The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East
May 12, 2009
JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us.
Although the news out of the Middle East always seems so dire, there are some reporters who see another side. That reporter is with us this morning. He is Neil MacFarquhar, the UN Bureau Chief of The New York Times, and I am delighted to welcome him to our Breakfast Program.
Today he is here to discuss his book, one with a very intriguing title: The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East. As its subtitle suggests, it is in this book that Neil introduces us to smart, energetic people who are dedicated activists working to transform the Middle East.
To find these individuals our speaker has criss-crossed the region, making stops not only in the war zones of Beirut and Baghdad, but stopping off in many other diverse places, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, and Iran, in order to meticulously interview this new generation for change. The result is a series of wonderful vignettes with significant insights about the topics, personalities, and questions that are mostly of interest to Arabs themselves, rather than the usual issues most American journalists report upon.
As Neil travels through this area, he depicts a region more complicated and more interesting than coverage of its signature conflicts would suggest. As a reporter with extensive experience in the region, Neil says he found himself not wanting to write only about the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the latest suicide bombing. Instead, what interested him the most were those individuals who realize that the region is out of step with the rest of the world and are determined to do something about it, and to do it on their own terms. He describes a world that most Americans never see or read about.
Neil has an unusual background, one that is ideally suited to his adventurous nature, beckoning him to places few Americans dare to go. He grew up in Libya, the son of an American chemical engineer, which left in him a longing for these environs and an empathy for the people. After graduating from Stanford, he studied Arabic in Cairo before becoming a reporter in the Middle East, first for the Associated Press with stints in Israel and Kuwait, and then for The New York Times.
Before returning to New York to work at the United Nations, Neil was the Cairo Bureau Chief for The Times from 2001 through 2005. It was during this period that he gathered the background material he needed to not only write this story, but pen an earlier work of fiction, entitled The Sand Café, which was about Gulf War correspondents marooned in a Saudi hotel.
As someone who has personally traveled to many places in the region—well, not as many as Neil, but more than most Americans—I believe I can tell you that this is one of the few books that illustrate the charms of the region and the people who desire change.
In the end, what matters most in this homage to the region and his youth are the stories Neil shares about the people, the unsung dynamic men and women who are remodeling the political and social environment as they lay the foundation for change in the 21st century. After reading this book, you will have a better understanding of the richly textured and diverse cultural universe that is the Middle East.
Please join me in welcoming our guest today, Neil MacFarquhar. We are so pleased you are here.
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: Good morning and thank you all for turning out at this early morning.
I'm not exactly sure how it works in highly disciplined fields like diplomacy and academia, but as a reporter I'm always astounded by how much of my work is inspired by stray remarks. This book is a prime example—and I'm not talking about the title. I know probably 50 percent of you would wish I would just start with the title, but I'll get there eventually.
I had long hoped to write a book about the Middle East, but the theme emerged toward the end of my tenure as Cairo Bureau Chief for The Times. I wasn't even in the region actually, but on vacation in San Francisco, when a dinner guest expressed a certain frustration in her quest to understand the region: "Aren't there any normal people in the Middle East, I mean people like you and me, or at least people we can relate to?"
My first reaction was, "There are all kinds," thinking about all the delightful Arabs and Iranians with whom I have spent time—smart, cosmopolitan, cultured, sophisticated, funny, and generous. But then I kind of wormed back through what I spent my time writing about, and it proved to be a rather grim litany. I first reported on the first Gulf War, various Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation, the fallout from 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. I realized that the violence had become a kind of barrier preventing me from pursing my original goal, which was to use my tenure to try and add a bit more depth to what has become an excessively monochromatic view of the region since the 1979 revolution in Iran. The standard picture of the Middle East is a region brimming with seething masked gunmen and veiled women who would cry out "Rescue me" if only they weren't mute, with maybe a camel in the background.
So the real point I try to make in this book is that when it comes to the Middle East there is this whole question of the outside perception versus the internal reality, and it cuts across all arenas of life, not just on the larger question like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on ordinary stuff, including satellite television, food, fatwahs, sex, and you name it. That inspired me to write about some of my favorite characters.
I spent some time with Fayrouz, the Lebanese diva, who talked to me about how nostalgia for bygone rhythms of village life in the Middle East was so strong that the recent past has become almost mythological.
I talked to a woman named Fazia Durai, who's a sex therapist, and she is one of my favorite people because I first met her after the invasion of Kuwait. She had been a columnist. She spent the war gathering stories about love affairs that had happened during the occupation and she was fighting the censors fiercely to get it published. And then, when I met her years later, she had a cable TV show in Kuwait, and she had very frank discussions, a call-in show, and people talked about problems they were having in their relationships and so forth. She is a devout Muslim woman, so she veils her hair and she wears long skirts—they happen to be red leather, but they're still long. [Laughter]
I said, "How does the audience react to a devout Muslim talking so openly about sex?" She said, "Are you kidding? A veiled woman talking about sex, everybody loves it, sweetie." [Laughter]
There is also a profile in the book of Chef Ramzi, who's the most popular television chef in the Arab world. I love watching his show because they allow people to call in and talk to him at the same time that he's cooking, and so you sort of feel like you're eavesdropping on this extended Arab living room. He told me about one show where he was cooking white sauce, and about two minutes before the program ended a bee flew into the white sauce. So normally he would start over, but he didn't have time. So he said that and he flicks the bee out, and the phones lit up. A woman from Saudi Arabia called up and she said, "You have stressed cleanliness in every cooking show. You should have stopped and started over. How you betrayed all your ideals." Then, the next woman called from Sudan and she said, "Actually in the Qur'an it says that bees are very clean animals with souls of their own, so you could have just left it in the sauce and it would not have sullied the dish." Then, a man from Syria called and he said, "Do we have to bring the Qur'an into everything? Can't we just cook?" [Laughter]
So, I guess, by focusing on inspired people like these I felt I could in a small way redress the endless emphasis on bloodshed, to try and redress the balance.
I will tell you that I did try to get away from it on the job as well. When a tanker in Yemen was blown up with just one victim, I asked if I could skip it, to keep pursuing what I thought was a far more interesting story about whether or not American development aid to Egypt actually shaped perceptions about the United States. But I was told no, and I never did get back to that story in Egypt.
I know The Times is at least aware of the distortion and tries to cover a broad range of topics, and certainly other news outlets do too. But it is interesting to me that the news can never quite overcome the stereotypes.
Now, I had lived in the Middle East for a total of about 25 years, roughly half my life, and I start the book with a description of how my own perceptions were shaped. I think the way American expatriates live in the region is enormously emblematic of all the troubles the United States faces in grappling with the Arab people, their culture, and their religion.
I grew up in one of those infamous oil compounds, called Marsa Brega, a town of about 2,000 people, which was more or less completely isolated from Libya itself. It was bordered on one side by the Benghazi-Tripoli Highway and on the other by the Mediterranean Sea. Libyans had to leave the compound at the end of the working day at 5:00 o'clock. They weren't allowed to live there.
I think the most telling example of our isolation is that we found out about the coup that brought Qaddafi to power by turning on the BBC over breakfast one morning and they said "There's been a coup in Libya." I kind of stared at the radio.
To a kid the town seemed like idyllic. I went to Esso Elementary School right across the street from my house, and most afternoons after class I would run down and swim or sail in the Mediterranean, which lay a couple of hundred yards away. It was a lot like growing up in Club Med, or maybe more accurately Texas on the Mediterranean.
I never met many Libyans, except on occasional trips to Benghazi or other excursions around the country. Eventually, by the time Qaddafi came to power and the government got around to ordering the company to allow Libyans to live in Brega, I had left. It was only later, at Stanford University, that I began to wonder about what I had missed.
I tried to make up for lost time. I went back to study the language, the religion, the history. Periodically, I decided it was irrational to be drawn back and I would sign up for economics or Chinese art. But eventually the region just kind of exerted a gravitational pull and I felt I had to go back.
When I first went back to the region as a correspondent in 1988, my first assignment was to Libya, within two weeks of moving to Cairo. I thought this was entirely appropriate, not least because when I look at the region I think there are just two people left from my Libyan boyhood, Qaddafi (or the "brother leader," as I call him, just like he asked) and me.
In an attempt to make it seem like Libya has developed a refined form of democracy, Qaddafi forces everyone to attend popular committee meetings, usually a couple of times a year. He ostensibly shows up on all public policy to debate. It is mostly a show, because important decisions, like anything involving the oil industry, are never broached. But sometimes the outcry from these popular committee meetings does squelch some of his more erratic suggestions, like the one that all children be home schooled.
At the one I went to a woman started wailing about the way he changed the calendar. Most Muslims date the calendar from the year that Muhammad moved from Medina to Mecca in the 7th century. But Qaddafi started shifting it around. First he decided it should mark Muhammad's birth, and then he decided no, they should mark Muhammad's death. So the calendar kept jumping around from 1369 to 1429 to 1431, and nobody really knew what year it was. So they would just put the Western year in parentheses next to it so everyone could figure it out.
This woman stood up and she cried out, "Why can't we just be normal like every other country?" Well, that might be a rather simplistic rallying cry, but I think it is a telling one, because it is a widespread sentiment across the region.
So I tried to write about men and women who are attempting to bring the Arab world closer in step with the rest of the world. Toward that end, I largely avoided writing about violence in the book. I didn't ignore it, it's there, but I didn't want to write another book dwelling on Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I didn't want to reinforce the stereotype that Arabs are somehow pathologically violent and uninterested in democracy or basic civil rights.
I think coverage of the Arab-Israeli fight exemplifies the kind of distortion that occurs because of the overemphasis on bloodshed. The fight between Israel and the Palestinians is basically a fight for control over territory, over land. The Hamas movement is a distillation of Palestinian anger over the fact of both living under a seemingly endless occupation and widespread corruption among the traditional Palestinian officials. So those are the two problems that need to be solved: ending the occupation and fostering better Palestinian leadership.
But that tends to get lost in breaking news about suicide bombers or air strikes on Gaza. The current fixation is exaggerating the role of Iran in the equation and painting the conflict as an extension of Tehran's quest for nuclear technology and regional dominance. With that the conflict takes on shades of global confrontation that far outstrip reality.
I mean the ability of Hamas to challenge Israel militarily is nonexistent. The Palestine issue has never been terribly popular among the Iranian public. It was used by the government to try and attract the support of Sunni Muslims. It feeds Iran's ego that it is more important than it actually is.
Finally, I get the sense that both sides become more intransigent because they believe in their own importance.
I just wish there was an American leadership that would say: "Listen, you are 10 million people taking up far too much of the world's time and attention considering your numbers. Fate has placed you next to each other and you are going to be there forever, so you have to get on with it."
One area where this is not exaggerated is that solving the conflict would remove the steam from so much extremism. If the Palestinians accept a peace deal, where would that leave the region's radical movements? Where would Hizbollah be without the rallying cry of "Freeing Jerusalem?" It would become one Lebanese political party among many—certainly not defanged, but reflective of its actual weight in the world. Where would the Iranians fulminating about the question of Israel be if the Palestinian themselves had recognized it? No place.
So I think the conflict is important in terms of its potential to change decades of history, but I think the focus is misguided.
The same thing can be said on the question of reform, of political and social change as well. I do think it has the power to transform the region, but it is a long-term slog, and ultimately a domestic one, one that has to be solved locally.
The Bush Administration tackled the issue by saying it wanted to promote democracy. As I point out in the book, I think the inspiration was right but the emphasis utterly misguided.
In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave her famous speech at the American University in Cairo, saying for too long Americans had supported dictators and the lack of democracy only ended up fostering extremism. She was right.
But in the very next breath she said she had just come from Jordan where the King and Queen were making strides towards reform. Now, for the local audience that immediately cast a dubious light on the policy. As I point out in my book, Jordan, just like every other Arab country, suffers from being a police state. I am going to come back to that in a moment.
But I want to talk a little bit more about U.S. policy. I think there are important, large issues, like solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I think there are three preliminary ways that Washington can go about helping to change the region in a way that would make it more popular among the public and also help the United States in the process. I have been criticized on this for being a little bit overly simplistic, because they are not exactly soaring or novel, these ideas, but I think American foreign policy needs a kind of back-to-basics restructuring when it comes to the Arab world.
The idea that I am striving for reminds me of a few lines from a speech that Robert F. Kennedy gave in South Africa in 1966, in which he said: "We must recognize the full humanity of all our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because the laws command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We just do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do."
I think the United States has lost sight of that noble idea in its dealings with the Arab world, that it should be pushing for equality for everyone because it is the right thing to do.
One reason that Washington has so few successes in the region is that its policies there have been based on expediency too often. If Arab dictators and despots said the right thing, they were our friends, no matter how long they stayed in power or how they treated their own people.
Nobody believes anymore that the United States stands up for the little guy. Nobody believes that what the United States proposes is for their good. And anyone who believes the Americans instantly becomes suspect, labeled a stooge.
The post-9/11 emphasis on introducing democracy is a glaring example of a policy that failed to inspire much hope because it was not presented in such a way that your average Egyptian, Palestinian, Syrian, or Saudi ever believed it was being done for them.
My time in the region convinced me that often the right thing to do is not to try to convert Arabs to American values, to the way we do things, but to support policies that stress human values. Too often American officials sound like they wish everyone would just become more American, projecting our image into places where it just doesn't fit.
Plus, democracy has been completely discredited by what happened in Iraq, which was sold as the arrival of a democratic transformation. For people with no political experience, they now equate democracy with bloodshed, anarchy, and chaos.
But there can be a shared vocabulary by putting the emphasis on values like justice, which exists in the Qur'an and in other religious traditions.
So the first lesson I took away from that in terms of what American foreign policy should be is to address the concerns of the people in their own countries, at their level, the most basic concerns that all parents have about things like their children's education.
One of the Saudi reformers in the book is Fawaziah al-Bakr, a professor of education and one of the brave women who took part in the women's driving demonstration in Riyadh in November 1991 [sic, but note that his Times article and his book say it took place in 1990], when some 50 women took their cars out onto the freeways demanding the right to drive. Professor al-Bakr had faced a kind of official boycott ever since, but she always agitates for what she considers right.
She told me about going to her son's elementary school to find out what was on the curriculum. She discovered that some 60 percent of the classroom time was devoted to religion, which had zero application in the modern world. In an elementary school textbook, one lesson incorporated a Hadith, one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, that a faithful Muslim should seek knowledge as far away as China if necessary. The illustration showed a boy mounting a camel to go to China.
Such improbable life lessons extend into almost every topic. When Mrs. al-Bakr attended a middle school's traffic safety day, she discovered that one of the discussion sessions was focused on the risk of being tortured in the grave if you died in a traffic accident while living contrary to God's commandments.
This is what Mrs. al-Bakr said to me: "Teach the students how to think, give them a scientific project, teach them skills! If you go to the objectives of the education, the practices in the schools, all you find is religion, religion, religion."
That kind of frustration creates an opening for the American government, but it was lost post-9/11 by a confrontational approach, with Washington demanding immediately changes in the curriculum seen as helping to breed foot soldiers for al-Qaeda. Those demands brewed all manner of resentment. It smacked of Christianity attacking Islam, of the entire Crusades resurrected.
A smarter way to go about it would be for the American government to find ways to raise the kind of questions that Saudi parents ask: Why are the Arabs, who once kept science alive, now so weak at it? Why are the enlightened days of Haroun al-Rashid left in the medieval dust? How come such wealthy countries have failed to produce any Arab Microsofts or Arab Apple Computers, any real modern innovation of any sort?
Western governments' reformers should question why curriculums are so weak, why are Arab societies contributing virtually nothing to the world's scientific or technological advancements? It's the kind of questions that people who want change in the Middle East ask about all the time. If whatever administration raised their questions in that way, it would be more effective.
I think the second thing I learned about basing American foreign policy on the right thing to do is that Washington has to speak out in support of all agents of change, not matter how weak they are and whether we think their goals coincide exactly with ours or not. Agitators need outside support—not directly, not an endorsement—but it just helps them immeasurably when the American government signals that it is watching.
The third thing about basing our foreign policy on the right thing to do is speaking out constantly against all forms of repression, in particular about the damaging role of the secret police in daily life. Washington needs to be vocal not just about who is repressed, but who is doing the repressing. Virtually all governments in the Middle East are propped up by vast intelligence agencies and are using the "war against terror" as a cover, and they have deployed their security agencies to silence critics. There have been reports in recent years that Washington shipped suspects to those intelligence agencies to outsource torture, and thus an unfortunate link has been made between Washington and the most disliked institutions in all those countries.
I have an example here of a reformer in Jordan [Sameer al-Qudah] who spent a year in jail for writing a poem against the king. It's the kind of example that I felt we didn't see often enough. His poetry is much beloved in the Arab world. There are all sorts of poetry readings at night. But as soon as you wander into politics, even in a country that we kind of think of as fairly liberal, in Jordan, you end up going to jail.
He then wrote another one a few years later about freedom of speech. I'm just going to read a little bit of it. The poem is called "The Manager." He said [in part]:
He has never taken any decision
Without asking for the public's permission
Or without a public referendum.
What a public
Whenever something urgent comes up
The public assembles
Then there is a comprehensive speech,
Whipped up by the manager
Followed by an ululation and a blessing
And the auction is open for whistling, drumming and for honking
And afterwards, the audience claps
And this is the consensus in my state
And this is freedom of expression
After he read that out loud at a dentists' convention, he was hauled in for questioning for 24 hours, and then he was released because his cousin was a member of Parliament.
I went back to talk to him last summer. He just said, "Everyone sort of dismisses the Middle East as a region that's not interested in democracy, but we are, and we all need support in fighting for it."
In my experience, I should note that one key reason that the United States has avoided pushing too hard for real democratic reform is out of fear that radical Islam will win at the polls, considered a dicey proposition. But in my experience the bulk of Arabs do not want to change the despotic regimes they have now for despotic regimes based on religion. They just desperately want a little more freedom and they think the religious parties are the only groups strong enough to get it for them. It's a gamble, but it certainly appears to be a better proposition than what they are living under now.
I have probably talked for too long already, and I told you I'd get to the title, so I will.
When you work in any country controlled by Hizbollah—I'm going to back up one second.
One of the things about Hizbollah is that they are very effective at any kind of public propaganda. One of the drawbacks that the Americans have in working in the region is that we tend to talk about these issues like I'm talking to you—it's a diplomat standing behind a microphone and they're kind of distant. One of the reasons the Islamist parties have done so well is because they kind of get down there in the street and speak to people's social needs.
They also are not above fierce competition. In Lebanon the example was dairy cows. The United States had an aid program. They decided they were going to get the farmers in the Bekaa Valley to stop growing hashish and turn them all into dairy cow farmers. Now, to do that the farmers had to buy a dairy cow for $2,000 a head. The aid program helped them with feed and outreach and things like that, but they had to buy the cow and repay the loan.
So Hizbollah saw this and they realized that they could compete. So they got the Iranians to come in with dairy cows that were $1,000 a head, half the price, and they gave them much more free aid and things like that. Then they used their television station—it's called Al Manar—and whenever one of the American dairy cows got sick, they would send out their cameras to the sick cow and they'd say, "See, the Americans are dumping inferior cows on Lebanon."
So I was trying to capture some of that idea in the book, about how these organizations actually work on the ground. When you work in Hizbollah country, they make you fill out a form. Among the other things they ask you for is your birthday. I didn't think anything of it. But then, sure enough, on my birthday emails started to pop from Hizbollah saying "Happy Birthday."
It was kind of a long title. Just in the writing process I was having a terrible time with the title. So I threw a title party and I invited 20 of my smart friends over and fed them dinner and a lot of red wine. I had a big piece of paper on the wall. We started coming up with titles. Some of them were earnest and some of them were a little bit silly. Of course, I liked the silly ones. One was "Waiter, there's a fly in my hummus." Another one was "Baksheesh: The Quest for Change in the Middle East." One was "Shake, Rattle, and Rule." But then we decided on this one, and I think it fits.
I hope you enjoy the book.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Neil, I hate to ask you a policy question, since the book is not notionally about policy, but policy is on all of our minds, with a new administration that seems to have a different attitude about Middle Eastern policy. I don't think I'd get much of a quarrel in this room if I said the last eight years have been pretty bad years for United States influence in the Middle East. Certainly, when I go to the Middle East now, I find U.S. prestige the lowest it has ever been in my adult lifetime.
My question is this. Your recommendation that the United States embrace change agents—Barack Obama is about to make a speech in Egypt. Is that the time where he should indicate to Muslims, to reach out to people, saying, "By the way, the United States will now be on the side of people who are going to challenge their existing governments?"
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: I think so. One of the problems in the region with American policy is that everyone eventually comes around to this idea that you have to support democracy and change and do something about the dispute, but they wait too late.
Clinton waited until his last year in office before trying to forge a peace process. The Bush Administration was certainly not going to do it, and then they tried to do it in the last year.
When you do it in the last year, they have no leverage, because when governments stay in power for 20 and 30 and 40 years, the fact that they have to wait out an American administration for eight years doesn't seem like that much time. So they just stall.
But if you start at the beginning, when you have your most influence, and work at it, I think that is going to give them an enormous advantage.
I think President Obama in his first interview with an Arab satellite television said that he was going to be in listening mode and that he was going to be talking not just about American interests but also in the interests of the poor and the people with sort of ordinary aspirations. I think it just has an enormous effect. President Clinton used to do that a lot, just sort of reaching out over those governments and addressing people and knowing that the United States shares some of their concerns.
I don't think it's going to transform it overnight. There was disappointment in the Arab world during the war in Gaza that as a candidate he didn't speak out and criticize that. So people are sort of dubious that American policy is going to change.
But I just think the idea of saying that you can hear ordinary concerns from everyday people will make a difference.
QUESTION: I personally think you should be on the NSC [National Security Council] to advise our government. That is my personal remark.
You were talking about expeditive solution. This is a follow-up question to the previous one from our friend there. As you said, you made a little comparison with Hamas. Hamas has been elected because it provides services to these people. There is a lot of misinformation, I believe, in our country here. You are talking about the new government, the new administration, but could you also talk a little bit about the impact of the Jewish lobby on our foreign relations? Thank you very much.
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: I think that it is an issue that foreign policy is often a creature of domestic policy, and it has become much more so in recent years. I have never spent any time in Washington and I've never watched it first-hand. But obviously, the lobbies that exist in Washington on any issue, be it guns or Israel, or anybody that has a powerful voice, they tend to outweigh sometimes what is in the United States' best interests.
I think that when it comes to the Middle East that the United States has kind of lost its role as an honest broker and a mediator because it is perceived as favoring Israel so strongly. I think that in the long term it becomes a short-term political goal, about how you get votes and how you get support in Congress. I think that is shortsighted because you have to look at the long-term outcome, and the long-term outcome is to solve that problem. It's in the United States' interest, it's in Israel's interest, it's in the Arab interest.
So I think you just have to try to find a way to sell that. And again, it's probably by trying to talk to people about the policy, the American people.
QUESTION: You were talking about long-term policy and how we can make the world a better place. I am intrigued by your background at the United Nations. I would be interested in what do you see as the future role of the United Nations, and if you could draw a comparison between the previous Secretary-General and the current Secretary-General, and what that would mean for the future of the United Nations.
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: I think that there is a perception that the United Nations is struggling for a role at the moment. Kofi Annan as Secretary-General was very outspoken and he sort of considered himself the secular Pope, and he used that platform rather effectively to agitate for change. I think that there is some frustration with the current Secretary-General, in that he is less outspoken and more reticent about criticizing governments and focusing attention on problems, although he has done some recently. With Sri Lanka he has been more outspoken, and also in the Middle East he has been talking about Gaza more.
But I think they are struggling with that, and I think they are trying to do things on the environment and they are trying to find a role in that, and they are trying to find a role in being the voice for the impoverished countries when it comes to the global economic crisis and how to help them. They are trying to amass data right now to show how that is affecting the poorest nations on Earth. But I don't think they have worked it out themselves, how they are going to have a role.
These groups like the G20 a little bit are kind of supplanting them, because the discussion and the decisions kind of gravitate towards those organizations rather than at the United Nations.
QUESTION: In your travels you must have seen a great deal of the impact of the Internet and cell phones. Speaking of agents of change, could you comment on the extent to which you think modern communications systems are creating an agent of change or constitute an agent of change?
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: I think that there has been a lot of attention focused on it. They are an important tool, because in almost every Arab country the right to assemble doesn't exist. So people cannot organize and they can't get new political parties going, because licenses for political parties are limited to the ones that have existed for years and they're not very active. So things like cell phones and Facebook do play an enormous role in getting that started.
Although about a year ago I was calling around the Middle East, or a year and a half, and I was just trying to find examples of where it had been effective. Oddly enough, the one example is in Egypt, where there was a nationwide strike called in April 2008 as a demonstration. It was called to support some textile factory workers that were striking. It was actually the government that turned it into a success, because they were so shaken by the idea that this technology might get around the restrictions on organizing that when the people on Facebook called for everybody to stay home, the government insisted that everybody go to work. Egyptians love to say no to their government. And a lot of people were just nervous because there were a lot of police out. So the strike succeeded to a certain extent because the government overreacted. This year they tried it again, and the government didn't do that, and then it didn't succeed.
So I think it's an organizational tool and it helps people communicate and it helps them know that there are other like-minded people out there, but it's not going to create any revolutions on its own. You still need basic organizing. You need freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, all those civic rights, to create that real change.
QUESTION: I wanted you to touch on, if you can, the issue of democratization of the Middle East and its relation to the Islamic wave and Islamic fundamentalism that is going to be spreading as a result of this democratization. That's why many of the governments in the Middle East are holding up a little bit on that issue. You know for sure in Egypt that we had in the parliament only 17 members from the Islamic groups, but in last elections they became 88, and if another election is going to be held today there are going to be 120 or 150. And the same happened in Jordan, the same happened in other countries in the Middle East, this kind of clash between Shias and Sunnis and the role of Iran vis-à-vis the role of other moderate countries in the region.
So I think that also this kind of resentment to democratization is not resentment to democratization; it is fear of spread of Islamic fundamentalism. And it is at the same time trying to balance this factor by taking it gradually in a way that would ensure successful transformation to full 100 percent Western democracy, but at the pace that the society can bear, and that is a pace that is not going to turn the Middle East into an Islamic fundamentalism area. This is something that we have in mind.
You have lived in Libya, you lived in Egypt, you wrote about Lebanon, "Hizbollah happy birthday," and I think that you will be more capable of analyzing this and give us all you can. Thank you.
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: Sure. You know, there is a tradition at the United Nations that you don't speak ill of any government or its leader while the ambassador, at least publicly, is in the room. But since you started with Egypt, I think the concern is there. Ibrahim Eissa is the editor of Al Destour newspaper, which is one of the ones in Cairo that has been very outspoken in its criticism of the government. He said that it's like the Muslim Brotherhood and the government feed off each other in Egypt, because it's illegal but it's still allowed to work in public. So he says the government can hold up the Muslim Brotherhood as the bogeyman, and say, "This is what you're going to get; they're going to destroy the country if you allow them to come in"—and then he always says, "As if they haven't destroyed the country already." The Muslim Brotherhood says, "Well, if only we were legal, we could forge ahead."
I think it's a great example. Egypt has an old political culture. It certainly had a parliamentary democracy before Nassar took power in a coup. But all those parties that were there in 1952 are still there and kind of stuck, and their leadership is in their 80s, and they kind of reflect the government. There's not a lot of changeover in the senior levels of the government.
There was a young politician—and we can recognize his merits as a politician or not—named Ayman Nour, and he organized a party that wasn't religious and that was outside the Muslim Brotherhood, and it got a lot of young Egyptian professionals excited about being involved in politics. He, as was his right, ran for president. He got 7 percent of the vote. He was immediately thrown into jail on charges of corruption.
I think that whenever anybody tries to challenge the status quo they end up being repressed. The Muslim parties get around that because they are older, they can organize in the mosques, so they find a way around the restrictions.
I understand the concern about facing Islamic extremists at the ballot box. But I think the first step is all these governments, instead of trying to say that any challenge is a challenge to their power, that they have to open up.
The Egyptian newspapers have become much, much better since a few opposition papers have started. I just think they need to open up that civic space and allow that kind of dialogue to develop.
People who are angry at the government, the only alternative they have now are those Islamic parties. If you opened up the space so other parties could flourish and let the ideas compete, then the support for them would diminish.
QUESTION: Thank you. Could you comment a little bit on the role of higher education, universities? You've spoken earlier of young professionals and others, a little bit of the press. What are the prospects that some of that civic space and speaking out will develop there?
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: It used to be that one of the gold standards of American foreign policy is that they created the education or institutions in the Middle East that trained the leadership, the American University in Beirut and the American University in Cairo being the two prime examples.
It is an area that needs aid. All the universities in that part of the world are overwhelmed to a certain extent because there has just been this huge population explosion. It has vastly diminished the quality of the education because it is sort of a right. So the schools are kind of diluted in terms of that.
I also think that exchange programs, like the Fulbright program, had an awfully important role in bringing people. It doesn't work for everybody. Some people come to the United States from a conservative nation like Saudi Arabia and they just are horrified, and they think that it's a decadent society and they don't want anything to do with it. But in general, I think people gain an appreciation for openness and the way the political system works. So I would say that those exchange programs should be increased. It's a great way to help people, emphasis on higher education, because there is a hunger for it.
QUESTION: Your background and knowledge of the language and so forth are really extraordinary, because most reporters don't have the advantage of having grown up in the area. So, since you know so many people, and what are the trends and so forth, could you comment on the possibilities of encouraging more entrepreneurship? So often it is a middle class that really brings about democracy, because they are people with interests and enough free time and so forth to discuss the issues. Are there nodes of development? What have you seen that's hopeful? And furthermore, wouldn't it be possible at some time in the future for the relations among Arabs and Israelis to be based on cooperation? There are many Jordanian dentists being trained in Israel. Why can't we have more of that, and why can't we as Americans—we believe in free enterprise; it's not just a slogan, it's a way of bringing about sustainable development?
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: Because you brought up dentists, I'm going to tell you a slight story that's an aside and then I'll get to your question.
As an American, people often ask me how people reacted to me in the Middle East. In general, they treated me with great warmth. But one exception to that was 2003, when the invasion of Iraq happened, and they were just seeing American soldiers and tanks every night on their TV screens. So then people were hostile to me, but nowhere near the level of reporters based in Iraq. But they would throw things at me or say things to me, or just generally—usually there's a lot of banter, especially in Egypt, people would joke with you a lot, and then as soon as they found out I was an American that would cut off.
I broke a tooth in Saudi Arabia, so I had to go to a dentist. I went to the first one that was open at 8:00 o'clock in the morning because I had this raw tooth in my mouth. I was talking to the dentist. I said, "Where are you from?" He said, "Syria." I thought, "I wonder what dental training is like in Syria." But I figured maybe he went to France afterwards. So I said, "Where did you do your follow-up training?" He said, "University of Aleppo, that's it." Then he said, "Why? Where are you from?" I said, "New York." He was fiddling with his tools and he said, "American, that's not a very popular thing to be. Open wide." [Laughter] But he did a wonderful job and the tooth is still there.
I just want to get to your question. I think one of the problems in the region is that there's a huge kind of socialist hangover and a control that they are trying to get away from. The Egyptian government has certainly been trying to do that by putting technocrats in some of the ministries.
But there's a fantastic jeweler, for example, in Cairo, named Azza Fahmy, who does her jewelry based on traditional designs. She is a very progressive employer, and she has health insurance for her employees and she really tries to support them. She has begun exporting. Some women are allergic to gold, and so she had some stainless steel posts in some of the earrings. She was exporting them to other countries. The Customs police went down through the manifest and they saw that the price for the ones with stainless steel were the same as the ones with gold. She was just trying to do it for efficiency in numbers. Gold is traditionally sold by weight. So they blocked her export permit until she could explain the differences in her prices and rearrange them. She's like, "You know, it's not Customs' business about how I price my earrings."
So there is this vast kind of hangover of bureaucracy that is left over from when they were all socialists, and they have to sweep that away. I think there are entrepreneurs in the region that would happily do that. And again, it's just a question of finding them some support.
QUESTION: Neil, some 70 percent of the populations in most Middle Eastern countries are under the age of 25. So this is a follow-up to this gentleman's question. A charity here in the United States possibly could be used as a model for reaching the hearts and minds of those people. It's called Seeds of Peace, which I'm sure you're familiar with. They brought children of opposing cultures together in a camp with special negotiators, because in many cases the fathers had killed the fathers of the opposing children. A very difficult problem. Yet, it succeeded to the point where at the height of the two intifadas, when they went back to their countries—also Serbs and Croatians, whatever, also were involved in these kind of summer sessions—when they went back to their countries at the height of the intifada, they maintained communication between these young people.
What other types of bridges could the United States' policy build with young people on the ground in these areas?
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: I think any kind of support like that is helpful in terms of—I mean there's an enormous interest in technology and there's an enormous interest in computers and that kind of thing.
The United States used to have this thing called the U.S. Information Agency, where they had libraries in all these cities. I lived in Cairo as a student, and I used to go in there because it was air-conditioned, it was a great place to read. It was mobbed. You know, people were just digging around and looking through stuff, and there was computers, and they had access to information. Those were all shut down, partly out of security, partly cost.
I think giving people access to information is a huge way to influence them, because the curiosity is there and the ability is there.
There's an inherent suspicion—that's the problem. The overarching thing is that the Americans are sort of opposed to the Arabs, and that just kind of colors everything. I think you have to change the tone. Then people would be more receptive to those kinds of charities doing their work.
QUESTION: Neil, which country in the Muslim Middle East holds the most promise for democracy?
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: That's a tough one. I would say that I think—I was always very optimistic about the young generation in Egypt, because I think that they are very well connected to the rest of the world and they're curious, they want change. But it's hard, because the system there is so frozen from what they were left with in 1953. So I think that if the Egyptians opened up a little bit they would get a huge variety of politics there.
There's some in the Gulf that are small. Kuwait has a very active parliament and an active election system, but it kind of got stuck. The fight between the government and the religious parties has frozen everything.
It's hard to generalize. In the book I go through the six problems that block all of them, and they all share them to an extent but they are also all different to an extent.
So I would say Egypt, just because of its size and because of the sophistication of its young generation. If Egypt became more open and freer like that, it would also influence the rest of the region, because people have long looked to it for change.
QUESTION: I'm just thinking about what you might specifically suggest in American foreign policy restructuring in regard to human values and change and countering repression. Do you have some specific suggestions of different things that our government should be doing, and how would that work?
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: If we take the example of Ayman Nour, the Egyptian presidential candidate—and there are all kinds of people who are in jails over there. I've been picking on Egypt, so I'll move to Syria.
Syria has a very small but vocal opposition movement, and they're not very well organized. But they came together and they elected a 12-member board that joins all the various opposition groups both inside and outside the country. They elected a woman to run the thing. The 12 people who were elected to this board were all thrown into jail and given sentences for threatening the state, which they are decidedly not. They all made very clear in their statements that they did not want an Iraqi solution, that they want democracy to grow inside Syria; they don't want an invasion, but they want the ability to speak out and to change their government.
The United States almost never talks about those opposition figures because they're trying to figure out how to lure Syria away from Iran's orbit. So it's a larger geopolitical issue.
But the process of change gets lost, therefore, because there are people trying to agitate for it and they get ignored. I just think that you need to support people who are—I said that already—but those are the kind of people you need to speak out in support of.
QUESTION: There are upcoming elections in Lebanon. How would you characterize those elections? Do you think that they are very open and will result in a democratic choice? What do you think Hizbollah's prospects are?
NEIL MACFARQUHAR: I think Hizbollah's prospects will probably improve. I was in Lebanon when Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated. They started calling it "the uprising," "the intifada against Syrian control." The American government didn't really like that idea of another intifada in the Middle East, so they quickly came up with the name the "Cedar Revolution." They started calling it the "Cedar Revolution," but it was no revolution by any means.
The problem with the electoral system in Lebanon is that it is controlled by a very few feudal families and they have sort of divided up the spoils since 1943 according to sect, and they have never really gotten around to changing that.
Hizbollah comes in and they do outreach programs and they provide clinics and they are just very well organized.
The United States doesn't do itself any favors, like with the extended war in 2006, with Israel attacking Hizbollah territory, when Condoleezza Rice said, "This is the birth pang of the new Middle East and they're talking about democracy." It's the wrong moment to talk about democracy, when bombs are falling on people's heads. It sort of undermined people's—they just see the fact that the Americans are supporting a group other than Hizbollah as serving America's interest as opposed to serving the interest of democracy in the region.
That is the kind of point that I try to get at in the book too, is that there's a perception that the United States is really in it for itself and it doesn't really care about what the consequences are for people on the ground.
JOANNE MYERS: I have to thank you. Like every good reporter, you have an eye for detail and an ear to the ground, but you also have a sense of humor. I appreciate that.
Thank you very much for coming.