Rami G. Khouri is the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, as well as a columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. He is a highly regarded commentator on Middle Eastern affairs and often appears on outlets such as NPR, Al Jazeera, and the BBC, among others.
While in San Francisco in June to speak on the events in Syria, Khouri sat down with filmmaker David Zlutnick to discuss the Arab uprisings and their involvement of and effects on external actors – including events in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and elsewhere. What follows is an edited transcript of the full interview. An eight-minute edited selection of the video can be viewed at the filmmaker’s web site, Upheaval Productions.
DZ: What motivations do you believe are guiding the policies of international actors attempting to navigate the Arab uprisings, in the Middle East as well as in the West?
RK: Well, every international actor has its own motivations. It’s mostly their strategic interests, or sometimes it’s personal dislikes against leaders – sometimes things get personal between leaders in the Middle East – sometimes it’s material interests like access to markets, and sometimes its geopolitical interests like trying to overthrow Assad because they really want to weaken the link with Iran, for instance, or Hezbollah. So, there’s different reasons but they’re always political self-interest in the end.
How should the US be approaching events in –
The US government?
The US government, yes – American foreign policy. What are some of the principles that should be guiding the way the US attempts to navigate these events in the Middle East and North Africa?
I would first of all say that the US should be supportive of any democratic movement anywhere in the world, whether it’s Myanmar, or North Korea, or Ukraine, or Bahrain, or Syria – anywhere in the world the US should firmly be supporting the right of the people to demonstrate, speak freely, to have political rights, and to live in democratic and accountable systems. And they should not make exceptions. So that’s one thing: to be consistent and support democratic change. The second thing is to understand the limits of what America can do. America is deeply criticized by most people in the Arab world because of what it does in the region – because of its anti-Iran policy, its pro-Israeli policy, its anti-Islamist policy, its support of dictators for many years – there’s many, many things the United States has done which have caused the US to be widely criticized across most of the Arab world. And not just in the Arab world, but also in Turkey and in Iran and in other places. So, I think the US should understand it has very limited ability to do anything in these Arab transitions and these uprisings.
What it can do is be humble and make it clear to people who are fighting for their liberty and their democracy that the US is willing to support them, to respond to demands that come from Arab democrats and Arab nationalists who are fighting for their rights, to be supportive. The US should say: We’re ready to help you. If you need help, whether it’s medical aid, you need help with any kind of political transition issues that the US maybe has some expertise that can be useful – one of the areas, for instance, in which the US has a lot of experience is a government system based on multiple tiers, of a federal government, state government, county government and local government. That’s an interesting model that we can learn from in the Middle East. So, as countries set up new political systems, we can learn from other countries’ experiences. So the US can share experiences, share lessons, provide assistance when people ask for it, and that would be the one thing to do.
But anything the US does that has a political or military dimension to it should be done with legitimacy, meaning it has to be done through the UN Security Council or some other body that gives legitimacy to foreign intervention. It should not be unilateral; it should not be the US deciding, “We’re going to give military aid to this group.” Or, “We’re going to try to throw out this leader.” That shouldn’t be done unilaterally.
Israel’s response to the turmoil among its neighbors has generally been to stay largely silent. It’s seemed almost petrified by events, not knowing quite how to react. First, how do you see the Israeli state’s response to the uprisings? And secondly, has this had an affect on the US and its strategy?
I think this is one of the situations where the Israeli position has not been very important for Washington. Usually Israel more or less dictates the American position on issues related to, say, Arab-Israeli things, or Iran. But in this case the Israelis have been confused and perplexed. They don’t really know what to do; they can’t figure out what is the appropriate response; they can’t seem to decide if democracy is good for the Arabs or bad for the Arabs, and if it’s good for Israel or bad for Israel. So, I think they’ve been watching this with some confusion, but in the final analysis, I think the Israelis should understand, you know, they’ve been saying for years, “We’re the only democracy in the Middle East” – presumably democracy’s a good thing – therefore democracy for the Arabs should be a good thing, too. And I think it is. Therefore, I think the Israelis should at some point get off the fence and stop being hypocrites and just say, “We support democratic Arab systems, because democracies can solve their problems peacefully, rather than through war.”
Where do you see Palestinian desires fitting into these developments in the Middle East? What is the future of Palestinians both for those in the occupied territories and those living in states now in such great upheaval?
There’s no direct relationship between the Palestinian issue or the condition of the Palestinians and the Arab uprisings. The Palestinians have been watching this process with great interest, but they haven’t really been part of it. The Arab-Israeli issue has not been a great element or driver of the uprisings directly. Indirectly it’s there, it’s beneath the surface. One of the reasons that people in the Arab world have risen up against their regimes is because they feel these regimes have become so subservient to Israeli or American desires and therefore have put Israel’s interests above the interests of their own people in the Arab world. And that sentiment is clearly there, but it hasn’t really come to the surface very much.
So, the Arab-Israeli issue is one that I think will reemerge. Once you get more democratic Arab systems, hopefully government policies will reflect public opinion. Public opinion in the Arab world is very critical of Israel because of Israel’s colonization, and occupation, and annexation, and mass arrests, and murder, and assassinations, etcetera, etcetera. So all the terrible things that Israel’s been doing in the eyes of the Arab world are reasons to be critical of it, and this criticism will be reflected in more, I think, vigorous Arab political positions vis a vis Israel in the years ahead.
In the future, how does Egypt reassert itself on the regional stage? For a long time it’s taken a back seat; it’s lost a lot of prestige in Arab politics. I know a lot depends on the outcome of internal political battles in the short-term, but nonetheless, where do you see Egypt going in the long run?
Egypt will definitely reclaim its important if not leading position on the Arab stage, that’s for sure – and the Middle Eastern stage as a whole. We’ve already seen hints of this with Israeli-Egyptian relations, with Iranian-Egyptian relations. There’s been little signs here and there that the Egyptian government is not going to be acquiescent to Israeli or American demands, as it had been in the past. And I think Egypt will play a bigger role regionally, but it’s going to take some time for the domestic political situation to stabilize. And dealing with domestic priorities is much more important, especially economic development. But then I think very quickly you’ll see Egypt reassert its role on a regional scale, and it may even be a role where you see some competition between Egypt and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and later maybe Iran and Israel – these are all powerful countries in the region, and they push their – throw their weight around – and therefore it’s possible that Egypt’s role will be one in which it gets into some political battles, peaceful political conflicts with others.
There’s been a lot of tension and unease in Lebanon, where you live, over the past year, occasionally erupting in outbreaks of violence as we’ve seen recently – of course there’s always a lot of tension in Lebanon. The most recent conflicts have been attributed to spillover from Syria – at least that’s how it’s been portrayed in the media here. What is your take on the current atmosphere in Lebanon? Do you see Syria as a catalyst for some of the longer-standing tensions? What can we expect in the coming months, years?
I think it’s true, as you said, that the media in the United States tends to simplistically portray a lot of what’s going on in Lebanon as spillover from Syria. So my first suggestion is, don’t rely on the mainstream American media for your news of what’s going on in the Middle East because it tends to be simplistic, and incomplete, and one-dimensional, and often very ideologically driven – especially if it has anything to do with Israel or Iran or Islamist movements or things like that. I would say that – living in Beirut, Lebanon, as I do – there’s very small extra influence of Syria, or the events in Syria, influencing events in Lebanon – refugee flows, people sending arms across the border, things of that nature – but the conflicts in Lebanon, the tensions among different Lebanese were there before the Syria situation happened. So, the Syria spillover is a very small incremental, extra dose of tension that simply exacerbates some existing situations, but it doesn’t create whole new problems.
The Lebanese, unfortunately, don’t need foreign actors to give them a reason to fight with each other; they do that a lot in Lebanon unfortunately, because of the nature of the [political] system and many other reasons.
So I’m not too worried personally about the international or regional spillover affect from Syria or other places in the region. The problems in Lebanon are local, internal, and have to do with existing things like Arab-Israeli issues, Hezbollah’s relations with Iran, Saudi support of Lebanese groups. These are regional tensions that already are manifested by local actors in Lebanon.
There was much initial hope after the Arab uprisings began, but now much of the news coming out of the Middle East and North Africa is not nearly as optimistic. What is your perception of the ongoing course of the Arab uprisings, and does the current trajectory still make you hopeful for their future?
Absolutely. I think it is hopeful. I think there is turmoil; there is regression here and there; there is instability. But this is the nature of this process. You’ve had regimes that have been run by tyrants from 40 to 60 years. You’ve had the Egyptian military running Egypt – actually running it into the ground – for 60 years. You’ve had 42 years of Assad family rule in Syria. These systems are not ones that change quickly and easily within a span of a few months. So, the transition is, by nature, slow, messy, erratic, but it’s mostly – where the transitions have started, such as Tunisia, such as Egypt, Yemen, to some extent – they’ve been largely peaceful and run according to democratic contestation rules. So I’m very hopeful. I think this is about as good as we can expect. We shouldn’t expect instant democracy.
The United States, 230 years after independence, is still debating the role of religion in public life, is still debating issues that are contested between state power and federal power. So, you know, these issues are not decided quickly. They take centuries in some cases to achieve some kind of national consensus. And I think we should understand that the transition is going to be messy and it’s going to take time, and it’ll have forward movement and a little bit of backward movement, but the overall trend is moving towards the reconfiguration and re-legitimization of political systems by their own people, and that’s the important thing that’s happening. Arab people are acting like citizens who have rights, and they are shaping and configuring and defining new systems of government that define how power is exercised. And that’s something that’s very hopeful and I think it will continue for years to come.
Is there anything you think we missed that you want to touch on before we wrap up?
I think one critical issue that has to be dealt with all across the region is really the issue of the role of the military. This is the biggest problem that we’ve had for the last 60 years, which is Arab military, police, security, armies and intelligence agencies manipulating governments, taking over governments, running entire countries. And this has been the real fundamental, foundational problem in our region. So I think you have to keep an eye on the relationship between the military and the civilian governments. That has to be defined in a way where the civilian authorities ultimately have oversight over the military. And that takes a long time.