Egypt, Impartiality and Speaking Truth to Power

Last Friday night, Dr. Michele Dunne, senior associate in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, was refused entry into Egypt. No reasons were given – but Dunne has been a consistent and quite public critic of the Egyptian authorities on a variety of levels. Her entry ban speaks volumes and goes far beyond her own personal ability to travel into Egypt.

Dunne had been invited, ironically, to speak at a conference on a panel entitled, “Egypt and the Big Powers” and according to conference organizers, to engage with Egyptian colleagues on U.S.-Egyptian relations. If that irony was not sufficient, the incongruity of the ban is only amplified by the fact it was the Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs that invited her – an organization made up almost entirely by former Egyptian diplomats, and one that is rather supportive of the new authorities including the security establishment. Yet, even that platform was denied to Dunne.

Of course, the Egyptian state can ban whomever it chooses. All states reserve the right to restrict entry. That’s not the issue. The question is, is the basis of restriction arbitrary or is it consistent? But there are two other, wider questions: is our analysis, as analysts, also consistent, as well as our willingness to engage with those whom we analyze?

More bizarre

It is perhaps this which makes Dunne’s entry ban all the more bizarre – but also quite instructive. Dunne is, indeed, consistent to her detractors, She’s been consistently critical of the post-Mursi political dispensation. To their credit, they’re partially right – she has been, indeed, critical of the authorities after the July 3 ouster of Mohammed Mursi in 2013. But they’re only partially correct – because she was also highly acutely aware of the failings, flaws and faults of the Mursi government. Earlier than that, she also censured the catastrophic shortcomings of Tantawi’s military council that governed Egypt and Mubarak’s regime. There aren’t many analysts who can claim that kind of consistency – the partisanship seen over the past few years has been staggering.

Beyond that, the willingness of Dunne to engage with her detractors has also been interesting to observe. In the past few years, it has been commonplace to see different analysts, journalists or public intellectuals of any sort essentially block off contact to those whom they criticize. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to note the tendency of many to simply dehumanize those whom they criticize – that’s been seen many times over the past few years as well, all around. Dunne isn’t guilty of that, and to their credit, the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs was keen to engage with her by inviting her to the conference as a speaker. Alas, both their willingness and her’s to engage have been squashed.

Egypt’s benefit

There will be repercussions to this – none of which are to Egypt’s benefit. Let alone the moral or ethical realities that are involved with rejecting entry to a person on the basis of dissenting views. There will be many outside of Egypt that might have ideological reasons to disagree with Egypt’s current direction (or lack thereof), whether in support of groups like the Brotherhood or others. Dunne isn’t one such individual – as noted above, she’s been critical of the Brotherhood (much to criticize, indeed) as well as other previous authorities (certainly a great deal to criticize). The ban on her entry will be interpreted in very stark terms – that even if you are impartial or independent in your critique, the price of your disagreement may be phenomenally disproportionate to any perceived damage you might be accused of causing. That only results in fewer – far fewer – analysts even trying to visit Egypt, to explain the complexities of the situation on the ground. Moreover, it is likely to ensure that any forthcoming analysis is even more negative – as though there were not grounds already for substantial negativity.

But there is an additional point to be made here: and that is the role of such specialists, and others who might try to analyze countries in the region. Based on Dunne’s record, one could argue “If both sides (i.e., in this case, the government and the Brotherhood) are upset with you, then you must be doing something right.” Of course, that’s not always true. When the Syrian regime began bombing its own cities against a democratic protest movement, one would hope both “sides” would not be upset with impartial analysis – because, impartially, the Syrian regime was criminal, and would be disproportionately angered by independent analysis.

Judgment of impartiality

The real judgment of impartiality for an analyst in any given political context is simple: is truth to power being spoken to those with power and on the basis of a consistent set of principles? When Egypt is considered, did anyone who had real power get off the hook? One might argue that in some situations, there is objectively a right side – and indeed, that is very correct. But if they are in the right, then they ought not to be offended by being called to account. If they have power, they must be called to account. Even those who have far more limited power, such as the Egyptian revolutionary camp had in the past few years, ought to be criticized – perhaps with less attention as compared to those who had real power as they have less impact to effect change, but still. And if they are, indeed, the “good guys,” they won’t only cease to object – but will welcome criticism of their blunders and deficiencies.

The same applies on a regional level. Analysts cannot critique Turkey’s record on restricting press freedom, which has resulted in a massive crackdown just over the last few days, but remain silent on Egypt’s treatment of the foreign press. Speaking truth to power means speaking truth to all power, as much as possible. Otherwise, they become partisans – which may, indeed, be a justifiable position for many to take – but not when they fulfill the role of impartial analysts.

There is a temptation to make this entire episode simply about a single analyst – but it is far more than that. It’s about whether or not analysts are true to that basic maxim of their profession – speaking truth to power. The exclusion of Dunne just made the commitment to that axiom all the more difficult and that is bad for everyone, and good for no-one.

This piece was originally published by Al Arabiya News.