Beyond the Arab Spring: U.S. Engagement in a Changing Middle East @WilsonCenterMEP

PITAPOLICY is live-blogging ast in the series, of U.S. Engagement in a Changing Middle East from the Wilson Center. The panelists consider how a range of domestic and regional changes in the Middle East have generated new challenges for U.S. diplomacy. This event is co-sponsored with the United States Institute of Peace and is the 6th and final in a series of presentations on “Reshaping the Strategic Culture of the Middle East.”  The panel is moderated by Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.

Steve Heydeman, US Institute for Peace: As we enter the 4th year of the Arab uprisings, the picture has changed–and not for the better.

  • We’ve seen a steady erosion of democritization in Arab countries
  • Note the Freedom House Scores since 2000: None have reached ‘Free’ status
  • Look at political cartoons in Egypt and Algeria: eg. “Vote for Bouteflicka: Alive or Dead”
  • There are elements of continuity of corporatist politics with some troubling models: a trend towards more repressive and authoritarian governance
  • With this authoritarian upgrading,  policy responses produces economic impact.
  • We’ve seen dramatic increases in public spending to offset discontent.  Tripling of public spending in Jordan since 2011.
  • A shifting away from Western countries and the aid dialogue because Arab transition countries raise concerns about conditional aid.
  • Different external actors impacting certain countries, like Russia in Syria, a further reconfiguring of diplomatic, political, economic and strategic relationships have insulated regimes from sanctions.

Where have we arrived after 3+ years since the Arab uprisings?

1) Both responses have emerged to show that Western pressure for democratization is not working.

Daniel Brumberg, Senior Adviser, Center for Middle East and Africa, United States Institute of Peace; and Co-Director, Democracy and Governance Studies, Georgetown University
  • Reflected on Security Resolution 1973 and R2P and how it was used in Libya; while Morsi in Egypt jumped on the bandwagon of authirotiarian leaders
    • As Arab Spring entered its 3rd year, we saw a downturn.
    • At same time, Russia did play a supportive role in the Iran nuclear talks of 2013 to produce a final agreement.
    • Tunisia still presents good news.  Despite ideological divides, they passed a constitution.
  • Back to the downside, Russia has an opportunity to advance further with Egypt given U.S.-Egypt military shuffle. (Note Brumberg’s Freudian slip of”crowning” Al-Sisi as president)
    • Increased strengthening of global authoritarian leaders helps Iran, in that Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, depends on the assumption that there is a high amount of unity among the P5+1 players.

 Danya Greenfield, Acting Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, The Atlantic Council

Among the 3 panelists, Greenfield presenting a more optimistic interpretation because there is still a fundamental lack of clarity of what the US interests are in the region…

  • Optimistic about results because the metric of democratization wasn’t clearly articulated by the US–citing President Obama’s 2013 UN General Assembly speech: 1) countering insurgencies, 2) nonproliferation, 3) free flow of energy, and 4) countering terrorism.  No where did Obama state ‘Democritization’ as a fundamental goal.   In contrast, Russia, China, and Iran have articulated their agendas–which may explain why they have been more successful in exerting their influence in the region.
  • How important is a successful transition in the Arab world?  Is it vital to US interests?  If so, then how will we coordinate with our EU partners?
  • US posturing in Ukraine incident paints a better picture of how US acts according to core interests; whereas, in Egypt, US was not actively engaged because core interests were not articulated and acted upon…
  • 4 Reasons why MENA region fallen off US priorities:
  1.  Global financial crisis,
  2. Transitions have proven more difficult “bumpier”,
  3. Harder to implement a strategy when there’s less interlocuters or institutions in Arab transition countries
  4. Increased participation and rise of other regional players, like Saudi Arabia.
  • Meanwhile, EU concerned about extremists crossing over borders.
  • What’s the cost to US interests?


1) Audience member argues that US is depressed about the Arab Uprisings because we expected change…assuming that change would shift power away from military.  Only two countries where change has taken place: Yemen and Tunisia.  Other than that, there hasn’t been a power transition.  (Note: Heydemann agreed Yemen & Tunisia succeeded in getting change to take place AND agreed that there is confusion as to how that happened given that less success in other transitioning countries.)

2) Heydemann:  Growing popular fatigue with the instability in trying to wrestle power away from the authoritarian rule…or even ‘deep state’ politics where military is still the driving force.

3) Mystery of China’s role in the Arab Uprising.

4) There is US ambivalence about the Saudi Arabia financial role in Egypt and its less than democratic vision for Egypt.  The Saudis are unhappy with the US regarding Syria and Iran.  President Obama’s visit to Saudi was more about damage control rather than prioritizing Egypt.

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