Arab Uprisings and Mass Politics: Constraints, Change, Uncertainty

March 29, 2013 // 10:00am11:30am

Laurie Brand, Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California, presented her paper, “Arab Uprisings and Mass Politics: Possibilities, Constraints, and Uncertainty,” which explores forms of greater mass political participation in Egypt and Jordan and their implications for foreign policy in the region. This meeting was the third in a series of five joint meetings with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) assessing the new dynamics reshaping the Middle East.

On March 29, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and USIP hosted a meeting, “Arab Uprisings and Mass Politics: Constraints, Change, Uncertainty,” with Laurie Brand and Steven Heydemann, Senior Adviser of Middle East Initiatives at USIP. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Brand argued that an increase in popular political participation in Egypt and Jordan has led to marked shifts in each country’s regional alliances but has done little to disrupt their longstanding external alliances. Arab leaderships, whether new or old, are not behaving based on popular demands but, rather, by their desire to consolidate power, given the challenges and constraints posed by the Arab uprisings. Thus, she noted, Egypt and Jordan’s relationship with the United States and Israel has remained intact.

With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the country has attempted to assert a more central and independent role in the Middle East. Yet, as Egypt faces a grave economic crisis and as Morsi struggles to consolidate his power, there has been more of a continuity than a marked shift in Egypt’s relations with the United States and Israel. Jordan is similarly experiencing shifts in its regional alliances, primarily as it faces a strained relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and as the monarchy has pursued new policies towards the West Bank. Yet, despite these regional shifts, Jordan’s military relationship with the United States remains strong.

Steven Heydemann provided commentary on Brand’s paper, reiterating her assertion that the regional security environment in the region has shifted. However, he added that these power dynamics have been further shaped by other constraints as well, including rising sectarian tensions as well as increased U.S. military presence, among others. Focusing on Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, Heydemann stressed the fact that, with the exception of Libya, there has been a high degree of continuity in critical strategic foreign policy issues. In Egypt and Tunisia, we see Islamists coming to power and embracing the policies of their predecessors, even though they had spent decades opposing these policies when they were a part of the opposition.

In his concluding remarks, Heydemann offered three possibilities to account for these foreign policy continuities: that these continuities demonstrate the limits of mass politics especially in effecting foreign policy; that perhaps there has been a triumph of interests over ideology and the former opposition find themselves bound by the same constraints as their predecessors; or this is simply an interregnum after which the new regimes will make broader changes to their regional and international configurations once they have successfully consolidated their power. 

By Darya Razavi, Middle East Program

5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Event Speakers List: 
  • Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations, Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, University of Southern California
  • Vice President, Applied Research on Conflict, United States Institute of Peace
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