Interview: Anthony Shadid on the Political Reconfiguration of the Middle East (Part I)

 Interview – 7 November 2011

Anthony Shadid

Anthony Shadid is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. Before joining the Times, Mr. Shadid served as the Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post. Over a fifteen-year career, he has reported from most countries in the Middle East and broader Arab world. Anthony Shadid was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice, in 2004 and 2010, for his coverage of the war in Iraq. In 2007, he was a finalist for the same prize for his coverage in Lebanon. Anthony Shadid is also the author of two books, “Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats and the New Politics of Islam,” (2000) and “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War” (2005). This interview was conducted by Shereen Dbouk in Beirut on the 2nd of November, 2011.

What has the “Arab Spring” done for the Arab populations? Did it improve their image vis-à-vis the West’s “perception” of the region? Or is there still a perceived dichotomy between the “West” and the “Arab world”? Do you think movements such as “Occupy Wall Street” have been triggered by what happened in the Arab World or is it simply a global reaction to a huge economic downfall?

Anthony Shadid: I think that is a great question. I remain deeply optimistic about where events are headed in the Arab world, although I think we are going to have our fair share of traumas and tragedies in the near and medium term. I think the prospect of a far healthier Arab world, an Arab world that has a measure of self-determination and that has a sovereignty over its own future is something you can’t argue against. That is what these revolts, these revolutions represent first and foremost, is that notion of self-determination. That is the broader view.

In the smaller view, it is very alarming because there are some deep issues that have to be reconciled in Arab societies such as sectarian issues, notions of citizenship, questions of social justice, class and equality and so on.

Those questions have not been resolved and have not really been even tackled.  We are going to reach a point where a lot of elections transpire in places like Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere. We’re going to see that elections in themselves are not antidotes to societies. Societies are going to have to come up with alternate ways to deal with structural problems that led to the revolutions in the first place.

If elections do not turn out to be the answer then what is the answer? That I think is going to be one of the questions that is going to dominate the agenda for the next five years. Is there an alternative out there to solve these problems? If these problems are not solved, what happens? It’s hard to say, we can consider the prospects of rolling revolutions rolling protests along instability. Or we can come up with a new paradigm.

Looking at “Occupy Wall Street”, you do feel that in a global sense old orders are crumbling, old capitalist western dominated orders are not able to solve problems that societies face today. We have not seen these new paradigms emerge yet, but I do think that this question of old orders crumbling is something we see in Europe, the Arab world and to a certain degree in the United States. It makes it incredibly exciting and somewhat anxious but also encouraging; the idea that we might be able to pinpoint the moment in history to some respect.

Qatar has come out as the potential game changer thanks to the success of its influential AlJazeera channel. The Qataris also actively participated in the Libyan intervention. What kind of role does Qatar wish to play in the region? Is it possible to speak of a Qatari-US rapprochement? What of Qatar’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia?

Anthony Shadid:  That is a tough question. It is too early to answer that. It is hard to see the Qataris playing a junior role to the Americans, just because Qataris are so unpredictable. Then you also have that long-standing rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia even if this rivalry is not as pronounced today as it once was. Nonetheless, it could work against Qataris playing a junior role. They are always going to be overshadowed by the Saudis in American eyes. The Qataris have definitely been more dynamic in the region.

If we go back to 2008 in Lebanon, they played a role in brokering a solution here. They played an instrumental role in Libya up to the point of sending military advisors. You saw Qatari flags all over the place in Libya even today when you visit. They are playing a key role in Syria and I think this mediation that is going on right now reflects Qatar’s intention, and maybe willingness in the part of others for them to play a role. But I do not want to overstate that because it is still unclear at this point.

The actual goals of Qatari foreign policy are so unclear. You get the sense that they supported a Brotherhood type of Islamism throughout the region at the same time that the Saudis seem to have cultivated Salafist support in a lot of these Arab states. Is there a rivalry going on there, is there diversion in Qatari and Saudi foreign policy? I am not really sure. However, Qatar by virtue of its wealth, of its experience over the past five years and also by virtue of AlJazeera plays a huge role in the region. I think we see AlJazeera’s agenda and Qatari foreign policy conflated more and more over the past year. If we look at AlJazeera’s role in Tunisia and in Egypt, they were able in some ways to package the stories in a very compelling, even romantic way. It is a much more conflicted narrative when we look at Syria, Libya and Bahrain. Bahrain is not covered any way near the way that Syria is covered. The coverage of Syria has been so aggressive and at times so one sided that it led to some suspicions that that cover was trying to force an agenda there. There is also the fact – I do not think there is any question to that – that Arab officials often see AlJazeera’s coverage as something to negotiate. There was a proposal out there, four-five months ago that went nowhere, but part of a possible deal with Syria was that in addition for economic aid from the gulf, the gulf countries would also call AlJazeera off with the Syrian story, and give them some breathing space.

As much as I admire AlJazeera, and as much as important as I think it is as a news gathering channel, I think it also falls within these rivalries and the agendas of individual countries, namely Qatar. It often finds itself pulled in more directions that it might want to be pulled.

Turkey, in the past few months, has proven to stand out as a potential kingmaker in a changing Middle East. In Turkey, Erdogan has made the case that Islam and democracy are compatible, while calling for the Egyptian Brotherhood to embrace secularism as the model for post-revolutionary Egypt. Is such a move revealing of a more coherent Turkish model for a post-revolutionary Middle East? Ennahda recently won 40% of the vote in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly election. What does it say about the role Turkey wishes to, or is already playing in the changing Arab world?

Anthony Shadid:  Turkey is one of the most interesting countries to watch right now and how it chooses to position itself in the Middle East in the broadest terms. I think Turkey does see itself as a potentially decisive power in the region in the years ahead. Turkish officials may not want to admit this because of the baggage, the history, and what Turkish presence in the Arab world would represent. I think they understand the sensitivity attached to the idea of a newly assertive Turkey in Arab affairs.

They stumbled badly early on in the Arab revolts. They were slow when in came to Libya. They did not know what to do about Syria, because they placed so much time and efforts in “having” Syria as an ally. Once they realized that that alliance was not viable given the uprising in the country, they were not sure how to respond. Now they fully responded and they are left with little influence in Syria’s internal affairs. In the broadest terms, I think Turkey sought to position itself on the side of change in the Arab world. But in terms of practical policy, it is unclear how that is going to take shape in the near term.

Turkey does see Islamist actors in the Arab world as potential partner. They have relationships with Hamas with the Brotherhood in Egypt and definitely with Ennahda in Tunisia. In fact Rashid Al-Ghannushi is someone many Turk’s have deep sympathy for as an individual and also in terms of his party’s experience in Tunisian politics. Some of the Turkish Islamists see an overlap between the two experiences. So there is no question as to whether they wish to cultivate these relationships, while seeking to play a more decisive role in the region. I think they themselves see their model as something to export, whether or not it can be exported is another question.

What Turkey has that Arab Islamist parties do not have is a transformative economy, an economy that can transform anything it touches. No Arab country has that equivalent. The role of economics and the AKP’s ascent in Turkey is fundamental. That is why it is hard to see that necessary overlapping. There is a deep tradition of secularism, a reckoning that happened within the Turkish system over years and years that is going to be hard to replicate over months when dealing with places like Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere. When Erdogan talked about secularism in Egypt, it was a conversation where one was not necessarily listening to the other. What the Egyptian Brotherhood saw in Erdogan’s reference to secularism, was kind of a French style secularism that would be anti-religion in some respects. What Erdogan was talking about was in some ways a neo-ottoman idea of a government that would try to leave the internal affairs of religious sects to themselves and try to keep an equal distance from those sects. I think that idea of secularism is a key concept for both for Arab Islamists and for the AKP. Turkey is going to be a decisive player in this region but its role will evolve as any other country’s role evolves.

Out of Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi, who will come out as the main regional power? Is there an underlying battle of influence between Sunni and Shiite hegemony?  Is it possible to speak of a “Sunni-Shiite” rift?

Anthony Shadid: I see it less as Shiite and Sunni hegemony. I hate to put in those terms because I think it is more the agendas of these individual countries and these rivalries that are being played out, buttressed by sectarian affiliations. There is no question that Iranian and Turkish relations are tensed right now. Primarily because of Turkey’s decision to accept NATO’s missile defense shield in Turkey. They are not seeing eye to eye when it comes to Syria. The Saudis are also suspicious and weary of Turkey and Iran’s intentions. So until Egypt gets back on its feet, we are going to see a deepening rivalry between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia over trying to guide the events that are unfolding in the Arab world right now.

Turkey feels the most dynamic to me, the Saudis feel the most reactionary, the Iranians are perhaps not willing to show their hand to the degree that other countries are.

It is still incredibly early, because we are talking about the crumbling of an old order in nine months. New orders have yet to emerge. There is a lot of talk about what kind of orders would emerge. When I was talking to the Turkish Foreign Minister last month, he put forth the prospect of a Turkish- Egyptian alliance and again that would fit into a sectarian narrative of a Sunni axis in the region. But I think it is more reflective of how Turkey sees itself as a player in the region.

It is very exciting in that sense, every thing is up in the air, everything is in play and I think these rivalries between those three countries are going to have an inordinate influence on how these events unfold.

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Filed under Arab Spring, English, Foreign Policy & IR, Gulf states, Interview, Turkey

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