Wadah Khanfar, the former Director General of Al-Jazeera, was the guest speaker for the Middle East Monitor's first public event of 2012. The topic he was invited to speak on was "Securing the Arab Revolutions: Opportunities and Dangers", and who better to talk about such an issue than him? Named as one of the most 'Powerful People in the World' by Forbes Magazine and ranked number one by Fast Company's "Most Creative People" list in 2011, Khanfar is leading the way among his contemporaries in every respect. He has been lauded as Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (Davos) and was recognised as the 3rd most influential Arab in the world by Arabian Business as well as one of the most influential Muslims in the world (Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre). He certainly did not disappoint and he delivered a passionate and motivational talk to a packed audience at the Brunei Gallery in SOAS about the current and future status of the Arab World. Expertly chaired by Mehdi Hasan – senior political editor for the New Statesman – the evening was both informative and inspiring.
Khanfar began by reminding us of just how radical the transformation in the Arab world has been over the last year or so. In 2010, he began, there was utter despondence in the Arab world. Countries, such as Egypt, were ruled by aging dictators and the only political changes envisioned on the horizon were that those dictator's sons (or other family members) would simply inherit those regimes and continue to rule in a similarly oppressive vein. The word and spirit of "revolution" was virtually non-existent. Democracy was essentially a failed concept. Political opposition members were jailed, exiled or neutralised. Civil rights groups and all those who advocated change were branded as extremists or terrorists. And yet, suddenly, change happened, and this change took the world by complete surprise. No one was expecting it, not the media, not the political analysts, and least of all the regimes themselves. An organic grassroots civil rebellion sprung up that could not be contained. It was a rebellion that began in the virtual world, on Facebook, twitter and on blog sites, but very quickly that virtual rebellion began to manifest itself the real world. On the 25th January the real change began and tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Egypt demand change and refusing to be silenced. That was a day that will go down in history, not just for the change it instigated in the Arab world, but also for the changes it wrought in the world of global media and news reporting too.
The mainstream media was slow to catch on at first, Khanfar admits, as there was hesitation to accept "new media" as a legitimate source for "real" news, but that soon changed. Media outlets like Al-Jazeera began to adapt; they had to. They started to use split screens showing four different camera angles of the same event to give audiences the most graphic images from the heart of the news stories. The audience, it seemed, preferred shaky amateur on-line footage from the heart of the story than professional clinical footage shot from a distance and away from the centre of the action.
Khanfar identified three major trends that have guided the Arab revolutions as a whole: a rejection of dictatorship and authoritarianism; a rejection of corruption, and a desire for independence.
He also identified the major dangers and obstacles that now face the Arab states given the current state of revolutionary and post-revolutionary upheaval. The first is simple economics. The revolutions need financial backing. The countries undergoing these already seismic political shifts are also in the grip of financial crises. Their economies were seriously harmed by the revolutions, of that there is no doubt. Unemployment has risen as have the huge national deficits. Khanfar's solution for this is a Marshal Plan in the region. What is needed, he argues, is direct financial investments as well as huge injections of cash into the regions' ailing economies (a duty he primarily lays at the feet of the rich Gulf states.)
A further element which is endangering the revolutionary process is outside interference. Western governments who are afraid now that they have lost their allies in the region – the dictators they were comfortably propping up – are now scared of whom or what will replace them. They seem particularly afraid of the spectre of political Islam or Islamists. However, Khanfar is convinced that there is nothing to be afraid of. What the people in the Arab world need is time, he says. Time to adjust after six or seven decades of living under iron fists; time to find their own way. If political Islam has emerged as the organic solution to their past nightmare then so be it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be a knee jerk reaction in that people want the exact opposite of what they have been experiencing for all of these years, but it could also be the real solution in their eyes, and that should be acknowledged and accepted. The West, as a whole, needs to sit back, be patient and not interfere in this naturally developing and dynamic process. Give the Arabs time to forge their own destinies, he argues, in this new era of relative freedom.
Khanfar was extremely optimistic about the future of the Arab world. It may seem a little chaotic right now, he said, but it's definitely on the right track.
Chairperson Mehdi Hasan then asked a few questions of Khanfar himself before opening the floor up to questions. Khanfar used this opportunity to make several more interesting points. For instance, he pointed out that despite the fact that it was Western powers and Western money that had been financially and politically supporting dictators like Mubarak, thus giving Arabs the right to be antagonistic towards the West, throughout the revolutions there was no anger aimed at any of those Western nations. No flags were burned, no embassies stormed and so on. This should reassure the West that there is no inherent enmity between the Arab world and themselves and so if those governments just refrain from interfering in the revolutions, they have nothing to worry about.
One final point of interest he made related to the future shape of the Arab world. Khanfar envisions the future of the region as being much more cohesive. He essentially views the Arab world as split into three blocs; the Arab Peninsula; the Maghreb; and the Nile region. Nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon, he argues, and traditionally the countries in those three blocs share a similar heritage, culture and history, as well as similar geographical and regional interest and so on. He therefore sees alliances forming much more within these blocs. That certainly would be a change in the outward perception of the entire region.
Whatever changes do emerge Khanfar is clearly optimistic. There is no way back to the way things once were, and that is certainly a good thing. Change is in the air, and in the grand scheme of things the process has only just begun. With people like Wadah Khanfar keeping their well trained eye on the issues we can be sure that reporting from the region at least will be fairer and more balanced than ever before.