Sunday, July 24, 2005

How to beat the terrorists: Lessons from a journey across the Arab world

Rami Khouri is Editor-at-Large for The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

Rami G. Khouri

In the last seven weeks I have had the opportunity to make working visits
to seven different Arab countries and to engage in political and other
discussions with local officials, academics, journalists and opposition
activists. The experience has been instructive, and simultaneously
heartening and depressing, but has suggested obvious opportunities and
dangers in the dual quest to respond to the rights of Arab citizens and
defeat the global terror plague.

Based on my visits and discussions in Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt,
Lebanon, Palestine and Morocco, along with meetings with colleagues from
Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Kuwait, I sense a common
mood across the Arab world: The prevailing status quo is neither
satisfying to the majority of citizens, nor sustainable for the rulers in
its current state, but neither is it on the verge of revolutionary or
violent change.

The obvious overarching trend throughout the Arab world is that of
citizenries and ruling elite that are worried by the status quo, but
unsure of how to change it. In every Arab society, demons from the past —
a harrowing litany of excesses and errors — now haunt the rulers and the
ruled alike. Tens of millions of educated but underemployed, unemployed,
restive and frustrated young men and women have given unnatural birth to
thousands of active terrorists and anarchists, targeting our own and
foreign lands. A deep distortion of traditional Islamic and Arab values is
manifested in a desperate, violent, criminal search for revenge against
the domestic and foreign forces that have degraded the last three
generations of Arabs. Urban environments are exploding in uncontrollable
spontaneous growth, with increasingly negative impacts on water, arable
land and other vital natural resource bases. Drug- and corruption-based
criminality is our new pan-Arab growth industry, expanding on a regional
and global scale. Tens of millions of armed men and women in official
military, police and security establishments have brought neither
palatable security nor even the more modest goal of honourable national
self-respect to the Arab region as a whole. Some desperate lands in our
midst are ruled like private fiefdoms by thugs, killers, former cops and
men of very limited abilities, in some absurd cases men who have remained
in power for three or four decades without interruption — and in all cases
without any formal, credible ratification by their own citizens.

Everywhere in the Arab world, the calm on the surface is tenuous and
vulnerable. Pressures for change emanate from within the Arab countries,
and equally from external pressures. This is driven by economic stress and
a deeper sense of the average citizen's indignity at living in societies
where power is neither accountable nor contestable, and where citizen
rights are neither codified nor respected.

But these are visceral, not constitutional, societies, and verbal, not
digital or parliamentary, societies. Body language rules here more than
the eloquence or principles of national founding fathers. So do not look
for signs of stress or change in polling data, legislative votes or
political party activity. Those superficial imports from retreating
colonial European powers three generations ago have little anchorage or
meaning in most Arab societies. Here, power relationships are negotiated
over coffee, meals, chance encounters and leisurely chats — and they are
constantly, perpetually renegotiated and reaffirmed, day after day, year
after year, generation after generation.

This is what is going on now in every Arab country. Arab rulers and ruled
alike fervently but quietly search for the mechanisms of orderly change,
aware that the traditional social contract and power equation that have
defined this region since the 1920s are on their last legs. The common
phenomenon I have witnessed around the Arab world is that growing
majorities of ordinary citizens seek peaceful but effective ways to
challenge, and change, state structures and the use of power — because
these state structures mostly do not offer their people sustainable
security, expressions of their real identity, freedom of choice and
speech, relevant education, or minimally attractive job prospects.

A very small minority of violent Arab men and women has turned to terror
as an instrument that expresses their demented frustrations and
desperation; more significantly, the vast mass of Arabs has learned the
lessons of the mistakes of the secular and religious political movements
that challenged the modern Arab security state using violent means
starting in the late 1970s. Citizens throughout this region now challenge
their ruling elite and foreign interference more peacefully, but also more
directly and vocally. They demand more equitable treatment by their own
ruling authorities, less corruption and abuse of power, and a more clear
sense of equal opportunities for all citizens, rather than privileged
access to power and wealth by a small, often family-, tribe-, ethnic-, or
sect-based elite that often includes a criminal component.

Citizens nonviolently but explicitly challenge the legitimacy of their
rulers in some cases, and the conduct of their own security services in
others. The first wave of responses from the befuddled Arab security state
— a thin sliver of reforms dressed up in limited media liberalisation —
has been unconvincing to savvy Arab citizenries that expect a much more
significant acknowledgement of their humanity, and of their human and
civil rights.

The opportunity and the danger for the Arab world both seem rather clear.
The opportunity is to engage and empower the vast majority of Arab
citizens who actively and peacefully seek a better, more humane and
accountable, political order, through orderly and incremental change.
Several hundred million upright, wholesome, ordinary men and women
throughout the Arab world cry out for decency in their political order,
inspired by the deep righteousness of their faiths and the strong moral
values of their cultural and national traditions.

The parallel danger is that Arab and foreign officials will allow
themselves to be so mesmerised and distracted by the criminal antics of a
few terrorists out there that they end up perpetuating the four basic
mistakes that have plagued Arab, American, British and other anti-terror
policies in recent years: Misdiagnosing the root causes of terror,
exaggerating the religious and minimising the political dimensions of
terror, and responding mainly with heavy-handed political and military
policies that, astoundingly, only fuel the criminal hormones of the
terrorists themselves and also further alienate the hundreds of millions
of already fearful ordinary Arabs whose demand to live as dignified,
respected citizens of humane and responsive modern states is, in the end,
the only sure way to defeat terrorism.

This is the simple but profound lesson that I have learned in my travels
and conversations across the Arab world in the past seven weeks. If you
seek stability and an end to terror, mobilise the Arab masses through
democratic transformations that respect their rights as citizens, rather
than alienate them through American, British and other military fantasies
in foreign lands that only degrade the Arab people's already thin sense of
self-respect in the face of their own bitter modern legacy of homegrown
autocrats and Western armies.