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Lessons Learned Two Years After The Arab Spring


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For most of this hour, we'll focus on the experiences of mixed-status families and the complications of navigating the gray areas in the shadows of immigration, when one or some are citizens and others are here illegally.

But first we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to visit in person with Rami Khouri, who's often a voice at the end of a phone line in Beirut, where he's editor-at-large of the Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University of Beirut. Rami's on a brief visit to Washington, and he's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Good to see you.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you, Neal, nice to be with you.

CONAN: And I think many listeners know from your accent you've spent a fair amount of time in this country. I know you don't get back all that often these days. What's changed here?

KHOURI: Well, we come back about once a year, generally. What's changed is what's changed all over the world, which is polarization of society, commercialization of society, fragmentation. People are living a little bit in their own groups. And because this is the world's sort of leading free market capitalist free-for-all society, all of these trends get exaggerated.

And then I think you take that into foreign policy, and you get all kinds of other dimensions of this kind of sentiment in American society spilling over into a kind of a feeling that American exceptional traits, the American people and the American system is the best in the world, and a bit of jingoism as well, which wasn't there before.

Some of that is after 9/11, but you know, a lot more flags and a lot more talking about America's mission to do good around the world. You hear it from secretaries of state down to ordinary people. That's new. That wasn't there before.

But there's also pushback to that too. So there's a bit more - I noticed a little bit more serious engagement among people in the - certainly in Washington and policy circles who are talking more about how the U.S. and the world should interact. There wasn't much of that before. It was more the U.S. sort of saying we should do this, this is how it's going to be, we're laying down the law.

So there's changes going on, but these changes are mirrored by changes all over the world. So there's nothing particularly unique about what's going on in the U.S.

CONAN: I remember speaking to you, I think it was about two and a half years ago, and you were reporting on - from one of the most stultified regions in the world, where nothing seemed to change, decades of ossification in the Arab societies around the Middle East. And you now live in one of the most, for better or for worse, dynamic places in the world.

KHOURI: Right. What happened in the Arab world starting on December 17, 2010, is exactly what happened in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, when Rosa Parks wouldn't get up off that bus and the seat. She wouldn't put up with being abused anymore and dehumanized by her own society, not by foreign invaders or colonizers, but by her own society.

And this is the same thing in the Arab world. People put up with five, six decades of autocratic rule, mismanagement, corruption, foreign invasions, colonization, all kinds of terrible things. And they wouldn't put up with it anymore, and there was just a spark that happened in rural Tunisia, (unintelligible) on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi would not put up with being abused A) by the police lady who always threw his vegetable cart and wouldn't let him make money; and B) when he went to the governor's office to complain they told him to go away.

He had no political rights. He had no material rights to make a living. He had no reason to live. He set himself on fire in a macabre protest which was also self-affirmation, that I'm not helpless, I'm not a nobody, I'm not an invisible person. And that set off this incredible chain reaction all across the region, because it just got to that point where millions of people wouldn't put up with being dehumanized.

And they're still in the process of defining what it is they want. That'll take a long time.

CONAN: And clearly in - we see the tumult and the crises in Egypt as new people, new at what they're doing, try to figure out what they're doing. Even the most experienced organization in that country, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was of course in hiding for much of its existence, nevertheless far better organized than any other group in the new Egypt, but still trying to figure out this rather complicated business, as it turns out - governing.

KHOURI: Right. You had two very interesting examples of people who - like the Muslim Brotherhood. You said they were in hiding. They were also mostly in jail. And you had two examples, you had Nelson Mandela, who was in jail for many years, came out and became the president - with great dignity, great generosity to his country and his former foes.

And you had the Muslim Brotherhood, who came out of Egyptian jails and won power and didn't really know how to govern. And we're seeing now the weaknesses of a system in Egypt where the armed forces, the Muslim Brothers, the civil nonsectarian secular opposition groups, nobody has an idea of how to run a democratic system because they've never done it. They've never had a chance.

So they're learning how to do pluralistic, democratic contestation of power. At the same time, they're trying to define their national values. What's the Islam? What's the role of secular values? What's the role of the individual? What's the role of woman compared to men? What's the role of the army versus civilian rule? They're doing all these things at the same time, defining their identity, forming a government system, learning to be democratic.

These are things that most countries do sequentially. In the U.S. you had your constitutional conventions, and then you had your war, and then you created a government, then you had a full Constitution, then 70 years later you had a civil war and then another 50 years later women got the vote, and finally in the '60s black people got the vote.

You did these things one after the other. In Egypt and Tunis, they're defining all this stuff at the same time, and it's really hard to do that. It's really very difficult. That's why it looks so tumultuous. The amount of violence has actually been quite limited in a historical sense. I mean we've had some people die, but compared to, say, the American Civil War or slavery or the American - Native Americans, the deaths in our region have been pretty limited.

But there's also wars - Syria, Libya, other places. So it's a very mixed picture. But the common denominator, I think, is that you've got several hundred million Arab men and women who are saying that the consent of the governed matters, that the citizen has rights, and we want real constitutions. And they're trying to create those with a foundational structure of social justice.

Social justice is the enormous driver of these revolutions, which is almost totally unarticulated and very misunderstood in the West.

CONAN: And it certainly was in Syria. Again, the spark, the death of a small boy.

KHOURI: In Syria you had Hamza Khateeb, the little boy who was tortured and killed, and very badly tortured, 14-year-old kid. And the original outburst of the uprising in Daraa, in south Syria, in March 2011, was when the local government, local police officers there, tortured some young kids who had written some graffiti on the wall, like we want reform. It was something very mild, but little kids who were 10, 12, 14 years old, and they were tortured by the police.

So this kind of misbehavior by a ruling authority against its own people always, always elicits a rebellion and a response.

CONAN: Eventually, yeah.

KHOURI: Eventually.

CONAN: And then you have Syria devolving into what now looks like a sectarian struggle, what's more and more a bitter civil war that does not look like ending anytime soon, and these very - better and better armed gangs emerging on different sides.

KHOURI: Right. I don't think we're at the stage of a full sectarian civil war, but we're certainly moving in the direction of greater sectarianism. The government is pushing this to some extent by doing some ethnic cleansing of villages where there's mixed Alawites and others, and they want to get the Sunnis mostly out.

CONAN: Should they need to retreat to those regions, they want them fully Alawite.

KHOURI: Well, that's one theory. I think the idea of an Alawite state, where Assad and the Alawites can retreat, is not realistic, it wouldn't work, it wouldn't last. But they have to work out some kind of system, ultimately, where all Syrians can live together, which is how they've always done it.

You don't have a history of sectarian tensions in Syria like you do in some other countries. But you never also had a history of real democracy either. So they've never had a chance to work out a democratic system for power-sharing. The Iraqis are going through the same thing right now, huge demonstrations by Sunnis against the Shiite-led government. The Kurds are more or less on their own in the North.

So all of these countries in different ways are dealing with this challenge of how do you create a government system that is representative and inclusive, that makes every citizen feel that they have a say and a stake and the government actually listens to them, while at the same having an efficient system based on some kind of electoral pluralistic politics.

CONAN: And legitimacy.

KHOURI: Well, legitimacy is the ultimate sort of glue that will allow any system that comes into being to last and to persist. And once you have a legitimate system with the consent of the governed, then you have the chance to achieve the final goals, which are true national self-determination, in other words the people themselves, the citizens shape their institutions, and the ultimate goal, which is real sovereignty.

CONAN: Why, though, have all the places that have changed regimes - Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria - secular governments. At least so far, and I haven't checked the wires for Jordan lately, but none of the monarchies.

KHOURI: You've had some agitation, some citizen activism in the monarchies. You've had petitions. You've had people openly challenging the king, but not to overthrown them. Demanding reforms, demanding less corruption, more accountability, more representative government. In Jordan you've had a serious movement of protests but not out of control and not asking for the overthrow of the king.

The king responded with some reforms. The king of Morocco did the same. In Kuwait - the most interesting place in my mind in the Arab world today is Kuwait, which is a very small, very wealthy country where the citizens have everything they want virtually for free - schooling, housing, education, medical care, whatever. Every citizen gets a guaranteed government job if they want.

And it's in Kuwait where you have thousands of people now for the last three months, four months, have been out in the street demonstrating. Again, they're not calling for the overthrow of the regime, but they're publicly calling out the emir's name, saying we will not let you run an autocratic system and abuse power. They want more representation, the more equitable representation of parliament, less corruption and more citizen involvement or engagement in public life.

They haven't articulated their demands very clearly, but these are - this is what they're talking about. They just want to feel that they're not, they're not simply living in a shopping mall where they can go and buy six cell phones and have no other rights. They have rights more than material rights, that's what they're saying.

So Kuwait is fascinating because it's wealthy, the government gives them everything, and they're still out there demonstrating for political change. And I think these sentiments run throughout the whole region, including Saudi Arabia and other places, to some extent. None of them are revolutionary in the monarchies, but none of the citizens of these countries either will accept total and permanent acquiescence in the existing power structure.

CONAN: I know you're on your way from here back to the airport and back home, and I don't mean to send you there early, but a report today from the Bulgarian investigation into that terrible bombing, and, well, clearly that's going to be a development that's going to be - we're going to keep an eye on.

Rami Khouri, thank you very much for your time today. Have a safe travel back to Beirut.

KHOURI: Thank you, Neal. Good to be with you.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, the editor-at-large for the Daily Star and the Issam Fares Center at the American University of Beirut, with us here in Studio 3A. We'll be talking to him again on the phone. Stay with us. When we come back, we're going to be talking about mixed-status families. If that's you, give us a call. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.