On the Issues Episode 17: Sahar Khamis
My guest today is Dr. Sahar Khamis, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. Dr. Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former head of the Mass Communications and Information Sciences Department at Qatar University. She’s a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative visiting professor at the University of Chicago.
She is the co-author of the books: Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Additionally, she authored and co-authored numerous book chapters, journal articles and conference papers, regionally and internationally, in both English and Arabic. She is the recipient of a number of prestigious academic and professional awards, as well as a member of the editorial boards of several journals in the field of communication, in general, and the field of Arab and Muslim media, in particular.
Dr. Khamis is a media commentator and analyst, a public speaker, a human rights commissioner in the Human Rights Commission in Montgomery County, Maryland, and a radio host, who presents a monthly radio show on “U.S. Arab Radio” (the first Arab-American radio station broadcasting in the U.S. and Canada).
A full transcript is below (lightly edited for clarity)
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Sahar Mohammed Khamis, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. Dr. Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former head of the Mass Communications and Information Sciences Department at Qatar University. She’s a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative visiting professor at the University of Chicago. You can find her full bio on the page for this episode. So thank you so much, Sahar, for taking the time to sit with me.
Sahar Khamis: Thank you, Alon.
ABM: And I really appreciate it.
SMK: Thank you so much for the opportunity, Alon.
ABM: It’s my pleasure, believe me. Anyway, so I’ve been doing this, talking to important people, scholars like yourself, in order to explore various conflicts, conditions, situations, especially in the Middle East. And one of the things that I have been engaging and working on, and I wrote scores of articles on, is the Arab spring. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding I think about what the Arab Spring was all about. Where does it stand today? Has it evaporated, has it become a cruel winter, or is it still reverberating someplace, and that the Arab world will, no matter what happens, one form or another every Arab country will experience some form of quote-unquote Arab Spring because the Arab youth, have risen. They are now awakened, and they are no longer willing to accept what used to be a generation or two ago. They want something more, they want something different. They want hope, they want opportunities, they want jobs. And this will be I think something that we would like to share with our listeners, especially coming from you, having been experiencing that first hand. And we can take it from there. Maybe perhaps we can start with what happened in Egypt, being that you are from Egypt, and what you see that went right, or went wrong as far as the revolution in Egypt is concerned.
SMK: Let me start first with the Arab Spring itself, and then we can zoom in more closely on the Egyptian case in particular. But when I start to talk about the Arab Spring in my Arab media course at the University of Maryland, I tell my students, which term do you prefer? Arab Spring, Arab Awakening, Arab Uprisings. And we start to talk about these different terms, and what the rhetorical meaning of these terms really is. Because when you say for example awakening, as much as it’s a beautiful word, I just say wait a minute, I don’t want you to get the false impression that the three hundred fifty million plus Arabs were asleep, and then all of a sudden in 2011 they just woke up, because that is not a correct depiction or accurate depiction of the situation.
ABM: You’re right. The awakening, however, as I see it, is awakening to new realities. They have been living their life, they’ve been aware of what’s going on, but they have awakened to a new reality. They want more. They’ve been exposed specifically because of the technological revolution which you are very familiar with, is communication.
ABM: They now have the means by which to see how other societies live.
ABM: And hence, in that sense I call it awakening, having come to realize that there is something else better there and we deserve to have the same experience.
SMK: Right. But what I’m trying to get at here, it’s not like it has been a complete, total lack of political will and participation and desire for change. Because there have been attempts well before the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring. Arab youth, Arab people have been sometimes going out to the street, and protesting, and talking and trying to change realities on the ground. It’s just that you can get 100, 200, 300 people out there in front of one of the syndicates, or out there in the street, and it would be easy for the police forces to simply round them up and arrest them and put them in jail. What happened in 2011 that was different was what I call the catalyzing effect of social media and new media, providing a platform for self-expression and for expressing the will of the people, and also acting as catalysts that speed up the process of mobilization on the street and acting as amplifiers that can make the voices of protest louder, and providing some kind of link or bridge between what is happening online and what is happening offline, between the virtual world and between the real world. So I always say that this kind of missing link was the reason for what we had before, which is called the safety valve paradox. The safety valve paradox means the governments will leave a small room for expression of opposition voices or voices of dissent or rebellion or disagreement, as a way for people to vent some of their anger. And therefore, just like the safety valve in the pots that you cook the food in, it is just the way to prevent this pot from reaching the point where it actually explodes. So that’s what they call the safety valve paradox.
So in 2011 there’s no more safety valve. Now you have the full explosion of the pot, or we can use a different analogy, we can say the genie came out of the bottle or the genie came out of the jar, and now it’s very hard for any government to try to put the genie back again, which is why really answering your question about whether the Arab Spring has evaporated or whether it has gone away is difficult. I say listen, we don’t want to go to either extreme, the extreme of painting a very rosy, euphoric picture like the one many people, including myself to be very honest. Back in 2011, six years ago, we were so euphoric, so optimistic, it’s awesome, the genie is out of the bottle, that’s it. Six years later, we have to revisit what went wrong. What were some of the gaps? What were some of the things we did not maybe pay attention to, or give sufficient attention to? But we should not also go to the other undesirable extreme of being totally pessimistic and painting a very dark picture as if it’s all doom and gloom, and everything went wrong, and there’s no hope. We want to be in the middle ground of cautionary optimism. You want to be optimistic, but you want to be cautious. You want to assess.
ABM: Let me interject here something. It is not a question of what we want. It is a question of reading it correctly. That is, we have aspirations. We would like to see that the Egyptian revolution succeeds. We would like to see, but the reality is this. What we are searching for, what actually happened is not what we want to project. We want to project optimism, we want to project pessimism, that is a personal viewpoint. In my thinking, my writing, I try to think in terms of what actually happened – regardless of my wishes, regardless of what I want to see happen. And this is really what motivates me to research and learn and study what actually happened. Yes, I would have liked to see the Egyptian revolution succeed and there would be full-fledged democracy in Egypt. But that’s not going to happen. Not now, and it’s not going to happen any time in the near future the way I see it. Not the way the United States wanted to introduce that political system or the same thing you might say in Iraq or Syria, but we’ll come to that point. But what you are saying, we do not want to paint the picture one way or the other. It is nearly in my view not up to us how we paint the picture. Let’s try to read it the way in fact it evolved.
SMK: You mean the perception of it, because I’ve attended talks and lectures where people are very optimistic, or people really, really paint a very dark picture. But it’s like, wait, just give me a moment here, because we cannot underestimate the amount of bravery and courage and heroism that was exhibited during these days of revolution, including in groups that were traditionally marginalized and left out of the public sphere, including women for example.
SMK: Just the fact that in a country like Yemen, which is one of the most traditional, conservative countries in the Middle East, you see women flooding the streets day in, day out. Not for days, not for weeks, but for months.
SMK: So much so that the president at that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, takes the microphone and he tries to play on the tribal, conservative nature of society and says, what are these women doing out there in the street? Shame on them, they have no business being there in the street and rubbing shoulders with men and protesting. This is a big shame. They should stay home. He’s trying to play on the social traditional view, cultural view of women and women’s place.
What did the women do in this conservative, traditional society? They flooded every inch of the country, not just the capital Sana’a, and they raised banners, saying it’s not shame on us to ask for our rights. It is shame on you to deny us our rights and to deny us democracy and freedom. So you’re seeing here something very big. Regardless of some of the things that went wrong, and we’ll talk about that, why there have been deviations from the right path, or the journey has not been as smooth as hoped for. But we cannot at the same time undermine the value of this kind of heroism and this kind of exceptional courage that was demonstrated by youth and by women and by many segments of society. That’s why I’m saying we need to have this middle ground.
ABM: No, I agree with you, this is very important, because once they were able to exhibit that courage and that tenacity to go out to the street and demand change, that has created a precedent which it happened once, it can happen again and again and again. Which means as I see it, how the Arab Spring is evolving – notwithstanding the major setbacks that already took place – the fact that the youth now are imbued, and understand I have power. I have power and I can use this power, regardless of the oppression I’m going through, regardless of the political conditions I’m going through. But we have power. And as long as we can work together, galvanize our resources and our forces, we can achieve a change.
SMK: And also remember, Alon, something very important. More than 70 percent of the Arab region are young people under the age of 30 or 35, and that percentage increases in some of the states – for example the Gulf states, including Yemen. Ninety percent are young people, so this is a very young, vibrant population. And we talk about youth in particular, they are the momentum, they’re the impetus of society. They’re technologically savvy, they’re agents of change, you want to see change. I always ask this question – do you know what is the number one country in the world that has the highest number of tweeters, people who use Twitter? When I ask this question in class, people say, the United States, Sweden, Germany, France. No, the surprise is, it’s Saudi Arabia. And my students go like, what? Yes, I know you’re surprised, but it’s really Saudi Arabia. So when you think about that, even in this conservative, traditional society you have young people, a very big percentage of the population are young people, and they’re technologically savvy, and they have the highest number of tweeters in the world. What does that tell us? Five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years from now, I personally think that there’s a momentum for change and there is a momentum for a dynamic evolving in the region.
ABM: There’s no doubt. So what happened now? When I survey what happened since 2011, obviously a number of things went wrong. And my feeling is that one major element, or one major entity that has contributed to some extent to the failure of the Arab Spring in various countries is the West itself, the United States in particular. What the United States attempted to do is that, thinking that the youth are rising now because they want freedom, they want jobs, they want opportunities, and all of that. But I think the order in which they felt they can tackle that is first by using a political system that is really not consistent with the needs of the hour.
SMK: This is something very important, because when for example the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was this notion of, we’re going to bring democracy to Iraq. So I tell my students, this is an analogy that’s related to cooking in the kitchen, but I think it’s very valid here. You cannot buy a ready-made democracy off the shelf. You must cook your own homemade recipe for democracy. Why? Because I cannot go for example now to Osaka in Japan and say, oh look at that. The University of Osaka has a magnificent system of education. I’m going to take it and apply it in Alexandria, Egypt. Well guess what, it’s going to fail.
ABM: It won’t work.
SMK: It won’t work because the system itself, the different cultural, educational, political, social components are different. So if you do not take into account the very specific context of each country and each nation, each region historically, culturally, politically, socially, you are doomed to fail.
ABM: No, it is no question, and you’re absolutely right to suggest that even if you apply this method, you cannot apply the same thing to two different countries, because each country has a different culture—
SMK: Even within the same region.
ABM: Even within the same region. So that’s what compounded the United States’ mistake, by thinking we go we can introduce a democratic form of government when in fact any kind of democracy has to be consistent with the culture, and in this case, religion of the people involved, without which this is going to be a completely alien political system to which they cannot easily adjust and in fact reject for that matter.
SMK: I cannot agree more. And you know at the very beginning of the revolution in Egypt in 2011, there was an interview with some of the youth who were the impetus, the blood of the revolution, and the anchorman or anchorwoman at that time asked them, what do you expect from the United States? And one of the activists, his name is [unclear], he’s one of the bloggers I wrote about in my second book Egyptian Revolution 2.0. He said, we are not wanting the United States to send us any weapons or to send us any money. We just want one thing only. Please don’t support authoritarian or dictatorial regimes period. That’s all. We don’t want you to support Mubarak, we want you to stop supporting him. And that’s all we want. We don’t want weapons or money or supplies or any kind of resources of any kind. And that’s the whole thing.
I mean, people in the West, they really ask the question with goodwill and good heart like, how can we help? People in other parts of the world ask, how can we help in order to advance the cause of democracy? I say, just don’t try to back dictatorial regimes, and try to tell the governments not to back dictatorial regimes. But beyond that point, it has to be up to every country and up to the people of each country to decide which way they want to go and how they want to chart their own future. We cannot just give them a ready package and say, this is the ready package, go and apply it, you’re going to become the USA, or you’re going to become France, you’re going to become Britain. That’s not going to work. It has to be a home-made and home-cooked recipe of democracy.
ABM: This is absolutely true. And this is a very important component. That is, you can provide a democratic form of government consistent with the local culture and religion for that matter, but that in and of itself is still not enough. Look what happened with the elections in Egypt itself. There was you might say free and fair elections. Who was elected? The Muslim Brotherhood came to power. And the Egyptian people woke up in the morning and said, now we are free. And now where is the food? Where is the future? Where are the jobs, where are the opportunities? Which means when the West gets involved, not only were they mistaken by simply introducing democratic form of government more consistent with our system in the West, but it was also lacking a very critical component. And that is, freedom cannot exist unless it is sustained by other elements, and the other elements are other pillars to democracy. One of the most important pillars is economic development. What the United States has been doing is giving money to the Egyptian government to the tune of two billion dollars a year. Much of it is going to the military. Hardly any of it goes actually to the people themselves, in terms of using it for development projects so that the people will benefit. In my view, and I think you agree with me, to be able to empower the people, they have to give them an opportunity to do something, to be able to produce something on their own, to feel they are productive. So giving them freedom without giving them the means by which they can improve their life, it just won’t work.
SMK: I mean, even giving them the freedom, I would beg to disagree with the statement. The phrasing only of it. We agree in principle, but the phrasing of it, even giving the freedom, you cannot give freedom, the people have to earn it.
ABM: No, of course, no, I don’t mean giving, you cannot give freedom to anyone.
SMK: People have to earn it themselves.
ABM: They earn freedom, but let us say you have this political system that allows you to go and vote or be elected, and now you feel free in a sense. Politically free, but you are not free if you don’t have food. You’re not free if you don’t have health care. You’re not free if you don’t send to your kids to school. That’s what I’m talking about. And that has been missing and continues to be missing.
SMK: Two important things here, Alon. Number one, there is a chicken and egg question. In other words, when you say we need to fill the power vacuum with real civic engagement and civic society participation, for example having strong opposition and private institutions and NGOs, and real voices that represent the people. For that to happen, you need to have a degree of democracy and freedom. And for a degree of democracy and freedom that’s really healthy to exist, you need to have civic society institutions which are active and vibrant. So which one comes first? It’s the chicken and egg question.
ABM: Well the truth of the matter is, you cannot have one or the other. And to have an effective civil society and to have an effective political system, be that any kind of form of democracy, however adapted it is to the local scene, you’re still going to need the means by which to sustain it. And I keep emphasizing the importance of this when I talk to officials here, namely saying this. Democracy is a wonderful idea, and let us say it is adopted. But the people need more than just that. So you cannot develop the, for example, one of the pillars of democracy is having democratic institutions. Well, where are these democratic institutions? As a matter of fact, Egypt more than any other country has many institutions as such. You can call them democratic or not, but institutions do exist. But when the poverty is so rampant in Egypt, even those institutions that can actually function in a free and fair manner, they are unable to function.
SMK: It’s not only about poverty. You compound layers of issues that can impede the process of democratic transition, or can make it less smooth and less efficient and less effective. If you talk about the very high illiteracy rate – which I always tell my students is a big shame because the word paper as you may know comes from the word papyrus. So the whole notion of writing actually started in ancient Egypt thousands of years ago. That’s where the concept of writing started, with Hieroglyphics. So for us to have more than 40 percent illiteracy rate, I consider this a big shame. So we have a high illiteracy rate, which of course translates into less political participation, especially among certain segments of society. If you’re talking about rural populations or people in remote areas or women, the percentage is going to go even higher than that. And then at the same time you have economic challenges, you have infrastructure challenges. And there may be institutions in place, but how far are they really representative of let’s say the will of the people? You can have a political party that says I am an opposition party. That’s fine. But do you really have a popular base of support? Do you really have members, do you really have a voice? Do you really have a say in the political process? That’s a different story, and that’s why I want to make a very important point which is, it’s easy to oust dictators from office. But it’s very hard to figure what to do next.
ABM: Oh, absolutely.
SMK: And that’s I think one of the main things that went wrong in the Arab Spring, is that people thought once Mubarak is out, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or Gadhafi is out, then things are going to automatically change for the better, and suddenly we’re going to have democracy. It doesn’t work this way, because once the dictator is out of office, then what do you do next? If you don’t have a clear strategic plan in place, if you don’t have a vision, if you don’t have the tools to implement this vision into action, then you’re going to have a power vacuum. Once you have a power vacuum, who’s going to jump on it? It has to be a group that already has some kind of organizational tools and techniques and some kind of support, basically. And in the case of Egypt for example, there are two parties here, or two players, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Why are these the two players? Because they are the ones who have structure, and they’re the ones who have organization. The visionaries, the young people who are really the blood of the revolution, the people who had the vision and the goodwill, they had the dreams for change. But they did not have a clear, strategic plan. When you talk to these young people, they say ‘we made mistakes. And one of our biggest mistakes was we did not really have a clear strategic plan or vision about what to do next.’ In fact, some of them were even offered places like, do you want to be part of the government or serve as a minister? No, no, no, we don’t want to be in that capacity, we just want to be observing what’s happening, or maybe in the opposition seat, or maybe correct the new government. And now they feel like they made a mistake, because they left a power vacuum that then became filled by the Brotherhood and then later on by the military.
ABM: But this is an important point to make. And what happened here, by introducing quickly a democratic form of government for example in Egypt, without giving time for other secular parties to develop, to have their own agenda, to be able to share it with the public, you didn’t have— When I talk about institution, I’m not talking about political parties because they didn’t exist really, de facto did not exist in Egypt. You had so-called parties, but the one who was organized, was really the only real organized one other than the military, is the Muslim Brotherhood. It was very clear to us, if there is going to be an election, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win. And why are they going to win? Because they were able over the years to provide help and means to the poor that didn’t have hardly anything. That’s why I go back to, if we are looking now for the future as I see it, if the United States or the European community wants to support any kind of Arab country, that is going to go through with a poor country, that needs to go through political development. You’ve got to be able, when you’re talking about illiteracy in Egypt. Well how do you change that picture? How do you make sure that more kids can go to school? You’re going to need funding. You’re going to need money. What the United States is doing and the European community has been doing is providing some financial assistance without demanding, where are you going to spend the money. Without making sure that the money is spent in areas that are going to help the people. And that is something that has been missing and will continue to be missing as long as we continue with a policy that is not addressing the needs of the people themselves. We say, now you can go to elections like I said before, but that did not work. Now, what lesson do we learn from that? That’s what we, you and I, want to look forward to the future. What will the future tell for us?
SMK: I mean, there are numerous lessons, many lessons. Number one I think is the idea of filling this power vacuum that we have been talking about. And let me just make a quick comment or quick remark about the Brotherhood, because the very paradoxical, very ironic point is that there have been decades of suppression of the Brotherhood; they were not allowed to play, and are not allowed to join, and they’re banned. They’ve always been called quote-unquote the banned group. And despite all of this banning and suppression and oppression, they still were able, like you said, to build a popular base of support because of two reasons you mentioned. One of them is the economic factor, which is, I’m going to provide subsidized services to the poor, and medical services, and subsidized—
ABM: And schooling sometimes—
SMK: Schooling items and all of the stuff, schooling and education. And if you are in an economically challenged country, then definitely providing these services at the subsidized rate is going to raise your popularity. And also Egyptians by nature, and many people in the Middle East, are by nature religious. We tend to be more religious people, whether we are Jews, Christians, or Muslims. We do have religion as part of our psyche and part of our identity. So I think these reasons together made that hard for any government to crack down on them, and I think that even when you crack down on them, that is not a good thing because they’re then prone to go underground.
SMK: And once these groups go underground that’s very dangerous, because that’s when you can breed the seeds of radicalization and extremism. As long as people are in the open and conversing and talking, right, sit with Sahar and hear me, and I hear you. You understand where I’m coming from. But if everything is kept in the dark and people don’t understand what this person thinks or what this group thinks, that’s when it’s really dangerous, because they’re going to be prone to go underground, and that will breed more radicalization and more extremism. So that’s an important point, one lesson for the future.
ABM: There’s no question. I think it’s a mistake to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not just a small organization that you can outlaw. They represent massive numbers, in Egypt specifically and elsewhere. But in Egypt, probably 30, 40 percent of the population believes in the movement, in the Muslim Brotherhood. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a very significant community in Egypt. To try to marginalize them or label them as a terrorist organization, that’s the worst mistake I think that the current government in Egypt has made. And this is one lesson—
SMK: This is one lesson.
ABM: One lesson that other Arab countries need to learn.
SMK: Yes. Please don’t suppress these religious movements because this is prone to really plant the seeds of radicalization and the seeds of extremism. That’s one important piece. The second important lesson I think is giving more visibility and more power to the groups that we have seen becoming in positions of leadership in the Arab Spring, specifically youth. Young people, as we said, it’s a very young and very vibrant population in the Arab world. These young people need a healthy space in order to breathe and to express their thoughts and ideas, because we don’t want them to be recruited by the wrong people. We don’t want them to fall in the hands of some skewed evil groups that are preaching terrorism or fanaticism. And for that to happen, you need to give them a healthy space for self-expression and for building their own identities and building their own future. And equally I would say about women as well, that definitely we can invest in women and women’s leadership, which is another very important lesson coming out of the Arab Spring movement. A third lesson is, as we said earlier, it’s easy to oust dictators from office. But then what do you do next? And this question of what do you do next is a very, very important question, because as they say, if you don’t plan, then you are planning to fail. Right? If you don’t have a plan–
ABM: Oh, there’s no doubt.
SMK: If you don’t have a plan in place, then you are planning to fail because it means that you can have non-revolutionary forces filling the vacuum – whether it is military groups, or whether it is sectarian tribal factions fighting each other, or whether it is some orthodox religious parties that may not be necessarily be always invested in the democratic process. In every case, you’re not having this vacuum filled by the right group. And by the right group, I mean those who really had the vision for change but did not have the means, or the strategy to do it. So now is the time for them to reflect and say OK, wait a minute. What went wrong, and how can we put together an action plan and a strategy that can really hold well in the future, and carry a swell, moving forward. Another lesson of course is communication—
ABM: But before you go into the next one, the point here is that theoretically what you’re saying is absolutely important and necessary. Now, how do you translate that into reality? That is, you can have a vision of what you want. You can also have a plan of action: this is what we want to do. How do you go about implementing that when you still have a political system that is not allowing you to make your plans or to have a new objective? And so this is why in my view, it is another failure as a result of the first failure. The first failure is introducing a system that was not adaptable as quickly as we would have liked, because that didn’t happen. And the second one was the fact that there was no follow-up. Who is going to follow through? And that’s what the youth today face in most of the Arab countries. What do we do tomorrow, given the reality on the ground? Now every Arab country is different—the Gulf States versus the Syrians versus Egypt versus the state. The countries in North Africa, each of them are different and each of them are trying to deal with— They are not trying to deal, but basically those who did not experience yet the so-called Arab Spring are doing everything they can to suppress it, that is, not to allow the people to rise again. For example, the Saudis and the Gulf state are giving them money to keep them quiet. Other countries, there’s suppression – you have to behave yourself or else. It’s still in North Africa, Morocco, and elsewhere. This is how it is. So the problem here—for the youth to have a vision for the future, it is not enough to have a plan. It is not to have to have a vision. What is it going to take?
SMK: Again, the chicken and egg question.
ABM: What is it going to take in order to be able to implement that kind of vision?
SMK: The chicken and egg question we’re talking about earlier in terms of what comes first, right? Democracy and then followed by civic engagement, or civic engagement followed by democracy. That is not an easy question to resolve. I think it’s a very paradoxical, very important issue.
ABM: But there’s a third element, however. Let’s say you are able to get these two together and work together. My feeling is that as long as there’s no equitable distribution—when I say equitable distribution of resources, I don’t mean everybody should make the same amount of money. What I am saying is, there is poverty, there is abject poverty. Egypt is one of them. I used to go to Egypt very often, and what I saw in some areas, it was appalling, and people are living—basically you can see kids, thousands of them playing in the mud, no place to go, no schooling, nothing like that. And so what I’m saying is that even with a vision, even with a perfect plan, you’re going to need the resources.
SMK: Of course, they have to go hand in hand, you cannot be either.
ABM: And the resources are not coming. I mean, Egypt today needs tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars to begin to develop some kind of economic system that is going to alleviate the poverty and everything that emanates from that, be that education, health care, and all of that.
ABM: And so the question here is this: in the Gulf states, what these governments have been doing to stay in power, they’ve been actually giving money, trying to prevent the people from rising, because if I can make a living and I can live in a decent way, well I don’t have any reason to complain. But you cannot say the same thing in Egypt.
SMK: Of course, that’s why we say that every country, even when we talk about the Arab region, we cannot just put everybody in the same basket, we cannot think of a one size fits all transition to democratization or reform, because every country will have its own unique set of political, historical, and social issues.
ABM: Exactly, exactly. And the question is, how do you go about that? And when we spoke on the phone, I think we both agreed. I feel that the Arab Spring remains in its infancy. I mean to say that this is not the end of the youth uprising, or let’s call it awakening, regardless. It may well be almost at the beginning stages. Every single Arab country is going to be affected by it. And the only way they can avoid that is by making, exactly what you said. Look at the mistakes, what happened before. What is it that people really want? What do the youth actually want? Do we have the means, and whatever means we have, how should we use these means in order to be able A), not to repeat the same mistakes—
SMK: Mistakes, yes.
ABM: And to begin to correct what needs to be corrected in terms of providing the basic necessities – that young men and women need to have an opportunity, to have hope, to have a future which they cannot see. And when they cannot see that, they rise. They become radicals. And this is what we are experiencing today.
SMK: Right. And of course, just a few more lessons that I just want to quickly highlight is also I always tell my students that as much as social media is very important to give an impetus, to give the first initiate, inertia or momentum for these movements, they were not enough to keep the ball rolling. To keep the ball rolling you need all the stuff you just mentioned now about infrastructure, economic, political, social factors. All of these factors together have to be taken into account. Otherwise you could not keep the ball rolling. You can start the initial momentum, but to keep it rolling you need all of these other things in place. So I always say, great, social media is wonderful in terms of mobilization and networking and giving the initial inertia. But beyond that, they are not magical tools, and they’re not going to bring about change and transformation all by themselves. They can only compliment and supplement the process of social and political transformation, if you have all of the other criteria and all the other requirements in place.
Another thing I also want to highlight is, we have always had a very narrow, elitist focus and urban focus, like we talk about, oh Arab Spring, Tahrir Square. I always tell my students, there were also many people in Alexandria, in Tanta, in Upper Egypt, in places outside of Tripoli, outside of Damascus, outside of all of these capitals. We should not be blinded about all of these populations who are in rural areas, in remote areas, less privileged maybe but still very important, and we should pay attention to them in our own scholarship and writing and academia, and give them more attention because it’s not all about the urban areas. It’s not all about the capital, it’s not all about the two or three percent of the elites in these societies only. We need to widen our focus and widen our perspective. Another lesson also for the future is, pay attention to the activists in the diaspora. This is very important because we have so many activists and protesters who are not able to express their views inside their own countries. They are afraid of intimidation or repression by the regime. Many of these, where do they go? They exercise their activism in the diaspora. That includes women’s groups as well.
ABM: Oh, absolutely.
SMK: So we need to hear the voices of these people and to respect them and respect their experiences, and also learn from their own insight and learn from their own perspectives. I call these voices in the diaspora, and I think we need to really listen very carefully to these voices from the diaspora and learn from their own experiences and their own lessons.
ABM: So when you say ‘we,’ I want to define we, who is we? And this is really the problem we have. Obviously you’re referring to who, civil society?
SMK: I had academics in mind, I was saying we to be honest with you, what I was thinking was academics and scholars who are writing about these issues.
ABM: But that’s not going to be enough. You also need people who are able to read it. When you talk about illiteracy 30, 40, 50 percent, you can write all you want but that’s not going to go anywhere. So the we is important. That is, the current, various Arab governments in the Arab states, are they in a position? Have they come to that? Have they been awakened? That is the main question to me. Have they been awakened to the fact that they can control the population up to a point, another five years, another 10 years, and 15 years? But somewhere, sometime, it is going to explode.
ABM: It is going to explode.
SMK: Absolutely, yes, the safety valve is not going to hold for a very long time, and the pot will explode.
ABM: Exactly. So the question is, what are the means, what are the methods, what is it that they need to do today in order to prevent it, regardless of the political system that exists in any of these countries. You have kings and emirs in some, you have dictators in another. You have semi-elected governments like in Tunisia. You have all kinds of mixtures of all types of political systems, but all of them share one thing in common. The young men and women are not happy. They are despairing. They want an outlet. They want a future. And each country is going to have to— When you say we, what is it that the ‘we’ need to do? Are they able to do it? Will they be wanting to do it?
And let me just say one thing about this, because when you look at these kings, like specifically countries in North Africa—Morocco is one, and others. From our experience, what they really want to do is continue to suppress the people, because the moment you give them more freedom—that’s how they think—then they’re going to want more. As the old saying goes, you give them a finger, they want to grab your hands. Take Syria for example. I know Bashar Assad, I met him. I knew, I used to Walid Moallem, he was a good friend of mine going back many, many years. And I know from him when Bashar came to power, he said, ‘I want to undertake some reforms. I don’t want to follow exactly what my father used to do.’ And he was open to reform, and when he was talking to the Ba’ath party and others, they were telling him no, no, no, no, if you do that, if you give them a finger, they’re going to grab your hand. You cannot absolutely do that. And so he basically followed what his father passed on to him. If the people rise against you, you have to chop them. You have to suppress them, you have to get whatever it takes. You cannot allow any uprising against you, or else you’re going to lose power. So what is happening is, even when you have reformers in any of these governments, the environment has not been created as yet.
SMK: We come back again to the chicken and egg question, because you need the environment in order to induce change, and to induce change you need to have a helpful environment.
SMK: So we keep coming back—I think if we had a solution for this issue Alon, we would probably be billionaires by now.
ABM: No, but the point is, we cannot settle for the fact that there’s a vicious cycle here. One is linked to the other and if we solve one, you cannot solve the other. Which means in such kinds of conflict, we still have to come up with a solution. What is the solution? And one of these, I go back to in my view, economic development is central to begin a process that is going to allow for any political development to take place.
SMK: I agree with you. I think it’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. I think it’s important, , very important, but I think—you know what I think really, Alon, it is not the question that we can solve in this interview or any other interview for that matter. I think that these visionaries, the young people who had the vision, the young people who had this desire for change, to sit together and revisit again the exact same questions we are talking about in this interview. Right? What went wrong and what could be done about it? What are the lessons to be learned for the future, and how can we do things differently? And I think that in my own opinion I agree with you that there’s going to be a lot of room for these young people and these young voices to try to revisit their quote-unquote leadership. Because whenever people say the Arab Spring was a leaderless revolution I say wait a minute, I have an issue with this term. I think that it was semi-leaderless and I think there was some form of leadership, but it was not a top-down imposed leadership by a handful of people telling people what to do. It was rather a very diffused, grassroots, bottom-up approach which has its pros and cons. The pros of course are, these are young people, they have the vision, they have a desire for change. It is more participatory. That’s awesome. The bad side now as we’re learning six years later is that we have this challenge of the power vacuum that we’ve been talking about before. We have the infantile civil society that’s not developed sufficiently. We have the vacuum that needs to be filled. And as we said before, not having enough strategic vision, strategic planning among these young people, meant they had the goodwill, they had the dreams, they had the vision, but they did not have the tools or the means to implement an alternative reality.
ABM: Ok. That’s the point. They don’t have the tools, and they don’t have the means.
ABM: They could have the vision, they could have the [unclear], have the [unclear]. But the question here is, how do you implement it.
SMK: They have to figure this out. I don’t think it’s up to me or you or anybody else. They have to figure it out.
ABM: It’s not we that have to figure it out. To figure out such a plan of action, I or you or anyone from the outside – you are not an outsider – can go and say to them, do A, B, C and D. First of all, this is going to have to come from them.
ABM: But coming from them in and of itself, they cannot do it on their own because they need all kinds of resources. That is, unless there is a collaboration in my view between the government, between the various institutions and the public, to realize that this is leading to a dead end at best, or to another bloodshed. Which means, as long as the current government does not come to this realization and decide, let’s work with the youth. The whole phenomenon of radicalization today, whether you call it Islamic radicalization or otherwise, it stems from the same source, from the same roots. The total despairing and unhappy youth throughout the Arab world, and I tell the European community who are suffering from radical Islam so to speak from their perspective. And I say to them, you can have all the mechanisms to combat radicalization, but you are not dealing with the root causes. And the root causes are not necessarily in Europe. Of course there is lack of integration in Europe, this is a different story.
SMK: It’s not in Islam either. It’s in the lack of the proper atmosphere of development and civil society participation. And economic resources—
ABM: In the Arab countries.
SMK: Absolutely. I mean–
ABM: And this is where the West needs to be helpful.
SMK: This is where we all need to really pay attention. We all need to pay attention. When I say we here, I mean academics, scholars, writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and also hopefully officials and people in power. Unless they realize these blind spots and really start to pay attention to these areas, I don’t think there’s going to be much hope in terms of a real, positive change. There has to be attention paid to all of these blind spots, and the new vision of trying to visit all of these important areas we talked about. But at the end of the day, let’s go back again to a very important point. It has to be a home-made recipe of change, that the young people themselves have to figure out for themselves. Which way do you want to go, and how are you going to go about implementing it? Nobody can just give them a ready-made recipe and say, go ahead, buy it off the shelf. This is what you need to do, it’s not going to work.
ABM: No, this does not work. But again I’m emphasizing the point that if they have the vision, they have the planning, they have all of that, that in and of itself will not be enough unless there is a collaborative effort—
ABM: —by the government itself, and it serves the government’s interest to do just that.
SMK: Here’s a very important footnote. If the government itself, or governments, come to a realization that this is exactly what they need to do, then of course it would be ideal. But as long as they see it as a tug of war, as me or you, it’s me or you, it’s not us, it’s not we.
ABM: Exactly, exactly.
SMK: It’s not like we’re working together to achieve a goal. It’s a zero-sum game. Who is going to win? Me or you, let’s wrestle together. So unless they change this kind of mindset, if they change the mindset and they start to see exactly what you’re saying, that we need to provide the economic development and employment and all of these opportunities and a platform for expression so that we can fight or combat any form of radicalization or extremism, and also avoid the explosion that can go in many different directions, including God forbid full blown civil wars, as we saw in the tragic example of Syria, the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times, period. So to avoid this from happening, you need to have a change of mind. Now, whether the governments are going to come to this kind of realization, that is left to be seen, but I definitely certainly pray and hope that this will be the case. Because I don’t want to see a bloodbath. I don’t want to see civil wars. I don’t want to see innocent people being killed. I don’t want to see refugees, I don’t want to see rape. I don’t want to see wars. We don’t want these kinds of ugly things that are assailing us everywhere.
ABM: Yeah, this brings us back where we started, and I think we can finish with that. And that is where the Arab Spring is, and what lessons can be learned from the Arab Spring. This is exactly what you just said. The Arab Spring if anything, it teaches these governments that they need to wake up themselves and look at the population, look at the youth, which constitutes 70, 80 percent under the age of 25, and say to themselves, it’s only a question of time. What have we learned from the Arab Spring? How can we avoid another revulsion, another revolution, another bloodbath? And the only way to do it is to begin that kind of dialogue, and begin a process where the young men and women throughout the Arab world become part of this system, part of the process, in order to change the social dynamic.
SMK: There is no question about it. That means dialogue, dialogue, dialogue I think is the way to go. And I think unless more parties are open to this idea, open their eyes and hearts and minds to this idea of the importance of engaging in this kind of dialogue, we could not see much positive change. I very much hope and pray that there’s going to be more acceptance of this notion of openness and transparency, engaging in dialogue, in development, in true participation across the board. That would be the best way moving forward.
ABM: Exactly. Unfortunately, it may not come entirely from within. I mean it’s still those countries who depend to a great, some extent on the west. The West too ought to be nudging, or be pushing these leaders, tell them if you want to avoid a repeat of civil war in Syria, you want to avoid a repeat of what happened in Egypt and elsewhere, you’d better start to do something about it. But it all has to come from within, and has to be home-owned, home-grown.
SMK: Yes. Let me just make one last comment Alon, is the term Islamic radicalization. This term has been used a lot in the media. President Barack Obama refused to use the term Islamic radicalization, and the Pope actually said something very powerful. He said, don’t use the term Islamic radicalization, because if you do, then talk to me about Christian radicalization or Catholic—
ABM: Oh no, no, if I said that I didn’t mean it that way.
SMK: I know that you don’t buy into that, I know, but a lot of people, when they hear the term, just for your listeners, a lot of people when they hear the term, they automatically associate Islam as a religion with the idea of radicalization or extremism. So I always like to take the opportunity just to clarify this point, because radicalization or extremism is a mindset; it’s a frame of mind.
ABM: And it’s absolutely not limited to Muslims.
SMK: Or to any religion. If somebody says the Jewish extremist, I say wait a minute, Judaism is not about extremism. If some group of Jews happen to take the religion to a fanatical or extremist level, religion itself cannot be blamed.
SMK: We cannot say that’s Jewish extremism or Christian extremism or Islamic extremism, because that would mean that it’s the religion itself which is at fault. And it’s not.
ABM: No, no, absolutely. And talking about the three monotheistic religions, all of them preach peace, preach amity, preach friendship.
SMK: That can be a topic for another podcast.
ABM: And so there’s no question, there are those hypocrites within all communities who use religion as a tool by which to subjugate, by which to—
>SMK: Exactly. A tool to reach power and a tool to implement their own narratives.
ABM: ISIS is one example. Al-Qaeda’s another example.
SMK: We can think of many examples.
ABM: But I want to leave it on a positive note, I hope. And that is, when I see young men and women yearning for better days, and I feel strongly that the day will come, as long as they remain committed to what they’re feeling, and exactly what you just suggested before, they need to know their place and they need to know that they have rights.
ABM: And they need to know how to pursue and realize these rights. And the governments who are wise – any government in the Arab world that is wise enough to realize that they cannot sustain the current status quo, they must wake up also and begin this kind of process.
SMK: It seems to me that there are lessons for everybody to learn, right? There are lessons for the governments to learn, that they should learn exactly what you just said now, that suppression and repression does not cause stability, does not lead to stability. Because many of these regimes—
ABM: In fact the opposite.
SMK: Exactly. Many of the regimes say it’s either me or it’s anarchy, right, as Mubarak said for a long time. If I go, it’s going to become anarchy, it’s going to become chaos. They need to revisit this notion, that repression and suppression never leads to stability. It just leads to putting some kind of pressure on society. People are going to go underground. You’re going to become radicalized, and society itself is going to suffer big time, and all of a sudden you can have an explosion and you don’t even know which direction it is going to take you to. It’s going to become a disaster. So that’s a lesson for the government.
The lesson for young people is, it’s not enough to have the vision. You also have to have the tools and the means to implement this vision and take it to the right direction. So you must have strategic planning, and you must have coordination of different resources and coalition building to be able to implement your good vision and put it into good actions. And the lesson for intellectuals and academics and scholars is, we have to revisit many of these blind spots that we have been talking about today in terms of people in the diaspora, in terms of marginalized groups, in terms of the activism of youth and women, in terms of understanding the potential of all of these growing dynamic populations in this evolving region, in terms of revisiting what you just mentioned about the social and economic development and how it ties into all of these issues. These are also lessons for us as intellectuals, academics, and scholars, to re-think all of these notions. The cyber activists, they have to re-think about their tools and their means, right? Avoid things like clicktivism or slacktivism, the idea that by sharing the link, now you became an activist. Congratulations. Well it takes much more than that obviously. Right? So you need to think about your tools. Also, are they sufficient? Maybe they’re necessary but they’re not sufficient. So there are so many lessons for everybody. I hope everybody tries to really understand these lessons.
ABM: We hope so, and we hope there’ll be some kind of— Within each of these entities you mentioned, you need leadership, and that is unfortunately still lacking. But we have a role to play. People like yourself and myself, we have to talk more and more about it. The time has come, because we can all envision things, but we’re going to have to be able to try to define, to suggest some charts, some road. This is the path to take, and we hope that over time things will change without another revolution or without another civil war that has exacted so much pain.
SMK: And that’s why we need dialogue, right? I mean, me and you have been part of the Middle East Dialogue for many years now, and the whole idea of dialogue is to try to bring people together and try to have this kind of discussion and conversation. Because out of the inoculation of people’s ideas, that’s how you can get great ideas and get a much better path for peace and for development, which we hope is going to be the case.
ABM: Absolutely, and I fully agree with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
SMK: Thank you.
ABM: No, the pleasure is mine, I’m glad we were able to swing it.
SMK: Thank you.