While focus on the Arab uprisings centers on the democratic setbacks that have followed the bursts of change in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria – among other countries – the current discussion largely misses the most important shift in the region: the emergence of a new conception of citizenship in the Arab world.
“There is a public, political sphere where citizens are actively trying to put together a constitution which charts out a new social contract,” says Rami Khouri, political commentator and Director of the Issam Fares Center for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
Khouri, who is also a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute at Harvard’s Belfer Center, as well as Editor at large for the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, recently sat down for an interview with Al Nakhlah, to discuss the current state of the Arab uprisings.
“This is completely unprecedented,” Khouri continues. “People feel like citizens. [They] feel like they have rights and feel that they have the capacity to bring about actual implementation of those rights. They are no longer weak, helpless, passive, quiescent, silent consumers, which is what they were before.
“This is the birth of Arab citizenship.”
Khouri identifies three emerging, popular demands common across the different domestic contexts of Arab counties: citizenship under the rule of law, constitutional reform and social justice. While the manifestation and character of these demands vary from Yemen to Egypt to Morocco, he believes they constitute a shift in consciousness that cannot be reversed, even if the democratic transitions themselves stall.
“Every Arab country now is in a situation where individual citizens are no longer afraid to speak their mind. They may only do it on Twitter or Facebook, they may only scrawl on the walls at night, but they all express their views. They’re not afraid of the retributive punishment that the regime can exercise on them, and this is new.”
Khouri calls this “citizen sovereignty” a foundational development and draws hope from this shift in places like Egypt, where other commentators are decrying the July military takeover and Mohamed Morsi’s ouster as the end of Egypt’s democratic transition.
Khouri cautions against prematurely pronouncing the death of Egyptian democracy; rather, he sees the military takeover as a temporary compromise in favor of stability and material security, at the expense of democratic rights.
“In the early stages of the uprisings, people were more concerned about their rights and less concerned about slowing down the economy…People put up with that because of their insistence on implementing their rights as citizens was greater,” Khouri maintains.
“This balance between sacrificing social and economic services is the critical balance that will always determine which way these countries are moving.”
Once the Egyptian streets and economy have stabilized, the desire for political representation and rights will reassert themselves and encourage Egyptians to look for new political leadership: “The same reasons that caused [Egyptians] to revolt in the first place are still there. It’s a shift in the consciousness…and [Egyptians] don’t want to be ruled by the military who constrains their freedoms and their options in life.”
A longer-term view will see popular sovereignty reassert itself in Egypt, Khouri believes.
“Ultimately it is the sentiment of large numbers of Egyptian people that will determine what is an acceptable political condition and what is not acceptable. The army was not acceptable two and a half years ago and the Muslim Brothers were not acceptable four months ago. We’ll see what is acceptable three or four months down the road.”
Beyond the case of Egypt, Khouri warns against a tendency to pre-judge the outcomes of the uprisings in the Arab world. The expectation that any of these countries can achieve a successful transition from autocracy to democracy, while writing new constitutions and addressing issues of identity within a year or two is unreasonable. As Khouri points, out, it took the United States more than 150 years – which included a devastating civil war – to consolidate its democratic process and ensure equal rights for all citizens.
“We’re addressing issues of identity. What is the role of Islam in the constitution? What is the role of shari’a in the legislation of laws? These are really big sticker items that countries debate for decades and decades: religious issues versus secular issues, the role of women, the freedom of the press, the rights of the central government versus the regional provinces, the balance between military and civilian rule.
“I think we need to recognize that context of daring, epic, historic audacity. It’s heroic in its dimensions, but it’s also very chaotic.”
This is further complicated by a lack of prior experience with pluralistic, representative governance in Arab countries.
“This is one of the reasons why this process is so cumbersome and so erratic, because nobody in Egypt or Tunisia has any experience in democratic, constitutional government,” explains Khouri. “They don’t know how to get together and achieve a compromise on a bill in parliament. They don’t know how to craft policies that actually reflect popular sentiment and respond to popular expectations. It’s an on-the-job learning process.”
Khouri argues that adjusting to a real, pluralistic society will take time. The parliaments under Mubarak and Tunisia’s ousted dictator, Ben Ali, merely served as rubber stamps, where a controlled level of opposition was allowed, but only for show: “These opposing viewpoints had no possibility of ever changing the political power structure or the policies of the state and, therefore, people didn’t really have to get used to opposing opinions and learn how to compromise, how to negotiate, or how to achieve consensus,” Khouri points out.
Political actors in these transitioning countries will have to fail and learn from these failures in order to give nascent, representative systems a chance to succeed.
“Presumably, everybody has learned from the last couple of years in terms of the failure of the Muslim Brothers, the failure of the non-Islamist opposition, the failure of the military regimes and the failure of the old guard…So from where is the success finally going to come? It’s got to come from the people from within these failed entities who learned the lessons, [who] come back and try again.”
Rami Khouri is a Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. citizen whose family resides in Beirut and Nazareth. He 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 an internationally syndicated political columnist and book author, and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Dubai School of Government. He has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, Syracuse, Tufts, Mt. Holyoke and Northeastern universities, and in November 2006 he was the co-recipient of the Pax Christi International Peace Award for his efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to the Middle East.
FURTHER READING: Below are excerpts from the interview with Rami Khouri
On the Emergence of the Arab Citizen:
My perception is that in the last two years and ten months since this started, I think there’s a series of clear things that have happened that I think we can say are significant, new and probably lasting. These include the birth of what I call the Arab citizen, people feel like citizens, feel like they have rights and feel that they have the capacity to bring about actual implementation of those rights. They are no longer weak, helpless, passive, quiescent, silent consumers, which is what they were before. They’re now citizens and they want certain things. They see these as rights – they are not privileges, not gifts from the great leader. They are rights and they want those rights implemented. This is the birth of citizenship, as active citizens who work for their rights.
Every Arab country now is in a situation where individual citizens are no longer afraid to speak their mind. They may only do it on Twitter or Facebook, they may only scrawl on the walls at night, but they all express their views. They don’t hesitate to criticize the leadership.
On the Progress of Reform in the Arab World:
Writing a constitution from scratch is a very complex thing. It took the American revolution 13 years, from 1776 to 1789 to actually get a working constitution. They started with one that turned out to be a dud and then they revised it to make a bunch of new amendments to it. So it took years for this beacon of democracy to come up with a working constitution. Then of course, they didn’t give blacks the vote or women the vote – it was a very deficient document, woefully deficient in terms of equal human rights. But those issues were addressed a century and a century and a half later and women and blacks were given the vote.
People are actually trying, in this public sphere, to forge consensus on constitutions that address their core, big sticker items of governance, accountability, power, legitimacy, identity, secularism, religiosity, gender, regionalism and every item you can think of. They’re trying to do this all at once.
Tunisia vs. Egypt
I think the issue of learning to be pluralistic in a civil way is a huge, huge challenge for these societies. They’ve never done it, they don’t know how to do it and they’ve made mistakes. Tunisia is better than Egypt. If you look at the Tunisian experience, it’s much better, they’ve had disagreements but they’ve tended always to work them out, partly because the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, are more sophisticated, more nuanced than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because they’ve tended to spend most of the last thirty years living in London rather than living in an Egyptian jail. You see the difference – they’re more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan. And the nature of Tunisian society seems to also have a longer secular tradition. The Islamist element is slightly softer and more cosmopolitan. So you have different conditions in different areas. In Libya, the Islamists did very poorly in the elections. The tribalists are much stronger.
On Building Political Skills
It happens by people creating institutions – you can start with an NGO, you can start with a newspaper, you can start with a charitable society, a political party, whatever you want – and then slowly you build up an institutional capacity that essentially does three things. It reflects sentiments of your constituents, it provides services through the government system to the citizens as a whole, not just your constituents but to make the government as a whole better, and the third thing is to act as an element in the system of checks and balances.
On the Challenges for Egypt:
Right now there’s a lot of people supporting the army, but that’s mainly because they want to end the chaos. They want to get gasoline. They want to get bread delivered on time. They want to be able to walk in the street and not get harassed. So that’s a short term reflexive resort to supporting anybody who will calm things down and make it feel like you can get on with your life in a normal way. So people are sacrificing the swift, democratic transition for the other parts of their life, which is the material rights – to be able to have security, food, social services, jobs, get the economy moving. This balance between sacrificing social and economic services is the critical balance that will always determine which way these countries are moving
I feel that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians who went out into the streets repeatedly in the last two years and ten months, that they don’t want the military to rule and they don’t want the Muslim Brothers to rule. They’ve seen both and they’re not happy with either of them. Both of them were failures. The military ruled for 60 years and they produced the catastrophe that is contemporary Egypt: a mediocre, backwater, stagnant, inefficient, corrupt, devastated society.
On Political Reconciliation
And they’ve also experienced a year of Muslim Brotherhood leadership and it was a catastrophe: incompetent, mediocre, thuggish, brutish, total failure on every dimension. They couldn’t deliver services, they could improve the economy, they couldn’t create a national consensus. They tried to ram through a constitution. They put their cronies everywhere they could. At every level they were a failure, to such an extent that they generated this massive response from the Tamarrod – the popular grassroots movement – and finally the army came in.
The banning of the Muslim Brotherhood by the military government is a ridiculous overreach. It’s an expression of panic and it’s really over the top. If there really are specific problems that people have with the Muslim Brothers – if they accuse them of violence or rigging elections – then fine, take them to court, but banning them altogether is really a hasty and unrealistic move. The Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of supporters.
You need to have a process by which all legitimate Egyptian actors can participate in the political process, that includes old-guard people, pro-Mubarak people, army people, Muslim Brothers, salafis, leftists, communists, everybody who is not a criminal should be allowed to participate in the political system. That has to be the consequence of some kind of reconciliation and consensus, which hasn’t happened yet and is not going to happen under the present transitional government. There needs to be a new mechanism, and it could be some kind of transitional justice mechanism, where people from within Egypt, maybe with the assistance of people outside who have experience with this, come up with a forum where the army and the Muslim Brothers and everybody else can meet and agree on a new process.
Now, presumably, everybody has learned from the last couple of years in terms of the failure of the Muslim Brothers, the failure of the non-Islamist opposition, the failure of the military regimes and the failure of the old guard. You have four main groups that you can look at and they’ve all essentially failed. So from where is the success finally going to come? It’s got to come from the people from within these failed entities who learned the lessons, come back and try again. I expect that’s happening right now.
If I’m the father of a family in Egypt and I’ve got six kids and I’m out of work because of these demonstrators so I can’t feed my kids or get jobs for my son who might be graduating from school, I’d ask the army in, I’d ask Mubarak to come back. The first order of priority in a human beings life is to physically take care of your security and your biological needs: food, housing, heating oil in winter, clothing, education, jobs, medical care, clean water.
It’s ultimately the sentiment of large numbers of Egyptian people that will determine what is an acceptable political condition and what is not acceptable. The army was not acceptable two and a half years ago and the Muslim Brothers were not acceptable four months ago. We’ll see what is acceptable three or four months down the road. The force that will determine that is popular sovereignty. It’s large numbers of people who will express their sentiments in the public arena – on the streets or somewhere else. Right now, popular sovereignty has taken a step back in favor of short-term order and security, but popular sovereignty will manifest itself again. If these guys in the armed forces do not restore economic growth and new jobs and services, you will get this popular sovereignty reasserting itself.
On the Role of the Egyptian Military
What you have to do to have them stay out of politics later, once you get a reconfigured, re-legitimized political structure, is make sure that they keep those economic privileges. They are going to have to keep those privileges but in a way that serves both themselves and the societies as a whole. So if they’re running bakeries, or transport companies or shoe factories, whatever they are running, let them keep running that and keep doing things that serve themselves so there are always plum jobs where they can put retired generals…The economic privileges are important for them and the best outcome is to let them keep those privileges in a way that serves themselves and the society as a whole.
This is not about asking the army to govern, this is about asking the army to restore a certain minimum order in people’s daily lives. The question is, they do this and five months later the economy is picking up and there’s stability in the streets, tourism is picking up and jobs are being created, things are looking a little better, then what? People are going to look for other political leaders. The same reasons that caused them to revolt in the first place are still there. It’s a shift in the consciousness towards their rights being fulfilled and they don’t want to be ruled by military people who constrain their freedoms and their options in life.
The military managing a political transition is a perfectly acceptable thing to the majority of Egyptians. We’ve seen it before and we’re seeing it again now. And it may happen again two or three years from now because it is the only institution in the country that has proven itself capable of providing some order, but that’s about all it provides.
On the Crisis in Syria:
Syria is the biggest proxy war of the modern age. You have all of the regional conflicts playing themselves out inside Syria. You’ve got global conflicts between the Americans, Russians and Chinese. You’ve got religious versus secular [conflicts], Arab-Israeli, Kurdish-Arab, Iranian-Arab, Sunni-Shiite, republican-monarchic. Syria is ten conflicts in one. Syria is the most complicated, the most dangerous, it’s the biggest humanitarian crisis in many, many decades. It is the existential battleground where all of the regional and global conflicts meet and people are happy – the Russians, the Saudis, the Iranians, Hezbollah, the French, the Jordanians, the Turks – they’re all happy to send their money, send their guns and let the people of Syria fight this out because the killing is happening in Syria. Until the repercussions of the conflict start to hurt other people, withit’s refugee flows, economic stress, political radicalization. In Jordan and Lebanon, [there are] huge stresses because of the refugees. Until these pressures start to really hurt, these external players will keep doing what they’re doing in Syria. So Syria is no longer an uprising. Syria is a regional and global, mighty battle by proxy, of many different conflicts at the same time.
On the Influence of Foreign Powers:
You have to differentiate between two different levels. One level, where foreign actors come in with their guns, money, military assistance, diplomatic vetoes in New York and they actually engage in warfare using the Arab arena as their battlefield. The other level is external actors that might contribute to the democratization process. That is much more hopeful but tends to happen much less. I think there are areas where foreign countries, foreign NGOs, foreign international organizations can be useful and productive and helpful if they respond to real needs that are defined by local actors. So for instance, there may be situations where international experience in election monitoring could be very useful. People of the Arab world could ask for and people could provide that. Maybe setting up the technical dimensions of a judicial system, simply the internal workings of how do you manage the caseload and logistics of running an independent judiciary. Many of these countries have never had these things, they’ve never done it. So there are areas where international assistance definitely can be useful if it is requested by the local people. What you don’t want is foreign countries coming to the Arab world and telling people, ‘Well, we think you should do democracy like this and we want to help you make your democracy work by giving you our version.’ That doesn’t work very well and I think people have learned that.
Given the modern history of the Arab world, going back 70, 80 years, there is huge awareness of the impact of foreign actors. And foreign could mean American, British or Russian or Iranian or Turkish or even other Arab actors. There’s huge awareness of this because it has been the reality of foreign interference inside Arab countries has been a constant.
The problem is these societies are really not sovereign. They’re independent but they’re not sovereign in the sense that decisions are not made on the basis of the will of the citizenry. They’re made on the basis of the will of a family usually, or one leader. In Iraq it used to be Saddam Hussein, in Libya it was Gadhafi – it was one leader who made decisions that would determine the fate of an entire nation. So these countries were not really sovereign – they were under the control of a few individuals or a family or huge foreign influences. Now people hope that one of the things that will happen with the transitions is that you cannot only get democratic systems and dignity but you can actually get real sovereignty for the country.