“Political Islam is a fact of life,” former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday, talking about the revolutions that have swept the Middle East. But “we can’t lose hope,” she cautioned. “We’re not going back in time. Democracy is all about helping people claim their rights.” On a day when mass protests in Cairo showed the determination of many Egyptians to hold on to their newfound freedoms rather than surrender them to a government that is dominated and a constitution that is dictated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Rice said, “I know it looks chaotic in the Middle East, but we have a lot of arrows pointing in the right ways.” Whole societies are feeling their way, painfully and with many pitfalls, toward democracy.
Rice made her remarks in a wide-ranging conversation with Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor Tina Brown at the first Women in the World conference held outside the United States, in São Paulo, Brazil. Moments earlier, Egyptian blogger and activist Dalia Ziada had declared in a recorded interview that women are “the watchdogs of the revolution.” People like Ziada, said Rice, “are the real heroes of the Arab Spring.”
Rice’s assessment of the situation in Syria, however, was bleak. Given the way President Bashar al-Assad is treating his people, and the possibility raised by the Obama administration that the Syrian dictator might think about using chemical weapons, “there may be some room for diplomacy, but we’re running out of time,” said Rice. (Fighting in Syria intensified on Tuesday as the government in Damascus blamed rebels for a mortar attack on a school that killed 29 people, most of them children, and the United Nations warned of a widening humanitarian catastrophe.)
Rice did not recommend military intervention in Syria. But she called on the Obama administration to step up efforts to build and support a coherent opposition to the Assad regime not only for now, but for after the dictator falls, which she said she is certain will happen.
In the Bush administration’s first term, Rice fought an uphill battle and finally failed in her efforts to make her colleagues focus on what would happen in Iraq once the American-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. In the second, she pushed what came to be called the Freedom Agenda promoting democratic processes and values throughout the Middle East.
The one-day conference in São Paulo explored issues affecting women, and profoundly affected by women, around the world. Speakers included Marcela Martínez Sempértegui, whose daughter was abducted in Bolivia by what appears to have been a network of human traffickers. But there was also fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, talking about her mother’s survival of the Holocaust and the way she won her own independence as a entrepreneur. The first woman rear admiral in the Brazilian Navy spoke. So did two senior women cops who are fighting to tame the favelas. Marin Alsop, the American woman conductor of orchestras in both São Paulo, Brazil, and Baltimore, spoke of her complicated relationship with her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. “He was proud and conflicted,” she said.