Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council, interviewed Bahaa Hariri, the late Lebanese prime minister’s eldest son and a prominent business leader, on his views on developments in the Middle East, his father’s legacy, and his vision for the Councils’ new Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East.

On May 3, 2011, at the Atlantic Council’s annual awards dinner, the Council launched the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a major new initiative that will advance a vision of a Middle East and North Africa that converges with the transatlantic community in its politics, economics, and values.  The Center pays tribute to the legacy of the late former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his efforts to rise above sectarianism and to promote innovative policies to support economic and political liberalization, sustainable conflict resolution, and greater regional and international integration. The Hariri Center will work with experts and institutions in the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and North America to more closely bind the regions. This newest addition to the Atlantic Council’s regional programs is made possible by its founding sponsor, Bahaa Hariri. Below are excerpts from an interview with Mr. Hariri.

1. What is your view on the events of the Arab spring and the enormous movement for political change taking place across the Middle East and North Africa? What does the Arab Spring mean? What do these various uprisings have in common and do they mark the start of a new era? And do you agree with those who warn these movements could be hijacked by extremists?

I truly believe that now we are living in a connected world. The people in the street are being very clear: they want their dignity, they want jobs, they want security for their children, they want education, they want women’s rights, they want transparency, and they want a form of governance built on the rule of law – democracy.

While each country has its particular circumstance, we are hearing universal demands. And these are legitimate demands. I don’t accept the arguments of those who believe fanaticism and extremism are behind these movements. I didn’t see fanaticism in Tahrir Square. I didn’t see it in Tunisia. I didn’t see it in Syria. The demands of the people are simple: “We want jobs.”

This is a strategic shift that marks the closing of a chapter and the opening of a new one. And I don’t see any going back.  I would have questioned it if we had only seen change in Tunisia. But now, we are calling it the Arab Spring. We are talking about change in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya… I think it is an irreversible process. 

2. Can the Arab spring extend beyond Yemen, Syria, and North Africa to other countries, such as Iran?

Yes. We saw on television what happened in Iran during the Green revolution. At the end of the day, we have to see. But clearly, there are indications. At the end of the day, it’s the Iranian people who will decide what will happen in Iran, and nobody else.

3. At such an important moment where the future of the Middle East and North Africa is so much in play, what needs to happen next for the region to emerge from this turmoil more prosperous, free and stable? What changes need to take place within these societies and what is the proper role for the international community – especially the transatlantic community – to play?

The newly formed governments in the region should come up with their own plan addressing governance, transparency, and the overhaul of the bureaucratic system. For example, you have 6 million public sector workers in Egypt and you have endemic corruption – what are you going to do with that?

The people will give new leaders a grace period to sort out a way forward. But after the grace period, they will start holding leaders responsible. So it is very important that new governments have a serious internal reform and economic program. The successful candidates will have, under a political umbrella, a full economic program. This has to come from the leaders themselves. A Marshall Plan for the region from outside is good. But, first, the leaders have to come up with their own plan and then decide what they need from the international community.

The people will want deliverables and a serious strategy for progress.  The demands will not stop on the election date; it’s only the beginning. And this is where it becomes very dangerous. It’s a trip. It’s a new beginning, just like when you are reading a book; you don’t stop at the first page.

As far as how the international community can respond, on the political level, we can help make sure that the people’s voice is heard – and that it’s not hijacked – that moderation is heard, transparency is heard. On the economic side, I truly agree that there should be a Marshall Plan, but I believe it should come from within the region. 

And the international response needs to feature convergence between the United States, Europe, Russia and the Middle East and North Africa. Fortunately, I think this is becoming increasingly likely and possible because Americans are convinced that they are living in a multilateral world and understand that unilateral solutions will not work for the Middle East. 

Nonetheless, I believe the United States must lead. The Europeans and the Russians are ready to listen and to cooperate with the United States on major policies. Europe and Russia share the same interest in having a stable North Africa and a stable Middle East. 

Why? Because Europe doesn’t want migration from North Africa and Russia doesn’t want Islamic fanaticism emerging from the Caucasus or Central Asia. So it is definitely in the interests of Europe and Russia to work with the United States to help stabilize the region. 

4. Can you please talk a bit more about what you mean when you use the term convergence? What exactly does this mean and why is now the right time for convergence? And does convergence include more than just political cooperation but also extend to business practices, the economy, education, and to values?

The convergence of the interests’ of the United States, Europe, Russia and the region, if they converge, will benefit everyone. Unilateralism did not succeed. Iraq, Afghanistan – God rest his soul, my father said, you may win the battle, but you may not win the war. The United States has the military capacity to enter any nation with its forces and be in control within a month. Winning the war is not a problem for a country so powerful. But the issue is winning the peace.

We have seen in Iraq, it’s not a go-in, go-out scenario. We’ve seen it in Iraq, we’ve seen it in Afghanistan, and unfortunately we’ve realized today that this is something that is putting tremendous strain on the military. The cost is very high. A multilateral approach with allies, a sharing of the burden, could make the situation much more plausible. A coordinated approach to the region, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or North Africa, would be worthwhile.

Convergence can of course apply to more than just political cooperation.  It has many other facets.  As the people of the region find their voice and play a more active role in charting their political futures, there will be a greater convergence of values between the Middle East and the transatlantic community.

The same applies with the economy.  The North African rim, if it’s stable, can be the launching pad for Europe, Russia, and the United States to tap into Africa’s enormous economic potential. When you have an open society in North Africa, and it’s not a small population, you have a launching pad from North Africa to the whole African continent.  This concept of convergence of interests and values applies in many fields.

This is why I chose to establish the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council – because this organization embodies the concept of multilateral cooperation across the transatlantic community to address common challenges.

5. What role does American leadership play in the concept of convergence and forging a multilateral approach that engages Europe and Russia? Does convergence require American leadership, and what impact does America’s unpopularity in the region have on its role in the region during the Arab spring?

The world, including the Europeans, want U.S. leadership. Russia wants U.S. leadership. Everybody wants U.S. leadership. The Arab world wants – Egypt wants – U.S. leadership. 

American policy is gaining back credibility in the region regardless of the Palestinian issue. The administration’s position on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya is giving a new breath of fresh air to America’s credibility in the region. This is very important.  And American leadership is key for putting into action this concept of convergence.

6. You have chosen to name this Center after your father, the late former Prime Minister of Lebanon. What is Rafik Hariri’s legacy today in the Middle East and what does he mean to the Middle East today?  

He motivated and reformed bureaucracy through engagement and dialogue. He knew that Lebanon and the broader region had to reform. He of course faced many restraints, but at the end of the day, Lebanon grew eight percent a year under his tenure. And with all the constraints he had, there was a lot of progress. But he was the man who provided leadership. He led. He put in place a plan.  

There’s a saying in Arabic that captures his vision that could apply to the entire region today: building man and building the rock. Building man – the human being – through education. Building the rock includes social reforms, health care, social security, infrastructure, education, woman’s rights, laws, open skies, reforming the tax system – establishing a comprehensive, effective program for governance. And then the international community saw in him a leader with a genuine program. The international community recognized he had a plan worth backing. Now we must assist others with such plans.  

7. How can the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East pay tribute to that legacy and what kinds of activities do you hope to see the Center take on going forward to move policy?

Concretely, I would like to see the Center devise a series of political reforms going forward, economic reforms going forward, and the way the transatlantic community can support that.

The Center can pay tribute to my father’s legacy by making sure, on every aspect of the equation that this transition is successful, including through recommendations from the advisory board. And in my opinion we must keep our eye on the ball: Egypt.

The transatlantic community and the Center must concentrate on Egypt, governance in Egypt. Rafik Hariri would simply say, “Egypt is the cradle of the Arab world.” Everyone on this planet will feel the impact of how Egypt develops.

Interviewed by Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council.