I was recently asked to review FPA’s Great Decisions episode on the Arab Spring, featuring columnist Mona Eltahawy and Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and also featuring short comments from key foreign policy professionals like Madeleine Albright, General Michael Hayden, Robert Malley and Carl Gershman.
U.S. Policy and ‘dictatorial stability’ paradigm
The first part of the debate focuses on U.S. policy record of supporting Middle Eastern dictatorships based on a mirage of ‘dictatorial stability’ at the expense of democracy and human rights. Eltahawy and Hamid both criticize US policy for its support for these dictatorial regimes, together with the American policy narrative of ‘Arab exceptionalism’; the theory that democracy couldn’t take root in the Arab countries because Arabs have a tendency to, and historical legacy of rallying around authoritarian figures. Both commentators agreed that even though the Arab Spring transition phase may be long-term, messy and chaotic, there is sufficient evidence from the Libyan and Egyptian cases that Arabs have the potential to self-govern in a democratic system.
It is my personal opinion that Madeleine Albright’s comments on the Arab Spring were more realistic and levelheaded, in the sense that she was the only expert to talk about these uprisings essentially as a ‘non-American’ event. She refuted the claim that the Arab Spring is similar to the Central and Eastern European uprisings of 1989, indicating that there is no yearning or desire towards the West in this case and is a genuine Arab event, projecting the Arab consciousness.
Arab Spring and the danger of militancy
The second part of the debate focuses on Prof. Shibley Telhami’s view that the Arab uprisings have a potential to turn militant if their desires don’t translate into concrete democratic outcomes. Eltahawy argues that the Arab majority seeks peaceful change and reject militancy, yet give the example of Yemen and Bahrain whose people have been pursuing their democratic demands peacefully for years, but are being ignored by the United States due to her strategic relationship with both countries. Hamid also agrees that if peaceful demonstrations don’t yield results in recognition of these demands, there will be a risk of protesters taking up arms to force change.
Then, the debate flows into U.S. role and what American foreign policy can do about the Arab Spring. Hamid argues that the United States have some responsibility for the post-Arab Spring period, since it was the U.S. policy of supporting Arab dictators that created the problem in the first place. He further argues that the Obama administration should take a more radical, bolder approach against these dictators. Eltahawy asserts that people in the region have no tolerance for U.S. military action especially after Iraq – rather, she posits that Libyan case is different than the Iraq case as the U.S. was in the back seat of a multi-national intervention taking place through an international organization; NATO. With regard to the Syrian case however, Eltahawy maintains that the U.S. must listen to the world and act upon what is asked from the American leadership about the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Post-uprising system, views towards the U.S. and Israel
The final part of the debate concerns what will happen once these uprisings succeed in creating more democratic administrations. Hamid warns that the post-uprising Arab governments will not be particularly U.S.-friendly, since if these governments are going to be some sort of democracy, they have to channel some of the anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments dominant in their constituencies. Eltahawy also warns that following so many years of supporting dictatorships in the Middle East, the United States will at best get a cold shoulder from the revolutionary leadership and their prospective governments. Rather than looking at the post-revolutionary Arab political systems as ‘either Muslim Brotherhood or not’, Eltahawy calls the U.S. to prepare for a more representative, complex political system.
With regard to how these post-revolutionary governments will view Israel, Eltahawy suggests that they will represent the predominant Arab hatred towards Israel. However, she maintains that the Arabs don’t hate Israel ‘just because’ and that the view of Israel rests mainly on its occupation of Palestinian land. Eltahawy also posits that the more right-wing Israeli governments get, the more they will feed into the Arab hatred and that this will shape post-Arab Spring governments’ outlook towards Israel. Yet she also argues that the hatred of Israel has become a domestic diversion tactic for the Arab governments, who have a tendency to blame Israel for everything going wrong domestically. Similarly, she exposes the Israeli tendency to blame everything wrong with their foreign policy to the ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalism’ of their opponents. Eltahawy and Hamid both agree that the US has a role to play because of its relationship to the militaries of the Arab countries (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) as well as due to its financial leverage.
This is the first part of my post, briefly explaining the debate and positions presented in this particular episode. Next week, I will post an entry with my analysis of the program, as well as the Arab Spring in general.