A favorite topic of contemporary political punditry concerns the role of social media in facilitating the revolutions of the Arab Spring. At the front line of this pioneering activism is Sultan al-Qassemi, the Emirati columnist, blogger and royal family member whose Twitter feed —read by over 100,000 followers—was named by Time Magazine as one of last year’s top 140. Qassemi spoke to NOW Lebanon about his part in the historic upheavals in the region, and where he thinks we are heading.
How did you get involved in political writing?
Sultan al-Qassemi: I started off in 2007 writing for a few publications in the UAE—mainly financial op-eds but usually with a political twist. Then, of course, there was this movement that started in December 2010 in Tunisia and since I understand French I was able to keep up with the news—at first it wasn’t being reported in the English or Arabic blogospheres so much as in the French one, so I was able to follow it and tweet about it, and the story kept growing, and then suddenly an entrenched Arab dictator had fled. And then I think it was only 11 days later we had Egypt, so it was just a rollercoaster. And I think it was only really then that I began to get noticed regionally.
Were there any early experiences that drove you to politics?
Qassemi: I was always interested in it, but when I was about 12 my cousins fled to the UAE from Kuwait, and they were telling me about this Iraqi invasion, that there were tanks in the streets, and it affected me.
What have been the successes of the Arab Spring in your opinion?
Qassemi: Firstly, I don’t like to call it the Arab Spring; I prefer the Arab Uprising. I think the biggest success has been the people saying “enough is enough.” This is a huge step compared to many decades in which people wanted to speak up but either didn’t or couldn’t. The Arab world will never be the same again. Specifically, Tunisia has been a great success. Most Arab leaders are military men, many of them brutal dictators, but in Tunisia we now have a civilian president—a human rights activist, in fact—in a country that used to be one of the very worst police states. This is an example that puts other Arab countries to shame.
What about the other side of Tunisia—the rise of the Salafists, for example?
Qassemi: There are Salafists in the UK. They are all over the world. They are part of society, and as soon as they enter the political game—as in Egypt—they will be almost neutralized. The only fear is if Salafists don’t enter the political game. Then they become a big risk.
What have been the failures of the Arab Uprising?
Qassemi: The very slow progress Egypt has made in handing over power to civilian rule. Egyptians are very intelligent, educated and capable of governing themselves without military interference. The other disappointment is dictators who believe they can stay in power through repression, like Bashar al-Assad.
But for me the lack of reform in the Gulf is the biggest disappointment. The fact that two Gulf countries actually saw a regression—Bahrain and the UAE—and the fact that Saudi Arabia has not seen any kind of reform.
What is the significance to you of the arrests of many of your fellow bloggers, from Alaa Abd al-Fattah to Ahmad Mansoor to, most recently, Hamza Kashgari?
Qassemi: I think the significance is two-fold. First of all, it shows you the Arab countries are still using outdated laws, sometimes from the colonial era, to prosecute people in the 21st century, so it shows you how slow the Arab countries are to adapt. Secondly, it’s very clear that when bloggers are arrested this is a message to other bloggers.
On that note, you live and do most of your work in Sharjah, perhaps the most conservative emirate in the UAE. Have you faced opposition from the establishment for things you have written or tweeted?
Qassemi: I wrote an article in defense of mixed marriages [Emiratis with non-Emiratis] and people in senior circles, tribal chiefs, were very unhappy with me. And I’m the only person in history to have received an official rebuke from the UAE parliament. I wrote a piece questioning if the parliament actually existed at all, and I got this critical letter saying shame on me. And I was very proud of that, to have instigated a debate on the parliament. And there have been several other examples, but they haven’t changed the way I write or tweet.
Has being a member of the royal family affected your freedom to write?
Qassemi: I don’t know. I hope not. I hope the law is applied equally to everybody. I’m not naïve enough to say that it is, but if I had a choice, I would rather that that be the case.
Your critics argue there is a double standard in you supporting democratic uprisings elsewhere while appearing to look favorably upon your own country’s Islamist monarchy. How would you respond?
Qassemi: I make a point of tweeting any articles or press releases that people would consider critical of the UAE. In fact I “favorite” the negative tweets about the UAE so that people can see I don’t shy away from criticizing my own country.
You once said, “I’m only interested in two countries in the region now: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” Could you elaborate?
Qassemi: I am! I’m only interested in Egypt and Saudi Arabia—people try to stuff other countries down my throat, it doesn’t work. Listen, I sympathize, and I am so saddened by what’s happening in Syria, in Yemen, in Palestine. But I’m interested in these two for two reasons: firstly, because these are the countries I’m most knowledgeable about. And secondly, I believe that if Egypt and Saudi Arabia change, then everywhere else will change, because of Egypt’s demographic weight and Saudi’s religious and financial weight.
What, in your opinion, is the solution to the Syrian crisis?
Qassemi: I feel as helpless as tens of millions of other Arabs. I want to say there is a diplomatic solution, but I’m honestly hoping for a palace coup; that some honorable person will come and depose Assad and his ruthless brother, and then immediately open up the door for reconciliation and elections, because I fear it could get very ugly if it continues in this way.
What about foreign intervention?
Qassemi: I think every time we’ve seen foreign military intervention the country has descended into chaos.
Finally, what do you see for the future of Lebanon?
Qassemi: I’m very hopeful about Lebanon. It’s always been a beacon of freedom for us. We all want Lebanon to prosper, to turn the pages of civil war and sectarianism. I remember being there a few months ago, you could be in a leftist bar one minute and then walk down the road and you’re in an Islamic gathering. The Arab world needs Lebanon more than people understand.