U.S. officials will need to show both humility and patience for years to come as they try to assist the nations of the Middle East and North Africa that have cast off decades-old authoritarian governments and are only beginning a rough and uncertain transition in their political systems and economies, a Capitol Hill audience was told at a February 16 briefing organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).

U.S. officials will need to show both humility and patience for years to come as they try to assist the nations of the Middle East and North Africa that have cast off decades-old authoritarian governments and are only beginning a rough and uncertain transition in their political systems and economies, a Capitol Hill audience was told at a February 16 briefing organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).

“You don’t know where the plane is landing,” said Ambassador William B. Taylor, special coordinator for Middle East transitions at the State Department, using an aviation metaphor to describe the challenges and uncertainties in the changes underway in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. “We’re not flying these planes. We’re giving advice to the pilots.”

The briefing was the second in a series arranged by USIP through a partnership with the Defense Education Forum of the Reserve Officers Association and was held at ROA headquarters. Taylor, who was USIP’s senior vice president for conflict management before he was detailed to the State Department last September, was joined by Ellen Laipson, the president and CEO of the Stimson Center, and Steven Heydemann, USIP’s senior adviser for Middle East initiatives.

The panel underscored the depth and complexity of the transitions. “Getting rid of leaders turned out to be the easiest part of this change,” said Heydemann. “In every case, the scale of these challenges…poses a significant problem for the United States.”

Taylor reviewed the issues confronting Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, emphasizing they each face differing conditions as they start to build institutions that can sustain democracies and healthy economies.

He focused much of his remarks on Egypt, a longtime ally and recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. aid, and, in particular, on a burgeoning dispute over the military-led, transitional government’s crackdown on some international and Egyptian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Nineteen Americans and 24 other foreign as well as Egyptian NGO workers are facing criminal prosecution for allegedly operating illegally in Egypt. The Americans have been barred from leaving the country, and some have taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The case is widely seen as a reflection of nationalist desires to demonstrate Egypt’s independence from a longtime benefactor, but it is triggering anger and suggestions of an aid cut-off on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. government would like the Americans ensnared by the dispute to be free to travel out of Egypt. Said Taylor, “They’ve done nothing wrong.” He called on Cairo to act. “The Egyptians have a big responsibility now to fix this current problem,” he said. “Everything we do on assistance to Egypt depends on solving this NGO problem.” He rejected rumors in Egypt that the United States was urging Arab nations to not support Egypt’s transition and called some of the allegations emerging from the NGO case, particularly over a map characterized as possible evidence of wrongdoing, “craziness.”

Separately, Taylor noted that Congress had included in legislation the requirement that State certify the Egyptian authorities are progressing on a set of key goals, such as transferring power to civilians and freedom of association, speech and religion, as conditions for future aid. Taylor said State for now is not able to make those certifications and is “not looking at the [legislation’s national security] waiver at this point.”

On Libya, Taylor said, the country’s transition will be supported by its major oil and gas resources, with Libyan energy production expected to reach pre-revolution levels later this year. The Libyans, he said, have set an ambitious schedule for holding initial elections in June, to be followed by the drafting of a constitution and the creation of new legislative and executive authorities. With Libyans unaccustomed to democratic norms after decades of the Qaddafi dictatorship, “it [new institutions] all has to be created from scratch.”

On Tunisia, Taylor expressed cautious optimism. He noted that the newly victorious Ennahda party did not run on “Islamist values” but rather on such priorities as fighting corruption and improving public services. Ennahda is now in coalition with a secular party.

Laipson of the Stimson Center also sounded notes of caution about the transitions. “The euphoria and the optimism we felt a year ago have morphed into something that is many more shades of gray,” she said.

As these societies adapt to their new political freedoms and question policies of the past, Laipson argued that their relationships with the U.S. government will face new strains. “The parties in the region are really struggling with their attitudes toward us,” she said. “We are not now the most credible or accepted partner in this period of transition.” U.S. officials may put forward useful policy suggestions, she said, but “the receptivity isn’t quite right.”

Consequently, Laipson argued, to the extent possible U.S. aid in the region should be delivered through NGOs and civil society groups, including USIP, that do not make a heavy U.S. government imprint. “It doesn’t feel like it’s the project of a foreign government,” she said. “The political dynamic works better.”

Laipson also suggested that U.S. policy will need to show flexibility—for instance, accepting that in some cases local armed militias might be accepted and drawn into a national security system rather than disarmed and shut down altogether.

Echoing some of Taylor’s sentiments, Laipson said that the politically successful Islamists so far are emphasizing efforts to promote fairness in society and better government, not religious restrictions. She said their initial victories at the ballot box are “not necessarily a repudiation of secular government,” nor do they necessarily represent the political consensus that will develop over the long run. But the secularists in these countries also need to adapt to the more open political environments arising from the uprisings—including talking directly with the Islamists--in order to remain a relevant political force.

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