Rami G. Khouri

Persistent Roots of Arab Weakness and Relinquished Sovereignty

We are well into the start of the sixth year since uprisings and revolutions rocked parts of the Arab world in January-February 2011, and the balance sheet of achievements is very mixed, and mostly disappointing, beyond Tunisia’s fragile move into the world of constitutional, pluralistic democracies. The two most troubling aspects of what is going on in the other five countries that erupted into major street demonstrations and regime counter-attacks are the lack of any clear national consensus on how to govern the country, and the deep, militaristic interventions by foreign countries, including Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Russian, American and other powers.

Along with the five Arab uprisings countries of Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain, we should also add Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq to complete the list of eight Arab states that now face serious domestic challenges across every major dimension of life: political policies consensus, constitutional governance, economic growth, peaceful and tolerant pluralism, environmental viability, basic security, and — most importantly — genuine sovereignty that allows the citizens of a country to manage their own affairs without external interference.

The easy and simplistic analysis one encounters across the world, especially in the United States, is that Arab lands are hopelessly caught in their own self-made sectarian wars waged by ethnic, national and religious communities that are unable to live together peacefully. This strikes me as exaggerated, and insufficient to explain the profound problems these countries have faced for decades in every aspect of life, such as education quality, environmental ravages, economic mismanagement, corruption, crony capitalism, rule by security forces, widening disparities and inequalities, and a proclivity to allow foreign powers to manipulate us. These problems ravaged our societies well before any serious sectarian clashes occurred, so we should seek an explanation for our troubled condition much further back in our history.

In almost all Arab countries that suffer serious internal conflicts, political violence, and ideological, ethnic, sectarian or socio-economic stresses that have come to the fore in recent decades primarily, their common basic weakness is that they never credibly found a way to achieve an agreed, organic relationship between the rulers and the ruled. The exercise of power and public authority have always been defined by small groups of men — usually anchored in military establishments — who seized and sat in the seats of power. The exercise of responsible citizenship, in terms of duties performed and services enjoyed, has never been fully clear to the citizens or the rulers. The result has been either harsh authoritarian rule deeply backed by foreign powers or national fragmentation and bouts of chaos, incivility, civil wars, state collapse, and large demographic shifts, like internal displacement, ethnic cleansing, forced exile, or emigration at any cost.

So we see today in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Iraq very unsettled conditions that include active warfare, control by external powers, or political authoritarianism that only exacerbates weak citizen-state links and further erodes the socio-economic foundations of the state. Remarkably, some countries like Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen still engage in some sort of formal political process that seeks to create and ultimately validate a national governance system that is acceptable to all the key domestic and foreign parties.

That is by nature a very difficult task when external powers are directly involved in local decision-making, as is the case in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. The task is made easier if the external parties (like the United States and Russia, or Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) should agree on the main issues in play, but this rarely happens. This is made all the more difficult today when we see both regional powers and global ones involved in these countries at the same time.

The sad reality for the moment, at least, is that most of these Arab countries have not only lost their relative stability and calm, they have also forfeited most of their sovereignty to external regional and global powers, or to strong internal forces that share and contest power with the government (like Hizbollah, Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, Muqtada Sadr’s movement in Iraq, and others).

This troubled common condition across most of the Arab world reflects issues that go far beyond neat but simplistic sectarian rivalries. Instead it is anchored in the Arab states’ failures in three critical and continuing realms: their refusal to allow their own citizens to define national policies, values, and priorities and validate statehood itself; their incompetent inability to manage their national human and mineral wealth in a manner that would achieve sustained wealth, social equity, and national viability; and, due to the structural weaknesses generated by the above two factors, their willingness to allow foreign powers to come to their rescue and thus to dilute or effectively eliminate their sovereignty.

The Campaign to End Israel's Apartheid System Has Gone Mainstream

The New York Times is not only considered the leading newspaper in the United States, it is also something of a bellwether of intellectual and political trends in the country. So it was noteworthy that the newspaper’s Monday opinion page feature “Room for Debate” comprised five different views on these questions: “Is Anti-Zionism Merely Anti-Semitism in Disguise? When does criticism of Israel become bigotry? Is rejection of the Jewish state a rejection of Jews?”

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How the World’s View of the Palestine-Israel Conflict Is Changing Dramatically

As Israelis and Palestinians continue to battle to the death in their contested land, it is important to note a historic shift in how the minds, hearts, and public politics of the world perceive the Palestine issue and a just Palestinian-Israeli-Arab peace accord that assures the equal rights of all parties. In many arenas and dimensions, far from dropping off the global political map, Palestinian rights are popping up in more venues around the world, with a regular public focus on countering and even sanctioning Zionist excesses and criminal actions, such as expropriating and colonizing occupied Arab lands.
We see this most clearly in Europe and the United States, where open societies based on the rule of law provide credible opportunities for activists to challenge and stop their societies’ complicity in Israeli colonial policies. This works in both directions, as public debates advocate Israeli as well as Palestinian positions. But by making the Israel-Palestine issue a matter for public discussion in local political or professional arenas—such as state legislatures, mainstream churches, universities, commercial activities, the media, and academic societies—the net effect is clearly to the advantage of the Palestinians.
This is because the debates focus on issues that Zionism and the state of Israel have always sought to downplay in the global discussion of this conflict, and that the Palestinians in contrast have sought to highlight: the international rule of law, the nature of Israeli political and military practices, and how to prod both sides to comply with existing international laws, conventions, and UN resolutions that uphold the rights or protection of all concerned.
Israel has continued its heretofore largely successful propaganda tactics and associated political leverage that depict the Palestinians globally as violent anti-Semites who refuse to accept Jews in their midst and seek to destroy the state of Israel and kill Jews. Yet the pendulum of global public perceptions has swung back to a more balanced position that continues to criticize Palestinian armed resistance, political violence, and occasional acts of terrorism against civilians, but more and more routinely these days also analyses Israel through the prism of South African apartheid practices. Israel is worried, as it should be if apartheid is the political term most often associated with it.
So Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his posse of professional propagandists, illusionists, and liars now desperately tries to link the Palestinians with terrorists such as “Islamic State” (Daesh). They have also tried to associate Palestinians with Iran, assuming that Iran is widely negatively viewed in the West, but that policy also failed on two counts: The West and the world have rejected Israel’s exaggerated fears and bluster, have successfully negotiated with Iran, and mainstream Western political circles have harshly criticized Netanyahu’s attempts to influence their domestic policy-making systems—for example, his rallying pro-Israeli groups in the United States against President Barack Obama.
The question of Israel-Palestine now has expanded into a wider contest over free speech on American college campuses, where Israel’s intemperance freely accuses people of anti-Semitism in a desperate attempt to restrict public discussion or criticism of Israeli practices, such as colonial settlements, mass incarceration of Palestinians by the thousands, the continuing semi-siege of Gaza, or cold blood killings of Palestinians who are not a clear security threat. Such tactics have only generated more public, focused, and intense debates on Israeli and Palestinian practices, and explored more seriously the available responses—including boycotts and sanctions—of institutions and countries around the world that base their actions on law, justice, and morality.
The important trend taking place is two-fold: the Palestinians’ shift from mostly ineffective military and government actions to a non-violent political challenge to Israel’s occupation and colonization of Arab lands, and, greater public political debates about the Israeli and Palestinian people’s mutual actions and rights, and how the world should act to achieve those rights.
The first line of global political action on Palestine-Israel is no longer Israel’s ability to make its security the main focus of discussion and to nudge big powers’ policies in its favor; instead, it has shifted to how collective global action can get both sides to comply with existing global norms while ensuring their mutual security and well-being. Some novel developments: The UN secretary-general speaks out forcefully on these issues, the French government wants to launch an international peace conference on Israel-Palestine, Sweden and other states recognize the state of Palestine, the European Union highlights its opposition to official contacts with Israeli institutions in occupied Arab lands, and one American senator has asked his government to investigate the actions of both Israeli and Arab governments. The times they are a changing, and mostly for the better as far as the Palestine issue in the world’s eyes is concerned.