In a period of tremendous change in parts of the world, we are asking USIP leaders, from board members to senior staff and experts, to explain the effects that events abroad and here at home will have on the United States, and the contributions the Institute can and does make. Steven Heydemann is USIP’s senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives.

This past year offered fresh proof that the world we live in is ever dynamic. Fundamental change can come from something as extraordinary as a fruit vendor’s act of defiance in Tunisia to popular revolts by reform movements across the Middle East. At the same time, a decade of war and the weak U.S. economy dictates that there must be new ways to think about the role the U.S. will play in the world in the coming years.

We asked USIP leaders, from board members to senior staff and experts, to explain the effect that events around the world and here at home will have on the U.S., and the contributions the Institute can and does make during a time of tremendous challenge – and opportunity.

Steven Heydemann serves as USIP’s senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives. He is a political scientist who specializes in the comparative politics and the political economy of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Syria. His interests include authoritarian governance, economic development, social policy, political and economic reform and civil society. From 2003 to 2007, Heydemann directed the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. From 1997 to 2001, he was an associate professor in the department of political science at Columbia University. Earlier, from 1990 to 1997, he directed the Social Science Research Council’s Program on International Peace and Security and its Program on the Near and Middle East.

After a year of extraordinary change in the Arab world, driven by the seemingly spontaneous popular outpouring of accumulated economic and political grievances across the Middle East, it is still far from clear where the region is headed.  As 2011 ended, however, some broad trends had begun to take hold that shed light on the regional environment the United States will confront in the year ahead. These trends include the emergence of newly empowered Islamist actors in North Africa and Egypt, the emergence of Gulf states as the driving force in inter-Arab diplomacy and the deepening of sectarian tensions across the Middle East.

The transformations started by the Arab uprisings of 2011 will take years to unfold.  Can you identify some of the broad trends that will define the region’s strategic environment in 2012? 

One of the most significant trends to emerge from the Arab uprisings is the rise of Islamist political parties across North Africa.  Over the coming year, it is highly likely that we will see democratically elected governments dominated by Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Libya. This trend is hardly unexpected: Islamists have long been recognized as the best-organized opposition groups in the Middle East, and they benefit from significant popular support. In the coming year, however, as Islamist parties take up the reins of power, political life will increasingly be dominated by competition among them, especially between mainstream parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and less well-established but more radically fundamentalist Salafist parties. This competition is already evident in Egypt and Tunisia, and is percolating below the surface in Libya. The competition among Islamist parties will extend into the region, too, with differences among ruling Islamist parties becoming more visible. In addition, questions of minority rights and women’s rights will loom large as newly empowered Islamist parties take steps to align government policies with their socially conservative and religious perspectives.

How is Washington prepared to deal with this new environment?

As diversity in Islamist politics grows in 2012, especially in North Africa, the United States is not well-positioned to respond.  It has been slow to adapt to the rise of Islamist parties and governments.  If it wants to influence the trajectory of Arab uprisings, it will need to come to terms with political actors it has long characterized as antagonistic to U.S. interests, and to address head on the continued perception in the Middle East that America is hostile to Islam and to Muslims. The good will generated by President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech needs to be renewed and translated into concrete policies, if the United States hopes to stem the erosion of its influence in the Middle East in the coming year.

Have the uprisings affected regional dynamics more broadly?  

They have helped consolidate a second important trend in the Middle East: the Gulf states becoming key drivers of inter-Arab diplomacy. I’m referring to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, to some extent, the United Arab Emirates. Qatar played an outsized role in the Libyan uprising and remains deeply engaged in Libyan affairs. Saudi Arabia has leveraged its financial resources to gain influence in Egypt and exploited its dominant position in the Gulf to enhance the role of the Gulf Cooperation Council and position it to more effectively contain and manage the impact of popular protests on friendly monarchies in Jordan and Morocco. 

Saudi Arabia has also been the prime mover in the uncharacteristically sharp Arab response to the Syrian uprising. It has successfully encouraged Gulf governments to break diplomatic ties with Syria and has used the Arab League—an organization notable mainly for its lethargy—to increase pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad by suspending Syria’s membership and imposing economic sanctions on it.

What are some of the impacts on U.S. policy?

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been deeply strained by the Arab uprisings. Saudi Arabia had a role in the suppression of protests in Bahrain, and the Saudis have built close ties with Islamist movements in Egypt and elsewhere that Washington views with mistrust. In addition, Saudi policies have amplified Shia-Sunni tensions in the region: both its hostility toward peaceful protests in Bahrain and its support for regime change in Syria--a country led by a minority Alawite regime and allied with Iran.  

Intensified sectarianism does not bode well for U.S. interests, including its commitment to the consolidation of inclusive, pluralist democracies in the region. And the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, negative perceptions of the United States among many Arabs and the rise of Islamist parties together put the United States in a difficult position from which to counter the growing diplomatic power of the Saudis and other Gulf states in the rest of the Arab world. In 2012, the American impulse to support transitions to democracy in the Middle East may well find it hard to gain traction.

As we enter 2012, the Syrian uprising is becoming increasingly violent.  The United Nations says that more than 5,000 Syrians have died since the uprising began last March.  What should we anticipate for Syria in 2012?

The coming year is likely to prove decisive for the Syrian uprising. But I am not confident that we have reached a tipping point for the Assad regime. While it is increasingly difficult to imagine that the Assad regime will survive, we’ve seen other cases in which embattled regimes hang on for some time in the face of concerted diplomatic and economic pressures. Even though the opposition is increasingly turning to armed resistance—after months in which peaceful protesters suffered a brutal onslaught from the Assad regime’s security forces—the balance of military power still heavily favors the regime. It is hard to see how the armed resistance might succeed in toppling the regime, absent the fracturing of the senior officer corps or external intervention. Neither of those scenarios seems imminent.  

What the U.S. and its partners are hoping is that the resistance can be sustained long enough to give sanctions time to erode the regime’s capabilities and domestic support. Whether sanctions will have these effects, however, is not clear. Syrians are already experiencing significant economic pain. Will further economic hardships really induce those who still support the regime—or the much larger number of fencesitters--to defect to the opposition? Moreover, Iraq and Lebanon have declined to support the sanctions, and Jordan has expressed reservations about implementing them to avoid damage to its own economy. Sanctions alone probably don’t hold the key to the future of the Assad regime.

What about this broad coalition in support of regime change in Syria?

Right now, the United States, European powers, Turkey and much of the Arab world are working together to support the Syrian opposition, but who can say how long this coalition will last if it becomes clear that the Assad regime can hang on for some time? 

The Arab League has already pulled back from its threat to refer Syria to the U.N. Security Council for additional sanctions. The longer the regime survives, the more likely it is that we’ll see further erosion of the League’s commitment to regime change in Syria. Both the United States and Turkey would find that a very troubling development, because it would leave non-Arab states to take the lead on Syria.

If Syria gradually descends into civil war, outside powers could feel less constrained from intervening in the Syrian uprising on humanitarian grounds--which are already more than justified. Such intervention could take many different forms, from establishing safe havens along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan to covert support for the armed resistance (the Free Syrian Army). Any of these steps would greatly increase the odds that 2012 will see regime change in Syria.

What does 2012 hold for USIP’s work on Arab transitions?  

In some countries, notably Libya, Yemen and Syria, uprisings have been accompanied by very high levels of violence. Post-authoritarian transitions will require a focus not only on building the institutions and norms needed to sustain democracies, but on all of the complicated issues associated with post-conflict reconstruction. That includes economic stabilization, security sector reform, transitional justice and building the rule of law in societies that have seen little lawfulness for decades. These concerns bring the Arab uprisings squarely within USIP’s core areas of expertise. The Institute has a lot to offer as the peoples of the Middle East assume control over their own futures for the first time in modern history. We expect to be deeply engaged in providing these societies with assistance that reflects what they themselves see as important, and where our efforts will strengthen local institutions. 

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    USIP leaders explain the effect that events around the world and here at home will have on the U.S., and the contributions the Institute can and does make during a time of tremendous challenge – and opportunity.


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