News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Arab Uprisings Shift to Political Struggles

| September 20, 2011

Many of this year’s Arab uprisings are evolving from angry popular revolts into drawn-out political struggles to build democratic systems that will protect basic civic rights and social justice, analysts told a Harvard Kennedy School forum on Monday, Sept. 19.

Rami G. Khouri, an associate in the school’s Dubai Initiative and a prominent Beirut-based journalist, said that in Egypt, citizens have taken to the streets again to challenge the ruling military council not to backtrack from the spirit of the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

“In February and March, you had the birth of Arab citizens,” said Khouri. “What you are seeing today in Egypt is the birth of Arab politics. You are seeing the birth of contestation of power, peacefully by and large, with people in the streets, and the military has been forced to respond… What comes next is the birth of true sovereignty and self-determination.”

The John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, titled “Inside the Arab Awakening,” also included Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a columnist based in the United Arab Emirates; Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization and a fellow at the school’s Middle East Initiative; and Karim Makdisi, a professor at the American University of Beirut.

The moderator was R. Nicholas Burns, Kennedy School professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics and director of the Middle East Initiative in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which co-sponsored the Forum with the Institute of Politics.

Burns asked the panelists to assess the current state of uprisings and protests that have swept up no fewer than 22 Arab countries, from the Gulf to North Africa.

Al Qassemi said Gulf region monarchs had supported protests elsewhere in the Arab world with financing, and had offered support for the NATO military action against the Ghaddafi regime in Libya. But at home, many Gulf monarchs had defused or put down protests. The Sultan of Oman, for example, sacked 15 of 19 cabinet ministers, “so it was very much absorbed quickly.”

Al Qassemi said the government crackdown on protesters in Bahrain had left that small state “like a kettle where the lid has been really tightened.”

Buttu argued that the United States has lost credibility in the Arab region because it has “taken an approach that has been hesitant when it comes to some of the protests, or taken the wrong side on others, as in Bahrain, and it has completely ignored the issue of Palestinians.”

She said that many Arab countries in the past had exploited regional security issues to avoid dealing with demands at home for basic rights. “These countries have maintained external stability at the expense of internal reform. Now it is going to be a question of focusing on the internal and less on the external.”

Makdisi said the U.S. “has lost tremendous credibility in the Arab world” through unquestioning support for Israel and for autocratic regimes. He said the uprisings give the United States “an opportunity to realign, to come back into some kind of middle of the road area … with a little less of that clear divide between who they support and who they don’t.“

Answering a question from the full-house audience, Khouri said the outcome to the rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria will have the most impact on the region because Syria is so connected to so many players and conflicts, from Israel to Lebanon and Hezbollah as well as Iraq and Iran.

“I believe the Syrian regime is in deep trouble, but has a very small capacity to transform itself. Gradually this form of government in Syria is on its way out. The economic screws will be the ones that cause the pillars of the regime to finally collapse. It may take six months, or two or three years. But I think it will happen,” Khouri said.

Khouri, who is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, added that the current Arab revolts offer a rare opportunity not just for Arabs themselves but for governments around the world. “Everybody gets a second chance. If you have acted with a consistent sense of hypocrisy as a foreign power, and there are about 15 or 20 that I can name, you get a chance to do it again.”

“With the United States, we expect a minimum of honesty and clarity on just what does the U.S. support. If it is to safeguard oil rather than citizenship and dignity in the Arab world, tell us, that’s okay. We’ll deal with it.”

He said many Arab states were acting like independent countries for the first time, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations that have been redeploying troops. “These countries are acting like countries instead of protectorates whose policies are dictated by someone else. You not only have citizens but countries being born.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Smith, James F.. “Arab Uprisings Shift to Political Struggles.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 20, 2011.

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