This morning I attended a breakfast discussion with Rami Khouri, editor in chief of the Beirut Daily Star. He provided a wonder overview of the situation in the Middle East in all of its complexity. In the Q&A, he stated that "The US has given democracy a bad name in the region." This morning I spoke with Tasneem Chowdhury, a colleague here at the City Design Center, and she said that you have similar situation in Bangladesh, where a caretaker government has suspended elections while it roots out all the corruption. The Bangladeshi people, who she saids will protest at a drop of the hat, are fine with this because getting rid of corruption is more important than the "performance" of democracy through elections. This makes me want to return to the literature on alternative democracies in Anthropology. The form and content of democracy has been propogated as the hegemonic structure of the US, which is turning people off to democracy, because that form is not appropriate for their social relations and sense of political self-expression.
Anyway, below are Rami Khouri's main discussion points. They provide an important view on how American foreign policy is failing.
Mr. Khouri starts with a definition of why he considers the conflicts in the Middle East a new "Cold War." He starts with the fact that with the exception of the disposition of the Shah in Iran, there was little political turbulence in the Middle East between the 1940s and the 1980s. After the end of the Cold War, he argues, "Nation states became less able to provide identity and political participation." In the vacuum of belonging to the state, religion and ethnicity became the way in which people could express their identity and organize for political participation. Thus now, there is a new situation in the Middle East, which he characterizes in 12 ways:
- There are now so many conflicts in the region, that most are linked together in the mind in the Middle East. What distinguishes these conflicts is the prevalence of violence used by states, Islamicist groups, and foreign powers.
- There has been extensive fragmentation of nation states that had been stable since their modern formation. The development of this substates have taken over the security of the nation, such in the case of Hamas and Hezbolla. Palestine and Lebanon have 2 governments. He characterizes Condelezza Rice's activities in the Middle East, "She's doing tribal politics."
- There had been an increasing intrusion of foreign powers in Middle Eastern affairs. He discusses how foreign governments would get involved to protect their citizens and property. But now they are saying how countries should change religion, laws, and human rights. He addressed that their is no fundamental differences in opinion in the Middle East about rule of law, human rights, etc. The main difference is in the area of gender relations. But more importantly, people do not want the imposition of rule of law at "the barrel of the gun of a US marine."
- There has been an end of docility in Arab world. People no longer see sense in going to the media and telling their story. Arab are politically organizing themselves. This is a significant change. They now have an activist sense of public confrontation. This to me is very promising because it means that, contrary to the public media accounts in the US, people in the Middle East already embrace self-determination and political accountability as ideas already.
- The youth and the older generation of Arabs are polarized. The majority of Middle Eastern populations are young, educated, urban, and very very frustrated. The are angered by "the lack of participatory government, the continued Isreali occupation of Arab lands, and constant invasion by Western armies." Own self determination.
- There exists a dangerous security vacuum. There is a region with security embalance in which the 4 major military powers; US, Israel, Turkey, and Iran, are not Arab. There are strong countries like Saudi Arabia, based on economic might, but not security. He states, "There is no way Arabs will accept this." Thus, unless something is done to address this embalance, Islamist movements may emerge as new regional power.
- The new regional cold war camps are divided into two. Camp one consists of the US, Israel, Europe, most of arab countries' governments. Camp two is made up of all the public opinion in Arab countries, Syria, Iran, and the Islamacist movements like Hamas, and Hezbolla. Camp two is defined by the transcendence of previous divides between Syria and the Islamacists for example. Khouri states that what is important to remembers is that both sides are evenly matched in support from the population.
- The stalemate in the Middle East has taken away focus on Arab/Israeli issue and democracy, and thus has created new radical movements. US has little credibiliy in Middle East. Thus the democratic quest has been put on backburner. The events of the last two years have discredited Arab democrats, and also American credibility as well.
- Nuclear weapons proliferation will continue to raise unless the asymmatry in the region is addressed. Israel should not have nuclear weapons and not others. Iran wants and will development nuclear weapons. Others will do so as will.
- There is a wider spill of sectarian conflict around the region.
- There is positive elements. People in the Middle East are interested in peace. There is dynamism in private sector. Business is creating the need for rule of law. A the vast majority have not loss their of humanity. He closes with the 5 needs of people in the Middle East: sovereignty, stability, ability to express identity, legitimacy, and development.
These are what all of us can use.