Rami Khouri Reflects on Arab Spring

Kerry Houston

Rami Khouri, a prominent journalist from Lebanon, delivered a lecture entitled “What Happened to the Arab Spring? Syria, Egypt and the Future of the Arab World” in Golden Auditorium on April 17. In his discussion, Khouri examined the key dimensions of changes taking place in the Middle East within the past few years, focusing specifically on the different trajectories the revolutions in Egypt and Syria have assumed.

Khouri began by discussing the nature of the term “Arab Spring,” noting that it is not one he likes to use, but has to because it has stuck and become widely accepted to describe the revolutions occurring across the region.

While the Arabs view these uprisings as a revolution, Khouri acknowledged that it remains to be seen whether or not history will make it one. He then examined the common denominator of grievances among the Arab people, noting that the Arab Spring is highly historic due to the large number of people rising up against their own governments, demanding changes in domestic power. He also noted the complexities arising from the Middle East attempting to simultaneously address several major historical phenomenon, including the balance between religious values and civic law in government, issues which were addressed over hundreds of years in the West.

“Across the whole region, there is a common set of grievances that people are expressing. Whether they’re out in the street calling for the overthrow of the government, making the revolution or they’re sitting at home tweeting…they want change in how political power is exercised, in the relationship between the citizen and the state,” Khouri said.

Khouri revealed that it is paramount to consider the fundamental questions regarding the rights of minorities, the role of Islam and the influence of Sharia law in the various state constitutions of the Middle East. Intense debate concerning the role of Islam and if authority should be derived from citizenry or holy doctrines has been a hallmark of this uprising.

For Khouri, the nature of the Arab Spring can be captured in five words: revolt, rights, respect, reconfiguration and religitimization.

“People want to be treated like citizens who have rights and they want to be sure they can exercise those rights,” Khouri said.

Khouri analyzed the notion of such abstract terms like respect, justice and voice, labeling them as vague yet incredibly powerful terms because of the way people are willing to risk their lives to safeguard these values in government.

Khouri firmly believes that for the governments in Egypt and Syria, it is integral to address how accountability is achieved and maintained, the division of labor between different government groups and the relationships between religion and secularism. He also discussed the conflicts arising regarding the different roles of men and women in society.

Khouri noted that an unprecedented factor of these uprisings in Syria and Egypt is the citizens’ desire to write their own constitutions and essentially obtain a new form of social contract between the state and the government. This negotiated agreement would clearly delineate the role of the government, the role of the citizens and the specific responsibilities and obligations on both sides, theoretically providing for a more effective, stabilized government in the two countries.

In his analysis of the Arab Spring, Khouri argued that the government in Egypt is responding to these challenges in a limited manner; not enough to satisfy everyone’s demands, but it is enough of a step forward in what he considers will be a very long period of gradual change.

“What the rebellion, uprising and constitutional movements that followed are all about is not simply removing a leader and replacing him with a more democratic leader…[the Arabs] want to change entire power system,” Khouri said.

Khouri labeled self-determination and genuine sovereignty as the two biggest achievements to potentially come from the Arab Spring. Such achievements would essentially implement the principle of consent of the governed and therefore work to establish citizen rights, constitutional reform and social justice as mainstays of the reformed government.

“The bottom line is this: hundreds of millions of Arab people have expressed clearly in the last three years that they don’t want to keep living as helpless people under autocrat leaders…[they] want pluralistic systems, accountable systems and most of all, systems that give people equal opportunity and treat people with respect and equity,” Khouri said.

At the end of his lecture, Khouri spent some time responding to questions from the student audience, discussing the nature of the threat that al-Qaeda continues to pose to the United States and the role social media played in initially igniting the Arab Spring.