He has interviewed heads of state, business moguls, and influential personalities around the world. His political analyses are highly respected and sought after by politicians and laymen alike; in fact, Fareed Zakaria is one of the most highly respected media leaders in the world. After attending a prestigious school in Mumbai, Zakaria studied at Yale University, and got his Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University. By the age of 28, he was managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and by 2000, he was the editor of Newsweek International. Finally in 2010, he assumed his current positions of editor-at-large of Time magazine and host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. eniGma’s Yasmine Shihata interviewed Zakaria at the 2013 World Economic Forum.
What are your thoughts on the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution and how can democracy take hold in Egypt?
Reform must come from within society. Too many Egyptians are waiting for preachers to write big dissertations and to develop modern interpretations of the Quran, and that’s ok, but real reform needs to come from within Egyptian society, from people saying ‘we want to live a modern life and we will make Islam compatible with it’ – that’s how you get a society to change. Japan went through this kind of reform in the 50s and 60s at a time when a lot of people were saying, ‘how can you abandon traditional Japanese culture?’ But the Japanese people wanted to become modern and they still remain very Japanese today, just as Egypt will remain very Egyptian and Muslim as it should. But that doesn’t mean Egypt should not have a modern political system, a modern economy and adopt modern technology.
Egyptian society has become very polarised between those who believe in political Islam and those who ascribe to more liberal political views. How can we overcome this polarisation?
This big debate is going on within the world of Islam, and it has to be had because the debate had been suppressed by dictatorships. Because the members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) could not operate openly, they grew secretly so there was no open debate allowed. There could be no debate when you pretended that these Islamic groups didn’t exist. In a country like India, which has many more Muslims than Egypt, there’s no question that people believe Islam should be compatible with diversity. Muslims are living as a minority in a predominantly Hindu country and there are no questions being raised about that. But there is still some debate on issues like women’s rights. In many ways it has gotten worse as many Muslims have become more reactionary in the last 30 years with the rise of Saudi Arabia, as its vast monetary resources have changed the world of Islam. Often this was not done with bad intentions, but the Saudis practice a very traditional, conservative Wahhabi form of Islam that is not practiced in most of the Muslim world. But because the Saudis became the central power in the Islamic world, their influence radiated globally. And so in India for instance, every Islamic center and mosque built in the last 30 or 40 years was funded by Saudi Arabia. Thus Saudi Wahhabi thought has spread especially as a lot of the imams of these mosques were trained in Saudi and are heavily influenced by them. This had a profound effect and completely changed the character of Islam. We’re still living with those consequences in many other places as well. The shift that took place in the Muslim world from the 1950s, when Egypt was seen as the most important Islamic country to the 70s, when Saudi Arabia replaced Egypt, is a very unfortunate shift for Islam. The centre went from a secular modernised country to a country with a very strange Wahhabi Islam that just happened to have billions of dollars to spend on exporting its ideas.
Do you think the Arab spring will ever reach the Gulf states?
If you look at the Arab spring what you see is that in the Gulf states, repression did not work but bribery did. Every country that tried to repress its people had trouble. The countries that bribed their people are basically fine. Look at the $45 billion package the Saudis announced for their people after the Arab spring. Even for a country like Saudi, that’s still a lot of money! And the same was done in Kuwait.
But for how long can this policy work?
Eventually there will be problems. But I’ve always been struck by how conservative Saudi society is. So when people tell me – and they’ve been telling me for 30 years – that there’s going to be a revolution in Saudi Arabia, my answer is, having been there often, that the current King of Saudi Arabia is actually more liberal than his own countrymen are.
Can the Middle East make progress towards a society where religion and democracy are compatible?
Look at India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey. In Turkey, modernity was forced upon it by the powerful moderniser Ataturk. Ataturk was a dictator who basically outlawed religion in a sense. That’s never going to happen in Egypt. But if you look at Indonesia, Malaysia and India, that’s the most likely scenario for Egypt. As Egypt and its middle class grows, and frankly with the help of things like your magazine, these factors will most likely lead to the modernisation of Egyptian society. I don’t think people want to live under a religiously repressive state; but most of the analysis of our region is negative which makes it hard to stay hopeful. For urban liberals in Egypt the great challenge is to stay connected to the country. It’s easy to create your own little oasis when you have more in common with what’s going on in London, Paris, Beirut and Istanbul than what’s going on in villages in the Nile valley. It’s important to stay connected to your country because only you can modernise Egypt. The USA can’t do it and the IMF can’t do it. You need to understand how to speak to people in rural areas so that you can influence them. In Egypt, the Brotherhood has an easy path to rural Egyptians through the mosques and the welfare systems they’ve created. But why can’t there be liberal welfare systems? Why can’t there be liberal NGOs that try to make their case? The simple point is that liberal forces need to start to make coalitions. The liberal parties had a real opportunity right after the revolution and had there been a coalition, the results could have been different. Now the average Egyptian doesn’t want any more radical change, they just want stability. This also means the MB will have to be careful that they don’t change things too much because people don’t want radical changes from them either.
The Arab Spring led to elevated expectations of what democracy would bring and what people are seeing now is instability and a worsening economy. Are we going to be able to keep selling democracy as the best alternative?
The thing about democracy, it’s the best alternative, given the other possible options. Do you want the army back in charge? Do you want Mr. Morsi to declare himself president for life? Do you want the head of Al-Azhar to become the president of Egypt? What are your options? Democracy is simply the better alternative in a modern society where people are more connected and empowered. As Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” The trick is can you make democracy more than just a process? Can you give it meaning? Can you build a civil society? So far it was not the liberals who gave democracy a meaning but it was the MB that have given it meaning. The only way to change that is for liberals to get in the fight and get into the game. Egypt has not had that much instability if you consider the magnitude of change it went through. For example, in the last 200 years, France went through a revolution, two empires, five republics and one crypto fascist dictatorship; that’s a lot of change! If you compare Egypt to countries that have gone through so much change, Egypt has had a relatively peaceful transition.
Do you think that the instability Egypt is facing is due to the MB or is that the normal transition phase? Would any president have had the same result?
Absolutely. I don’t like the MB but they are blamed for things they have nothing to do with. A lot of things, such as corruption, pre-existed in the Mubarak regime. But the instability and things like that, these are the products of transition. The Brotherhood has not been particularly skillful at getting foreign investment and getting tourism back. I would hope they understand that Egypt of all countries must attract foreigners and foreign investment, because the Egyptian economy depends on tourism. Egypt doesn’t have oil to power the Egyptian economy. And Islam is not like the radical Marxists coming to power, Islam has no ideological opposition to the market. The Prophet Mohammed was a businessman and his wife was a businesswoman. So I don’t see why there would be ideological problems. The problem in Egypt is that there are a lot of old interests that control Egypt’s economy. Those are interests in the army and in big businesses. In freeing the Egyptian economy the challenge is not Islam, it is the old special interests.
Do you think average people may eventually vote for anything that would lead to stability, even if it’s another dictatorship?
Well, if you can give people rising standards of living and stability, that’s a very attractive offer in a poor country. The problem was the old system was not sustainable. Don’t forget how old Mubarak was. What was going to happen when he died? Would his son really have the legitimacy to rule a large country like Egypt? Egypt is not Syria. Only democracy can solve how to govern an open and large connected society with some degree of legitimacy. But that doesn’t mean that democracy doesn’t have problems.
Unfortunately some US media figures, like some at Fox news, refer to Egypt as the next Iran. Will this cause Egypt’s relations with the US to deteriorate?
The good thing about stations like Fox News is they have opinions about countries they know nothing about. None of those people have ever been to any of the countries they’re talking about and they’re just using them as ideological punching bags. Sooner or later it will all be about how Obama has miraculously managed to make the MB win the elections. But I don’t think that’s where the country is in general.
Do you think that Obama will do anything about the Palestinian issue?
No, because the Palestinian issue is ultimately an issue no US president at this point can do anything about. People don’t realise this, but a revolution has taken place in the Middle East. Israel is now the superpower of the region. The Israeli army is more powerful than all the Arab armies put together. Just in the last 10 to 20 years, the change that has taken place in the Israeli army is staggering, in terms of technology, training and even in terms of size. They have a conscription army which is very large, well trained, and well equipped. And the Israeli economy has also turned into some kind of a miracle economy.
Is it because of all the funding they get from the US?
Almost none of it is because of the funding they get from the US. Israel has more companies on the NASDAQ exchange than any country besides the USA. With just 6 million people, Israel has more companies listed on NASDAQ than China.
Is this not because of the close ties of American and European businessmen with Israel?
Businessmen do these things to make money, why would businessmen take risks if they didn’t make money? Israel publishes ten times more books every year than the entire Arab world. Do you think there’s the same intellectual capital, the same trained work force in the Arab countries? Look at the software companies that are coming out of Israel. There may be some part of it which is a result of foreign aid, and the USA does give a certain amount of aid to Israel. But the second largest recipient of foreign aid is Egypt. If foreign aid could create a miracle economy then why didn’t the Egyptians do it too? From my experience businessmen want to make money. If a Jewish American businessman will make money in China then he’ll invest in China. If he can make money investing in India he’ll invest in India, and the same goes for Israel. To prove my point, for 40 years since the creation of Israel, very few Americans invested in Israel. Israel started to grow economically after the economic reforms it began 15 years ago under Netanyahu as finance minister. You can track the growth of the Israeli economy when two things happened 1) they got a huge influx of Russian engineers who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union, and 2) they opened up the economy. Before this, the Israeli economy was just like any Middle Eastern economy, very state socialist. And then they changed that and made it much more market oriented. Israel’s growth has happened only since then. Israel is the power on the ground so it is up to Israel now. And the current Israeli government is making a terrible mistake in not being able to aggressively pursue peace and a two state solution to create a Palestinian state. This is obviously the right solution. A lot of Israelis believe in that and if you look at the recent Israeli elections, Netanyahu suffered a pretty humiliating loss. But the mood in Israel right now is not to pursue peace and they use excuses like the Palestinians are divided and Hamas is not accepting the right of Israel to exist. Given that reality, the USA cannot impose a peace settlement.
But the USA could at least stop the settlements.
Every American government has been opposed to those settlements and some have tried more than others to stop them, but the problem there is very broad support in the US for Israel that goes beyond the president. What you’re talking about is tying aid to the settlements; but US aid is provided by Congress not the president. When Bush Sr. tried to tie aid to settlements Congress refused and said they would provide aid unconditionally. If Obama had tried to do the same, the congressmen would have opposed it. So it’s a question of political calculus, whether you want to fight a fight that you probably won’t win.
What advice would you have for the young generation of Arabs at this time?
It’s a great time to be young and educated in the Arab world. There are many opportunities in these countries and change is just beginning. You can be part of this incredible journey and revolution, and part of it will be economic, by the way. As they are opening up politically, they’re going to have to open up their economies as well. So the old model of Arab economies where a few families control everything is giving way to a more open economy, where everyone can participate. There’s also political change happening everywhere and you can be part of that story. And there is the issue of the reform of Islam, which is a great adventure to be on. People want to live in times that give them meaning and purpose and you have such a time, and you can have a prosperous successful life as part of it. To be young in the Arab world today is to have an enormously interesting future ahead of you. It’s not 100% sure that it will be positive but that’s the challenge and that’s what makes the challenge interesting.