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'Arab Status Quo' Crumbling In Northern Africa


News of political unrest continues to pour in from across the Arab world. Over the past couple of weeks, the longtime president of Tunisia fled the country after riots. The government of Lebanon collapsed. Anti-government protests continue in Algeria. Sudan is on the brink of splitting in two.

The New York Times correspondent, Anthony Shadid, quotes a column from the leftist Beirut newspaper As-Safir by Alfadel Chalak: What we are witnessing is the collapse of the Arab state, Chalak wrote. Wherever we look across the Arab world, we see wars. We see civil wars, wars among ethnicities, wars between sects and ethnicities, war among sects and war among authorities, sects, ethnicities and the poor. Wars among an Arab world that doesn't have an elite or a leadership that draws strategies and tactics that lead to salvation. Therefore, it looks as if we are going to witness for years and maybe decades to come a great deal of devastation, destruction and killing."

New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid joins us now by phone from Beirut in Lebanon. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Foreign correspondent, The New York Times): It's my pleasure.

CONAN: That's a bleak assessment.

Mr. SHADID: You know, it is a bleak assessment. I thought it was - what was, I thought, very compelling about Mr. Chalak's comment is that it captured the mood in the Middle East these days, in the Arab world these days. You know, I don't think it's overstating it to say that the region is demoralized. You know, we had the carnage in Iraq for so many years. We've had just, you know, the deadlock or the kind of hopelessness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We've had regimes in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia demonstrate a failure to reform themselves. And I think he's writing to that kind of vein of disenchantment and frustration that's really pronounced across the region at this point.

CONAN: Yet sometimes winds of change are welcomed as a breath of fresh air.

Mr. SHADID: You know, that's right, and I think that's what was so remarkable about the reaction to the events in Tunisia the past week. It was a - it was an electric moment in the region. It just was - it was remarkable how people reacted to everything, from cell phone messages that might say congratulations to Tunisia, to what you saw on Facebook and Twitter. The everyday conversations in the events in Tunisia absolutely dominated almost every conversation you might have in the region the past week.

CONAN: And it looks as if very similar kinds of things are underway in Algeria, sadly involving self-immolation of protesters.

Mr. SHADID: You know, this is something that really hasn't been heard of in the Middle East before. But I think people saw the effect of the young man who burned himself in Tunisia, the effect it had on the protest and the demonstrations there. And we've seen two or three cases of it in Algeria, in Mauretania and then today in Egypt as well.

CONAN: In Egypt as well, and that raises an interesting case. Obviously, President Mubarak is elderly. That's beyond dispute. He may be ill, though, that's open to question. In any case, he appears to be trying to pass the political mantle to his son. In any case, it looks as if Egypt is on the cusp of transition as well.

Mr. SHADID: Well, I think that's a good point, Neal. And I think that's the question that a lot of people have been asking in the Arab world right now, is what country might follow Tunisia's example? You have countries that, you know, are a cut above Tunisia at best, maybe not even that, American allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia. You have countries that don't have all that good a relationship with the United States like Syria. And I think people have been asking, where could it happen next? And Egypt is a country that is often mentioned.

It has at least a passing resemblance to Tunisia, and that's a sense of an autocratic government, economic frustration, the inability of the government to reform itself, corruption, endemic corruption, often reflecting itself in the family that is in power.

There are differences as well. I mean, Tunisia was - you know, Tunisia had a very vibrant middle class, which Egypt doesn't. It also was able to repress, almost completely, its Islamist opposition. Egypt hasn't done that. Egypt, in some ways, has incorporated its Islamist opposition into its civic life. So there are very different examples, but there is, at least, a passing resemblance between those two countries.

CONAN: And it is then instructive to turn to Lebanon: an historically weak government erected under some kinds of historical fictions when it achieved independence in 1943 and has sort of ossified those fictions into a less and less stable regime.

Mr. SHADID: And I think what's remarkable about Lebanon is it shows you the failure - and this is one example at least - of the failure of the state to create identities that go beyond these more kind of local identities, more parochial identities.

In Lebanon, in particular, you have this notion of being Sunni, of being Shiite, of being Christian, of being Druze first and foremost, then citizenship or any notion of citizenship would follow that.

I think we're seeing that example of Lebanon, not perhaps as in stark of terms as we see on Lebanon, but we see it playing out in a place like Iraq, for instance. We even see in Egypt, a place that was, you know, had a strong sense of nationality, a sectarian divide has been introduced lately, a Christian-Muslim divide that wouldn't have been there necessarily. It wasn't there as pronounced, let's say, 10 or 20 years ago.

I think, if you make a sweeping generalization, you could make the argument that these states, states like Egypt, Lebanon - of course, it's a much newer order in Iraq but you could say Iraq, as well, you know, have failed in creating a notion or a broader notion of citizenship, an inclusive, more universal identity. And it's one of the failures of the government that I think we're going to see play itself out over the next 10, 15, even 20 years.

CONAN: And a failure to do so - to have an idea of what their nation and, to a broader degree, the Arab nation is about other than perpetuating their own regimes.

Mr. SHADID: I think that's where the governments are at this point. I mean, we still - we're talking about an Arab country as very vibrant societies. I mean, it's not that these societies are somehow moribund. They're not. There's a - in terms of the, you know, intellectual ferment, in terms of creativity, they're very remarkable society that work - you know, happening from below.

But from above, we're seeing these ossified, as you pointed out, used that word, you know, autocratic regimes that are pretty much existing for the sole reason of perpetuating themselves. They're pretty much bereft of ideology. And this goes for American allies, like I said, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and it goes for American opponents, as well. Syria, for instance.

CONAN: Syria, a state that seems to define itself simply in opposition to Israel.

Mr. SHADID: Well, you know, a lot of people are making the argument that rather than saying Egypt or Algeria could be the example that might witness some of the events that Tunisia witnessed, it might be a country like Syria. Again, you have a very autocratic regime. You have a, you know, a self-styled secularism that that government has espoused. There are, of course, differences. Syria doesn't have the middle class that Tunisia had, but it does have the corruption. It does have that kind of family, that abuse of power that we see within a ruling family.

So, some people pointed to Syria as a place to watch, you know, if there is going to be repercussions of this, what you might call the Tunisian example.

CONAN: And I was fascinated by your piece - by the way, it was Saturday's edition of The New York Times if you want to go back and take a look at it. But I was fascinated by your piece to point out that the most popular and, in a way, influential countries in the Arab world today are non-Arab countries -Iran and Turkey.

Mr. SHADID: Well, I think it's says a lot about, you know, the power of - or the influence of these Arab governments. I mean, if you look at a country like Egypt, which was the undisputed leader of the Arab world, you know, a generation or two ago, you know, its foreign policy doesn't go much beyond trying to assist the United States in doing something with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which they themselves are not going anywhere.

What you see is the really decisive actors in the region these days are Iran and Turkey, non-Arabic speaking countries that are neighbors of the Arab world but who have - both have very dynamic foreign policies at this point. In particular, Turkey.

Turkey seems to be on the scene in almost every country you look at in the Middle East. Anything from you know - everywhere from Lebanon to Iraq, Syria. And it's very much made the point of being a player in what's going on. It's a foreign policy that's not necessarily coordinated with the United States, that's often independent, and it's, like I said, you know, very dynamic at this point.

CONAN: We're talking with Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent of The New York Times, with us on the phone from Beirut. And we have a caller. Harry is on the line calling from St. Louis.

HARRY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

HARRY: I wonder if your guest, Mr. Shadid, thinks that this series of events with these governments, you know, all of a sudden becoming a little more, you know, in play or in motion, do you think that, ultimately, it could become a vindication, if you will, of President Bush's policies? You know, the idea at one point was to sort of start and fertilize a democracy, an Arab democracy in the region so that, you know, other regimes might transform.

Mr. SHADID: You know, it's an interesting question. In fact - I mean, I think what you probably meant - the argument you probably would make is that the counterpoint to what the Bush administration was trying to do. I mean, we saw what happened in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. You know, it was a disaster with the fall of Iraq. It's a country that, in some ways, had its society torn apart and its fabric remains tattered. It's going to be a generation, perhaps, before that society comes, you know, comes to terms with itself again in a lot of respects.

What Tunisia, I think, tells us is how movement - is that change is probably going to have to come from within. And the change in Tunisia very much came from within. It wasn't dictated by outside powers. It wasn't dictated by a policy that felt somehow alien to its people. It was change that came from below, from popular protests. And popular protests that weren't necessarily organized in the beginning.

It was in the Islamist parties or leftist parties that triggered these protests. They tried to, you know, shape them as it went on. But it was - it felt very organic, in a way. It was a popular uprising that showed in the end the fragility of these autocratic governments.

HARRY: Do you think that it would have taken place, you know, if not for the American, you know, effort and presence in Iraq? And do you think that the, you know, protests in Iran were sort of another example, but in that case, it was repressed?

Mr. SHADID: You know, I don't want to speak to the example of Iran just because I don't feel as comfortable talking about it, and I haven't reported that in a long time. But, you know, I would say with Tunisia is, again, I think it happened irrespective of U.S. policy. I think American policy had very little to do with the events that unfolded in Tunisia. In some ways, Tunisia is on the periphery of the Arab world. In some ways, it's also on the periphery of American policy.

The American - the United States government was very much an ally of the Tunisian leader, of an autocratic leader. I think the United States saw it as a useful ally in the fight or at least what it considered its fight against al-Qaida.

But in the end, what happened in Tunisia, these events that unfolded, I think happened irrespective of U.S. policy. We saw the administration, in some ways, try to kind of reposition itself after the fall of Ben Ali. But before the fall of Ben Ali, I think the Americans had very little to do with what unfolded there.

CONAN: Harry, thanks very much for the call.

HARRY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with The New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid from Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Anthony Shadid, how does the - well, what everybody now anticipates, the vote to sever Sudan in half, how does that play into this?

Mr. SHADID: Yeah, I think it shows again, if we go back to this point that I was trying to make earlier, about the failure of the state in some respects in the Arab world, I think this is another failure of that state, a failure to create or to somehow give room for pluralism. I mean, in the end what we have in Sudan is, you know, is a dismemberment of the state along - basically, along racial lines, you could argue, on religious lines as well. But it's a country that was not able to forge a greater or more universal identity. In the end, it had to separate itself in order to create any kind of viable future for either part of that.

You know, I think it's a sad statement in some respects. I mean, I think it's a statement that is reflected, that reverberates elsewhere in the Arab world. Like I said, in countries like Lebanon, Iraq, even Egypt at this point, Syria, for instance, of being unable to create, you know, a broader notion of citizenship.

CONAN: And then you have to ask questions about the great oil sheikdoms, starting with the largest and most important of them, Saudi Arabia, which has an aged king and a royal family whose ability to continue to rule the country well, every time we think it's shaky, they seem to stagger on for another few decades.

Mr. SHADID: I think stagger is a good word to use, you know, these countries that are staggering forward. And, of course, Saudi Arabia and the countries in Gulf have, you know, fantastic oil revenues that are able to at least - or they can at least attempt to buy off their, you know, their citizen's loyalty, you know, to a certain level of livelihood.

And I think for a while, though - and it's interesting that you raise this example of the Gulf, because I think for a while there, there was that - people might call the Dubai example. Here was Dubai, in some ways is a deep politicized society that was very economically vibrant. It seemed to have, in some ways, bought off its citizenship through this promise of a much more prosperous life, a very prosperous life, in fact. And they would accept that in exchange for not, you know, making very great political demands on their leadership.

Well, Dubai failed, and it failed, you know, spectacularly so, in fact. And I think that whole idea of what Dubai represented to the Arab world has kind of gone away with it. What I think people might look to Tunisia down the road is that Tunisia offered, you know, a path at least for change. And I'm not saying that that change is going to happen anytime soon. It could be a process that plays out over years.

But Tunisia offered a path of change that we haven't really seen in the region lately. I think a lot of people have looked to Islamic parties as the opposition force in Arab societies, groups like Hamas or Hezbollah in Lebanon. What Tunisia said is that we're having a kind of a popular uprising that is motivated by economic grievances. They later turned into political demands. But it was popular frustration, and frustration with their government's inability to provide for better lives that, in ways, trigger that protest.

And I think that's - that formula, that idea of economic grievances, frustration, anger, corruption and then political demand is something - is a formula that we see in a lot of Arab countries at this point.

CONAN: And yet we saw that formula in Algeria, what, 20, 25 years ago. Yet in a highly religious context and, well, it led to one of the bloodiest civil wars in the region.

Mr. SHADID: That's right. And I think Tunisia is a - it's a different example in that sense. And I think you're right to point that out. You know, Mr. Ben Ali very much crushed the Islamist opposition in Tunisia. It was driven abroad. Most of the exiled Islamic leaders lived in places like Paris and London.

I think the events that unfolded in Tunisia took them by surprise. In a way, they were scrambling to somehow get back and involved in what was happening in Tunisia. You have a person like Rachid Ghannouchi, who was a very prominent Tunisian Islamist, who went abroad. He went to London in, I think, 1993. He's been talking about coming back, but he hasn't come back yet. And it was very clear that he was taken by surprise about - at what happened in Tunisia with the fall of Ben Ali.

CONAN: And another question that some have been asking, when there is so much frustration, there is so much stasis, so little seems to be happening, so many ambitions unanswered, sometimes people begin to think that the only solution is war.

Mr. SHADID: Yeah, I dont know if you feel this sense that the only solution is war out there right now. It's just kind of almost a disenchantment that becomes - you know, I think the risk of it is apathy in some respects. I think there are so much frustration, so much disenchantment, you know, so much disgust, in some ways, with the state of Arab politics right now by the people themselves that I think the biggest danger is apathy, is that people just give up.

I think there, you know, we might see it kind of funnel itself into more dangerous paths, you know, a certain almost kind of nihilist tendency. But what you find, I think, living in the region and traveling in the region is the bigger danger is apathy. This is why I think Tunisia was such an electric example to the rest of the Arab world, that here for the first time in a long time, people saw, you know, neighbors in another country take matters into their own hands, demand change and eventually, you know, win success. That isn't something we've seen in a long time. And I think that's why the moment was so powerful and so remarkable for so many people here.

CONAN: Anthony Shadid, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.

CONAN: Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His article, "In Peril: The Arab Status Quo" appeared in Saturday's editions of that newspaper. He joined us on the phone from Beirut. This is TALK OF NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.