Reflections on Citizen Revolt in the Middle East

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Scholars from the American University of Beirut analyze the promise and peril of the Arab Spring, as well as what role the United States should play.

PETER DORMAN (president, American University of Beirut): Good afternoon. Good afternoon. I am delighted to be able to welcome you this afternoon to a conversation that is entitled "A Citizen Revolt in the Middle East."

My name is Peter Dorman. I'm president of the American University of Beirut. I'd like to open just by making a few general remarks about American higher education in the Middle East.

The 10 years since September 2001 have badly eroded the public image of the United States in the minds of Arab populations throughout the Middle East and especially its foreign policy in the region. And by supreme irony, the same 10 years has seen a prolific explosion of new university campuses in the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia based almost entirely on American curricula and research models. In the Arab world, an American diploma remains the gold standard.

In Lebanon and in Egypt, in point of fact, American education has a much longer history and a much longer pedigree, notably at the American University of Beirut, which was founded in 1966; at the American University in Cairo, 1919; and at the Lebanese American University, which began awarding four-year degrees in 1950. These universities are all accredited in the United States, and they embrace a core of liberal-arts education that would look at home in any U.S. campus.

For 145 years, AUB and its younger sister institutions has required of its graduates a broad mastery of multiple academic subjects, the ability to think and to write critically, intellectual engagement with their peers and mentors, respect for diversity of all kinds as well as commitments to the community. And these are essentially humanistic values that are not just taught in the classroom, but that are modeled outside it.

So although they are American in origin and spirit, these universities have, in fact, existed long enough to be considered indigenous by their own populations in their own countries. At AUB, 75 percent of the faculty and student body are Lebanese. And the impact of these universities in educating generations of Arab leaders in the context of the Arab world itself has been tremendous.

On receiving an honorary degree in 2009, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who is the former director of the U.S. Institutes of Health, commented that with the passage of 200 years, only two of the world's governments are still in existence in their form; that is the United States and the United Kingdom. By comparison, he noted, 75 percent of universities that were in existence 200 years ago are still open and granting degrees.

Now, universities play a unique role as positive instruments of social change. They are vessels of academic ferment. They're guarantors of stability and future promise. They are exemplars of community engagement and producers of future leaders. They serve as resilient and influential anchors wherever they exist, but in no place more so than in today's turbulent Middle East.

So to open this panel, I have the pleasure to introduce the speakers. I know this audience is already very familiar with Dr. Leslie Gelb, who is to my immediate left. The other speakers this afternoon are Dr. -- excuse me, Mr. Rami Khouri, who is the director of our Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB; Dr. Karim Makdisi, who is a professor of political studies and public administration; Dr. Rami Zurayk, who is a professor in our faculty at Agriculture and Food Sciences; and then Dr. Rima Afifi, who is professor and associate dean at the faculty of Health Sciences. And I should note that Rima has to catch a plane at 6:45, so she has to steal away off the platform. Please forgive her for an early exit. Thank you.

LESLIE GELB: Thank you very much.

Americans should be the best-informed people imaginable about the world. We are far more than any other country, a nation of immigrants. And yet, it seems after the immigrants come here, they get amnesia and know nothing about the world. We're peculiarly ignorant of what goes on abroad. And almost always we hear about the world from our own experience.

And tonight we have the treat -- and I think it should be the usual treat -- of learning something about this incredible region of the world, the Middle East, from the people who live there, particularly from this group of experts. And I include in the experts my friend Rami. He and I argue at every possible opportunity. And it's easy for me to remember their names; they're all named Rami. (Laughter.)

We're going to be talking about two questions, to try to give some coherence to our conversation. And we've agreed on this beforehand. The first question is for our experts to give us their sense of the promise and the peril of what's going on in the Middle East and North Africa today, both ends of this; and second, to look at what the United States can or should do to deal with this situation to bring out more of the promise and to put down the peril.

So without further ado, we'll start with Rima. And we'll interrupt each other and try to have a conversation, so forgive us, please.

RIMA AFIFI: Thank you very much, and thank you all for coming.

I think there's a lot of potential promises and perils from the Arab Spring. And we, as you know from our bios, come from very diverse backgrounds. My background is health, and the rest of them can describe their backgrounds. And so we each come at it from a different place.

I work mostly with young people. I work in public health with young people. And I think that's one of the big promises of the Arab Spring. We have the biggest youth generation in the history of the Arab world right now. About 25 percent of our population are young people. And in the world, the Arab region has the biggest youth population.

And young people are speaking out in very creative, exciting ways about what they want and what they need, and they're using the technology that they are most used to and very comfortable with, which we as older young people don't necessarily use very much. And so they've been able to circumvent the more traditional media channels, the more traditional ways of communication, and they've gotten their words out about their needs and their aspirations. And I think this is one of the big promises of the --

GELB: But Rima, are they really different from the rest of us, the rest of you?

AFIFI: I think so. (Laughs.)

GELB: How so?

AFIFI: Well, I have young people in my household, and they seem to -- I mean, they're very savvy and comfortable with technology in a way, and they can be having 10 conversations at the same time, which I find very difficult to do. I need to have one conversation at a time. So they can -- they can have a lot of conversation, be thinking about a lot of things and be coherent in each of those conversations at the same time. And they use technology in a way that I think's very different than we do. We're learning it from them. And so they're able to get their thoughts out to mass public.

I think one of the things that's happened with this youth generation is that they've actually be able to portray for the West a different view of the Arab population. And so all of a sudden people in the West are seeing Arabs that want exactly the same thing as they want. And I think a lot of it has to do with the young people and their ability to connect.

GELB: So their values are different from their elders.

AFIFI: No, I think their values are the same. They're just able to voice those values in a different way, in a way that communicates to the West perhaps in a way that the West is more used to, (I think, the values).

Should we do promises and then -- just all of us do promises and then come back and do perils?

GELB: You just go on and --

AFIFI: Do the perils too?

GELB: What about the perils?

AFIFI: All right.

GELB: It all sounds good so far.

AFIFI: (Laughs.) Okay. So I think one of the -- one of the reasons that the Arab Spring has occurred is because of widening gaps between the rich and the poor, okay? So although poverty and misery are bad things for everybody, when everybody in a population is poor or everybody feels the same, there is collective -- there's collectivity in that. And that might not bring out revolt, because everybody feels the same.

But the widening of the gap, I think, between the rich and the poor brings out a sense of social injustice. And I think that sense of social injustice is part of what's led to the Arab Spring. And if -- if the solutions don't take care of that social injustice, then we're in trouble.

GELB: Thank you.

The other Rami.

RAMI ZURAYK: Well, you know, as you have rightly pointed, I know -- I'm essentially a farmer. At university, we call it land and worker resources, because otherwise they can't hire me. (Laughter.) And as a farmer, I can't help finding life excessively difficult for those in the farming community. I think many farmers here feel the same. I think that region there, it's excessively difficult, because we work within an environment and with an endowment of resources that does not really help.

I just met a gentleman who is from Texas and who is -- was talking to me about water, about the difficulty of keeping access to water. And I was telling him that we have the same situation, but of course worse, because of the lack of appropriate policies and the total neglect over long decades by governments who are interested in accumulating money -- often in their pockets -- rather than creating productive sectors that could provide the region with the food or part of the food it eats. Of course, it's a global world and there is a lot of trade and import and export. But it is an aberration that a region the size of the Arab world with the very nature of its ecology should import 80 percent of the food it eats.

GELB: Can that be changed in -- you know, in the next 10 years, 12 years?

ZURAYK: Indeed, it can. Absolutely. I mean, if they make me minister of all the Arab world and agriculture -- (laughter) -- I probably could change it.

GELB: I feel the same way about America. (Laughter.)

ZURAYK: But before we get to that point -- before we get to that point, that was not the only issue. The other issue is that this region has a huge (poor ?) population. And with an increase -- with the neglect of that sector and an increase in the imports of food, which was justified by the cheap food prices in the world, we are left with huge population of farmers with no farm, and who migrate to the cities or remain in utter poverty in the regions where they are.

When the revolts started, they started in rural areas in -- (inaudible) -- Tunisia. And they started in Egypt by the people who came from the rural areas where they could not do anything.

GELB: And Rami, how does this play into the promise and the peril? Is it going to make the establishment of democracy much more difficult?

ZURAYK: I think that if we do not find a solution to this -- as you know, I wanted to start with the perils, just for a change.

GELB: Yes, please.

ZURAYK: We don't find -- if the -- if the Arab revolutions, the Arab protests, the Arab uprisings, the Arab Spring, whatever you want to call it, does not bring resolution to this, then it is not going to be able to deliver what it promises to the laborers.

GELB: (Inaudible.)

ZURAYK: And that is one of the great perils, because we really -- the people who made this revolution do not have yet the economic model, the ideas and the actions that come with it, in order to move into that stage. If we continue feeling good about it -- because we do feel very good about it -- but we do not move into a mode of production, then this spring will not have delivered what it was supposed to.

GELB: Thank you so much.

Karim, your turn.

KARIM MAKDISI: Yes, thank you. What I would say in terms of the -- first, the promise -- and I think the promise, it's very evident that it's a reconfiguration, we hope a reconfiguration, both internally and externally -- internally meaning, as my colleagues are saying, that there -- that the Arab countries will build societies that are more democratic, more transparent and able to deal with each other, creation of civil societies and this kind of thing.

Externally, I think it would be very important that it resets the promises; it would reset the relationships between the Arab world and the West, the Arab world and America specifically, and bring it back to an earlier time, pre-1967, pre-, perhaps, 1948, where there was not such a high degree of anti-Americanism in the Arab region.

In terms of the perils, I would say the biggest peril is corruption. There's a problem of corruption. We see today that there's a lot of discussion of a so-called counterrevolution. I think this counterrevolution is a serious one, and I think its desire to (brake ?) proper transformation to the region is serious. We see it both in terms of internal affairs and foreign affairs. And there's a -- there's many interests that are combining to get this to try to prevent and, you know, keep the uprisings from spreading.

GELB: Yeah, I'm glad you brought that -- brought that up. And expand on it a bit for us, because do you think that, given the -- that the governments still seem to be able to maintain the monopoly of force, that they're going to be able to put down these revolutions? And if so, then what does the region look like?

MAKDISI: Well, I think we're --

GELB: And just jump, the others, if you want to.

MAKDISI: I think we're --

GELB: Rami will have no trouble speaking for himself. (Laughter.)

RAMI KHOURI (?): (Laughs.) Especially with you here (to guide me ?).

MAKDISI: I think we're in for the long term. I think we're -- as we can see in places like Syria, it's quite delicate at the moment. In countries like Bahrain, the revolts have been more or less suppressed so far, and there's been very little reporting on Bahrain, for obvious reasons.

And as I said, this is part of what we're talking about when we talk about a counter-revolution, which is that why is it that there's very little attention paid to countries like Bahrain, but there's a lot of attention paid in other countries? This is -- this is a serious matter. And I think that what has happened because of the uprisings is that there is going to be -- that these regimes I think over time, and certainly over the medium term, will finally collapse or fall over the -- certainly over the longer term.

I think this is the beginning of the end of these regimes. But as I said, I think there's going to be huge struggles and there's going to be a lot of -- there's going to be a big price to be paid. It's not going to be easy.

KHOURI (?): Karim raises an important point. By the way, it's great to be back at the council, and I'm always delighted to have an opportunity to share thoughts with friends here and straighten out my friend Leslie on some of his misguided beliefs. (Laughter.) But we've done this for many years.

GELB: (Laughs.) This is an advance. He now makes it "some misguided beliefs." (Laughter.)

KHOURI (?): (Laughs.) Yes.

But Karim raises an important point, which is this issue of the erratic nature of the global response to what's going on in the Arab world. And it makes it very clear that there are issues where the rights of human beings to a universal commitment to freedom and a universal promise -- even a divine promise, if we believe that in fact we are all endowed by our creator with certain liberties and certain rights, as the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution says -- that even divine promises are to be affirmed erratically, depending on who you are. And this is the great peril, I think, of this process, that Arab human beings in certain Arab countries will be deemed to have less rights than other Arabs, or Israelis or Bosnians or Chinese or Turks or Iranians or other people who have struggled for these same rights.

So if we are to be in a position where the international commitment to the rights, the universal human rights, are -- that commitment is to be implemented inconsistently and discriminately, it raises the frightening spectre of not only a continuation of stagnation in some of these countries, but a reinvigoration of a brand of neo-Orientalism which we can only call racism, when some people have rights and other people don't have those rights.

And the whole point, the promise of this Arab revolt, this citizen revolt -- the promise is that 350 million Arabs can actually implement the great principles of the consent of the governed, habeas corpus, accountability, the rule of law, democratic governance -- the great principles that are universal principles of democratic life.

And it's fascinating to see, as Rami said, that this started in a poor rural town by one man, Mohamed Bouazizi, who at a moment of great frustration set himself on fire because his life wasn't worth living.

GELB: Rami, explain to me -- explain to me this, coming back to Karim's point. Here we are looking at this situation, and what we see are the uprisings of the people which we take to be natural and for the most part being done by people who are genuine in their beliefs. And we see regimes who have been our allies putting them down by force, killing a lot of people. And let's say, just following Karim's logic -- and the rest of you jump in on this, too -- let's say, following his logic, that they succeed in crushing the rebellions. What happens at that point, when you have all force here, and all resentment here?

KHOURI (?): Well, what happens, I think, is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union between 1945, the Hungarian revolt in 1956, the Prague Spring in '68, the Russian dissidents in the '70s and '80s, Lech Walesa and Solidarity in Poland in 1980 and the collapse of the Soviet Union nine years later, in 1989.

What happens is that the Arab Spring will be seen to be -- for what it actually is: a movement, a spontaneous movement of many people who have the same grievances, but to different extents. The grievances in Oman are different than Bahrain, from Jordan, from Tunis, from Syria. They're not all identical. But they all have grievances that they want redressed through a democratic transformation, and they want to exchange their humiliation for legitimate governance and rehumanization.

And you will get, as happened in the Soviet experience, some movements that succeed and others that are crushed, and there will be different levels of advance. And I think this is one of the realities that we have to be prepared for.

So it raises questions about how the Arab people themselves deal with these issues and how foreign countries -- we'll get to the U.S. later --

GELB: (Right ?), we'll do it in a moment. Anybody want to add a word at this point?

MAKDISI: Just maybe a word, then.

GELB: Please jump in. Be a -- you know, our Arab colleagues are much more polite than we are, so they don't interrupt each other. (Laughter.) Please.

MR. : This is New York. You can just do anything you want. (Laughter.)

MAKDISI: No, I would only point -- I would agree, but I would point that there is a big difference, I think, between what happened in the Soviet Union or at the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all this -- is that it's not quite clear -- and I think this is where the opportunity is -- it's not quite clear what the Western intentions, what the U.S. intentions are in the region. And it makes a very big difference if there's support from the superpower to what's going on in the region or if the superpowers are going to jump in on the side of what's been called the counterrevolution, and this is -- this is the serious question I have.

And I think this is -- this is -- you know, we'll -- Obama -- President Obama is giving a speech on Thursday. I guess we'll find out then, but this is a very important question.

GELB: Yeah, he's going to make rhetorically clear greater American solidarity with democratic movements. I think that -- that's a certain part of the speech.

But what he will say beyond that I don't think he knows. And he's not comfortable --

MAKDISI: I think the litmus test is going to be the question of Palestine. I think -- I mean, it's the elephant in the room, but this -- but the question of Palestine is the issue that is going to have to be addressed in meaningful ways, rather than in rhetorical --

GELB: But you know, you guys are going to have to explain this to me. I understand that Palestine, Israel -- always brought up as kind of the core issue. But you need to explain to me why it is that the future of democracy in Syria or Bahrain or Lebanon, for that matter, hinges on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. What's the connection?

MAKDISI: I don't -- I don't think it's hinging on it. I think it's an indication now. In other words, if the U.S. does not support -- and if we're talking about U.S. support -- the U.S. does not support meaningful -- the meaningful implementation of a right, in this case, of the Palestinian people, to a democratic life, to a democratic movement, it's all over. And this includes dealing with, for instance, the question of a refugees in a -- in a -- in a proper way, and putting pressure on host governments, including the Lebanese government, to deal with the -- with Palestinian refugees in a more humane way. This is a good indication for how things are going to play out, I think.

MR. : Yeah --

ZURAYK: Sorry. Go ahead.

AFIFI: Go ahead.

ZURAYK: I wanted to take a step back in a little bit on this issue and to go back to the issues of promises and -- (inaudible) --

GELB: (Inaudible.)

ZURAYK: -- before we move into what the government --

GELB: Sure.

ZURAYK: -- I wanted to state, you know, this revolution, this change, is a change we made, made -- the people who are here are not observers. We are part of what is going on in our region.

And we know that we have changed, and we have changed forever. And our people has changed. And it has changed forever. And there is no going back on that. We do not have fear anymore. We do not have fear of the oppressive regimes. But also we do not have fears of the repercussions that may come from us demanding freedom.

We realize that there are big interests, that superpowers are not there to play charity. We understand that, and I don't think anybody in this room or anywhere else in the world would argue otherwise.

But we also know that we want a different world; that the time when were oppressed, beaten, smothered, when we had to shut up -- this time has gone.

GELB: But how do we -- how does the United States or can the United States help that process? Or is it really up to you guys?

ZURAYK: Yes, let me say one word on this, and this word is the following. We believe we can handle our democracy, but we're not sure that you can handle our democracy. (Soft laughter.)

MAKDISI: I think, if I can jump in, I agree with this wholeheartedly and I would even add that from within the U.S. point of view, I think it's a question of redefining what the U.S. interest is in the region in very -- in very simple terms.

I think it's very clear that the last 20, 30 years at least show that what the U.S. policy has been in the region has produced incredible anti-Americanism and resentment in the region towards the U.S., and it has been counterproductive and unhelpful in the main. There's been -- (inaudible) -- in the main, and politically speaking, there's been a lot of (problems ?).

GELB: So democracy in your region would make anti-Americanism even stronger?

MAKDISI: No, on the contrary, I -- if the U.S. comes out on the right side of this thing and genuinely supports the democratic movements across -- and this includes the Palestinian movement -- then I think this -- there will be tremendous -- I mean, anti-Americanism is nothing -- there is nothing innate. It has to be made very, very clear that anti-Americanism is a response to American policies. It is not a response to American culture at all. As I began by saying that U.S.-Arab relations go back well before the creation, (in this case ?), of the state of Israel and simce 1948, and I think it's extremely important that there was -- there was a lot of cultural and social, economic ties that bound the Arab and through institutions like -- (inaudible) -- that go back to the 19th century.

GELB: There are -- these are a very interesting points.

Rima, I'm going to have to let you come in here. These men are not going to be as polite as I. (Chuckles.)

AFIFI: I was just -- (chuckles) -- I was going add to what's been said that I think the issue which everybody's referring to is the issue of consistency. So it's very important that in the -- in the U.S. policy towards the region, there is consistency. And that's what's going to, I think, promote better relationships between the Arab world and the United States in terms of policy.

So the response has to either be on the side of people who are demanding their freedom everywhere in the Arab world or not, but it can't be for some it's OK and for some it's not.

And we've already brought up the difference between Bahrain and Syria. What happened in Bahrain was disastrous, and nobody's talking about it. The Arab world's not talking about it either, but the U.S. is not talking about it, whereas we just heard that sanctions were imposed, for example, on the Syrian president. That's a very inconsistent response to two people(s) that are trying demand their freedom and their independence.

KHOURI: If I can jump in here, I think one of the common points that we're all saying -- and this is very clear for us who live in the region, hear it every day -- we have turned a historic -- this is a historic turning point in the Arab world. This is not just another interesting moment of change and reform. This is a cataclysmic, epic process that has started, and it's the first time that Arabs are trying to become self-determinant, not just free, not just democratic, but self-determinant, to define their own systems and to exercise real sovereignty. And they have therefore taken the initiative.

What Obama is going to do tomorrow, interestingly enough, is going to be a -- he is in a position where he is reacting to the events in the region -- not initiating them, reacting -- from a posture of great inconsistency and hesitancy on the part of the United States, and even some confusion, at a moment when the United States is structurally marginalized in its inability to any -- to influence any major developments in recent years, other than sending its Army.

And in the last three or four years you had at the same moment, simultaneously, the Arabs, the Israelis, the Iranians and the Turks all pushing back against the United States when it was demanding or threatening or suggesting or pushing them to do things. All four of the major actors in the region were pushing back.

So we're dealing with a situation now where the initiative for the historic change, the historic character of the Arab region is now in the hands of Arab citizens. And the United States is a hobbled, marginalized, reactive bystander. This is a very historic moment of change.

It doesn't mean that the United States irrelevant. It means that for the moment it is ineffective. It can regain its relevance. Most people don't particularly care what the United States thinks anymore. They want the United States to be engaged, but they want it to be engaged consistently.

And the answer to your question about what does Palestine have to do with the Arabs -- it's a -- it's a -- it has to do with the United States telling us if it really believes that freedom is indivisible. If you honestly believe your own rhetoric, then show us that freedom's indivisible by your actions. If you don't believe that freedom is indivisible, that it is -- in fact can be apportioned in a discriminate manner, then thank you very much, we will understand that, and we will behave accordingly.

And you will be further marginalized, which is not a good thing, because the United States partnership with a democratic and free Arab world, and an Arab-Israeli world that are at peace with each other, and an Iran and a Turkey that all work together -- I mean, the promise of this transformation is mind-boggling. This -- the Arab world is like Europe in 1946 -- to regain a burst of democratic development with integration and progress that benefits the whole world.

GELB: Thank you so much, Rami. This is a terrific discussion. It really is.

And now it's up to you to keep it going. I went over, but I could have just gone on and on. Just excellent.

The usual: Raise your hands. You'll get recognized. Stand, identify yourselves -- name, rank, serial number. And do what you want everybody else to do: Come right to the point.

Hands, please. Right over here.

QUESTIONER: I'm Donald Shriver, former president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Many decades ago, I paid a visit to AUB, and my impression was that that was a very comfortable place for an American to visit. I'd like to ask you the institutional question. Is the "A" in AUB an asset or a liability now for the public relations of your institution?

GELB: Rima, why don't you take (a shot ?)?

AFIFI: OK. This, I think -- because we were talking about that question throughout these three days, partially in how we're comparing the state institutions that President Dorman started off talking about, the American institutions that have been there a long time, versus those that are now newly coming up.

And what we talk about all the time is, American institutions that have been in the region for a long time are not seen necessarily as purely American. They're part of the indigenous nature of the -- of the -- of the context in which they're in. And therefore people actually get beyond the "A" very quickly, because the -- all of us are working in those communities. The -- our students come from a wide variety of diverse religions, diverse political positions, and they're all in the same place talking whatever they want to say in an open way and in dialogue. So I don't think the "A" is at all -- I mean, I think it's -- it doesn't bother us at all. It doesn't bother anybody. People are looking beyond the "A" because they feel that -- at least the American University of Beirut and, I think, the same with the American University of Cairo, is part of the context of -- that they live in.

GELB: Thank you, Rima.

Did you want to --

MR. : Yes, I wanted to add that I work in rural areas and I go and present myself always as the American University of Beirut. And I've never heard any resentment over this. I think people make a difference --

MR. : All Arabs.

MR. : -- between American foreign policy and the American people. Nobody dislikes the American people, but people strongly dislike current and previous American foreign policy.

GELB: Thank you, Rami.

Again, I forgot to mention this is all on the record.


QUESTIONER: Hi. (Off mic.)



Go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Hi, my name is Elmira Bayrasli. I'm with the Peace Dividend Trust. Wael Ghonim, who's the Google employee in Egypt who became a big symbol for the revolution there, there was a big backlash against him today on Twitter, that he hasn't spoken out enough against the army, that he's pushing for -- he's got this focus on economic development and he's not speaking out enough against -- about human rights and civil society development. Is he right or wrong?

GELB: Who wants to take that one?

ZURAYK: I mean, I can talk about this. Are you talking about Wael Ghonim or -- OK. I mean, I don't really understand why the question has to be posed, if you allow me of course, because there are differences in opinions between people that are normal and that exist here and in here. And some people may agree or disagree on what the next step is democratically. As in any other place, why do we expect the whole Arab revolution and its leadership -- or there is no leadership really, but the people who were a part of it -- to come out as a homogenous bloc with the same ideology. Some people believe that this is how we should start. Others believe that that is how we should start. And I think this is healthy and wish this would be fostered rather than, you know, questioned as a process. This is a truly democratic process of the -- (inaudible).

GELB: Please.

QUESTIONER: My name is -- (name inaudible). The question I have -- none --

GELB: Your affiliation?

QUESTIONER: I'm sorry -- ANZ Bank. My question is about -- none of the speakers talked about the economics or the need for jobs, the socio-economic context for what's happening in the region. Could you speak to that, please?

KHOURI: Yeah, I can make several comments on that. I think, you know, the important thing to understand about why this happened is that it was a combination of material grievances -- jobs, income, health care, water, whatever; practical things that people were complaining about across the region -- the combination of that with the intangible elements of a sense of deprivation of your rights and a deprivation of your rights by your own societies. There was very little or almost no comment about Israel or Russia, the U.S., Europe, foreign policy at that -- at this moment. That will come later. But people were indignant because of how their own societies treated them. And when the intangible deprivations combined with the material stresses, the situation became volatile and it exploded.

If you -- the pressure of jobs and incomes more than jobs, because people will have jobs don't -- young people don't have enough money to get married. This is one of the biggest complaints that young people across the region have. And this is now documented in poll -- in good polling evidence. So the jobs are an important issue, but it's not by itself a -- the main problem. It's that combination of things.

Spain has 21 percent unemployment, but they don't have problems like we do because they have other mechanisms that allow people to deal with their problems. So I think we have to focus on the two things together.

GELB: Thank you.

Rima, please.

AFIFI: I just wanted to add from the -- from the young -- from the youth perspective, we have the second highest unemployment rate among youth in the -- in the world. So 25 percent of our youth are unemployed. And I think this does have something to do with -- so we have both the problem of unemployment, and as Rami has said, of underemployment. Both of those are problems. And that's linked a lot to the issues of the education system is not preparing young people for the jobs that are available in the market. So there is significant change that needs to happen. And both unemployment and underemployment are linked to poverty and from lack of income.

So all of these things end of being very linked together and hard to separate.

GELB: What's the -- (inaudible) -- of your Arab oil brethren in providing money for investment purposes, to provide these jobs? What are they doing?

KHOURI: Well, the record historically is pretty good, yes? Well, historically, the Arab oil producers --

GELB: In -- back in the 1700s or -- (laughter) --

KHOURI: Well, the -- (inaudible) -- the oil boom of the '70s and development loans, grants, budget support; and most importantly, opening their markets for jobs, generated tremendous remittances. There has been massive support from the oil producers to the non oil producers. But the management of that money by the non oil-producing companies (sic) with corruption, mismanagement, incompetence and pretty rough policies coming from outside in terms of economic support, aid, that have distorted economies -- that combination has kept these societies in very bad shape.

GELB: For example, how much did the oil producers give to Lebanon last year or the year before?

KHOURI: Well, I couldn't give you a figure off the top of my head, but if you go back to it from the --

GELB: The order of magnitude.

KHOURI: Oh, probably --

GELB: You said "massive."

KHOURI: In grants and loans, probably hundreds of millions of dollars for Lebanon, for Jordan. You measure in the billions for Egypt; and then investments, direct investments, there's a huge flow of income between the oil producers and the non oil producers. But that's not the main issue.

GELB: Rami, do you want to --

ZURAYK: (Inaudible) -- that's -- the remittances from people who are working in the Gulf are what make a lot of the economies of these countries survive.

GELB: So they're individuals providing --

ZURAYK: Yes, of course. I mean, if there wasn't for jobs in the -- in the oil-producing countries, then this situation would be much, much worse in these places. But I know what you're talking about. You're talking about direct investment --

GELB: (Inaudible.)

ZURAYK: -- as if we were -- as if we were united, you know, investing not because of the market but investing because of a political program that is geared towards improving the conditions in the other countries against the principles of free-market rules. That is, you choose to invest in Lebanon although investing in the U.S. would bring you more money.

And I agree with you, you know, this has not happened, but this -- that would not come alone. It would come with a political framework or more -- of more Arab integration, a responsibility between the two. And this Arab integration I am not sure would be allowed to happen that easily. You cannot just have them in place without having them unite. And also, they're very busy using their money to buy weapons from the U.S. (Laughter.)

GELB: (Inaudible) -- for that.

ZURAYK: Precisely. That's precisely what they're not expecting in Egypt and elsewhere. They can't do both things.

KHOURI: And if you're talking about money, if it had just used 10 percent of the $3 trillion you wasted on the war in Iraq and invested it wisely, that would have solved a lot of things.

GELB: (Inaudible.) Please, go ahead.

MR. : (Inaudible) -- the remittances, and also reconstruction, as well. (Inaudible) -- countries goes back to the 2006 war in Lebanon. They (plowed ?) in hundreds of millions of dollars for reconstruction of actual Israeli -- (flats ?) in Lebanon. But it pales in comparison with the amount of money that's invested in weapons, which are not particularly useful for anybody.

GELB: Back to you all.

QUESTIONER: My name is -- I'm the other Gelb, Bruce Gelb. I used to be the director of the U.S. Information Agency, and I'm looking for a little information specifically from Professor Makdisi, having to do --

MR. : That's Makdisi. That's the right Rami. Rami two. He's Rami one..

GELB: Yeah, the other Rami.

QUESTIONER: -- having to do with a statement that was made that your part of the world has to import half of its food.

MAKDISI (?): No, 80 percent.

KHOURI: Eighty percent.

MAKDISI (?): Eighty percent, I said. Eight zero.

QUESTIONER: Of your food.

MAKDISI (?): Of the food consumed. Fifty percent of the calories.

QUESTIONER: The question I've got -- because I have read of -- about Israel that they talk about how they made the desert bloom. What is the percent of food that they have to -- if you know -- that they have to import.

MAKDISI (?): It's about the same.

QUESTIONER: Is it about the same?

MAKDISI (?): Yes.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

GELB: Here.

QUESTIONER: I'm Judy Miller, journalist at large. I'm going to notice that there was a certain country not mentioned here tonight, and that's Lebanon, the country you come from. One, when will the Arab Spring, if it ever does, come really to Lebanon? And when democracy takes the form of a group -- an ethnic or sectarian or ideological group -- seizing power in the name of democracy, how will you guys respond?

MR. : Do you want to start, Rami, and then I can take on that?

KHOURI: Okay, I will start.

GELB: (Inaudible.)

KHOURI: The dynamics of the Arab Spring across the Arab world are completely different than the reality in Lebanon. So we won't see the same kind of thing happening, because the Arab Spring is mostly about disenfranchised people who feel vulnerable, who feel humiliated, who feel subjugated by their own central governments, badly treated, abused, and not given opportunities by their own governments, who control power and monopolize it and make lots of money; therefore, there's a rebellion against their central governments to change them. And that would allow the citizens to be empowered.

In Lebanon the average citizen doesn't feel disempowered. The weak central government in Lebanon is designed in a way to allow the 18 different confessional groups to all share the pie structurally of parliament and the cabinet and the army posts, diplomatic posts; therefore, any citizen has a route into the assets of the central government. So their complaint against the central government is not that it oppresses them, and therefore you won't have the same dynamic.

There are complaints against the government -- of corruption, of mismanagement, of uneven distribution of development assets -- but you won't see the Arab Spring reach Lebanon in the same way. The impact will be if Syria changes, if Saudi Arabia changes its policy, which it's doing now; there will be indirect impacts.

MAKDISI: Just a thought on this. I don't think the status is that most citizens have access to it, I think. I think it's more that a large number of people don't have access to it but they think they do, and they are directed towards various sectarian groups, as we know. But the sectarian system has an ability to defuse this thing and to prevent social movements from rising and claiming things such as happened in Tahrir Square, for instance.

ZURAYK: Yes. And, I mean, to return to Lebanon, there are, of course, 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon, but there are also other people. And if we think about who are the most disenfranchised, the most oppressed, the poorest, those who have least access, you're really talking here about the Palestinian refugees in the camps.

And as a matter of fact, just to remember something, the Arab Spring is a modality. It's a different way of doing politics. It's a way that involves everybody that is -- (inaudible) -- that is pacific in which you demand relentlessly, boldly, audaciously, but you demand in front of the whole world what is your right until the system cracks and gives you that right.

And the Palestinians in Lebanon, who are ripe for this kind of action, who are, you know, the best candidates because they are disenfranchised, have actually taken the Arab Spring in. And last Sunday -- last Sunday, they organized a big march to go to the Lebanese borders and shout to the face of the world their wish, which is to return to Palestine. And of course, they were met with live bullets, and there were 11 dead and about --

GELB: Rami, I -- you know, leaving the shooting aside, because I think that Israel ought to do everything it can to avoid shooting, do you really expect Israel to accommodate all of the Palestinian refugees we're talking about; 2 (million), 3 (million), 5 million -- I don't know how you count them.

ZURAYK: Four-point-five (million).

GELB: You have 4.5 (million) coming back into Israel. Is that the right of return you're talking about? Because if it is, you know, the Israelis couldn't possibly accept it. There'll be a total transformation of the state, and they would have no state. So what kind of right of return are you really talking about?

ZURAYK: Well, I am talking about the right of return that the Palestinians in Lebanon who followed, you know, the lead of the Arab Spring, went peacefully to the borders to demand. You know, I am Lebanese. They are demanding this. It is up to the international community to listen to them and to judge if their demands are rightful and to give them the support that they are giving elsewhere, but for them, for every Palestinian refugee, for every 4.5 million; and, to a large extent, for every Arab, this is a rightful demand.

MAKDISI: Let me -- let me -- let me rephrase this a little. Say you have -- in the absence of a -- of a dead two-state solution, which has not worked and which was promised to Palestinians and Palestinian refugees -- that has not worked. In -- as Rami was saying, Palestinian refugees are vastly mistreated within their host countries, and especially in a country like Lebanon, there's very little hope of anything else. They cling on to the right of return. And the right of return as a right has to be addressed. Political solutions can happen, but the right of return as a right has to be addressed full-on, otherwise there will not be a solution to the Arab --

GELB: Well, what does that mean, to fully address it? Does that mean they will have the right to actually return to what is now the state of Israel?

MAKDISI: The Palestinians should have the right to self determine where they end up.

KHOURI: It has to be a process that is negotiated. The Arab Peace Plan of 2002 was worded very carefully to say that a -- resolution of the refugee issue to be agreed by the Israelis and the Palestinians, to be agreed and negotiated. And essentially, in diplomatic code, what that means is it's not likely that 4 1/2 million Palestinians will go back to Israel, because Israel won't accept that. Therefore, the word "agreed" becomes operative.

But it also demands that Israel acknowledge the right of return as a right and the negotiations to be held, giving the refugees a range of options which are very clear in international law -- repatriation, restitution, third-party resettlement, Palestinian state -- there's a whole range of options that can be done. The critical starting point -- the critical starting point for the Palestinians is an Israeli acknowledgement of how refugeehood happened. The Israeli involvement in the refugeehood of the Palestinians has to be acknowledged.

The trade-off in the end is going to be the Palestinians acknowledging the core demands of the Israelis and the Israelis recognizing the core demands of the Palestinians.

GELB: And do the -- do the Arab states, Rami, provide a similar rights to the Jews that they chase from their own borders, Jews who have lived there in those countries for thousands of years?

KHOURI: The answer to that is precisely that the same principles have to be applied, that freedom and the rule of law are indivisible, that Israelis and Arabs must be subjected to the same rule of law, same U.N. resolutions, same International Court of Justice judgements; the single standard of law. That's what Moses came to tell us. That's what God-fearing Moses in Deuteronomy tell us. There's a single standard of law for all human beings; it's Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists. And this is the answer --

GELB: Right.

MR. KHOURI: -- that Jews who have claims in Arab countries bring them to the table. And they must be addressed on the single standard of law and morality. There's no other way to do it.

GELB: We have time for one last question.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Sorry, I already have the mic from before. Just back to Leslie's question about U.S. policy towards the Palestinians and the U.S. reputation in the region, short of doing the things that you were mentioning in terms of recognizing Palestinian rights, what could the U.S. do policy-wise that would improve its reputation in that region short of some of what you discussed earlier?

GELB: Why don't we just go right up the line?

Let's start with Rami this time. (Laughter.)

MR. KHOURI: What could the U.S. do? I think be consistent -- be consistent as much as possible. I understand that great powers sometimes have to balance policy with interests, but I think consistency is a -- is a -- is a value that can be applied.

Be clear in your commitment to certain principles. Clarity is a starting point; rhetoric is the starting point for policy. So I think the United States should make it clear that it supports freedom and rule of law for everybody and then take gestures to support that process. It should not be flagrantly contradictory in saying that it wants to support a Palestinian state and then veto a resolution that condemns Israeli settlements.

So consistency is, I think, a very good starting point, and then using its diplomatic muscle in a multilateral way. The United States has failed as a unilateral negotiator, as a unilateral mediator. It has failed miserably. And this is why the three things that the Palestinians have done in the last year have all been a sign that they've given up on negotiating with Israel and they've given up on the U.S. as a mediator. Salam Fayyad's state-building plan, the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas, and the Palestinians going to the General Assembly for a resolution: All three of those things emphatically, clearly say the United States cannot be relied upon to do anything. The Israelis cannot be relied upon. We've got to go on a different route. Maybe a year or two from now we can come back on negotiations. And, hopefully, that will happen with a more impartial mediator. The U.S. needs to go multilaterally and stop trying to do things on its own, while it is -- (word inaudible) -- by its very strong commitment to Israel -- which is a perfectly good position for the U.S. to have. But you can't be committed to one side and be a mediator between the other side. It just doesn't work.

GELB: Thank you so much, Rami.


MAKDISI: Yes. I would say that one of -- one of the biggest symbols that happened during the Arab Spring was the veto in the Security Council of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements.

Now, this encapsulates, I think, what U.S. foreign policy has been in recent times. And I think there's a great opportunity for U.S. foreign policy to readjust itself, and I would include supporting genuine democratic movements. This includes, for instance, when the Palestinians get together and form national unity governments. This should be supported, as it -- as it should be supported -- (inaudible) -- Lebanon, as -- when Egypt's going to have the elections, it's undoubtedly going to be a national unity government. This is going to be the model of the Arab Spring, which is national unity government, which includes Islamists, includes secularists, includes all sorts of groups. This, as a democratic process, has to be encouraged.

And we have to move beyond words into actual implementation. The question of restarting dead peace processes that are based on old models which no longer exist should be thrown out; new policies have to be set in place; and finally, I would say, a realization -- very, very clear realization that the so-called anti-Americanism in the region is not -- is not -- a question of Arabs hating Americans. This is simply not true. I think we've -- I mean, this is, you know, out of the question. But it's a question of a clear disliking of American policy in the region. And this may fuel some extremists, but the vast majority of Arabs are perfectly happy to have a very good relationship with America.

GELB: Thank you so much, Karim.

Rami --

ZURAYK: I think a lot has been said, so I'll --

GELB: Can I ask you -- let me ask you a question --


GELB: -- maybe something to prompt you to say something in conclusion.

What do you think that the Arabs themselves can do to help themselves at this point?

ZURAYK: You're asking me that, right?

GELB: Yeah. And we'll conclude on that.

ZURAYK: Go full force in the Arab Spring without any consideration to what the superpowers can do or will do. Take responsibility, as they have done, for their future, for their sovereignty, for the world they want to build and the world they want to construct. And this is what is going on right now.

GELB: (Inaudible.)

ZURAYK: If you'll allow me, I wanted to add a little bit --

GELB: Please.

ZURAYK: -- to the issue of what can America do --

GELB: Please.

ZURAYK: -- and perhaps leave with this small thought about who are America's best allies in the region, and are these the models of democracy and of the world we want to have. And if you look at their list, you will find that there is Israel, but there's also Saudi Arabia, and there are also the Gulf regimes. And these I would not choose to describe as models of democracy.

GELB: Ladies and gentlemen, I've done this for so many years of my life. This is as smart and useful as it gets. I thank you so much. (Applause.)








Top Stories on CFR

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The U.S. military is considering some major shifts to its posture in Europe, including a large withdrawal from bases in Germany, that are raising security concerns on the continent.

Middle East and North Africa

The Trump administration’s case for invoking “snapback” sanctions against Iran for violating the nuclear deal rests on shallow arguments that have left Washington alone in efforts to pressure Tehran.

Food and Water Security

Global food insecurity has surged amid the coronavirus pandemic, threatening to worsen humanitarian crises and spur further mass migration.