Democratization and Conflict in the Arab World: Challenges, Opportunities and Dangers

By: 
Thomas Omestad and Gordon Lubold

The mass protests seeking democracy and rule of law in the Arab world—amid the hope for change—have also produced an array of uncertainties, the likelihood of setbacks and the need for difficult policy choices by U.S. officials, the specialists addressing a United States Institute of Peace (USIP) conference on May 4 said. The event was co-hosted with Georgetown University.

May 10, 2011

The mass protests seeking democracy and rule of law in the Arab world—amid the hope for change—have also produced an array of uncertainties, the likelihood of setbacks and the need for difficult policy choices by U.S. officials, the specialists addressing a United States Institute of Peace (USIP) conference on May 4 said. The event was co-hosted with Georgetown University.

THERE WILL BE “SETBACKS” – Michael H. Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, told the conference to expect a “highly unpredictable” course of events, with “some clear setbacks.” Posner said the movements reflected widespread desires to break up old systems that have remained closed politically and unable to produce sufficient economic opportunity. “It’s important for us to bear in mind these twin aspirations—these legitimate demands within these societies,” he said. Posner acknowledged that, with varying U.S. national security interests at stake in the countries hit by turmoil, “There are ways in which we calibrate the responses”—including the way in which U.S. views are presented publicly. However, Posner expressly criticized the Bahraini government’s crackdown on protesters and opposition activists, saying the actions would impair future prospects for dialogue. “It’s important for us to be clear-voiced in saying there has to be change,” Posner said. “We’re headed [in Bahrain] in a very negative direction.”

At the same time, Posner cited the struggle in Libya and efforts to push Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi to relinquish power to caution against excessive expectations of what the United States and other outside nations can accomplish. “We’re in the middle of a messy transitional period,” he said. “We frankly don’t have the ability to control it.”

WILL DEMOCRACY SOLIDIFY IN THE ARAB WORLD? – Protesters from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere have seized on the hope that democratic values could become the norm in places long ruled by monarchs and dictators. Some countries can pull off reform by themselves. Some need help. “We must assist the region’s democrats to form their own new democracies,” USIP’s Dan Brumberg said at the event.

KEEPING THE MOMENTUM GOING – Some of these opposition movements, like that in Egypt, have been successful. But many groups have yet to develop the tools to govern or nurture the expansion of the rule of law. The opposition movement in Egypt was successful in removing then President Hosni Mubarak, for example, but now it must shift more substantively into the next phase, said Peter Mandaville, a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff. “It has been difficult to translate the social capital that brought down Mubarak that now does not translate” to something resembling a political process, Mandaville noted.

“THERE IS LEVERAGE IN THIS MOMENT” – USIP’s Brumberg said the international community must not only support democratic movements, but “vigorously” push regimes to adopt reform that is more than just superficial. “If you want to keep ahead of the curve, here’s what you should do: there is leverage in this moment, and you have to use it.”

WHAT TRIGGERS REGIMES TO FALL? – Despite everything that has happened in some countries, experts agree that the authoritarianism that kept regimes alive has not itself been eliminated. “I think it is important to keep in mind that the transformations you’re seeing in the region are by no means complete,” Steven Heydemann, USIP’S senior vice president of the grants program, said. “It’s far too early to predict the disappearance of authoritarianism.” And academics who developed theories about the “durability of authoritarian regimes” have an obligation to reassess what they got wrong. In analyzing what has occurred over the months, Heydemann says it’s easy to understand why authoritarian regimes failed. It’s much harder to understand how. “The conditions were known,” he said. “Translating those conditions into a set of triggers is a process that remains very mysterious.”

USING SOCIAL MEDIA – Social media, said Mandaville, should be used not just to topple dictators, but to “harness the aspirations, wisdom and experience of populations to shape their political and social futures.” A second panel during the May 4 conference, led by USIP’s Sheldon Himelfarb, focused entirely on social media and its role in the wave of rebellion.

WHEN OLD MEDIA IS DISSED – From a media perspective, part of what has occurred across the Arab world is a function of the way in which “old media” has been regarded by various regimes. And when those traditional media outlets are ignored, social media empowers people on the ground to unite. “When traditional media is not respected and is perceived as either lying or not being a reflection of reality, social or online media flourishes,” said Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies’ Dina Shehata, who spoke at USIP’s Washington headquarters by Skype. Now, she joked, it’s difficult to have a conversation with someone in Egypt in which they aren’t simultaneously tweeting.

A LEAP OF FAITH – There are limits to the role social media can play in a rebellion – people must ultimately go “offline” to discuss, network and organize. But for now for many, it’s still a question of taking that leap of faith that it’s OK to click. “For some people, it was incredibly difficult to click the ‘like’ button,” said Georgetown University’s Adel Iskandar, “to break that barrier of fear.”

PARTICULAR CASES – Regional specialists focused on the obstacles facing the democracy movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain—including what USIP’s Mona Yacoubian called the “starkly illustrated differences that have characterized the Arab Spring.”

  • Egypt. Samer Shehata of Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies cautioned that despite Egypt’s “tremendous progress,” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that is governing the country through its transition “is not necessarily a progressive, democratizing force.” He added, “New red lines have been put in place in terms of what can be said, what can be criticized.” Shehata predicted that the youthful protesters who led street protests in Cairo and elsewhere will likely be “underrepresented” in forthcoming parliamentary elections this September. The Muslim Brotherhood, though experiencing internal challenges, will likely be “the single largest bloc” emerging from the elections.
  • Tunisia. Georgetown’s Noureddine Jebnoun argued that the transition to democracy is lacking serious investigation of past human rights abuses of the police and other security forces. “Reconciliation and reform of the security sector must go hand in hand,” he said.
  • Bahrain. Toby Jones, Middle East specialist at Rutgers University and author of the Peace Brief "Counterrevolution in the Gulf," criticized the Bahraini crackdown on the opposition as “a political vendetta,” adding, “What the regime is pursuing is not a political solution but retribution.” Like Posner, Jones warned that Bahraini actions would make political peace more difficult in the long run. “The regime is pursuing the destruction of its political interlocutors,” Jones said. And by framing the conflict in Sunni-Shiite terms, he said, “It creates, rather than eliminates, the possibility of radicalization on sectarian grounds.”

U.S. FOREIGN POLICY – The panelists examined some of the foreign policy issues arising from the Arab Spring. J. Scott Carpenter, a former Bush administration official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, singled out Saudi Arabia, criticizing its change-resistant role in the Egyptian transition and its policies toward Syria and Bahrain. “We have a major problem with Saudi Arabia. We don’t share a lot of interests,” Carpenter said. He also called on the Obama administration to “stop leading from behind in several instances.”

PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI CONFLICT – Robert Malley, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, said that the Arab Spring had exerted little impact on prospects for Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. “It’s hard to make it more dead than it already is now,” Malley said. He also noted the relative lack of protest among Palestinians in connection with turmoil elsewhere in the region. “You could say they’re the dog that didn’t bark,” he said. Malley also predicted that “Iran…will emerge as a loser in these new dynamics.”

A TEST FOR THE EU – Gilles Kepel, a Middle East specialist at Sciences-Po in Paris, said that Europeans had come to the fore on the Libyan situation, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and not Washington, as usual, having taken the lead role in pushing for an allied intervention. “This is the other way around,” he said. “This is clearly a major test of the European Union.”

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