By David Barsamian
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An interview with Rami Khouri
November 2009 By David Barsamian
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Rami Khouri is a well-known journalist in the Middle East. Based in Beirut, Lebanon, he is editor-at-large of the Daily Star. His articles are syndicated in major newspapers around the world. He is also the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and recipient of the Pax Christi International Peace Award for his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
BARSAMIAN: September 1 marked the 40th anniversary of Colonel Qaddafi’s overthrow of King Idris in Libya. It was a big event, but in an op-ed in the Daily Star you said there was “nothing to celebrate.”
KHOURI: Qaddafi is worth analyzing, largely negatively, because of the fact that he’s been there for 40 years, he and his group of rulers, and they have no mechanism of accountability. It’s a completely security-run state—most of the Arab world is like that.
What is doubly tragic about Libya is that Libya has done virtually everything wrong that a state and a leadership could do and has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars. This is an oil country with huge resources, a very small population, about 6 million now, and is a catastrophe in terms of human rights, governance, accountability, development, and equity. The place is a mess. The whole world makes fun of it. It’s been indicted for terrorism, it’s been sanctioned, it’s fought wars with its neighbors, it’s had borders repeatedly closed. It’s a great tragedy, because the Libyans, like all Arabs, are smart, wonderful, funny, great people who suffer mediocre leadership and poor statehood.
In that same Daily Star piece, you comment that Libya is “the most severe example of a management style that has made underachievement the hallmark of the modern Arab world.” Can you with confidence make that jump from Libya, which is a fairly easy target to disparage, to the broad Arab world, from Iraq to Morocco?
Yes, you can make that jump. Not every Arab country is a terrible police state, not every Arab country is riddled with corruption and human talent that is wasted. It’s a question of degrees. But every single Arab country, without exception, has underachieved. Not a single Arab country has a credible system of democratic, accountable governance. Nowhere do you have clearly defined citizenship rights, clearly articulated divisions between public money and the private money of the rulers. Nowhere do you have in the Arab world a mechanism whereby, for instance, the security services are under civilian oversight. So you have throughout the entire Arab world, with no exception, severe distortions in government systems, which create waste, corruption, inefficiency, and, broadly, mediocrity.
You say that common to the entire region is the lack of freedom for the ordinary citizen. Let me challenge you on that. We’re sitting here at the American University of Beirut, we’re having a conversation, no one is interfering with us. You write for the Daily Star. I give lectures here, you lecture here. Is Lebanon the exception to this scenario?
Lebanon has the most free press and the most access to information in the private sector. It’s the most dynamic country in terms of knowledge production: it has the best universities, the best research centers, the best theater, the best arts. The reason for that is because it has the most freedom. But you don’t have a government system here that gives the individual citizen a sense of empowerment. What you have is people who are dissatisfied, who complain about a political system that is electoral in nature except that it doesn’t matter who you vote for because decisions are made by elites who share the pie according to a constitutional formula that gives every denomination or tribal or ethnic group a share of power. Therefore, you have a distorted electoral democratic system. But it’s certainly, I think, the best place to live in the Arab world. You do have this incredible creativity, but you also have huge cultural, religious security and other forms of constraints.
What kind of influence does Iran exert in Lebanon, particularly among the Shi’a here, Hezbollah?
Iran has a strong influence among Hezbollah and some Shi’ites, not all of them.
Do you see that as a positive thing?
The Iranian role and influence with Hezbollah has to be judged separately from the phenomenon of Hezbollah, because the Hezbollah phenomenon predates the Iranian influence. You had groups that came together to form Hezbollah in the early 1980s, but that process of Shi’ite empowerment and self-assertion goes back to the late 1960s and needs to be analyzed separately. The Iranian involvement will end one day, or will slow down, will be reduced. The Shi’ite empowerment, the Shi’ite self-assertion represented by Hezbollah, Amal, or anything else, will continue. I think that has to be understood. We shouldn’t just look at Hezbollah and see Iran.
This connection between Hezbollah and Iran, is it ideological or theological?
I think it’s more ideological. Some people emphasize the religious dimension. I don’t particularly. Hezbollah grew for many reasons, one of which was strong Iranian support from the beginning—organization, money, arms, etc. Clearly, Iran had a huge role to play in getting Hezbollah moving and helping it become what it is today. Hezbollah’s success, in many ways, is the only successful export of the Iranian revolution, at one level. I don’t think it’s theological. I think it’s political, it’s national.
The Iranian leadership sees Hezbollah as protecting Iran and projecting its influence. This is what alliances are made of. What is the American relationship to South Korea? It’s not just to have improved engines in your mini cars. That’s part of it, but it’s about mutual strategic interests. You help each other in different ways. Of course, the theological is there as well. Iran works with Hezbollah because Hezbollah is Shi’ite and the Shi’ites were badly treated in Lebanon for a long time. As they picked themselves up, they looked for partners and it was natural to have Iran as a partner. Although, Hezbollah gets support from Syria as well. And Syria is Arab, Sunni, and Alawite. So the theological element, I think, is really quite minor. But this is debatable.
Six decades on, the question of Palestine remains unresolved after countless Camp Davids, Oslos, Annapolises, Wye Rivers, road maps, peace processes. Nothing happens.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is the last major remnant of the colonial wars of the 19th century. It’s the last big anti-colonial liberation struggle. The Palestinians have defined it, not in terms of destroying Israel, but coming to terms with it and coexisting with it. The majority of Palestinians have accepted this now. But they still struggle against what they see as Zionist colonialism, supported by the West. The Israelis don’t see it that way, but this is how most of the people in the Arab world and Palestine see it. It persists because it is such a virulent kind of contest. It’s not just people who don’t like each other. This isn’t Republicans and Democrats in the Senate in the U.S. This is much deeper. It’s a real struggle for existential survival. It’s an anti-colonial struggle.
Both people feel that if they lose, they’re going to be wiped out, which is probably exaggerated, but neither side can take the risk because the Israelis—remember that there was an attempt to wipe out the Jews in Europe by Christian Europeans—can’t take chances. And the Palestinians have already had their natural community wiped out. They weren’t all killed, but the integrity of their national community was devastated and shattered and half the Palestinians in 1947-48 became refugees and exiled.
That’s why you need a third-party mediator to help them achieve peace. I think peace is achievable now, when it wasn’t 30 or 40 years ago. Both sides have changed a lot. Public opinions have changed. I think partly it’s weariness; you get tired of fighting. But more importantly, I think people on both sides have understood that fighting alone is not going to end this conflict. You need to solve it politically, as most people have realized in situations of equal intensity, like Northern Ireland or South Africa. Maybe we’re seeing some of it with the Obama administration. It’s too early to tell.
The number of Israeli settlers continues to increase to as high as half a million. Annexation of land continues. The so-called security barrier has enclosed another 10 percent of Palestinian land. Given that backdrop, how could Palestinians feel confident that what they’re being offered won’t be some kind of bantustan?
Palestinians are not confident. This is a big problem. They can’t just go into a negotiation now on the basis of promises, which they did 4 or 5 times in the last 20 years. Every time they’ve been disappointed. So you have a much tougher Palestinian position, even by Mahmoud Abbas, the president, who is widely discredited.
I think the Palestinians are tougher negotiators today, but they’re not better negotiators. The Palestinian leadership has been totally derelict in mobilizing and harnessing the own people, the Arab world, and the entire rest of the world. And, of course, they’re badly split, Hamas and Fatah.
So this is not a propitious time for peace making. But you still have, I think, a majority of Palestinians, in public opinion polls and in other ways, who express a willingness to negotiate and co-exist with Israel, but only if Palestinian rights are achieved.
Getting back to this whole idea of elections, championed by Washington and Europe, the road to democracy, you have an election where Palestinians vote for Hamas, an Islamic formation, and the West is saying, no, this election doesn’t count.
This is one of the problems now. When democratic pluralism is exercised for the Palestinians and the Israelis don’t like the results, they get the Americans to object to them. You get the Americans looking like fools, proclaiming that they’re fighting for freedom and democracy around the world, but denying it when the results are not to their liking and that of Israel.
It’s a really dark moment in the history of American democracy and foreign policy. The U.S. has paid the price for this. In the last two or three years of the Bush administration, the U.S. was widely ignored and derided all around the Middle East and the world. Nobody paid attention to them. Condoleezza Rice came and gave parties and nobody went except security chiefs.
Talk about the late December 2008 and January 2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, which resulted in 1,400 deaths of Palestinians and a handful of Israelis. It was framed in the United States as Qassam rockets were being launched from Gaza onto Israel, damaging homes, wounding people in some instances, and in very few instances, killing people, that no state could tolerate this kind of attack. Obama went to Israel during the campaign and said, “If my daughters were sleeping here and were being rocketed, I would certainly defend them.” Was it seen differently here?
It’s seen very differently in the Arab world and, I would say, around the world, because there was huge international criticism of Israel everywhere. There was massive suffering going on in Gaza because of the Israeli siege. There were attacks by Israelis, bombings. They were kidnapping members of Parliament from Palestine and putting them in jail. Ten thousand Palestinians were in Israeli jails, many of them not charged with anything. Israel was blockading Gaza, letting in only simple, basic items.
There was stunting of children in Gaza; in other words, they’re shorter than they should be for their age. Stunting doesn’t happen after a month or two. It happens after two or three years of insufficient protein and other things. Therefore, you had this extraordinary cumulative series of belligerent acts by the Israelis against the Palestinians in Gaza, which caused the Palestinians and Hamas to resist. Therefore, you have a war between two belligerent parties.
The problem is that the Israelis are much stronger militarily and they were able to wreak havoc all over the place. The attacks of the little projectiles—they’re not really rockets, these Qassam things used by the Palestinians. They’re like large firecrackers. They’re about two to three feet long and they’re made in a garage. They’re kind of like the things that people used to buy in a chemistry shop in the U.S. and set off in your backyard. The reality is that these projectiles have killed, I think, two or three Israelis in the last 10 years. But they traumatize the Israelis. And that’s what they’re supposed to do.
You have to see it as a conflict between two sides, but the Israelis exercised military power almost with no restraint for the first couple of weeks. But in the end they had to accept a cease fire because what’s important in this case was the capacity or the willingness of the Palestinians to take the Israeli beating and resist and keep firing these rinky-dink projectiles, these large firecrackers, into southern Israel, as a sign of defiance, if nothing else.
Was neighboring Egypt colluding with Israel?
Egypt is in a very difficult position because it has a peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptians and the Jordanians to some extent have the same tensions. Their peace treaty with Israel is important to them for many reasons, partly because it keeps the Americans happy and partly because it keeps them out of war. And they have to abide by the dictates of those treaties. One of the dictates for the Egyptians is to keep the Rafah border crossing with Gaza closed and not to do anything that would hurt Israel.
So you can see it as compliance, you can see it as a great act of a law-abiding country that signs a treaty and abides by it. But you can also see it as an act of great pressure on the Palestinians and inhuman cruelty to the Palestinians, who are getting beaten up in this enclosed cage called Gaza and the Egyptians aren’t even letting them out.
I think the Egyptians could have found a better middle ground that allowed them to comply with the treaty with Israel, but also show greater humanitarian and political support to the Palestinians, because in the end the Egyptians and the Palestinians are closer to each other than either of them are to the Israelis.
You’re getting reactions to this from many parts of the Arab world, mostly in the form of Islamist movements that are basically sending the message to their ruling elites, like the Egyptian president and others, saying, “We’re not going to fight you militarily; we’re going to just ignore you.” And you get these Islamist movements that develop huge grass-roots support. And these Islamist movements develop political arms, the Muslim Brotherhood and others, and these movements co-exist with the government, challenge it in parliament, but basically they’re building a parallel society. Hamas did it, Hezbollah did it, the Muslim Brothers and others are doing it.
In Egypt, are there any secular democratic formations to contest the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood?
You have civil society groups, nongovernmental organizations, some political parties, independent media, lawyers’ association, doctors’ association, engineers, some of which are dominated by Islamists, others of which are dominated by nationalists and secularists. There is a variety of groups and movements and sentiments in society, but none of them have any power.
This is the real tragedy of the Arab world, that only the government security-defined ruling elite or the Islamist opposition have been able to sort of assert themselves. At the political level, nobody else matters, really. At one point you could have had labor movements, in Morocco, say, play a role or you could have had professional associations in countries like Jordan or Egypt or other places play a role. But they ended up not being able to do so because of the overwhelming control mechanisms of the security state in the Arab world and the overwhelming mass popularity at the community level of the Islamist movements. The other secular movements, nationalist, socialist, etc., all of them failed. They tried. They never got anywhere, for various reasons.
And now you’re left with the government or the Islamist opposition. They have worked out in most of the Arab world a modus vivendi: they kind of co-exist and each has their terrain. That’s why you see this in places like Lebanon and Palestine. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and the government; in Palestine, Hamas and Fatah. It will take time, but eventually you will get a transition in the Arab world where you will get other forces than the government or the Islamist opposition asserting themselves and developing credibility and mobilizing large numbers of people. But it’s not happening yet.
It seems that there is still this idea in Washington of engineering other societies, that imperial hubris of we know what’s best. I’m talking now about Afghanistan: greatly expanding the military presence in that country, bombing Pakistan. Is it just shifting the exit strategy from Iraq, just moving the troops further to the east?
I think it’s pretty romantic of the United States to think that it can use military force and a whole bunch of other mumbo-jumbo approaches to pacification or development or winning hearts and minds or whatever, to try to remake Afghanistan in the image of a democratic state. I would love Afghanistan and Iraq and all of this region to be democratic, but I know from approximately two and a half thousand years of history that you cannot achieve that goal through the instrument of foreign armies.
So there needs to be a greater appreciation by the U.S. that Afghanistan has a set of local and regional challenges that have to be resolved by those people themselves. The U.S. can play a role. There is always a reasonable, legitimate role for foreign actors, foreign players, but it has to respond to requests from the indigenous people and not be a predatory, military-led kind of intervention.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are both Muslim countries but non-Arab. Are the wars there having any kind of ripple effect here in West Asia?
I think they are, but you have to separate the two communities. I think the ripple effect among the Salafi, militant, terroristic, bin Laden type groups is the most virulent and the most extreme. They use what the U.S. is doing in Iraq and Pakistan and Afghanistan to mobilize new recruits and to have young people join them to carry out acts of terror in what they see as a defensive jihad to protect the Islamic realm from foreign occupation. But among the vast majority of people in the Middle East, say, or the Arab Islamic group, they react negatively, but they don’t go off and do anything about it, partly because they’re not allowed to.
Inside the Arab countries, the ordinary citizen doesn’t have the power and the capacity to act, literally. So you get this kind of passive, almost indolent view of world affairs from many people in the Arab world, simply because this is what they’ve learned, this is how they live. They complain, they make their views heard, but they can’t do anything about it.
Obama’s Cairo speech was hailed in the U.S. as a tremendous opening to the Muslim world.
You have to divide the Cairo speech into different segments. If I were to judge the whole thing, I would give it a C. But I would give it an A for intent. I think the fact that he went to Cairo, made the effort to address what he called the Muslim world, understood that there was a problem, worked to change it. The issues that he articulated, most of them you cannot really argue with very much. I would give him a B+ on most of the actual issues.
But I would give him a D and an F on several areas. One is he was speaking to a phantom audience. There is no such thing as the Muslim world or Islam. He’s trying to speak to a religion, where, in reality, you have individual citizens who are mostly Muslim—some of them, like me, are Christian Arabs—but those complaints are not about religion, they are about politics, citizenship, rights, equality, justice, decency, etc. So I think he exaggerated the religious dimension and downplayed the political dimension.
I think also he made a mistake by too often speaking in the same sentence or paragraph about Islam and terrorism. You can’t do that and expect people to take you seriously, especially if you’re trying to address them as Muslims. There is a lot of confusion in the Obama White House, as in the United States, about the linkages between religion, politics, nationalism, resistance, foreign armies, and international relations.
On the whole I would say it was a positive thing, I welcomed it, simply because he is trying to do something about a problem. But he is not sufficiently admitting that part of the problem is created by American foreign policy. Part of it is created by bad conditions in the Arab, Islamic Asian region, which is largely due to the people of that region but, again, partly due to people of that region interacting with Western powers, like the U.S., creating this cycle of incoherence and violence and tension.
He has to accept that it’s a cycle and accept that the U.S. and Western powers have a role in this, that they’re not completely innocent; that Muslims didn’t suddenly become violent in a whimsical way. They became violent because of a certain modern experience, in the same way that the Black Panthers didn’t just appear out of nowhere, they came out of a historical reality. And the civil rights movement and the African National Congress and the resistance to apartheid all came out of a historical process. The next time he makes a speech like this, he should accept more humbly the American and Western role in the problem he’s trying to solve.
David Barsamian is founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent weekly series based in Boulder, Colorado and the author of numerous books including What We Say Goes: Interviews with Noam Chomsky.
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