I spoke to Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Starnewspaper and a recent guest on GPS, about Syria, Iran and Libya. He insists that Israel and America give Arab democracy a chance.
Amar C. Bakshi: Are you optimistic that [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad will take moves toward reform?
Rami Khouri: Well, he has taken moves toward reform, but only in economic and administrative fields – not in any serious political fields. He has talked a lot about political reforms – pluralism, ending the state of emergency, opening up the political system – but none of that has been translated into actual deeds because of various reasons that he has given. He says the system is slow.
So there are questions about how serious he is about political reforms. There is no doubt that he is serious about administrative and economic reforms because he started that process seven years ago and it’s still going on.
The real problem is the political reforms. People’s complaints are primarily political in nature, and this is really the litmus test.
I suspect that the Syria leadership understands that it is not immune from the same kinds of pressures that are hitting other Arab regimes and governments across the region. They must understand that. My impression is that they are not quite sure how to [react].
I think this is understandable, because no regime wants to make concessions and reforms under pressure because it then opens the door to more pressure to bring about more reform. This leaves them in a position where they are responding to the initiatives taken by the demonstrators and they have lost control of the system and they have to keep responding to whatever the street wants them to do. ...
We saw it in Tunisia, Egypt and in Yemen. So I think this is a real dilemma that Assad faces, and he has to think much more creatively, courageously and decisively about how to respond if the demonstrations continue.
I think it is a given that there will be other demonstrations. What we’ve seen in Syria – even though it has been intermittent and not as large as demonstrations in other Arab countries – is the beginning of a process whereby different citizens from different places with different reasons are expressing a desire for serious political reform and changes in how the governance system operates. There is no doubt about that. They’ve made it clear.
In an ironic way, Assad has recognized that in his various speeches and comments, saying he wants the emergency laws to be addressed; he wants the political system opened up for more pluralism; he wants the media to be opened up. He’s talked about these things, which is an acknowledgement of the reality in the country that many, many Syrians want change.
There are also many Syrians who are supporting the system as it is now. I think this is genuine. I don’t think these are just government goons who are paid to go out and waive the flag, [which] happens in many Arab countries.
There is deep and wide appreciation for the stability Syria enjoys compared to other countries in the region – for the sense of pride that they have, to some extent, for how Syria stands up to and defies American or European or Israeli or U.N. threats, pressures and sanctions. Many people rally around this kind of defiant nationalism.
People have enjoyed the opening up of the economic system to a large extent. If you don’t go around plotting political secret societies or subversive political moves in Syria, the government will essentially leave you alone. You can have a nice pleasant life if you have a job that gives you enough money, which many people do but not all people. There is a lot of unemployment, poverty and stress. These are the issues that many people are complaining about. But many people also support the system. So you have a system in Syria which is different than Egypt and Tunisia to some extent.
But if you get widespread demonstrations that get out of hand, and the government overreacts and shoots and kills people or puts them in jail, then you have the danger of the demonstrations becoming very big and overwhelming the system.
Syria has more options than Tunisia and Egypt did – if the regime is smart enough to use those options in a timely manner.
It is interesting [that] the initial demonstrations in Syria were not about regime change; they were about reducing corruption and bringing about political reforms, which is what Assad himself says he wants to do. In theory, on paper, it seems the Assad government can stay in power if they make a lot of changes. Whether that can happen in practice, nobody knows.
How has Iran benefited, if at all, from the upheavals around the Middle East?
It’s very hard to tell. I don’t think Iran benefits or suffers in the short run. I can’t see any significant gain or loss one way or the other.
In the long run, I think it’s probably damaging to Iran, because if the people demonstrating for more democratic government ... succeed and you have constitutional change to bring about this kind of democratic, participatory governance in some or many Arab countries, this is probably going to spill over ultimately to Iran.
Of course, Iran has done this twice already. They overthrew the shah (in 1979), and you had major demonstrations last year after the elections. ... So it’s not as if the Iranians are going to learn from the Arabs. The Iranians know how to do insurrection themselves, and they’ve done it several times.
But I think in the long run, the more democratic Arab world will not want to be very supportive of an Iranian system that does not enjoy full and clear democratic rule.
Many people in the Arab world applaud Iran for resisting and badmouthing the U.S., Israel and conservative Arab regimes. Syria and Hezbollah [benefit] in the same way. But that is a very short-term political-emotional phenomenon. Nobody in the Arab world goes around saying, "We want to create a political system like the Iranian system." Nobody.
So I think you have to be nuanced in how we understand the relationship between Arab public opinion and the Iranian government’s policies. It is a mixed bag. In the long run, Iran won’t be a winner from the Arab democratic spring.
The debate rages in Washington about whether to arm the Libyan rebels and what the end goal of the international community’s intervention in Libya ought to be. What do you think the end goal ought to be in Libya?
I think the end goal ought to be to allow the consent of the governed in Libya – to allow the people to articulate what it is they actually would want to do in reconfiguring their governance system. The majority want to get rid of Gadhafi and his rule. ...
What happens after that is really up to the Libyans. The United States should come out today and say: “We support what’s in our Constitution. We support the consent of the governed; majority rule; protection of minority rights; rule of law; a fair and independent justice system; freedom of expression; habeas corpus; all the basic fundamental building blocks of democracy as the United States and many others have implemented it.”
The U.S. should not worry about whether the Libyan democratic system that emerges … has a tribal slant or an Arab nationalist slant or an Islamic slant or a Benghazi palm tree slant. Don’t worry about how people define their democracy, as long as you have majority rights expressed and minority rights protected and there is rule of law. Whatever comes out of that process would be a good thing for everybody.
I know there are those who are concerned [saying], what if the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist groups get a foothold? What if you get anti-Israeli sentiment? Well, I don’t think that’s a politically or morally defensible position.
You cannot hold the democratic transition of a country hostage to say, Israeli concerns or anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States or anything like that. I think democracies have to be measured in their own right.
[If] democracy is good for Bosnia and good for Kansas, then it should also be good for Libya, and that’s what I think the United States should affirm very clear, loudly, [and] with no hesitation. But they haven’t done it. This is one of the peculiar things we’ve seen in the United States over the last three months during this uprising in the Arab world.
The United States remains hesitant of being fully, unconditionally supportive of democratic Arab societies, and I think partly it’s because of the influence of pro-Israeli forces; it’s partly because of this obsession with Iran; it’s partly because of this exaggerated, almost maniacal obsession with Islamist groups and Islamism coming out of 9/11 and other things. And I think there is a little bit of old-style anti-Arab racism there.
I don’t think the American government is fully committed to Arab democracy. They just are not comfortable with it to some extent, I suspect. But hopefully they’ll snap out of this childish behavior and act with more maturity. ...
I think the Israelis are as confused as the Americans, because the Israelis would like to see the Arab world be more democratic. ... But at the same time, the Israelis, like the Americans, probably know that if you had truly democratic Arab societies and public opinion was really expressed openly and honestly, you would get much more criticism of Israel, the United States and some of the Arab regimes. And this is something that bothers the Israelis very naturally, of course.
They are really torn, but the answer lies not in depriving the Arabs of democracy. The answer lies in the United States and Israel coming up with better foreign policies – being more honest, consistent, [and] law-abiding, and being more respectful of international law and U.N. resolutions.
Just as [the] Arab world is now changing, so should Israel and the United States also change. That’s the answer. The answer is not to deprive Arabs of democracy.
The opinions expressed in this Q&A are solely those of Rami Khouri.