While visiting Washington, DC this past week I attended the annual conference of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank, held at the Willard Hotel off Pennsylvania Avenue. The conference touched on a broad range of security-issues, from cyberwarfare and cybersecurity to the wind-down in Afghanistan, but the most relevant panel for our interests was the opening discussion, entitled “Revolution in the Middle East: Democracy and the Digital Domain” (the full conference will be available here at some point). Despite the title of the panel, any attempt to stay within the digital domain quickly became a broad discussion of the Middle Eastern uprisings in general, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our panelists were:
Andrew Exum – CNAS Fellow, former US Army officer, and author of the counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawima
Richard Fontaine – CNAS Senior fellow and former foreign policy advisor to John McCain, he has held senior positions with the State Department, National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Shadi Hamid – director of research at the Brookings Institute in Doha, Qatar, and former director of research at the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy
Dr. Colin Kahl – Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, currently on leave from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
The whole thing was moderated by Karen House, a former publisher of the Wall Street journal with a strong interest in Saudi Arabia. You can check out the panel yourself if you’re interested, but I’ll try to provide the executive summary here, pulling out a few key trends that ran through the discussion.
Role of the Internet and Social Networking Technology
In theory, this was supposed to be the focus of the entire panel, likely to coincide with the Center’s new research publication on fomenting democracy in the Middle East (available here) by promoting Internet technologies. I am been skeptical about casting the events in Tunisia and Egypt as the “Twitter revolutions” or the “Facebook revolutions” – there is no doubt that social networking sites helped link people up and get information out, but at best they were a catalyst (in the chemical sense) for the reaction of stagnant economies, ballooning demographics, corrupt regimes and political repression. Thus, it was edifying to see the panelists broaden up the discussion from the get-go.
Still, Internet organizing warrants a mention. The only panelist to cover this in depth was Richard Fonatine, who was largely silent for the rest of the panel’s time on stage. Though even he admitted that the Internet could in no way be seen as a “cause” of the revolution, he pointed out that the tools employed by protesters through social media such as Twitter, Facebook, flickr and other websites helped bring the demonstrations together with amazing speed. Appropriately enough for information technology, the major use of Internet tools was in the spread of information – getting out photos and stories, telling demonstrators where to meet, making contact with media groups and so on. Fontaine also highlighted the role of social media in creating a “shared sense of opposition” among protesters – 1000s of attendees on a Facebook event might not get the same number to show up, but at the least it helped show people in Egypt, Tunisia and now other nations that they would not be along in voicing their protests.
Of course, these tools cut both ways. Fontaine also went over efforts by various regimes to turn these tools of technology back against the protesters. Though no other regime in the region has yet aspired to Egypt’s dramatic multi-day complete shutdown of the Internet (since filing of this article, Syria has risen to the challenge), Tunisian security services cracked open Facebook accounts to sow discord and gather information on the opposition. Syria allowed Facebook into the country at the outset of unrest, apparently banking on less tech-savvy users logging on and providing the government with easier access to protester’s networks.
Karen House turned to Brookings Doha analyst Shadi Hamid for a quick overview of the institutional causes of the revolutions. In short, the revolutions of the region should not have come as a surprise, given the oppression of the regions rulers and the economic stagnation faced by the peoples of the region. The only surprise should have been an American foreign policy establishment that came to view the authoritarian regimes of the region as being somehow immune to these factors: it is clear now that nothing lasts forever, not even the Pharaonic rule of Hosni Mubarak.
Political Islam and Islamic Extremism
The panelists had a lot to say about Al-Qaeda, or more precisely its absence, in the revolutions of the Middle East thus far, along with a broader treatment of political Islam in the region, particularly Egypt. Whenever the subject came up I was jabbed in the side by the security consultant next to me, who spent a decent amount of time trying to convince me that Salafi groups were the same as the Muslim Brotherhood, telling me that the Muslim Student’s Association at Brown University was an extremist organization (to which I actually started laughing – when I hang out with them they usually talk about Indian soap operas), and audibly inserting quotation marks around the word “Democracy”. But I digress.
As Andrew Exum put it bluntly, “Al-Qaeda has been weakened.” While there are now a few worrying signs coming out of Yemen, by and large Al-Qaeda has sit these developments out, watching years of violent jihadist rhetoric be swept to the margins by mass movements of citizens demonstrating against existing regimes. Dr. Kahl of the Department of Defense noted the “delicious irony” of Osama bin Laden spending his last weeks on months on this earth watching the revolutions of the Arab world from afar, playing no part in the uprisings founded more on the basis of universal values and civil society than on the medieval Islamic fundamentalism that bin Laden espoused.
Still, this is not to say that we are witnessing a vast movement towards secularism in the region. While I believe the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups will moderate, rather than intensify, their views over time (in contrast to my seating partner, who had all but started a countdown to an “Ikwan Brotherhood” government), they still represent a powerful force in Egyptian politics at this point, and likely other countries in the region. Hamid outlined an Islamist coalition between various Brotherhood groups and Salafi organizations that could capture a majority of seats in the new parliament. Large majorities of the population support a government based on Islamic principles, and a legal code with a basis in Islamic law. He stressed, though, the non-violence of the Brotherhood groups and the deep divides between the Brotherhood and Salafi fundamentalists, as well as the sheer hatred between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda. In outlining the challenges the Mmuslim Brotherhood posed for the United States, though, Hamid’s major point was a lack of communication – the United States has no well-developed channels of communication with key members of the Brotherhood, despite the fact that the group is poised to be a major player in the new Egyptian government, whatever policy-makers back in the United States would desire. It’s all well and good for US State and Defense officials to speak of developing closer ties to the governments of the region, but you can’t exactly create a relationship with an abstract entity.
The US Role in the Region
Examining the US role in the Middle East provoked some soul-searching, a decent amount of side-stepping, and some verbal sparring. Dr. Kahl kicked off the panel discussion with an overview of US priorities in the region, noting the difference between prospective and retrospective views: prospectively, revolutions look impossible, while retrospectively they look inevitable. While this unfortunate irony is certainly true, it was disappointing that Kahl did not give a more in-depth examination of this maxim with respect to America’s relationship with the governments of the region. Clearly, the United States is faced with difficult strategic decisions: the Middle East is a geographic gateway for the United States at the nexus of 3 continents, checkered with allies, less-than-allies and outright enemies who control huge reserves of oil. Still, calling to negotiate a “pragmatic way forward” does little to suggest a corresponding in US government thinking towards the region.
The usual challenges to US interests and strategy were picked up by Kahl’s presentation. Whenever the current round of unrest dies down, the United States will be looking at a strange new political landscape: new regimes in at least Tunisia and Egypt, the potential for change in a handful of other states, and different policies from those regimes that manage to survive (or so we hope). This builds more uncertainty into the system, but the US must respond differently according to its strategic interests, reassuring its allies while pressuring for reforms even as we stand for universal values throughout the region (Syria, anybody?). Iran, too, will come under pressure for trying to exploit the situation for its own benefit, even if it isn’t directly responsible for the uprisings.
Still, this leaves a lot of holes, many of which were poked at by Shadi Hamid. It’s all well and good to speak of different treatment for America’s allies and enemies – fair enough. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to decide just which is which, though. Hosni Mubarak was a strategic partner in the region until just a few months ago, and even in the midst of the January 25th Revolution Vice President Joe Biden obligingly informed reporters that the former Egyptian President was “not a dictator”. Ben Ali of Tunisia was a key US ally in the War on Terror (even the lack of Al-Qaeda activity in Tunisia was due largely to there never being any in the first place). Even Muamar Ghadafi’s image had undergone something of a rehabilitation in recent years, before his crimes in Libya managed to involve the United States in a NATO-led war that will soon result in an interesting examination of the War Powers Act.
Beyond this, though, by limiting discussion of America’s involvement to the “Arab Spring” itself we miss out on the broader history of involvement. I understand why Dr. Kahl said that the Revolutions were “not about the United States” – nobody was out burning the American flag in front of the US embassy in Tunis or Cairo, with the focus of most demonstrators set squarely on their respective regimes. Yet this is not to say the US has played a part in shaping the regimes that spawned the uprisings. The US government has supported the Egyptian regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak ever since the former made peace with Israel, and there have been handsome rewards for America’s strategic allies in the region as well. Yemeni protesters post pictures of US government equipment prevalent among the forces loyal to President Saleh, from Hummer trucks down to Camelback water pouches. While some commentators are quick to congratulate the US on easing the transition of Mubarak out of power, and I don’t mean to detract from the significance of that decision, that should obscure the fact that American influence can in no way be divorced from the movements shaping the region.
The Way Forward
I realize I’ve been droning on for some time now, so I’ll wrap up my account shortly. As Hamid pointed out, “The ‘Arab Spring’ is by now something of a misnomer”. While the events that were kicked off this past January and February have certainly been amazing for a region that hasn’t known such broad changes since the end of the colonial period in the 1940s and 1950s, we have not seen the wide-ranging change that this trite title would suggest. Out of about 20 countries in the region, we’ve seen two successful removals of the ruling regime (Egypt/Tunisia), one civil war drawing in Western involvement (Libya), and arrested, stalled-out, or ongoing efforts in a number of other countries in the region. While the US response has at generally encouraged these movements rather than directly opposing them, it is clearly limited by how it outlines its strategic interests, particularly in the Gulf region. As much as the United States leans on its allies in the Gulf and tries to persuade them of the value of effective reforms in quelling growing unrest, persuasion can only go so far.
There was little discussion of the internal politics within the Middle East. Even Egypt and Tunisia, which experienced as successful a revolution as could be hoped for, both face a long, hazardous road strewn with pitfalls in converting the energy and enthusiasm of revolution into an effective, reformed, democratic state. Yet compared to Libya, bereft of some of the most basic institutions that define a modern state, that road looks like a walk in the park. The United States will be facing an Arab people and Arab States increasingly vocal about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and not merely as a distraction from internal policies. If countries such as Egypt truly start to play hardball with the United States on the world stage, then the reality of American policies will have to catch up the the rhetoric of American Presidents and politicians faster than it ever has.
Written by Andrew Lieber, a student at Brown University