Rami Khouri - Beyond Sunnis and Shiites

Understanding the Turbulent Reconfiguration of Arab States and Citizens.

Pursuing a New Arab Order

Rami Khouri, on the turbulent road to democracy in the Middle East. 

There is no such thing as ‘the Arabs’ or ‘the Arab World’ says Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Instead, there are 360 million Arab people, and 22 Arab countries, he explains, each with different “leadership systems, levels of wealth, patterns of development, and levels of autocratic control.” Surely enough, he quickly catches himself referring to the Arab region as the Arab World again.

The one thing Arab countries do have in common, he states, is that not a single one of them is a democratic country. “In not a single Arab country do ordinary citizens have the right to participate, and bring life to the principle of the consent of the governed,” said Khouri.  “There has never been a negotiated, credible, social contract in any Arab country that was truly a contract between citizens and state, between the people and the government.” 

In a lecture titled “Beyond Sunnis and Shiites: Understanding the Turbulent Reconfiguration of Arab States and Citizens”, Khouri detailed the history of the failed relationship between citizen and state in the Arab region, and highlighted the developments that led to the eruption of a series of uprisings, under the hopeful banner of the ‘Arab Spring’, in December of 2010.

Held on October 29th at the George Ignatieff Theatre, the event was organized by the Canadian Arab Institute, the Toronto AUB Almuni Association, and the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. It is part of the lecture series “Perspectives on a Changing Middle East”, which aims at informing the Canadian public of the ongoing developments in the Middle East.

A banner behind him read “Welcome to a New Conversation”, as Khouri urged that it is neither accurate, nor intellectually or morally correct to look at the difficulties facing the Arab region as being caused by “Sunni-Shiite”, “Arab-Israeli”, or “Religious-Secular” tensions. The complete failure of the state and the absence of any form of new order to replace it are what led to the open chaos and political violence that gripped the region, more recently manifesting in the creation of ISIS, or the Islamic State in -parts of- Iraq and Syria.

For the past four decades or so, Khouri explained, Arab governments began internally retreating from their traditional roles, sometimes withdrawing from physical spaces, and others from entire sectors such as clean water provision, electricity, or transportation. This is when other groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the private sector, and all kinds of Non Governmental Institutions, started stepping in to fill the gap.

“It wasn’t just services, but it was identity and sovereignty that was shared between the central government and all of these other forces in society,” stated Khouri. He cited examples such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or the Kurds in Iraq – all of whom play some role of governance while also functioning like independent sovereignties.

If one were to look at the broader picture of the Middle East, Arab countries still don’t play any significant role in maintaining the stability of the region. Arab states increasingly invest in expanding security apparatus, which they most exclusively use to control their own populations, and often with foreign financial and political backing.  “The security architecture of the Arab world is defined by a balance of power between Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the United States. There isn’t an Arab power in sight. The Arabs had totally taken themselves out of their responsibility of protecting their own countries and regions,” said Khouri. That the United States took the initiative to form an international coalition to fight ISIS, is yet another testament to the failure of the modern Arab state in its current form, on every level imaginable.

These are the reasons that have led to the need for a reconfiguration in the relationship between Arab states and their citizens, as Arab people began asserting themselves as citizens, and asking for more political rights. This reconfiguration has been violent, dramatic, and non-sequential to say the least. 

“Within the last four years, they [Arab people] have compressed into one messy process what Western countries did in almost two centuries. That’s why it’s such a mess. What we are trying to do in some Arab countries is completely, ridiculously ambitious, but we don’t have a choice.”  

For Khouri, despite the chaos and the violence, there is a glimmer of hope. Tunisia is transitioning towards democracy as it just ratified a new, progressive constitution and its second peaceful handover of power. The Yemenis are still trying to pursue a national dialogue that will create a government. The Libyans are tying to negotiate a ceasefire and get back to the constitutional writing process. The Iraqis are trying to go through the process of creating a more inclusive government, despite the threat of ISIS. Finally, in every other Arab country, in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan, citizens are still speaking out and challenging their governments, he said.   

“Finally, we’re at the moment where things are starting to be sorted out. Where governments are being challenged. Where some people are writing new constitutions, and other people are fighting it out on the ground. This phase is going to last for some time, but it’s the phase where the failures of the past are being exposed as failures and are on their way out, and new better systems will come in, but it’s going to take some time.”  

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