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Wadah Khanfar: A historic moment in the Arab world

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Ten years ago exactly, I was in Afghanistan. I was covering the war in Afghanistan, and I witnessed, as a reporter for Al Jazeera, the amount of suffering and destruction that emerged out of a war like that. Then, two years later, I covered another war -- the war in Iraq. I was placed at the center of that war because I was covering the war from the northern part of Iraq. And the war ended with a regime change, like the one in Afghanistan. And that regime that we got rid of was actually a dictatorship, an authoritarian regime, that for decades created a great sense of paralysis within the nation, within the people themselves. However, the change that came through foreign intervention created even worse circumstances for the people and deepened the sense of paralysis and inferiority in that part of the world.

For decades, we have lived under authoritarian regimes -- in the Arab world, in the Middle East. These regimes created something within us during this period. I'm 43 years old right now. For the last 40 years, I have seen almost the same faces for kings and presidents ruling us -- old, aged, authoritarian, corrupt situations -- regimes that we have seen around us. And for a moment I was wondering, are we going to live in order to see real change happening on the ground, a change that does not come through foreign intervention, through the misery of occupation, through nations invading our land and deepening the sense of inferiority sometimes? The Iraqis: yes, they got rid of Saddam Hussein, but when they saw their land occupied by foreign forces they felt very sad, they felt that their dignity had suffered. And this is why they revolted. This is why they did not accept. And actually other regimes, they told their citizens, "Would you like to see the situation of Iraq? Would you like to see civil war, sectarian killing? Would you like to see destruction? Would you like to see foreign troops on your land?" And the people thought for themselves, "Maybe we should live with this kind of authoritarian situation that we find ourselves in, instead of having the second scenario." That was one of the worst nightmares that we have seen.

For 10 years, unfortunately we have found ourselves reporting images of destruction, images of killing, of sectarian conflicts, images of violence, emerging from a magnificent piece of land, a region that one day was the source of civilizations and art and culture for thousands of years. Now I am here to tell you that the future that we were dreaming for has eventually arrived. A new generation, well-educated, connected, inspired by universal values and a global understanding, has created a new reality for us. We have found a new way to express our feelings and to express our dreams: these young people who have restored self-confidence in our nations in that part of the world, who have given us new meaning for freedom and empowered us to go down to the streets. Nothing happened. No violence. Nothing. Just step out of your house, raise your voice and say, "We would like to see the end of the regime."

This is what happened in Tunisia. Over a few days, the Tunisian regime that invested billions of dollars in the security agencies, billions of dollars in maintaining, trying to maintain, its prisons, collapsed, disappeared, because of the voices of the public. People who were inspired to go down to the streets and to raise their voices, they tried to kill. The intelligence agencies wanted to arrest people. They found something called Facebook. They found something called Twitter. They were surprised by all of these kinds of issues. And they said, "These kids are misled." Therefore, they asked their parents to go down to the streets and collect them, bring them back home. This is what they were telling. This is their propaganda. "Bring these kids home because they are misled." But yes, these youth who have been inspired by universal values, who are idealistic enough to imagine a magnificent future and, at the same time, realistic enough to balance this kind of imagination and the process leading to it -- not using violence, not trying to create chaos -- these young people, they did not go home. Parents actually went to the streets and they supported them. And this is how the revolution was born in Tunisia.

We in Al Jazeera were banned from Tunisia for years, and the government did not allow any Al Jazeera reporter to be there. But we found that these people in the street, all of them are our reporters, feeding our newsroom with pictures, with videos and with news. And suddenly that newsroom in Doha became a center that received all this kind of input from ordinary people -- people who are connected and people who have ambition and who have liberated themselves from the feeling of inferiority. And then we took that decision: We are unrolling the news. We are going to be the voice for these voiceless people. We are going to spread the message. Yes, some of these young people are connected to the Internet, but the connectivity in the Arab world is very little, is very small, because of many problems that we are suffering from. But Al Jazeera took the voice from these people and we amplified [it]. We put it in every sitting room in the Arab world -- and internationally, globally, through our English channel.

And then people started to feel that there's something new happening. And then Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali decided to leave. And then Egypt started, and Hosni Mubarak decided to leave. And now Libya as you see it. And then you have Yemen. And you have many other countries trying to see and to rediscover that feeling of, "How do we imagine a future which is magnificent and peaceful and tolerant?" I want to tell you something, that the Internet and connectivity has created [a] new mindset. But this mindset has continued to be faithful to the soil and to the land that it emerged from. And while this was the major difference between many initiatives before to create change, before we thought, and governments told us -- and even sometimes it was true -- that change was imposed on us, and people rejected that, because they thought that it is alien to their culture. Always, we believed that change will spring from within, that change should be a reconciliation with culture, cultural diversity, with our faith in our tradition and in our history, but at the same time, open to universal values, connected with the world, tolerant to the outside. And this is the moment that is happening right now in the Arab world. This is the right moment, and this is the actual moment that we see all of these meanings meet together and then create the beginning of this magnificent era that will emerge from the region.

How did the elite deal with that -- the so-called political elite? In front of Facebook, they brought the camels in Tahrir Square. In front of Al Jazeera, they started creating tribalism. And then when they failed, they started speaking about conspiracies that emerged from Tel Aviv and Washington in order to divide the Arab world. They started telling the West, "Be aware of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is taking over our territories. These are Islamists trying to create new Imaras. Be aware of these people who [are] coming to you in order to ruin your great civilization." Fortunately, people right now cannot be deceived. Because this corrupt elite in that region has lost even the power of deception. They could not, and they cannot, imagine how they could really deal with this reality. They have lost. They have been detached from their people, from the masses, and now we are seeing them collapsing one after the other.

Al Jazeera is not a tool of revolution. We do not create revolutions. However, when something of that magnitude happens, we are at the center of the coverage. We were banned from Egypt, and our correspondents, some of them were arrested. But most of our camera people and our journalists, they went underground in Egypt -- voluntarily -- to report what happened in Tahrir Square. For 18 days, our cameras were broadcasting, live, the voices of the people in Tahrir Square. I remember one night when someone phoned me on my cellphone -- ordinary person who I don't know -- from Tahrir Square. He told me, "We appeal to you not to switch off the cameras. If you switch off the cameras tonight, there will be a genocide. You are protecting us by showing what is happening at Tahrir Square." I felt the responsibility to phone our correspondents there and to phone our newsroom and to tell them, "Make your best not to switch off the cameras at night, because the guys there really feel confident when someone is reporting their story -- and they feel protected as well."

So we have a chance to create a new future in that part of the world. We have a chance to go and to think of the future as something which is open to the world. Let us not repeat the mistake of Iran, of [the] Mosaddeq revolution. Let us free ourselves -- especially in the West -- from thinking about that part of the world based on oil interest, or based on interests of the illusion of stability and security. The stability and security of authoritarian regimes cannot create but terrorism and violence and destruction. Let us accept the choice of the people. Let us not pick and choose who we would like to rule their future. The future should be ruled by people themselves, even sometimes if they are voices that might now scare us. But the values of democracy and the freedom of choice that is sweeping the Middle East at this moment in time is the best opportunity for the world, for the West and the East, to see stability and to see security and to see friendship and to see tolerance emerging from the Arab world, rather than the images of violence and terrorism. Let us support these people. Let us stand for them. And let us give up our narrow selfishness in order to embrace change, and in order to celebrate with the people of that region a great future and hope and tolerance. The future has arrived, and the future is now. I thank you very much.


Thank you very much.


Chris Anderson: I just have a couple of questions for you. Thank you for coming here. How would you characterize the historical significance of what's happened? Is this a story-of-the-year, a story-of-the-decade or something more?

Wadah Khanfar: Actually, this may be the biggest story that we have ever covered. We have covered many wars. We have covered a lot of tragedies, a lot of problems, a lot of conflict zones, a lot of hot spots in the region, because we were centered at the middle of it. But this is a story -- it is a great story; it is beautiful. It is not something that you only cover because you have to cover a great incident. You are witnessing change in history. You are witnessing the birth of a new era. And this is what the story's all about.

CA: There are a lot of people in the West who are still skeptical, or think this may just be an intermediate stage before much more alarming chaos. You really believe that if there are democratic elections in Egypt now, that a government could emerge that espouses some of the values you've spoken about so inspiringly?

WK: And people actually, after the collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime, the youth who have organized themselves in certain groups and councils, they are guarding the transformation and they are trying to put it on a track in order to satisfy the values of democracy, but at the same time also to make it reasonable and to make it rational, not to go out of order. In my opinion, these people are much more wiser than, not only the political elite, even the intellectual elite, even opposition leaders including political parties. At this moment in time, the youth in the Arab world are much more wiser and capable of creating the change than the old -- including the political and cultural and ideological old regimes.


CA: We are not to get involved politically and interfere in that way. What should people here at TED, here in the West, do if they want to connect or make a difference and they believe in what's happening here?

WK: I think we have discovered a very important issue in the Arab world -- that people care, people care about this great transformation. Mohamed Nanabhay who's sitting with us, the head of, he told me that a 2,500 percent increase of accessing our website from various parts of the world. Fifty percent of it is coming from America. Because we discovered that people care, and people would like to know -- they are receiving the stream through our Internet. Unfortunately in the United States, we are not covering but Washington D.C. at this moment in time for Al Jazeera English. But I can tell you, this is the moment to celebrate through connecting ourselves with those people in the street and expressing our support to them and expressing this kind of feeling, universal feeling, of supporting the weak and the oppressed to create a much better future for all of us.

CA: Well Wadah, a group of members of the TED community, TEDxCairo, are meeting as we speak. They've had some speakers there. I believe they've heard your talk. Thank you for inspiring them and for inspiring all of us. Thank you so much.


Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes and 51 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 374
Posted by: tedtalks on Mar 4, 2011

As a democratic revolution led by tech-empowered young people sweeps the Arab world, Wadah Khanfar, the head of Al Jazeera, shares a profoundly optimistic view of what's happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond -- at this powerful moment when people realized they could step out of their houses and ask for change.

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