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Nearly Five Years Later, Why Arab Spring Countries Still Experience Chaos

Rami Khouri, Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, Lebanon during the Global Redesign Series: The Middle East G20 Imperative at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East 2009.
World Economic Forum
Rami Khouri, Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, Lebanon during the Global Redesign Series: The Middle East G20 Imperative at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East 2009.

With civil wars raging in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, a wave of radicalization of Tunisian youths, and general political and economic instability throughout the Arab World, the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring has been violent and chaotic.

But as journalist Rami Khouri points out, solving centuries of political and social problems is a long and imperfect process.

“This is much deeper than just a spring… This is a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship between the citizen and the state,” said Khouri.

Khouri says this fundamental change is part of what has made the transition to democracy so difficult because Arab countries are trying to establish a system with which they have no experience.

“This is being done in societies where 360 million Arabs or so today have zero experience in democratic pluralism,” said Khouri.

Although sectarian conflict may seem to be the cause of many of the political problems facing Arab countries, Khouri says religious extremism is a product of political repression rather than the original source. In the same way that Civil Rights movements in the United States turned to the church, Arabs have expressed their grievances through religious institutions.

Watch University of Oklahoma Center for Middle East Studies Director (and World Views contributor) Joshua Landis' interview with Rami Khouri

“The religious dimension is a surface manifestation of deeper political problems. And the best analogy I can give is the American Civil Rights movement … where people couldn’t bring about the changes they wanted through the political system … and religion was the last thing left to them,” said Khouri.

Khouri notes Western democracies faced many of the same issues of social injustice, internal conflict, and trial and error in establishing a political system that Arab countries are currently dealing with. The difference, Khouri says, is Western countries addressed these problems over centuries, not years.

“We’re doing all of that at the same time. It’s ridiculously audacious and unprecedented and ambitious,” said Khouri.

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Rami Khouri, welcome to World Views.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you. Glad to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, Rami, you have spent a big part of your life in the Middle East, currently live in Lebanon, work in Lebanon, and are an expert on Middle Eastern issues. And we've spent a lot of time on this show and many others -- there are many people talking, obviously, nonstop about the Middle East these days. But I'd to get your perspective, as somebody who lives there and studies this up close, about why we continue to see extended violence and breakdown in this region because we are now into our fourth year of the Arab Spring. It's well beyond that initial season, and it's almost hard to remember now why and where it began. So can you help us make some sense of all of the various aspects that matter here and maybe put it in perspective for us?

KHOURI: Sure. I'll give you the one minute historical overview of this. What happened was, about 100 years ago, the modern Arab World started to take shape after World War I with the European powers creating countries, more or less, and some other countries – like Saudi Arabia and others – emerging on their own. There are 22 Arab countries today, and they went through basically three phases. You had the post-colonial phase from the 20s to the 40s or so. And then from the 40s to the 70s or 80s, you had the nationalist development stage. And the Arab countries made a huge advance in education, school, housing, healthcare, economic development, etcetera. So there was burst of nationalist development all across the region in that period from the 40s to the 80s or so. And then the third phase is the one we've just finished. I would say from the mid 70s until recently is the third phase, when the nationalist developmental stage was replaced by the family-ruled security state. And essentially what has happened in the last four years is the cumulative weaknesses, distortions, failures, disappointments of this whole 100 years of Arab development, all of those came to a head because in this last phase – from the mid 70s until now – essentially citizens have had no rights other than to be consumers. You can go to the shopping mall and you can buy and sell and you can take a trip to Paris, but you couldn't have any political rights, you didn't have any real cultural freedoms, social issues could not be discussed in public, the media was controlled, education was totally controlled. So human beings were turned into automatons, and basically they just did what the government told them they were allowed to do. And worse than that, they could only think and say what the government told them they could think and say. And people put up with this in the earlier phases of history because they were experiencing improvements in their economic and social conditions as they did, for instance, in Eastern Europe and South Korea and Taiwan. For years people put up with lack of democracy, because they were really enjoying improvements in their living standards. In the Arab World the same thing happened. But then into the 80s and 90s, economic development stagnated, population growth continued to be high, per-capita income declined, and you had a mass – and when I say "mass" I'm talking two- to three-hundred million Arabs – many of them were starting to experience pauperization, marginalization, vulnerability, real fears. Families with five or six kids were graduating from schools, and none of them can get a decent job. They all went into the informal black economy. So there was serious, widespread, deep and intense pressure on several hundred million Arabs who were experiencing difficult economic and social and environmental conditions – people were having more trouble getting fresh water and things like that -- and zero capacity politically to either express their grievances or achieve a redress of grievances through a political process. So it all just came together and exploded in 2010. And like many of these things, when Mohamed Bouazizi – the Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller – set himself on fire to protest how he had been mistreated by his local officials, it was like a Rosa Parks moment in the American Civil Rights history, where one person does an act that resonates widely, deeply, and instantly across a country and with hundreds of millions of people. Mass protests suddenly erupted, because millions of people felt the indignity that came out of these incidences, and that's essentially what we've been experiencing. And the core of that process is individual citizens demanding that they have citizen rights. That they're not just consumers. That they have the right to speak their mind, to read whatever book they want, to discuss issues in public, to hold the government accountable, to ask why is the government of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or somebody else spending suddenly 50 billion dollars because one person – the head of the country – decides he wants to spend 50 billion dollars on something, whether it's giving money to the Egyptian regime or raising the salaries of workers to keep them compliant. People want to be involved in running their countries somehow or at least having a voice and not just to be passive consumers. That's how it started and the phrases that people were using when the uprising started were "dignity" and "social justice.” They were very broad phrases responding to the grievances they felt. Of course it developed in many different ways in the last four years, and some situations – like Syria and Libya – have become very violent, and you have tremendous external interference. So what started as a popular revolt, a peaceful popular revolt for democratic transformation ended up, in some countries, being wild regional and global proxy wars. Tunisia is the only country that has made the breakthrough to a pluralistic constitutional democracy. And we hope others will follow, but we'll have to wait and see.

GRILLOT: So this is clearly a very complicated picture, as you describe. All of the various factors that help us understand how these things got started, are these also the reasons why it's so prolonged? Here you've outlined all of the political change that's being demanded, all of the economic crises that they're going through, the poverty, the lack of economic development, the social-cultural divide that has emerged among various religious groups and organizations. So all of that, combined with intervention from outside the region that has perhaps played a role, is this why we're going to see a prolonged Arab Spring? That this is going to be a very long and bloody process of change?

KHOURI: I've always disliked the term "Arab Spring." I know it's popular in the West, but this is much deeper than just a spring -- a spring being when a bad situation turns better or you get more opening and liberalism and democracy. This is a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship between the citizen and the state, which has been driven by the citizens for the first time ever. What happened in Tunisia in the last two and a half years is epic and historic in Arab terms. It's the first time ever in 7,000 years of Arab history – or history in the region that has become called the Arab region – the first time ever that citizens write their own constitution. It's never happened before where ordinary people are involved in reaching a consensus on fundamental issues of identity, of values, of exercise of power, of rights, limits to state power, relationships between things like religiosity and secularism, between military rule and civilian authority, between the central government and the provinces. These very basic issues, which are still, in the United States for instance today, now, 250 years after the revolution, your independence, you're still – with the Tea Party for instance – you're still debating state rights versus federal rights. And that's how it should be. That's what a vibrant democracy does; it keeps readdressing these issues so that you constantly revalidate the consensus and the relationship between the citizen and the state. We've never done that in the Arab World. And the reason it's so messy in many places is because we're experiencing simultaneously what Western democracies like the U.S. or England or France experienced sequentially over usually about 200 years. In other words, we're seeing in some Arab countries – like Egypt, for instance, or Yemen or Libya even – you're seeing simultaneously, at the same time, what you experienced with the uprising against the British, the War of Independence, the Declaration of Independence, the several constitutional attempts to come up with a constitution and the ongoing process since then of amendments and discussion, mass movements for social justice – like women's movements, emancipation of black people, Native Americans' rights, the Civil Rights Movement, gay and lesbian people – all of these movements that happened one after the other. Your great democracy started basically with white men who owned land as having rights. Nobody else had rights. Black people, Native Americans, women, nobody had rights, really, except white men who owned land. But you've worked it out over 200 years that's why your democracy is so impressive. But you did wait until 1965 to give black people the vote, become real, full citizens, and women early in the 20th century. So we're doing all that at the same time. It's ridiculously audacious and unprecedented and ambitious, and it's very messy. And this is being done in societies where 360 million Arabs or so today have zero experience in democratic pluralism or constitutionalism or citizen rights assertion. We just haven't had the experience. So when it came time, for instance after the uprisings and overthrowing of a few regimes in Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, suddenly the people want to do elections. They had never done elections – real elections – before. They didn't know how to run a political party that was truly a free political party. So these mistakes were made and sequential mistakes were made. We had elections probably too soon; we should have forged a constitutional consensus first. We should have agreed on the rules of the game with a constitution that was clearly validated by the majority before actually moving on to elections and this and that. But these are learning experiences. Your first constitution of the United States was an embarrassment [laughs], and after 10 years you had to come back and do it again and you did. So that's one of the difficulties: that we're addressing all of these issues while also we have the Arab-Israeli conflict, millions of refugees flows around the region, huge environmental stresses – arable land, over congested cities, lack of clean water – deterioration in the delivery of basic social services like healthcare and education, embarrassingly low quality in education output in the last 20, 30 years, and foreign invasions. We still have foreign countries, whether for good or for bad, attacking people in the Arab World with drones or with armies. And sometimes it's for good reasons – like attacking ISIS – but in other cases it's very contested. And tremendous foreign interference from the Russians, from the Americans, the British, the Iranians. So it's just almost incomprehensible when you see all of these things happening at once. But the point is, the people of the region want it to happen. They want to break out of their subjugation, their dehumanization, their acquiescence in a system in which power in an entire country is held in the hands of a family or one person. So the Arab countries are known mostly by the names of their rulers: Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi. Hosni Mubarak. And these individuals are the epitome of the country, and that's not right because none of these people were elected, none of these people were validated. And that's really the complicating factor: the combination of all of these things. But people want this process to go ahead, so we come up with something better.

GRILLOT: So this long process of democratization, that really seems to be, perhaps, at least beginning in the region or at least we think it's going in that direction?

KHOURI: Yes. Even before democratization, though, what you're really looking at is the validation of the state, the reconfiguration of and the legitimization of the state by its own people – the state meaning the country. A lot of these countries were created by foreign powers or by local powers who went around invading and capturing territory and creating a state. In no Arab country did you have the citizens as a whole involved in a process in which they essentially validated their country and defined it. So that's the first step, I think, to validate the country. Now what kind of political system you have – do you want an electoral democracy? Do you want a strong president? A strong parliament? Do you want decentralization, as is likely to happen in many countries. Do you want a strong role for Islamic values? Do you want a strong role for Arab tribal values? Do you want a private sector economy or centralized? All of these issues of ideological organization of society are the second things.

GRILLOT: So we aren't even there yet. We aren't able to get to those yet. But from the outside looking in, outside the region, we tend to boil down all of the happenings in the Middle East right now to religion, to a breakdown between the different sects within Islam, and tend to consider the violence a reflection of Islamic extremists. And that is happening, obviously. But obviously, looking from the outside, it appears that that's what's going on. And so as you're describing it here, really trying to keep in mind that there are all these other things going on is so difficult for us. Why is that? Because what it does is it gives us an excuse to not do anything about it. We say we can't do anything about that. We can't do anything to fix that hatred within the religion. So where does that leave us in terms of being able to contribute to development in this region?

KHOURI: Well that's several extremely important points. It's better to take them one by one. The separate one is what is the proper role for the United States or any foreign country. But first let me address what you mentioned, which is the perception of the region being dominated by mostly Sunni-Shiite rivalries and violence and why people look at the region from outside – especially from the United States – broadly in religious terms. So there's kind of three distinct elements. I think the distinct element that we have to start with is the impact of 9/11. A lot of this started with 9/11. I was in the U.S. when that happened, and there was an incredible shock to the United States, a traumatic, emotional response where people saw this violence and then just heard people talking about “Allahu Akbar” in Islamic and Arab terms, and people assumed everything was done by religion. And then later when things started deteriorating in the region, you started seeing Sunnis and Shiites actually killing each other, blowing up their mosques. All of this – the blowing up of the mosques and the Sunni-Shiite tensions, the violence – really started after the American-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. So there's a bunch of different things that came together. And also you have some groups in the United States who actively demonize Arabs and Muslims for various reasons in the media and political circles. And all of this has come together, but the reality is that the religious dimension is a surface manifestation of deeper political problems. And the best analogy I give is the American Civil Rights movement, which was led by churches and preachers and the churches were where people organized and marched because the church was the only thing available to them; the political system wasn't open to black people or white people who wanted full rights for everybody. And the same in the Arab World, where people couldn't bring about the changes they wanted through the political system, it wasn't open, and religion was the last thing left to them, and then a few people became radical extremists for various reasons. And so it's understandable that people might see us purely in religious terms and in violent terms, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of [Sunnis] and Shiites in the Arab World get along quite fine at the local level. They intermarry, they have businesses together, they go to school together, they play sports. But at the political leadership level we have a real problem. And part of this was deliberately instigated by some radical Sunnis like Al-Qaeda and others, who started the process of attacking Shiites, and then they attacked back and then this is where we are. So the best thing for Americans and foreign people to do is, I think, see what is the dominant consensus in the region and what are the processes that people in the region are trying to achieve to bring about a decent society that Americans would feel is one they could support. And that's very difficult to do now in this condition. The worst thing is for Americans, which they’ve often done – and British and others – is to go in there with their guns and their armies because that always creates chaos. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was one of the biggest drivers of the violence that we have today and the chaos. So people should be very careful about using their military abroad.

GRILLOT: Well, Rami, thank you so much for being with us on World Views today and providing this really important historical and contemporary insight into what's going on in the Middle East. Thank you so much.

KHOURI: Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.

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