Rami Khouri Assesses Arab World's Turmoil and Potential

October 11, 2013
By James F. Smith, Belfer Center communications director

Rami G. Khouri, a veteran Middle East journalist and scholar, captured the intense drama of the nearly three-year-old Arab Spring with one statistic: while many recall the self-immolation by Tunisian activist Mohamed Bouazizi on Dec. 17, 2010, as the spark for the uprisings, Khouri noted that no fewer than 65 Arabs set themselves ablaze in the months following Bouazizi’s act to draw attention to grievances across the region.
Khouri, a senior fellow of the Middle East Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told a seminar on Oct. 8 that those personal acts of protest underscore the unprecedented pace and intensity of the Arab uprisings against authoritarian regimes.
Khouri, who is also director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, said Arabs are trying to compress into a couple of years a process of state-building that has taken two centuries in the United States and elsewhere. What’s more, Khouri said, Arabs are trying to achieve this transformation amid severe economic threats, existential environmental challenges, and complex foreign intervention.
Khouri cited several drastic changes in the Arab world since December 2010:

  • Entire citizenries now feel a sense of empowerment and citizenship.
  • The protests have led to the birth of new “public political spheres” where people can compete and debate (even if the rules change almost week to week on what can be discussed).
  • People are engaged in a “heroic struggle to shape a new social contract,” as citizens and authorities in each nation work to find a way to work together that responds to citizens’ rights and expectations.
  • The uprisings have achieved a form of populist legitimacy, anchored in the rule of law but with new forms of governance emerging.

For example, Khouri said, the government of Oman recently made concessions to striking school teachers, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

But in many places nationalism is now caught in a fierce struggle with sub-national identities, Khouri said, especially in the form of sectarian divides. The result is that “these state structures are still thin” because they have never been validated by their own peoples.
Khouri, who lives in Beirut and is a contributing editor to the Daily Star newspaper there, called the Syrian war “the greatest proxy war of all time.” He said the barbarism there is so extreme because those involved see this as an existential battle between “two gladiators fighting in a pit, where one will die and one will live.”
He said the arc across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has become a single ideological unit that is now also “the world’s greatest driver of Salafist terrorism.”
Khouri said the region is living through a spellbinding process that seeks to drive Arab nations toward legitimate constitutions and functioning states that respect the social contract with citizens for the first time. He said he expects that process to succeed in some countries, especially Tunisia where the uprising began. But he said it may fail elsewhere, or sputter along through years of uncertainty.

Rami G. Khouri, senior fellow of the Middle East Initiative

Photo Credit: James F. Smith

Khouri said the arc across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has become a single ideological unit that is now also “the world’s greatest driver of Salafist terrorism.”


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