Politics & Policy

Davos in Jordan, Part Iii

For the past couple of days, we’ve been scribbling about the meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea, in Jordan. Welcome to Part III. Parts I and II are here and here.

What were we saying? I can’t remember, but let’s start today with Richard Gere, who is present at a session called “Connecting ‘People’ and ‘Power’: Civil Society and Reform.” He’s not on the panel, but rather in the audience–jus’ folks. He does not look especially movie starrish. Mind you, he’s no mullet, but he’s not overwhelmingly movie starrish, either. He wears an interesting bracelet, which has three loops, and is possibly made of leather. (I’m not a great judge.) May be religious, or “spiritual.” And Gere has snow-white hair–lots of it–in the manner of Phil Donahue, starting decades ago.

Maha Khatib, director-general of the Jordan River Foundation, in this country, is saying something memorable: “For 45 years, fundamentalist organizations have been pampered and nurtured, for political reasons. Other organizations, left and right, have not been able to find space. The situation that we see now”–an imbalance between secular groups and Islamist ones–”is the result of that oppression of some, and nurturing of others.”

Also speaking on this panel is Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Alexandria Library. (What, didn’t it burn down? No, not that one: the rebuilt one.) He makes an obvious point, but a worthwhile one: “Civil society flourishes in democratic countries,” while not in other ones. He also calls himself “a student of American history,” and launches into a brief social lesson. Prohibition did not succeed, he says, because there was no support from the grassroots. It was imposed from the top down.

I’m not so sure about this, but a debate about Prohibition is for another time.

Mr. Serageldin–beautiful name, by the way, isn’t it?–goes on to compare Prohibition with the movement against smoking. Smoking is now pretty much verboten, but not outlawed (entirely), so here is a bottom-up reform, accepted by all.

I’m not sure about that one either, sports fans: It seems to me that the taboo-ization of smoking–regardless of whether this is a positive or a negative development–is very much top-down, as the elites collectively decided that smoking was bad, or at least uncool.

And don’t wait up nights for them to conclude the same about alcohol. That would be the day after never.

Anyway, our library director is certainly entitled to his views. And his English is remarkably good: He speaks of “a strange minuet that has to play itself out”–very idiomatic. And he quotes Martin Luther King. (I later consult his bio and find that he has a couple of degrees from Harvard.)

The “toughest fights” in the Arab world, Serageldin says, will take place in the realm of culture: “the rooting out of attitudes toward women, tolerance, pluralism.” These changes will have to occur “at the grassroots level.”

He allows that “we need external help, but in a certain way.” A certain way? It turns out that, from America, he wants free WiFi, for his library. It is an outrage that they have to pay. “External help, in a certain way.” I think of that wonderful Ira Gershwin lyric: “Nice work if you can get it.”

Most interesting is Mohammad al-Gergawi, CEO of Dubai Holding, in the UAE (United Arab Emirates). He says that Arab governments are now “in survivor mode,” and that reform “is not an option,” but “a must.” “They have to do it, or they’re out of the ballgame.” (Gergawi’s English is very American–he says “whole new ballgame” quite a lot in his remarks, talking about current conditions in the Arab world.) “For 70 years,” he says, “we were masters of losing opportunities.” Now those opportunities must be seized. And “part of the role” of businessmen is to be “change agents.”

Indeed, the face of business is probably the most encouraging one at this conference. More encouraging than the faces of government and politics.

One Arab businessman explains to a journalist friend of mine that the hate-Israel talk will come from governmental types, not from business types. The latter Middle Easterners want to get on with life, and uplift it.

‐Speaking of Israelis: There are relatively few at this conference (particularly considering that it is a powwow on the Middle East, and we’re a stone’s throw away from Israel). (Perhaps “stone’s throw away” is not the right expression to use.) But there are some Israelis here, so that was enough for certain Jordanian MPs–members of parliament–to boycott. It’s their funeral.

‐The major American in attendance is Laura Bush, who is undertaking a general Middle Eastern tour. She speaks in Plenary Hall, and is dressed in a smart pantsuit, all coiffed up. (The pantsuit is not coiffed up–the First Lady herself is.) The founder and leader of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, introduces her, noting “the wind of change sweeping the region.” Harold Macmillan, for Africa, had “winds of change”; Dr. Schwab has singularized it.

As Laura sits there, listening to the introduction, she looks like she’s dying for a smoke. I don’t know, could be just me–just my impression.

At the lectern, Mrs. Bush does an excellent job. She reads crisply, with more ease than her husband. She is simple, direct, twangy. Laura is at her most southern–or Texan–when she speaks the line, “Fifteen years ago, Muna [Hamdan, a Jordanian entrepreneur] started her business by selling homemade pickles and jams at a vegetable market.” The word “jams” has three syllables. How can you not be down-home when you speak the phrase “homemade pickles and jams”?

She pronounces the word “inaugural” peculiarly–it is “inaugaral” (the third syllable sounds like the first of “gutter”). And she stumbles over the word “conscience,” saying “conscious” instead–everybody does that. Besides which, Mrs. Bush quickly corrects herself.

Unfortunately, she keeps wiping at her face. Is she combating sweat? Or is there a fly about? If there is a fly, she makes no reference to it, simply wiping and waving, which is distracting. (I later learn that the culprit, indeed, was a fly. Mrs. Bush could have said something like, “Shoo, fly!”) (But that would have made us hungry for pie.)

Enough about mere style. Mrs. Bush delivers a marvelous speech. She’s going to pal around–pal around Jordan–with Queen Rania, and she quotes the queen on the subject of “the hope gap.” The people of the region must be given reason to believe that the future will be worth living.

Stirringly, Mrs. Bush links what happened in the Soviet bloc with what has been shaking in the Middle East:

President Bush and I recently visited Eastern Europe, where nations set free after the fall of Communism are embracing democracy. They are an example to citizens in other nations who are taking responsibility for their own futures.

Now we’re seeing a springtime of hope across the Middle East. Brave men and women are writing a new chapter in the story of self-government.

In due course, Mrs. Bush quotes Václav Havel, who told her, “Laura, you know, democracy is hard because it requires the participation of all the people.” The First Lady comments, “All people–men and women–want to contribute to the success of their country. And all people–men and women–must have the opportunity to do so.”

She then quotes a woman named Farahnaz Nazir, founder of the Afghanistan Women’s Association: “Society is like a bird–it has two wings. And a bird cannot fly if one wing is broken.” (In other words, women must be part of the program.) I think, “Oh, the men–many of them–in this auditorium are going to hate that” (and just you wait).

One of Mrs. Bush’s best passages is the following, delivered with palpable conviction: “Every person should have the ability to read–and even more than that, the freedom to read what they wish, to form their own opinions, and to speak their minds without fear.”

And in her peroration, she speaks of “the dignity of freedom.” Frankly, my heart leaps a little. President Carter, other Democrats, and some Republicans have always talked about “peace, peace, peace” (usually when there is no peace). But “the dignity of freedom”–so Reaganite, and true.

When I get home, I will read in a political column that Mrs. Bush gave a lightish, First Lady-like speech. No. Not at all. (You may read the transcript here.) And what she had to say stuck in some Arab craws. I will continue with the narrative.

When Mrs. Bush has finished, the man next to me gives an insta-critique of the speech to his companions: “Arrogance, ignorance, and parochialism.” Wrong on all three counts–especially the last, because this was a resoundingly universalist speech. The man goes on to say, “She’s supposed to be not very intelligent.” Wrong again.

Like Bob Zoellick before her (see yesterday’s installment), Laura Bush has touched many, many nerves in the Middle East. Nice, nice going.

Brava, Laura.

‐As I mentioned, Liz Cheney is here, for she is the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. (Mouthful of a title, huh?) She is the daughter of Dick and Lynne, and sits down for a bit with a small group of journalists.

Clearly, she looks like both parents–is a mixture of the two. And, like both of those parents, she speaks very, very comfortably. She stresses the “quickening pace of change” in the Middle East, saying that the mood is markedly different from even a year ago. (Jan. 30–when the Iraqi election was held–was a momentous day.)

Ms. Cheney also stresses American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I recall, however, that when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he spoke of a more modest, less intrusive approach, saying that peace was up to the parties themselves: to the Israelis and the Palestinians. If president, he wasn’t going to do what Bill Clinton had done; he was not going to overinvest America.

Someone asks, “Why the change?” (in effect). And Liz Cheney has an answer: Yasser Arafat. As in, he’s no longer here–is planted.

And she has this remarkable statement, concerning the relatedness of events, and societies: “Once fear starts to lift in one place, fear is a less useful tool in all other places.”

And she uses a phrase I like a lot: “out of business.” The thugs and autocrats–and the entrenched elites–of the Middle East know that, if Iraq succeeds–if the fever spreads–”they’re out of business.” We can see this unmistakably at this very conference.

After the press huddle, Ms. Cheney participates in a panel that I am unable to attend. But I have an acquaintance who does–he is a distinguished editor and writer–and he tells me about it, later in the day.

Liz was amidst some classic careerists–the Arab Old Guard–and “she actually had the temerity to say, ‘You should stop mentioning “Palestine” just to win a cheap round of applause, and start addressing real issues of reform.’ And a couple of men behind me said, in disturbingly loud tones, ‘She’s a lesbian, she’s a lesbian.’”

Actually, she is not. But I return to what I’ve said throughout these Davos-in-Jordan notes: Democratic advances, and popular rumblings, are making many people in this region very, very nervous, and upset.

Isn’t it wonderful?


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