Will the guns ever fall silent in the Middle East? Prospects for peace, democracy and development
MISTRA's 4th Annual Lecture
by Rami Khouri
21 September 2015
It’s a real honor to be invited by MISTRA to give this annual lecture, and I am most grateful for this opportunity. I am humbled by the predecessors who have given this talk. My wife and I are both deeply humbled to be on the soil of South Africa, which remains for the world a great symbol of struggle and success.
But with South Africa I am also humbled to be sharing the continuing quest that we all share for genuine social justice, full equality, sustained economic growth, and stable, satisfying, and equitable statehood. This is a challenge that all of us face. South Africa has made this incredible leap forward in the battle for equality and freedom for all of its people; but the struggle for economic and social justice and other aspects of statehood continues, and we share the struggle, all of us together. The Middle East is a particularly strong example of troubles in many different forms, in many different countries, and for many different reasons, so I hope that I can share with you a few thoughts about why the Middle East is so violent and turbulent, particularly the Arab world, because really the problems we’re talking about are mostly in the Arab world. The non-Arab Middle East — Israel, Turkey, Iran — certainly have challenges and issues, but the real problems, the violence, the instability, the fragmentation, the extremism, are mostly taking place in Arab countries, and I will try to give you some analysis and explanations about that.
I would also add that this is clearly a situation where institutes like MISTRA and my institute, the Issam Fares Institute for Pubic Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and many others here and in the Middle East, really need to share notes and experiences, and work together to fully understand the universal dynamics that define much of what is happening in both of our worlds, in both of our regions. I’m sure that by greater exchanges of researchers, of analysts, of political activists, of public policy officials, that we can gain great insights into the experiences that we’ve each had, and therefore perhaps contribute to finding those elusive solutions that we all seek.
I want to first note that what is happening in the Middle East and the Arab world, seen from the outside, seems extremely violent, very confusing, quite tumultuous, almost irrational, but the reality is that most of the 370 million Arabs, I maybe 300 million of them, are not at war, are not refugees, are not terrorists, are not extremists; that the vast majority of Arabs wake up every day and go to school, go to work, go to the playground, go shopping, go to the mosque, go to the church, go visit friends, and go home and go to sleep, and then do it again the next day. There is a paradox in the Arab world of great violence, turmoil, extremism and fanaticism at the same time as a stunning normality of a daily routine of life that shapes the condition of several hundred million human beings. This stunning routine, normal daily life has been going on not just in their lifetimes, but probably since the third millennium BC in the Early Bronze Age, when all of this story of urban life and nationhood started to take shape in our part of the world, and has developed ever since then.
So there is this paradox of terrible violence along with stunning normality, but what is happening is that, after a rather calamitous century, we have come to the point where there is a great reckoning and a great reconfiguration starting to take place. It’s one of these epic historical developments that happens maybe once every century, once every two centuries. You went through it in the last 40 years. We are just starting to go through something that should be marked in historical terms with similar criteria of a great historical and epic reckoning, a coming to terms with the problems, but also the promise of our society, and a situation where hundreds of millions of people are essentially affirming not only that they have the rights as human beings to live in decent societies and to be treated decently by their own political power structure as well as by foreign powers, not only do they have that right, but they also have the capacity to bring that about — through political engagement, civic engagement, economic activity, social interaction, cultural expression, and human solidarity, and this mass sentiment is unprecedented in the Arab world.
The most dramatic example of this started four and a half years ago in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid in southwestern Tunisia where a fruit and vegetable seller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and killed himself. He did so because within the span of a few hours the two official representatives of his own Tunisian government, the police and the governor’s office, within a few hours in his own rural town, they treated him like a piece of dirt. They made it clear to him that he had no rights, he had no voice, he had no possibility of seeking a redress of grievance. When the police officer overturned his fruit and vegetable cart and he couldn’t sell his goods and make money to keep his family alive and his sisters in school, he had no way to make a living anymore. His right to life was suddenly suspended by the unilateral act of a local police officer’s whimsical act. He went to complain to the governor’s office and the governor’s office told him to go away, there’s nobody there. Of course the governor was there and people were there, but they told him just go away, there’s nobody to talk to you. So he was treated like an invisible man in his own society, without voice or rights. Spontaneously, demonstrations erupted in rural Tunisia, then in Tunis the capital, then across the Arab world, and within the span of a few weeks millions of people were out on the street in seven or eight different Arab countries. But several hundred million other Arabs were following this on television, following it with great excitement, because they also had a great connection to the pain that Mohamed Bouazizi felt, a pain so intense that he decided to take his own life. We don’t know if he took his own life simply as a gesture of desperation because that there was no more meaning to life and he wanted just to ease his pain; or maybe he was making the most powerful gesture of human self-assertion ever in the history of the Arab world, where one solitary man sets himself on fire and ignites the biggest uprising of political self-assertion ever experienced in Arab history, in all of Arab history, where hundreds of millions of people were emotionally connected to those people who were out demonstrating in the street.
That one man with one gesture — like Martin Luther King, like Rosa Parks, like Lech Walesa, like Steve Biko, like Nelson Mandela, like Mahatma Gandhi, like many individuals around the world where one person undertakes a gesture, makes a demonstration of their human self-assertion and their humanity, and their rights as humans and as citizens of a state — that one gesture ignites a mass following by millions of other people who understand the pain that that one person was feeling and that that person refuses to acquiesce anymore in his or her own humiliation and dehumanization by his or her own society, not by foreign invaders or colonizers or attackers, but by their own society.
That’s what happened on December 17th, 2010 when hundreds of millions of people across the Arab world emotionally expressed this great uprising, which was a critical turning point in modern Arab history where people were saying, “I have rights and I insist on exercising those rights, and I have the capacity to bring about those rights,” by peaceful demonstrations initially for the most part. Four and a half years later those uprisings have not given us the promise that we expected. Tunisia is the only country that has made a transition to a constitutional, democratic, pluralistic, republican, participatory and accountable form of government.
To read more, download PDF of lecture: Rami Khouri Annual Lecture 2015 final.pdf
* Rami G Khouri is a Senior Public Policy Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for
Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut. He is a Columnist and Editor at large at The
Daily Star newspaper, Beirut, Lebanon and author of A View from the Arab
World, an internationally syndicated political column. He is an author of books, and newspaper and
magazine articles, and a lecturer in media & politics at the American University
of Beirut, Northeastern University. He
is a non-resident senior fellow at the JFK School of Government at Harvard
University. And is a frequent
analyst/commentator on current affairs on BBC radio and television, CNN, NPR,
Al-Jazeera International, and other leading international media.