It has been roughly a year since the tumultuous events in North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab uprising occurred. Authoritarian regimes have fallen or been forced to compromise, while the Muslim Brotherhood and related parties have flourished.
President Obama, perhaps anticipating the turmoil to come, reached out to the Muslim world, particularly the Brotherhood in June 2009 in Cairo:
“America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
Essentially, the President is betting that the Arab world will learn democracy by doing it.
To get a better understanding of what these events mean to our national security, the Reserve Officers Association’s Defense Education Forum together with the United States Institute of Peace has conducted two parts of a three part series on the uprisings and the challenges of reconstruction. We also hosted a program on the same general topic together with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The following are some of the comments made during these programs by speakers and other participants, together with other observations about what the future holds for these countries and their relationship with the West.
It was noted that it might be more appropriate to refer to the uprisings as the Arab Awakening, not the Arab Spring. With this awakening will come all four seasons and it will vary from country to country. It will also take a long time to sort out the impact. There is no guarantee of success as we might hope for: democracy and stability. Some transitions will fail: Egypt’s military might not give up power to civilian/democratic control; militant Islam might prevail. Many governments may evolve into being hostile to the U.S. and our policies. There will be many Islamist parties, but one should not despair just because of the name of these parties. The true test will be if they are agents of change and reform and assume a role in governance that is practical and benefits the mass of the people.
In whatever way the governance structures of the Arab world evolve, the United States needs to be supportive. We have substantial experience through USAID, NGOs, assistance from the business and academic communities, and support funneled thru international entities (such as the IMF). We can assist transitioning countries economically, politically, and at least expose them to Western values and traditions such as freedom of the press and rule of law.
It is essential that the regular population sees the benefits of economic reform, not just elites. Earlier efforts to assist in the economic sphere were not accompanied by political change that may have provided checks and balances. This led to corruption and benefit for the elite with few trickle down benefits. The Arab “street” could initiate change, but institutional change will take a long time. Time must be used wisely to do more than engage in minimalist projects; serious reform efforts must begin that show demonstrable results and benefits. An example of failure is when we did not support a revolution is Iran. It became one of our biggest security threats for three decades.
Islamists are not devils and they are not monolithic. However, political Islamists are almost all part of the Muslim Brotherhood or affiliates of it and are likely to prevail in elections – as they have done thus far in Egypt and elsewhere. We will simply have to live with this result and try to work with them. To state the obvious, they are not committed to pluralism and neither were their predecessor secular parties. The big fight over the next decade will be whether pluralism gains some kind of a foothold in government, institutions, the economy, and in social perspectives. Will people have the right to be different? To organize? To share power? Will women have basic rights? Only time – and support from the West demonstrating the benefits of this approach to the mass of the people – will cause the Arab spring to blossom.
Although the Arab world will be dominated by Islamist parties, we must engage with them. We must show them the benefits of dealing with the West (tourism in Egypt), financial support (especially for Egypt), and that an open system with pluralism can lead to better lives and stronger countries. Even if Islamist parties dominate, a modest minority (about one in four across the Arab world) have democratic inclinations and might be considered moderate Muslims who understand the benefits of a good relationship with the U.S. and West. They understand that the people of Iran were the big losers of their revolution and they do not want to emulate them. We need to keep hope alive for this segment of the Arab world.
Comments on other specific countries included:
Algeria – The nation will have elections this spring and it is likely that Islamist parties will prevail.
Egypt – Where the Brotherhood won a plurality of seats in recent parliamentary elections, the country was cascading toward economic collapse in early February. The country’s foreign reserves had dwindled from $43 billion to $13 billion and its credit rating had been downgraded repeatedly. Interest rates on government issued debt stood near 15%. But the Brotherhood, most secretive and distant in the past, have responded with what some have labeled a “charm offensive”. They have met with leading Western bankers, companies and institutions to include J.P. Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, General Motors, GE, oil and gas producers, and the IMF. A loan package from the IMF is expected within weeks with the blessing of the Brotherhood and this is likely to stave off economic collapse. Contrast this with Brotherhood’s Deputy Supreme Guide going out of his way to be critical of the U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson. This, together with the recent closing by the government of Western NGOs and detention of their staff, accused of destabilizing the country and receiving illegal foreign funding, reflects a low point in U.S. Egyptian relations. It has resulted in some Members of Congress questioning continued military assistance to Egypt.
Israel and the Palestinian issue- Pessimism was expressed about the possibility of the “two State solution.” The Administration is not likely to be pushing hard for any solution during an election year. It was generally felt that the possibility of achieving a peaceful solution was dwindling. Neither Israel nor Palestinian leaders appear interested in pursuing a peace agreement, however, the chance for ultimate peace may well be thwarted if the gains made on the West Bank are not built upon. In the lands controlled by Israel, the population of Arabs and Jews is about equal.
Iran - Progress on their development of nuclear weapons must be turned back and if another election is conducted we must aggressively support the Iranian street.
Iraq - The U.S. went into Iraq because we saw it as a threat to us and to the region. We did not go in to Iraq to establish democracy but given a choice to have strongman replace Hussein or democracy, we picked democracy. They have problems for sure, but they are trying. They should not be considered a model because of the way the transition occurred – but they still might become a model of Middle Eastern governance if they succeed.
Libya - The country is blessed with substantial oil resources and can fund its own reconstruction if asset freezes on its accounts – estimated to be $100 billion – are loosened and sanctions against its central bank lifted. Oil production has returned rapidly and should reach pre- revolution levels before the end of this year. Ongoing efforts are underway in gathering up arms of various types and attempting to integrate the various militias, police, and army. Elections are likely for June, although given Libya’s total lack of a history with democratic processes, what will happen is open for speculation. Certainly within the ranks of the rebels that overturned Qaddafi may also be jihadists.
Morocco – Calls for change still exist; an Islamist party won fall elections, but King Mohammed VI is popular and Morocco appears stable.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan – All had rumblings but appear to have stabilized under their current leadership.
Syria – It is only a matter of time until Assad is gone, but at a tremendous cost in lives. The more fighting occurs (and the rebels have the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood), the less likely a democratic result will come about.
Tunisia – Fall elections appeared to be fair and led to a coalition government being formed (with the Islamist Ennahda party dominating) that will control who the next leader of Tunisia is. Critical will be at least retention of the rights of women that they enjoyed prior to the revolution.
Turkey - Its secularist state has historically not been viewed favorably by Arab countries. However, with its growing antagonism toward Israel, Arab countries now have a different view toward Turkey. More Arab states now view the Islamist party in Turkey of third term Prime Minister Erdogan and its Islamic gradualism as a possible engine for reform and perhaps a model for them. But it should also be noted that Erdogan has been quoted as saying “democracy is a train where you can get off when you reach your destination.” The West is told what it wants to hear about moderate democratic elections, but the web of sharia is poised to close.
Yemen – The ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda has long had a strong presence there.
What about Islam and its overlay on the Arab awakening? Islam simply is the most important fact about the Arab world. Samuel Huntington noted “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism; it is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture.” Islam has hegemony in the Arab world and we must be careful not to see it through a Western lens. The Arab spring or awakening did not change Islam. Muslims do not measure themselves against our perceptions. They may need us in the short-term, they may engage in accommodations with us, they may seek our financial support, but nothing suggests a fundamental change in the overall precepts or cause of Islam. Taking leaders of at least some Islamic countries (Iran) and movements at their word, that cause is the implementation of sharia law, the return of the “Caliphate” and Islamic dominance.
Getting rid of authoritarian leaders may have been the easiest part of the Arab Awakening – in Egypt it took weeks; in Libya, months; Syria has no end in sight. But what the societies left behind have differing legacies of economic decline, political corruption, and stunted societies. An Egyptian Brotherhood leader reflected on this when he stated recently “We’re all blinking and rubbing our eyes, like the Chilean miners. To adapt to this takes time and we don’t have time.” The scale of the problems creates extreme challenges for which we will need patience and a strategic perspective.
We must make clear to the Arab world that we – the West – are on the side of the awakening and we must offer assistance. We must strive to encourage pluralism in the transitioning nations of the Arab world; after some aspect of that is achieved, we can move on to thoughtful discussions about our differences. Again, patience and a strategic perspective are required.
While being supportive we must also avoid deluding ourselves that Islamists will overnight become practical, reasonable, governors of their States. The Arab awakening certainly had elements of striving for democracy and freedom, but it was also largely driven by hatred of the secular authoritarian regimes that governed. Islamist parties and policies are certain to dominate the political terrain of the Middle East and North Africa for the intermediate future – and it will be that way because the people of that area wish for Islam to be ascendant. The West will have to balance its support and engagement with these States in the face of what is likely to be strong anti-American policies of these States together with a growing sentiment against Israel. We must engage – but do so with our eyes wide open to the both the stated and unstated goals of the Islamist leaders.