I had the privilege of attending a discussion entitled “Inside the Arab Awakening” on Sept. 19. The panel was organized by the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School and was moderated by Ambassador Nicholas Burns. The panelists – all experts on various issues pertaining to the region – had the benefit of having been in the Middle East very recently. Moreover, they were all Arabs.
Rami Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut shared the stage with Dr. Karim Makdisi, also of AUB, Diana Buttu, a Harvard Fellow and UAE-based columnist Sultan Al Qassemi.
Burns set the tone of the night with his first question. In essence, he asked the four participants to describe whether the words “Arab Spring” appropriately or accurately describe the events that have been unfolding in the region for months now. Buttu was the first to respond: According to her, we are witnessing a series of uprisings; Intifadas. There was general agreement that today’s tumult is the first grade in a long period of development for the region.
Over the course of the night a powerful narrative emerged. Khouri explained that the Arab Awakening was about the genesis of the Arab citizen. Self-determination had finally seized the Arab object and shattered his fear. Hope and possibility animated him.
Palestine came up repeatedly. Makdisi observed – and the others underlined – the extent to which the internal/external policy divide is an alien construct for many protesters. For them, freedom in Cairo and freedom in Jerusalem are intimately related.
Al Qassemi warned, credibly I think, that the Gulf Arab states must transition and adopt constitutional monarchism in order to survive. Their homogeneity, natural resources and strong tribal norms cannot forestall democratization.
The Arab – particularly the Palestinian – voice was so dominant yesterday that I found myself hoping that Burns would push harder on both the hard and the hasbara questions: Has the Syrian connection impacted Hezbollah in meaningful ways (he asked this question, but didn’t persist in this vein for long)? What about Hamas? Is Israel really as blameworthy as was repeatedly claimed by the panelists (he did push back here, but again not aggressively enough I think)? And so on.
In the main, these are good question and there are good answers to them. Rigorous analysis has always benefited the dual causes of truth and justice – at root, the Palestinian cause.
The night was an overall astounding success. It’s too early in the new relationship between the Arabs and the West to know if this co-equal conversation is the new paradigm or just paradigm-defying. After yesterday’s discussion, I’m at least as hopeful as the people in the region.
PS. Burns repeatedly referred to Palestine – not the Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Territories or the West Bank and Gaza, but Palestine. That seemed significant to me.