The Middle East Institute's
65th Annual Conference
"Game Changer: Politics and Policy for a New Middle East"
November 16, 2011
Deputy Secretary of State, William J. Burns
Ms. Esraa Abdel Fattah
His Excellency Amb. Lakhdar Brahimi
Wendy Chamberlin: Please take your seats so that I can warmly welcome each and every one of you, on behalf of the Board of Governors and the staff and scholars of the Middle East Institute. We would like to extend particular warm welcomes to His Excellency Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, Congressman Rahall, Congressman Issa, Deputy Secretary William Burns, ambassadors, generals, special representatives, dignitaries, and all of you very distinguished guests. Welcome to the Middle East Institute’s 65th Annual Banquet.
I promised I would say this first: our new chairman, General Anthony Zinni, is unable to be with us tonight. Unfortunately, he had already accepted a speaking engagement at his alma mater in Villanova before he became chairman. He very much regrets that he is not able to greet you at his first Annual Banquet as chairman, but he extends his best wishes.
The second thought that is on my mind – and I have to share this right off the bat, because it’s right on the tip of my tongue – and that is my deep appreciation and pride and gratitude for the staff and the interns at the Middle East Institute who are responsible for organizing this event and the terrific conference tomorrow. I’d like you to stand up, staff and interns, please. [Applause] They have been working for months on this. This has been totally a family affair; we do not have an events coordinator, they have been doing it themselves. I have the deepest respect for them.
This Banquet this evening is our primary fundraiser for the Middle East Institute. Without your contributions and your support we would not be able to sustain ourselves. So each and every one of you supporters is very important to us and we are deeply appreciative.
As I look out at this full house, over 400 people, I see many old friends. I see many members. I see diplomatic friends and corporate friends who have consistently and loyally supported the Middle East Institute over the decades. I want each one of you to know how much we appreciate you. I would like to especially thank those embassies that have donated at the platinum level: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Although I would like to thank each individual independently, I know there are a lot of very good conversations going on at these tables and we are interested in hearing Secretary Burns’ remarks – and of course, there is dinner ahead of us. But when I finish speaking, the screens to each side of us will have the logos of our corporate donors, so please take a look and know that we appreciate you.
This has been a remarkable year for change and opportunity throughout the Middle East, but I want you to also know that the status quo at the Middle East Institute has been challenged throughout this year. We are doing new things and we are moving it to a new level. It has been remarkable and I hope that all of you will join us tomorrow for the conference, to be held here at this hotel. We have four very distinguished panels. We have made a point again this year of bringing speakers in from the region. It is our view that the Washington community of policymakers are enriched when dignitaries come from the region and share their experiences and observations. So we will be inviting many people from the region and from across the United States to join us tomorrow. So please do join us.
There will be a special luncheon on the peace process. It will feature the co-signatories of the Geneva Peace Initiative, Dr. Yossi Beilin and Samih Al-Abed, and of course our own Washington-based American peace process guru for a long time, Dr. Aaron Miller.
The Middle East Institute is being invigorated. I mentioned that our new chairman, Tony Zinni, has joined us but several other new board members have also joined – an active board this year. I’d like to mention their names: David Hogan, Brad Borland, Nijad Fares, Marcelle Wahba, and Ambassador Robert Jordan.
MEI’s forty scholars have become very active. They met for a two-day seminar over the summer to share their collective thoughts on the changes in the region and will soon be publishing a monograph. For that I would like to especially thank MEI Scholar Allen Keiswetter, who led the project and did most of the drafting.
In addition to our quarterly Middle East Journal, this year and next year the Middle East Institute will produce four scholarly volumes. One of them will be the result of a two-year project sponsored by the European Union on ‘Refugees in Conflict: The Transatlantic Dialogue’, to include Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. My special thanks for that to MEI Scholar and our Middle East Journal book editor (and American University professor) Dr. John Calabrese.
Vice President Kate Seelye has been an intellectual force behind the Middle East Institute’s success and elevating the Institute to a new level and I deeply appreciate her commitment and contribution, as well as Elisha, who has been wonderful in putting together this event and the conference tomorrow.
I’d like to make very special tribute to the Sultanate of Oman and Ambassador Hunaina Mughairy, who have provided a generous endowment to the Middle East Institute to support our library, which has enabled us to engage a professional librarian who has many ideas on how to link electronically our wonderful jewel of a collection with the large number of libraries that are growing throughout the Arab world. We have great expectations for that.
Finally, I’ve saved the best for last – the Middle East Institute is proud to launch the very first Issam Fares Award for Excellence this evening. The first recipient is a name well known to all of you – I can tell from the way he was mobbed as he came in, like a rock star – the Honorable Lakhdar Brahimi. In the spirit of the Arab Spring, the Middle East Institute will honor Egypt’s “Facebook girl” and one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year, Esraa Abdel Fattah. I won’t upstage her presenter, but it’s a great story.
I apologize for taking so long in what was meant to be a very brief introduction, but I did want to share with you some of the new directions of the Middle East Institute. Now it gives me great pleasure to honor and to welcome one of MEI’s most distinguished board members, Ambassador Richard Murphy. Ambassador Murphy will introduce our keynote speaker this evening, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
Ambassador Murphy has had an impressive career in the American Foreign Service over forty years. He has been ambassador to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and the Philippines. He obtained the career rank of career ambassador – that’s as high as you can go. He was appointed Assistant Secretary for the Near East and South Asia Bureau by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. In addition to serving on the Middle East Institute Board – for a period as chairman – we also shamelessly double-task him as one of our scholars. Please welcome Ambassador Richard Murphy.
Ambassador Richard Murphy: Thank you very much, Wendy, for the introduction. I think you took one year off my time as Assistant Secretary. Every year was longer. Thank you all in attendance. As a retired member of our Foreign Service, it is a real honor for me to introduce tonight’s keynote speaker, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
Bill and I go back quite a long way – to 1984, when he first started working for me as a staff assistant in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (in those days it was Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs). 1984 was, for those of us in the Bureau, a normal year. There was the Red Army in Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanese civil war – those were a few of the issues we were dealing with. Bill was exceptionally well organized and he made our often-extended trips through the area – one of which lasted, as I recall, a full month – an extremely smooth going.
I hadn’t known him before that; I didn’t realize he was already a published author. His book, “Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955-1981,” was published after his starting work at State. Clearly a thoughtful, carefully researched piece of work. What strikes the casual reader is in addition to 220 pages of text there were 64 pages of footnotes and appendices. “Thorough” is the word.
It didn’t take me more than a few weeks working with Bill to realize this was a very impressive young man who was going to go a long way – although to be honest, I didn’t expect him to go as far as he’s gone. It was in those days unheard of for a Foreign Service Officer to get nominated for the job of Deputy Secretary. But even then he had the goods, what some ten years later Time magazine in a profile hailed as “his brilliance, unflappable demeanor and flair for self-effacement in a field where titanic egos often clash, making him the fastest-rising career diplomat of his generation.” Rather more vivid writing than the Foreign Service producers.
Indeed, Bill is a man who has impressed foreign leaders and Middle East policy professionals since his entrance into the service almost thirty years ago. He completed his first ambassadorial tour in Jordan from 1998 to 2001, before serving as Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs until 2005. He then moved to Russia, where he served as US ambassador until 2008. In May of that year he gave up that post to serve as the Undersecretary for Political Affairs, a job he held until President Obama nominated him as Deputy Secretary earlier this year. He does hold the rank of career ambassador.
He has been instrumental in dealing with the toughest issue the United States has had to face under any president: Iran, Russia, Syria, Egypt, Israeli-Arab relations. Perhaps most impressive through all these crises and titanic egos that he has dealt with, he has always remained a man almost everyone he meets calls a genuinely nice guy. A gentleman with the inner toughness of a rugby player.
I could go on about Bill – his language abilities in Russian and Arabic, or his honorary degrees and presidential awards, but you get the picture. This is an extraordinary diplomat and person. We are honored he agreed to deliver our keynote address this evening. Please join me in welcoming the Deputy Secretary of State, the Honorable William Burns.
William Burns: Good evening, everyone. Thank you very much, Dick, for that extraordinarily kind introduction. I’m honored to be back at the Middle East Institute, for whose leadership, membership and mission I have enormous respect. I am especially honored to be introduced by Dick Murphy, for whom I have the greatest admiration and from whom I have learned a great deal. The truth is, there is no better model of skill and professionalism and decency in American diplomacy than Dick Murphy.
I am privileged to share this podium with your two deeply deserving award winners this evening, Esraa Abdel Fattah and Lakhdar Brahimi. You both have changed history. You both have changed the world for the better and you both represent the very best in what courageous public advocacy and selfless, skillful public service can accomplish.
I was fortunate to speak at the same event two years ago and I am very fortunate to be invited back. Whenever I think of repeat performances, I’m reminded of a story involving George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. It seems that Shaw sent Churchill two tickets to the opening night performance of his new play. Along with this gift he included a note that read, “Here are two tickets to my new play. Bring a friend, if you have one.” To which Churchill wrote back with his usual diplomatic subtlety, “Sorry, but I can’t make it to the opening night performance. Please send me tickets to the second performance, if there is one.” So I’m glad to be back for a second performance this evening.
Since I was last here, we have all witnessed a wave of historic change in the Middle East, as consequential in its own way as the changes that emerged so dramatically out of Europe and Eurasia two decades ago. 2011 has been a truly transformative year. It brought us the first successful popular revolution in the region in over thirty years, and then the second, and the third. As the brave citizens of Syria are showing every day, another revolution is underway, aimed firmly at realizing the long-suppressed universal rights of the Syrian people.
It all began when a desperate Tunisian street vendor, tired of too many indignities and too many lost hopes, set fire to himself and sparked a revolution still burning across an entire region. That single act, at once tragic and noble, symbolic and catalytic, has brought the Middle East to a moment of profound transformation, one that was unimaginable when I worked for Dick Murphy a quarter-century ago. Importantly, it is a transformation truly driven from within. It is not about us, as tempting as it often is for Americans to think in those self-absorbed terms.
But even if it is not about us, it certainly matters enormously to us. A workable American strategy for a rapidly changing Middle East has several dimensions. In recent months both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have spoken about this in detail. So tonight I’d like to focus on two of these dimensions: first, support for a greater political openness in the democratic transitions unfolding in different ways across the region; and second, support for the economic openness and opportunities which are critical to the success of those transitions.
I fully recognize that no American strategy can succeed based on those two elements of policy alone. We face growing challenges in regional security, particularly given the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and serial interference in the affairs of its neighbors. There has never been a moment when strengthening our security cooperation with our GCC partners mattered more, nor is there a more important task before us than continuing to build a strong partnership with Iraq and encouraging its reintegration into the Arab world.
Similarly, we simply cannot afford to neglect the unfinished business of Middle East peace. Some people saw the absence of banners criticizing Israel or supporting Palestine among the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the year as a sign that the Palestinian issue no longer mattered so much. Nothing could be further from the truth. The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis remains combustible and unsteady and it is no more sustainable than the sclerotic political systems that have crumbled in recent months. As President Obama said in his speech at the State Department on May 19, we all know that a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people. The core issues of the conflict must be negotiated but the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The president also offered key principles to guide negotiations on borders and security.
I wish I could say that we’ve made substantial progress toward realizing the president’s vision. I cannot. As all of you in this knowledgeable and committed audience know, the reality is a lot more sobering. Despite exhaustive efforts we are not where we need to be. But we are determined to press ahead with our partners in the Quartet and in the region. The president laid out a vision with the elements for successful negotiations and it is crucial for the parties to respond and use what he offered to break the impasse.
If the pursuit of regional security and Arab-Israeli peace remain core ingredients in our strategy, the past year has driven home another truth: that stability is not a static phenomenon and that support for democratic transitions and economic opportunity are also extraordinarily important ingredients in successful American strategy. Two years ago I spoke here at MEI about the dangerous shortage of economic and political hope confronting the region. I recall that with an ample dose of humility – it was hardly a novel thought, and anyone who had read the Arab Human Development Reports over the past decade could see the tinder that was accumulating, even if it was very hard to see what exactly would happen when a spark was lit. The truth is that this is a moment of enormous promise for peoples and societies who for far too long have known far too little freedom, far too little opportunity and far too little dignity. It is a moment of great possibility for American policy, a moment when home-grown, people-driven protests have repudiated Al Qaeda’s false narrative that change can only come through violence and extremism.
But it is also a moment of considerable risk, because there is nothing automatic or preordained about the success of such transitions. As much as it is in our interests to support the emergence of more transparent, more accountable and more responsive governments that will ultimately make stronger and more stable partners, the journey is likely to be very complicated, very uneven and at times very unsettling. We must accept that democratic transitions are often messy and unpredictable. We must accept democratic choices and engage with all emerging political forces committed to pluralism and nonviolence, and we must reject the old dictators’ conceit that we really have only two choices: the autocrats you know or the Islamic extremists you fear.
Furthermore, we must accept that we are going to have differences with democratic governments – sometimes significant differences. Governments that are accountable to their populations are going to behave differently than autocratic governments did. It won’t always be easy to work with them. We also know from transitions in other regions that there is a danger of authoritarian retrenchment or violent instability, especially if economic stagnation persists and newly elected leaders don’t produce practical improvements in people’s daily lives. For these reasons, we have a huge stake in the success of post-revolutionary transitions where citizens are seeking inclusive political systems where none existed before.
Tunisia, Egypt and Libya hold the potential to shepherd the Middle East into a new era, one defined by free, fair and credible elections, vibrant civil societies and accountable and effective institutions. Tunisia, which lit the spark of the new Arab awakening, held the first truly democratic elections in its history last month. Whereas a turnout of 70% in the Arab world once signaled a rigged election, today it is a sign of Tunisians’ determination to chart their own future. We too are invested. This year America has committed about $60 million to offer expertise to political parties and poll watchers, strengthen civil society and promote freedom of expression. The remarkably peaceful and orderly conduct of these elections and the embrace of multi-party democracy just ten months after Ben Ali fled the country has set the standard for the rest of the region.
We will begin to see a breadth and diversity of political groupings as the people of the region are allowed to give voice to their views. As Secretary Clinton said last week in a speech at the National Democratic Institute, we will judge the parties of the region not on what they call themselves but on what they do. We should be less concerned about which parties win or lose than about whether democracy wins or loses in the process. Democracy means more than elections. It means the protection of fundamental freedoms and equal rights for all, including women and minorities.
In Egypt we must not underestimate the importance and the consequence of the transition underway there. Long the cultural and political leader of the Arab world, Egypt can offer another powerful signal when it begins its own elections later this month. But successful parliamentary elections, for all the effort they require, are only a first step. It is important in Egypt’s own self-interest to see competitive presidential elections follow soon after; steps to consolidate an elected civilian-led government; and the continued emergence of a strong and independent Egyptian civil society to safeguard the principles of democracy.
Libya too has won its liberty. This victory over tyranny is a testament not only to the bravery and determination of the Libyan people but also to the undeniable potential of international partnership and American leadership. But much work remains. After contending with Qaddafi himself, Libya must now content with Qaddafi’s legacy of eviscerating Libyan institutions and civil society. The TNC has made good progress in its brief existence, against overwhelming odds. We look forward to welcoming a new interim government and to close and continued cooperation as they consolidate authority, secure dangerous weapons and focus attention on the difficult task of building a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for Libya.
That so many Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans risked their lives to demand freedom, dignity and opportunity inspired us all. But these are not the only nations where citizens calling for universal rights and more responsive governments demand our support. We continue to urge leaders and citizens in the region, in Jordan and Morocco for example, to stay ahead of the wave of demand for democratic change. We are closely following Jordan’s efforts to enact additional reforms, including new laws on elections and political parties, and we will continue to support Jordanians as they navigate their own path to the dignity, political openness and economic opportunity that they so richly deserve. As Morocco prepares for elections next week, we are looking to the government and a new parliament to implement promised reforms and to show the Moroccan people that political institutions can change their lives for the better.
In countries where protests have emerged but change is uncertain, such as Bahrain, we will continue to urge swift and meaningful political reform, dialogue between government and opposition, and respect for human rights, including the right to peaceful protest. As Secretary Clinton said at NDI, meaningful reform and equal treatment for all Bahrainis are in Bahrain’s interest, in the region’s interest and in ours, while endless unrest benefits Iran and extremists. We will continue to urge the Bahraini government to undertake concrete reforms and uphold the principles of justice and accountability.
In Yemen, we have spent months working with our Arab and European partners to persuade President Saleh to follow through on his promise to transfer power and allow a democratic transition to begin. It’s time – in fact, it’s long past time – for him to live up to his commitments.
In Syria, President Assad is attempting to hold back the future at the point of a gun. This strategy may work for a time, costing the lives of more innocent Syrians, but it cannot prevail. The United States has condemned the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and working with the international community continues to step up pressure, including a robust and growing set of sanctions and coordinated diplomatic efforts to further isolate the regime. It is no small thing that the Arab League decided a few days ago to suspend Syria’s membership or that some of Assad’s neighbors are starting to call on him to step aside. This makes it abundantly clear that the Assad regime’s brutality can no longer be tolerated.
For all Iran’s tough talk, nowhere is the disconnect between rulers and ruled greater than it is today in Iran. Nobody is fooled by Iran’s hypocrisy, when Iran pays lip service to democracy elsewhere then brutally denies it to the Iranian people.
A second element of our strategy that I want to highlight this evening – partnering to create broader economic opportunity – flows out of our conviction that political transitions cannot succeed with confidence in a better economic future. As President Obama has said, just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity. Revitalized, open and regionally integrated economies are key to ensuring the success of democratic institutions. In the short term, we need to be clear-eyed: the unrest and uncertainty that has accompanied the new Arab awakening has strained already difficult economic circumstances. But there is a far deeper deficit, the one outlined starkly in the Arab Human Development Reports year after year. We need to nurture economic systems where talent is cultivated and rewarded, where entrepreneurs and innovators are unleashed to enrich their societies, where nations can trade with their neighbors and compete in the global economy.
To support the democratic transitions underway in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, we have created a new office, the Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions, to organize all the tools at our disposal to help them succeed. We are working with Congress to ensure that even in difficult times at home we get the resources we need to seize the strategic opportunity that the new Arab awakening represents. The enterprise funds we are seeking to establish in Egypt and Tunisia and the ongoing work of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will help people in the region access capital to start and grow their own businesses, providing hope for a better economic future.
In the end, this is about translating the promise of political change into real, palpable hope for a better economic future and about giving new leaders the tailwind they need to navigate bumpy transitions amid high expectations. Conventional assistance, no matter how generous, will not be enough, nor will a short-term approach. We must help these countries empower individuals to make their own economic as well as political choices and grow a real middle class.
The revolutions in countries like Egypt and Tunisia were driven by a firm rejection of a past where prosperity was confined to a narrow segment of society. As we saw in Egypt, economic liberalization that fails to achieve inclusive growth is a false path to prosperity. That is why we are working with Congress to achieve $1 billion in debt swaps, so that the Egyptian government can use those resources for the benefit of the Egyptian people, especially the younger generation.
This kind of genuine economic reform process will require that leaders have visions compelling enough to drive what will be tough and sometimes unpopular choices. That is why we and our European partners must think and act more ambitiously to open up trade and investment across the region. Through the G-8’s Deauville Partnership we are mobilizing the world’s leading economies and international lending institutions to support the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as well as the major reforms underway in Jordan and Morocco. As G-8 president next year, we will keep high-level attention on these transitions and on the imperative of regional economic integration across the Middle East and North Africa. As President Obama noted in May, if you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. That is exactly why the president has proposed a new Middle East trade and investment partnership. Just as European Union membership served as an incentive for reform in central and eastern Europe twenty years ago, so should the vision of prosperous, thriving, integrated economies and the promise of market access to the United States and Europe create a powerful impetus for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.
We should be ambitious and creative in how we promote trade and investment, just as we have been in the Asia-Pacific region, where we are launching the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This groundbreaking initiative will bring together the United States, eight Asia-Pacific and Western Hemisphere partners, and eventually future members in a single trading community, using the highest standards. In the Middle East we need to seize the moment of opportunity ahead of us and find ways to leverage the promise of market access and regional integration to encourage countries to raise their standards and pursue policies that drive growth that benefits all their people.
Let me add that promoting trade and investment is not simply the work of governments. Many in this room have an opportunity to play an important role in this story, making the investments that allow the citizens of the region to achieve a better life for their children and their children’s children. This means supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, investing in education and launching initiatives to empower the region’s youth with the knowledge and skills they need to make it in a global economy.
Our own American revolution, over 230 years old, remains a work in progress. Certainly the same can be said of the new Arab awakening. It is not over in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where there is very hard work ahead in building democratic institutions and economic hope. It is not over in Syria, where the Assad regime may be able to delay changes with brutality but where there is no going back to the way things were. And it is not over in Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan, where genuine reform is the only path for progress.
The struggles ahead in the Middle East are deeply complicated and fertile ground for pessimism. It is a fact that the Middle East is a place where pessimists rarely lack for either company or validation. But I remain convinced of the continuing value of the kind of stubborn, clear-eyed optimism and vision that have animated American diplomacy in the Middle East at its best moments in the past. Whenever I talk about optimism, one of my Russian friends invariably reminds me of one of the many typically fatalistic Russian definitions of an optimist: someone who thinks that tomorrow will be better than the day after. I actually have something a little different in mind. I think tomorrow is going to be very tough, as people across the Middle East struggle with transitions that are only just beginning and challenges that will outlive the regimes that perpetuated them. But if we can approach the historic challenges before us – from Arab-Israeli peace to regional security, to promoting economic opportunity, to supporting democratic transitions – in a thoughtful and integrated way, if we can mobilize a sense of common cause and initiative among partners in the region and around the world, then the day after tomorrow and the years that lie ahead can offer a great deal of promise and a great deal will be possible.
Thank you very much.
Wendy Chamberlin: Continue to eat your dessert while I take this moment to do something that gives me very great pleasure, and that is to introduce a woman who I deeply admire and is a very close friend of mine. She is a member of the Middle East Institute Board of Governors. She will in turn introduce Esraa Abdel Fattah. Susan Bastress founded the Bastress Associates, a law firm that specializes in Middle East business and consulting and commercial law. For over twenty-five years she has represented foreign governments, private and public companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations with the geographic focus of the Middle East. She was a partner and chair of the real estate group at Patton Boggs before joining Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, where she headed the Middle East Task Force. Among her many accomplishments – and there are too many to mention really – Susan established the office of Patton Boggs in Doha, which at that time was the first American law firm in the country. Susan was the first non-Qatari attorney licensed to practice law in the state of Qatar. So it gives me a lot of personal pleasure to introduce Susan Bastress.
Susan Bastress: That was unbelievably generous. Thank you very much, Ambassador Chamberlin. Thank you for putting on this wonderful banquet dinner and hosting this wonderful 65th Annual Conference and starting it off with such a great start. I’m honored to be here. I want to thank everyone who is here tonight. It’s just wonderful to see everybody, good friends and people who come back every year. I’m really delighted to see everybody.
Miss Abdel Fattah is being honored tonight to receive the Middle East Institute’s Visionary Award. I am delighted and honored to be here to introduce her to you. MEI has created this special award to recognize an individual whose vision and activism have opened up new avenues for constructive change. There is no question that communities around the world are being impacted today by the growing movements for political and social change – obviously even here in “Occupied” D.C. As a child of the 1960s, I am excited by these peaceful protests. Back in my day young people rallied and stood up to authority to bring about fundamental changes in civil rights, women’s rights and environmental protection.
Today young people are rallying support for political and social change through Twitter and Facebook. These modern tools, which can instantaneously reach millions of people, are empowering movements on a scale the world has never seen before. Young people really get this. They are majoring in new media and they are becoming fluent in languages like Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. Two of my kids are with me here tonight, I’m proud to say; they are pursuing media careers themselves. My son Andrew works for Al Jazeera Arabic here in Washington and Caroline, his twin sister, is a media specialist at the World Wildlife Fund.
MEI gets this too. Through MEI’s newly updated interactive website, which is about to launch in January, President Chamberlin and MEI will be reaching out to young audiences all around the world, even more effectively than we do today. With the technical support of my media kids, I even get this. I’ve started blogging.
This brings me to Esraa. Tonight we are honoring a young woman who played a pivotal role in organizing the January 25 demonstration which sparked the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Leading up to Tahrir Square, Esraa was a key organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, which started in the spring of 2008 to support workers in an industrial town who were planning to strike. I had to read this quote from the New York Times because I think it evokes probably what was a pretty profound moment for you, Esraa – at least it would have been for me if I had been in your shoes. “Having had success in previously organizing small events over Facebook, Esraa expected the April 6 protests would develop more or less like her earlier events, where about 100 people showed up. But almost as soon as she set up the Facebook group there were 16 members. When she refreshed the page a few minutes later, there were more than 60, and the next day more than 1,000. Esraa watched with fear and excitement as thousands of people, then tens of thousands started joining and posting to the group. Eventually the number reached 76,000.”
Esraa was rewarded for her efforts by being promptly arrested and jailed. Over the 18 days she spent in jail, Esraa became the iconic “Facebook Girl” who bravely became a voice against corruption and injustice. The Egyptian Democratic Academy quickly made her its media director – I don’t blame them – where Esraa and other political activists continued to use social media to organize and express their opinions. Glamour magazine, as was noted earlier, recently honored her as one of its 2011 Women of the Year. Christiane Amanpour was quoted in making their selection: “In Cairo, Tahrir Square, women and men stood shoulder to shoulder demanding freedom and their rights. Women like Esraa insist the genie cannot be put back in that bottle.”
Just four days ago, while Esraa was in New York City, she urged Egyptian expats to vote in the upcoming election. Her seminar was called “Tweet Nadwa,” which I understand means “tweet symposim.” I hope that’s an accurate translation.
These peaceful protests organized by Miss Abdel Fattah have clearly impacted not only Egypt but have served as inspiration to other movements throughout the world seeking political and social change. MEI is truly honored to recognize you, Esraa, tonight for your vision and your activism, which have brought constructive change. Please join me in welcoming Esraa to the stage to receive the Middle East Institute Visionary Award.
Esraa Abdel Fattah: Thank you, Susan, for this great introduction. I cannot believe that you follow even the last event in the last week. It is my honor to address this audience tonight, full of individuals who embody the values of freedom, democracy and justice. I would like to thank the Middle East Institute and Wendy, its president, for inviting me to receive this distinguished Visionary Award on behalf of Egyptian news. Thank you, Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, for coming to hear and attend this event.
I believe that all Egyptian people deserve this great award, not only me, especially the Egyptian youth who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for a free and democratic Egypt. This award means a lot to me. It means that Egypt and its people deserve freedom and democracy after their long years full of repression and restructure, of freedom and dictatorship. Yes, the Egyptian people as usual pride their history. Yes, the Egyptian revolution should be taught in all international schools. Yes, most importantly, all the leaders were right to speak out in support of our revolution. Egyptians have suffered from several injustices and corruption and the suppression of freedom, but finally they revolted against all these bad values to move toward dignity, freedom and democracy.
Egypt’s youth struggled for years against this bad and unjust regime and used all the tools within reach in their struggle. When they found that all the tools for opposing this tyrant were totally controlled by the regime, they created their own tools using technology and new media. They [had] success in using these tools to a very great and effective extent, creating their own revolution and striking down this regime, and drawing the entire world’s attention to Tahrir Square. Egyptian youth were arrested, beaten, tortured and killed – all for Egypt. The Egyptian youth were the torch of the Egyptian revolution. They started, they called, they struggled and finally all of Egypt heard their voice, accepted their call and joined them in the January 25 revolution.
Thank you all for honoring the youth of Egypt with this award. Thank you for recognizing the importance of their efforts. Thank you especially to all Egyptians for their efforts which leads them to deserve this award. Thank you, Egypt.
Wendy Chamberlin: We’ve now come to a very special moment in tonight’s program. The Middle East Institute is very proud to inaugurate the first Issam Fares Award for Excellence. This award will be an annual event and it will be given to an individual from the region for his or her distinguished achievements. The award is made possible through a generous endowment from the Fares Family Foundation in honor of their father, Issam M. Fares. Issam Fares had a distinguished and successful career as a leader in his country. He served in Lebanon as deputy prime minister and in the private sector as a businessman and a philanthropist. Issam Fares is respected for his generous contributions, particularly to education, notably to the American University of Beirut but also to Tufts University. He has given generously to charities, hospitals and schools throughout Lebanon.
We are equally proud to invite his son, Nijad Fares, to present the award. Nijad Fares and his lovely wife have come to us from Houston and we are delighted to have Nijad Fares on the Board of Governors of the Middle East Institute.
Nijad Fares: Good evening all. Your excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to be here this evening in such esteemed company. My family has always sought to promote peace and understanding. It has always been my father’s dream to see the Middle East at peace. We are all victims of conflict in that region, as any issue in the Middle East has global and amplified ramifications. It is our great desire to see an end to all of the problems that have plagued our neighborhood and help usher in a new era of peace, freedom and justice.
The Issam Fares Award for Excellence, as Ambassador Chamberlin has just described, was created to recognize individuals who have dedicated their lives to improving the Middle East, whether it be in politics, diplomacy, culture, economics, philanthropy or any other positive impact in that part of the world. It is meant to be an acknowledgment for service for the greater good. The ultimate goal is to inspire and encourage more of this type of service.
There is not a more fitting recipient than His Excellency Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been a champion for peace and understanding through institution-building and diplomacy. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us this evening to accept this award. My father, Issam Fares, sends his warmest regards and sincerest regrets for not being here himself to present you with this award.
Ambassador Brahimi is a native Algerian who served his country as Minister of Foreign Affairs and also served as the Undersecretary General for the League of Arab States and the United Nations. He is rightfully credited with helping to mediate and end the seventeen-year civil war in Lebanon. Read more recently, Ambassador Brahimi chaired the 2001 Bonn Conference which led to the creation of the first post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. He was also appointed as special representative of the United Nations Secretary General to Afghanistan and later to Iraq, where he also helped form the first government. He is a member of the Elders, a group of elder statesmen and personalities formed at the initiative of President Nelson Mandela.
Ambassador Brahimi was selected to receive this award because of his service to humanity. He is a man who has devoted his career, his time, his energy – in short, his very life – to finding peaceful resolution to major conflicts. He is an inspiration and an example, and we are honored to have him with us this evening. Please join me in welcoming His Excellency Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi.
Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi: Madame President, your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honor to be the first recipient of this award endowed by Issam Fares – a very familiar name in our part of the world and, if I may say so, not a common occurrence for a man who is wealthy but also has a social conscience and is doing so much good in his own country of Lebanon and in the region, and also in the United States through his connection with this Institute and also Tufts University. I hope that many other people will take the example of what Issam Fares has been doing and will do the same thing, especially now that the Arab Spring – which started in winter and continues through all the seasons and still is called the Spring – offers much more opportunity for initiatives like those that are taken by Issam Fares.
You say that I have done a thing or two in the field of mediation and problem-solving. What I have learned in that business is that there are two things that are important. One is understanding; the other one is humility. I’ll tell you two stories. I think you have heard enough important things for tonight.
About understanding, there is a story set in Lake Tiberius in Palestine. There is a seminary where they teach young people who want to be priests to do their job, and at the end of their schooling they take them on a small boat on the lake. They took one of these young people on the lake and they told him, “Our Lord walked on these very waters.” He said, “Yes, of course, I know.” They said, “Why did he do so?” He said, “Because of faith, because of God.” They said, “Do you have enough faith to be a priest?” He said, “Yes, I think so.” They said, “Then can you walk on the water?” He said, “I don’t think I can.” “Would you like to try?” He said, “You are my teachers – if you want me to try, I will try.” So he walked out and of course he sank. So they fished him out and he was crying and he said, “I thought that I had faith but clearly it is not enough.” They told him to wait. And one of the teachers went out and walked all the way. So he cried some more and said he definitely should not be a priest. They told him, “No, you have faith – that’s good. But you need also to know where the stones are.” So much about knowledge.
About humility, I’ll tell you a true story. In 1998, I was Special Envoy for the Secretary General for Afghanistan. That was my first incarnation in Afghanistan. In September of that year the Taliban swept most of the country and took over a city called Mazar-e Sharif in the north, which used to be the provisional capital – as Wendy knows very well – of the Northern Alliance. There they assassinated nine members of the Iranian consulate general and arrested all the Iranians they found (about 100) and took them all down to Kandahar, in prison. Naturally the Iranians were extremely angry and they actually threatened to invade the country. They amassed 200,000 people along the borders and it was really serious. So I went to Afghanistan to see if we could do something to lower the temperature.
I went to Kandahar and I saw Mullah Mohammed Omar. We had four hours of discussion, at the end of which I was very happy that he agreed to release all the Iranian prisoners and allow us also to repatriate the bodies of the Iranians they killed. So we were extremely happy in the United Nations that we had spared Afghanistan and Iran a war and the region I don’t know what kind of consequences. It was really a great thing. I’m sure you would have given me this award just for that.
But some two years later I received a message from a young man who was the interpreter of Mullah Mohammed Omar. He looked very young, I know that he was in his early twenties. I realized that he has done a marvelous job. The message he sent me was the following: I was very happy and honored to translate for you and Mullah Mohammed Omar but I would like to apologize. What for? He said, because I didn’t translate very faithfully what you said, because if I had, some of the things you said, you don’t know us enough. Some of the things you said may have angered Mullah Mohammed Omar so I didn’t translate them. And some of the things Mullah Mohammed Omar said, I thought would have angered you too, so I didn’t translate those either. So you see, immediately I realized that I would not have deserved an award for that. It is that young man who deserved it.
Thank you very much. May I add one more thing: congratulations to Esraa, very warm congratulations. But you see, my award is a vote of thanks for the past. Your award is a vote of confidence for the future. So I just take my award and go home. But you’ve got to earn it. You and the youth of Egypt and the youth of other countries in the Arab world – we are really looking up to you to lead us in the next phase of our development in the region. Thank you very much indeed.
Wendy Chamberlin: Thank you very much, Lakhdar Brahimi, for your wisdom, for your humor, for your contribution, for your confidence in the future. I think all of us are touched and deeply moved by what you have said tonight and what you have done in your career.
The official program is over but please do remain. I see so many people are enjoying each other’s company – we’re not going to kick you out. Enjoy the rest of the evening. On behalf of the Middle East Institute, we thank you all for coming.