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TED2011

Wadah Khanfar: A historic moment in the Arab world

March 2, 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.

Wadah Khanfar - Journalist
As the Director General of Al Jazeera from 2003-2011, Wadah Khanfar worked to bring rare liberties like information, transparency and dissenting voices to repressive states and political hot zones. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Ten years ago exactly,
00:15
I was in Afghanistan.
00:17
I was covering the war in Afghanistan,
00:19
and I witnessed, as a reporter for Al Jazeera,
00:23
the amount of suffering and destruction
00:26
that emerged out of a war like that.
00:29
Then, two years later,
00:32
I covered another war -- the war in Iraq.
00:34
I was placed at the center of that war
00:36
because I was covering the war
00:39
from the northern part of Iraq.
00:41
And the war ended
00:44
with a regime change,
00:46
like the one in Afghanistan.
00:48
And that regime
00:50
that we got rid of
00:52
was actually a dictatorship,
00:54
an authoritarian regime,
00:57
that for decades
00:59
created a great sense of paralysis
01:02
within the nation, within the people themselves.
01:06
However,
01:09
the change that came through foreign intervention
01:11
created even worse circumstances for the people
01:13
and deepened the sense
01:16
of paralysis and inferiority
01:18
in that part of the world.
01:20
For decades,
01:22
we have lived under authoritarian regimes --
01:24
in the Arab world, in the Middle East.
01:27
These regimes
01:30
created something within us during this period.
01:32
I'm 43 years old right now.
01:35
For the last 40 years,
01:37
I have seen almost the same faces
01:39
for kings and presidents ruling us --
01:41
old, aged, authoritarian,
01:45
corrupt situations --
01:49
regimes that we have seen around us.
01:51
And for a moment I was wondering,
01:54
are we going to live in order to see
01:57
real change happening on the ground,
01:59
a change that does not come through foreign intervention,
02:02
through the misery of occupation,
02:05
through nations invading our land
02:08
and deepening the sense of inferiority sometimes?
02:11
The Iraqis: yes, they got rid of Saddam Hussein,
02:15
but when they saw
02:18
their land occupied by foreign forces
02:20
they felt very sad,
02:23
they felt that their dignity had suffered.
02:25
And this is why they revolted.
02:28
This is why they did not accept.
02:30
And actually other regimes, they told their citizens,
02:33
"Would you like to see the situation of Iraq?
02:36
Would you like to see civil war, sectarian killing?
02:39
Would you like to see destruction?
02:42
Would you like to see foreign troops on your land?"
02:44
And the people thought for themselves,
02:47
"Maybe we should live with
02:49
this kind of authoritarian situation that we find ourselves in,
02:51
instead of having the second scenario."
02:54
That was one of the worst nightmares that we have seen.
02:58
For 10 years,
03:01
unfortunately we have found ourselves
03:03
reporting images of destruction,
03:05
images of killing,
03:08
of sectarian conflicts,
03:10
images of violence,
03:12
emerging from a magnificent piece of land,
03:14
a region that one day was the source
03:17
of civilizations and art and culture
03:19
for thousands of years.
03:22
Now I am here to tell you
03:25
that the future
03:28
that we were dreaming for
03:30
has eventually arrived.
03:32
A new generation,
03:36
well-educated,
03:38
connected,
03:40
inspired by universal values
03:42
and a global understanding,
03:46
has created a new reality for us.
03:49
We have found a new way
03:53
to express our feelings
03:56
and to express our dreams:
03:59
these young people
04:02
who have restored self-confidence
04:04
in our nations in that part of the world,
04:06
who have given us
04:09
new meaning for freedom
04:11
and empowered us to go down to the streets.
04:14
Nothing happened. No violence. Nothing.
04:17
Just step out of your house,
04:19
raise your voice
04:21
and say, "We would like to see the end of the regime."
04:23
This is what happened in Tunisia.
04:27
Over a few days,
04:29
the Tunisian regime that invested billions of dollars
04:31
in the security agencies,
04:34
billions of dollars
04:36
in maintaining, trying to maintain,
04:38
its prisons,
04:40
collapsed, disappeared,
04:42
because of the voices of the public.
04:44
People who were inspired to go down to the streets
04:47
and to raise their voices,
04:49
they tried to kill.
04:51
The intelligence agencies wanted to arrest people.
04:53
They found something called Facebook.
04:56
They found something called Twitter.
04:59
They were surprised by all of these kinds of issues.
05:01
And they said,
05:03
"These kids are misled."
05:05
Therefore, they asked their parents
05:08
to go down to the streets
05:10
and collect them, bring them back home.
05:12
This is what they were telling. This is their propaganda.
05:14
"Bring these kids home
05:16
because they are misled."
05:18
But yes,
05:20
these youth
05:22
who have been inspired
05:24
by universal values,
05:26
who are idealistic enough
05:28
to imagine a magnificent future
05:30
and, at the same time, realistic enough
05:32
to balance this kind of imagination
05:35
and the process leading to it --
05:38
not using violence,
05:41
not trying to create chaos --
05:43
these young people,
05:45
they did not go home.
05:47
Parents actually went to the streets
05:49
and they supported them.
05:51
And this is how the revolution was born in Tunisia.
05:53
We in Al Jazeera
05:56
were banned from Tunisia for years,
05:58
and the government did not allow
06:01
any Al Jazeera reporter to be there.
06:03
But we found that these people in the street,
06:05
all of them are our reporters,
06:08
feeding our newsroom
06:10
with pictures, with videos
06:12
and with news.
06:14
And suddenly that newsroom in Doha
06:16
became a center
06:19
that received all this kind of input from ordinary people --
06:21
people who are connected and people who have ambition
06:24
and who have liberated themselves
06:27
from the feeling of inferiority.
06:29
And then we took that decision:
06:31
We are unrolling the news.
06:34
We are going to be the voice for these voiceless people.
06:36
We are going to spread the message.
06:39
Yes, some of these young people
06:41
are connected to the Internet,
06:43
but the connectivity in the Arab world
06:45
is very little, is very small,
06:47
because of many problems that we are suffering from.
06:49
But Al Jazeera took the voice from these people
06:52
and we amplified [it].
06:55
We put it in every sitting room in the Arab world --
06:57
and internationally, globally,
07:00
through our English channel.
07:02
And then people started to feel
07:04
that there's something new happening.
07:07
And then Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
07:10
decided to leave.
07:13
And then Egypt started,
07:15
and Hosni Mubarak decided to leave.
07:17
And now Libya as you see it.
07:19
And then you have Yemen.
07:21
And you have many other countries trying to see
07:23
and to rediscover that feeling
07:25
of, "How do we imagine a future
07:28
which is magnificent and peaceful and tolerant?"
07:30
I want to tell you something,
07:33
that the Internet and connectivity
07:36
has created [a] new mindset.
07:40
But this mindset
07:43
has continued to be faithful
07:45
to the soil and to the land
07:47
that it emerged from.
07:49
And while this was the major difference
07:52
between many initiatives before
07:55
to create change,
07:58
before we thought, and governments told us --
08:00
and even sometimes it was true --
08:02
that change was imposed on us,
08:05
and people rejected that,
08:08
because they thought that it is alien to their culture.
08:10
Always, we believed
08:13
that change will spring from within,
08:16
that change should be a reconciliation
08:19
with culture, cultural diversity,
08:23
with our faith in our tradition
08:26
and in our history,
08:28
but at the same time,
08:30
open to universal values, connected with the world,
08:32
tolerant to the outside.
08:35
And this is the moment
08:37
that is happening right now in the Arab world.
08:39
This is the right moment, and this is the actual moment
08:41
that we see all of these meanings meet together
08:44
and then create the beginning
08:46
of this magnificent era
08:48
that will emerge from the region.
08:50
How did the elite deal with that --
08:54
the so-called political elite?
08:56
In front of Facebook,
08:59
they brought the camels in Tahrir Square.
09:02
In front of Al Jazeera,
09:05
they started creating tribalism.
09:07
And then when they failed,
09:11
they started speaking about conspiracies
09:13
that emerged from Tel Aviv and Washington
09:16
in order to divide the Arab world.
09:19
They started telling the West,
09:22
"Be aware of Al-Qaeda.
09:24
Al-Qaeda is taking over our territories.
09:26
These are Islamists
09:28
trying to create new Imaras.
09:30
Be aware of these people
09:32
who [are] coming to you
09:34
in order to ruin your great civilization."
09:37
Fortunately,
09:40
people right now cannot be deceived.
09:43
Because this corrupt elite
09:45
in that region
09:48
has lost even the power of deception.
09:50
They could not, and they cannot, imagine
09:54
how they could really deal with this reality.
09:56
They have lost.
09:59
They have been detached
10:01
from their people, from the masses,
10:03
and now we are seeing them collapsing
10:06
one after the other.
10:09
Al Jazeera is not
10:12
a tool of revolution.
10:15
We do not create revolutions.
10:17
However,
10:19
when something of that magnitude happens,
10:21
we are at the center of the coverage.
10:24
We were banned from Egypt,
10:27
and our correspondents,
10:29
some of them were arrested.
10:31
But most of our camera people
10:34
and our journalists,
10:37
they went underground in Egypt -- voluntarily --
10:39
to report what happened in Tahrir Square.
10:42
For 18 days,
10:45
our cameras were broadcasting, live,
10:47
the voices of the people in Tahrir Square.
10:50
I remember one night
10:53
when someone phoned me on my cellphone --
10:55
ordinary person who I don't know -- from Tahrir Square.
10:57
He told me, "We appeal to you
10:59
not to switch off the cameras.
11:01
If you switch off the cameras tonight,
11:03
there will be a genocide.
11:05
You are protecting us
11:07
by showing what is happening at Tahrir Square."
11:09
I felt the responsibility
11:12
to phone our correspondents there
11:14
and to phone our newsroom
11:16
and to tell them, "Make your best
11:18
not to switch off the cameras at night,
11:20
because the guys there really feel confident
11:22
when someone is reporting their story --
11:25
and they feel protected as well."
11:27
So we have a chance
11:30
to create a new future
11:33
in that part of the world.
11:35
We have a chance
11:37
to go and to think of the future
11:40
as something which is open to the world.
11:43
Let us not repeat the mistake of Iran,
11:46
of [the] Mosaddeq revolution.
11:49
Let us free ourselves -- especially in the West --
11:51
from thinking about that part of the world
11:54
based on oil interest,
11:56
or based on interests
11:59
of the illusion of stability and security.
12:02
The stability and security
12:05
of authoritarian regimes
12:08
cannot create
12:11
but terrorism and violence and destruction.
12:13
Let us accept the choice of the people.
12:15
Let us not pick and choose
12:18
who we would like to rule their future.
12:20
The future should be ruled
12:23
by people themselves,
12:25
even sometimes if they are voices
12:27
that might now scare us.
12:29
But the values of democracy
12:31
and the freedom of choice
12:34
that is sweeping the Middle East at this moment in time
12:36
is the best opportunity for the world,
12:39
for the West and the East,
12:41
to see stability and to see security
12:43
and to see friendship and to see tolerance
12:46
emerging from the Arab world,
12:49
rather than the images of violence and terrorism.
12:51
Let us support these people.
12:54
Let us stand for them.
12:56
And let us give up
12:58
our narrow selfishness
13:00
in order to embrace change,
13:03
and in order to celebrate with the people of that region
13:05
a great future
13:08
and hope and tolerance.
13:10
The future has arrived,
13:13
and the future is now.
13:15
I thank you very much.
13:17
(Applause)
13:19
Thank you very much.
13:32
(Applause)
13:34
Chris Anderson: I just have a couple of questions for you.
13:39
Thank you for coming here.
13:41
How would you characterize the historical significance
13:43
of what's happened?
13:45
Is this a story-of-the-year, a story-of-the-decade
13:47
or something more?
13:50
Wadah Khanfar: Actually, this may be the biggest story that we have ever covered.
13:52
We have covered many wars.
13:55
We have covered a lot of tragedies, a lot of problems,
13:57
a lot of conflict zones, a lot of hot spots in the region,
13:59
because we were centered at the middle of it.
14:02
But this is a story -- it is a great story; it is beautiful.
14:04
It is not something that you only cover
14:08
because you have to cover a great incident.
14:11
You are witnessing change in history.
14:14
You are witnessing the birth of a new era.
14:17
And this is what the story's all about.
14:20
CA: There are a lot of people in the West
14:22
who are still skeptical,
14:24
or think this may just be an intermediate stage
14:26
before much more alarming chaos.
14:29
You really believe
14:32
that if there are democratic elections in Egypt now,
14:34
that a government could emerge
14:37
that espouses some of the values you've spoken about so inspiringly?
14:39
WK: And people actually,
14:42
after the collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime,
14:44
the youth who have organized themselves
14:47
in certain groups and councils,
14:49
they are guarding the transformation
14:52
and they are trying to put it on a track
14:55
in order to satisfy
14:57
the values of democracy,
14:59
but at the same time
15:01
also to make it reasonable
15:03
and to make it rational,
15:05
not to go out of order.
15:07
In my opinion, these people are much more wiser
15:10
than, not only the political elite,
15:13
even the intellectual elite, even opposition leaders
15:15
including political parties.
15:18
At this moment in time, the youth in the Arab world
15:20
are much more wiser
15:23
and capable of creating the change
15:25
than the old --
15:27
including the political and cultural
15:29
and ideological
15:31
old regimes.
15:33
(Applause)
15:35
CA: We are not to get involved politically and interfere in that way.
15:38
What should people here at TED,
15:41
here in the West,
15:44
do if they want to connect or make a difference
15:46
and they believe in what's happening here?
15:49
WK: I think we have discovered a very important issue in the Arab world --
15:51
that people care,
15:53
people care about this great transformation.
15:55
Mohamed Nanabhay who's sitting with us,
15:58
the head of Aljazeera.net,
16:00
he told me that a 2,500 percent increase
16:03
of accessing our website
16:08
from various parts of the world.
16:10
Fifty percent of it is coming from America.
16:12
Because we discovered that people care,
16:14
and people would like to know --
16:16
they are receiving the stream through our Internet.
16:18
Unfortunately in the United States,
16:21
we are not covering but Washington D.C. at this moment in time
16:23
for Al Jazeera English.
16:26
But I can tell you, this is the moment to celebrate
16:28
through connecting ourselves
16:31
with those people in the street
16:33
and expressing our support to them
16:35
and expressing this kind of feeling, universal feeling,
16:38
of supporting the weak and the oppressed
16:42
to create a much better future for all of us.
16:45
CA: Well Wadah, a group of members of the TED community,
16:48
TEDxCairo,
16:51
are meeting as we speak.
16:53
They've had some speakers there.
16:55
I believe they've heard your talk.
16:57
Thank you for inspiring them and for inspiring all of us.
16:59
Thank you so much.
17:01
(Applause)
17:03

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Wadah Khanfar - Journalist
As the Director General of Al Jazeera from 2003-2011, Wadah Khanfar worked to bring rare liberties like information, transparency and dissenting voices to repressive states and political hot zones.

Why you should listen

From war correspondent to Baghdad bureau chief to Director General from 2003 until he stepped down in 2011, Wadah Khanfar worked through the closure and bombing of Al Jazeera's bureaus, the torture and murder of its journalists and state propaganda smears. Al Jazeera's approach to journalism emphasizes "re-thinking authority, giving a voice to the voiceless," Khanfar said in an interview with TIME.

No news network has attracted as much controversy as Al Jazeera. Khanfar, in turn, became the lightning rod for dispute on the organization's place in politics, both in its home region and abroad. (In the West, editorials have accused him of sympathizing with terrorists; in his own region, of fanning instability.) 

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