The Arab Reawakening

With rebellion sweeping the Arab world, Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, talks to Columbia Magazine about the prospect for real change.

Published Spring 2011
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COLUMBIA: How significant is the return of Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to Egypt?

KHALIDI: I think what al-Qaradawi said is what’s significant, though the media couldn’t not play up his return. After all, it’s the first time he’s been back in 50 years, and on February 18 he gave the Friday sermon to 1 million people. That’s news any way you look at it. No Khutbah, or Friday prayer, since the dawn of Islam, that I’m aware of, has begun with anything but “O Muslims.” That’s how the imam starts the sermon. It’s been that way for almost 1400 years. Instead, al-Qaradawi began, “O Muslims, O Christians.” He’s addressing the whole Egyptian people, not just Muslims. He talked about secularism, about democracy. This was a service in which Muslims and Christians both prayed.

COLUMBIA: Editorial writers have been drawing parallels between this year and 1979, 1989 — even 1848. But is 2011 unique?

KHALIDI: It certainly is, though one can understand the comparisons to Tehran. People are afraid, and there are those who fan the flames of that fear. Any serious analyst who knows anything about this region would talk about the differences between Sunni and Shia, and the differences between the roles of the religious establishments in Iran and in Egypt. One has to understand that Khomeini telegraphed his intentions to establish a theocracy long before he got back to Tehran. One has to understand how he took over leadership of the movement, why there was an Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the other ways in which the shah’s regime differed from the Mubarak regime. Tehran is not Cairo, Iran is not Egypt, and Sunni is not Shia.

COLUMBIA: For all the corruption of Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia was at least a secular state. Is it likely to survive as a secular state?

KHALIDI: I think so, for reasons that are very specific to Tunisia. First, Tunisia has a union movement with half a million members, which always managed to maintain its independence from the regime, unlike the Egyptian union movement, which was once very powerful but has been under the control of the regime for several decades, since even before Mubarak. Second, women have all kinds of rights and are active in the workforce. Third, the population, including women, is literate and well educated. Fourth, Tunisia has a well-organized civil society, even though the regime was authoritarian. Finally, there is a big middle class, and a huge diaspora of Tunisians in Europe — mainly in France, as well as in Germany and in Italy.

COLUMBIA: Are discussions in Tunisia addressing the question of a presidential versus a parliamentary system?

KHALIDI: That constitutional debate is going on in Egypt as well. People are asking whether they should continue with a top-heavy, presidential, executive-dominated system or whether it should be balanced not only with a strong parliament but also with an independent judiciary, which everybody agrees should be easy in Egypt but very hard in Tunisia. The Tunisian judiciary had been castrated by the Ben Ali regime, whereas in Egypt the judiciary ferociously maintained its independence from the executive branch. These questions are being debated in both countries, as is the nature of the constitution, the balance of power between the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary, the relative independence of each, and how soon to have elections. There is the question of how long it will take to put together viable political parties without having the only two parties that could run in these elections — in the case of Egypt, Mubarak’s National Democracy Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood — having an enormous advantage because they’re the only ones who know how you run an election. I lived in Chicago for 15 years; I know what a machine is. A machine is something that gets out the vote and provides jobs for the boys, and in some cases the girls, and at the moment, there are only two of those in Egypt. One demand of the popular movement in Egypt is for the dissolution of the NDP.

COLUMBIA: If the regime of Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a Sunni, were to be seriously threatened by his largely Shia population, would Saudi Arabia, which has its own troubles, come to its rescue?

KHALIDI: Saudi Arabia is already coming to the rescue of its sister Sunni monarchy. The king of Bahrain was in Saudi Arabia to welcome King Abdullah back from his three-month recuperation after his operation at Columbia University Medical Center. There is no question that for Saudi Arabia the reason there’s a causeway between the two kingdoms is not just so Saudis can go to Manama and get drunk and consort with loose women. It’s there so that Saudi Arabia can exert its influence as directly as it needs to.

Photo: © Felipe Trueba / EPA/ Corbis

The same kind of entrenched interests that exist in the Mubarak and Ben Ali families exist in spades in the royal families of these countries. You have succession issues; you have governments in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain where all the major portfolios are in the hands of the royal family. The prime minister of Bahrain is the king’s uncle and has been in office for decades. If those kinds of things don’t change, there are going to be problems. Even in Saudi Arabia, there’s unrest because all the king seems to do is to generously condescend to give his subjects money rather than listen to their demands for political participation, for profound reform, for some kind of representation. That’s what people want. Bahrain is way ahead of Saudi Arabia; it has an elected parliament. It may be a gerrymandered parliament, like Jordan’s, but it’s a parliament.

COLUMBIA: Do you think the role of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media has been overstated?

KHALIDI: I’m sure these things played a role, but I would remind you that the people of Cairo rose up and drove out a hated regime and had to be brought back under control by artillery fire from the citadel during the French occupation of 1798–1801. The Egyptian people were involved in similar uprisings in the 1870s and early 1880s, and in 1919, when there was an enormous revolution that eventually forced the British to grant them independence. It didn’t take Facebook, it didn’t take radio, it didn’t take Al Jazeera to create these major popular upheavals in the past.

However, I’m sure that the specific nature of what happened, and the way in which groups managed to organize, owed a great deal to modern means of communication. The young people used it very well to outwit a smart regime.

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I'm certain others have commented as I am going to do. The idea that "experts" are "completely false" who doubt the "Arab Spring" -- and I didn't get much further along reading since the pov is stated so absolutely and clearly -- is now dated and absurd. It's obvious that sectarian (that is, religious) violence is a big part of more the Arab Winter, this true in Jordon, Bahrain, and Syria. What is going on in Yemen and Lybia is more tribal, I suppose. But anyone charactrerizing any of this as mainly about democracy -- it might be about a hopeless standard of living, but that is more again capitalism and corruption -- has some false agenda of propaganda. Egypt, of course, is on hold, it is a basket case economically -- none of these countries can much compete in the international marketplace beyond oil -- and now Christians are being attacked by fundamentalist Islamists. Maybe nothing much happened there, the army still in control, or what happened is also likely to bring about a Muslim Brotherhood at least sharing power. I doubt if this would bother the author much, but then I suppose he likes Hamas too, but I stopped reading. If this is the propaganda that passes for expert analysis at Columbia, I can only quote Saul Bellow when meeting Sartre and other communist existentialists around 1948: "I knew more in high school about communism than they do now."

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