It’s time to debate for democracy in the Arab world

It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debate

Peter Millett

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“Free speech is an enabling right, which is why it is the first thing that dictators see to extinguish,” said Tim Sebastian, the renowned interviewer from BBC World’s Hardtalk who brought structured debates to the Arab World with his New Arab Debates forum.

In Amman, these debates have tackled controversial issues such as gender equality, government control of the electronic media and recent events in Egypt. The debates have been held in both English and Arabic and have attracted a wide and enthusiastic audience.

The main aim is to get people to listen to one other, appreciate opposing views and understand that they have a role to play in political life. As Tim said: “no flowery philosophy, history lessons or intellectual flights of fancy.” His preference is for politicians, officials and thought leaders prepared to engage in tough, uncompromising debate.

There are numerous examples in history of autocrats who demand blind acceptance of their rule

Peter Millett

The central motivation behind the New Arab Debates is to promote democracy. A fundamental part of any democracy is freedom of expression which is itself recognised world-wide as a basic human right in any culture or political system.

Not a spectator sport

Politics is not a spectator sport: it is a difficult game in which the government team needs to listen to both their supporters and their opponents. All citizens have an interest in tackling the hot topics of the day: in the Middle East, key issues such as economic reform and political participation. In Europe, the future of the European Union and immigration are the topics to be tackled.

How governments handle these hot topics has an impact on everyone. So, leaders have a duty to listen to what citizens want. And citizens have a right to hold those leaders to account by asking them the right questions.

To realise the importance of debate, we just have to look at the alternative. There are numerous examples in history of autocrats who demand blind acceptance of their rule, brook no criticism, stamp out dissent and lock up their opponents. The result is that the government lacks accountability and the system breeds corruption and has to resort to violence.

The alternative is an open society which welcomes and encourages debate as a healthy way to discuss ideas. No government should try to rule without having a means of listening to the people. Even day-to-day issues have an impact on ordinary people: on the price they pay for bread, on the way their children are educated and on the way they are treated in hospital.

It, therefore, makes sense to hear what they have to say on such issues, ask them to challenge the received wisdom, invite their ideas and manage their expectations. People close to the coal face know much better than the central government how the education or health system is working. So, the central government should promote debate about the direction of change and the modernisation of those services.

Generating opposing views

Debate will inevitably generate opposing views. That is healthy. Debate is not about winning the vote at the end, but about getting to the heart of the matter. The discussion should create constructive tension out of which bold ideas should emerge. The process will hopefully make people appreciate the full range of factors that need to be taken into account: maybe the cost is too high, maybe the environment will be damaged. And in some cases, it might lead those in authority to think again about the course they favor.

I have seen debate in action in various places around Jordan. I attended a debate in which teams of young people debated the merits of nuclear power. All the participants - and the audience - engaged in the debate in a disciplined way, marshalling their arguments, responding to their opponents’ points and bringing passion and patience to a controversial subject.

Both teams had been trained in the methodology of debate in a program managed by the British Council. Their program focused on encouraging debate in schools, especially for young people with disabilities. We run similar programs to help young people freely express their thoughts and opinions on the issues that affect their lives.

Introducing debate in schools is a good way to grow the culture of freedom of speech. It can teach students skills that will be invaluable in their working lives: about the importance of preparation, about setting out key points in a simple and logical way, and about anticipating the counter-arguments.

This younger generation has shown their interest in reform in the Arab world in the last three years. They want to be part of the rapid and fundamental changes taking place. The New Arab Debates are a contribution to this change by providing a robust and independent platform to identify the main currents of opinion and expose them to scrutiny.

At the heart of the matter is the dictum that it is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debate.


Peter Millett is the British Ambassador to Jordan. Previously he was British High Commissioner to Cyprus from June 2005 to April 2010. He has served in a number of positions in the British Diplomatic Service since joining in 1974. He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British diplomatic missions overseas. From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens. From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO. From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing the UK on all energy and nuclear issues. From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.