Mohamed Bouazizi & the Arab Revolts

Rami Khouri is a well known journalist in the Middle East. Based in Beirut, he is editor-at-large of the Daily Star. His articles are syndicated in major newspapers around the world. He is the Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a recipient of the Pax Christi International Peace Award for his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

BARSAMIAN: Antonio Gramsci said, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born, and in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” In the context of the Arab Middle East and the various revolts that began in December 2010, what is your perspective on that trajectory?

KHOURI: That quote is absolutely correct. What happened in the period between December 2010 and June 2011 was an extraordinary series of rolling revolts, popular uprisings, revolutions, populist activism, and challenges to existing regimes, some of these having been in place for 40 years under the same leader, like in Libya, for instance, or the same family, as in Syria, or the same regime, as in Egypt, the army. So this sudden uprising that changed so many of the principles that have defined the Middle East for many decades, really two or three generations, was so sudden and vast in its consequences that it was very clear that there would be a long period during which people tried to reconfigure the political power structures and the legitimacies of their societies. This is a process that in Western democracies took one or two centuries. We don’t expect it to take that long in our countries, but it certainly needs more than one or two years.

I think we have to be patient, watch the process unfold, and recognize its epic nature—ordinary people, for the first time in the history of these societies— meaning in the last 8,000 years—have an opportunity to shape their countries.

Let’s talk about the spark that ignited the series of revolts, starting with Tunisia. U.S. Government cables extremely critical of the Ben Ali regime, likening it to a Mafia family, were published by WikiLeaks on November 28, 2010. Three weeks later on December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who refused to pay bribes to the police, dowsed himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. He later died. His action launched the revolt. You’ve written favorably on Tunisia, saying it “continues to show the way.”

Tunisia was literally the spark and Mohamed Bouazizi ignited a spontaneous, widespread, and continuing series of citizen uprisings all across the Arab world. His show of protest, or maybe it was self-affirmation—we don’t know exactly what he meant to do when he set himself on fire—resonated instantly with people all across the region. What happened with Bouazizi was that he articulated both in his suffering and his protest what several hundred million Arabs instinctively felt. I describe him as a kind of Rosa Parks figure.

Within a few hours, two officials in his community that he encountered treated him like dirt. They basically told him, “You have no rights. We can do anything we want with you. We can humiliate you.” We can, as a policewoman did, take his scales away and prevent him from working and, therefore, doom his family to poverty, or even worse. He was the only breadwinner of his family. He was bringing home around $73 a week. He suddenly couldn’t do any of that because this one police officer and the governor’s office denied him any kind of citizenship rights or any basic human rights.

The key thing is to go back and ask ourselves, “What were the grievances that millions and millions, tens of millions, maybe 200 million people around the Arab world, felt that connected them to Bouazizi and drove these revolts?” What happened in the last three years or so? Are the people of the Arab world still suffering under these same kinds of humiliating conditions, situations of hopelessness, vulnerability, and marginali- zation? We don’t really know because we still don’t have mechanisms that clearly express the political sentiments of ordinary people. We’ve had some indications with elections here and there, but we’re still kind of groping in the dark on this.

The Ennahda Party seems to be moderate Islamic formation trying to work with other groups within the country.

The Ennahda in Tunisia is a more sophisticated form of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in other Arab countries, partly because the leadership, Ghannouchi and others, spent decades in exile, in England mostly, and around Europe. When they came back and won a plurality—they had around 40-41 percent of the vote in Tunisia) but they were partners in the three-partner coalition government—they understood better than the Muslim Brothers in Egypt that you have to work in a collective way with other groups in society, you can’t try to force your will and dominate. So they were much more amenable to making deals, to making compromises. They had their chance, running the government for over a year and they didn’t do very well. They didn’t respond to the basic needs and grievances and expectations that citizens had been expressing for years and years.

The Ennahda have to rethink, regroup. People want political leaderships and governments to do something about jobs, schooling, health care, water, housing, transportation, and reasonably priced food. If the government doesn’t deliver on those things, people will bring in another government.

Egypt is the bellwether of the region, the cultural and political center. But you’ve described it as a “forlorn global backwater of mediocrity and mismanagement.”

That’s what it had become under 60 years of military rule. But after 1952, when the military took over and controlled Egypt—and still does today, by the way—under that leadership, with one-party control, when the National Democratic Party was formed under Sadat, it became marginalized, mediocre, inefficient, corrupt, lifeless. It was one of the sad things of the modern Arab world.

This is the difficult part. It’s easy to overthrow somebody like Mubarak, as we see in retrospect. The reason it was easy was because the armed forces—who are the real power—decided that they weren’t going to fight to keep him in power, they were going to let him go. But the armed forces are still in power behind the scene. They’re the ones who still call the shots. So that’s the big question: When do you fully transfer power from the military to civilian authorities?

In those Tahrir Square demonstrations, which captured the imagination of the world, a familiar slogan was, “The army and the people are one hand.”

And this reflects something that has been well documented in public opinion polling going back 10-15 years. The armed forces in most Arab countries have significant respect among the population. It’s the police and the intelligence agencies that the people don’t like because they’re the ones who beat you up and they’re the ones who are corrupt and make you pay bribes. But the armed forces tend to have a lot of respect. There are several reasons. One of them is that these are institutions through which people can develop careers and make something of their lives. Second, people see them as protecting the nation, the sovereignty of the state, its territory. And in some cases, as in Egypt, people also look at the armed forces as the ultimate protector of the ability of the people to live a dignified life. In Turkey, you had a similar role. The armed forces were always there in the background. But eventually they lost that role, with the changes in Turkey. In Egypt the armed forces are still there. They’re still largely respected. People were very happy to let the supreme commander of the armed forces (SCAF) take control of the transition for the first year after Mubarak was overthrown. And now they’re back again and a lot of Egyptians are happy to have them back to manage another transition.

People don’t want the army to rule forever. They like the armed forces to be there in the background to prevent any crazy group taking over and to provide a basic sense of physical day-to-day security. So the relationship between citizens and the armed forces in Egypt and other Arab countries is a peculiar one.

The reason that this is the case is because these countries don’t have legitimate civil institutions of government. They don’t have democratic systems, they don’t have citizenship rights. So you need somebody to make you feel that your humanity and your basic civil and human rights are protected to a minimum degree. And that institution is the armed forces.

The Muslim Brotherhood, formed in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, did provide that kind of faith-based organization to which Egyptians in the millions responded. Mohamed Morsi was elected in 2012. He had, let us say, a checkered administration. There were massive demonstrations opposing him in late June 2013 and then there was a coup which was not a coup on July 3. Walk us through the series of events leading to Morsi’s downfall.

That year, from June 2012 to June 2013, there was a phenomenal historical experience for Egypt and the Arab world. What happened was, first, you had a legitimately elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood Party and the parliament had a majority of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. So for the first time you had in an important Arab country a democratically elected, legitimate Muslim Brothers in power. And people were happy to see them take office. People felt that they were there to help achieve the goals of the revolution. And Morsi’s first act on being elected, before he was sworn in constitutionally, was to go to Tahrir Square and go into the crowds. He was symbolically saying that his legitimacy comes from the people, not from some army officer or some judge who swears him in or some old constitution. It’s from the people. And people liked that. 

Then, over the next year, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi acted with total and absolute mediocrity and inefficiency, even thuggery and buffoonery to some extent. They were a huge disappointment. Everybody was shocked—their supporters as well as their critics. Nobody expected them to be so incompetent. They were unable to achieve anything of significance at the level of policy, government, institutional development of democratic systems, consensus building, expansive pluralistic decision making. At any level, they were a total failure, even basic day-to-day security and provision of basic services like gasoline and bread. They also tried to grab power by putting all their own people in positions of authority and sidelining other people.

So people got worried after a year as they saw that the country was falling apart economically, security was deteriorating, there was no sense of real democratic transition. That’s when you had this popular uprising, the Tamarrud movement, to get rid of the Muslim Brothers, by asking for early elections and a democratic transition. They weren’t asking for an overthrow or a coup. The Tamarrud movement got millions and millions of signatures and did street demonstrations. They were basically asking, “Let the people again validate whether Morsi should stay in office or get somebody better.”

Then the army stepped in and carried out a coup. It was a coup that walked into the picture on a platform provided by popular demonstrations. So this was a critical link between popular sentiment, which has legitimacy, and the army coup, which is illegitimate. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did. And now we’re in this transition.

The reality is that you have two major groups that are powerful and have popular credibility—the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither of them has the ability to actually govern well. And the people, broadly speaking, have also made it clear that they don’t particularly want the Muslim Brotherhood to run society—because they were incompetent and thuggish—but they also don’t want the army again. What’s a big mystery is why non-Muslim Brotherhood political activists—the civil society groups, the secularists, the nationalists, the lefties, the youth movement, the revolutionary youth—were also incompetent. They couldn’t get their act together. They couldn’t form political movements to counter the Muslim Brothers. The only one that did to some extent was Tamarrud—this youth-driven movement to get the petition to have early elections to get rid of Morsi. It’s not clear if that dynamic of the Tamarrud movement, these young people getting petitions all over the country, will develop into some kind of organized political group. It may or it may not. We’ll see.

The Brotherhood has been declared an illegal organization. Its assets are being seized. Morsi is in jail, as is the top echelon of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Hundreds, if not several thousand people, have been killed, many more thousands in jail. Why the violent response from the military?

I think the violent response from the military is because they have no experience in political pluralism. They don’t know how to do democratic transitions, they don’t know how to do constitution writing, they don’t know how to do negotiations and compromises and deal-making in a political context. They acted roughly, quickly, and hastily. They were panicking to some extent. And possibly you had some people in the military who saw an opportunity to take power again. It’s possible that el-Sisi or other people with him actually want to run for president and be elected. They have appointed their people in most of the governorates, provinces, of the country.

Historically, in the last 35 years or so, government appointees to local governorates or heads of big corporations or state bodies have almost always been filled by former army officers. This is how the military creates what’s called the deep state. So there are all kinds of mechanisms by which these thousands of former military people are now in power. But they were not elected.

There is a big business side to the armed forces in Egypt, which they have developed over the last 30-40 years. The country seems to have adjusted to this because they’re producing things that the country needs: clothes, food, tourism. So there isn’t a big controversy over whether the military should run this large commercial empire. That’s not a big problem right now. The big problem is should the military run the political system. The ability of the armed forces to efficiently run commercial enterprises is something that is a plus for them because they can help get the country back on its feet again and get the economy growing again. But I think people will leave that for the moment and focus much more on the political institutions of the state.

Washington has concerns about Egypt, not necessarily about the Egyptian people, but they’re worried about the peace treaty with Israel, they’re worried about its warships having privileged access to the Suez Canal, and they’re concerned about their military flights using Egyptian airspace. The peace treaty seems to be a big issue for them.

The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, I think, is not in jeopardy.

Isn’t it very unpopular with the average person on the street?

Yes and no. People are critical of Israel because of the way Israel mistreats Palestinians and also because of the infringement on sovereignty that many Egyptians feel came out of the peace treaty with Israel where there are controls about what military equipment Egypt can have in the Sinai. Israel has to approve that. Some people don’t like that. But people also don’t want to go back to war with Israel. They are pretty clear about that. The same in Jordan. People are critical of Israel, but the peace treaties that Egypt and Jordan have with Israel are not in jeopardy.

What is in jeopardy is the close relationship with the U.S. If they see the U.S. meddling too much or trying to boss people around, they will push back. This is one of the new realities in the Middle East. You see it in Turkey, Iran, in different Arab countries, Saudi Arabia even, Egypt, where people will push back against the U.S. Governments will take policy courses that the U.S. doesn’t like, but will do them because they feel they’re in their own interest.

The Obama administration has already cut back some military aid to Egypt.

That’s a symbolic gesture. The U.S. would rather not see the armed forces carrying out coups against elected presidents. The U.S. isn’t going to cut off ties with the Egyptian military.

Talk more about the economic background before these revolts took place. This is a highly water-stressed region. In Syria, for example, for years there was a severe drought that impoverished many farmers, drove them into cities, where they struggled. You mentioned rising food prices. Something like 80 percent of food grains in the Arab Middle East are imported. People can’t afford basic necessities.

Again, go back to Mohamed Bouazizi as a symbol of the lives that several hundred million Arabs lead. If you say there are around 360 million Arabs today, probably 200-250 million are low-income or poor with zero political rights and stressful socioeconomic conditions. Once you feel that you don’t have any opportunity to improve your socioeconomic conditions or your political conditions, that you’re basically destined to live a life of servitude and marginalization and vulnerability and humiliation, that’s when somebody goes over the edge and decides to out on the street and march, even at the risk of being arrested and tortured and killed.

But even with that risk, they still go out. Hundreds of thousands of people, or millions of people, in some cases, go out on the street and do that. Essentially, what they’re saying is, “My life is not worth living under the present conditions. If I’m treated like an animal, if I have no opportunity to give my kids a better future, if my life has no meaning, then I might as well risk it and try to give it meaning and try to improve it.”

How have the monarchies—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates—managed to hang on in this tumultuous moment?

There are different kinds of monarchies. You have the wealthy ones, like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar. Then you have the less wealthy ones, like Morocco and Jordan. The wealthy ones have done it by pumping huge amounts of money into their societies and buying people off. The Saudis and the Kuwaiti, right after the uprisings started, spent something like $150 billion to improve people’s salaries, to give people free handouts. There was an incredible show of buying off discontent. The other thing is, those regimes have more legitimacy than republican regimes like Egypt and Syria. The monarchies have a longer line of legitimacy. They tend to be a bit more in tune with what their people need because, as monarchies, they feel that their legitimacy comes basically from serving their people, at least that’s how they put it.

But maybe not in Bahrain where a Sunni king is ruling a majority Shi’a population.

That’s why there is more or less an armed revolt because in Bahrain it’s a question of political inequity, discrimination. But if you look at Jordan or Morocco or Saudi Arabia, there the monarchies have a different kind of legitimacy from the countries where you have people like Qaddafi or Zine al-Adidine Ben Ali. So it’s a combination of those two things. People in those countries have not gone out in the street to overthrow the regimes. Even in Bahrain the demonstrations were for reform; they weren’t to overthrow the ruling family. People are asking for reform. They want constitutional change, they want less corruption, they want more participation, more accountability. So they’re asking for reforms rather than overthrow. And they got some reforms, but very limited. Most of the activism in the monarchies is being done through social media on the Internet. But this reflects the grievances among ordinary people that will perhaps one day be translated into street demonstrations and things of that nature. There have been some demonstrations, but very limited.

There have been interesting developments since the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran in June 2013. There was the famous Obama phone call to Rouhani in New York. There are negotiations now, finally, after decades of complete silence, between the U.S. and Iran. Do you see this as an opening and a breaking down of hardline positions?

The Iran-U.S. rapprochement is incredibly important. It’s one of the most significant political developments in recent decades. It’s going to open the door towards a slow resolution of the issues that both sides have raised. The Iranians have raised many issues against the U.S., the West, and Israel. And the West, Israel, the U.S., and some Arab countries, have raised concerns about Iran’s nuclear development. They’re afraid Iran will get a nuclear bomb. So all those issues are now being addressed. This is why it’s so significant and why we’re getting these breakthroughs. For the first time, you’re getting the U.S. government making concessions to Iran while Iran has been making positive gestures to the U.S. and to the negotiating mechanism, the “P5+1,” that exists to talk about the nuclear issue under the UN umbrella.

This is what’s important to understand. The Americans made two huge concessions to the Iranians. They said, “We are not going to try to bring down the Iranian regime.” They accepted that Iran can enrich uranium at a level that does not allow it to create a bomb, and under international supervision, which the Iranians have always said is all they want. So the U.S. has already given Iran two major concessions. And Iran simultaneously is saying, “We’re perfectly willing to have intrusive international inspections, we’re willing to limit the amount of enriched uranium, the level of enrichment, etc.”

That’s why we have this breakthrough because both sides have recognized that you can solve this problem politically, but you can only solve it when both sides make gestures of equal magnitude to the other side.

The U.S. footprint in the Middle East is enormous. It has a huge base in Bahrain. The Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf are virtually U.S. lakes, patrolled by armadas. Yemen is being bombed, Somalia is being bombed, other countries are being threatened with military action. Where do you see U.S. policy in the region—given this background of militarization and intervention and ongoing support for Israel—going?

It’s become pretty clear in the last 20 years or so that the U.S. has very mixed perceptions of what its priorities are in the Middle East. Is it protecting oil flows? Is it protecting conservative Arab regimes, most of which are police states? Is it protecting Israel at any price? Is it fighting terrorism? Is it promoting democracy? There has been no clarity, no consistency in American foreign policy in the Middle East, and lots of contradictions.

We see the consequences, particularly after the invasion of Iraq and with the continuing criminal actions by using drones, this global assassination campaign. The U.S. has become a hit squad. They’re going around the world assassinating people without putting them on trial, without getting any credible evidence against them. They kill whoever they want. And if they end up killing a wedding party in Pakistan or Yemen, tough bananas. This is unacceptable and the world is pushing back against this.

What we have going on now is an unprecedented moment where in Turkey, Iran, and the Arab countries you have the potential for all of these countries to be run by reasonably democratic governments that are happy to be on very good terms with the U.S., as long as the U.S. respects their rights and their legitimate interests and doesn’t go around acting like a thug or a bully or a Mafia hit man.

The ongoing devastating war in Syria is going into its third year. Obama has announced that Assad must go—not exactly a negotiating position to start with. How do you see this playing out? You know what happened in Lebanon, where war continued for 15 years, until finally people stopped because of exhaustion.

Syria is the biggest proxy war in modern history. You have more people fighting in Syria than I think we have ever seen in any single country in the last 100 years. You’ve got local people fighting, you’ve got regional people fighting, you’ve got the Americans, Russians, and Chinese involved. And you’ve got five or six or seven major regional battles that are also taking place simultaneously inside Syria: Shi’ites and Sunnis, Iranians, and Arabs, Kurds and Arabs, Arabs and Israelis, secularists, Islamists, monarchists, and republicans.

For every one of these protagonists, it’s an existential battle. They cannot afford to lose. Whether it’s Hezbollah or the U.S. or Saudi Arabia, Iran, Assad, Russia, whoever. They’re terrified that if they lose in Syria, they’re going to lose all over the region. That’s why it’s so vicious and it’s getting worse and it’s virtually impossible to resolve through any kind of local negotiations by the Assad regime or the opposition. This issue in Syria will be resolved when the Americans, the Russians, the Iranians, and the Saudis get together and start working on a transition to a more peaceful future.

Where do you see the Kurdish issue evolving? There’s a de facto autonomous state in northern Iraq, there’s a large Kurdish population in Iran, in neighboring Turkey, and in Syria as well. They’re often called the largest group in the world that doesn’t have a state.

The Kurds deserve a state. They are a genuine national force, they are a country, they are a nation. They have their distinct culture, history, and language. They should be a sovereign country, but the reality is that that’s not going to happen soon. The most that can be expected is that the autonomous region in northern Iraq, and soon in northern Syria, and then more autonomy in Turkey will allow them free movement among one other and they will be able to exercise all of their identity rights as Kurds. They will be able to have their own schools and language, so they can manifest their culture and take care of their interests, but also live in, hopefully, democratic societies where if they have a grievance they bring it up in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria through the government system in each country. I don’t see a Kurdish state evolving very soon, but I think ultimately, after 30-40 years, we’re going to see the emergence of a kind of unofficial Kurdish state or certainly a Kurdish homeland in the areas where the Kurds are a majority, with possibly northern Iraq being the epicenter of that.

The largest Kurdish population is in eastern Turkey, which was rocked by demonstrations in mid-2013. This was a major challenge to Erdogan and the AKP, the moderate Islamic party that’s been ruling there for more than decade. Were you surprised by what happened in Turkey?

What happened in Turkey has to be seen in a global context because it also happened in Brazil, Occupy Wall Street, in Arab countries, and in Spain. It’s not a purely local issue. There are local dimensions, of course, but I think we have to see it as part of a global process where citizen activism, discontent, and self-assertion now matter. If citizens feel that their own government, even if it’s democratically elected, is mistreating them, they’re going to go out on the streets and express their opposition through peaceful demonstrations. So I see developments in Turkey as a global process for citizen empowerment.

September 25 marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of Edward Said. He did much to break down some of the traditional Orientalist discourse, but you see some of that reappearing in the new rhetoric surrounding the revolts in the Arab Middle East.

There is some of that happening. In the early days of the uprisings, in 2011, the immediate reaction of many Western countries or officials was: “What does this mean for Israel? Are the Islamists going to take over? They didn’t react to this by saying, Does this mean that Arab men and women will be free and self-determinant and sovereign?” When people demonstrate in Burma, people in the West are very happy, and they say, Oh, that’s great. They’re going to be free, they’re going to get rid of the dictatorship. When people demonstrate in Egypt, they say, What does this mean for Israel? What does this mean for Iran? There’s a sense that the full humanity and the complete citizen and human rights of Arab citizens are not quite appreciated by major elements of Western society. They still see the Arabs as a subordinate population whose validity comes only from the Israelis giving them validity or American corporations or NATO or somebody else. So there’s still a problem with how people, not all people, but many people in the Western world, look at Arabs and Muslims as people who don’t quite measure up to the full rights that all other human beings have in the world.


David Barsamian is a radio producer, journalist, author, and lecturer. He is director of “Alternative Radio” and author of several books, including Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky; and Louder Than Bombs: Interviews from the Progressive Magazine.