Speech by PM Fuad Siniora Fletcher School of Diplomacy- Tufts University“The Emerging Middle East: Risks and Opportunities”Boston- April 6, 2016

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear friends,

It is a great pleasure to be with you today at this prestigious school.

The map of the emerging Middle East is being re-drawn and its history re-written with blood,destruction, and human suffering. From Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, and Libya, raging civil wars have destroyed nations, displaced populations, and wasted generations. A fragile peace in Lebanon, and continued occupation in Palestine add to the complexity of the geopolitical puzzle. Meanwhile stability remains elusive in post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt where extremist militants continue to pose serious threats to both security and development.

Looking at the region, some like many migrants (both political and economic) see no light at the horizon, and therefore flee in boats of death and humiliation across the various seas. Others like President Putin seeit as an open field for their aircrafts and missiles, an opportunity to re-assert their military muscles and re-claim the lost prestige of a Super-power status. While others, like President Obama, look at the region and see Gotham, “a corrupt metropolis controlled by thugs; then the joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire”. The notion of a hopeless region seems to be one of the reasons that prompted the US administration to reduce its interest in the Middle East.

But is this region really hopeless? Are its people doomed to live under either the tyranny of dictators or the nihilism of terrorism and extremism? Was the Arab Spring a mirage in the midst of an empty harsh desert?

Actually let us be even more frank and ask the questions that most of you are asking, either discreetly or openly: What is wrong with the Arabs?hat is wrong with Muslims? Why can’t they just integrate in what has become a global civilization of freedom, civil and individual rights and openness?

Let us not forget that he Middle East region has suffered from great shocks continuously over the last seven decades, starting with the creation of Israel and the continuing catastrophe of the Palestinian refugees and the harsh Israeli occupation of the west bank and not ending with the continuing tragedy in Syria and Iraq and the collapse of the strategic balance in the region.

And who is to blame for all these shocks. On one hand, Western forces have, willingly or unwillingly, played a major role in inflicting on the Arabs many evils that have led to their current state of affairs. These Western players have later resigned from their moral and Political role and even their interest in helping find solutions to these problems. This has started with the Palestinian problem and has not ended with the direct or indirect support of military regimes in the region; regimes that have in turn always encouraged, nurtured and later used the extremists to blackmail the West. These regimes also blackmailed the moderates and the minorities in the Arab world by using the extremists as a scarecrow.

So the historical Western role from the creation of Israel, to the support of several military regimes directly or indirectly, to the support of Mujahidin in Afghanistan (which opened the Pandora box of militant extremism), to the regime change in Iraq, is to be blamed to a significant extent.

However, let me also make myself clearer: I am not freeing Arabs from the responsibility of what their current situation has reached. They bare a huge responsibility, particularly because of the accumulated failures on the political, social and economic levels and also in how they have managed public affairs in general. In fact many politicians and leaders of thoughts in the region have been championing political, economic, social and educational reforms in the Middle East as an utmost necessity, not as even as an option. Moreover, important religious reforms, in my opinion, are also badly needed particularly in the way Islam is understood, practiced, and taught in order to lead to a better comprehension of the real spirit of Islam which preaches for compassion and mercy and ultimately to a better level of acceptance of the other.

But history has also not been fair to the Arabs, as the Palestinians are still paying, for the mistakes that others in Europe committed during the past century. These mistakes have contributed to the creation of the Palestinian tragedy, the root of most evils in the region, and the mother of all feelings of humiliations and defeat experienced by the Arabs as they see their fellow brothers and sisters still suffering from occupation and from the Apartheid practices of Israel in the west Bank and Jerusalem.

Military and authoritarian regimes took over power in several Arab countries using the Israel pretext starting from the 1940ies of last century all the way to the 1970ies, and they ruled with an iron fist promising to gain back the occupied land and the lost dignity, but ended up losing both, and only perpetuating their own rule. These regimes, which also failed to deliver the needed socio-economic development let alone growth and prosperity, were often boosted and supported by the West when its interests so dictated. And when the West intervened to change the regime by force, like with the case of Iraq in 2003, it created more chaos, by destroying State institutions and allowing adverse regional forces to fill the vacuum. Isn’t it clear that the horrors that Iraq is witnessing today are the direct result of the dismantling of the Iraqi army in 2003 and later the fall of the Iraqi State under the influence of armed militias? Wasn’t the elimination of the State institutions in Iraq an invitation to Iran to spread its influence in that country and across the Levant and destabilize the entire region by igniting sectarian and ethnic divides?

And since we are on the issue of Iran, President Obama in his recent interview with the Atlantic Magazine has said that the Saudis need to learn to share the region with Iran. We as moderate or mainstream Arabs want the best relations with Iran with whom we share the geography, the history, the culture and the common economic and social interest. We want brotherly and friendlyrelations with Iran that are based on common interests and mutual respect. But to be frank, I sincerely believe that allowing Iran greater influence in the Arab world affairs deepens rather than resolves the complex problems of our region.

Furthermore, is the US President implying a new Sykes-Pico but with regional players (KSA and Iran), rather than the old colonial powers (UK and France) dividing the region in hemispheres of influence and power along religious and sectarian lines?

And here allow me to ask the following questions:

First, who said it was OK for the people of the region, the Levant in particular, to be under the patronage of this or that regional power?

Second, what is the claim of Iran to the people of the region? Or are we simply accepting the dangerous and destabilizing idea that sectarian linkages transcend national ones, which is a recipe for never-ending struggles?

Third and most importantly how did Iran manage to expand its sphere of influence all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean? Wasn’t the crushing of Iraq as a barrier zone, and later ignoring the results of the Iraqi elections and the support of the Iran-backed party a direct invitation for Iran to spread its influence over the Levant? And wasn’t the increase in Shia extremism an invitation to enhance the rise of the opposing Sunni extremism to limit and counterbalance the attempts of Iran to export the Islamic revolution along the Welayat al Faqih that they apply across national and political borders, as dictated by the supreme leader.

I am not trying to point fingers. In the end we are all in the same deep gutter. Events in Asia, in Europe, and in the US and the rise of terrorism around the globe show that the evil genie is out of bottle and the whole world is at risk.

The US cannot simply take the back seat and leave it to Russia and Iran to take the lead in the region. Europe cannot simply choose to shy away from the roots of the problem, and continue to endlessly argue about refugees and migration and the meaning of frontiers, all important matters but not as important as ending the wars that have generated this flow of refugees to start with. Meanwhile, Iran cannot negotiate with the West as a State and continue to behave in the Middle East as an exporter of revolutions. And Arabs from their side cannot blame it all on the grand conspiracy and avoid looking at themselves in the mirror and see how they squandered past opportunities and how they are suffering now from lost generations of progress and development.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I see that weall need to share the burden along a strategy consisting of four parallel tracks that need to be adopted at both the global and the regional levels:

  • Finding lasting solution to pertinent problems by phasing out simultaneouslyoccupation and dictatorships, while supporting moderation as the effective and sustainable way to fight extremism.
  • Building the strong and civil state: upholding the rule of law and properly addressing once and for all the issues of minorities and civil rights for all while enhancing public and private liberties. Applying where and when needed de-centralization of governments and allowing local communities to have a greater say in the running of their domestic affairs which will in turn allow better accountability and good governance at all levels of government.
  • Pushing ahead with the urgently needed religious reforms.
  • Initiating an economic «Marshall plan»for the region that also enhances intra-regional integration and transforms it from a land of challenges into a land of opportunities.

Allow me to elaborate a bit on these tracks which are the responsibility of all parties: the West, the Arabs and the Iranians.

First: Occupation, humiliation and frustration, in particular with the lack of progress on the righteous claim of the Palestinians for a sovereign independent and viable State, have all created the perfect environment for authoritarian regimes and their supporters to thrive. The “road to Jerusalem” has often passed through this or that Arab city, according to famous rhetoric’s, but sadly never reached Jerusalem. Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes, often perceived as corrupt and greedy, have allowed the right heat for the eggs of extremism to multiply and to hatch. “Islam is the solution” and “Jihad is the answer” are not slogans that have deep Islamic theological roots. Rather they are the product of political and socio-economic conditions.

Therefore supporting just and lasting peace in Palestine along the Arab Peace Initiative that was launched in Beirut in 2002, as well as supporting political transition and transfer of power in Syria, and better representation in Iraq, while maintaining the unity of each country and its people are the essential and necessary conditions to begin the process of eradicating extremism from its roots. Any other strategy, ladies and gentlemen, that aims at combating extremism but does not take into account these root problems, is a waste of time and treasure; just like the theory of connected vessel: you would be reducing pressure somewhere only for it to increase somewhere else!

Furthermore, it is high time that we derive the appropriate and crucial lessons from history. Just as authoritarian regimes cannot be the counterbalance of extremism, also other kind of extremism cannot provide a sustainable counterbalance. Importing the Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon and Yemen and Afghanistan to fight ISIS and prop up Assad is a recipe for more destruction, more migration, and more extremism on both sides. As shown by the experience of Al Sahawat in Iraq, brilliantly devised by General Petraeous back then, only moderate Sunnis can defeat extremist Sunnis. The same apply to all forms of extremism. Supporting the forces of democracy and moderation in the region, together with finding solutions to the pertinent problems starting with Palestine, is the least costly and most productive way to sustainably and successfully fight global extremism.

Also on this point: Iran cannot continue to behave simultaneously as a State and a Revolution. It is not in the interest of the West to accept the continued disintegration of several States in the region as a result of Iranian interference; particularly that the West is now paying directly the heavy price of this disintegration. The West which is now bettering its relation with Iran has an interest in making this clear to the Iranians. Iran has to realize that it cannot dominate the Arab world just as the Arabs have to realize that it would impossible to isolate Iran.

Second: on the issue of building the strong and civil state, in fact the idea of the State has been weakened all over the world with the shift in importance to the non-state players. We are seeing this in Europe and in the US, through the predominance of outsiders in elections. But what are we seeing in the world is the result of a natural process of progress and decentralization form the central State to the community to the individual, who through technology and social media, is at his or her strongest ever.

Meanwhile, what we are witnessing in the Arab world is different. It is the disintegration of the State without the empowerment of the individual. And this is very dangerous.

Furthermore, the issue of minorities in the Middle East, and the various components of the Arab societies, has never been deeply and comprehensively tackled in the region. The strong Arab nationalist movement masked it, and later on the authoritarian regimes skillfully used it to their interests, especially when it came to the Christian communities (particularly in Egypt, Syria and Iraq). But today, as Arab nationalism is at its weakest ever, and ethnic and religious identities are subordinating national ones, the issue of minorities needs to be an integral element of the question: which State do we want?

It is imperative that Arab leaders of thoughts start laying the foundation of the future Arab state: the civil state that respects and cherishes diversity, and where all communities are equal in rights and obligations under the rule of law. There are good promising initiatives on this front. It is also high time to start thinking about decentralization of the central State and allowing greater say for communities and various components of society in the handling of their domestic affairs, but within the unified integrated and sovereign State.

Third: religious reforms are no longer a luxury that we may or may not embark on. They should be given an utmost priority with Islam being hijacked at an unprecedented level. New programs should be prepared to reform the religious education of our youth, and of the clerics who should become pioneers in calling for openness, tolerance, moderation and respect of human rights, and in encouraging critical thinking. All of this constitutes a big challenge that need to be addressed after decades of subordination of the religious institutions by the military and the security regimes.

Moderate Arabs have a responsibility in pushing the case of religious reforms in the region and in embracing very important initiatives such as the (Al-Azhar in Egypt, the declaration of Al-Makassed in Beirut- Lebanon: “The Beirut Declaration on Religious Freedoms” and the declaration of Marrakesh in Morocco: “Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities”)that need to be adopted and supported at a wide level.

Fourth: The challenges of peace are much bigger than the challenges of war. Over 70 years ago, those who devised the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe understood this, and understood that only economic and social development and better education and progress can make the peace lasting. Today, the Middle East, home to a population of almost 400 million, is in need of a great vision, a vision that understands the challenges of today but also the opportunities of tomorrow. A vision that is not obsessed by Islamophobia and in turn does not see 400 million terrorists, but 400 million of human beings who want to work hard to earn their right of having a better future and regain their dignity that has been compromised for decades; 400 million consumers eager to catch up with the global train of development and progress.

In a world where all other regions are losing economic steam, the Middle East with its vast resources but also huge pent-up demand can be an important source of growth for the world economy. This requires support from the international community but also greater economic cooperation and integration within the region to a better and more efficient allocation of resources.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear guests,

Let me conclude. The emerging Middle East is a reality, but it is in our collective hand to determine whether it will be a region that exports extremism or whether it will be a region that generates growth and prosperity. It is in our hand to determine whether it will be a region of risks or a region of opportunities. The West in general, the US in particular may choose to turn its back and reduce its involvement. But it would be very difficult to cut connectivity in the inter-dependent world of today. The risks are clear, from Paris to Brussels, to various US cities. Alternatively, investing in the future of our region is a direct investment in your own future.

I would like to thank Tufts University for having me today. I would like to thank my dear friend Nadim Shehadi of the Fares Center and my dear friend Nadim Rouhana of the Fletcher School for their invite and for their efforts in organizing this event.

I am looking forward to a lively discussion.