March 28, 2011
Nizar Ghanem

Nizar Ghanem


The political future of the Middle East looks Islamic but not as rigid as the Iranian model, says a Middle East activist.

“I don’t think the next model is going to be Iran because the Iranian Revolution is not appealing (to the masses),” said Nizar Ghanem, a Lebanese activist who promotes peace and reconciliation throughout the Middle East.

“I think there will be a tendency toward the Turkish model, which is more or less a state that is secular but protects the rights of the people with an Islamic touch.”

This Islamic state would be like many conservative governments throughout the world on issues like abortion or drinking alcohol in public places.

Ghanem, a trainer in conflict resolution and intercultural dialogue in Lebanon and the Middle East, spoke to University of Alberta students at the Telus Centre March 21. The following day he spoke at the Catholic Pastoral Centre and some high schools.

Ghanem, a Druze Christian, is the 2011 solidarity visitor of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, which funds advocacy and development projects in the Middle East.

He is a staff member of the Forum for Development Culture and Dialogue (FDCD) and the coordinator of a four-year CCODP project intended to build the capacity of Iraqi civil society on issues of advocacy, conflict resolution and peace building.


In his Telus Centre lecture, Ghanem spoke loosely about Middle East history, politics and economy, noting that at the end of the Ottoman Empire the Middle East enjoyed more democracy and freedom than it does now.

The Arab nationalism that followed the Ottoman Empire failed partly because its leaders refused to see the pluralism of society and oppressed the minorities.

Heavy-handed regimes appeared everywhere. “It was very much a totalitarian nationalism, practically like a mix of nationalism, fascism and Marxist social ideas.”

The Gulf countries that have oil didn’t feel accountable to their citizens because they could pay off everyone, especially their police officers.

Those without oil, like Syria, began running “rent economies” whereby they would act as enforcers of American and Soviet desires in the Middle East in exchange for economic aid.

“And this is what sustains structures that are not productive and keep the people down,” Ghanem said. “So what sustains them? Aid from America, so you can keep the rent economy where the middle class is the policeman.”


In Egypt the middle class is made up basically of police officers. “There is no productive force like the bourgeois; those people were destroyed in the ’40s.”

Despite being inefficient, the system in Egypt lasted for more than 30 years. Why? “Because the regime financed the middle class to oppress the lower classes and that’s why there wasn’t change — because the middle class was in bed with the regime.”

Before the revolution, the Egyptian regime tortured people and controlled everything, including the imams and what they could say in the mosques, Ghanem noted.

As a result, Islam and people in general retreated to their private houses, the only place where they could express their ideas freely.

“Actually everything in the Arab world happens in private houses,” Ghanem said. “We don’t own the public spaces; it’s not ours, it’s the police’s. Nothing exists in the public spaces but the pictures of the great leaders. It’s like Big Brother.”

Added Ghanem, “We don’t have libraries because they have to control the people.”


The amount of frustration, anger and rage in the Middle East is enormous and people are demanding change. But change to what?

“The main challenge is developmental because these regimes didn’t even have an ideology,” Ghanem noted. “China has an ideology. These regimes had nothing, just the security forces (to oppress the people).” And they didn’t do anything for the economy, which has led to high rates of unemployment.

By 2020, 48 million jobs are needed in the region, he said. “How are we going to get that? And with 60 per cent between 15 and 25 (years of age) that means violence.” Large numbers of people are being uprooted from their villages and driven to live impoverished in the cities with little hope of employment.

Civil society, he said, has to give people the tools to transform the oppressive structures.