Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rami Khouri - "The Arabs Watch Iran with Forlorn Envy" (Beirut Daily Star)

The Palestinian-Jordanian-American journalist Rami Khouri, who at different times has been Editor-in-Chief of the Beirut Daily Star and the Jordan Times (among other things), is always worth reading (or almost always), whether or not one fully agrees with him.

In the piece below he offers some thoughtful, acute, and illuminating reflections on the political drama unfolding in Iran and the deeply ambivalent reactions to this spectacle in the Arab world. I have some thoughts about this piece myself, but for the moment I will just pass it on. Some highlights:

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I started writing this column Sunday in Amman, Jordan, and finished writing it Tuesday in Beirut, Lebanon [....] Jordan and Lebanon contain extremes visible in the Arab world, including pro-American and pro-Iranian sentiments, Islamists, monarchists, and an assortment of tribal, Arab nationalist, state-centered and democratic values.

All of them, without exception, are reacting to events in Iran with fascination, confusion, and concern, reflecting self-inflicted political incoherence and mediocrity that are hallmarks of the modern Arab world. Broadly speaking, the Arab world has maneuvered itself into a lose-lose situation with regard to developments in Iran, despite the different views expressed toward the Islamic Republic.

The uncomfortable common denominator is that for both the people and the ruling power elites of the Arab world, whatever happens in Iran will largely be perceived negatively by a majority in the Middle East. This is a sad commentary on the condition of Arab political culture, which remains autocratic and rigid at the top, and passive and frustrated at the grassroots. [....]

Arab regimes and leaders have worked themselves into a lose-lose situation whereby they would be unhappy if the Iranian regime stayed in power and unhappy if it were removed through popular challenge. The same awkwardness defines the perspectives of Arab citizens. [....]

At the same time, ordinary Arabs would feel jealous were the demonstrators in Iran able to topple their regime for the second time in 30 years; this would highlight the chronic passivity and powerlessness of Arab citizens who must suffer permanent subjugation in their own long-running autocratic systems without being able to do anything about it. Whether Iranian street demonstrations challenged the shah or the Islamists who toppled him, Arabs watch all this on television with a forlorn envy.
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=> And for anyone who might be interested, here is a collection of pieces commissioned by the New York Times: "The Arab World Reacts (or Doesn't)"

--Jeff Weintraub

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Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The Arabs watch Iran with forlorn envy
By Rami G. Khouri

I started writing this column Sunday in Amman, Jordan, and finished writing it Tuesday in Beirut, Lebanon - a short journey that captured how the dynamic events in Iran are playing out in very different ways in a largely passive and vulnerable Arab world. Jordan and Lebanon contain extremes visible in the Arab world, including pro-American and pro-Iranian sentiments, Islamists, monarchists, and an assortment of tribal, Arab nationalist, state-centered and democratic values.

All of them, without exception, are reacting to events in Iran with fascination, confusion, and concern, reflecting self-inflicted political incoherence and mediocrity that are hallmarks of the modern Arab world. Broadly speaking, the Arab world has maneuvered itself into a lose-lose situation with regard to developments in Iran, despite the different views expressed toward the Islamic Republic.

The uncomfortable common denominator is that for both the people and the ruling power elites of the Arab world, whatever happens in Iran will largely be perceived negatively by a majority in the Middle East. This is a sad commentary on the condition of Arab political culture, which remains autocratic and rigid at the top, and passive and frustrated at the grassroots.

Most Arab regimes do not like Iran, they even fear it, because of its capacity to inspire revolutionary Islamism or at least mildly insurrectionary movements within their countries. A few Arab leaders even speak of Iran's predatory or hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf, Lebanon, Iraq and other lands. Only isolated pockets of power in the Arab world like or support the Iranian regime, including Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and some other Islamist or nationalist forces. Yet even the few isolated exceptions, like Hamas and Hizbullah, that have effectively carved out small domains of their own sovereignty are in an uncomfortable zone regarding events in Iran.

Arab public opinion, for its part, views Iran with much more nuance. Many Arabs cheered the Iranian Revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi 30 years ago, and continue to enjoy Iran's defiance of the US, Israel, UN sanctions and conservative Arab leaderships. Others in the Arab world see Iran's Islamic Revolution as a nasty export commodity that has only spelled trouble for Arab societies. Places like Lebanon and Palestine, especially, are offered the unattractive option of perpetual warfare with Israel, which entails the regular destruction of swaths of their society.

The irony today is that the Iranian regime and its policies are viewed very differently throughout the Arab world; but removing or reconfiguring the Islamic regime through street demonstrations or even through democratic elections seems problematic for virtually everyone in Arab society.

You would think that Arab governments would be pleased to see Iran's regime toppled, or tempered by its own people. Yet, if such change were to occur through street demonstrations choreographed via a web of digital communications, whispered messages, and rooftop religious chants in the middle of the night, autocratic Arab leaders would cringe - because they would sense in this their own vulnerability to similar mass political challenges. The fact is lost on no one that the Iranian regime has effectively withstood American, Israeli, European, and UN pressures, threats and sanctions for years, but found itself much more vulnerable to the spontaneous rebellion of many of its own citizens who felt degraded by the falsification of election results by the government.

(An intriguing side note: Events inside Iran picked up steam at the same time as the Iranian presidential elections coincided with the Obama administration's change of policy, as Washington backed off the threats and aggressiveness of the Bush years, and offered to engage with Iran on the basis of mutual respect. Would a more detached US policy toward Arab autocrats similarly open space for Arab domestic effervescence and indigenous calls for more liberal, honest politics?)

Arab regimes and leaders have worked themselves into a lose-lose situation whereby they would be unhappy if the Iranian regime stayed in power and unhappy if it were removed through popular challenge. The same awkwardness defines the perspectives of Arab citizens. Most Arabs do not want to live in an Iranian-style political system that blends theocracy with autocracy; but many were pleased to see the pro-American shah overthrown by Koran-carrying demonstrators. They would also be unhappy to see the Iranian regime overthrown because they enjoy its defiance of the US, Israel and the UN in particular, along with its development of a nuclear capability.

At the same time, ordinary Arabs would feel jealous were the demonstrators in Iran able to topple their regime for the second time in 30 years; this would highlight the chronic passivity and powerlessness of Arab citizens who must suffer permanent subjugation in their own long-running autocratic systems without being able to do anything about it. Whether Iranian street demonstrations challenged the shah or the Islamists who toppled him, Arabs watch all this on television with a forlorn envy.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by The Daily Star.

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