Author Wright Surveys Middle East Politics A new generation of activists and political dissidents are at the heart of politics in the Middle East, but many are not well known outside the region. Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, offers her insights.
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Author Wright Surveys Middle East Politics

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Author Wright Surveys Middle East Politics

Author Wright Surveys Middle East Politics

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Robin Wright first went to the Middle East when it was torn by war in the mid 1970s. Thirty years later, you might be tempted to say, so what's new? But in her new book, "Dreams and Shadows," the well-traveled foreign policy correspondent for the Washington Post and frequent visiting fellow at top universities and think tanks sees a whole cast of people who are subtly and effectively working for change in a host of places where it may not be immediately visible.

Robin Wright, special friend of this program, always available to us, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON: It's always great to be with you.

SIMON: I'm afraid we have to start with the news this week, which is discouraging to tragic, and that's, of course, the attack on the Jerusalem seminary that left eight people dead. Israel says peace talks will continue. This sort of thing seems to happen on the crest of any peace talks. What effect does it have?

SIMON: Events on the ground often overtake diplomacy, and it's the biggest problem the United States has had under any administration in getting both sides to actually move forward. The reality is that extremism is going to be a factor in the region for a long time to come. It has been visible for now in more than two decades, and it'll be with us for at least another generation, we have a lot of burn out.

I think one of the reasons I went to write this book was to look at the other side of the story, and that is what's happening beyond the things we become so obsessed about, whether it's the Arab-Israeli crisis, Iraq, the emergence of al-Qaida in an ever growing number of countries.

SIMON: These are movements sometimes and often people and individuals who are trying to accomplish things kind of irrespective of the agenda of other powers.

SIMON: What's really striking is the way that they're trying to create or carve out new political space beyond the limitations imposed by the regimes in the region, which are all virtually autocrats. And what's inspiring in some ways is the way people are at great personal risk trying to hold governments to account, to force public debate on issues, to force governments, because of growing body of evidence they provide, to take action against those who are engaged in human rights abuses.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about some of them. Impressive person in Syria, Riad al-Turk, spent eighteen years in solitary confinement.

SIMON: Yes, and what's so striking about Riyad al-Turk, who is the Nelson Mandela of Syria, is that he was held in a room the size of an elevator shaft, no windows, no furniture, no toilet, no contact with anyone else, and he kept himself sane by taking the small uncooked kernels of rice from his soup at night and every day, on the ground, building geometric designs.

And what did he do at the age of 68 when he emerged? He started criticizing the government again, and he went back to jail. These are the kinds of people we actually don't hear a lot about, and there are a lot of them out in the region.

SIMON: I was also impressed by an account of a man who, alas, has subsequently died, Driss Benzekri. This is also a man who was the victim of torture.

SIMON: Oh, he was held a long time in Morocco. He was a young leftist picked up when he was in his 20s, brutally tortured by the regime, and he came out. And one of the interesting things, one of the more hopeful places in some ways is Morocco where the king organized a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Much like the one we saw in South Africa to deal with the abuses of his father and his grandfather over a four-decade period.

And Driss Benzekri, who had suffered from this, was made head of the commission, and he went back and helped account for the hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who had simply disappeared into police custody and died there. He helped work out a formula of compensation for many of the victims' families.

SIMON: I want to follow up on something that I guess King Mohammed VI told you, which I found interesting. He conceded the point that Morocco had not become Sweden under his rule. But he did say, I think this bluntly, we are not Spain or Sweden. We need a kind of democracy that fits us, not some kind of Western model.

SIMON: Absolutely. And that's the refrain from all of the leaders in the region. What we're dealing with are governments that do not want to share power. Look at the case of Hosni Mubarak who has now ruled in Egypt longer than anyone over a 6,000-year period, except for two pharaohs. These are regimes that aren't going to engage in...

SIMON: And he wants his son to succeed him, too, seems to be preparing the way.

SIMON: Absolutely. Gamal Mubarak is being groomed as his heir apparent. All of these regimes want to engage in tokenism. They want to talk the democratic game, which is in itself interesting, but without doing very much - conniving, in fact, to do all they can to avoid it.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about Hamas, the enterprise and the people. I'm struck by a man, I guess, Osama Hamdan of Hamas talking about U.S. policy. He compared the U.S. to a prince that's holding out the glass slipper looking for its Cinderella.

SIMON: That's right. This is the conundrum for the United States and for our allies as we look at the future of the region. In the Palestinian elections in 2006 we saw the freest poll ever conducted in the Arab world. I was there, it was quite extraordinary. But at the same time, people voted for a group that the outside world's not very happy with. It refuses to recognize Israel, has engaged in violence, including in this week, and has not ruled democratically even in the Gaza Strip.

This is the conundrum we all face. What happens if societies do open up and turn to groups that are not particularly friendly with us?

SIMON: I don't want to leave discussion of your book without talking about something I believe King Abdullah of Jordan mentioned to you. That he said the essential face-off in the Middle East is not between Israelis and Arabs, but Sunni and Shia.

SIMON: To a certain degree. But I think one of the things that we're seeing on an even broader level is that the clash of civilizations we often talk about is not necessarily between the Islamic world and the West. It's really the clash of civilization that's really within the Islamic world itself. And it plays out not only among, between Shia and Sunni, but it also plays out among the different ethnic groups.

And we can't forget that there are also other religious minorities in the region. Egypt is 10 percent Coptic Christian. At least a fifth of the Palestinians are Christian. There's a lot of diversity in the region. We tend to stereotype it as all Muslims, all angry, all anti-American, and all violent, and that's not the truth.

The reality is that the extremists are a tiny minority, and they have not provided the kind of answers to everyday life, whether it's on health care or education or job opportunity. And what's so striking, particularly seven years after 9/11, is that there is a generation of people that have begun to try to address some of those issues.

SIMON: Robin Wright, her new book is "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." Thanks so much.

SIMON: Great to be with you.

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