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Middle East Uprisings: Options for the United States

| June 07, 2011

On May 31, the Middle East Initiative and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace co-hosted a half-day conference about the forces shaping the Middle East and the options for the United States.

Included below are summaries of the conference's two panels, as featured on the Carnegie website. Audio recordings of each panel are also available on the Carnegie event page.

The New Protagonists

Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, chaired a panel featuring Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway and Marwan Muasher, and Tarek Masoud, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

A new drive toward reform from the top?

As authoritarian regimes in the Middle East struggle to cope with popular demands for reform, many leaders have introduced limited concessions in an effort to retain power. According to Muasher, sustainable democratic transitions can best be achieved through a process of top-down reform managed by existing political structures.

  • Reform necessary for regime survival: Muasher said authoritarian regimes that are intent on surviving the current upheavals have only two options: either initiate a serious reform process or watch change unfold through grassroots-driven, popular uprisings.
  • A case for top-down reform: Although the mass demonstrations demanding political change have been overwhelmingly driven by young activists, it is unclear what role these movements will play in building new and more democratic institutions in the Middle East. Muasher argued that sustainable democratic transitions are best achieved through a top-down, rather than a bottom-up, process. “The streets are great at starting changes but not at institutionalizing them,” Muasher said.
  • Three regime types: Authoritarian regimes are now displaying one of three major behavioral patterns, according to Muasher. In the first, or “Empire Strikes Back,” model, embattled leaders like Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi have staged violent crackdowns in a desperate effort to neutralize political opposition through violence. A second category of regimes, primarily the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, are trying to “buy time with money” through the allocation of subsidies and other welfare measures aimed at preempting public demands for political change. A third category, exemplified by the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco, is seeking to retain power by promising reforms, such as Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s pledge to amend the constitution and electoral laws.
  • The formula for successful reform: Muasher identified several conditions necessary to achieve serious and sustainable reform. The process must be holistic, going beyond electoral procedures to encompass sweeping institutional changes in the judiciary and executive branches and the implementation of power-sharing mechanisms. Reform must also be inclusive and driven by the interests and demands of all social forces. Muasher stressed that a viable reform process must be “measurable” and punctuated by concrete milestones, performance indicators, and benchmarks that demonstrate meaningful progress.
  • Lessons not learned: So far, no Arab country meets the above criteria, noted Muasher, who was skeptical that stubborn leaders like Saleh and Qaddafi have absorbed the lessons of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. As long as authoritarian rulers continue to surround themselves with “yes men” who assure them that the current upheavals are manageable, regimes will resist implementing serious reforms, he said.

The transformation of the political spectrum

As embattled authoritarian regimes struggle to retain power by relaxing some restrictions on opposition activity, a broad spectrum of new political forces is developing in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Arab world, Ottaway said.

  • Resurgent Islamists: After years of operating underground, Islamist parties such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s al-Nahda Party are taking advantage of the current political opening to seek a greater role in the emerging democratic systems, Ottaway noted. In the 2005 People’s Assembly election in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won an unprecedented 20 percent of the parliamentary seats, largely by mobilizing voters through its extensive patronage and social welfare apparatus. But the Brotherhood is currently experiencing internal schisms that may hinder its performance in the next elections, Ottaway said. Meanwhile, Salafi groups that have historically rejected participation in the formal political process have embraced political activism and are seeking to establish several official parties that may compete with the Brotherhood for its traditional constituency.
  • Weak secular parties: Secular parties are attempting to present voters with an alternative to powerful, well-established Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, but their fragmentation and inability to articulate platforms with broad popular appeal will likely limit their success in elections, Ottaway predicted. At least 60 new secular parties have emerged in Tunisia since the revolution, Ottaway said, but unless these diverse forces can build a unified coalition, they will have difficulty confronting rival Islamist parties that enjoy larger constituencies.
  • The role of independents: In Egypt, where the ruling military council recently announced draft electoral amendments that would allocate one-third of parliamentary seats by proportional representation and the remaining two-thirds through the individual candidacy system, independents will constitute a powerful bloc in the People’s Assembly election scheduled for September. According to Ottaway, many independent candidates possess sufficient popular source and financial resources to run successful campaigns without relying on a party’s sponsorship, and it is unclear what political agendas they may pursue once elected.
  • Lingering regime elements: Despite the dismissal of ministers and key officials affiliated with the ousted regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, elements of these groups have survived the upheavals and will likely reinvent themselves to retain a foothold in the political process, Ottaway said. Many of the institutional structures created by former presidents Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abdine Bin Ali in Tunisia also remain intact, she noted.

Transition in Egypt

Masoud discussed the current political situation in Egypt, which is being driven by intense contests between rival stakeholders. According to Masoud, the military establishment, existing and emerging political parties, and Islamists and secularists are competing to influence the trajectory of Egypt’s democratic transition.

  • Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): Egypt has been subject to military rule since Mubarak’s resignation in February. Since the transfer of power, the ruling SCAF has made a series of misguided policy decisions that have alienated the Egyptian people, Masoud said. For example, in an attempt to accommodate popular demands for legal reform, the SCAF proposed several amendments to Egypt’s constitution, but made the crucial error of failing to involve key opposition constituencies in its decision-making process.
  • Economic incentives for prolonged military rule: Although the SCAF has insisted that it intends to transfer power to an elected civilian government after elections in September, skeptics have suggested that Egypt’s military leadership has strong economic and strategic interests in prolonging its control of the political system. Egypt’s military controls a significant proportion of the national economy—estimates range from between 5 and 40 percent of GDP—in the form of industries that manufacture a vast array of products, ranging from pipes to computers. According to Masoud, the SCAF may fear that relinquishing power to civilian leaders who are responsive to popular demands for economic redistribution could jeopardize the military’s stake in the economy. In addition, Masoud noted that the Egyptian military’s historically cooperative relationship with Israel and the United States has made its leaders wary of emerging political forces that may seek to reconfigure these traditional alliance structures.
  • Countervailing pressures to restore civilian leadership: While the military leadership has economic and strategic interests in retaining control over Egypt’s political transition, it also has strong incentives to relinquish power as quickly as possible, Masoud said. The longer the SCAF remains in power, the more its legitimacy is eroded by continued confrontations between the armed forces and protesters. According to Masoud, the SCAF is currently engaged in a “low-level media war,” interrogating and censoring journalists in an effort to protect its tarnished public image.
  • Behind-the-scenes control: The SCAF’s ideal scenario, Masoud said, is one in which it is able to “reign without ruling” by retaining strong influence over Egypt’s economy and foreign policy while permitting civilian political forces to occupy formal political institutions such as the People’s Assembly. Masoud suggested that the SCAF may favor the Turkish or Pakistani models, in which a relatively weak civilian government is closely supervised by a powerful military establishment.

Options for the United States

President Obama was already grappling with several domestic and foreign policy challenges when a wave of contagious popular uprisings broke out in the Middle East. The administration’s response to the Arab Spring was crafted in the context of competing priorities: the challenge of managing simultaneous land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an increasingly assertive Iranian regime, international terrorism, climate change, and an economic recession. Carnegie’s Nathan Brown chaired a panel exploring U.S. policy options with Nicholas Burns and Stephen Walt of the Harvard Kennedy School and Carnegie’s Christopher Boucek.

Assessing Obama’s response to the Arab Spring

Burns defended the Obama administration’s reaction to popular uprisings in the Middle East against critics who claim that the president did not act quickly enough to support democratic change.

  • Obama’s response to Egypt: Burns identified Egypt as the Arab world’s “keystone state” and a core U.S. interest that the Obama administration must prioritize. When massive anti-government demonstrations erupted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, critics were quick to assail the Obama administration for failing to immediately withdraw support from Hosni Mubarak’s embattled regime. However, Burns argued that these criticisms were largely unjustified, noting that Obama explicitly endorsed the demands of street protesters only three days after the initial Day of Rage on January 25.
  • Cautious intervention in Libya: Burns defended the Obama administration’s initial hesitance to authorize a military intervention in Libya, arguing that Libya—unlike Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—does not represent a “vital” U.S. interest. Burns cautioned against excessive American involvement in the Middle East, arguing that “the U.S. is not responsible for most of the shortcomings in the Arab world” and should not seek to engineer the outcomes of the current upheavals.
  • Selective engagement: Burns argued for a policy of selective engagement, in which the United States intervenes decisively in countries representing vital economic and security interests while exercising restraint in more strategically peripheral states. This policy will inevitably force the Obama administration to make difficult tradeoffs between supporting human rights and democratic principles and preserving crucial economic and military relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia, which differ on American policy perspectives, such as gender equality.
  • Weighing democratic principles against security threats: The United States has historically maintained alliances with authoritarian Arab regimes that provide valuable counterterrorism assistance, and Boucek cautioned against straining these vital strategic relationships for the sake of promoting democratic change. While gradual political reforms are necessary to guarantee the long-term stability of authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, it is unrealistic to expect dramatic changes in the short term, Boucek said. Aggressive democracy-promotion efforts in the Gulf could destabilize a political status quo from which the United States derives substantial economic and security benefits, in addition to creating a political vacuum that would strengthen extremist elements. Al-Qaeda has already taken advantage of the deteriorating security situation in Yemen to consolidate its ability to operate in the fragile state, which is regarded as a sanctuary for terrorists.

New strategies for engaging the Middle East

For decades, the United States has exercised influence in the Arab world by engaging its governments through the “traditional levers” of the Defense and State departments, according to Burns. As grassroots movements give rise to new governments that are more responsive to popular demands for reform, Burns and Walt both argued that U.S. policy makers must seek alternative mechanisms for shaping the trajectory of democratic transitions, including economic assistance and popular diplomacy initiatives to engage Arab publics.

  • Investing in models of success: The stakes of Egypt’s democratic transition are particularly high, Burns said, in light of its size and stature as a cultural and political “keystone” in the region. If the revolution succeeds, it will inspire parallel progress in other reforming countries. However, Burns warned that failure in Egypt could “crush hopes” across the Middle East, and urged U.S. policy makers to mobilize political support and economic assistance for Egypt.
  • The urgency of economic assistance: The panelists stressed that an immediate infusion of foreign assistance—in the form of debt relief, development aid, and investment—is needed to guarantee the success of democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia and prevent imminent state failure in Yemen. Walt said the Obama administration has taken a positive step by promising assistance to Egypt, but the $2 billion aid package announced on May 18 is only “a drop in the bucket” in the context of Egypt’s gaping budget deficit and plummeting levels of foreign investment. In Yemen, Boucek said that an increasingly violent standoff between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and street protesters demanding his resignation has pushed the fragile Gulf state to the brink of “an economic meltdown of cataclysmic proportions.”
  • Resuscitating the peace process: Walt and Burns both argued that a lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is an obstacle to democratic transitions in the Middle East, but they differed in their prescriptions for restarting negotiations. Burns called for renewed American leadership on the peace process while Walt argued that the United States has been discredited as a neutral mediator and suggested that European leaders take the lead in restarting peace talks.
  • Beyond a security-centric approach: The United States has traditionally relied on military and diplomatic channels of influence to pursue American interests in the Middle East, but Burns pointed to the limitations of this traditional, “security-centric approach.” As the authoritarian status quo gives way to popular democratic movements, Walt agreed with Burns that U.S. policy makers must learn to engage with the region’s citizens, not just its leaders. This will entail crafting U.S. policies that are “more congenial to Arab publics,” Walt said.
  • Keeping an eye on Iran: Burns argued that Iran continues to pose the greatest short-term threat to U.S. interests, and the United States must develop a strategy—whether based on containment or more offensive tactics—to prevent Iran from rebalancing the regional status quo in its favor. Walt also identified Iran as a growing threat to regional stability but warned that “ratcheting up the threat level” by sending offensive military signals will not persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations, and called for “thinking more creatively on the diplomatic front.”
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Janka, Noelle. “Middle East Uprisings: Options for the United States.” News, , June 7, 2011.

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