Foreign military intervention heightens problems in the Middle East, internationally recognized expert Rami Khouri said.
Khouri lectured Tuesday night at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. The lecture, “Are We Witnessing the Collapse or Rebirth of the Arab World? A View from within the Region,” did come with an answer and that answer was “yes.”
“We’re actually witnessing both a collapse and a rebirth of the Arab world,” Khouri said.
There are 22 countries in the Arab world, and while about five of those countries have active warfare, many have tensions within the individual countries. Nations vary greatly in culture and issues, but there is a common thread.
Khouri said from a historical perspective, three world orders can be identified in Arab nations, and they are collapsing.
The first is the Post World War I order of the states.
Since World War II, there has been a rise in tightly controlled governments. Those were stable for two to three decades, but they began fraying in the 1970s and 1980s, Khouri said.
Around the 1970s marked the rise of the family run security state and consumer state, such as Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
“Countries became identified with individual men and their families,” Khouri said.
These families had security forces at their command. There were no political or civil rights for people, Khouri said, only the right to be a consumer.
“It was made possible by the huge amounts of money coming in from the oil boom,” he said. “Citizens could do anything they want, as long as they go shopping or go on vacation.”
Populations grew faster than economic growth. As the per capita income decreased, the cost of services increased. Life became difficult for 50 to 60 percent of the people.
The rise of Islamic groups came in response to the lack of political and civil rights. Life was stressful for people, and most who turned to religion did so in a peaceful, non-violent way, Khouri said.
“The media doesn’t write about them and so we get these caricatures,” he said. “When you don’t have an outlet to respond in society … religion is usually a last resort.”
He said it’s important not to buy into stereotypes of extremists groups that make the headlines.
Many Arab nations are facing internal political strife and protest movements. The central state has pulled back and media censorship has declined. This is made possible in part because religious groups created their own media outlets, but also because the Internet gives a wider window on the world. News and views began to come in that were beyond censorship.
The 1980s saw the rise of many non-governmental organizations. These groups provided schooling and hope. Some are professional societies. Others are family and tribal groups. Not all are religious organizations.
“The former central power was shrinking,” Khouri said.
There also were direct and indirect consequences of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He said Israel is still colonizing and it tends to overreact in retaliation, such as it did with Hamas.
Regimes promised to protect people from Israel but became dictatorial. Military intervention of foreign actors in Europe and America and even other Arab countries intervening with each other accelerated the problems.
“There’s a tremendous flow of money and ideology into Arab countries,” he said.
In some nations, all of this has resulted in turmoil and warfare, with four or five nations having active warfare and civil strife.
Others have different underlying tensions.
“Most of the Arab world is in the low state of constant tension,” Khouri said.
There is “a great sorting out” going on and a reconfiguration of statehood, he said.
In 2010 the Arab uprising or as some call it the Arab spring, demonstrated transcontinental expressions of discontent, he said.
From social media to street demonstrations, governments were challenged by citizens who formerly never would have dared, he said.
There were human rights abuses and a lack of civil rights. Citizens were jailed for tweeting criticism.
People want a more democratic society and the rule of law. They want to be part of the constitutional process. Khouri said Tunisia is transitioning to a constitutional process.
“Egypt is still trying,” he said. “Yemen, despite the fighting, is still trying.”
Foreign aid and some direct involvement by foreign powers heightens the violence. Terrorism has become a daily reality for many.
“Car bombs are a routine, daily occurrence,” he said.
There are underlying issues at play.
“What is it that people are fighting for?” he said. “What is it that people are asking for?”
They want personal identity and to be able to live under the rule of law. Citizens want to have a relationship with their central government that they haven’t had, he said. Then, just has America has worked through issues like freedom from slavery and the right to vote, they can work through their issues, overcome problems and define their values.
Some Arab nations have had “fine constitutions,” but they were not applied, Khouri said.
There needs to be a “healthy, lasing relationship between citizens and the state,” he said. “That has never happened in the modern Arab world.”
The people need to be involved in the Constitution writing process and to address issues that matter to them. These are discussion that people are allowed to have in a democracy.
Groups like ISIS are not mainstream. ISIS is a violent group of radicals that are “widely rejected” in the Arab world, he said. They “operate in zones of chaos” where no one is in charge.
“That’s the only place these groups can work,” Khouri said. “They don’t work in the normal world.”
He encouraged people to focus on the “glass half full,” to see the struggle toward political freedom and democracy as a positive, but he warned that sometimes things get worse before they get better.
“What we’re witnessing is the collapse of the three orders,” he said.
But we are also seeing the birth — albeit a painful labor — of constitutional debates.
“They want their rights as citizens,” he said. They want citizenship rights, social justice and constitutional reform.
“The significant thing is the process has started,” Khouri said. “I urge you to take a wider look at the region.”
He said 300 million people are risking death to insist on their rights.
“This is not about Arabs or Muslims,” he said, “This is about human beings.”
Europeans and Americans have not been a positive influence toward democracy. Instead, they promote democracy while dropping bombs and support dictatorial regimes in some nations. This creates a lack of credibility.
Drones kill some terrorists, but they kill many innocent people, he said.
Khouri said there is a role for “foreign partners,” but that should come when those partners are asked for help. Help is most likely needed in areas, like assistance with computerizing court records or to assist with training for schools.
Arab people love American values, Khouri said.
They do not like American foreign policy.
Khouri will present his lecture again at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Oklahoma State University’s Wes Watkins Center. He will be leaving Oklahoma on Saturday, but will return in December.
Khouri is the director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, as well as editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.
He is an internationally syndicated political columnist and author. He is a Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. citizen whose family resides in Beirut, Amman, and Nazareth. Visit his website at http://ramikhouri.com.