Mohamed Bouazizi and the Arab Revolts: Barsamian Interviews Khouri
By David Barsamian // January 24, 2014

After being humiliated by state authorities, Mohamed Bouazizi, an
unknown street vendor in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouaziz, set
himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010. Just a few weeks before, WikiLeaks
had published revelations confirming what virtually every Tunisian
knew: The regime of Ben Ali was thoroughly corrupt and operated like a
mafia family. But the U.S. backed Ben Ali throughout his many years of
dictatorial rule. Bouazizi's action may be comparable to Rosa Parks'
refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. Who knew
then what would follow? In Tunisia, within weeks Ben Ali was toppled.
Then Egypt erupted, then Syria and Libya. Impregnable regimes suddenly
looked vulnerable. The political landscape of the Middle East had
dramatically changed. People came out in the streets in unprecedented

Khouri and Barsamian (Photo by Keenan Duffey)

Rami Khouri is a well-known journalist in the Middle East. Based in
Beirut, he is the editor-at-large of The Daily Star. His articles are
syndicated in major newspapers around the world. He is the director of
the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs
at the American University of Beirut. Khouri is also a recipient of
the Pax Christi International Peace Award for his efforts to bring
peace to the Middle East.

The following interview was conducted on Oct. 17, 2013, at the
University of Denver in Denver, Colo.

David Barsamian--Antonio Gramsci said, "The old is dying and the new
cannot be born, and in this interregnum a great variety of morbid
symptoms appear." I'm wondering, in the context of the Arab Middle
East and the various revolts that began in December 2010, what your
perspective is on that trajectory.

Rami Khouri--I think that quote is absolutely correct. What happened in
the period between December 2010 and June 2011 was an extraordinary
series of rolling revolts, popular uprisings, revolutions, and
populist activism and challenges to existing regimes, some of which
had been in place for 40 years under the same leader, like in Libya,
or the same family, as in Syria, or the same regime, as in Egypt, the
army. So this sudden uprising that changed so many of the principles
that had defined the Middle East for so many decades--really two or
three generations--was so sudden and so vast in its consequences that
it was very clear that the dust would not settle very quickly, and
there would be a long period during which people tried to reconfigure
the political power structures and the legitimacies of their
societies. This is a process that in Western democracies took one or
two centuries. We don't expect it to take that long in our countries,
but it certainly needs more than one or two years.

So I think we're passing through the phase now of this period of the
old regimes being changed or challenged and the new ones not yet being
created. There are many, many reasons for that, which we can discuss.
But I think we have to be very patient and just watch the process
unfold and recognize the epic nature of this process, where ordinary
people, for the first time ever in the history of these societies--and
I say first time ever meaning in the last 8,000 years of settled human
life--have a say and an opportunity to shape their own countries, to
shape their government systems, to define their national values, to
set up mechanism of accountability, etc., etc. This is not something
that happens quickly or easily.

D.B.--Let's talk about the spark that ignited the series of revolts,
starting with Tunisia. U.S. government cables extremely critical of
the Ben Ali regime, likening it to a mafia family, were published by
WikiLeaks on Nov. 28, 2010. Three weeks later, Dec. 17, Mohamed
Bouazizi, a street vendor who refused to pay bribes to the police,
dowsed himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. He later died.
That was the ignition that launched the revolt in Tunisia. What is
your perspective on Tunisia? You've written favorably on Tunisia,
saying it "continues to show the way."

R.K.--Tunisia was literally the spark and Mohamed Bouazizi,
unfortunately, also literally was the spark. He set himself on fire.
This ignited a spontaneous, widespread, and continuing series of
citizen uprisings all across the Arab world. His show of protest, or
maybe it was self-affirmation--we don't know exactly what he meant to
do when he set himself on fire--resonated instantly and ferociously
with people all across the region. People understood exactly why he
did this. And in the first signs of the weakness of Zine el-Abidine
Ben Ali's regime in Tunisia, when that regime started to falter and
then when he fled, immediately people recognized all across the region
that these police-state, dictatorial-type regimes are not quite as
strong as we think they are. In fact, some of them were overthrown and
some have fought back, like in Syria and Bahrain.

What happened with Bouazizi was that he articulated, both in his
suffering and his protest sentiments, what several hundred million
Arabs instinctively felt. I describe him as a kind of Rosa Parks
figure. When Rosa Parks refused to get off that bus, she was doing
something that millions of black people instinctively understood they
wanted to do. But they didn't do it; she did it. When she did it and
she was arrested, instantly this created a civil rights movement
locally in Montgomery, and then all across the American South. In
Bouazizi's case it was a similar situation. He was just one person,
but the suffering he felt at the hands of the police who mistreated
him, and then when he went to the governor's office a few hours later
to ask for a redress of grievance and was sent away, what he endured,
resonated throughout the Middle East.

Within a few hours this ordinary citizen, twice in his encounters with
the official representatives of his own government--not an American
invading army or an Israeli occupying army or some foreign army, but
his own government--two officials in his community that he encountered,
treated him like dirt. They basically told him: You have no rights. We
can do anything we want with you. We can humiliate you. We can, as the
police woman did, take his scales away and prevent him from working
and therefore doom his family to poverty or even worse. He was the
only breadwinner of his family. He was bringing home around $73 a
week. There were seven people in his family, his mother and six
siblings, that were kept alive and some of them went to school because
of his earnings. He suddenly couldn't do any of that, because this one
police officer and the governor's office totally denied him any kind
of citizenship rights or any basic human rights.

That feeling resonated widely and strongly with millions of people in
the Middle East. So we have to look back and see Bouazizi as a symbol
of the suffering of people all across the Arab world at the hands of
their own dictatorial or autocratic regimes, and also the humiliation
that he felt, that he could do nothing about it. He had no rights, he
was an invisible man. He had to take his suffering and live with it.
Well, he didn't take it and live with it. He made a protest. Whether
that protest of setting himself on fire was a sign of defiance or a
sign of suicidal hopelessness or a sign of self-assertion--saying, I'm
not an invisible man, I do have agency, I do have the capacity to do
something, and here's what I'm doing, I'm protesting by setting myself
on fire to show you that I will not just sit down and die quietly, and
if I'm going to die, maybe I'll do it by making a statement--we don't
know. He died, so we don't know what was going through his head. But
what he did resonated so widely across the region that it sparked all
these protests. When Al Jazeera TV started to cover the events in
Tunisia, people were sitting watching their TVs day and night. They
couldn't turn off the TV, they were so enthralled by what was going
on. And, of course, the rest is history, and the unrest spread across
the region.

The key thing is to go back and constantly ask ourselves, What were
the grievances that millions and millions, tens of millions, maybe 200
million people around the Arab world, felt that connected them to
Bouazizi and drove these revolts? And where are those grievances
today? That's the important question. What happened in the last two
and a half, three years, happened. So, are the people of the Arab
world still suffering under these same kinds of humiliating
conditions, situations of hopelessness, vulnerability, and
marginalization? We don't really know, because we still don't have
mechanisms that clearly express the political sentiments of ordinary
people. We've had some indications with elections here and there, but
we're still kind of groping in the dark on this.

D.B.--The Ennahda Party seems to be a kind of moderate Islamic
formation that's been trying to work with other groups in civil
society within the country.

R.K.--The Ennahda in Tunisia is a more sophisticated form of the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt and in other Arab countries, partly because the
leadership, [Mohamed] Ghannouchi and others, spent decades in exile,
in England mostly and around Europe. So they were very influenced by
the kind of civil society and Western democratic experiences that they
encountered in their exile. When they came back and they won a
plurality--they didn't win a majority; I think they had around 40-41
percent of the vote in Tunisia, but they were lead partners in the
three-partner coalition government--they understood better than the
Muslim Brothers in Egypt that you have to work in a collective way
with other groups in society, you can't try to force your will and
dominate society. So they were much more amenable to making deals, to
making compromises. They had their chance, running the government for
over a year, and they didn't do very well. They didn't respond to the
basic needs and grievances and rights and expectations that ordinary
citizens have been expressing for years and years.

The Ennahda is a more sophisticated version of the Muslim Brotherhood
but still also a failure in its chance to govern politically,
democratically, and legitimately. They had the chance. They didn't
succeed. They have to rethink, regroup. How can they maintain their
ability to work politically in society, draw on the support that they
have from so many people, which they still have, but also be
politically effective and deliver the goods? People want political
leaderships and governments to do something about jobs, about
schooling, about health care, water, housing, transportation,
reasonably priced food. If the government doesn't deliver on those
things, people will bring in another government. This is what we're
passing through now in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere.

D.B.--The revolt in Tunisia and the overthrow of the Ben Ali
dictatorship immediately led to what happened in Egypt, starting on
Jan. 25. And in an amazing, short period of time, by Feb. 11, the
entrenched dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, backed to the hilt by the
U.S., was overthrown. Egypt is no ordinary Arab country. It's the
bellwether of the region, it's been the cultural and political center.
But you've described it as a "forlorn global backwater of mediocrity
and mismanagement."

R.K.--That's what it had become under military rule for 60 years. It
was a vibrant leader, a cultural center, a center of political and
intellectual dynamism for years and years. But after 1952, when the
military took over and controlled Egypt--and still does today, by the
way--under that leadership, with one-party control, when the National
Democratic Party was formed under [Anwar] Sadat, it became a
backwater. It became totally marginalized, totally mediocre,
inefficient, corrupt, lifeless. It was one of the sad things of the
modern Arab world.

It will regain its place in the region, because it's chromosomally
there; in the cultural chromosomes of the region, Egypt is something
powerful, vibrant, living, dynamic, creative, bigger than life. And it
will come back again. But it has to reclaim a measure of political
legitimacy in its government institutions that it has not yet

This is the difficult part. It's easy to overthrow somebody like
Mubarak, we see in retrospect. It wasn't that difficult. The reason it
was easy was because the armed forces, who are the real power, decided
that they weren't going to fight to keep him in power, they were going
to let him go. But the armed forces are still in power. They're still
the power behind the scene. They've named this temporary government
now. They're the ones who still call the shots. So that's the big
question: When do you fully transfer power from the military to
civilian authorities?

D.B.--In those Tahrir Square demonstrations, which captured the
imagination of the world, a familiar slogan was, "The army and the
people are one hand."

R.K.--Right. And this reflects something that has been documented very
well in public opinion polling going back 10-15 years. The armed
forces in most Arab countries have significant respect among the
population. It's the police and the intelligence agencies that the
people don't like, because they're the ones who beat you up and
they're the ones who are corrupt and make you pay bribes. But the
armed forces tend to have a lot of respect. There are several reasons.
One of them is that these are institutions through which ordinary
people can develop careers and make something of their lives. Second,
people see them as protecting the nation, the sovereignty of the
state, its territory. And in some cases, as in Egypt, people also look
at the armed forces as the ultimate protector of the ability of the
people to live a dignified life. In Turkey you had a similar role. The
armed forces were always there in the background. But eventually they
lost that role, with the changes in Turkey. In Egypt the armed forces
are still there. They're still largely respected. People were very
happy to let the supreme commander of the armed forces, the SCAF, take
control of the transition for the first year after Mubarak was
overthrown. And now they're back again, with a lot of Egyptians happy
to have them back managing another transition.

But it is also clear, from the way that people behaved two years
ago--when Egyptians were pushing very hard to make sure that the army
actually did turn over power to an elected, legitimate civilian
government--that people don't want the army to rule forever. They like
the armed forces to be there in the background to prevent any crazy
group taking over society and to provide a basic sense of physical
day-to-day security. So the relationship between citizens and the
armed forces in Egypt and other Arab countries is quite a peculiar

The reason that this is the case is because these countries don't have
legitimate civil institutions of government. They don't have
democratic systems, they don't have citizenship rights. So you need
somebody you can turn to to make you feel that your humanity, your
basic civil and human rights are protected to a minimum degree. And
that institution is the armed forces. Other people, of course, look to
God, and they go to the Islamic groups. They look to religious
institutions to give them that sense of protection and hope and
succor, that things will be better in the future. But the armed forces
play a very peculiar role...

D.B.--The Muslim Brotherhood, formed in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan
al-Banna, did provide that kind of faith-based organization, to which
Egyptians, in the millions, I dare say, responded. Mohamed Morsi was
elected in 2012. He had, let us say, a checkered administration. There
were massive demonstrations again in late June 2013, and then there
was a coup that was not a coup on July 3. Walk us through the series
of events leading to Morsi's downfall.

R.K.--That year, from June 2012 to June 2013, was a phenomenal
historical experience for Egypt and the Arab world. What happened was,
first you had a legitimately elected president from the Muslim
Brotherhood Party, and the parliament had a majority of Muslim
Brotherhood supporters. So for the first time ever you had, in an
important Arab country, democratically elected, legitimate Muslim
Brothers in power as incumbents. So that first step was important. And
people were happy to see them take office. There was no major problem.
People felt that they were there to help achieve the goals of the
revolution. And Morsi's first act upon being elected, before he was
sworn in constitutionally by the constitutional court judges, was
going to Tahrir Square, he went to the crowds. He was symbolically
saying that his legitimacy comes from the people, not from some army
officer who swears him in or some judge who swears him in or some old
constitution. It's from the people. And people liked that. They
responded very positively to that. So he took office legitimately.

Then what happened was, over the next year the Muslim Brotherhood and
Morsi acted with total and absolute mediocrity and inefficiency, even
thuggery and buffoonery to some extent. They were a huge
disappointment. Everybody was shocked, their supporters as well as
their critics. Nobody expected them to be so incompetent. They were
unable to achieve anything of significance at the level of policy, of
government, of institutional development of democratic systems, of
consensus building, of expansive pluralistic decision-making. At any
level they were a total failure, even basic day-to-day security and
provision of basic services like gasoline and bread. They also tried
to grab power more and more by putting all their people in positions
of authority and sidelining others.

So people got worried after a year, and they saw that the country was
falling apart economically, that security was deteriorating, there was
no sense of real democratic transition. That's when you had this
popular uprising, the Tamarrud movement, taking the issue of "How do
we get rid of the Muslim Brothers" back to the people, and asking for
early elections. They were asking for a democratic transition. They
weren't asking for an overthrow or a coup. The Tamarrud movement got
millions and millions of signatures and held street demonstrations.
They were basically asking for early presidential elections: Let the
people again validate whether Morsi should stay in office or get
somebody better.

Then the army stepped in and did their coup. So it was a coup that
walked into the picture on a platform that was provided by popular
demonstrations. This was a critical link between popular sentiment,
which has legitimacy, and the army coup, which is illegitimate. It
shouldn't have happened, but it did. And now we're in this new
transition phase.

The reality is that you have two major groups in the country that are
powerful and have popular credibility: the armed forces and the Muslim
Brotherhood. Neither of them has shown the ability to actually govern
well. And the people, broadly speaking, I think, have also made it
clear that they don't particularly want the Muslim Brotherhood again
to run society, because they were incompetent and thuggish, and they
don't want the army again. So Egypt is in a very delicate situation
right now. Having tried military rule, tried Muslim Brotherhood rule,
didn't like either of them, now they're trying to again go through a
transition process to come up with a new constitution and then
establish new institutions of governance. It's a very important
transition that Egypt is passing through, that must be navigated
slowly and carefully.

They've learned from all of the mistakes over the last two years: that
you don't rush the constitution through, you don't shove it down
people's throats, you don't pack the committee forming the
constitution with your own supporters, that a constitution must be
something that reflects the majority will of all the country, that it
represents the whole country, it doesn't represent one political
group. So I think people have learned those mistakes, and now they're
trying again.

What's a big mystery is why the non-Muslim Brotherhood political
activists--the civil society groups, the secularists, the nationalists,
the lefties, the youth movement, the revolutionary youth--were also
incompetent. Because they were incompetent. They couldn't get their
act together. They couldn't form political movements that could
counter the Muslim Brothers. The only one that did to some extent was
the Tamarrud movement, this youth-driven movement to get the petition
to have early elections to get rid of Morsi. It's not clear if that
force, that dynamic of the Tamarrud movement, these young people
getting petitions all over the country, will transfer now into some
kind of organized political group. It may or it may not. We'll see.

D.B.--The Brotherhood has been declared an illegal organization. Its
assets are being seized. Morsi is in jail, along with the top echelon
of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Hundreds if not several thousand
people have been killed, with many more thousands in jail. Why the
violent response from the military, which has all the guns?

R.K.--I think the violent response from the military is because they
have no experience in political pluralism. They don't know how to do
democratic transitions, they don't know how to do constitution
writing, they don't know how to do negotiations and compromises and
deal-making in a political context. They acted roughly, quickly,
hastily. They were panicking to some extent. And possibly you had some
people in the military who actually saw an opportunity to take power
again. It's possible that [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi or other people with
him actually want to run for president and be elected.

D.B.--They have appointed their people in most of the governorates,
provinces, of the country.

R.K.--Historically, in the last 35 years or so, government appointees
to local governorates or heads of big corporations or state bodies
have almost always been filled by former army officers. This is how
the military creates what's called the "deep state." So there are
thousands of former army officers in positions of running government
offices, military, economic corporations, local governorate positions,
mayoral offices, local government institutions. There are all kinds of
mechanisms by which these thousands of former military people are now
in power. But they were not elected. This is something that Egypt has
to overcome down the road. And this can only happen through a
democratic process.

D.B.--The Egyptian military, like their counterparts in Pakistan and in
Iran, also has a business empire. They have a huge economic stake in
the Egyptian economy.

R.K.--There is a big business side to the armed forces in Egypt, which
they have developed over the last 30-40 years. The country seems to
have adjusted to this because they're producing things that the
country needs: clothes, food products, tourism, even some resorts.
They produce the goods and services that the country needs. Bread. So
there isn't a big controversy over whether the military should run
this large commercial empire. That's not a big problem right now. The
big problem is, "Should the military run the political governance
system?" That's where the controversy is. The ability of the armed
force to efficiently run commercial enterprises is actually something
right now that is a plus for them, because they can help to get the
country back on its feet again and get the economy growing again. But
I think people will leave that for the moment and focus much more on
the political institutions of the state.

The military has to have some of these privileges maintained for it to
accept actually staying out of politics. That's the deal basically
that's been agreed to, that the military can continue to have certain
privileges and certain things that its officers enjoy--good housing,
good pensions, many of them when they retire get appointed to jobs in
semi-government institutions. That's the part of the deal that the
government accepts and the public accepts, in return for the military
eventually getting out of politics and turning it over to the

D.B.--Washington has concerns about Egypt, not necessarily about the
Egyptian people, but they're worried about the peace treaty with
Israel, they're worried about its warships having privileged access to
the Suez Canal, and they're concerned about their military flights
using Egyptian airspace. The peace treaty seems to be a big issue for

R.K.--The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel I think is not in jeopardy.

D.B.--Isn't it very unpopular with the average person on the street?

R.K.--Yes and no. People are critical of Israel because of the way
Israel still mistreats Palestinians, and also because of the
infringement on sovereignty that many Egyptians feel came out of the
peace treaty with Israel, where there are controls about what military
equipment Egypt can have in the Sinai. Israel has to approve that.
Some people don't like that. But people also don't want to go back to
war with Israel. They are pretty clear about that. The same in Jordan.
People are critical of Israel, but the peace treaties that Egypt and
Jordan have with Israel are not in jeopardy.

What is in jeopardy is the close relationship with the U.S. And there
people are much more vocal and much more critical. If they see the
U.S. meddling too much or trying to boss people around, they will push
back. This is one of the new realities in the Middle East. You see it
in Turkey, Iran, in different Arab countries, Saudi Arabia even,
Egypt, where people will push back against the U.S. government, will
take policy courses that the U.S. doesn't like, but will do them
because they feel they're in their own interest.

D.B.--The Obama Administration has already cut back some military aid to Egypt.

R.K.--That's a symbolic gesture. The U.S. would rather not see the
armed forces carrying out coups against elected presidents. The U.S.
isn't going to cut off ties with the Egyptian military.

D.B.--Talk more about the economic background before these revolts took
place. This is a highly water-stressed region. In Syria, for example,
for years there was a severe drought that impoverished many farmers,
drove them into cities, where they struggled. You mentioned rising
food prices. Something like 80 percent of food grains in the Arab
Middle East are imported. People can't afford basic necessities.

R.K.--Again go back to Mohamed Bouazizi as a symbol of the lives that
several hundred million Arabs lead. If you say there are around 360
million Arabs today, probably 200-250 million are low-income or poor
with zero political rights and stressful socioeconomic conditions.
Bouazizi and people like him suffer a combination of two kinds of
degradation: They have unequal access to basic social and economic
needs--jobs, income, housing, food, etc., at one level--and they also
have a lack of political rights and human rights. So those two things,
the material needs of life and the intangibles of their rights, are
both defined by massive deficiencies and inequities in the Arab world.
Ordinary citizens put up with material deprivation if they're poor but
they feel that maybe there's an opportunity to get a better life and
they can go to school and get a better job, or, if there is a problem,
that they can go to court and get a hearing. So you can balance lack
of material rights with sufficient political rights.

Once you lose that balance--and this is, I think, what happened with
Bouazizi and with so many others who protested--once you feel that you
actually don't have any opportunity to improve your socio-economic
conditions or your political conditions, that you're basically
destined to live a life of servitude and marginalization and
vulnerability and humiliation, that's when somebody goes over the edge
and decides to go out on the street and march, even at the risk of
being arrested and tortured and killed. But even with that risk, they
still go out. Hundreds of thousands of people, or millions of people
in some cases, go out on the street and do that. Essentially what
they're saying is: My life is not worth living under the present
conditions. If I'm treated like an animal, if I have no opportunity to
give my kids a better future, if my life has no meaning, then I might
as well risk it and try to give it meaning and try to improve it.

This is a classic attitude of any person who goes out and challenges
an unjust political and economic order to try to make it better,
knowing that the risks are serious but that the risks of not going out
and challenging that order are greater because of the absolute
certainty of a lifetime of poverty and marginalization and

D.B.--How have the monarchies, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain,
Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates managed to hang on in
this tumultuous moment?

R.K.--The monarchies have done two things. And there are different
kinds of monarchies. You have the wealthy ones, like Kuwait, Saudi
Arabia, Qatar, and then you have the not wealthy ones, like Morocco
and Jordan. The wealthy ones have done it basically by pumping huge
amounts of money into their societies and literally buying people off.
The Saudis and the Kuwaitis, right after the uprisings started, spent
something like $150 billion to improve people's salaries, to give
people free handouts. There was an incredible show of basically buying
off discontent. The other thing is, those regimes have more legitimacy
than the republican regimes like Egypt and Syria. The monarchies have
a longer established line of legitimacy. They tend to be a little bit
more in tune to what their people need. As monarchies they feel that
their legitimacy comes basically from serving their people, at least
that's how they put it.

D.B.--But maybe not in Bahrain, where a Sunni king is ruling a majority
Shi'a population.

R.K.--And that's why in Bahrain there is more or less an armed revolt,
because in Bahrain it's a question of political inequity,
discrimination. But if you look at Jordan or Morocco or Saudi Arabia,
there the monarchies have a different kind of legitimacy from the
countries where you had people like [Muammar] Qaddafi or Zine
al-Adidine Ben Ali. So it's a combination of those two things. People
in those countries have not gone out in the street to overthrow the
regimes. Even in Bahrain the demonstrations were for reform; they
weren't to overthrow the ruling family. People are asking for reform.
They want constitutional change, they want less corruption, they want
more participation, more accountability. So they're asking for reforms
rather than overthrow. And they got some reforms done, but very
limited. Most of the activism that is being done in the monarchies is
being done through social media, on the internet. But this reflects a
sentiment of grievances among ordinary people that will perhaps one
day be translated into street demonstrations and things of that
nature. There have been some demonstrations, but very limited.

D.B.--The ongoing situation in Iraq can only be described as heart
breaking. A day doesn't go by when you don't read short reports in The
New York Times--20 people killed, 30 people killed, 40 people killed.
If it hits triple digits, it may graduate to a larger article. You've
written about "the grave and criminal consequences of the war in Iraq
that George W. Bush and Tony Blair unleashed in 2003." I wonder if you
know that right here, where we're sitting, the University of Denver,
an elite school, in September 2013 gave George W. Bush a humanitarian

R.K.--I didn't know that.

D.B.--There was some protest--faculty, students, the general population.

R.K.--This is a free country. People can do whatever they want. And
they will get pushback. So there were protests against Bush getting
the award and there were other people who felt that it was the right
thing to do.

The reality is that Bush and Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair and
others carried out a criminal deed in Iraq when they invaded, and they
should be held accountable, even just in the court of public opinion.
What they did was completely against any legal or moral standards of
decency, let alone law. Just human decency. What they did was
atrocious. And the killing is going on and the dying is going on. By
the way, the Salafist militant Islamic terrorists, the al-Qaeda type
groups that are spreading now across Syria and Iraq and from there
going all over the world, if people are really worried about them, as
they should be, they should ask George Bush and Tony Blair and
Condoleezza Rice why they unleashed the war in Iraq, which was the
starting point to turn Iraq and now Syria into the world's biggest
mobilizer, trainer, and exporter of these Salafist Islamist killers.

The consequences of what happened in Iraq when the
American-British-led invasion took place will plague the region and
possibly the world for many, many years. It's one of the important
lessons we have about how big powers behave. In retrospect, people
should go back and understand why people were protesting against that

D.B.--Before it happened.

R.K.--When Obama recently was thinking of attacking Syria, there were
again protests and complaints. And people, again, should take that
seriously. Because when you do that, when a big power goes and attacks
a country far away unilaterally, simply on the basis of what that
attacking country feels is right, it generates huge opposition all
over the world and it has consequences. Iraq is the best example of

D.B.--Condoleezza Rice, incidentally, is a graduate of this university,
as was Madeleine Albright, another secretary of state.

R.K.--I'm sure Condoleezza Rice was a fine student, but she was an
awful secretary of state.

D.B.--And national security adviser.

R.K.--You judge people by their actions. And what people do in their
youth is different from what they do as adult political leaders.

D.B.--The ongoing bloodletting in Iraq is, at least in the U.S., always
defined as sectarian. It's Sunni versus Shi'a. Is that accurate? Are
there any class issues at work here?

R.K.--It is accurate to an extent. You have had problems in Iraq for
many years among Sunnis and Shi'ites and Kurds and others. But Sunnis
also suffered under the Saddam Hussein regime, as much as Shi'ites and
Kurds did. The Kurds and the Shi'ites had uprisings, which were put
down by the Iraqi regime.

But what happened in Iraq during and after the taking away the
Iraqi government and the state system and the armed forces, you
unleashed these forces in society. And one of the big forces was
Shi'ites wanting revenge against Sunnis for having run this police
state, killer government for so many decades. The Kurds in the north
expanded their autonomy. But the Shi'ites became dominant, and took
over the government, with a lot of support from Iran.

So what's happened is that people are expressing political grievances
but articulating them in sectarian terms. The real problem isn't Sunni
and Shi'ite, because Sunnis and Shi'ites have co-existed in most
countries for many years.

D.B.--And intermarried.

R.K.--Indeed. There were problems. In Lebanon, for instance, Shi'ites
were kind of third-class, downtrodden. They were like blacks in the
U.S. in the 1940's and the 1950's: They were the poorest of the poor,
they didn't have full rights, they had the worst jobs and the least
education. But you never had open fighting between them. You never had
Sunni-Shi'ite explosions in other people's mosques and bombings of
other people's neighborhoods. Now that sectarian problem has
developed. But at its core it's not really a sectarian issue; it's an
issue of political abuse of power, authoritarian despotism, and people
just wanting revenge.

Some of this is stoked from the outside. So for example, when somebody
bombs a Shi'ite mosque, it could be some of these al-Qaeda guys from
Afghanistan, or Saudis or Pakistanis or Yemenis or whoever they are,
who are deliberately provoking Shi'ite-Sunni tensions. Syria plays
that out to a certain extent. Lebanon too. So it has become a serious
sectarian issue now, but at its core it's not really about
sectarianism, because these people have tended to find a modus vivendi
over many, many centuries.

D.B.--The U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq exacerbated that problem.

R.K.--Very much. It actually brought it out into the open in a violent
way. It created the opportunity for people in Iraq to take revenge
against each other. The invasion didn't invent sectarian problems;
those tensions were already there. As I said, you had Shi'ites who
revolted against Saddam Hussein's rule even before. But it just made
the situation a lot worse.

D.B.--There have been interesting developments since the election of
Hassan Rouhani in Iran in June 2013. There was the famous Obama phone
call to Rouhani in New York. There are negotiations now, finally,
after decades of complete silence, between the U.S. and Iran. Do you
see this as an opening and a breaking down of hardline positions that
have been in place for so many years?

R.K.--The Iran-U.S. rapprochement is incredibly important. It's one of
the most significant political developments in recent decades. It's
going to open the door towards a slow resolution of the issues that
both sides have raised. The Iranians have raised many issues against
the U.S., the West, and Israel. And the West and Israel and the U.S.,
and some Arab countries, have raised concerns about Iran's nuclear
development. They're afraid Iran will get a nuclear bomb. So all those
issues are now being addressed simultaneously. This is why it's so
significant and why we're getting these breakthroughs. Because for the
first time you're getting the U.S. government officially making
concessions to Iran, while Iran has been making positive gestures to
the U.S. and to the negotiating mechanism, the "P5+1," that exists to
talk about the nuclear issue under the UN umbrella.

This is what's important to understand. The Americans made two huge
concessions to the Iranians. They said, We are not going to try to
bring down the Iranian regime, and they accepted that Iran can enrich
uranium at a level that does not allow it to create a bomb, and under
international supervision, which the Iranians have always said is all
they want. So the U.S. has already given Iran two major concessions.
And Iran simultaneously is saying, We're perfectly willing to have
intrusive international inspections, we're willing to limit the amount
of enriched uranium, the level of enrichment, etc.

That's why we have this breakthrough, because both sides have
recognized that you can solve this problem politically, but you can
only solve it when both sides make gestures of equal magnitude to the
other side.

The approach that was used before--the Dennis Ross approach, the George
Bush approach, the early Obama approach--was a complete failure, where
you say you've got to pile on the pressure, you have to have crippling
sanctions. Hillary Clinton's [approach was] nonsense. The hardest
sanctions ever applied in the world. Those tough sanctions did not
make any change in Iran's nuclear development program. In fact, while
the U.S. was piling on sanctions after sanctions, the Iranians kept
developing thousands and thousands of new centrifuges that were
spinning highly enriched uranium.

So I think what we're seeing is the failure of sanctions and military
threats, which has been the American-Israeli approach. And what we're
seeing is the success of an approach that recognizes that Iran and the
Western countries both have important issues on the table that need to
be addressed, and only by addressing them both simultaneously can you
get a breakthrough, which is the point I think we're at now.

D.B.--I hate to keep injecting the University of Denver, but since
we're here, the foreign minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, is a graduate
of this university.

R.K.--That's a good sign, because he's a decent and wise man, maybe
partly because of his education here.

D.B.--Who knows? The U.S. footprint in the Middle East is enormous. It
has a huge base in Bahrain. The Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf are
virtually U.S. lakes, patrolled by armadas. Yemen is being bombed,
Somalia is being bombed, other countries are being threatened with
military action. Where do you see U.S. policy in the region, given
this background of militarization and intervention and ongoing support
for Israel, going?

R.K.--It's become pretty clear in the last 20 years or so that the U.S.
has very mixed perceptions of what its priorities are in the Middle
East. Is it protecting oil flows? Is it protecting conservative Arab
regimes, most of which are police states? Is it protecting Israel at
any price? Is it fighting terrorism? Is it promoting democracy? There
has been no clarity, no consistency in American foreign policy in the
Middle East, and lots of contradictions.

We see the consequences, particularly after the invasion of Iraq and
with the continuing criminal actions by using drones, this global
assassination campaign. The U.S. has become a hit squad. They're going
around the world assassinating people without putting them on trial,
without getting any credible evidence against them. They kill whoever
they want. And if they end up killing a wedding party in Pakistan or
Yemen, tough bananas. This is unacceptable. And the world is pushing
back against this.

This is another sign, I think, of the confusion or lack of clarity
that the U.S. has experienced in the Middle East. It's important now,
with these uprisings going on, during this period of turbulence and
lack of clarity in terms of what's going to happen inside the Arab
countries, that the U.S. be much more firm and clear about what it
does support, what it does value, where it will provide assistance to
people in the Middle East, and where it will push back against people.
But what we have going on now is an extraordinary, unprecedented
moment where in Turkey, in Iran, in the Arab countries, you have the
potential for all of these countries to be run by reasonably
democratic governments that are very happy to be on very good terms
with the U.S., as long as the U.S. respects their rights and their
legitimate needs and interests and doesn't go around acting like a
thug or a bully or a mafia hit man.

D.B.--The ongoing devastating war in Syria is going into its third
year. Obama has announced that Assad must go--not exactly a negotiating
position to start with. How do you see this playing out? You know what
happened in Lebanon, where war continued for 15 years, until finally
people stopped because of exhaustion.

R.K.--Syria is the biggest proxy war in modern history. You have more
people fighting in Syria than I think we have ever seen in any single
country in the last hundred years. You've got local people fighting,
you've got regional people fighting, and you've got the Americans and
the Russians and the Chinese involved. You've got five or six or seven
major regional battles that are now also taking place simultaneously
inside Syria, between Shi'ites and Sunnis, Iranians and Arabs, Kurds
and Arabs, Arabs and Israelis, secularists and Islamists, monarchists
and republicans. You've got this extraordinary range of battles by
different people, all coming together in Syria.

For every one of these protagonists it's an existential battle: They
cannot afford to lose. Whether it's Hezbollah or the U.S. or Saudi
Arabia, Iran, Assad, Russia, whoever it is, they're terrified that if
they lose in Syria, they're going to lose all over the region. So they
feel that they've got to pull out all the stops and put everything
they have into this fight--and win it. That's why it's so vicious and
it's getting worse and it's virtually impossible to resolve through
any kind of local negotiations by the Assad regime or the opposition.
This issue in Syria will be resolved when the Americans, the Russians,
the Iranians, and the Saudis get together and start working on a
transition to a more peaceful future.

D.B.--How do you see the Kurdish issue evolving? There's a de facto
autonomous state in northern Iraq, there's a large Kurdish population
in Iran, in neighboring Turkey, and in Syria as well. They're often
called the largest group in the world that doesn't have a state.

R.K.--The Kurds absolutely deserve a state. They are a genuine national
force, they are a country, they are a nation. They have their distinct
culture and history and language. They should be a sovereign country.
But the reality is that that's not going to happen soon. The most that
can be expected is that the autonomous region in northern Iraq, and
soon in northern Syria, and then more autonomy in Turkey, will allow
them free movement amongst one another and they will be able to
exercise all of their identity rights as Kurds. They will be able to
have their own schools, their own language...manifest their culture and
take care of their interests through their interactions with one
other. But also live in, hopefully, democratic societies where if they
have a grievance they bring it up in Turkey or Iran or Iraq or Syria
through that government system in each country. I don't see a Kurdish
state evolving very soon, but I think ultimately, in the long run,
after 30-40 years, we're going to see the emergence of a kind of
unofficial Kurdish state, or certainly a Kurdish homeland in the areas
where the Kurds are a majority, with possibly northern Iraq being the
epicenter of that.

D.B.--The largest Kurdish population is in eastern Turkey. Turkey was
rocked by demonstrations in mid-2013. This was a major challenge to
[Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the AKP, the moderate Islamic party that's
been ruling there for more than decade. Were you surprised by what
happened in Turkey?

R.K.--What happened in Turkey has to be seen in a global context,
because it also happened in Brazil, it happened in Occupy Wall Street,
it happened in Arab countries, it happened in Spain. It's not a purely
local issue. There are local dimensions, of course, but I think we
have to see it as part of a global process, where citizen activism and
citizen discontent and self-assertion actually now matter. If citizens
feel that their own government, even if it's democratically elected,
is mistreating them, they're going to go out on the streets and
express their opposition through peaceful demonstrations. So I see
developments in Turkey as part of a global process of more citizen

It's also a function of a phenomenon we see in a lot of places where
elected governments think that they can do anything they want. Their
egos take over, and they lose the capacity to be sensitive to the
rights of their own people. So they get this pushback and sort of a
check from their own people, which is good for them.

D.B.--Sept. 25 marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of Edward
Said. He did much to break down some of the traditional "Orientalist"
discourse, but you see some of that reappearing in the new rhetoric
surrounding the revolts in the Arab Middle East.

R.K.--There is some of that happening. In the early days of the
uprisings, in early 2011 especially, the immediate reaction of many
Western countries or officials was, "Well, what does this mean for
Israel? Are the Islamists going to take over?" They didn't react to
this by saying, "Does this mean that Arab men and women will be free
and self-determinant and sovereign?" When people demonstrate in Burma,
people in the West are very happy, and they say, "Oh, that's great.
They're going to be free, they're going to get rid of the
dictatorship." When people demonstrate in Egypt, they say, "What does
this mean for Israel? What does this mean for Iran?"

There's a sense that the full humanity and the complete citizen and
human rights of Arab citizens are not quite appreciated by major
elements of Western society. They still see the Arabs as a subordinate
population whose validity comes only from the Israelis giving them
validity, or American corporations or NATO or somebody else. So
there's still a problem with how people--not all people but many people
in the Western world--look at Arabs and Muslims as people who don't
quite measure up to the full rights that all other human beings have
in the world.

D.B.--We started this interview with a Gramsci quote, and let me end it
with one, because one of Edward Said's favorites was his "pessimism of
the intellect, optimism of the will."

Thanks very much for your time.

R.K.--It's been a pleasure.