Wadah Khanfar, who left Al Jazeera in September 2011 after 8 years as its head, discusses in this interview the complexities of democratic transformation in the Middle East and the current situations in Syria and Iran.
“The Syrian people see the international society abandoning them, in one way or the other,” Mr. Khanfar said. “The only way to make this scenario survive is through supporting the Free Syrian Army, rather than foreign intervention.”
On Iran, Mr. Khanfar said, “An attack on Iran is going to be a disaster in the region. It will create a lot of troubles and complexities. Now, anything that could interfere in the quest of the Arab democracy and transformation toward democracy is going to be serious at this moment in time.”
On the process of creating democracy in the Arab Spring countries, Mr. Khanfar said, “It depends on how governments are going to handle it. If they would like to see it as a natural growth of aspiration and a legitimate transformation in the age of Internet and age of connectivity, I think they will succeed in really having some kind of good ending for all the troubles that we face. But if they resist that, they view it as a conspiracy, they view it as some kind of foreign intervention, or some kind of anarchic progress from within the people, I think, in my opinion, this might be disastrous and might lead to further complexity.”
He said, “I have seen a lot of skeptical politicians, skeptical journalists, trying to think of the Arab Spring as an Islamist Winter, or as an end of hope for change. No. I think what is happening in the Arab world is natural progress. We have to go through this. It might be rough, might be a little bit difficult, but eventually, we are moving in the right direction.”
Wadah Khanfar is Cofounder and President of The Sharq Forum, an international think tank focused on political and economic development in the Arab world.
The interview was conducted by Nur Laiq, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute, on February 24, 2012.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Nur Laiq (NL): Wadah Khanfar is the former Director General of Al Jazeera and Cofounder and President of The Sharq Forum, an international think tank focused on political and economic development in the Arab world.
This morning the Qatari Prime Minister called on the international community to arm Syria’s opposition and for the Arab countries to provide a safe haven for rebels. What do you think should be done to bring violence in Syria to a halt? Do you see a risk that outside interventions could make matters worse?
Wadah Khanfar (WK): Actually, the violence in Syria was started by the government, and the opposition and the people on the street did determine to continue peacefully their revolution. But the amount of violence that we have seen in the last eleven months almost is unprecedented, and therefore a lot of people are now demanding some kind of support for Free Syrian Army. And this Free Syrian Army is actually seen as legitimate force that is trying to protect the civilians. According to some critics here, I have heard people saying that they might not be as organized as we would like them to be, but again, this is the only option that people have to protect them against the official army.
The second point, which is important: the Syrian people see the international society abandoning them, in one way or the other. For instance, the veto on the Security Council resolution—until today, we didn’t see a viable option in front of the international society or something that was really solid, given to the people. This feeling is actually very harmful, because it might create a lot of desperate approaches to violence that might even promote some kind of unwanted forces to try to come and try also to be part of the scene.
Although so far the Syrians are in fact trying their best not to go into sectarian violence and not also to welcome foreigners to help them in the fight against the regime. The only way to make this scenario survive is through supporting the Free Syrian Army, rather than foreign intervention. Direct foreign intervention in the style of Libya, in my opinion, might complicate the reality and create huge problems in the region. But I think Syrians themselves are capable of handling it if they find the proper sources of funding and proper sources of support from the international and regional countries.
NL: But might not indirect foreign intervention also complicate things? I mean, where you have every neighbor arming the Free Syrian Army as they please, which seems to have been suggested here.
WK: Actually, I already do believe that the Syrian regime is supported by some countries in the region and internationally. Already they have access to resources. So, the Free Syrian Army, although they are now fighting in order to protect Syrian civilian movements in the country, but definitely they do not have any equivalent power to the regime. And they don’t have permanent support. What is needed is to coordinate this kind of action by the neighbors themselves, and the international society so it becomes systematically possible to actually push for more protection of the civilians through this military support.
NL: Moving on to Iran—do you envisage an attack on Iran? And how would that affect the Arab Spring, and political alignments in the region?
WK: An attack on Iran is going to be a disaster in the region. It will create a lot of troubles and complexities. Now, anything that could interfere in the quest of the Arab democracy and transformation toward democracy is going to be serious at this moment in time. People have hope, and eventually after decades of oppression and authoritarian regimes, they have been able, for the first time to go forward in the path of democracy. An attack against Iran will put that on hold, will create a lot of new priorities and alliances, and will divert the attention from the process of democracy and democratization into conflicts, will create economic and international complexities that might not be at all of any benefit for the region. So this is why I think an attack on Iran is very serious.
Now, all parties are not very clear about it, in the way that the Israelis are threatening this kind of attack. So far, they are keeping some kind of grey area, where sometimes you feel some of the officials are speaking with louder voices, and some others are playing it down. This tactic is creating this kind of anxiety. To what extent that might materialize into a solid attack, of course, depends on the international society, especially the Americans, to what extent the Americans can convince the Israelis and interfere in it, to what extent the British and many other forces in the region that could find any other solution rather than military confrontation.
NL: I would like to pick up again on the theme of political alignments in the region. People often talk about the differences between monarchies and republics when discussing the Arab Spring. Do you think that such a framework is useful or misleading? How do you see the future of monarchies in the region?
WK: I think the monarchies in the region are going to be affected by the Arab Spring in the way that might be different from the republics in the region. We have seen a scenario that has taken place in Morocco, which I feel really did a great solution for this particular dilemma, where we did witness free and fair elections and formation of a government that is legitimate in the sight of the people. That is a useful solution. Of course, after the amendment of the constitution.
This scenario, if it happens in the rest of the monarchies, might prevent any further escalation of any kind of tension in the societies. Let us see the big picture. The big picture is: the Arab world has now started a process, and that might take time. It is not one year or two years, it might be longer than that. And this process… it depends on how governments are going to handle it. If they would like to see it as a natural growth of aspiration and a legitimate transformation in the age of Internet and age of connectivity, I think they will succeed in really having some kind of good ending for all the troubles that we face. But if they resist that, they view it as a conspiracy, they view it as some kind of foreign intervention, or some kind of anarchic progress from within the people, I think, in my opinion, this might be disastrous and might lead to further complexity.
NL: The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt did very well, as did Ennahda in Tunisia. We often hear about these parties as homogenous blocs. Could you tell us more about the debates taking place within the Islamist groups, for example between the old guard and the youth wings?
WK: The political Islam phenomena is definitely not homogenous and it is not an accomplished project. It is a project that is evolving, from 1928 when the Muslim Brotherhood movement started in Egypt to date. There is continuous brainstorming and thinking and evolution within the discourse of Islamists. Therefore, I would argue, that the current movement in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen, and many other Arab countries, are shifting towards the model of democracy and embracing the universal values of human rights more than anything else, because this is the only model they have in front of them. They cannot, of course, follow other models, like the Taliban model—it has its own cultural roots. They are not going to follow the Iranian model, which also has its own cultural and religious roots and perception about how government should operate.
So, the only model that is open for the Arab world at this moment in time is democracy and democratic model. This is why Islamists—let us call them Islamists for now because the word “Islamist” itself, unfortunately, should be qualified. Not all Islamists share the same values. But I call now, this group of people who are ascending to power, trying to be part of the democratic process as Muslim democrats, rather than Islamists. I think they are in a process of transforming themselves to much more open approach to the society, less ideological, more value-centered, and more inclusive than exclusive.
NL: You talk about another type of democrat. We want to now talk about young people, who formed the vanguard of the revolution but are already losing out as more established players take the front stage. How can they insure that they remain an influential political force, especially when their activism was value-driven and not ideological? Also, organizationally, when they have been decentralized, as opposed to the political parties who are far more centralized?
WK: Networks, without any doubt, did play a major role in the revolution. And networks did introduce to all of us a new model: movement that is by nature democratic, because networks are democratic by nature. And does not have the legacy that might restrict it from imagining a radical change. Because most of the traditional political institutions in the Arab world during the last few decades were actually pushed away, and they were banned from progress. And they did develop much more ideological and much more exclusive way of thinking about themselves and the world. And the government eventually defined the boundaries of their movement. No one was talking about radical change in the Arab world towards democracy and freedom. They were talking about enhancing the current status quo.
Networks did bring about change, and bringing down regimes. That was a surprise for everyone, plus the fact they are more flexible, dynamic, they reach out, and the democratic approach that they had that made things succeed, and as you said, they are value-centered, not ideologically-centered. This is during the first few days of the revolution, and they build after revolution, but of course, in the process of electing people for the national assembly, you are going to go to well-established organizations, which is political groups and parties.
I did notice that most of the youth were left out from this transformation in the struggle for democracy. They have a major role to play; they have to continue watching the political process. And they have to continue advocating the ideals. Instead of letting these ideals pragmatically become, or realistically become low in the priority of those who have been elected to power, I think the youth should continue pushing for much more freedom, much more human rights, much more liberal approach towards everyone, and therefore they continue to be relevant.
There is a dilemma in the way that networks operate. No one could figure out yet, how could we come about a version of a network that is practically capable of establishing itself within the political atmosphere, within the political system, without converting itself into hierarchical organization like a traditional political party. This is a major problem, but I think there will be some kind of model in between, where it derives from the network its best, and from the organizational structure its best, and comes up with a solution. Definitely, this is what, The Sharq Forum, the initiative that I am now involved in, is trying to actually do and trying to work with youth and political parties and groups.
NL: I think it is a dilemma. Do they join the political game in the traditional sense or do they stay outside of it and act as a pressure group or form lobbies?
Turning to countries that are in transition—even when the leader has been removed the old system is still in place —the military, the bureaucracy, the elites, the security services remain there. How do you deal with entrenched interests? You have described the challenge of infusing the culture of democracy into the system, but how do you actually do it?
WK: I do understand that transformation towards democracy —it comes with its own challenges. Bureaucracy most likely will not be very happy with swifter transformation, because again, as you said, there is a system, and there is also institutional memory in the state, which normally resists dramatic change. So that is a threat.
The second threat as well is the issue of overarching values that the community should start establishing, which is necessary for the institutions to be built, and political consensus on the rules of the new games of politics. I do understand in the democratic discourse to have differences and competition amongst political groups. But that should not always reach the point of redefining the values of democracy itself that society is trying to achieve.
So there is a lot that should be done in a form of dialogue, between secularists, Islamists and leftists in the Arab world, and nationalists, should sit down and they should debate and argue about what kind of future they would like to see, regardless of how to reach there. How to reach there, that is a matter of politics. Let us compete and find ways of settling our competition through democracy and ballots. But where would you like to be, that is a matter of consensus, where the nation, really, should have some kind of values agreed upon for the future. Dialogue is necessary.
Now, the international society has a role to play. The threat always was that international intervention in the Middle East, especially in the Arab world, used to be seen negative factor, used to hinder the transformation to democracy. Now, I think the international society should embrace the result of democracy, and should acknowledge and recognize the new leaders who emerge from this democratic process, regardless if they are Islamists or secularists, and they should try to positively accommodate this kind of process within their economic and international system. We need this kind of support. We need to embrace this transformation, not to be suspicious.
I have seen a lot of skeptical politicians, skeptical journalists, trying to think of the Arab Spring as an Islamist Winter, or as an end of hope for change. No. I think what is happening in the Arab world is natural progress. We have to go through this. It might be rough, might be a little bit difficult, but eventually we are moving into the right direction.
NL: And your forum, as you were saying earlier, is playing a key role in getting the different groups to engage in dialogue, especially when it comes to the drafting of the constitution. You have led Al Jazeera during its rise to global prominence. Social media and television—Al Jazeera in particular—have widely been perceived as having played an influential role in enabling the Arab uprisings. In your assessment, how big was the influence of media on the uprisings and to which extent has this influence been hyped?
WK: I would say that Al Jazeera did play, during the last 15 years, a major role in the transformation in the Arab world. Transformation why? Because you have given the people options. This opinion, and another opinion. You have given them the voices of those who have never had voice before. So you have widened the horizon, and the debate and discussion within the society about what shape and what future everyone would like to see.
However, the immediate cause of the revolution, or the heroes of the revolution, are the people, neither Al Jazeera nor any other element in the society. It was the people themselves who did march in Tahrir Square, or march before that in Sidi Bouzid, or march wherever in Sana’a or Aden, they are the people, the heroes of the revolution.
Social networks play a major role in providing a platform of coverage and mobilization at the beginning of the revolution. Al Jazeera did play major role starting from 28th January in Tahrir Square, when the Internet was brought down by the government of Egypt, and traditional media did start picking up on the story and amplifying the voices of the public. But later on, a new ecosystem, balanced between traditional media and social networks, did a marvelous job of covering the revolution in a way that, actually, it was balanced; in a way that governments could not hinder this coverage. You remember that the government of Egypt brought down the signal of Al Jazeera from one of the satellites in the Arab world, prominent one. But definitely social networks were very handy and very useful, and this kind of relationship between social networks and traditional media was very important. I call that the day when a new ecosystem emerged in journalism. Not only in the Arab world, but I do believe it will affect the way that we see journalism and news gathering internationally.
NL: Thank you. Thank you so much for the interview.
WK: You are most welcome. Thank you very much.