Region in Revolt

Veteran analyst Rami G. Khouri predicts that the historic change sweeping the Arab world will lead to a secular rather than Islamist political order

CAIRO REVIEW: What are we learning about the Arab world?

RAMI G. KHOURI: Two important things. Acquiescence and docility are not potential traits of Arab publics. For two generations, almost from the 1960s to now, the Arab world has put up with being the only collectively nondemocratic region in the world. Not a single Arab country was a credible democracy. They had traits of democracy, but very small and intermittent ones. And by and large it was a top-heavy, nonaccountable region. So we learn now that this is not something ingrained, that the Arab people were not comfortable with this and finally rose up to change this. The second thing we’ve found is that the only serious mechanism for democratization is Arab public activism. It’s not well-meaning foreign aid, not small groups of civil activists in our country, trying this or trying that. And it’s certainly not manipulating the public systems from the top. It’s the public taking to the streets and demanding to change from autocratic to democratic systems. It’s the only way to bring about that desired change. You have one common denominator, which is really constitutional change so that power is actually vested in the consent of the governed. People want constitutional change, they want principals and structures and values of governance—the exercise of power to be defined by the people through representative and accountable and equitable systems of participation and governance.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is irreversible? What are the uncertainties?

RAMI G. KHOURI: The uncertainties are many. The durability of these changes. Will there be short-term regressions? What kind of systems will emerge? Will they be defined by Western-style democracy, or democracy colored with Arabism, tribalism, or Islamism? Will there be a major strain of urban cosmopolitanism defining these democracies? Will there be provincial, simple, rudimentary democracies? Will there be centralized or diffused power? The balance between presidential power and parliamentary power? The role of the judiciary? The issue of secularism versus religiosity. Fundamental systems remain to be defined. There are all kinds of really important issues. And of course we haven’t had a single ideological issue raised yet. No one is talking about Israel, the U.S., Iran, secularism, women, foreign policy, tax policy. Not a single ideology has been brought up. This will come. But this is something that will be defined in the future.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s irreversible?

RAMI G. KHOURI: The only thing we can say is irreversible is that Arab citizenries will not put up with top-heavy security-anchored governments. They’ll resist these. How? That depends on the country. But it’s clear that we have awoken a sleeping giant. This is akin to the civil rights movement in the United States. Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia is our Rosa Parks. He’s that one person, for that one moment, who undertook one act of great defiance and anger and self-affirmation. It happened, tragically, to be self-immolation. But it’s that one act that captured the agony and indignities of the several generations of his citizens and his people. That one act sparked a rather brutal response from the Tunisian regime, then spread to ignite a protest movement that forever would change the modern Arab world. Just as Rosa Parks in her one act of refusing to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery brought about ten years later the Civil Rights Act, and the whole change in the political system of the United States. That will never be reversed in the United States. And the same is the situation in our case in the Arab world.

CAIRO REVIEW: How dangerous is the situation, in terms of political instability, economic costs?

RAMI G. KHOURI: Any major national political transformation has risks. If you go back to the overthrow of the Soviet empire, there were problems afterwards. There still are. There was suffering, there was inequity, there was abuse of power. You still have great power imbalances, abuse of power by small elites. There are clearly dangers in the process. People will be hurt. People will suffer. Some people will do better than others. If you take a country like Egypt, where you have enormous economic and population pressures, it’s impossible for the Egyptian economy to quickly generate the kind of numbers of jobs that will resolve the problems of youth unemployment and widespread low income. You need to do that while you’re reconfiguring and relegitimizing your entire political governance system. That’s a tall order. The people will put up with pressures and problems if they feel that the system they are creating takes away the old indignities and humiliations.


RAMI G. KHOURI: The two things still driving the revolt are material pressures and intangible indignities. The material pressures are income, jobs, clean water, equitable delivery of health services. The intangible indignities are abuse of power, corruption. You feel as an ordinary citizen you are mistreated by your own government, by your own police, you don’t feel your voice counts or is even heard. People will put up with tangible pressures like jobs for the entire population if the intangible issues are resolved. If police are not mistreating people, if you go to a government office for a routine service and you are not treated like an animal.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is the Arab world ready for democracy?

RAMI G. KHOURI: There is no doubt that there is both the will and the logistical expertise available and the composure to be able to make the transition. You’re seeing it already in places like Tunisia and Egypt. Where it’s only been a couple of months but you can see this process unfold. Clearly the Arab world has both at home and among the immigrant community abroad all of the human expertise to do this. I think you’re going to see tens of thousands of Arabs come back to the Arab world especially in places like Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia where people have left because they were dissatisfied with the political system and uncomfortable with the economic prospects. They gained tremendous expertise as bankers or engineers or scientists and also expertise in living as free citizens in democratic societies. This will be a tremendous injection of skilled managerial manpower and entrepreneurship and some money as well.

“No one is talking about Israel, the U.S., Iran, secularism, women, foreign policy, tax policy. Not a single ideology has been brought up. This will come. But this is something that will be defined in the future.”

CAIRO REVIEW: Do you expect broad changes in political orientation? Is this a victory for the Islamist parties ultimately?

RAMI G. KHOURI: I don’t expect radical changes. I expect some more limited changes. When the people start addressing ideologies and foreign policy issues, for example, you’ll see a much stronger popular commitment to support the Palestinian people. I don’t think the peace treaty with Israel will be abrogated. But people will say, we’re at peace with Israel but we also support the Palestinians and will not allow Arab countries to be partners with Israel in the siege of Gaza or control of the West Bank. You’ll see some changes in the rhetoric and you’ll see some practical changes. You’ll probably see a more clear and rational approach to dealing with Western powers, the U.S. and Europeans and others, demanding for instance that the Western powers be less hypocritical, and practice double standards less frequently in their policies. You’ll probably see greater understanding for the Iranian right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. You’ll probably see a much stronger desire to cooperate with Turkey at a popular level. There will be a greater desire for people to cooperate and this will give birth to a new brand of pan-Arab cooperation and solidarity. It will be different from the rhetorical and emotional Arab nationalism of the fifties and sixties, but a European style of collaboration, integration, cooperation, and solidarity.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about the Islamists?

RAMI G. KHOURI: The Islamists will probably be the losers in the medium run. The Islamist movements, the Muslim Brothers and others, grew up in the last thirty or forty years and became the most important voice of political challenge. These movements developed because there was nobody else who was able do this. The government put everybody else in jail, or kicked them out of the country, or killed them, or emasculated them, or bought them off. The Muslim Brothers and the Islamist movements were the only ones that could keep working because governments couldn’t close the mosques. These Islamist movements became powerful also because they were the most courageous people and they were the only people challenging the government and they went to jail and they were killed. So I think people will recognize the debt they have to the Islamists for upholding that spark of freedom and dignity. But [now] you have other alternatives: secular parties, tribal groups, professional business groups, democracy movements, human rights, women, student, labor, students, and other groups. I think the Islamist groups will go back to playing the role that religious parties play in most societies, which is they reflect a small number of committed people. I believe the Arab world will be a largely secular political world. You will have Islamism as a player, one actor on the stage. But you essentially have five forces that will have to find a balance among themselves in terms of political culture: Arabism, tribalism, Islamism, urban cosmopolitanism, and the state ideology, the nationalism. Those five identities will interact with each other. I don’t think any one movement will dominate society as the Islamists have dominated the opposition groups to the Arab regimes. So I believe that the Islamists will get weaker not stronger.

CAIRO REVIEW: How widespread will political changes become in the region?

RAMI G. KHOURI: I think political change as such will be widespread, but it won’t always be as radical as it was in Tunisia and Egypt. There will be demands for measurable practical change in the constitutions and in the governance systems and the exercise of power in countries. In Bahrain and Jordan, people are asking for constitutional monarchies. So the monarchies won’t be abolished but there will be change. In other countries, people want the old regimes thrown out, they don’t want a single remnant of the old regimes. It will vary I think in every country but I think there will be change in every single country. Throughout the region people are discontented with the nature of the political system they live in. They want them to be more democratic, representative, and accountable. How that happens will depend on local forces. Some countries will have just minor but substantive changes that actually change something in the system that is enough to satisfy the citizens.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why did this young generation revolt, and not the previous generation?

RAMI G. KHOURI: What’s different is the circumstances in which they found themselves living. The circumstances reflect the economic conditions, like population growth and job opportunities. Since the 1980s, the living standards have been declining. Parallel with that was the increasing police and security nature of the ruling regimes. Linked with that is the increasing unearned wealth of the ruling elite, the emergence of the kleptocracy in many Arab countries. And as citizens they are under increasing economic and social and environmental stress. On top of all that, they had to put up with continued defeats by Israel. Or finding themselves at peace with Israel even though they weren’t at peace with Israel in their hearts because of what Israel was doing to the Palestinians and the Lebanese and others. And the humiliation of foreign armies, as in the Anglo–American invasion of Iraq. All these things together brought us to this moment in the last ten years when more and more people became angry. What happened with Mohammed Bouazizi’s death was a widespread sense of indignity and anger and humiliation and didn’t come out of a vacuum. People in different forms and different countries have been constantly expressing their complaints and challenging their governments and have never been able to break through the incredibly powerful mechanisms of the Arab police state until Tunisia.

CAIRO REVIEW: People have credited Facebook as a tool for the revolutions, but how important were the satellite news channels?

RAMI G. KHOURI: I think Al Jazeera was the single most important force here. If you asked me what were the most important communication channel or tools that were relevant to this whole movement and still are, it’s Al Jazeera television, and cell phones. Others are the mosque and public spaces. In Cairo, if you wanted to get a message out, you just got it to the mosques and by word of mouth the message would get out in twenty-four hours to ten million people. I think we have to study this more carefully. There is no doubt that Facebook and YouTube and blogging and websites played a catalytic role in some places. But the real digital factors mobilizing human beings were cell phones and Al Jazeera television.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why different responses in different Arab countries?

RAMI G. KHOURI: It’s the nature of people’s grievances [and] the nature of the political leadership. The way they subjugate people is different in every country. It’s also about the degree of legitimacy of the ruling establishments. Some establishments like the Tunisian one and the Egyptian one were seen by their people to have zero legitimacy. That’s not the case in every Arab country. That’s certainly not the case in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and Jordan, to an extent in Syria, and to some extent in Bahrain. So it’s a combination of all those things, and partly the response of the regime. If the regimes are brutal, people might be less likely to go out and risk their lives. But that’s the smallest factor, because we’ve seen pretty brutal responses in Tunisia and Egypt and now Libya and in Bahrain, and that increases the will of the people to get out there and change the system.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why such a violent situation in Libya?

RAMI G. KHOURI: I think that’s largely a reflection of the nature of the regime. The Gadhafi regime is different. It also has to do with the structures that you have available to you. The role of the army in Egypt and Tunisia was critical in allowing the transition to happen quickly. The army ultimately went to the leaders and said, “The game is up, you have to leave. Your people no longer accept you. Spare them bloodshed and spare yourself.” They were allowed to go and retire somewhere. They might be put on trial, we will see. In Libya, that’s not the case. You don’t have these institutions like the army that could mediate, that could go to Gadhafi and say, “The game’s up.” And the nature of his rule has been clear for forty-two years. This is an eccentric, oddball, violent man, and he’s not hesitant to use violence against his own people. So partly it’s personality-driven, and partly the structures of the ruling government systems that are in place.

CAIRO REVIEW: Do you see a qualitative difference in the legitimacy of Arab republics versus Arab monarchies?

RAMI G. KHOURI: My hunch is there is a little difference. Of course, republics over the years have become like monarchies trying to pass incumbency to their sons, and did so in some cases. Monarchies tend to be more sensitive to people’s complaints. I don’t know why that is. If it’s in the nature of royalty, or simply they understand that because they are not elected, that people have to accept them, they have to actually earn their legitimacy by serving the people.

CAIRO REVIEW: How is Jordan affected?

RAMI G. KHOURI: The demands in Jordan are being expressed by a lot of people. It’s fascinating, instead of saying “the people want to bring down the regime,” in Jordan the phrase they are using is that they want to “reform the regime.” They don’t necessarily want to get rid of the monarchy and the king, but they want to change the way they exercise power. The king has made it clear that he understands this and is prepared to make some changes. He changed the prime minister and the cabinet but we’ll see what difference that makes. He’s done that many times without real change. Maybe things will be different this time. Clearly there is pressure on the king to change some aspects of how the governing system works. His problem is he keeps running into the Palestinian/Jordanian dichotomy. The Jordanians are always hesitant to open up the system, because there is a strong constituency of Trans-Jordanians, east bankers, who are fearful that if they really democratize the country, that the Palestinian-origin Jordanians, who are probably 60 percent, or something like that, would dominate the system. And that the Trans-Jordanians would lose some of their advantages, which they get because they are Trans-Jordanians. Perhaps this is the moment to get the Hashemite monarchy to go beyond that fear and truly open up the system in a serious way.

CAIRO REVIEW: Are such regimes capable of reforming from within?

RAMI G. KHOURI: Up to now, it’s been obvious that they are incapable of meeting the demands. They’ve made superficial changes. They’ve talked a lot about reform, but not really done it. They only made very limited reforms, administrative reforms, increased efficiency of service delivery. They haven’t done anything about the core exercise and accountability of power. They haven’t been serious. But we are at a historic turning point. This is a completely new moment. You can’t judge the years ahead on the basis of the previous years. The nature of citizen activism, the consequences of citizen activism, the nature of the demands being made, the public open nature of the calls for reform and change or to get rid of leaders, this is all unprecedented. This is a whole new ball game. I think we just have to wait and see if they can make the changes and stay in power or be thrown out, or in some cases make the changes and then later get eased out. You have cases in recent history, like Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, or F. W. de Klerk in South Africa, of leaders at the top who changed the system themselves. They saw that what they were living in was unsustainable and they took the initiative to change the system. And eventually it created better countries, more stable democratic countries, but they were pushed aside. It’s possible that someone in the Arab world is a Gorbachev.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about Syria?

RAMI G. KHOURI: I think it has the same combination of popular grievances. People want change in different political and economic areas. The Syrians have the added dimension of the Arab–Israeli conflict. They claim they are leading the Arab struggle to demand that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories and give the Palestinians their rights, and that Syria leads the Arab side of the defiance and resistance front against Western hegemony. All these things resonate with a lot of people around the region. That probably has a grain of truth in it, but I think Syria at some point has to come to grips with the fact that the conditions that people are complaining about across the region are conditions that exist in Syria. They’ve shown signs of appreciating this. In the last year, they’ve talked at the top level about opening up civil society and having the private sector play a bigger role. But it’s been very limited in terms of changing the core issue which comes up in every single one of these countries: real constitutional change that modifies how power is exercised.

CAIRO REVIEW: Does the Syrian regime have more legitimacy because of its role in the Arab–Israeli conflict, or are they just better at state security control over their people?

RAMI G. KHOURI: Security control isn’t enough. The shah [of Iran] had pretty outstanding security control. Ben Ali and Mubarak had, like, nine-hundred thousand troops, or whatever it was. Security control doesn’t give you perpetual control in itself. The people will rebel against strong governments. Each country has its own factors that define how it moves.

CAIRO REVIEW: Are the Arab revolts affecting the prospects of greater democratization in Lebanon, which experienced the Cedar Revolution?

RAMI G. KHOURI: What happened in 2005 is not the same as what’s happening now. That was a movement by about half the country to push out what they saw as a foreign occupier, which was Syria. Now the question is whether the movement of change that’s happening all over the Arab world will get into Lebanon. I don’t think it will. If you look at the Lebanese system, it’s a system in which every group in the country, every sectarian or religious group, eighteen of them, have official slices of the pie. They all have a share of parliament, generals in the army, ambassadors, senior bureaucratic positions. The system is designed in a way to institutionalize power sharing and divide up the assets of the state among the different confessional groups. Therefore, there is a huge difference between what’s going on in Lebanon and what’s going on in the rest of the Arab world. In other countries, citizens are challenging a strong state that they believe is illegitimate and denies their rights. In Lebanon, you have a weak state, but that weak state is the vehicle through which citizens are actually empowered and have access to the resources of the state and its services and its jobs.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do the changes affect the Israeli–Palestinian conflict?

RAMI G. KHOURI: It’s hard to tell. I think the only thing we can say right now is that a more democratic Arab world will naturally express more support for the Palestinian people. How is that expressed? Is it just rhetoric? Or is it security council votes, or sending aid? We just don’t know. But definitely there will be more support for the Palestinian people, which will create more stress on Israel. There will probably be more clarity and diplomatic vigor in the Arab countries saying to Israel, “Okay, we put this peace treaty on the table in 2002. We’re prepared to live with Israel as a predominantly Jewish state with a strong Arab minority. We’re prepared to live with you in peace and accept you like Egypt and Jordan have done. Let’s get off the fence and solve this conflict and Israel [must] do what it has to do to meet its obligations, end the refugee crisis, create a Palestinian state, and withdraw from the land it occupied in 1967.” So you’ll probably see this movement in Arab–Israeli negotiations. It might start unilaterally with Syrians, it’s hard to tell. If this Arab democratic wave reaches Syria, and Syria changes substantially, this will have huge implications. A change in Syria will have implications for Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran. So the geopolitics of the region will evolve in some form that we can’t predict right now. I don’t think it will lead to new wars. I think it will lead to intense new diplomatic and political pressures to end the conflict in equitable ways.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is Israel capable of responding to a democratic voice from the Arab world?

RAMI G. KHOURI: Under its present government, no. Israel is not capable of doing anything other than continued colonial oppression of the Palestinians in defiance of world legal norms. But the Israelis for fifty-five or sixty years have been saying that they are the only democracy in the region. If they are no longer the only democracy, that presumably should be a good thing for them. They presumably would welcome dealing with other democracies. I think they would. I think democracies would deal with each other in a more rational way. You’ll have the possibility to end the Arab–Israeli conflict in the way, for example, that the Northern Ireland conflict was resolved, through a democratic negotiation through equal partners. With no pussyfooting around, but by being more clear, making tough, courageous decisions and concessions, but concessions that are done by both sides that each side gets their basic minimum rights. I think that’s a possibility, but it’s not going to happen under the present leadership.

Rami G. Khouri is the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. A widely published commentator on Middle East affairs, he is the former executive editor of the Beirut Daily Star and former editor-in-chief of the Jordan Times. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Khouri by telephone from Cairo on March 6, 2011