecting the economic, social, cultural, and political circumstances in force. Human rights are its “religion”. And this is where religiously founded societies fail, according to Adonis. While monotheist Islam does present the whole package of economic, social, cultural, and political components, Islam is fundamentally undemocratic because as a religion it rests on one singular truth.
– The prophet of Islam is the seal of prophets, i.e. he has no successors. So, the truth of the prophet is the final truth. Hence, humans only task is to obey. Human cannot change, they can merely interpret what God has already said, explains Adonis.
Adonis is thus not terribly impressed by the Syrian revolution.
– It began in the mosques, as he puts it.
– Religious fascism is more perilous than military fascism. No revolution will emerge victorious in the Arab world until religion becomes a private matter, and the Arab woman is liberated from the unequal Islamic structures. 
The trope of the Arab woman is a recurring theme during the public debate. Women’s status and rights in the countries touched by the uprisings in the Middle East has reached the top of the agenda. From the young women protesting side by side with the men in the streets, and women’s political participation in the new parliamentary assemblies, to the plight of women in the areas controlled by IS in Iraq and Syria.

Change Through Reforms Is the Only Way Forward

An experienced diplomat and statesman is seated next to Adonis. Muhyieddeen Touq has been a Jordanian minister of state, ambassador to several European countries, and was Jordan’s human rights commissioner for three years. Today, the 70-year old diplomat is director of the Arab think tank, CADER, and he is a dedicated proponent of political reforms.
– The Arabs are not willing to pay the price of revolution, says Muhyieddeen Touq.
– In Tunisia there are political reforms, while Yemen, Iraq, and Syria are torn apart by internal strife, daily life as we know it has been destroyed and scores of people are on the run.
While the popular uprisings appeared to hold some promise, he believes the situation took a turn for the worse as various political forces gained momentum.
– The revolution quickly became a bloodbath. The youth rebellion was hijacked by political organisations with hidden agendas. So revolution solved nothing, says Muhyieddeen Touq.
The problem lies in the weak social structures in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, thanks to our history of four centuries of the Ottoman Empire, followed by Western colonialism, and the past 50 years of dictatorships. We are left with a legacy of weak institutions, fragile structures of authority, a lack of recognition and respect for human rights, disrupted economic development, corruption and other social ills, he believes. A popular uprising is not the remedy for such a social crisis. On the contrary, the past four years demonstrate how revolution has led to chaos, sectarianism, tribalism, and violence. 
– Revolutions only lead to civil war, an exacerbation of the current situation, and increased religious terrorism. The poorly prepared masses were unable to bring the system down. On the contrary, we need philosophers, leaders and political thinkers, and carefully planned reforms. There is still a long way to go for the Middle East and North Africa, and real change will only be brought about by firm, stable reforms, says Muhyieddeen Touq.
The proponents of reform have thus had their say. Has the audience been persuaded by this line of thought? The audience participated in an opinion poll prior to the public debate. The question of whether reforms or revolution is the way forward received a total of 152 votes. The result was proportionate: 74 votes for reforms, 78 votes for revolution. The audience will vote once more at the end of the debate.

Critical Questions Became Possible

Politics have dominated years of Muhyieddeen Touq’s life and career. Similarly, Rabab El-Mahdi has been a political activist since the age of nineteen. She has been deeply engaged in the Egyptian Revolution since the beginning. The 39-year old political scientist and professor at the American University of Cairo has founded various opposition groups and acted as political advisor to Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh during his 2012 presidential campaign.
She is completely opposed to the views of the two previous speakers. Reforms solve nothing, she believes. And the popular uprising in 2011 was unleashed thanks to the lack of reforms.
– The reforms promised to us for decades have yet to materialise. Political reforms have been at the top of the Arab agenda since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Instead, poverty has increased, equality has diminished, and human rights have been abused, she says.
People were fed up by the lack of reforms and took to the streets. And it was only when they took to the streets, unleashing the Revolution, that it became possible to pose critical questions.
– It was the popular uprisings in the Arab countries – not reforms – which allowed us to question social issues, the patriarchy, or simply which films and documentaries were screened. For the first time, I personally experienced being treated with respect in the streets as a woman.
Rabab El-Mahdi is mindful of the violence and bloodshed in the aftermath of the uprising. But she believes it would be erroneous to blame the Revolution.
– The bloodshed is the result of decades of dictatorship. Religious terrorism is not due to the Revolution – Al-Qaeda and their religious terrorism took off in the 1980s. Bloodshed, the loss of human lives, and people imprisoned is not due to the Revolution but because of the continued autocracy, she says.
She compares the events of the Middle East to the 18th century French Revolution. A violent event, which cost thousands or lives, but also paved the way for a radical change ¬– from autocracy to democracy.
– The history of humankind changed because of the French Revolution. Fundamental structural transformations comes at a price. Muhyieddeen Touq asks whether people are willing to pay the price. But people have already paid – in blood, in lives lost, by being totally committed to the struggle. What I witnessed in 2011 was an outpouring of courage. I saw people risking their lives by taking to the streets. And I witnessed progress. It was the Revolution, which put us back on the map, says Rabab El-Mahdi.
The woman seated next to her nods concurringly. Then she speaks.

We Are Liberating Ourselves

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall was about to collapse, and people poured into the streets? Then imagine if they had been met by: “Go on home, people. You have yet to establish political systems – do come back when you have a sufficient number of philosophers and political thinkers in place”.
Maryam Al-Khawaja is displeased with her male counterparts’ view on the prerequisites for social change at the debate. The 28-year old Danish-Bahraini human rights activist runs the organisation Gulf Center 4 Human Rights with her father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, imprisoned for life for participating in demonstrations during the popular uprising in the Kingdom in 2011. Maryam Al-Khawajah has been imprisoned, too.
– I do not think you can make the population of an entire country sit in a conference hall such as this in order to plan a revolution for the following month. No, what happened was that people reacted to events that were so appalling that they had to take to the streets. You claim that the Revolution placed democracy and human rights on the back burner. But in 2011 there was no front burner from which to move the human rights issue towards the back. It was precisely the lack of human dignity, which forced people into the streets, she says.
Maryam Al-Khawaja cautions against the demonization of Muslims in Arab revolutionary rhetoric. Adonis spoke of how democratic change cannot occur in societies characterised by religious structures and he noted how the Syrian uprising began in the mosques.
She says there is a very simple reason for the mosques being venues for the early protests:
– In countries such as Syria and Bahrain, people do not have the right to assembly. It is punishable by law to assemble more than 50 people – except in the mosques. This is the reason why protests began at the mosques, she says.
Secondly, it is fallacious and offensive to suggest that Muslims are incapable of embracing – or not entitled to – democratic values.
– I know this world from within. They share the same values as you do: The right to live, freedom of speech. And you cannot say: You do not deserve human rights and democracy unless you share my beliefs, says Maryam Al-Khawaja.
– We repeatedly hear the call for the emancipation of the Arab woman. But look at us. Do we seem oppressed? I emancipate myself! And I know and have met some of the most capable women who have no need for saviours. They are their own saviours.
Maryam Al-Khawaja wants to deflect the stereotypes. About Muslims, about women, and about who is deemed worthy to create social change.
– Let us get rid of these stereotypes. “Oh, he is merely a musician, he could not possibly work for human rights”. Or, “oh, she has no PhD, her views are of no use in politics”. This is how your reforms appear. My task as a human rights activist is to ensure that everybody’s voices are heard. Including the man in the souq,” she says.

Lessons Learned

After the four presentations, the mood at the Queen’s Hall is rife with debate, including questions from the audience.
Some people want to know how the four participants view the future of the Middle East. Others query their opinions on political Islam. One woman in the audience enquires about Maryam Al-Khawaja’s relationship with Iran. There is a man who speaks about regional cohesion and co-existence.
The four participants – who may also comment on the others’ presentations – focus on their own pet projects. Muhyieddeen Touq talks about how the Tunisian Revolution – possibly the most successful revolution in the region – managed to transform popular protest into a new constitution, which guarantees equal rights to men and women, whereas the Egyptian Revolution has resulted in chaos: Firstly, an election brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power without a shred of equality, and secondly, a new form of military dictatorship has taken form. This is all due to the fact that the youth movement was unable to resist political infiltration.
– The Egyptian case demonstrates that good intentions and the emotional current of the streets changes nothing, he says.
Rabab El-Mahdi strongly disagrees.
– I find it very patronising and not true at all, this narrative of “decent young people with good intentions were overrun by the Muslim Brotherhood”. Revolutions unfold, they do not begin in accordance with and nor do they follow elaborate blueprints. As is the case in love and war, there was a plan to begin with and then obstacles occurred. Lessons were learned. This is not the final scene of the film, she says.
Adonis is not opposed to revolution, he says. But he dislikes the religious aspect. And he dislikes the violence. The onslaught of IS in the region casts even further dark shadows on the situation.
– What I am asking is this: How do you propose to make a revolution without ethics. Why do no Syrian revolutionaries condemn the killings of Christians and Alawites? The rebels are now more violent that than the regime in Syria.
Maryam Al-Khawaja agrees that IS must be stopped. However, “most revolutions incur violence and will – if protracted – give rise to extremism, she says.
She want to focus on how the media and various agents constantly present the popular uprisings as sectarian.
– Why do we talk about the “Shi’a uprising in Bahrain” while nobody talks about the “Sunni uprising in Syria or Egypt”? It was Bahrainis, not Shi’a Muslims, who took to the streets against repression, she says.
We are approaching the end of the debate at Queen’s Hall, a venue, which has witnessed events from opera performances to literary superstars. The name indicates grandeur and tradition. While the Danish Monarch has been a queen for the past 42 years, it has only been five years since a referendum abolished gender as a selection criteria in the rules of succession according to the Danish Constitution. On the other hand, 2015 marks the centennial of women’s voting rights in Denmark.
In other words, reforms have played a pivotal role as agent of socio-political change and democracy in Denmark. But it has taken many years. It remains to be seen, whether there is a similar patience in other corners of the world, including the Middle East, or whether there is a need for more radical forms of change, as pointed out by Katarina Blomqvist, Head of International Programmes at KVINFO, at the beginning of today’s public debate.

Danish-Arab Partnership Programme

KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:


Before the public debate began, the audience voted for reforms or revolution in the Middle East. At the time, votes were proportionally in favour of both outcomes. After listening to the four presentations, the audience votes once more. This time the answer is more unanimous. The majority finds that the road to socio-political change is the Middle East is: Revolution.
Muhyieddeen Touq has the last word.
– I am hopeful, he says.
– Regardless of whether we are greying reformists or young activists, I believe, we will choose the right path.