Interview: Unprecedented opportunity

A Beirut-based Arab journalist discusses the potential for democracy in the Middle East

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Rami Khouri, a veteran editor and reporter who currently serves as editor-at-large for the Lebanese English language newspaper, The Daily Star, spoke to the staff of the Center for Public Integrity on March 2, 2005. He discussed recent events in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East and their implications for American foreign policy. Khouri is a Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. citizen whose family resides in Beirut, Amman and Nazareth. He spent the 2001-2 academic year as a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University and is a member of the Brookings Institution Task Force on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.

Khouri was editor-in-chief of the Jordan Times for seven years and wrote for many years from Amman for leading international publications, including The Financial Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. He often comments on Mideast issues in the international media, and lectures frequently at conferences and universities throughout the world.

Below is a transcript of his comments to the Center for Public Integrity.

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[Let me] give you some quick thoughts on what I think is going on in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, and what I think is the importance of what’s going on and why it’s important for you and for us in the Middle East.

I really think that’s what’s happening in Lebanon and the wider region provides a really unprecedented opportunity to do something which we’ve never done, certainly in my lifetime, and maybe in most of this century, or the last century, which is for Americans and Arabs to work together on the basis of a shared objective and common values and to work politically together to achieve goals that we articulate together. This has never been done before. Arabs and Americans are most of the time criticizing each other or attacking each other or fighting each other.

The reality is that there is a moment of change in the Middle East, and it’s not as the White House says — due to the American war in Iraq. The American war in Iraq may have some influences here and there, and we can’t rule it out. Mostly, the war in Iraq has created problems and generated instabilities and violence and tensions and fears throughout the Middle East. But it’s possible that Bush’s idea that the Iraq war, overthrowing this tyranny might then start promoting democracy in the Middle East. That may happen; you can’t rule it out. I think the chances of it happening in that kind of linear order are slim.

More likely is what I think has started to happen already, which is that indigenous movements for democracy and human rights and freedom and accountability in the Arab world are starting to pick up steam, and you’re starting to get rare examples, but important examples, of a convergence between Arabs working at the grassroots level for democracy, freedom and human rights converging with American and European pressure from overseas.

This is the fascinating, important, even, I would say, historic new development, and Lebanon is the kind of focal point of this right now. In the last two weeks it’s been dramatic in Lebanon because the former prime minister, Hariri, was assassinated, then this spontaneous movement of people took to the streets, very much inspired by the Ukrainian movement, and they wanted initially an investigation of the murder; they wanted the Syrian troops out of Lebanon, which have been there legitimately for 15 years. The Syrians were there, called in by the Lebanese government with an Arab League mandate. They weren’t there as occupiers. They came in legitimately and really played an important peacekeeping role and helped end the civil war and helped Lebanon regain its prosperity. But after 15 years, the Syrians had simply taken too much control of Lebanese affairs, and the Lebanese people started resisting and saying “that’s enough.”

And the Lebanese people had been speaking out for some time, saying the Syrians should leave and let the Lebanese regain their sovereignty. But the killing of Hariri pushed this to a profound degree of sort of vitality and openness and precision where people were talking specifically about getting the Syrian army out of Lebanon, getting the Syrian intelligence and security people out of the country. And then they started asking for the government to resign. The Lebanese government was more or less appointed by the Syrians. You could probably call it a puppet regime. It’s completely made in Damascus.

And the calls were made for the government to resign, which it did yesterday (March 1), and this is a profound development. You’ve never had this situation before where a mass, public, peaceful demonstration in the streets of an Arab country has forced a government to resign.

Parallel with this in Palestine last week, you had the Palestinian parliament reject the cabinet that was presented by the Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) because he presented a cabinet of old cronies, most of whom were not very efficient, probably corrupt, old guard types with vested interests, and the parliament rejected it, again an unprecedented move, and said, “no, we won’t pass this cabinet; give us a better group of people.” And he did. He came up with a bunch of technocrats, younger people, more qualified.

So you had the old autocracy replaced by a meritocracy, a very fascinating little development in Palestine, which, again, has largely gone unnoticed. And in Egypt, there’s been a movement in the last four months or so, three, four months, very small movement of 400 or 500 people who marched in the middle of Cairo peacefully and used the slogan “enough.” In Arabic. “Enough.” Just one word. And what they’re saying is that the president, Hosni Mubarak, who has had four terms in office, each one six years — he’s had 24 years in office — and he wants to now have a fifth term, meaning he would be president for 30 years. And Egyptians are saying, no, that’s enough, 24 years. And he’s not really elected. Egypt is a one-party state. The party in power, the National Democratic Party, controls around 90 percent of parliament, and the whole thing is a joke. Politically, it’s a joke. And Mubarak presents his name in a referendum, and the people vote yes or no, and 96 percent vote yes, and they do this every six years. I mean, it’s an insult to the basic dignity, intelligence and humanity of ordinary Egyptians and Arabs. And what’s happened in Palestine and in Egypt and in Lebanon is happening to a degree in Bahrain. You’ve got a movement of people, activists in Bahrain, most of whom are Shiite, and the Shiite are a majority, but the ruling elite in Bahrain, the king and the ruling elite, are Sunni. So the Shiites feel that their rights are not really reflected in the power structure. They’re agitating peacefully for more democratic change and an elected parliament.

And so what’s happening is you’re getting these movements suddenly manifesting themselves with more vehemence. The Palestinian one was the most dramatic in terms of the Intifada against the Israeli occupation, which started the first Intifada in the late ’80s, and then the second Intifada started in 2000, and there have been incidents of violence and terrorism as well, so you had some people who had gone off and attacked a pizza parlor in Tel Aviv, which is terrorism, it’s unacceptable, no way to defend it. Some people defend it; I don’t. You can’t go and attack pizza parlors and discotheques. That’s terrorism. But to attack a military occupation force in Nablus or Gaza is fighting an occupation army. That seemed to be more legitimate; globally, it seemed to be more legitimate. But the important thing is you had an uprising among the Palestinian population against the Israeli occupation. And in Lebanon and Palestine, they have used the same term. The Palestinians called it Intifada, which means in Arabic, enough. It means to sort of shake off, or, like, when you take an old carpet and you shake it. That’s the verb for Intifada. Intifada is the noun. It’s to shake off and to get rid of things that are accumulating on you, sort of to liberate yourself, to free yourself, to cleanse yourself, something like that.

And the Lebanese called their movement last week the Intifada for Independence. So they’ve taken the term from the Palestinian Intifada. And the Lebanese have also used the term “Enough,” which they took from the Egyptian movement, saying enough of Syrian control of Lebanon, enough of Lebanese government supported by the Syrians. We want to be sovereign. We want to be free, et cetera.

So this is a really important qualitative shift in modern Arab political life, and it coincides with two things: one, the American policy of the last three years after 9/11 of using preemptive military war and regime change as an official policy basically to fight terror. I mean, that’s what the Bush administration says. Whether it’s actually fighting terror or promoting new terror, history will determine, because there’s a problem in terms of the American presence in Iraq now being probably the greatest single instigator of terror, or new training ground for terrorism in the world. But we’ll see in the long term if the American military move prevents terror. And also, the American policy articulated most recently in the inaugural and State of the Union speeches of Bush of promoting freedom and democracy. Those two things are happening, along with this Arab grassroots movement that is springing up in different places and different intensities, and there’re signs of this Arab movement in other countries as well, and has been for some years. That’s why it’s very important to recognize that the genesis of the movement for freedom and liberation really springs out of the Arab world.

The Bush White House is going to take credit, and they’ve already started the spin- doctoring of it, spreading the message that the American policy in Iraq and promoting freedom is now starting to show dividends.

I think that’s an exaggerated claim, and I think I would say two things. One, it’s important to accurately understand the balance between what may be happening through the American policies in the region and what has already been happening for many years through the work of indigenous reformers and democrats and activists, and it’s unfair for the American government to try to claim that its actions are really bringing democracy. What’s happened is the Americans finally are supporting the democrats rather than supporting the tyrants, as they did for the last 50 years, because in the last 30 years that I’ve been in the Middle East and active in journalism and writing about democratic issues and people asking for reform and democracy and human rights, Arab activists in civil society, activists, they’ve gotten nowhere because the American government, as well as the Russians and others, have been supporting the tyrants.

Now, it’s the U.S. that’s changed its policy, not the Arabs who are suddenly rising up because the Americans told them to. So I think that’s an important historical bit of accuracy to keep in mind. The other thing I would say though after that is that it doesn’t matter who started it. You know, this is not a contest to get brownie points, we did it first or you did it first. The important thing is that, finally, Arabs and American government are doing the same thing. They’re both working for democratic transformation and freedom and human rights, and to stop the tyrannical order that defines the Arab world and Iran and try to come up with something better.

It’s an unprecedented moment, and the urgency is for people here and there to acknowledge this opportunity, define clearly what it is we’re trying to do — you know, freedom and democracy are pretty broad things — and narrow down the goals into specific achievable goals and then agree on an appropriate mechanism to work together, because this convergence will not last indefinitely, because already you see some differences in terms of what the Americans want, what the Europeans want and what the local Arab activists want.

The most hopeful sign of what’s happened relates to Lebanon and relates to what happened in the United Nations last September when the Syrians suddenly decided to extend the term of the Lebanese president, who is their man, and he’s very much a Syrian, and they decided to extend his term for three more years. Most Lebanese didn’t want that. There was no reason for it; it was against the constitution.

The heavy-handed way in which the Syrians extended the term really triggered a reaction from the Lebanese. You got more people speaking against the Syrians and against the Lebanese government, which then triggered an American, French, German effort at the Security Council to pass a resolution, which the Security Council passed, Resolution 1559. I think it was September 1st or September 2nd. And you had this resolution at the U.N. pressuring Syria and the Lebanese government, basically saying the Syrians should get their troops out of Lebanon, free elections should be held, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia which had driven the Israelis out of the south, Hezbollah should be disarmed.

And again, this was kind of unprecedented to have the Americans and the Europeans working together with some Lebanese for a goal that was pressuring an Arab country. But it worked, and it helped fuel the internal movement in Lebanon as well because they felt supported more by this Security Council resolution, unanimous Security Council resolution, which has a lot of credibility. And if you remember throughout the last 30 years, every day we get up in the morning and three times tell the Americans “Please implement the Security Council resolutions that call on the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem and tell them if you’re going to raise an army to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Iraq to get out of Kuwait, please implement the Security Council resolutions asking the Israelis to get out of Lebanon and Palestine.”

So suddenly, you know, Security Council resolutions to us in the Arab world are the fountainhead of legitimacy and authority, and we keep referring to them as a reference point for what should be done. So here, suddenly, was a Security Council resolution critical of an Arab country. We couldn’t suddenly say “oh, no, we don’t want that one,” because we’ve been making this strong – not just we, the whole world has been criticizing the U.S. for being selective in its implementation of the U.N. resolutions, and that selectivity, that sort of whimsical self-serving selectivity in implementing some U.N. resolutions among others is probably the single biggest and most consistent and most strongly felt criticism of the U.S. around the world, around the whole world, not just the Arabs – Europe, China, everywhere — that the U.S. is seen to be kind of a bully that decides that it likes some resolutions and doesn’t like others. It likes some international treaties and conventions; it doesn’t like others. And the U.S. is seen to be the rogue state in terms of it is the country that is beyond the international consensus. There’s an international consensus on a lot of things, Criminal Court, Kyoto Treaty, the Israelis not building the wall, whatever. There’s a global consensus, except for the U.S. and Israel sometimes, or just the U.S.

So what you have here is the beginning of a multilateral mechanism, the Americans and the Europeans working through the U.N. with Arab people for goals in the Arab world that coincide the national interests of the U.S. and the Europeans with the interests of ordinary Arabs. This is really unprecedented.

There may be an opportunity now with this American policy of promoting freedom to actually define a policy that everybody can buy into. But it has to be defined collectively. It can’t be the Americans saying, “Here is the policy, sign on; you’re with us or against us.” It can’t be like the war on terror was done. It can’t be like the war in Iraq was done, because there’s a series of problems in the way the U.S. has been conducting foreign policy over the years, and the U.S. has to be very careful to overcome those problems so that we can actually work together. For instance, the United States shouldn’t use military force as a primary instrument of its diplomacy, as happened in Iraq. It shouldn’t threaten people and be aggressive and threatening and laying down the law and say, “You’re with us or against us, you accept it or we attack you, or we change your regime.”

U.S. policy should be more consistent. Consistency matters a lot to the Arabs and to people all over the world, that you can’t implement one U.N. resolution and ignore another one because it happens to be something that the Israelis don’t like, or the Taiwanese don’t like, or the Turks don’t like, or somebody that is your ally doesn’t like, and therefore you ignore it. You need to be consistent.

There needs to be clarity of motive. One of the problems with the U.S. is that we see it in Iraq now and we saw it in the first Gulf War against Iraq when Iraq attacked Kuwait. There’s a kind of rolling motive, rolling rationale that comes out of the White House. Every six months or so there’s a different reason why the U.S. invaded Iraq. First, it was weapons of mass destruction. Then it was because Iraq was a threat to the U.S. And then it was because Iraq had links with al Qaeda. And then it was because Saddam was a tyrant who used violence against his own people.

Now, they may all be good reasons. They may all be valid. Some of them may even be true. But the fact that there are so many of them and cumulatively and consecutively rolled out every six months causes prudent people and skeptical journalists like us to be a little bit cautious about this, that normally people don’t have rolling rationales for a major foreign policy initiative.

If there isn’t a clear rationale at the beginning, if the evidence is not there, then you should hold off on the policy, especially if it’s war and regime change. So the motive needs to be more clear. Why is the U.S. doing this? Why is it promoting freedom? You know, if it’s an altruistic desire to do it, then fine. If it’s just a self-serving, short-term reason to stop terrorism from the Arab countries or to get the Arabs serious to help you in Iraq where you’re in trouble, well, not so fine, because that’s not very convincing and it won’t last.

So I think clarity of motive is something the U.S. needs to be careful about when it pushes ahead with this freedom promotion policy. And also, I think, legitimacy is a big issue. George Bush talks in terms of the United States having a national mission to promote freedom in the world. That may be. History will tell us. So we’ll wait and see if that is the case, and the U.S. has been a promoter of freedom for much of the last century. But more troubling is the recent language in which George Bush says that this mission is actually divinely mandated, that the divine power has made this a mission of the United States and American civilization. There’s more skepticism there. I think the divine power, he or she hasn’t yet quite sort of told us what he or she has in store for the United States. And in any case, if George Bush is inspired by that, which is a very moving inspiration, it doesn’t have a lot of credibility in the world, because everybody in the world looks at the U.S. and asks where is the moral and the legal and the political authority for you to do this.

The authority has to come out of some kind of reference point, some legitimate reference point — treaties, international law, international conventions, U.N. Security Council resolutions, General Assembly consensus, some mechanism that has credibility, and there isn’t any for this freedom march. So again, the legitimacy issue has to be looked at carefully.

And finally the issue of relevance. When George Bush talks of freedom and democracy, he’s really talking about personal freedom as it is defined in this country and that the individual American citizen has the freedom to do whatever he or she wants as long as you don’t break the law and hurt other people.

That sort of personal freedom of the individual is not a central demand or value in most of the developing world, in most of the world. It’s not to say that people don’t want it. It is not now a central value. In fact, people in most countries of the Middle East, in Asia and Africa give up personal freedom in return for the benefits they get from belonging to a group, the family, the tribe, the religious group, the clan, the ethnic group; you know, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Druze, and the Islamic Ummah the Arab nation, all of these – I’m Greek Orthodox, and maybe I get it from the Greek Orthodox Church. . But this group that you belong to gives you meaning, gives you protection, gives you a sense of hope for the future. It gives you all of those things that you in this country get from your status as individual citizens in a country run according to the rule of law in which there is a mechanism, reasonably fair, for a redress of grievance and adjudication of your disputes through the law. If you’re white and if you’re rich and if you’re male, you tend to have a few more rights and better adjudication than if you’re black and if you’re female and if you’re poor. But, generally, there is a functioning democratic system in this country that gives people a pretty good chance for redress of grievance and equal application of the law.

We don’t have that system in most of the Third World and the Arab world, so you don’t get these things from a sense of security or a sense of identity or sense of well-being for the future. You don’t get them from your status as a citizen in a state of law or land. You get them from your family, your tribe, your religious group, whatever.

So focusing on freedom is not that big a priority. For most people in the Arab world, the big sticker items are: national liberation from foreign occupation, a sense of dignity, being treated fairly by their own governments, not being subjected to corruption and abuse of power, or being lied to when they turn on their TV news in the evening, being treated decently. Freedom and democracy are six or seven on the list.

So where these priorities that Bush is pushing should fit in the lives of individuals and nations in other lands also have to be looked at. But having said all these things, I think this is a tremendous opportunity for Americans and Arabs to finally connect, and I mean it’s fantastic. I’m just overjoyed personally that the American President wants to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East. I mean, I’ve been waiting for this all my life, and I’m glad that he’s finally seen the light. But I don’t want to do this by making the same mistakes in promoting the policies that he did, say, in Iraq by using the military unilaterally, ordering people around, misdiagnosing the nature of the problem, misunderstanding the realities of the societies and the social norms and values and historical memories, and misunderstanding the linkages between nationalism and statehood and religion and ethnicity and individual citizen rights.

The U.S. has completely misunderstood the relationship among all these things. You got into Iraq like a bulldozer, and, of course, it defeated the Iraqi army. That was never questioned. But the mess that’s been created has created more problems than it has solved. You’ve got to fix Iraq. You’ve got to keep working, get the Iraqi sovereign government in place and let them run their own security and then get the Americans out. So there’s not much you can do about it right now except see this thing through. But if we’re going to shift a little bit more now to a policy of promoting freedom and democracy, this is a huge opportunity, and I think it’s a moral obligation for all of us to get it right this time, and hopefully get Americans and Arabs and Europeans all working together to achieve this.

So those are the main points that I wanted to make.

Q: Can I ask you just to broaden the geography with one question, and that’s Iran and nuclear weapons.

KHOURI: Iran is important because it is targeted by the U.S. The U.S. is sort of threatening it and Syria as well. Iran is a perfect example of why the U.S. should not be worried about opening up these systems in the Arab world and not being afraid of people forming democracies that are Islamist in nature, because Iran after 25 years of this Iranian revolution, most Iranians are fed up with the mullahs. Iran is a dictatorship. It’s a very badly run country, camouflaged by the oil wealth they have. But there’s a huge popular revolt in Iran, which has been clearly expressed in the elections several times. But it’s a dictatorship of the mullahs and the conservatives, and there’s massive pressure underneath to open up the system, to liberalize it, and most Iranians want to be very friendly with the U.S. But most Iranians also feel they have the right to develop nuclear weapons. If they’re not going to use them aggressively, if Israel and Pakistan and China and Russia, and all these other people around have nuclear weapons and the U.S. is next-door with nuclear weapons, why shouldn’t they? If they want to develop nuclear power or nuclear weapons and they’re not threatening anybody, why not?

So I think what you need is to work out, again, a consistent policy. On what basis does the U.S. deny somebody nuclear weapons or say that they’re allowed to have them? It can’t just be that if you’re friends with the U.S. you can have weapons; if you’re not friends with the U.S., you can’t, because people will rebel against that. That’s just old-fashioned colonial imperial policy.

So the best thing is to engage the Iranians as the Europeans are doing. The Russians are working with the Iranians, the International Atomic Energy Agency. They have a right to develop their nuclear industry for power, and safeguards can be developed to minimize the chance of them developing nuclear weapons that might be used offensively against somebody. But why not have a nuclear weapon as a deterrent? I don’t see why you can’t. And the U.S. is not worried about France having nuclear weapons because they’re countries that have an understanding about things. They share values. And the answer is either containment, as the U.S. and the Russians and the Chinese did to prevent the use of weapons, or engagement, which is to work together to have an understanding about the inspection of nuclear facilities, or, if you have weapons. Now the Indians and the Pakistanis have them. Well, the world hasn’t come to an end. They’re not going to use them because they both have them. The Americans and the Russians never used them.

So Iran raises important issues about sort of global values: who decides who can have certain things or not.

Q: You were talking about shared values. And I wonder if you could just comment on the sort of understanding of democracy in the Arab world as opposed to how it’s understood here.

KHOURI: There are, obviously, different democratic systems all over the world, and they are ultimately defined by the commonalities of things like elections, parliaments, checks and balances, independent judiciary, habeas corpus, whatever. There’re certain elements — majority rule, minority right protection, consent of the governed. There’re certain fundamentals that are universal in democracy, but then there are particularities that are defined according to the individual cultural traditions and historical values, and whatever.

The Arab world hasn’t had much experience with democracy. They weren’t democratic societies in the ’30s in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon to an extent in the ’40s and ’50s and earlier. But Lebanon was kind of gerrymandered. Sudan. There have been little bits of democratic experiences throughout the Arab world, but nothing in a significant level. My sense is that when we’ve had democratic openings or liberalizations, which we’ve had in the last 15, 20 years. Starting in the late ’80s, you had many countries that opened up their systems that had elections, parliaments, political parties, free press. Really, there were significant openings-up. And what’s fascinating is that when you opened up these societies and let people vote and express their identities after 40, 50 years of being closed and controlled and not letting people express themselves, the two most powerful forces that define society, we found out, were religion and tribalism, both of which are rather anti-democratic forces in many ways that demand conformity to the values of a hierarchical structure with the wise people at the top making those decisions.

So you’re going to have to go through this process. But in the opening up of Arab society, democratization, letting people express themselves, voting, whatever, you are going to get Islamist parties dominating. You’re going to get tribal parties dominating. You’re going to get family, ethnic groups. The Kurds, for instance, vote as Kurds. The Shias now are going to dominate Iraq and they want Islam to be a major part of the constitution. That’s perfectly normal; you shouldn’t worry about it; let it happen, and things will evolve in a decent way because at the core of these systems, whether you take Islam as a religion or Arab tribal values, at the core, I argue — and this is controversial because some people might say this is exaggerated — but I think it’s true. The core of Islam and Arab tribal values and Middle Eastern society includes a series of values that are the same values that form the core of democracy, which is participation, representation, accountability, broad equality with a few distinctions like the rights of women. You know, men tend to have a bit more rights than women. Muslims tend to have a bit more rights than non-Muslims. Arabs tend to have a bit more rights than non-Arabs. There’re sort of unarticulated inequalities that are part of the process. But again, like I said, people give up some freedoms in return for other things of value, like security, dignity and a decent life. But these core values of participation, accountability and the rule of law — you know, Islamic Sharia law is law. It’s not just some weirdo mullah out there smoking hashish and cutting people’s heads off. It’s law, and that’s been developed in very sophisticated processes for over1,400 years now that we’ve had the Islamic religion.

Q: But there’s always the interpretation of the law also, I mean the interpretation of the law for women versus men.

KHOURI: One of the biggest problems with Islam is in the institutionalized role of women where the women have fewer rights than men. But you have to see it in (historical context) — when Islam came along, it was a huge gain for women, and if you look at Islamic societies carefully and the role of women and Islamic women leaders in Islamic society today, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan and Indonesia and Turkey, you’ve had women prime ministers, which you’ve never had in this country.

So I think we need to be accurate, fair and balanced unlike that phrase as used in this country, to be really accurate, fair and balanced in looking at the role of women in Islam and to understand that, relative to what was before, the role of Islam gave women huge rights and protection, but it also instituted some inequalities, for instance, inheritance. A woman gets less share of the inheritance. You need two women to be in court for every one man. Some of that is outdated stuff, but some of it is also related to traditional society. Before Islam, the woman got nothing in inheritance probably in traditional societies. So for her to get half of what her brother gets is a huge advance, and you also have the protection of the law.

So, now, these were laws that were done 1,400 years ago and then interpreted and evolved, and if you look at Arab society, again, how it has evolved in Islamic society, it constantly evolves and changes.

So my response is, yes, there are areas where there are inequalities, and Muslims themselves are raising some of these issues and addressing them. But fundamentally, the core values of Islamic and Arab traditional culture are very close to the core values of Western democracy. In fact, there was a fascinating study done called the Global Values Survey, which is done every year by surveying people all over the world in something like 35 countries, and it looks at values. It doesn’t ask you, “Do you like George Bush’s policy in France?,” It asks you, “What do you think of justice? What do you think of democracy? What do you think of men and women having equal rights?” It looks at value, family issues, religion, secularism. And what it found consistently is that Islamic societies and American society are the closest among any societies in the world in terms of sharing the core values related to good governance, justice, democracy and things like that.

Where they differ is on gender and sex issues, so people in Islamic societies don’t like men wearing earrings or women walking around with half their stomach showing, and there are the social values which are part of liberal Western society but are seen to be inappropriate, such as premarital sex or homosexuality. These are things where our societies tend to differ; we’re much more conservative.

Q: What you think is going to happen in Lebanon now?

KHOURI: I think the Syrians will gradually get out of Lebanon in the next six months. I think the Lebanese will take control of their full sovereignty again. They will work out a special relationship. The Syrians and Lebanese — first of all, the Syrians accept that they will get out of Lebanon as part of the Taif Agreement they negotiated at the end of the war in 1989, ending the 15-year civil war.

So the Syrians are committed to getting out of Lebanon eventually, but they’re dragging it on, obviously, because they benefit a lot from it. So there is a face-saving way for them to get out of Lebanon, according to the agreement, and there’s also a special relationship between them that both sides recognize. The relationship between Lebanon and Syria is not like the relationship between the United States and Bulgaria; it’s like the relationship between the United States and Canada. It’s close. It’s intimate, but the Lebanese don’t want to be ruled by the Syrians. They want to rule themselves.

So I think the Syrians will get out, and then I think this will prompt a process of reform in Lebanon, ideally. Lebanon will reform into a better government system, and I think it will push change within Syria, because once the Syrians get out of Lebanon, they really will be forced to deal with the world from a different perspective, and pressures on them to change are intense, both internal and external.

And I think it’ll also trigger a permanent Arab/Israeli peace agreement because we’ve got the Lebanese, Syrians, Israelis pushed into a negotiation, hopefully with the Americans pushing them and playing a more active role to get a peace negotiation going.

So I think it’s going to trigger enormous changes.

Q: So you’re not at all concerned about one faction overpowering another?

KHOURI: No, I’m not, because what you’ve seen with the opposition in Lebanon is these factions who were fighting each other work very closely together. But there will be competition. They will be competing for power, but hopefully they’ll do it in a peaceful way.

Q: Where in the Middle East would you say in the next five to ten years are the best chances to see functioning democratic regimes?

KHOURI: I would say Palestine and Lebanon, and then Egypt, maybe. Morocco is doing some good things. I think you should keep your eye on Morocco. Bahrain maybe, and possibly Syria. You might have rapid change in Syria. Syria might turn out to be like Romania with a quick shift of the government rather than the transition that happened in Poland over eight or ten years slowly, or in Russia. But I think in the short run, Lebanon, Palestine. And those two are the most interesting to keep your eye on, because the process – the process, the human crossing of a threshold of fear has happened.

You know, the people out on the streets of Lebanon and the Palestinians who confronted the Israelis and then confronted their own Palestinian government are like the man in Tiananmen Square standing in front of that tank. They are the moral equivalent, I wrote in an article a couple of weeks ago – they’re the moral – the Palestinians and Lebanese and the Egyptians standing up to their government are like the African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama in 1956 standing up to the police dogs and the fire hoses. These are people who’ve lost fear. They are prepared to confront their powerful, dominant aggressor or occupier or subjugator. They’re not afraid of dying, because their lives don’t mean very much in their present condition. They’re dehumanized. They’re living like animals. They want to live like human beings, and they’re prepared to stand up and risk losing their life so that others may have life.

So I think it’s a very powerful process that has started, and I just hope that we have the leadership in the region and that we connect with like-minded democrats in Europe and the U.S. to channel this force and let it grow and channel it constructively.

I’m optimistic. My sense is that the Lebanese experience in just the last two weeks has been very, very hopeful.

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