A panel of experts discussed perspectives and policy implications of this year’s unrest in the Middle East, pointing out key observations and implications for the United States.
On July 19, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, “Arab Spring or Arab Winter (or Both)? Implications for U.S. Policy,” with Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Ambassador of Jordan to the United States and Deputy Prime Minister; Ellen Laipson, President and CEO, The Stimson Center; Rami Khouri, Former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut; and Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Laipson, feeling that the term “Arab Spring” is seasonal and does not take into account the need for “continuous conversation and assessment,” focused on the enduring effects and issues of the uprisings. Overall, she said, there is a “net positive for the region,” because despite uncertainty about what lies ahead, there is now greater room for questioning and challenging existing policies. She also noted that this is a “time of global transition,” in which the United States’ regional influence is diminishing relative to other powers, but that American “soft power” – via cyberactivism and opposing corruption – can still have an effect in the Middle East. In addition, Laipson pointed to the need to open discourse with areas that are not reforming and work within established institutions to address persistent security concerns.
Joining the panel from Beirut via Skype, Rami Khouri lauded the “most important moment in the modern Arab world.” In particular, he saw the “birth of the Arab citizen” as a major development, one that allows individuals to obtain rights and respect while “relegitimizing” government institutions through compromise and negotiation. In this context, there can be open politics and policies defined by the people; this political climate does not leave much room for U.S. policy. Khouri stated that one should not ask what the Arab Spring means for relations with Israel, Islamists, or Iran, but look to what individuals hope to gain from newfound freedoms. He argued the best thing the United States can do is serve as a model by “behaving democratically.”
Muasher, also recognizing that change in the Middle East will be largely from within, moreover cautioned that foreign policymakers should not expect to see immediate further progress. Even though events are slowing down in Tunisia and Egypt, the “loss of the feeling of powerlessness,” especially among youth, will push along the process. Muasher also pointed out that America cannot ignore or exclude political Islam; by engaging with it, the U.S. can help ensure that Islamism is peaceful and “committed to political pluralism.” Like Laipson and Khouri, Muasher felt that the United States can play only a limited role otherwise, but can still encourage stable reform in countries that have not yet seen major protests, support local power-sharing, and continue efforts in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Miller hailed the “once in a century” events that have generated assertions of identity, freedom, and space, noting that the balance of “cans and cannots” in the political arena has changed, lending it a “new degree of authenticity and genuine ownership.” However, he also emphasized that the transformational changes witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia have become transactional, requiring bargaining and power-sharing. Although he agreed with Khouri that the U.S. would benefit from being consistent in its approach on democratic reform and human rights, Miller found this course extremely unlikely given that “we choose our democrats.”
By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program
- Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Ambassador of Jordan to the United States
- President and CEO, The Stimson Center
- Former Public Policy Scholar
- Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar
- Public Policy Fellow, Middle East Program