Is this democracy? Commentary from the Arab world

A cartoon published in Al-Quds Al-Arabi by Palestinian cartoonist Imam Hajja is the subject of an informal poll conducted by MENASSAT to gauge the mood on the streets about the cartoon's depiction of democracy in the Arab world.
cartoon democracy
"Democracy in the Arab World" from Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London © Imad Hajjaj

BEIRUT, June 16, 2008 (MENASSAT) – In the first week of June, a cartoon by Palestinian cartoonist Imam Hajja of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi caught the attention of MENASSAT’s editors.

The cartoon’s title - “Democracy in the Arab World!” - depicted a dictatorial figure dragging a Statue of Liberty by her hair.

MENASSAT decided to do an informal poll about the cartoon. “Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The Statue of Liberty dragging the other figure? This is just inaccurate” was the first comment we received.

Based on this, MENASSAT decided to go to it’s own stable of correspondents, and expand the poll to street pundits, academics and others from a varied cross section of Arab society in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region in order to find out what they thought of the cartoon.

It’s the first in what will be a series of informal polls to get the vibe from the streets and from the Arab press and academic/cultural sectors about interesting events – media or otherwise – coming from the MENA region.


 Tamer Wajih – a social activist in Cairo

“In Egypt, this cartoon is particularly accurate. The dictatorships are still ruling the Arab world. But here, the street movements and demonstrations are moving forward with great strength. The question this cartoon poses to me: Will the strength of the democratic reformers be enough to depose the dictators like Mubarak? Will she (Statue of Liberty) get off of her feet to be a part of what the radicals - especially those who believe in the power of the street – will do to change things and will this be through the people or not? What role will the people have in this democracy?”

Ahmed Mahjoub – Cairo-based poet

“I don’t think the picture of the police officer, with his Nazi-like uniform, dragging the Statue of Liberty, expresses the reality of the situation. On the ground, the “dragging” function seems to be a scandalous relationship between dictators and international business – which is nowhere to be found in this cartoon. This new democracy looks like an attempt to take away the traditional structures of Arab society. So. Democracy and this Statue of Liberty are no longer the proper symbols. How do you depict the idea that everybody is trying to only look after their own piece of the pie?”

Abdul Rahman Mansour - a young journalist working with the Islamic Brotherhood’s website in Cairo

“The Arab regimes are stronger than freedom – stronger than this ‘Statue of Liberty,’ which it killed inside of their people. They killed its symbol in the cartoon.”

Mostapha Yassin – a Nasserite activist in Cairo

“The Statue of Liberty is not our symbol. This would never invoke the support of those opposed to authoritarianism.” 

Wael Nouwara - a former candidate for presidency of the al-Ghad Liberal Party

“Nice caricature...sad ...and cruel ... but true.”


Dalila – Casablanca

“Who is the winner here? In countries like ours, democracy is nothing but a political slogan. If we talk about democracy or human rights, it’s only during demonstrations that we’re heard. Then we are beaten like her (the Statue of Liberty). Freedoms are granted with small dosages and so we’re (people on the street) facing hard choices: freedom versus our own personal security – where is the priority?”

Omar al-Omari - publishing manager of the newspaper Risalat al-Ousbou

“The man represents the despotic Arab regimes, depicted in his uniform along with a stick and a gun. It is also a sign that the Arab countries are countries of policemen ruling over their people with an iron fist. The cartoon could have another meaning that democracy is an odd concept, considering that the Statue of Liberty is foreign, and that the Arab world refuses the version of democracy it is being given, especially that Arab society hasn’t reached the stage to embrace these universal values.”

Abdul Fattah al-Mantari – writer

“This is the fate of the free individual in the Arab world. This is the fate of whoever speaks of a free world. This is the fate of even the Statue of Liberty and the land of the free “sponsored” by the U.S…Does Democracy in the Arab world want to be pulled by the hair?”

Fawzi – Casablanca

“This is a very good cartoon. Especially given all the reasons they (the dictators) give us to limit our democracy and pull us by the hair.”


Bassam al-Qadi - the administrator of a Syrian women’s-rights website in Damascus

“It’s an accurate cartoon. I mean, I think that the major problem democracy has faced in the Arab world is that it is a female word in the Arab language. So it faces a double problem – one political the other gender-based.”

Fadi - Former security agent in Syria’s security forces during former Syrian President Hafez Assad’s regime in Damascus

“Democracy is having the right to express yourself freely, hoping that one day someone won’t knock on your door at 4:45 in the morning to drag your from your bed, beating you and your hope like the woman in the cartoon.”


Ibrahim Hachem – freelance journalist and contributor to MENASSAT in Beirut

“It was better to say that the cartoon represents freedom, not democracy, in the Arab world. The Statue of Liberty is more about freedom here. In fact, freedom is the one thing that has been killed among the Arab states. It’s not the democracy. Democracy has never existed here.”


Hussein al-Atib, editing consultant at the Kuwaiti newspaper - al-Jarida

“If they bring this statue to the Arab world, it will face this destiny. Definitely.”

Occupied Palestinian Territories

Rana al-Arja – Ramallah

“There are many attempts to show democracy in the Arab world. But everytime someone tries to use it and play the role of the Americans, a policeman appears to punish them. It is a masked democracy in this picture. They (the west) talk about it but repress it in the Arab world. The clearest example on that is what happened after Hamas won in the legislative elections through legitimate democratic means. This is also what is happening in Iraq where the American democracy is being used, but in a special way. The way it wants it.”

Mohammad Khaled – Ramallah

“Democracy is just a slogan the US uses to hide and cover its terrorist policy in the Arab world in particular, and the US in general, for the latter lacks it.
There is no democracy in the Arab world, for it only holds the American meaning, which means imposing terrorism on all the people, whether through physical violence or verbal abuse.”


Afif Abu Aser – translator

“Well, I saw this cartoon and read that the United States of America has failed to demonstrate real democracy in the Arab World, because of the militant leaders’ role according to the cartoon. Anyway I don’t believe in the US intention to support democracy for democracy’s sake. It is just doing it for its own interests.”

Ghamdan Al-Yousufi – Sanaa resident

“Democracy in the Arab world became like a Trojan horse, through which regimes achieve all their objectives. So the Statue of Liberty is not a proper symbol here because in this scenario, democracies are smashed to the degree that nobody even remembers its name.”

Shams Hamoud – school teacher

“I feel that democracy cannot co-exist with Arab military regimes. Democracy is a civil concept - so why even bring the Statue of Liberty into the equation?”

Balkis M - university student

“Since when is freedom represented by the Statue of Liberty. I think this statue belongs to America alone, for this country does not apply democracy in dealing with other countries, especially the Arab ones. So why do we use its statue as a symbol of democracy? Despite all that, the status of the statue reflects the situation in our Arab world.”

Hoda Jaafar, journalism and movies critic

“The cartoon was not clear and I don’t know why the Statue of Liberty was chosen as a symbol of democracy. Hence, I don’t think the cartoon succeeded in depicting the democratic situation in the Arab countries. It may even depict that democracy is kicking the American attacker from the Arab territories, whether the attack is military or cultural.”

Saudi Arabia

Joe Ghanem – MENASSAT correspondent

“A first reaction from me was this is humorous. I’ll repeat what Egyptian actor Said Saleh said in one of his sarcastic plays, when the teacher asked him about ‘logic’ and he replied - We don’t talk about someone that is not present. This is called gossiping.”


Mohammad Rassem Tajer

“Shut up or you end up in jail. Even if you don’t feel this picture directly in your everyday life, the number of people who express the truth and become victims of the government - this is on the rise in most of the Arab countries. That’s what she (Statue of Liberty) is dealing with.”

Kamel Rida, employee in a company of medicine import Algiers

“What I see in this cartoon?…Democracy didn’t and will never be accomplished in the Arab world as long as those in power refuse to hear the truth. It is honesty, and the cartoon reflects the reality.”


Mohsen Mazlini – MENASSAT correspondent

“What is the meaning of democracy in a nation that fears the statues of liberty and its symbols - though we have some reservations that the only statue of liberty is American? This is the dilemma. How can we talk about democracy in the era of the “republican sultans” with all the modern and old tribes? How can we go out and talk about freedom and its symbols and statues to search for the best ways to practice freedom and apply the conditions of a true democracy built daily? The other way for despotism to rule is through wasting time in talking about the symbols of freedom.”


Polling conducted by MENASSAT correspondents:

Amira al—Tahhawi in Cairo
Khaled al-Ikhtiar in Syria
Layal Abboud in Lebanon/Morocco
Elie Qossaifi in Kuwait
Mohammad al-Saidi and Hoda Jaafar in Yemen
Fadi Abu Saada in Ramallah
Khalil bin al-Shahba in Morocco