Breaking the Historic Taboo

In the Hebrew calendar—13 Nissan 5781—is the day observant households burn all remaining traces of bread in preparation for the Passover Holiday. On the Julian calendar, however, March 26, 2021 should formally be rebranded as Israeli Groundhog Day, when the beleaguered Israeli Elections Commissioner certified the results of an election that was just as deadlocked as the three before. 

By most accounts, the 25th Knesset, elected on March 23, 2021, will be little more than a parking lot for the 26th. The anti-Netanyahu block gained the numerical advantage this time, but its seven parties are too riven by ego and ideological divisions to have a snowball’s chance of forming a viable coalition. At the same time, Benjamin Netanyahu is still two seats shy of a coalition even if he can coax his erstwhile protege, Naftali Bennet, back into his coalition. As coalition negotiations commence, there is already talk of the next election. 


Unless, in the spirit of Passover, a desperate Netanyahu does something that would make this election different from all others and invites another ultra-religious party opposed to gay marriage into his coalition—Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am party.

Chances that  the other ultra-religious anti-gay party in Netanyahu’s camp will accept to sit in a government with Non-Zionist, Palestinian Arabs, are slim. But, shattering this singular taboo in Israeli politics is not only Netanyahu’s best and possibly only hope for evading judgement in his pending corruption trial, it may just be the only way for Israelis to escape their perpetual election loop. 

More Fractured than Ever

The results of the March 23, 2021 election confirm that a majority of the Israeli electorate is exactly where they have been for over a decade: firmly divided between those who want a center-right government led by Netanyahu, and those who want a center-right government led by someone else. In such situations, Netanyahu will always have the advantage, even as his personal liabilities mount.

 First, as architect and engineer of the Post-Oslo consensus, Netanyahu’s challengers must demonstrate their commitment to the central tenets of his vision while simultaneously arguing why they should replace him. Second, unlike his challengers, he is not hamstrung by principles or commitments to particular ideological positions in forming a viable coalition. 

Case in point, while Netanyahu is demonstrably secular, he has learned to live with the persistent demands of Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two ultra-orthodox parties in his coalition. Bibi continues acquiescing to these parties’ proposals on budgets and their routine non-compliance with secular rules and regulations as long as it keeps him ensconced in the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour street.  

In contrast, while the parties in the anti-Netanyahu block largely agree on the imperative of limiting the influence of the ultra-orthodox rabbinate in society, they struggle to bridge fierce disagreements on how to approach the conflict with the Palestinians.

Yet, even if they could find a way to paper over their ideological differences, there is still one barrier that makes it all but impossible for the parties in the anti-Netanyahu block to build a 61 seat coalition—the taboo against forming a government that includes parties representing the Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

Since 2009, if not before, there haven’t been enough votes in the center or center-right to forge a coalition that doesn’t include either the two ultra-orthodox parties or the Non-Zionist Arab parties. The days in which a center-left coalition of Labor and Meretz (a green, left-wing political party) could forge a majority with a small number of centrist parties are  not only long gone; they never actually existed. 

In 1992, when Labor had its strongest showing since the 1970s, and Meretz swelled to twelve seats, the late Yitzhak Rabin still needed six seats from Shas, a Haredi religious political party, to form a government. He was forced to rely on the tacit cooperation of the three Arab and Non-Zionist parties to ensure the passage of the Oslo agreements. After 1996, neither party ever recovered. 

This time, the parties of the traditional Zionist left managed to claw back a few seats from the center, not by championing the pursuit of peace, but caterwauling over the fate of Israel’s democracy.  While this strategy saved both Labor and Meretz from electoral oblivion, it did little to shift the political center of gravity. On the contrary, the opposition is more fractured than ever. Other than Yesh Atid, none of the parties in the so-called “Netanyahu block” won more than eight seats and most came in at seven. 

A Taboo Solution

Despite holding a numerical majority, a governing coalition depends on shoehorning together parties with ideological and policy differences. Such parties would also need to accept that their leaders will most likely not rise to be Prime Minister. 

Unless, of course, the parties of the center and the left are willing to form a government with the two Arab parties, which is something none of them—not Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Labor or even Meretz were willing to consider. Rather than risk being dubbed a radical leftist, which Netanyahu was already more than willing to do, Benjamin Gantz allowed himself to be duped into believing he could save Israel from a fourth election if he broke his campaign promises. In March 2020, he took his Resilience faction into a narrow unity government with Netanyahu as Prime Minister. It did not. 

Despite that humiliation, each of Netanyah’s challengers somehow believed embarking on the exact same strategy with the exact same electorate would yield a different result. The hope was that Netanyahu’s cozy relationship with the ultra-orthodox parties would put a dent on his popularity in the working-class neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic lockdowns prolonged by defiance in the ultra-orthodox communities. 

And by all accounts they were right. Likud had its worst showing since 2015, in no small part due to rising frustration with Netanyahu’s brazenly self-serving style of governance. But a final victory would have required a ten-plus seat gutting, equivalent to what Labor suffered in 1996 or 2009, to allow the possibility of a centrist right party coalition forming the government.

Instead, the most likely outcome, anticipated by pundits and pollsters alike, was either deadlock, or a narrow right wing government that included the new Religious Zionist political bloc. The Religious Zionist bloc is an arranged marriage between three small parties on the fascist fringe of the settler movement. 

Netanyahu believed this bloc would boost his overall majority and drain seats from Bennett’s Yamina party, which had not formally committed to join his government. 

For a while, it looked like Bibi had pulled it off, and the story of the day would be Netanyahu’s tenacity and the amount of damage his quest to stay out of prison would inflict upon the Israeli judiciary. But the polls didn’t hold. 

Even with the six seats won by Religious Zionism, Netanyahu would need one more seat than those won by Yamina to clinch a majority. And that deficit makes it less likely he will be able to cajole Bennett into coming home. 

The perennial phoenix of Israeli politics now has three options for survival. 

The first, and most palatable, is to coax a few members of defector Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party back to Likud. Sa’ar’s adamant assertion statements that no members of his party will sit with Netanyahu is a good sign those conversations have already taken place and not gone well for the Prime Minister. 

Second, The second option is to accept defeat, and run out the clock to the next election as a caretaker Prime Minister. However, that strategy is even riskier than the last time around. Netanyahu’s personal negatives are becoming too apparent and the opening of the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial in the coming weeks is likely to mean he would have to campaign as a criminal defendant with his dirty laundry part of the daily headlines. 

That leaves Netanyahu with the third option of taking a step no Israeli leader has been willing to take do since the founding of the country and round out his majority with four seats from Mansour Abbas’s Islamist Ra’am Party, which broke with the Joint List over, you guessed it, concern that the impact of a secular agenda was having a negative influence on the morals of young people in the Arab-Israeli sector. 

While unlikely, it is possible that like Begin returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt at Camp David, only Netanyahu has the capacity to break this historic taboo and a rightist Israeli PM (Bibi) will embrace the far right Palestinian Ra’am to create a functioning if not deeply disturbing Israeli and Palestinian ruling coalition. 

If Netanyahu does not take this step, the deadlock of recent years will continue.

Leading Israel into an Empty Future

Most media covering yesterday’s Israeli election outcome declared the result a stalemate. Some have begun talking about a fifth election (the fifth in the past two years!) if there is no clear winner.  But they may be wrong.  Like the famous escape-artist, Harry Houdini, Benjamin Netanyahu may yet escape from the jaws of defeat with his power and political career renewed.

He has several potential paths to forging a governing coalition. The paths may be narrow (each for different reasons) but they present him with far more options than the anti-Bibi forces have.

With 98% of the vote counted, Netanyahu has 59 votes if one includes both the Kahanist Religious Zionism and Yamina parties (Betzalel Smotrich and Naftali Bennett respectively). He will therefore need to add another party to offer him a majority.

Three Ways Forward

I see three options in order of likelihood: first, adding Gideon Saar’s New Hope party and its six seats, which offers a comfortable 65 seat majority.  Saar broke away from the Likud party to form his new faction.  Though there is bad blood between him and the prime minister, ideologically the former is closest to Likud.

Second, adding the Palestinian Raam party which, in the course of twelve hours, was raised from the dead (i.e. failing to cross the threshold) to be a kingmaker, with a potential four seats. This would be a complex maneuver, since it’s unlikely Raam would formally enter the coalition. 

Instead, Raam would likely follow the path set by previous Palestinian parties which collaborated with old Labor in the days when Labor was the dominant national party. This would mean that Raam would abstain from voting against the government, while not sitting in the cabinet. In return, Netanyahu would offer Raam various blandishments and benefits. Given that the party is based among Bedouin communities in the South, this might include funding for infrastructure in communities like Rahat.

A Raam/Bibi coalition might include the agreement of the Israeli government to ease off the Judaization of the Negev at the expense of existing Bedouin villages, which have been destroyed to make way for Jewish colonists. However, even a tacit alliance with Raam could be rejected by a number of Likud allies, who would object to any form of “cohabitation” with Arabs.

The third option would be to bring Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party back into the coalition, as it was in the last government.  Of course, Gantz would be foolish to do so since his desertion of his colleagues to join the cabinet the last time around is what decimated the center-right anti-Bibi forces in this election.

Yet, never underestimate the magnetic attraction between politicians and power. The chance to wield real power is not only an aphrodisiac, it leaves Israeli politicians helpless to resist. Gantz abandoned Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid after last year’s March elections to become defense minister. Gantz had also expected to become Prime Minister in a rotation agreement, but he and everyone knew Bibi would never have honored this agreement. There is no reason to suppose that given the chance Gantz would not bolt from his side and ally with Bibi again, despite the absolute havoc the decision wrought last time.

There is one wild card common to most of these options.  

Every possible partner has a long history of bitter enmity with Netanyahu, who is notorious for mentoring political partners only to cast them out when they threaten to become rivals. Thus, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett (who both served as Bibi’s chief of staff) and Gideon Saar share deep hostility and mistrust of the prime minister. 

Whether or not Netanyahu’s rivals can overcome their animosity with the Prime Minister to cut a deal with Bibi to be part of a Netanyahu-led government is an open question. But one thing is a constant in Israeli politics: values and principles are always sacrificed at the altar of expediency. It is one of the factors contributing to the cynicism with which Israeli voters greet these never-ending election cycles.

There is virtually no chance for the anti-Bibi coalition to coalesce into a coherent force. There are too many disparate elements running from secular nationalist (Lieberman) to religious (Torah Judaism) to Yesh Atid (secular centrist).

There was one bright spot in this otherwise dark political landscape. Israeli Palestinian filmmaker, Ibtisam Mara’ana, running seventh on the Labor list, will enter as an MK.  She is only the third Palestinian woman elected to Knesset from a non-Palestinian party.

Far-right Knesset members sought to disqualify Mara’ana from running due to a statement she had made nine years ago that she did not stop driving as is customary among Israeli Jews during the Memorial Day to honor Israel’s Jewish war dead, presumably because she felt conflicted over the fact that  the suffering of Israeli Palestinians is ignored. The Supreme Court reversed her disqualification. Now she will become a Palestinian MK.

The Shadchan Craters the Joint List

Despite the bitter enmity Netanyahu arouses in his Israeli critics and analysts like this author, we have to give him credit: Bibi is a master political tactician. He knows how to cobble together a hodge-podge of disparate parties with conflicting interests into a governing coalition. He knows how to win elections Israel-style. He is like the old Chicago ward bosses who managed to bring together poor Black people, white Polish Catholics, and liberal white professionals into a city-wide machine.

Netanyahu did two “brilliant” things in this election. First, he served as shadchan (matchmaker) for a union made in political heaven. Bibi joined two separate Kahanist factions led by Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Together Smotrich and Ben-Gvir formed Religious Zionism, and if the bloc enters a new government formed by Netanyahu, it would be the most extremist political bloc ever to enter an Israeli ruling coalition. 

Bibi facilitated this union of far rightists because he knew there were conservative voters disgusted with his corruption who joined the protests in the streets. He recognized there were voters to the right of Likud who needed an alternative. Religious Zionism became that option. 

In the election and afterward, Bibi has sweetened his offer to bring Religious Zionism into his governing coalition by promising Ben-Gvir and Smotrich cabinet portfolios, the sine qua non of power in Israeli politics. If this new ruling coalition occurs, it will mark the first time outright Kahanists and sympathizers (such as Ben-Gvir)  have ever served as coalition partners of a ruling government. Netanyahu’s ploy has worked like a charm and Religious Zionism earned six seats in this week’s election.

An equally clever tactic was to cultivate Raam and encourage it to break away from the coalition of Arab Parties of Israel, the Joint List, which it had joined for the past two elections.

As stated earlier, Raam is an Islamist party based in the Bedouin communities of the Negev.  As such, it holds fundamentalist views against issues like LGBTQ rights. The other Palestinian parties are largely secular and have, if not embraced, at least tacitly supported gay rights and other issues Raam considered anathemas. 

Bibi promised Raam he would shower funding on its constituents and offer increased police presence to combat a violent crime wave. This was all Raam’s leader, Mansour Abbas, needed to hear as Raam broke away from the Joint List.

Another tactic that worked well for Netanyahu was to approach the Palestinian electorate differently than he had in past elections. 

Instead of demonizing Palestinians living in Israel, calling them a Fifth Column, and complaining that Palestinians would swamp the polls seeking to destroy Likud, Bibi spoke about the Palestinian minority in honeyed tones. He called himself “Abu Yair” in election ads and explained away the racist Nation-State law which eviscerated minority rights, as solely intended to eliminate “infiltrators.”

This change of tactic effectively eliminated the greatest motivator among the Palestinian electorate: fear. Without Likudist racism as a campaign threat, Palestinians (already suspicious and cynical about the political process) stayed home. This drove the Joint List vote total down from nine seats currently to six. A disastrous outcome to be sure, but just what Bibi had hoped for when he whispered the Palestinian vote into a stay-at-home slumber.

Netanyahu’s One Fatal Flaw: A Lack of Vision

While Bibi may be a master tactician, I didn’t want to convey the mistaken impression that my “admiration” for him as a tactician is unrestrained. Bibi lacks one fundamental quality that all great leaders must have: a vision for the future. 

The leaders we remember have a program and devise a strategy to achieve it. They employ a varied set of tactics to achieve their overall goals.

Bibi has none of this. He has no vision for the nation. He has no political program. Instead, Netanyahu cobbles together proposals from his far-right partners and permits them to be presented to the Knesset. If a bill arouses fierce controversy, he backs down and tables it. Otherwise, full steam ahead with his Judeo-supremacist agenda. 

Everything Bibi does is with the goal of currying favor with various constituencies to remain in power, rather than having a coherent way forward to lead this seminal country.

This extends to foreign policy as well. The Prime Minister has no plan for Israel’s future except one that offers continual conflict and war. He has no end game in sight to resolve any of Israel’s conflicts with either Palestinians, frontline states, or Iran. In fact, these conflicts become added tools to perpetuate his rule, earning him the reputation of being Mr. Security, a quality Israeli voters seem to love.

His one great success, the purported normalization process, is not part of a long-term strategy. While Bibi has joined with Sunni states in an alliance against Iran, which led to normalization of relations with four of them (Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan), this approach will not offer Israel long-term benefits, other than enticing commercial deals and a military alliance against a common enemy. It will not offer long-term stability or security for Israelis.

The question remains for Israel: is there a visionary leader in the future who can replace Netanyahu?

The Future of Work: Between Technology and Inequality

There was already an ongoing discussion on the “future of work” far before the COVID-19 pandemic plunged the world into a new normal. When the virus hit and every country was forced to navigate new economic, political and social terrains, how people conducted their daily jobs was also affected. While heavy global reliance on technology helped people across all sectors continue some modicum of their work, jobs that could not be continued “online” either forced employees to continue physically working on site, thus risking their health, or were simply lost. 

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “The Future of Jobs” 2020 report, the pandemic disrupted labor markets and created a turnaround in technology adoption, job creation and loss. One of the report’s key findings is that the use of technology will accelerate with a “significant rise in interest for encryption, non-humanoid robots and artificial intelligence”.

The WEF report also points out that new jobs will take the market by storm. “We estimate that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms,” the report stated. This will be coupled with the need for reskilling labor and increasing  jobs that require analytical, problem-solving, and self-management skills.

As part of a session held by the American University in Cairo’s Gerhart Center Webinar Series titled “Decent Jobs and the Future of Work after COVID-19,” Director of the Future of Work(ers) Program in the Ford Foundation Sarita Gupta spoke about the challenges workers face in the current global economy, the growing inequalities, and the impact of digital technology on jobs.

The Narrative on the Future of “Work” Vs. “Workers”

Gupta’s role is to lead a team that oversees efforts to actively pave the way for a better future that positions workers and their well-being at the forefront. “You heard me say the future of “workers”’ not the future of “work” and that is intentional, because at the Ford Foundation, we believe that the future is fundamentally about people. Therefore, we focus on the future of workers and how we can collectively secure a path of shared prosperity and economic security for all workers,” she said.

Gupta also pointed out that when the future of work is being discussed, there is a heavy focus on automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and technology. Inevitably, technology does play a visible role in that, and will continue to play an even greater role as the years go by. However, the conversation is framed around how businesses and employers can use technology to increase efficiency and productivity, and deliver value for consumers and shareholders. Gupta explained that this narrative is often dismissive of those who carry out the work, including low- or middle-wage workers who make the global and local economies function. 

And global economies have been severely strained under the pandemic. According to IMF estimates, the global economy shrunk by 4.4 percent in 2020, which is described by the BBC as being far worse than the 1930s Great Depression. According to the article, the only major economy that grew in 2020 was China—by 2.3 percent—and in 2021, the IMF is predicting a global growth of 5.2 percent, led mainly by countries such as India and China. 

It is worth noting that Egypt has performed well economically despite the pandemic. “After recording a growth rate of 3.6% in FY 2019/20, growth is projected to reach 2.8% in FY 2020/21, with a modest recovery in all sectors except tourism, as the pandemic continues to disrupt international travel,” according to the IMF

But in light of all these global challenges, the Ford Foundation’s mission of focusing on modernizing social contracts and labor policies, reimaging capital flows and markets, and fostering responsible innovation and technology, can be a difficult task, especially as the nature of work is rapidly and permanently changing. 

The Inevitable Changes to the World of Work 

The economic and social disruption of work threatens the long-term livelihoods of millions, stressed Gupta. However, it was well before the pandemic that the “world of work” was already headed in a new direction. Technology, climate change, globalization, and demographic shifts were already leaving unremovable marks on the way people worked, and the way work is structured globally. 

The WEF’s “Future of Jobs” report says that by 2025, the number of work hours performed by machines and people will be the same, and this will lead to the creation of new jobs that depend on AI, robotics, software engineering, machine learning, among others.

“With respect to new technologies, AI, automation, and robotics will create new jobs. The question is whether or not these jobs will be good-quality jobs that provide people with what they need to live sustainable lives,” said Gupta. She added that while job creation is critical in keeping the economy up and running, the discussion around new jobs is often an “either-or” scenario in the sense that “we either create jobs or create good-quality jobs”. On that point, Gupta said, “We need new jobs, and they need to be good quality jobs”.

It is important to realize that the people who lose their jobs to emerging technologies are those who are least equipped to seize newly created jobs. Another challenge workers are faced with is demographic shifts. “Expanding youth populations in some parts of the world, and aging populations in others, will create new pressures on markets and social security systems,” explained Gupta. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), demographic change has an impact on all countries while related issues such as decreased fertility rates, increased ageing populations, and youth unemployment are among the numerous challenges to job creation and global sustainable development agendas.

Climate change is another key element influencing the future of work. The International Labor Organization (ILO) states that climate change will have profound impacts on employment across many economic sectors due to extreme weather conditions, including heat waves, heavy rainfalls, and increases in droughts and natural disasters. Job losses in urban areas will be a result of worker displacement and physical damage to businesses and infrastructures. In rural areas, damage to agricultural crops is also to be predicted. 

On the other hand, the move to technology would be a harbinger for positive major changes, ranging from utilizing clean energy to using less paper. “The greening of our economies, as we adopt sustainable practices and clean technologies, will create new jobs. However, other jobs will disappear as countries scale back their carbon-resource-intensive industries,” said Gupta. 

Because the world is becoming evermore interconnected, more so due to the pandemic, globalization can also play a key role in creating new jobs, and in spreading the way and structure in which work is shifting across all regions. In many developed countries, the structure of work has shifted away from what has been known as “mega firms” of the past,” added Gupta, explaining that “mega firms” of the past would employ and provide benefits for large workforces across a range of skills and income levels. However, Gupta elaborated this is shifting toward more “nimble firms” that have light footprints in employment. Nimble firms, while being more effective, efficient, and agile in the face of challenges, rely on a “a fluid army of contingent workers,” she said. 

Firms are constructing networks, subcontracting, outsourcing, and franchising work to allow them to streamline operations and cut costs, specifically labor costs, by avoiding the responsibility once attached to the standard employment relationship of the past, said Gupta. 

Agility Above All: Challenges & Solutions 

During her presentation, Gupta referred to the ILO’s 2019 “Future of Work” report, which revealed several interesting statistics including that by 2030, 334 million jobs will need to be created. This is in addition to the 190 million jobs already needed today to address unemployment. Of the 190 million unemployed people, 64.8 million of them are youth. 

The statistics also revealed that when it comes to working conditions, 300 million workers live in extreme poverty and 2 billion people make a living through the informal economy. Interestingly, in Egypt, the informal sector represents more than 50 percent of the country’s economy. Government efforts are being made to bring the  informal economy into the formal one. This reform, expedited due to the pandemic, would pave the way for financial inclusion, which Gupta believes is a global problem due to the immense concentration of wealth among the “super rich”. This particularly includes eight men who “own as much wealth as half the world’s population.” 

An article published by Reuters in 2017 detailing the WEF’s annual meetings in Davos lists the eight individuals as “Bill Gates, Inditex founder Amancio Ortega, veteran investor Warren Buffett, Mexico’s Carlos Slim, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg”. “The concentration of wealth in our global economy will determine how innovative technology is deployed and in whose interest they operate,” said Gupta. While new technology has a great potential to create new wealth, there is no economic law that says the wealth will be well-employed, she added. 

Gupta stressed that the problem is not if new technology will eliminate or create jobs, it is rather about who is driving the change, why they are driving, whether there will be accountability for how change will happen, and who will be advantaged and disadvantaged by said change. “The fundamental question we have to address is about power, and those with power suggest an inevitability of inequality,” she said. 

The silver lining, however, is that the technology is not an unstoppable force that “happens to us”. Gupta said that people can shape technology in a way that will improve economic security, opportunities, and dignity for all working people.  “When navigating new technologies, we have to ask “who benefits?” Does the application of new technology, or shifts in work, speed up the concentration of wealth into the hands of a select few, or does it allow communities to get fair shares of the wealth they are producing?” she asked. 

One of the United Nations seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. The global goal here is to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. This is in line with the ILO’s Commision on the Future of Work. The ILO’s decent work agenda promotes the following four  pillars: employment creation, social protection, rights at work, and social dialogue, and these have become critical aspects of the 2030 global agenda. It is through global partnerships that promote ideas such as these, and bringing everyone to the same decision-making table that a better future can be achieved. 

The Arab World Between Regime Change and Political Reform

The winds of change in the Arab World brought upon by street protests or popular uprisings since late 2010 were at first seen as prayers answered for those in the West who had been calling for this ancient region to democratize.

In fact, the call on leaders of the Arab world to change the authoritarian way of governing was stressed several times by U.S. officials and became a basic item on the political agenda of President George W. Bush and his Neo-Conservative team in Washington (2000-2008). His team went as far as envisaging the forceful introduction of democracy in the region through what its members called “regime change”. The Bush administration tried to do this already by launching the war on Iraq in March 2003. Condoleezza Rice, his Secretary of State, reiterated this view later in Cairo in 2005, stating that “for more than half a century the United States had chosen to pursue stability at the expense of democracy and achieved neither,” adding that “that would be true no longer”. A year later, while on a visit to Beirut—which was being bombarded by Israeli warplanes during the war on Lebanon—she found the assault by Israeli troops on Hezbollah forces to be the beginning of a “New Middle East”.

Succeeding George W. Bush, in January 2009, President Barack Obama could not but draw lessons from the failure of the policy of “regime change” and other tools used by his predecessor to forcefully bring democracy to the region. He did not abandon belief in democracy as the best system of government, however, but did not see the wisdom of imposing it on other countries. 

That was the message he stressed in his Cairo University speech in June 2009: “So Let me be clear : no system of government can or should be imposed  on one nation by any other” before adding “That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the  people”. He also raised issues of human rights, women’s rights and religious tolerance.

A year-and-a-half later in January 2011, when the Tunisian Revolution had just started, Hilary Clinton, his Secretary of State, emphasized the urgency of reform in the Arab world in her address to the Forum for Future conference in Doha which was part of the Middle East Initiative. She warned Arab ministers, business pundits and human rights activists who took part in that conference, saying:

“In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand. You can help build a future that your young people will believe in, stay for and defend”.  She added: “Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while but not forever”. She ended that speech by saying “Let us face honestly that future. Let us discuss openly what needs to be done. Let us use this time to go beyond rhetoric, to put away plans that are timid and gradual and make a commitment that keeps this region moving in the right direction”. 

Moving away from the call for “regime change” that had been adopted by the Bush Administration, Obama and his team strove to persuade Arab leaders to introduce reforms widening the scope of political liberties for their people. This signaled a major shift in U.S. policy on political change in the Arab world. For the Obama Administration, political changes should be undertaken as reforms carried out by Arab leaders in a gradual manner. The role of the U.S. government was to offer them advice and help them travel its path.

How to push the reform agenda in the Middle East?

Given the slow pace of reform in the Arab world at that time, Obama felt that more should be done to give effect to his advice to Arab rulers. Reacting to President Mubarak’s  decision to extend the state of emergency for two more years in 2010, and urged by his friend and adviser Samantha Power to take action on this occasion, he asked her and three National Security Council colleagues, -namely Dennis Ross, Gayle Smith and Jeremy Weinstein- to offer him a blueprint for a Presidential Study Directive stating that “U.S. interests in stability in the Middle East and North Africa were adversely affected by United States uncritical support of authoritarian regimes”. 

Obama later revealed in his own words that he used this Directive in August 2010 to “instruct the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and other government agencies to examine ways the United States could encourage meaningful political and economic reforms in the region to nudge those nations closer to the principles of open government so that they might avoid the destabilizing uprisings, violence and chaos and unpredictable outcomes that so often accompanied sudden change.” The National Security Council team conducted biweekly meetings with Middle East experts from across the government and could finally produce by mid-December 2010 documents “laying out a strategy with a set of principles to guide a shift of strategy,” thanks to which U.S. officials across agencies would be expected to deliver a consistent and coherent message on the need for reform. They would also be able to develop specific recommendations for liberalizing political and civic life in various countries and offer a range of new incentives to encourage their adoption.

US administration in the face of Arab revolts

Does this talk about the necessity of economic and political reforms in the Arab world and the drafting of a set of recommendations on how to get Arab governments to act on them amount to an American conspiracy to provoke revolutions in the region? If this were the “conspiracy”, were revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the uprisings in Bahrain, and mass demonstrations in other Arab countries the enactment of this conspiracy? Apart from Libya and Syria, the two countries where the U.S. intervened militarily against incumbent regimes, did the U.S. administration have any control over the unfolding events in the other countries including Egypt?

Reading accounts of the internal debates within the Obama Administration at the time of the January 2011 Revolution in Egypt, one does not find any indication that top policymakers in that administration anticipated what happened in the country or that they were all thrilled by what was happening. Both Obama and Hilary Clinton pointed to a division between the top policymakers with a generational gap separating two sides. The elders including then Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon were calling for caution, being apprehensive about a possible victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. Their initial preference was for Mubarak  to undertake reforms that could satisfy the young revolutionaries. 

To convey this message to Mubarak, Obama chose Frank Wisner, former ambassador to Egypt who had known the Egyptian president, to do the job. Those who were in favor of abandoning Mubarak from the very beginning were the young members of Obama’s team, interestingly including Antony Blinken who is now the Secretary of State under President Biden. 

Obama’s call for the Egyptian president to resign came on February 1 following Mubarak’s speech on the same day, which indicated that he had no intention of preparing the way for a peaceful transition of power. A telephone conversation between the two leaders also failed in persuading Mubarak to do just that. It was also certain at that time that he had lost the support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. American top military and security officials were in almost daily communications with senior Egyptian military and intelligence officials to “make clear that a military sanctioned crackdown on protesters would have severe consequences on any future U.S.-Egyptian relationship”.

Relations with political actors in Egypt.

The memoirs of both Obama and Clinton cover the period ending in 2012, which corresponds to the end of his first term in office as U.S. president and the end of her post as secretary of state. They do not therefore deal with U.S. reactions to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, nor with relations with the Egyptian government after the events which brought General Abdel Fattah Sisi to rule the country.  

Clinton’s email communications, as well as those of other U.S. official documents published by WikiLeaks, provide interesting insights on how certain agencies of the U.S. government viewed political forces in Egypt during the crucial two-and-a-half years of the revolution.

Such documents do not say much about the secular revolutionary groups of young Egyptians who took the initiative in calling for the revolution. There’s nothing about the April 6 Youth Movement, the Khaled Sa’eid Facebook page or the other groups that were active in Tahrir Square. Egyptian authorities later claimed that April 6 movement received American funds but could not substantiate that claim. Ahmad Maher, the leader of the group, was arrested, imprisoned and tried in November 2013 for leading an unauthorized demonstration but not for illegally receiving foreign funding. However, the impression that Clinton had of all such groups was quite negative, viewing them to be lacking political experience, of no knowledge on how to establish political parties or gain votes in a democratic election.

Egyptian media highlighted the importance of meetings of Muslim Brotherhood cadres with officials of the State Department and even suggested that Clinton ordered them to wreak havoc in Egypt. The email messages she received indicate that some Muslim Brothers went to Washington, together with representatives of Islamist movements in other Arab countries, notably Tunisia and Morocco, on an invitation to take part in a seminar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a well-known think tank in Washington. They did not meet Clinton, but she was informed of a meeting they had with a senior official of the State Department.

In her 2014 book, Hard Choices, Clinton gave an account of her meetings with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawy and described him as quite eager that the transitional period ends well and that the army goes back to barracks. She appreciated the fact that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under Tanatawy ran fair and free presidential elections and handed power to the winner in that election, namely, the late Mohammed Morsi.

It is true that during the crucial months (November 22, 2012 and June 30, 2013) of escalating tension between the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Morsi and the liberal opposition headed by Mohammed ElBaradei, U.S. ambassador to Cairo Anne Patterson (July 2011-August 2013) tried to mediate between the two sides, with no success. It is also true that the Obama Administration was dismayed by the overthrow of Morsi in July 2013, his imprisonment together with other Brotherhood leaders, suspension of the constitution, and emergence of General Abdel Fattah Sisi as the new strongman in Egypt. Following these developments, the Obama Administration, in the autumn of 2013, withheld some heavy weapons sales that were supposed to be delivered to Egypt as part of its annual military assistance. The weapons were released two years later following the election of President Sisi in 2014 and a new Assembly of Deputies in late 2015.

Powerbroker USA?

Could Washington’s welcome of the elections of a Muslim Brother to the Egyptian presidency, meetings between Muslim Brothers and State Department officials at the  National Security Council in Washington in April 2012, and withholding of military assistance to Egypt all be construed as signs of U.S. sympathy toward the Brotherhood? Could the actions and later revelations of senior U.S. officials indicate prior American planning to engineer a revolution to bring them to power in Egypt?

In fact, this is the view of those who believe that the January 25 Revolution was from the very beginning an American conspiracy to put Islamists in power in Egypt, presumably because they would better serve U.S. interests in the region. The materials examined for this essay, including memoirs of two U.S. top officials and documents of the State Department, suggest the contrary: the United States had no prior knowledge of what was going to happen in Egypt in January 2011. Point in fact, the views were divided within the U.S. administration on how to respond to such massive protests and that Obama was initially hoping that Mubarak  would respond positively to the protests and prepare the country for a peaceful transition to democracy. 

Obama failed to convince Mubarak  to resign on the evening of February 1, 2011. Mubarak in fact relinquished power nine days later under popular pressures and the neutral position taken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Accounts of what was happening in Egypt point to those who took the initiative of calling for protests on January 25, 2011 as the force majeure behind the change—and none of them was in the pay of U.S. agencies. 

As for presumed U.S. sympathy with and for the Muslim Brotherhood, the available evidence suggests to the contrary. The early hesitation to support the secular, grassroots movements for change was in fact due to the apprehension by senior members of the Obama administration that given the inexperience and lack of solid organization in the ranks of these forces, the revolution would pave the way for dominance by the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the United States as well as European countries had to acquiesce to the dominant position of the Muslim Brotherhood since they won all the electoral consultations that took place between March 2011 and June 2012, and there was no secular movement capable of challenging them through the ballot box.  

The opposition by Western governments, including the United States, to the new post-June 2013 government in Egypt, was taken by “Conspiracy Theorists” to be another indication of the US taking the side of the Brotherhood. They viewed such events as a popular revolution supported by the armed forces. 

On the other hand, given the crucial part played by the army in these events, and the reality of power in Egypt since July 3, 2013, it should be easy to understand why U.S. and European public opinion considered the end of the Morsi government to be  a setback of the January Revolution bringing the country back under military rule. The Obama administration, however, resisted pressures to label the events of June-July 2013 as a military coup d’état, which, according to U.S. laws, would have led to the cessation of all military assistance to Egypt. It only suspended the release of certain weapons and resumed full military assistance once the country presumably got an elected president in 2014 and an elected parliament in 2015. 

Theater Spotlights Social Trauma and Sexual Harassment

A supporter holds a #MeToo sign outside a court for a sexual harassment case in Beijing, China December 2, 2020. Florence Lo/Reuters

The Cairo Review’s reporter-researcher Ibrahim Elzayat and assistant editor Omar Auf sat down with Jillian Campana, a professor of theater at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and author of the book “Western Theater in a Global Context: directing and teaching culturally inclusive drama around the world.” 

The conversation touched on Campana’s experiences at the intersection of theater and social science in local and global contexts. Campana uses drama to address trauma while raising awareness about important issues such as sexual harassment in non-Western contexts. This is part one of a two-part interview, please see part two here.

Cairo Review: What does theater mean to you?

Jillian Campana: I consider it a social science, a way to study ourselves’ and others’ humanity and culture. I think it’s a way of bringing a case study or something that might be written down or conducted via quantitative research, and looking at the information that is gathered in theater as a sort of research into humanity and how we function as a society and individuals. We do this by embodying characters and performing stories. I look at it like we’re collecting the data as we write a play, or devise a new piece of material, or even rehearse a previously published work. Then we’re analyzing the data in the rehearsal process, and then when we share our performance with an audience, we’re sharing the data. I look at it as a participatory action type of research, and very intertwined with the social sciences.

CR: Do you believe that the added narrative quality enhances people’s ability to relate to the topics at hand?

JC: When we read a piece of literature, we connect with it in a particular way, but when we watch something unfold, when we watch bodies in space, and facial expressions, there’s a different connection that we have to that material. It’s taking something that’s written and it’s bringing it to an oral and visual component. We tend to mirror the things that we’re seeing, so that happens with our facial expressions, but also with our ability to empathize. When we’re watching a performance, we identify with one character, and we feel the things that they feel. And then perhaps when the play is over, we can make a change in our behavior or our way of thinking based on what we’ve experienced in that sacred theatrical space.

CR: Does it make people more empathetic towards the issues at hand?

JC: I think it does. I think it definitely makes audience members connect to issues more. Whenever we’re connected to something we experience more empathy. We don’t feel empathetic toward something we don’t understand.

CR: What does that intersection of theater and social science look like? And what are the dynamics of theater as an element in the public space?

JC: A lot of the work that I do is particularly interested in traumatic experiences that people have. I’m interested in that because that is how we grow and change. Things that happen to us, that come against us like a blunt force, cause us to completely alter the way that we have existed previously, and the way that we see the world in which we live. So I’m interested in theater as a tool to deal with traumatic experiences, both to showcase traumatic experiences in a theater play for the audience to understand more acutely, but also for participants to use drama as a way to unpack a traumatic experience that they have had.

I use those words, drama and theater, very differently. Theater is a performance specifically for an audience, whereas drama can be non-product based. It doesn’t necessarily need an audience. It can be people investigating roleplay without anyone watching them, for their own purposes. For their own knowledge.

CR: What role do you see for theater in Egyptian culture?

JC: I think that Egyptians really appreciate live theater. Western theater was forced onto Egypt with colonization, but there are beautiful Egyptian traditions, “khayal al-zil” is a beautiful ancient form of puppetry, and the “halqa” is Middle Eastern storytelling, which is very performative. Those are entrenched in the way that plays happen today. But then also the dominance of Western theater all over the world has been such a force to be reckoned with that, a lot of times, local performances and local traditions are not taught as much as Western theater or Western scripts.

When I go to a play here, I feel like there’s more of an intersection between the audience and the performers than there is in the West. In the West, we’re told we really have to be quiet and we just look and we don’t watch the other people around us as much. And when I go to a performance here, there’s a very different energy that’s in the room and it feels almost like the audience members are a part of the play. People laugh out loud or get up and leave if they need to and come back. I really enjoy that it feels like it’s more communal.

CR: The theater department at AUC has begun to use its resources to tackle sexual harassment. The student led play “You W-ana Too” focuses on addressing how sexual harassment is perceived by different members of society in Egypt. How can you successfully raise awareness and change attitudes when it comes to sexual harassment?

JC: We now have a new title for it, “Mish Zanbik” (it’s not your fault). We changed the title actually just this week, because “You W-ana Too” was reflective of the Western-based Me Too movement. Not everyone is familiar with that, and it has different connotations. So we wanted to place it specifically within Egypt. It’s a collection of new plays written by young Egyptian men and women looking at the issue of sexual harassment and assault from multiple perspectives. So it looks at, for example, how a family might deal with the situation if a member of the family has had an experience with sexual harassment. How a father might see his his daughter differently if she tells him about harassment that she’s experienced, and how he might understand that and how their relationship might change. One of the plays focuses on the post-traumatic stress disorder that exists for people who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault – how it really doesn’t actually leave them, becoming part of who they are. We’re performing this play outside on both campuses, New Cairo and Tahrir, and the five plays will happen simultaneously, so audiences will be grouped into small clusters, going around and watching each one of the five plays, and then they’ll rotate. It’s a perfect process for this pandemic era when it’s really hard to pack bodies into a theater space.

Audience members will walk from one place to another. It’s a short distance, but I’m hoping that as they watch one play, and then they walk to the next play, this process of moving one’s body helps us process material that we’ve taken in, and move on to the next play with maybe a series of questions or thoughts about the issue. And of course, when we’re walking, we have a short break in between each play, so there’s the opportunity to talk to other people who also watched the play. This actually allows us to have more dialogue about what we’re watching.

CR: Do you believe that you would need to change this play for a non-AUCian audience?

JC: We’re really trying to cover multiple perspectives, including gender, but also social class and economic ability. These plays are written by AUC students, but we’ve tried to do as much homework and research as possible. Looking at, for example, the ways in which someone who has some economic privilege might have more access to, for example, counseling, than someone who doesn’t. When a person comes from a place where they’re disadvantaged economically, they lose their voice. They don’t have the ability to speak up as much. They don’t have the ability to alert the rest of the world to the problem they’re experiencing. And so we’re really trying with this particular play to bring about an awareness of how sexual harassment and sexual assault impact all all sectors of Egyptian society.

Jillian Campana is a professor of theater at The American University in Cairo, where she also serves as the Associate Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Having earned an interdisciplinary Ph.D in theater and the social sciences, her research and creative work look at drama and theater as tools to build community, equality, and identity. She has developed several theater projects around the world, including programs for persons living with brain injuries in Sweden, victims of sexual trafficking in India, and victims of sexual harassment in Egypt. 

Funding Feminism: Grantmaking for Women’s Rights

The origin story of the Global Fund for Women resonates with many. Forty years ago Anne Firth Murray, a pioneer in grantmaking and women’s rights, asked her boss why she was earning 20 percent less than her male colleagues and was told that she was “making a good salary for a woman”. 

Murray realized that she wasn’t the only one that the foundation world was leaving behind. Her workplace was resistant to funding international women’s initiatives, and before Murray founded the Global Fund for Women in 1987, the Ford Foundation’s support of the Ms. Foundation was one of few partnerships that addressed women’s issues globally.

However, since Murray’s founding of the Global Fund for Women in 1987, the number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) committed to furthering women’s rights as human rights has markedly proliferated. The Global Fund for Women supports hundreds of such organizations each year through grantmaking; they secured 349 grants for partner organizations in 2020 alone.

Murray herself, as part of the network “PeaceWomen Across the Globe,” was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, and now teaches two courses—“Love as a Force for Social Justice” and “International Women’s Health and Human Rights”—for Stanford University. 

In a webinar titled “Women’s Human Rights” hosted by the American University in Cairo’s Gerhart Center for Philanthropy, Civic Engagement and Responsible Business on March 3, Murray explained the multitude of inequities that women face throughout their lives. She also outlined how the world has responded and offered suggestions for the future.

Chronologizing Harm 

When Murray began the Global Fund for Women, she had to answer one question: why women? 

“Across the life span, there is this sort of sad discrimination against women, beginning even in childbirth,” she said. Indeed, norms valuing sons over daughters are responsible for rampant gender-based sex selection, wherein fetuses are terminated upon the determination of their gender as female. 

As the United Nations Population Fund notes, gender-based sex selection creates a quantitative imbalance between men and women in a society, which statistically sets women and girls up for harm throughout the rest of their lives. One of the first is postnatal sex selection: female children face disproportionate, fatal neglect simply because they were born female.

As girls grow up, they encounter disproportionate trafficking. Around the world, 18 percent of human trafficking comes in the form of forced labor; 79 percent entails sexual exploitation, which overwhelmingly affects women and girls. 

Parallel to trafficking runs child marriage, which occurs at least 33,000 times every day, and early childbirth. Failures in reproductive health systems, like the prevalence of unsafe illegal abortions, are especially salient to young, poor or exploited women. In fact, young women between the ages of 15 and 24 are the fastest-growing demographic in HIV/AIDS contraction.

Violence lies at the heart of all of these forces. When we think of violence against women, we commonly think of domestic violence, trafficking, and sexual assault. There is good reason for that: one in three women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. However, violence against women is more than just physical acts. Murray characterized violence as, simply, “the strategy of people to maintain their place in the hierarchy or move up in the hierarchy.” Thus, violence is an entrenched component of economic, social, and health inequalities. 

Take education, for example. When girls are married young, their schooling is often terminated. Not only is a woman’s time then likely absorbed by rearing children, but potential job prospects are limited. Murray draws a parallel to the way a country stalls during war: “When you have violence in the house, nothing else can happen.” 

In times of crisis, social and physical violence against women becomes increasingly prevalent. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, violence against women has skyrocketed as isolation has brought women into greater proximity with their abusers, who are often their partners. War has the same effect, as traditional linkages to the community collapse. Murray points out that this is partially because, in times of economic distress like we see now, women are often the first to lose their jobs.

The Work Being Done

In the grand scheme of history, international work toward women’s human rights has been relatively new. It was only four decades ago that Murray’s boss defended paying her a reduced wage, for example. Moreover, Murray points out the extent to which violence is normalized in the public consciousness: “Nations use violence, we go to war,” she said. With gendered norms of inequality and violence so deeply entrenched, barriers to progress may seem insurmountable.

Yet, in the thirty-four years since its inception, the Global Fund for Women has already done tremendous work. In 2020 alone, the Fund awarded over $9 million to partner organizations in seventy-nine countries. Murray marks 1995, the year of the Fourth World Conference on Women, as a turning point. That year—exactly a decade after the close of the UN Decade for Women—saw a tremendous increase in data surrounding global women’s rights, as governments prepared to send their representatives to Beijing. 

“That was the first time in a long time that really very good research was done,” Murray remembers. Still, many of today’s relevant works on women’s human rights come from this time period. After the Beijing Conference, women became a permanent fixture of global discourse as universities worldwide began to offer programs in international women’s studies.

Murray recalls the influx of letters that the Global Fund for Women received between its inception and the 1995 conference. The Fund gave numerous women’s groups the financial support necessary to attend the NGO Forum held in parallel to the governmental conference the same year. In her description of the era, Murray imparts two lessons: that the movement is global, and that the younger generation is key. She describes asking each organization to select two members to attend the conference—one of which had to be a younger member—and partnering with a nearby language institute to ensure communications could be conducted in any language.

Murray points to an increasing sophistication of women’s groups and greater visibility of young women within them as a good sign. Additionally, we see women in global leadership roles. Twenty-one countries currently have female heads of state. Though this number nowhere near matches the number of seats occupied by men, it is a tangible departure from modern history.

Still, there is still work to do. In discussion, participants suggested that international instruments for women’s human rights often fail to holistically improve the situations of marginalized women. Murray points out the necessity of education and communications infrastructure in facilitating change. Here, the necessity of community is emphasized.

The word “community” has been a mainstay of Murray’s discussion of women’s rights: it is one of a woman’s core losses when her rights are neglected, and an essential component of moving forward. When asked what a path to change could look like, Murray laughs: “We all become much nicer people,” she surmises. 

This transformation entails a serious conversation about masculinity. Of late, there has been a rise in conversations questioning gender norms, and what “masculinity” means. The task at hand now is to apply that conversation to violence against women. No Means No Worldwide, which works on global assault prevention, has an education curriculum specifically geared toward men and boys. The goal of such programs, Murray says, is to teach men that “women being equal is not a threat.”

Inspired by Gandhi’s characterization of love as the antithesis of violence, she speaks of the role that love can play in deconstructing gender hierarchies by facilitating empathy. This is likely why the Global Fund for Women partners with so many organizations like No Means No Worldwide, which focus on peer learning. Other initiatives, like the Roots Lab, empower women through emphasis on working in small groups and networking in the broader sphere. 

Programs like these recognize that isolation—from jobs, media, and support systems—lies at the core of much of the inequity experienced by women. This is where the concept of community comes in. Communication is the active expression of community. Many of the Global Fund for Women’s grantee partners work with other grassroots organizations, and funding for media and tech justice has become a burgeoning interest. 

Biden Bolstering Diplomacy

Cairo Review Contributing Editor Sydney Wise sat down with Dr. Denis Sullivan, who currently acts as Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University and is Director of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies.

This is part two of a two-part conversation. In this episode, Sullivan discusses what can be expected from U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy plans in the Middle East.

Cairo Review: One thing we are interested in is whether this reopening of aid toward Yemen that is entailed in the un-designation of the Houthis as terrorists—if that is what happens out of this review—whether that speaks to a real commitment on behalf of the Biden administration to addressing these humanitarian crises, or is it simply another Trump foil?

Denis Sullivan: Officially they talk about human rights and diplomacy as kind of their calling card. So, in other words, it’s not “dealmaking”, it’s not “Deal of the Century”, it’s not that kind of thing. I mean, even to the point of bringing in Samantha Power as America’s ambassador to the UN under Obama, and now to come in to head up USAID. And not only that, I think this is where he’s really putting the power behind his decision; it’s not just a one-off “oh, we’re naming a woman”, “we’re naming this wonderful former ambassador to the UN as USAID”. He’s also elevated the position of USAID Director to the National Security Council on a permanent basis, and that means USAID, development; State Department; Defense Department are all—again, nominally—at the table with equal voice. 

Now, we know that, you know, when crises erupt, everyone will turn to the Defense Department first to say “ok, what do we do here, we’re in a crisis”. And the State Department, kind of, it’s almost in that order. By having USAID there, also an equal voice, we can say: “ok, we can coordinate with the military and the State Department.” You know, humanitarian aid agencies, I just mentioned the Houthis, you know, they’re working with militaries on-the-ground. They’re working against militaries also to make sure those outside military forces don’t bomb them as they’re trying to deliver food and humanitarian aid, medicines, et cetera to these communities. 

So that is, I think, it’s a wonderful move. It’s almost a beautiful move. It’s beautiful in that sense that they’re putting USAID, i.e. humanitarian and development aid, on par with diplomacy and military strategy so they can strategize together. It’s almost like… think of the pandemic in the United States. We can use the National Guard to mobilize forces. That doesn’t mean we’re under martial law; it means we can use the logistical power of the National Guard at home just as we can use the logistical power abroad to work in tandem with development aid, with diplomats as well.

CR: What are a couple of main priorities for the Biden administration in the Middle East, whether that’s strategic relationships with certain powers or whether it’s hot-button issues like the Muslim Ban, Yemen, et cetera?

DS: Well, let me throw Turkey into this as well, because our relationship with Turkey certainly also has both soured and…  I can’t say it’s improved… Trump had a good relationship with Erdogan, as Trump had with many autocrats. The United States’ relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally, suffered as a consequence because it became just another one of these transactional relationships. And Erdogan had a way of calling Trump up, as you know, and just never kissing up to him but certainly assuaging his ego, you know, stroking his ego, and certainly, whatever Turkey wanted.You know, like invading northern Syria and occupying northern Syria, and eliminating American support for the Kurds, who were our top ally against ISIS. 

And so I think we need to do a lot of resetting. And by this I think, you know this gets back to—Biden doesn’t have an agenda. Trump had an agenda: it was all about Trump. It was about his ego, about his money, about his children, about his friends; as long as everyone was making millions of dollars and Trump got his name on a big building somewhere, that’s all he cared about for American foreign policy. 

I think with Biden, he’s resetting that, but I don’t think he’s going to favor any one country over another. As I say, Israel won’t be in disfavor with the United States—Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Egypt, they won’t be in disfavor—but nor will they be elevated higher than any other states in the region. So, again, I’m not naive here thinking that Joe Biden is just this rational, objective player, but he’s… what we see is what we get with him. His moderate tone, his moderate views; yeah, he’s shifted a bit left in his politics, but again, I think that also comes with the learning of, you know, where he was as Vice President, where he was as a senator, where he was in previous iterations of being a political candidate for president. 

And now we’re in a pandemic, and now we’re in a disastrous state around the world, so his strategic approach is to reset our alliances, reengage our allies; that includes NATO generally, it includes Turkey in this Middle Eastern context. I do think he will keep the Israelis and the Saudis and the Emirates and the Egyptians, saying, “look, you guys are strategic allies. Absolutely. But, we’re going to go ahead with this Iran deal. We’re not going to then favor you with support for another war, a disastrous war, but we need to all kind of get on the same page”.

We know Iran’s not a boogeyman, but Iran is also not a friend—Iran is never going to be an ally under these conditions—but Iran is a powerful force. Iran has been shaken but not destabilized politically. These sanctions haven’t toppled the regime, so let’s try another tack. Let’s get back to this nuclear deal, with modifications. Yes, we want them to stop supporting the Houthis, stop supporting Assad of Syria, stop supporting Hezbollah, stop supporting Hamas; that ain’t going to happen right away, for sure, but Biden takes the long view on that. Reestablishing our American objectives; I mean, talk about America First! This is American interests in alignment with our allies, which, again, Trump couldn’t take that second step. He couldn’t keep two thoughts in his head at the same time, whereas Biden can play three-level chess at least. Strategically at home and strategically abroad; strategically with our enemies and also strategically with our allies. I mean, don’t lose allies; Biden’s coming in to strengthen alliances and strengthen partnerships. 

So that’s why I think Saudi Arabia… got nothing to worry about. Israel, Egypt, yeah, there’s going to be pushback. There’s going to be more of a knock on the door saying, “hey, why do you have so many political prisoners?” 

We’re going to do the same to Russia. I mean, we already see it in Navalny. Navalny is a topic of discussion between Biden and Putin. Good! 

Is Biden going to change the world in one hundred days or one thousand days? Probably not. Can he move us toward changing the world? I hope so! I mean, again, I’m not naive. I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic, and I’m also realistic. You know, I’m all of the above. We have to be all of these things at the same time.

Denis Sullivan is the Dean of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He is also a professor of Political Science and International Affairs and the Co-Director of the Middle East Center at Northeastern University since 1987. 

Biden Negotiating the Balance of Power

November 8, 2020 Hamad Mohammed/Reuters

Today is March 8, 2021.

Cairo Review Contributing Editor Sydney Wise sat down with Dr. Denis Sullivan, who currently acts as Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University and is Director of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies.

This is part one of their two part conversation. In this episode Sullivan discusses what can be expected from U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy plans in the Middle East.

Cairo Review: What does the balance of power look like at the moment, and how is that related to Trump’s last four years?

Denis Sullivan: Everything is related to Trump’s last four years, for sure. For the Middle East, it’s a great question, actually, because I think it defies clear explanation. On the one hand, because of Trump’s policies you certainly had Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates not just ascendant, but dominant as things came together with the Abraham Accords and the normalization between the Emirates and Israel (among others, but the Emirates–Israel deal basically brought both up). 

These were kind of rising tides for these three in particular, and therefore descendant but plateaued on the bottom for Iran. In other words, everyone wanted Iran to collapse, or at least the regime to collapse, and have it be reconstituted as pro-U.S., neutral-Israel, neutral toward Saudi, neutral toward the Emirates, as opposed to the antagonism that exists: and, I’ll say, not nearly by Iran’s doing but by all of the above that I’ve just mentioned, including the Trump administration. 

So, where things are now, however: I think just the election of Joe Biden, and especially the team he has put in place to help him on Iran and on the Middle East broadly and foreign affairs more broadly, means that Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are not on the decline, by any means, but they’re just not going to continue to rise in the sense that they would if the Trump administration were to continue. In other words, these are the three dominant powers in the Middle East, at least today, and they’re not going to become any less so. However, that means they have to reconfigure their dealings with the United States, among others. By the way, I should throw in Turkey, but we can get to Turkey later because I think that, regionally, Turkey is absolutely a dominant player and fits in with those other three. Turkey is in a different set of geostrategic interests of the United States but overlapping, absolutely, with Iran, with Iraq, with Saudi Arabia, with Israel. 

That said, we come to the Biden team. 

I think one of the first ones was really an important question to ask about: “is this like a third Obama term?” And again, it’s one of those yes and no responses. Yes in the sense that, yes, these are a lot of the same players, absolutely. But it’s  also—I think in particular Jake Sullivan, the new National Security Advisor, being one of those guys who was more of a mainstream Democrat in the Obama years and in his four years, as they all were, kind of in wilderness, in exile from power, and now they’re back—I’ve heard interviews with Jake Sullivan, and I don’t want to say he’s shifted left by any means, but he’s certainly learned from some of the mistakes that were made. Or at least decisions that were made at the time in good faith, but now they certainly wouldn’t make such decisions. 

So you’ve got people like Jake Sullivan, William Burns, of course Anthony Blinken, but also Rob Malley, Samantha Power. All of these names. Did I mention McGurk, Brett McGurk? What’s interesting about McGurk is that he served under Bush, Obama, and Trump, and then he resigned right after Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria. And I had the feeling that that was very convenient, because he was kind of hedging his bets hoping that Biden would win, perhaps, so he could be brought back, and he was. 

Anyway: that team, yeah, certainly comes out of the Obama administration, but, as I say, they kind of all have had their four years of learning. And, also just the new reality. They’re coming in, I would say, maybe chastened by some of their own decisions. And again, it’s not like any of them are coming in to lessen Israel’s power. 

In fact, Anthony Blinken himself said that they will never walk away from Israel’s  security. He’s been reassuring the Israelis that, look, we’re not here to undercut you: we’re just against your policies and we’re your dear friends. So we want to work with you, but we want to ask you to put a check on yourselves. Again, sadly, I don’t think the United States, perhaps since George HW Bush, has had really any checks on Israeli foreign policy. It’s rare that we hear any American administration, Republican or Democrat, doing it. In fact, Obama himself kept raising aid to Israel, even if he and Bibi Netanyahu were on horrible terms. 

So the point is, this administration, these players, all come in and will bring us back to an Iran nuclear deal. Whether it’s the same deal, I doubt, but it’ll be something similar because that’s the commitment. So that’s the strategic viewpoint, and I think that, frankly, that it’s the dominant strategic plan, if not even a strategic doctrine for the United States, to reset what was working—not perfectly, by any means—to bring Iran back into the fold. Because, again, Biden’s not going to be anti-Mohammed Salman, he’s not going to be anti-Mohammed bin Zayed, even. And he’s not going to be anti-Bibi Netanyahu. But, he is going to be checking them, not just giving them carte blanche, and we already see as a result that the Saudis and the Emiratis have already been doing this; I think actually for a year now, the Emiratis actually started this by pulling back from this disastrous war in Yemen. The Saudis are looking for a face-saving way to be done with it and, yes, the Biden administration is pushing by saying “yes, we’re going to end our support for this disastrous war.” I don’t know if “disastrous” is my word only but it’s certainly the sentiment of the Biden administration, that this (the Yemeni conflict) is the, quote-unquote, greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, supported by the United States i.e. under the Obama administration since 2015. 

So this is not just to beat up on Trump, but we also have to beat up on the Obama administration for starting the support for this absolutely disastrous war. And the slaughter of Yemenis, and the cholera, and the famine, and the refugee crisis that it has caused. And, again, a lot of those players that we have now were part of that and they’re like “oops, shouldn’t have done that.” Yeah, well, six years later, time to undo it.

CR: One of the first actions taken by the Biden administration was to institute a review and a reversal of the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization. This designation had been made in the final days of the Trump administration. Can we speak a little bit to how the U.S. conceptualization of the Houthis fits into this greater “big power” scheme particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

DS: Again, as I emphasize, Obama started it by giving the green light to Mohammed bin Salman. So, then the conceptualization was “yeah, we did that; we shouldn’t have done that.” I’ve seen interviews with Rob Malley even before Biden won where he was saying “yeah, wish we hadn’t done that.” Because the point there was we needed to give a gift to Mohammed bin Salman and let him play in Yemen for three weeks because Mohammed bin Salman said “oh, we just need three weeks and we’ll stop this crazy war between the Houthis and our allies and therefore we’ll prevent Iran from getting stronger ties in Yemen.”

Jump ahead a few years and we know that that’s exactly what they did do. It’s one of those self-fulfilling prophecies, we did this and we brought in Iran into Yemen even more. So, back to the Obama administration, it was “ok, let Mohammed bin Salman play in Yemen; we’ll be there to check him so that he doesn’t go overboard.” Well, they never did that. So the conceptualization for the United States was “we’re going to make this deal with Iran; we need to placate Mohammed bin Salman shwaya, just a little bit; we’ll do our deal with Iran because otherwise he’ll be so upset with us he’ll undercut us at every turn, but he’ll know that we’re supporting him by us literally supporting his war effort in Yemen.” 

That only accelerated under Donald Trump, and, again, that’s when we get the worst humanitarian disaster the world has seen over the last five years. And that’s when even the Emiratis were saying, “this has gone too far, let’s pull back”; slight differences of opinion—maybe that’s even an exaggeration, maybe more than slight differences—between MBS and MB Zayed, between the Saudis and the Emiratis. Again, Iran was actually ascendant in Yemen. You can even talk to the Houthis before or even at the start of this; they had massive theological differences of opinion over the two types of Shi’a Islam between the Houthis and the Iranians, but politically speaking, militarily thinking, strategically, they’re fully aligned. Because the Saudis engaged in this disastrous war, the Houthis had no recourse but to turn to Iran for even more support. So, Iran was supportive of the Houthis, but kind of a cold alliance. But, that alliance has only heated up because of the disastrous war launched against the Houthis. 

So, back to the designation. Yes, Trump would do anything he could to kind of pre-seed the ground for a Biden administration, and this is, you know, whether it’s Cuba or Iran or other major designations that the Obama administration started with. Trump was not only undoing what Obama did; he was trying to pre-empt any major initiative again for Cuba, for Iran, for Yemen. 

So, by (the Trump Administration) making this designation (that the Houthis are terrorists): it was a crime, I’ll say. And maybe I’ll have to say it’s a “small c” crime, but I think, you know, some people could make the case that it’s a crime against humanity because the Houthis—I’m not a fan of the Houthis, I’m not supportive of the Houthis, they also have engaged in atrocities—but the problem with this designation is that it prevents really good groups, international NGOs, refugee committees, international humanitarian organizations, from getting food and medicine and other things, blankets, tents, food water, all of those things that these starving, increasingly sick from cholera and other diseases—the Houthis are, sadly, the gateway to those people. Because they control a key port, if not ports. They control key access roads, they control key territories, and these international organizations and the United Nations themselves need to go through Houthi territory, Houthi-controlled territory. 

So, by designating the Houthis in this way (as a terrorist organization), nominally, it prevents all of those groups from dealing with the Houthis because even the United Nations would be labeled as supporting terrorists. So again, it’s one of those just—hypocritical is the mildest way to say it—it’s just one of the nastiest things Secretary of State Pompeo and Donald Trump could do to the people of Yemen. It’s just pouring more acid and salt into open wounds, and maintaining the status quo of inhumanity against a desperate twenty million Yemeni people. 

Denis Sullivan is the Dean of the College of Humanities & Social Sciences at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He is also a professor of Political Science and International Affairs and the Co-Director of the Middle East Center at Northeastern University since 1987. 

Can the Arab Region meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030?

In the past year, one of the frequently asked questions in interviews for development jobs at the United Nations was “Do you think the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be realized by 2030, why or why not?” 

Candidates have tended to err on the side of optimism. After all, the Secretary-General himself has issued a call to action in the ten years remaining to 2030, inviting the world to join the United Nations to meet the goals of the decade and leave no one behind. 

The SDGs were developed in 2015 in the wake of the wave of optimism which followed a billion people moving out of poverty. In a post-Covid world, however,  a more nuanced assessment of the prospects for achieving the SDGs might be a better response. If the odds of  achieving the SDGs worldwide are somewhat compromised, what then of these prospects in an Arab region that has witnessed the more recent shocks of coronavirus and a fall in oil prices. These challenges come on top of a decade characterized by civil unrest, regime change, protracted conflict and crises of displacement. The prospects then for the SDGs in the Arab region look dismal indeed.

Perhaps a fairer answer to the question: “will the SDGs be achieved by 2030 in the Arab world” would be “we don’t know”. Besides the fact that telling the future is dangerous, especially in such a dynamic region, several factors provide basis for this uncertainty.

The first factor of uncertainty is that the statistical apparatus needed  to make a judgement on the achievement of the SDGs—a fortiori to monitor the progress of societies in achieving these goals—is seriously deficient. The Arab Sustainable Development Report, produced this year by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, while making a laudable effort at completeness, and with the help of competent statisticians and economists, rarely goes beyond the analysis of data in 2015 or 2016.

Some data are verified up to 2018, but not in the majority of cases. The Sustainable Development Goals consist of 17 goals, and 232 indicators. In the Arab region, only 41 percent of these indicators are systematically available and updated (or 117 indicators).  Of these, 11 percent have not been updated since 2015, and 18 percent have not been calculated since 2000.

The ability to monitor data varies across the region, with four countries, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, monitoring at least 80 percent of tier 1 indicators, for which there is an agreed international definition. The use of tier 1 indicators allows us to have internationally comparable performance indicators. In conflict countries such as Syria and Yemen, the best efforts yield about 20 percent of such indicators being monitored. 

Two examples are pertinent here. In Egypt, the statistical agency, Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, is seen by many as a model for the Arab region. Nonetheless, policy makers noted in the official submission to the 2018 Voluntary National Review of the SDGs in the UN Economic and Social Council that, “ Having approximately 87 measurable and regularly updated indicators, coupled with problems of data disaggregation somewhat constrains the SDG monitoring process”. 

More recently, the Morocco Voluntary National Review for 2020, prepared by the Haut Commissariat au Plan, provided data for 102 indicators, of which 61 are tier 1. Hence, comparability year to year or across the region, is fraught with difficulty. 

The relative paucity of statistical data is more evident in a consideration of disaggregated data, with 43 percent of disaggregated indicators simply not available. For example, only Egypt and Palestine report against indicator 8.5.2 on the employment of persons with disabilities. Indeed, in the region as a whole, Egypt, Algeria, Qatar and Morocco use disaggregated data sets, while conflict countries have virtually no such information. In particular, disaggregated data sets that show the different levels of achievement of SDGs by gender,  by age cohorts, or rural/urban residence allow policy makers more clarity in the determination of social policies. 

For public policies to be effective in the achievement of the SDGs, it is important to target specific groups left behind. Gender disaggregated data or data disaggregated by age or ability would be essential for such targeted public policies. The difficulty with indicators is compounded when one considers the vastly divergent development patterns in the region. Insofar as the achievement of the SDGs is concerned, the one certainty we have is that it is impossible to generalize, with any degree of precision, regarding the performance of the region. Rather than list the different indicators available for the SDGs, the reader may wish to review the excellent analysis, using the best available data, in the Arab Sustainable Development Report 2020 (ASDR 2020). A couple of statistics from this report, however, are important to mention. 

The Global Health Security Index, featured in the ASDR 2020, measures the performance of 195 countries regarding access to health services. The Arab region as a whole averages 40.2 percent out of a possible 100, with high income countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the UAE at around 49 percent, and at the other end of the series, Somalia with 16.6 percent. The average number of physicians per 10 thousand persons is 11, with Sudan having 4.1 and Qatar 27.8. The world average is 15 physicians per 10 thousand people. The disparity in income, in access to social services, and to modern technology (such as the internet and broadband connections) is evident throughout the Arab region. 

A second challenge to the achievement of the SDGs in the Arab region is that it is impossible to generalize trends toward SDGs application as there is wide disparity in the development performance of the countries in question. An attempt at an answer would have us group the countries of the Arab world according to whether they are oil exporters, middle income oil importing countries, low income countries or countries in conflict. Yet, the examples of countries in conflict (or recently out of conflict) such as Iraq, Libya and Syria, confound this classification, as Libya and Iraq are top oil exporting nations and Syria is not an oil exporter. 

COVID-19’s Impact on SDGs in the Arab Region

COVID-19 has had a pronounced impact on the prospects for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab region. The World Health Organization collects and provides a daily statistical table on COVID cases and mortality. In this table, again, researchers see that data variability across the Arab world. In Yemen, for example, there were 2066 cases on October 31 and 600 deaths. Observers agree that the actual situation on the ground is far more serious, but that data collection capacities of a country in conflict are lagging behind the real impact of COVID. 

In countries with a more developed public health capacity—for instance, the UAE, with a much smaller population than Yemen—the corresponding figures for October 31 were 132,629 cases, and 495 deaths. Despite data difficulties, the challenge of adding up data with insufficiently comparable collection methodologies caused the Secretary General of the United Nations, in a recent policy paper, to sound the alarm regarding the impact of COVID on development prospects in the Arab region. His words bear repeating here, “The pandemic has also magnified many decades-long challenges. These include violence and conflict; inequalities; unemployment; poverty; inadequate social safety nets; human rights concerns; insufficiently responsive institutions; and an economic model that has not yet met the aspirations of all”. 

Estimates of the increase in poverty levels, and the IMF estimate of the largest contraction of the region’s economy in fifty years, are causes for serious concern. The prospects for the achievement of the SDGs in 2030 appear ever more distant with a quarter of the population of the region (115 million people) in poverty, and the estimated loss of 152 billion dollars of income in 2020 alone. The continuing conflicts in the region, with the Arab world accounting for 25 percent of conflict related deaths on the globe in 2019; an increase in violence against women and a quarter of young people under 29 unemployed, are not encouraging for the prospects of meeting the SDGs.

The impact of COVID on the peoples of the Arab region in terms of health, the economy, and social development seems to have weakened the prospects for the attainment of the SDGs. Yet, this pessimistic conclusion cannot be the final word. Statistical trends—even more so when based on approximate data and averages that mask wide discrepancies—are only trends which might (and only might) assume static public policy. There is another path.

Towards the SDGs: the Importance of Public Policy

Public policy in the Arab region that recognizes the serious nature of its crises and their deleterious impact on development prospects can affect powerful change. We are still at the start of the last decade of action for the SDGs. Ten years is a long time in which to change the development pattern of the countries in question and meet the development goals of their peoples. 

A public policy that takes as a starting point the vulnerabilities of the region and seeks to provide solutions to these vulnerabilities would, in the spirit of the SDGs, recognize the interlinkages between policies affecting poverty, economic growth, social services, climate change and the environment, human rights and effective governance mechanisms. Such a policy would go beyond the tyranny of statistical averages and base governments’ measures on a refined statistical apparatus that is capable of guiding policy makers to where they will do the most good, and direct support to the most vulnerable, leaving no one behind. 

While every country in the Arab world will have its own priorities in order to meet the SDGs, some features would appear to be self-evident. An end to conflict and a reduction in arms imports is the first, indispensable basis from which to start. The conflict in Syria has impoverished 80 percent of the population; the conflict in Yemen has lost the country 30 years of development efforts. Both continue unabated. Recent moves for peace in Sudan and in Libya, the stabilization and reconstruction in Iraq, all bode well for peace in the region. 

Should the conflicts of the Middle East abate, or even end, the peace dividend would be important, both in terms of lives preserved, and in terms of resources not wasted by conflict and instead devoted to development. The Arab region, as a whole, spends 6.2 percent of its GDP on  arms imports, the highest rate in the world. Arab arms imports represent 35 percent of all arms exported in the world. 

Many other public policies, as outlined by the Secretary-General, would help free the Arab region from the vulnerabilities of the current development pattern. These vulnerabilities have amplified the impacts of the COVID crisis. There are some “no regret” policies that can propel the region towards recovery and the achievement of the SDGS. These policies include: a modern statistical apparatus that allows better targeting of development efforts; fostering the equal participation of men and women in the economy to liberate productive forces largely unrecognized; support for medium and small enterprises that constitute 97 percent of all businesses; prioritizing a green recovery that would allow the region to invest in renewable energy taking advantage of its important natural resources; providing access to the internet for the 50 percent of the Arab population that does not currently enjoy it; and the development of public health services and modern education.

We have ten years to break off from our current path of vulnerability and begin a new chapter in the development of the Arab region and its peoples. The policy choices adopted by governments of the region will determine the success of the coming development decade and the achievement of the SDGs.

The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Springboard for a New Middle East Security Architecture

Recent statements by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif clearly reflect a continuing interest in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), albeit with each not wanting to take the first step. A synchronized restoration of the JCPOA as a springboard towards a more far-reaching, ambitious endeavour could provide a unique opportunity to reengage without losing face, as well as respond to the legitimate concerns raised by the deal’s critics.

It is no secret that very few countries in the Middle East truly welcomed the JCPOA when it was concluded. Public reactions were essentially what governments deemed politically appropriate, in various shades of grey, given the strong relations most of the region’s countries have with the United States. Even today, the Iranian nuclear programme and US–Iran relations appear to be amongst the most sensitive issues for American friends in the region, be they Israel, Saudi Arabia or other Arab States.

The JCPOA puts into place restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that exceed those required by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear weapons (NPT)– which it and every state in the region is party to, with the exception of Israel. Nevertheless, significant concerns were raised about the agreement itself, particularly about its sunset clauses which make its validity a function of a fixed rather than indefinite duration. This caused serious anxiety despite the fact that Iran’s obligations to the NPT, as well as to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA andthe Additional Protocol, would continue in perpetuity.

The other major concern raised was that the agreement would pave the way for Iran’s re-inclusion into the international community as a member in good standing and would release to it substantial impounded funds, without addressing its aggressive role in regional conflicts. In essence, the critics fear that the deal would enable Iran to gain greater political stature and economic assets to direct towards its regional policies. Critics also argue that the JCPOA would even provide Iran with a stronger foundation on which to expand its nuclear program once the sunset clause sexpire unless a longer-term agreement can be reached.

I previously raised these issues with former US Secretary of State John Kerry when we were leading our respective countries’ foreign policies. His response then was that the JCPOA was the best achievable deal at the time and was to be seen as a first step to be complemented by other agreements that would cover the concerns I mentioned. Needless to say, my preference was that these concerns be met from the outset.

If that was the understanding of the parties when the deal was concluded in 2015, without prejudice to bilateral or regional security arrangements in the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), why not address that now by putting the JCPOA back on good footing and then build on it by addressing these major concerns with the objective of creating a Middle East security architecture founded on two fundamental pillars? The geographical scope would cover the Arab world, Israel and Iran. Ultimately, arrangements with Turkey would also be beneficial to the greater region.

The first pillar, which should have priority, would focus on disarmament and arms control and would prohibit nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction from the region. This could build on the JCPOA, NPT, Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions (CWC/BWC), and the Comprehensive Nuclear–Test–Ban Treaty (CTBT). Commitments under this pillar would be from all regional states without prejudice, preference or exception and remain indefinite in duration.

The region has repeatedly considered these issues. Now it is high time to end the nuclear proliferation double standards and politically motivated procrastination by embarking on sustained and serious negotiations to create a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East as first proposed in 1974, as well as ridding the region of other weapons of Mass Destruction, as was suggested in the early 1990s.

The second complementary pillar would deal with confidence-building measures, conflict resolution and cooperation. For example, countries could look to the regional security declaration that was almost concluded at the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) multilateral working group emanating from the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference.This declaration was ultimately not adopted because of disagreements on issues relating to nuclear disarmament and self-determination for all nations in the region to include the Palestinians. This year is the 30thanniversary of the Conference, a good reason to visit such a regional security approach. Lessons drawn from the security basket of the OSCE experiences could also be useful, but without falling into the naïve mistake of trying to emulate experiences out of context. Noteworthy in this respect is the recent article published in The Guardian by Former Iranian Ambassador Hussein Mussavian and Dr Abdel Aziz ELSager, a prominent Saudi Arabian Analyst, calling for reciprocal confidence-building measures.

In the context of the second pillar, an initial step could be the development of general guidelines for regional practices of both a security and political nature. These could include inter alia combating terrorism, the illicit arms and drugs trade, noninterference in the internal affairs of others and ensuring good neighbourly relations. This would all ultimately help in the resolution of the major and perennial conflicts in the region if the political will exists to do so. While a complete construct would take time and require a different political context, steps towards a regional security architecture umbrella could provide an opportunity for progress even before full recognition or normalization is achieved.This is often the case through the United Nations, where states in conflict, and even without reciprocal recognition, frequently engage in multilateral negotiations and accept commitments to international treaties in a global context that have regional implications.

Through a dual pillared approach with priority for disarmament and arms control, the legitimate reservations and hesitations of all parties can be addressed. Pursuing these goals will require both widespread international support as well as direct negotiations amongst the regional parties or at least amongst some of them. My suggestion, therefore, is that while the JCPOA gets on track, this process is initiated and developed under the auspices of the United Nations, with the P5 as convenors. They should invite all the regional parties to meetings to establish the negotiating modalities of the two pillars, where regional players would have the main but not necessarily exclusive role.

This is an ambitious proposal. However, the issues at hand cannot be partially addressed or concluded piecemeal. Far worse than failure would be to let these issues fester further, with the region facing even more ominous consequences in the future.

Originally published by the European Leadership Network

What to Expect from Biden in the Middle East

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about President-elect Biden’s Middle East policies.

Whenever a newly elected U.S. president is about to be inaugurated, we see a flurry of articles about new domestic and foreign policy initiatives that are under consideration. Some of these turn out to be obvious, some insightful, and some plain wrong. Remember that in 2000, George W. Bush had promised to conduct a “modest” foreign policy—but that was before the September 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the subsequent American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Still, even if one cannot be sure that any set of predictions will stand up in the face of unforeseen events such as 9/11, we do have some indicators of what might change once President-elect Joe Biden settles into the White House. We can be pretty sure that he will try to undo some of outgoing President Donald Trump’s most controversial policies. We can also be sure that he will have to spend much of his time dealing with the fractured political system, the fragile economy, and the Covid-19 pandemic.  

We do know, despite the immediate pressures to focus on domestic issues, that Biden has spent much of his long career as a senator and as vice-president with a strong interest in foreign policy.  So, we should expect that he will devote some of his attention to these issues, and he has provided a number of clues about his priorities. We can look at his words and his initial choices for his foreign policy team to draw some preliminary conclusions.

Biden has said that the United States will focus on restoring good working relations with allies, especially in Europe; that it will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization; and that it will seek to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to try to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. Only the last of these steps will arouse much controversy in America and among certain countries in the Middle East that worry about any easing of pressure on Iran.

Obama Veterans

When we look at the key members of Biden’s foreign policy/national security team, we see mostly familiar names from the Obama period, especially those who worked closely with Biden when he was vice-president. His choice for secretary of state is Antony Blinken and his National Security Adviser will be Jake Sullivan. They both have close personal ties to Biden and are close friends. They fit the model of internationalists, with a focus on Europe and a propensity for preferring diplomacy to military force, but are also determined to reassert American leadership in world affairs. How these predispositions will play out in an era of American fatigue from numerous “endless wars”, especially in the Middle East, is impossible to predict with certainty. Suffice it to say that both of these key advisers seem to have concluded that the Middle East should not enjoy the centrality in American foreign policy that it did in the Obama era, and that relations with Europe, Russia and China will top the agenda for the new administration.

Biden has also selected as head of the CIA an experienced diplomat, William Burns—an unusual but widely welcomed choice. Burns is an experienced and respected diplomat, having served as ambassador to Jordan and Russia; he was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs; and he was both undersecretary of state for political affairs and deputy secretary of state in the Obama era. For the position of Deputy Secretary of State Biden has named Wendy Sherman, one of the principal negotiators with Iran of the JCPOA. The only other name that may give us some hint of Biden’s thinking is the choice of Brett McGurk to head the Middle East office at the National Security Council. McGurk has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, most recently for Trump on issues involving Iraq and Syria and support for the Kurds in Syria as allies in the fight against ISIS/Daesh. Late last year, McGurk resigned when Trump called for the removal of all American troops from Syria. If his voice is heeded, we should not expect a sudden departure of American forces from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Biden himself has been stalwart in his support of the NATO alliance, his belief in the benefits of the free trade system and much of the post-World War II set of international institutions that sought to regulate international affairs. He did support the 2003 intervention in Iraq, but as vice-president he opposed Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, expressing doubts about the project of “nation building” there; he also reportedly opposed Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya in 2011. In recent years, he has expressed his concern about the blank-check policy that Trump seemed to follow with Saudi Arabia; and he has been critical of Trump’s attempt to court authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although he knows them both and will almost certainly try to reestablish a personal relationship with them. His views on China are not clear, although he has expressed skepticism about the heavy use of tariffs to try to pressure Beijing.

With this as background, here are my best guesses of what we can expect in the coming months as the Biden administration turns its attention to the Middle East.  

Priority: Iran

The top priority issue will be to try to rejoin and revitalize the JCPOA, and so we should expect the appointment of an “Iran Czar” to lead the diplomacy of reengagement. The new team understands that the window for action may close early, since Iran is facing presidential elections of its own by mid-year. They understand that if Iran is to reverse course on its enrichment of uranium, there will have to be immediate relief from the harsh sanctions that the United States has imposed. Other issues such as Iran’s development of missiles, and its regional actions that alarm some of America’s friends and allies, will be dealt with in subsequent talks, but cannot be resolved prior to rejoining the JCPOA. The Biden team know that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and especially Israel will not be happy with this initiative, but they will not be deterred from trying. The alternative, they fear, would be a future risk of war with Iran, a race by other countries to acquire nuclear capabilities, and a continuation of instability in the region. 

The Biden team is also determined to rebalance the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, with the UAE and Israel. With Saudi Arabia and the UAE there will be serious talks about ending military operations in Yemen and trying to address the humanitarian disaster there. It is not clear if Biden will immediately reverse the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, but that is a possibility. In addition, some of the multi-billion-dollar arms sales promised to the UAE and Saudi Arabia may be reviewed and even frozen. 

Israel is a different matter, in large part because of domestic politics and Biden’s own strong support for Israel over the years. Biden knows Netanyahu well, has disagreed with him in public on such matters as settlement activity in the West Bank, but seems to believe that he can use his personal relationship to moderate Netanyahu’s more extreme tendencies. This suggests that he will not reverse the decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, but he will make clear that the Trump-Kushner so-called peace plan will not be his point of departure.

This leaves relations with Turkey as a third priority of the Biden team. It is not clear who will take the lead on this, since McGurk is not welcome in Ankara. And although Biden has on occasions been critical of Erdogan, he certainly understands that Turkey plays an important role, both as a member of NATO and a regional power with influence in Syria and beyond. This might be a case where Biden gets directly involved in trying to smooth the relationship with Turkey, or he might task his secretary of state or a special envoy with the job.

When it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue, which has preoccupied US presidents since at least the late 1960s, it cannot be ignored but will not be a top priority for Biden in present circumstances. At most, we might expect an early end to the boycott of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and renewed support for United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) funding for Palestinian refugees. In addition, some form of diplomatic contacts will be restored between the US and the PA, but the details have not yet been worked out. The knee-jerk reaction will be to try to build support for the so-called two state solution, although very few people actually believe it has a chance of being accepted by the key parties in present circumstances.

Sudden Shifts

The above list leaves many other important issues and relationships unaddressed. This does not mean that relations with countries such as Egypt and Jordan will be unimportant; nor will American diplomats cease to focus on developments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Libya. For example, the Maghreb will receive a modest amount of attention. But none of these issues will be at the top of Biden’s agenda when he takes office on January 20, 2021. In terms of an overall view of the region, the Biden team wants to devote less time and attention to the Middle East; it is no longer going to play the misguided game of trying to topple regimes to make way for emerging democracies. It may continue to talk about human rights, but in a softer voice than in the past, and it will be more inclined to address regional issues in cooperation with other actors—sometimes the Europeans, sometimes strong players in the region, sometimes with Russia, and, who knows, even with China in the future.

Several developments could alter these projections, perhaps even quite suddenly. If the effort to rejoin the JCPOA fails, that could revive a call for more pressure on Iran through even tougher sanctions. If the peace talks in Afghanistan fail, that might also slow down the plans for disengaging militarily from the region. And, if ISIS/Daesh or al-Qaida were to make a comeback somewhere in the region, this also might force a reassessment of how to deal with a clear threat to regional and international stability. But the Biden team is hoping to avoid these distractions and focus instead on domestic issues—the top priority—and the need for a new policy to deal with China’s growing power and influence.  Maintaining a stable nuclear balance with Russia is also a must.

In conclusion, there is one other factor that could change the priorities of the Biden team: in the Middle East today, there are a number of leaders who have been in power for a long time, and almost certainly there will be some changes in coming years. Some of these changes may not have much impact on foreign affairs, but one can never be sure. Remember what happened when Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser died in September 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat.  Within a relatively short period of time, Egypt’s foreign policy orientation had shifted, the 1973 war had been fought, and a turn toward US-led peace diplomacy was underway. 

Similarly, when the Shah of Iran was forced out of his country at the end of 1978 and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s foreign policy changed abruptly, with huge consequences for the region and for the United States. In today’s Middle East we see leaders such as President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas who has been in power since 2005; Bashar al-Asad who has ruled Syria since his father’s death in 2000; Erdogan who has been in power in Turkey since 2003; and Ali Khamenei who has been Supreme Leader in Iran since 1989. King Salman of Saudi Arabia is 85 years old and his passing could reopen the question of succession. Israel’s Netanyahu, in power since 2009, might also be reaching the end of his ability to hold his fractious Likud party together.

In short, within a relatively short period, the Biden administration could be faced with new issues, new leaders, and new dilemmas in the Middle East. Every administration in recent memory has tried to establish its own preferred approach to this complex region. And each has had to make mid-course adjustments, as events in the region force reassessments of what is important and what is possible. At a minimum, it is reassuring to know that Biden starts with a relatively realistic and modest agenda, informed by the failure of the past three presidents, and with a team of advisers who are generally competent and informed. That is no guarantee of good or effective policies, but it is a relief after four years of incompetence and recklessness.

Theater for All

Western Theatre in Global Contexts: Directing and Teaching Culturally Inclusive Drama Around the World, edited by Jillian Campana and Yasmine Marie Jahanmir, Routledge: New York & London, 2021.      

In contemporary postcolonial times, many scholars from the Global North might shy away from sharing their perceptions of (and Western gaze onto) non-Western cultures. The history of colonialism, and its notorious cultural hegemonic      practices of the past, possibly prevents scholars from making such opinions and haunts the undertaking of any such projects. However, in Western Theatre in Global Contexts: Directing and Teaching Culturally Inclusive Drama Around the World, editors Jillian Campana and Yasmine Marie Jahanmir, together with a number of scholars, are quite comfortable compiling and contributing articles that specifically tackles some of these challenging subject matter/s.

The pertinent question herein is whether in this day and age Western scholars and artists should keep unexpressed findings of their experiences and research about cultures of the Global South for fear of evaluative assumptions.  Or should they brave the storm of suspicion that shrouds research concerned with developing cultures and ancient civilizations, which is usually expected to be condescending and neocolonial in nature. This appears to be a rather delicate situation.

Instead of being beset by such perceptions, Campana and Jahanmir face those arguments head-on with intellectual retort as they set out to engage with non-Western cultural traditions and dramatic aesthetics with grace, respect, enthusiasm, and most importantly, sincere inquiry. They state at the outset, “We hope to challenge artists and educators to expand the ways in which they teach, direct and facilitate Western theatre, to acknowledge and embrace the challenges and to listen to, learn from and work with the local communities.” Furthermore, their work does not approach the pedagogy, artistic productions, and the tradition of non-Western cultures from a structural binary prism. On the contrary, the editors pose the question of how best to decolonize educational curricula and fill “previous [colonial] gaps in pedagogy”.  Thus, the articles that constitute the four parts of Western Theatre in Global Contexts ponder many of the in-between spaces that constitute transcultural knowledge as opposed to notions of difference and discord. A s Erika Fischer-Lischt, renowned dramatic theorist, puts it, interweaving cultural experiences can only produce “citizens of the world”.

Every chapter within Western Theatre in Global Contexts involves case studies of endeavors made by educators and artists in different parts of the globe to produce Western theater in non-Western regions. In the chapters, contributors self-reflect on the outcomes of their transcultural experiences. Notably, authors share both the successes and challenges that have arisen as a result of working on plays and introducing techniques steeped in Western tradition outside of the English-speaking world. While their experiences may be singular and personal, throughout the entire volume, they offer similar insights and have an obvious appreciation of multiculturalism.

This earnestness is a long shot from the Eurocentric snobbery of the past. The tone of the authors is often self-reflective and at times even critical of how Western pedagogy and tradition have continued to hold a reputation of superiority for as long as it did. In fact, one of the most interesting self-reflections is the authors’ implicit collective agreement that their transcultural experiences in theater were mutually enlightening, inspiring, and educational. And while it is a fact that Western theater, its techniques and practices, have had great influence on world theatrical performances for many reasons—coloniality (certainly) being the most evident one—its dominance is at times viewed with reprehension because it represents a form of cultural imperialism. Western Theatre in Global Contexts, however, transcends this complexity by underscoring that the interweaving of cultures supersedes political hegemony. After all, universal themes and common human experiences at the heart of Western arts are what continue to draw artists and educators from around the globe in spite of the inexcusable history of Western occupation.

Marvin Carlson asserts in Part I of the book, “Global Flows: Western Theatre in International Context,” that mastering Western languages and cultures today translates into power as it opens up job prospects and opportunities to individuals in the Global South. It is therefore no wonder that getting a Western education, outside of the Global North, is usually exorbitant as it aims to produce global citizens with higher linguistic abilities and training. In viewing the study of Western humanities as a gateway to finding better job opportunities, Carlson draws points of similarities and differences between students and practitioners of theater in both Egypt and China, and notes that in both countries Western-style theater continues to be elitist—presented by the Western educated and received by the equally Western cultured connoisseurs.

Part II, “International Stages: Western Theatre in Performance,” focuses on specific Western plays produced and performed in various regions of the Global South. While Campana explores the restrictions of censorship in Egypt, where she has directed Lysistrata (an ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes about women withholding sex from men in order to motivate them to end the Peloponnesian War), Arnab Benerji engages with the topic of conservatism and introducing Western texts within non-Western cultures by discussing productions of Top Girls and the Knight and Burning Pestle in India. He states that adaptive twists, inversion of roles, as well as, adding Asian features have helped make those productions appealing to local cultures. Additionally, Jahanmir writes about the tribulations of casting the American musical drama West Side Story in Kuwait and explains the difficulties she has encountered when attempting to veer away from the Hollywood model of casting according to skin, color, and race.

In “Across a Cloudy Room: The Cultural Appropriation of Western Musicals by Chinese Students at the Expense of their National Identity: A Case Study,” James P. Marrione and Mei Song maintain that they have both exerted great efforts in finding an answer to why Chinese artists “engage exclusively with foreign material instead of their own cultural experience”. This has proved to be elusive according to the two authors and one that they concede could not be fully answered. On the other hand, armed with Edward Said’s assertion that, “No one today is purely one thing,” and with a strong inclination to listen to the opinions of his students of mixed nationalities, M. Tardi reveals his surprise when introducing a new course at his university in Oman in “How to Swim in the Desert: On Developing Theatre in Oman.” He recalls the remarkable zest with which he was met when he introduced practices in theater-making to a theoretical course that was merely meant to introduce readings of one-act plays.

In Part III of the book, entitled “Pedagogy Abroad: Western Theatre in Education,” five authors share their perspectives on presenting a variety of Western theatrical practices to non-Western students and audiences. Adam Christopher Marple reflects on his commitment to introduce Viewpoints, a theatrical technique that integrates movement with emotions and space to non-Western/non-English speaking students. He observes that using this technique in Singapore facilitated artistic communication and allowed him to transcend national diversity. Next Anne Drouet and Campana give an extensive overview of the founding, activities, and achievements of the collaboration between The International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) and the performing arts academies in Shanghai and Hong Kong. They state that this partnership, “[which] focus[es] on collaborative devising across the artforms,” has invariably resulted in “developing interpersonal and communication skills, offering new insights across the art forms, stretching students in terms of personal and world values, encouraging individual and common goals, and fostering deep connections with others”.  In the next chapter, Fenella Kelly comments on the benefits of teaching within the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum in many parts of the world, and notes that it fosters confidence and communication across cultures and grows internationally minded students through the study of theater. In “Collaborative Creations,” Anne Garcia-Romero describes the gratification that emerged from her artistic collaborations and devised performances with theater colleagues in Chile.

The final part of the book, entitled “Intercultural Exchanges: Theory and Practice,” is comprised of four chapters that revolve around successful theories that can be put into practice across borders. Selma Helal recalls instilling the “concepts of liberty, dignity and justice that define the Revolution [and that] materialize in the Post-Revolution Tunisia” by way of using classical Western dramatic texts. In post-colonial theater in Madagascar, Haddy Kreie writes about the complications that sometimes arise from integrating Western drama into non-Western political affairs for the purpose of drawing attention to the abuses of political and religious centers of power. Similarly, Sarah Roberts and Neka Da Costa share their creative process in producing Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for school pupils in Johannesburg. The last article in the book, “Intersections and Encounters,” by Lynne Kent lays out the details of interweaving Arab (Jordanian) and Australian puppetry traditions and the thrilling outcome of creating a hybrid theatrical experience.

In the conclusion, Campana and Jahanmir reflect on the wide range of pedagogies and artistic experiences expressed and shared by all the contributors of Western Theatre in Global Contexts: Directing and Teaching Culturally Inclusive Drama Around the World. Their final thoughts affirm the vital role of interconnecting art and education across continents, races, and nations in the twenty-first century. Without those connections, the world would continue on the regressive and divisive track of the past, when lack of knowledge about the other abetted the politics of oppression of those in power.

Explaining Egypt’s January 2011 Revolution between Conspiracy and Conventional Wisdom

Like all major historical events, the January 2011 Revolution gave rise to many questions about its causes, actors, trajectory and consequences. These questions are important because they address the accountability and responsibility for the human cost the country incurred. In 18 days, hundreds of Egyptians were killed and thousands injured. In the two tumultuous years which followed, between the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011 and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood rule on July 3, 2013, thousands more would be killed and wounded.

Since then, the armed forces were instrumental in restoring order and bringing the country back to an authoritarian order not very different from the one which preceded the January Revolution. The Egypt scenario was one of a series of revolutions that broke out in no less than four other Arab countries and which all ended in a general erosion of what was until then considered an Arab regional order to the benefit of non-Arab Middle Eastern countries. It is therefore legitimate to inquire about the actors who produced this drastic shift in domestic and regional power relations. 

Political scientists tried to shed light on these events, offering their own interpretations. Some argued that they were the last phase of Democracy’s third wave putting an end to the so-called “Arab exceptionalism”. Others argued that they were the product of the socio-economic tensions unleashed by the neo-liberal policies “recommended” or “dictated” by international financial institutions. A third explanation located these events in a wider perspective of a global wave of protests against an emerging world capitalist order. Still, some of them found the answer in the dialectics of modernization which raises levels of expectations among mobilized masses but deprives them of the capabilities necessary to fulfill these expectations.

These interpretations could be consumption items for scholars of different disciplines in their academic meetings and publications. However, Arab public opinion did not seem to be much concerned with their debates and did not offer a convincing explanation of the causes that brought to the ground the apparently solid structures of authoritarianism in most of the countries which were swept by this wave of massive protest. For Arab public opinion, such suffering, bloodshed, large scale displacement and forced migration of millions of people in Syria, Yemen and Libya, and the free play of regional and foreign powers all over the Arab world could not be the work of impersonal forces of democracy’s third wave, neo-liberal policies, and dialectics of modernization or globalization. For several Arab commentators, all these blows to Arab dignity and position in the world system must have been the work of an evil power that does not wish good for the Arabs. For them, this “evil power”, could not be other than the United States—”leader of the imperial west, the historical enemy of Arab nationalism and of Islam”.

This belief that the United States was the power behind this “human disaster” that befell the Arab world did not come out of academic debates but was the stuff of narratives of a conspiracy skillfully woven by the leading country in the international system.

Conspiracy theories are not new in the Arab world, nor are they uniquely an Arab phenomenon. They feed popular imagination in nearly all countries, highly advanced and the poor, in the North and the South, in the past and at present. The most recent of such theories was articulated in the United States among supporters of former President Donald Trump who thought that foreign powers including China, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations secretly planned to remove the country from its leadership position on the world stage.

Conspiracy theory could be defined as a theory that rejects the standard explanation of an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot. Such a plot could be a manifestation of an irrational mind, or a feature of a certain societal culture. It usually prevails among less educated people. No matter which of these theoretical definitions is accepted by scholars, it is also true that conspiracies did and do take place in domestic and international politics. Examples abound of conspiracies that preceded major events in world history in specific countries. The First World War broke out in the wake of an action by a Serbian nationalist who conspired to assassinate the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Another example well-known in Arab history was the drawing of the map of the modern Middle East in secret negotiations between British and French officials during the First World War. Such negotiations ironically took place at a time when a British spy popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia was promising Sharif Hussein, the prince of Mecca, and Arab revolutionaries that Great Britain would recognize an independent Arab Kingdom extending from the Levant to the whole of Arabia to be ruled by the Hussein family.

Such a promise was conditioned on Arabs revolting against the Ottoman Empire which was in control of most of the region. Wasn’t the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 which paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel, another conspiracy against the Palestinians who were the majority inhabitants of that territory? The conspiracy element in all these stories was to be found in the secrecy that shrouded the actions of state officials planning behind closed doors schemes that ran counter to their public declarations.

Popular “conspiracy theories” are usually rejected by scholars as merely irrational narratives, products of the imagination of misinformed masses or megalomaniac individuals. They should not be dismissed, however, not only because they find a receptive audience among millions of people but also because they could be believed by policy-makers themselves and inspire their actions. Policy-makers are vulnerable to such narratives, particularly when they offer a seemingly plausible explanation of events that put them in complex situations for which they were unprepared, and whose origins they could not fathom.

Conspiracy theory and Arab “Dignity Revolts”

This is particularly the case with some of the popular narratives of the origins of the Arab Dignity Revolts, commonly known as the “Arab Spring”. The initial successes of these revolts in removing autocrats in three Arab countries in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; and challenging the authority of two others in Yemen and Syria, were followed soon after not only by government instability in all these countries but more grave consequences in terms of the loss of national sovereignty, opening the door to foreign intervention and protracted civil wars in three Arab countries, namely Libya, Syria and Yemen, with serious implications for their domestic and regional security. How is it then that the optimistic expectations of establishing rule of law, under which people exercise civil and political rights and freely elect their rulers, were not realized and instead, either the old ways of ruling persisted or sovereign states became free play arenas for regional and foreign powers to settle their differences by the force of arms. 

Instead of ushering in a new dawn of democracy and well-being for Arab peoples, this region was transformed into the New Sick Man of the world. How could the self-immolation of a street vendor in a small town in Tunisia trigger the fall from power of four Arab leaders,  spawn civil wars in three Arab countries and inspire mass protests in other countries of the region? Some Arab commentators suggest that such developments ultimately played to the benefit of non-Arab countries of the region—such as Iran, Turkey, Israel; and even encouraged Ethiopia to embark on the building of the GRED that threatens to deprive Egypt of its historically recognized share of Nile water—and therefore could not have come about unintentionally. 

For many people in the region, these developments with their negative consequences were not accidental. They were either provoked or master-minded by an external actor who did not wish well for the Arabs. These commentators wonder which external actor is capable of instigating such an earthquake in the Arab World but were it not for the United States. 

The claim that the January Revolution as well as all the other Arab Dignity Revolts were an American conspiracy is so common in Arab media that it would take no more than a simple search on the internet under the phrase America and Arab revolutions in Arabic to get hundreds of articles offering a detailed account of an American conspiracy against Arab peoples. Such narratives are not limited to one Arab country as one can find this claim echoed in many countries. I found an expression of this claim in the media of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Those who are articulating such narratives include journalists, television talk show hosts and anchors, former generals, professors of history and even government institutions. 

For the advocates of this narrative, there is a common agreement that the “conspiracy” did not start under the Obama Administration. Many commentators took it back to December 2004 under President George W. Bush and the establishment of the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) and the holding of the Forum for Future conferences that brought together representatives of governments, business and civil society organizations from Arab and non-Arab countries. According to such narratives, the way envisaged to bring about democratic change in the Middle was to offer assistance to civil society organizations, such as human rights and women groups who call for democracy, and to train their leaders on methods of peaceful protest that could escalate into massive revolts that could topple authoritarian governments, similar to what had happened in the “colored revolutions” of Central and Eastern Europe. Some versions of this story added that the United States was even complicit in getting Islamists to power in Egypt and Tunisia and was sympathetic to Islamists in Libya following the fall of Muammar Al Gaddafi’s regime. 

Hostile reactions by U.S. media, Congressional leaders and the limited sanctions imposed by the Obama administration following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt on July 3, 2013 were taken as concrete evidence that Washington even engineered the January Revolution in order to get the Islamists to power. The WikiLeaks publication of email communications from former U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2012) Hillary Clinton, including references to a visit by MB members to Washington in 2012 and their meetings with Department of State senior officials, was seen in the Egyptian media as unmistakable evidence that not only was she in favor of the MB running the government in Egypt but was also giving them instructions on how to sow trouble in the country. The meetings took place in April 2012 just a few weeks before presidential elections that brought Mohammed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency.

Interestingly enough, the role of the armed forces was not mentioned in these narratives whether as supporters of the demand for change or defenders of the existing order.

The perceived rationale for this preference for a political movement that had been known for its anti-Western views was a commitment on the part of MB to safeguard U.S. interests in the region in return for Washington’s support of their quest for power. 

 The role attributed to the United States in these narratives was that of encouraging the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world but none of these narratives went as far as suggesting that U.S. officials or agencies were directly involved in the planning or the steering of protest actions.

Unlike proponents of conspiracy theory in other regions who tend usually to come from less educated groups, those who disseminate such theories in the Arab world include people who are highly educated. A reader of their statements would find among them university professors, members of research centers and highly placed former army officers. They strive to find some piece of evidence to demonstrate the validity of their claims, citing statements of American officials or specific programs initiated by the U.S. government. They point to calls by former President G.W. Bush for  the United States to promote democracy in the region; the announcement by Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state in July 2006 during the Israeli bombardment of Beirut that the “New Middle East” had been born; or the establishment of the Broader Middle East Initiative earlier in 2004; Clinton’s memoirs or her communications with her staff at the State Department in addition to mediation efforts by Anne Patterson U.S. ambassador in Egypt (August 2011-August 2013) between the Muslim Brothers and the military as sufficient proof that Washington’s engineering of the January Revolution was, beyond any doubt, an established fact.

Taking conspiracy theory seriously

Let us assume that such conspiracy theories are indeed accurate in identifying the forces behind the launching of Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011, and led to serious domestic and regional political consequences. Should scholars of the region dismiss such narratives as irrational emanations of uninformed people, or as ideologically-inspired statements driven by nationalist zeal and even anti-Americanism? In fact, such narratives must be taken seriously, because they definitely do not contribute to good friendly relations among countries, even though the “culprit” in these narratives is the U.S. government and not the American people. Past experiences, and more particularly the recent history of terrorist attacks, however, have shown that citizens do often pay the cost of the negative image other countries hold of their government. 

Equally important in this context is that policy-makers are not immune from the influence of such “conspiracy theories”. They may not afford to take a retaliatory action against a government depicted in such negative terms in the popular mind but they may punish some of its citizens or their own citizens believing that they serve the unfriendly interests of that government. During the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2012, sixteen foreign and seventeen Egyptian citizens, all members of NGOs, were arrested and put on trial in the same year. They were accused of illegally receiving foreign funding and operating without government approval. The foreigners included five Americans, who were working for democracy-promoting institutions (International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House), and Europeans from Germany and Finland—the resident director of the German Konrad Adenuer Stiftung think tank and his assistant. The list also included Serbians as well as people from other Arab countries. The Egyptians were NGO’ activists. The foreigners were released on bail in 2012 and left the country but all were initially sentenced in 2013 to one or up to five years in jail. They were all acquitted by the Cairo Criminal Court in 2018. This case strained U.S.-Egyptian relations throughout all these years.

As the region marks the 10th anniversary of these historical changes, and as a new U.S. administration takes office led by people who had worked closely with former President Barack Obama—who is depicted in these narratives as sympathetic to the MB, it becomes vital to examine the claims made by these conspiracy theories.

Can such claims endure in the face of emerging evidence and accounts from U.S. policy-makers who were in power in 2011 as well as Department of State documents which have been made public? Fortunately, two of the top officials during the Obama administration during these crucial years—Clinton and Obama himself—have published their memoirs and told the story of their reactions to Arab revolts. Some relevant U.S. documents, including the famous Hilary Clinton’s email communications, found their way to WikiLeaks. Unless other credible accounts emerge, we have no other way of substantiating these claims.

But history reveals its own agenda.

The Obama administration resisted pressures to label the events of June-July 2013 as a military coup d’état, which, according to U.S. laws, would have led to the cessation of all military assistance to Egypt. The White House at the time only suspended the release of certain items and resumed full military assistance once the country presumably got an elected president in 2014 and an elected parliament in 2015. 

No matter which argument is used to reject claims that the January Revolution was an American conspiracy to install the MB in power, advocates of the “conspiracy theory” will not be convinced, and would instead offer their own counter-interpretation to whatever truth the counter-evidence proposed. They would say that Clinton did meet MB members in Washington, and that Obama’s Presidential Directive of 2011 was already used to engineer the revolution in Egypt. They will also claim that top U.S. security officials were indeed conspiring with Egyptian army commanders to overthrow Mubarak.

Conspiracy theories have a life of their own, despite all evidence to their contrary. They serve functions other than telling the truth about any event. They offer simple and easy narratives for complex events whose causes and intricacies are difficult to fathom. They relieve political leaders from any responsibility for their failures and setbacks since the conspiracy theories identify powerful forces, over which such actors cannot have any control, as the originators of such events. They also provide political actors with ideological weapons to use against their adversaries, charging them consequently with being agents of foreign powers.

Debating conspiracy theory is, however useful, not only for academic purposes but perhaps equally, to limit their chances of gaining a wider public.

A Visualization of Egypt’s Economic Performance During COVID-19

Every corner of the world has been impacted by the pandemic’s effect on the economy, but the extent to which they have taken a hit has varied from country to country. Egypt, for example, has so far done better than others in the region in part due to the fact that a full lockdown was never implemented, but also because of its enhanced macroeconomic resilience by way of recent reforms.

In a webinar hosted by the Cairo Center for African Studies “Assessing the Economic Impact of COVID-19 and Policy Responses in Africa”, Said Bakhache, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) senior resident representative in Egypt, reviewed how Egypt’s economic performance facilitated pandemic-response and offered some of his recommendations for the future.

Difficult Decisions

Egypt went to the IMF in 2016 for a $12 billion loan. Although a difficult decision, Bakhache believes that if Egypt hadn’t taken the loan at that time “the situation would be very dire”. For example, from 2012 to 2015, central bank reserves were critically low at $15-16 billion, falling below the threshold needed to cover three months’ imports. Furthermore, the value of the pound was artificially inflated to allow the importing of vital goods, and access to foreign currency outside of activities deemed essential was restricted.

As a result, Egypt undertook a series of reforms to restructure its economy. These reforms included floating the Egyptian pound, essentially doubling the cost of imports (and gains from exports) overnight. Fiscal reforms such as cutting and restructuring subsidies, especially energy subsidies on electricity and fuel, were pursued, and pensions were reformed. A slow privatization program, which is still underway, was initiated. The difficult question of Egypt’s notoriously low tax collection was also tackled with measures such as expanding the sales tax to cover services as well as goods through the newly-introduced value-added tax. Several other technical and regulatory reforms were also undertaken, such as increasing the central bank’s interest rate to attract portfolio investment. Spending on social security programs was also increased to 1 percent of the GDP—a measure which would have been considered off-brand for the IMF in the past. Indeed, programs such as Takafol and Karama, which provide cash transfers to orphans, the elderly and disabled, and families with students, have been continually expanded, currently reaching more than 3 million households.

These reforms, however, were austerely felt. The purchasing power of Egyptians was hard hit due to the flotation of the pound combined with subsidy cuts and tax increases, which exacerbated poverty and lowered the standard of living for almost all Egyptians. Nevertheless, the merits of the reforms were seen during the Covid-19 crisis. Bakhache said that these reforms generally made the economy more resilient, giving officials a “healthy policy space” to take the measures necessary to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

For example, fiscal reforms especially with regards to energy subsidies led to unprecedented primary surpluses in the budget; in 2018, the Ministry of Finance announced that it had achieved a 0.2 percent primary surplus for the first time in fifteen years. On the monetary side, Bakhache said that reserves reached a comfortable position of over $40 billion from its lowest at 15 billion in 2014. Banks are also now in a “healthy situation,” he added. Moreover, inflation has gone down significantly since the flotation-induced spike, peaking at almost 33 percent in July of 2017 before falling to just over 4 percent this January.

Of course, Covid-19 produced a shock to the system that resulted in a big outflow of capital from Egypt, with, for example, portfolio investment, which is known as “hot money” due to the quickness at which it can enter and exit markets, going from $43 billion in FY18/19 to -$73 billion in 19/20

Pandemic Response

Yet, the crisis was contained “a lot better than expected,” said Bakhach especially compared to other countries. The IMF economist believes that “Egypt is a great example of how to deal with a crisis but also how to address challenges that are looming”. He praised the government’s fiscal policy, allocating  EGP 100 billion to combat the pandemic and mitigate its effects. For example, it extended welfare as part of the Takaful and Karama to an additional 142,000 households, serving 3.6 million Egyptians, gave EGP 500 to irregular workers for three months, increased tax exemptions, and raised health spending by 47 percent and that of education by 14.8 percent. It also earmarked contingency money for possible expansions in pandemic response.

Bakhache also praised Egypt’s proactive seeking of financing at the start of the pandemic, before the pressures of the pandemic intensified. Egypt went to the IMF for an emergency loan of 2.7 billion, in May 2020, and sought a 5.2 billion twelve-month Stand-By Arrangement that was approved in June. He expects that given the measures it took, Egypt will not need to go to the IMF again at this time. 

However, the crisis is still playing out and Bakhache questions “whether the reforms of the past few years can still carry the Egyptian economy for the remainder of the crisis and beyond Covid”. He emphasized the need for continued reforms, despite having been the only country in the region to experience positive GDP growth in 2020. 

As seen in the graph below, Egypt recorded 3.8 percent GDP growth in 2020, ahead of the average for both advanced and emerging economies, where both groups recorded a contraction in real GDP. However, according to IMF projections, both country groups will exhibit a stronger recovery in 2021, with advanced economies achieving a 4 percent real GDP growth and emerging markets 6 percent. While Egypt is still above average in projections for the medium term, concerns remain over longstanding issues in the Egyptian economy. 

Challenges Remain

Bakhache noted that there are still looming challenges associated with the growth outlook, drawing our attention to the less-than-promising investment, exports, and labor market situation. He said that growth so far has been driven by consumption, and points to the fact that 50 percent of investment in Egypt is made by the public sector. There is low private investment, with most foreign direct investment (FDI) mainly coming from the oil sector.

While one of the goals of the recent reforms was to spur industry to shift toward an (at least in part) export-oriented economy, this has yet to happen. Exports are low compared to any country grouping, and the trade balance is still a burden on the balance of payments. On average, as illustrated below, Egypt’s imports are $35 billion higher than its exports. “The ability for the Egyptian economy to integrate into the global value chain depends on the ability of exporters to import products on which they can add value and then export again”.

Sectors which have driven this growth, such as oil and tourism (pre-Covid), have been successful. Petroleum, for example, retains over a third of the share of proceeds from exports, as can be seen in the graph below. Bakhache believes the road to growth for Egypt is through diversification.

When it comes to the labor market, unemployment is declining, but youth unemployment is still very high at above 30 percent, and female participation in the market remains lower than desired at less than 80 percent. Moreover, Bakhache stated that the quality of jobs is generally poor, as many are in the informal sector, where there is no job security or labor protections. Bakhache also warned that the biggest issue facing the labor market is demographic, stating that Egypt’s working age population will increase by 30 percent in the next twenty years, and that the effects of this will be felt this decade.

This lends to reason why the private sector needs to be energized. While he recommended staying on the path of the current macroeconomic policy of treating the interest rate with caution, which has been gradually lowered from its peak of 19.25 percent to 8.75 percent, there is also a need to deepen reforms and empower the private sector. In that vein, the state’s role in the economy must be clarified, and regulatory and bureaucratic impediments to participation must be identified and eliminated. According to Bakhache, it is essential to “create the space and environment for the private sector to take advantage of these opportunities”. 

On Poverty, Inequality, and Structural Reforms

Bakhache looks forward to the deepening and sustaining of efforts with regards to economic reform. When asked about how macroeconomic indicators reflect on the general well being of the Egyptian people, the IMF expert stated that there have been improvements in growth and employment, but that he would still like to see more spillover from strong macroeconomic indicators into more widespread and inclusive employment. He stated that the numbers are not completely reflective of the relatively worse situation on the ground.

Unfortunately, Egypt still has widespread poverty, as most jobs in the informal sector are low-paying and often well below the minimum wage. The national poverty rate in Egypt recently went down just before the pandemic from 32.5 percent in 2017/2018 to 29.7 percent in 2019/2020; however, the pandemic is expected to exacerbate poverty once more. 

Egypt’s national poverty line is set at EGP 857 per month, which is around EGP 28.5 and $1.82 per day. However, when adjusted for purchasing power parity, Egypt’s national poverty rate exhibits a similar rate to the World Bank’s designation of the lower-middle income poverty line of $3.20 (2011 PPP). 

As can be seen by the graph below, 3.2 percent of Egypt’s population was below the international extreme poverty line at $1.90 (2011 PPP). However, that still means that over three million people are in extreme poverty. A World Bank report puts Egypt’s multidimensional poverty rate at 4.1 percent of the population, which the report notes is comparatively low. However, by lower-middle income, let alone upper-middle income country standards, poverty is still widespread at 28.9 and 72.6 percent respectively, according to the latest World Bank data. 

There are yet questions to be asked when it comes to Egypt’s socioeconomic conditions and how to address the longstanding issues of poverty, inequality, and inadequate service delivery, especially in the areas of health and education. There has been some progress in this regard, with attempts to modernize the education system and gradually move toward universal health coverage. However, the question of income and wealth inequality still lingers. According to estimates in the Credit Suisse 2019 Global Wealth Databook, wealth concentrated in the hands of the country’s richest 45000 individuals, less than 0.05 percent of the population, is more than the median wealth distributed to the entire population, as illustrated below.  Although subsidies have been cut (and many such as fuel rightly so), economic benefits have failed to “trickle down.” Social protection efforts provided during the pandemic are a good start, however, and one can only hope that going forward the structural reforms are pursued not just in a macroeconomic sense but in a socioeconomic one as well, ensuring that the benefits of Egypt’s revitalized economy are distributed in a more equitable way.

Egypt has the potential to become a regional economic leader and global powerhouse. What is needed is a clear economic vision and the will to execute it. In 1991, and again in 2016, Egypt subscribed to the IMF’s economic vision of structural reforms (with no small degree of austerity), that forced it to push for an empowered private sector and a dynamic and resilient economy. This economic resilience proved its worth throughout the Covid crisis. However, questions remain regarding how systematic these structural reforms have been, how empowered the private sector actually is, how equity-driven Egypt’s socioeconomic landscape is, and whether the Egyptian economy is heading toward fulfilling its full potential. Bakhache believes that excellent progress has been made, but work still needs to be done, especially when it comes to exports and investments. To imagine if the pandemic had hit Egypt five years earlier, in 2015 rather than 2020, is a worrisome thought.

Africa and the United States: Reengaging with Africa’s Prosperity in Mind

Since 1981, every American administration has had an African policy. Through “constructive engagement,” President Reagan heavily influenced the Southern African political scene. President George H.W. Bush worked to end the civil wars in east and southern Africa. President Clinton’s signature investment mechanism under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) focused on trade toward the U.S. market. His successor, President George W. Bush, initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation made gains in improving infrastructure. President Barack Obama’s Power Africa, Feed the Future, and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) are supplemental to all these past initiatives. Though they focus on Africa, the policies from this one country toward the fifty-four African countries bear a thread of consistency and predictability. 

Former President Trump’s “America First” strategy did not end these initiatives. It continued to look at the African continent, legitimately, through American interests. In itself, this is not a problem because it provides Africa with an opportunity to rethink the development aid model. All major economies of the world have an Africa strategy. Each one of them wants to go faster in this race to have a piece of the African opportunity. They come alone with their plans, promising a better future for Africans.

In contrast, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) symbolizes “Africa First:” we want to prioritize our fellow Africans first, while others may choose to work with us after. For the continent to implement an Africa First strategy, it means understanding our own trajectory in an evolving multi-stakeholder environment. Africa First holds the potential for prosperity through innovation. Innovation gives us an opportunity to build with what we have. It allows us to learn from others while keeping the essence of who we are. But, we know that the continent must go farther than it has to date.

AIDS and Ebola

PEPFAR, since its launch in 2003, remains the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease. By leveraging public resources, private sector organizations have been able to use science to advance the quality of treatment available to Africans and others who need life saving treatment. For eighteen years now, more than $85 billion has been invested in the global HIV/AIDS response. Yet, the lives saved are not necessarily enough to enable prosperity in Africa. The reality is that other health issues erode the gains made from vertical programs. Though health systems are part of the change and will help us capitalize on our human capital, diseases and viruses dominate systems’ capacity to respond on the continent. Thus, it is our responsibility as Africans to be clear about how we might preserve the lives saved for the work ahead.  

When Ebola hit West Africa in 2014, the United States of America led a coalition of fifty countries to end the disease for good: and it worked. That coalition focused on local leadership, regional coalitions, and continent-led efforts to strengthen health systems, prioritizing three countries. A total of $5.4 billion was allocated by the U.S. government to Ebola response. One of Africa’s greatest contributions was to dispatch African health workers to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, thus limiting the economic impact on the three countries representing 0.68 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP).  

These engagements demonstrate a clear U.S. interest in African health matters. But, they also reflect the power of innovation and market-creating mechanisms that ensure pharmaceutical companies’ contribution to its GDP. While health emergency responses are important, they are the blind side of poverty alleviation programs. Diseases and viruses hit at weak infrastructure, thus leaving people unprepared and unable to climb the steep hill of recovery. 

So, reengaging Africa means that health and economics must be part of the same discussion. If anything, COVID-19 reinforced that point. 

Continental Prerequisites 

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a renewed opportunity to enable prosperity in Africa. Health is a fundamental human right that enables societal productivity. The U.S. government continues to invest in health in Africa with significant resources through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. While these are important, a good part of those funds are used for pharmaceutical and health products that are not produced on the African continent. As such, engaging Africa to resolve its health issues implies significantly reducing Africa’s annual pharmaceutical bill of $14 billion. The real opportunity lies in making young Africa work, as this industry holds the potential to create sixteen million jobs according to the Economic Commission for Africa. 

Creating jobs for the continent requires an agile education system. Education, for my generation, meant a university degree in order to access a certain kind of job. It limited the manual and creative elements that have sustained other parts of the world. As such, Africa’s education system will benefit from the same boost that the U.S. economy received when “free” (i.e. tax-paid) public education was made available during the transition from agriculture to manufacturing. Education supported the economic transformation that enabled prosperity in America: if that trend holds true, African education should sustain African prosperity as well. Our education needs its coming of age in the era of economic transformation. 

The generation in power must resolve the challenges that Africa’s youth face in keeping both health and education in check in order to fully benefit from the potential that our young population represents. And, we cannot approach these sectors separately. They are catalysts for the African youth’s need for market-creating environments on the continent. AfCFTA, a market of 1.3 billion people, needs decent jobs for its youth. However, without health and education, Africa’s youth reservoir remains a data point in the realm of possibilities. 

Innovation: May Tomorrow Find Us Farther Than Today

The African continent bursts with its youth’s creativity, from the informal sector to the tech savvy: all entrepreneurs in their fields. Any local, regional, or global policies that miss their needs and aspirations are bound to fail. In this respect, there are four areas that matter to Africans for the United States of America to reengage Africa. 

Agricultural transformation in the United States of America limited the impact of chronic malnutrition and hunger and enabled economic progress in the country. Agriculture is especially useful in its potential to provide jobs for workers with low-level skills who spend most of their income on food. We know that planned agricultural transformation in Brazil, China, and Vietnam created jobs, raised incomes, and fostered the conditions for the workforce to move gradually into higher-value economic activities. China succeeded in its agricultural transformation and thus opened the pathway for added value-chain opportunities twenty years down the line. 

The first priority for African agriculture will be to meet modern tools and techniques. That is not a problem for the United States of America to resolve; rather, African citizens should value the contribution of rural Africa to their urban transformation. We know that the most effective way to transform a country or a continent is by supporting agriculture. And in our context, like in other parts of the world, we need to redesign the economy so that modern farming techniques do not just adapt to climate change, but ignite the flame of sustainable transformation. 

We know that growth from commodity extraction and trading, for instance, does not redistribute wealth nor enable prosperity for the majority. The value addition that it might be able to create is exported and exacerbates rent-seeking behavior from urban elites. So the relationship between the United States of America and Africa will benefit from higher value engagement when Africans transform their agriculture without limiting their scope to the AGOA. For example, agriculture in Africa must start to reflect the needs of its population to avert the impact of lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, on its urban and rural populations. Yet, Africa’s food import bill is predicted to rise to $110 billion annually by 2025, from $35.4 billion in 2015; this means that African farmers, especially women, are not moving up the value chain. 

One way to accelerate this process is to move up the value chain and create a greater interest for young people to enter with their creativity. In Tunisia, agriculture represents about 11 percent of GDP and 15 percent of employment. The country counts ninety-two thousand engineers, with about ten thousand of these unemployed. Through modernization and addressing climate change, incentives can be created for youth along the value chain of agriculture, which will inevitably progress into light manufacturing. That transformation will capture the spending of those that need to eat at low cost. In Nigeria, for example, making noodles ensures that local skills and local context meet the demands of those who make some parts of the economy grow: informal workers. 

A coordinated effort by African citizens to demand better conditions for their fellow citizens by consuming and purchasing local output is also essential. We cannot continue to wish for better local content when we continue to import most of our items from outside the African continent. This is also a local prerogative; certainly, the United States of America is not, necessarily, responsible for our individual consumption choices when we are 1.3 billion people. 

Market-creating innovations transform complicated and expensive products into products that are simple and affordable, making them accessible to many more people who historically couldn’t afford them. Innovation requires us to look at our resources under AfCFTA and invest in what is required to produce, with greener energy, what the fifty-four African countries need. Leverage will come from the infrastructure required to move people, goods, and services through the continent, from Lesotho to Cape Verde. 

The Coronavirus pandemic demonstrated that Africa cannot rely on global supply chains to absorb its raw materials. Industrialization is a process: it requires a number of ingredients, most importantly energy. In the absence of energy, the other elements find it hard to connect and add value. In this context, the Power Africa initiative by the United States Agency for International Development is helping to turn more lights on and transform lives by providing first-time access to electricity for 14.8 million new home and business connections. And, because Africa is a latecomer, our industrialization should be green. In this respect, renewable energy presents a real opportunity for Africa to create jobs in energy generation and in the supply chain required to move products across the continent. Just like the engagement seen in AIDS and Ebola, energy must have a purpose: and that purpose is industrialization.

Trade is about people making informed decisions about their comparative advantage. That is a critical, yet understated, element of the future of the United States of America–Africa relationship. The model of development that some African leaders are implementing reflects, in part, their own engagement with the West when they were students or workers. But, with China’s growing influences in the continent, Africa’s present and future will have an eastern flavor.

The AGOA did not take the continent to a point where trade transformed lives at scale. In fact, recent data demonstrates that China is the main African trading partner. This means that young people may increasingly engage with China for work, and that the African informal sector, through trade of imported goods and services, is looking East. Opportunities to learn will determine the nature of the Africa–China relationship for the next generation of leaders; unlike my generation, the number of African students in China increased twenty-fold since 2005. One of the key implications of this is that future African decision-makers will have the benefit of having experienced the impact of large-scale growth, agricultural transformation, manufacturing and industrialization: an invaluable experience, also changing the nature of young Africans’ relationship to the United States of America.  

Part of the draw of China stems from a realization among Africans that alternatives exist to the United States of America. Young Africans see that China escaped the poverty trap through homegrown solutions that focused on value addition and global value chains while emphasizing domestic transformation. They have seen how “Made in China” transforms the lives of millions of people, from agriculture to industrialization. Having observed that transformation, it is unlikely that young Africans will look west of the Sahara only.

U.S. Reengagement with Africa: The Way Forward   

Any policy engagement which does not think of Africa as a whole will have a limited impact. PEPFAR demonstrated the impact of a coordinated response to fight AIDS in Africa. The new administration can learn from the health response to leverage the Africa First strategy embedded in the AfCFTA. Working through AfCFTA starts with agriculture to enable, with us, prosperity in rural communities first. As that happens, achieving prosperity for the whole of society requires youth to work, create work, and step onto the bandwagon of prosperity. In addition, it is our responsibility to seek unity in African relationships with foreign countries where the temptation to accept fifty-four different agreements is real. Though it appears easier to do it alone, universal issues like youth migration demonstrate that we need to do it together, as only unity will make the 1.3 billion-person market work for Africa and its partners.  

Africa’s youth have a clearer sense of what they aspire to for themselves and the continent. As such, urban and rural youths have their role to play in becoming actors of development of the continent based on their own accurate understanding of continental policies. Many understand that it is better to enable prosperity, and this is what the Chinese dream invokes. The American dream will remain, but will no longer be the preferred narrative on the African continent.

It is clear that U.S. reengagement with Africa has to be seen and implemented through the lens of the continent’s youth. The YALI initiative gave young Africans a framework to engage, but its real value would have been to invest in learning institutions on the continent so that young Africans could deepen their own understanding of who they are in relation to their peers.

The policies of the past forty years intended to move the cursor of development toward full capacity. Yet, political upheavals on the continent and the changing U.S. political landscape have not been consistent in delivering on what matters to young people: decent jobs. By navigating the sociopolitical challenges of the continent, we may not have been able to take full advantage of the economic offers that were made available. 

In reality, it is political. In essence, it is financial. Yet, in the end, it should be human. A human-centered reengagment means that we must start with what we already have in Africa: an abundant youth with aspirations for the world embedded in the informal economy that we have today. We can: and the world’s future depends on our ability to put Africa first. 

Does the Biden Administration Have Time for Foreign Policy?

“It’s not a matter of choice,” said Francis J. Ricciardone, president of the American University in Cairo (AUC), during the 91st Tahrir Dialogue webinar titled “U.S.–Arab Relations.”“Even those administrations that came in and emphasized domestic policies found that they can’t afford to ignore the world, and the Middle East in particular,” added Ricciardone, who is also a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Turkey.

His remarks were a part of the discussion hosted by Founding Dean of AUC’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy with guest panelists Shibley Telhami, director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, and Alan Stoga, chairman of the Tällberg Foundation.

The discussion, which centered around the course U.S. President Joe Biden might chart in dealing with major global challenges, and the Middle East in particular, was moderated by Ibrahim Awad, director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at AUC.

The speakers agreed early on that the United States will likely pursue a reactive approach to foreign affairs. “We [the United States] don’t do strategy anymore, we do tactics. We are reactive,” Stoga said. Unless pressing, the region’s issues are not likely to attract Congress or the President as they deal with more immediate domestic priorities.“This is a government that comes to power at a uniquely bad moment; recession, the pandemic, but far more importantly, we are in the midst of a crisis in our own democracy,” he explained.

Telhami added that the Biden administration comes after an executive-style presidency with a distinctively transactional approach to foreign policy, as seen in the U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco’s peace and normalization with Israel. Rather, the Biden’s White House is a comeback of a more traditional U.S. presidency where more competent policymakers take hold and address challenges.

Previously, “The Trump administration, for accidental reasons, made the Middle East a top priority,” Telhami said. He pointed out that former President Donald Trump subcontracted the Middle East to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who served as a senior advisor to the White House and took on the agenda of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those who ideologically prioritized the Middle East found that they had the power and support of the presidency behind them, and since Kushner’s views are highly favorable of Israel, Middle East policy was largely driven by the priorities in Tel Aviv.

During the Trump presidency, the region witnessed landmark decisions including the aforementioned Moroccan deal, the removal of Sudan from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and  the selling of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Telhami emphasized that these policy decisions required the White House to substantially mobilize American power and gain Congressional support. Biden’s administration is unlikely to mobilize U.S. influence on that scale again. 

For the time being, the Biden administration’s primary foreign policy concern is undoing Trump’s work as the United States gives precedence to striking a deal with Iran after the former president scrapped an existing nuclear agreement, and renewing aid and dialogue with the Palestinians after both were suspended. In walking back some of Trump’s regional policies, Biden announced ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen. The administration also suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE pending a routine State Department review.

That being said, the speakers agreed that not every Trump decision can be undone. It is implausible, for example, for the Biden administration to reverse the Trump decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But the greatest change may come as the current administration pursues what was the Obama administration’s goal of withdrawing from the Middle East. “I don’t think the ‘if’ question is if we [the United States] are going to withdraw, but the question is the pace of withdrawal, and the nature of withdrawal,” said Stoga. 

That is the balance that the Biden administration hopes to strike, and in doing so, it is expected that a United States that is more supportive of NGOs, international, and regional organizations will arise as it aims to hand over or share the burdens of global leadership.

In spite of the United States’ overall withdrawal from global politics, it still needs to restore its influence on the global stage. “In the past, the world overestimated U.S. knowledge,” said Ricciardone. Now, the issue seems to be the opposite. “The challenge of restoring American influence and the perception of competence comes from demonstrating it both in domestic affairs and internationally,” he added. Such an approach can help the United States regain some footing within the international community without dominating it.

However, Fahmy believes that U.S. policymakers “look at the world the way it used to be”. “I’m not sure I see anybody there who’s looking at the world where America is not a global superpower—where there isn’t a cold war.” This predicates a need to evaluate what role the United States has to play in the absence of a huge threat (think the Soviet threat of the 20th century), as most current conflicts are regional and involve non-state actors.

 Fahmy also questioned whether American citizens even want to engage with global politics, and how that stands in the way of a more proactive U.S. foreign policy if the administration wishes to pursue that route. 

To that, Ricciardone quotes the late former Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Richard Lugar in saying, “Do not sell the American people short.” He elaborated that one should not assume indifference from U.S. citizens. Engaging them on foreign affairs is a challenge of leadership that requires patient engagement. 

The speakers agreed that the Biden administration has to make time for foreign policy, and it cannot ignore the issues of the Middle East. However, for the foreseeable future, the United States is expected to step down from its pedestal and leave the reins to the countries who themselves hold the stakes. Middle Eastern states will have to step up and engage as the United States looks introspectively and updates its policies to reflect the new position it is setting up for itself within the international sphere. 

Why the Phrase “Arab Spring” Should be Retired

The two-dimensional political continuum connoted by the term “Arab Spring” is unfortunate. The term itself is a holdover from twentieth-century Western media and political thought denoting political change and revolution reminiscent of mid-1800s Europe. As such, we ought to stop using the term “Arab Spring” to describe the events which transformed the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region between 2010 and 2013 and the successes and failure to bring about socio-political change since then.

The first inconsistency lies in the use of the word “Arab” itself. Certainly, Arabic is a language native to many peoples living in North Africa and the Middle East, but it is not the only language indigenous to the region. While the language does provide some unanimity from Morocco to Iraq and from Oman to Mauritania, the multiethnic richness of the MENA region means that each cultural group and each country has its own languages, traditions, sets of political circumstances, and social and economic aspirations. The Turks (and Turkic peoples), Iranians, Kurds, Berbers, and Yazidis, among others of the Middle East, have not only been directly affected by the revolts in Arabic-speaking communities, but have had social and political upheavals of their own which cannot and should not be seen exclusively within the prism of Arab transformation.

Some may question why the uprisings which began in December 2010—a decidedly non-spring-like month—aren’t referred to as the winter of discontent. Yet, let’s not be overly concrete in our understanding of terminology. “Spring” here takes on something bigger, a metaphorical meaning of newness, growth, recovery, and transformation: these are the things that a political spring can bring to the world, and so too the Arab Spring may be thought of as having ushered in an openness and rebirth of  freedom and democracy.

Leaving aside for now the uncertainties of what “freedom” and “democracy” actually mean to different people and political groups on the ground in the MENA region, why did journalists (mostly from Europe and the United States) begin using the term Arab Spring to describe these often violent attempts at political and social transformation in the Middle East and North Africa?

The Political Spring Concept

The dubious credit for the term Arab Spring may be given to writer and academic Marc Lynch, who first used it in a Foreign Policy article on January 6, 2011. However, it is not clear whether Lynch was actually the first person to coin the term. Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating pointed out later that same year that the term may have been used by U.S. conservative commentators in 2005 to explain movements in the MENA region toward democracy, most notably the Lebanese protests to oust Syrian forces from their country after the assassination of influential politician Rafik Al-Hariri.

But, it is more likely that journalists and political analysts who first used the term “Arab Spring” in those heady days of early 2011 did so as a nod to the “Prague Spring,” which itself was a nod to the 1848 “springtime of peoples” across Europe. Both 1848 and 1968 were years of mass political upheaval in the West.

The Prague Spring began in January 1968 and was an attempt to reverse communism by introducing more liberalized policies in the Eastern European country. However, after eight months, this brief experiment in reformist socialism was crushed by Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops crossing into then-Czechoslovakia and ensuring this spring of liberty would not spread. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev proceeded to crack down on all dissidents in the Soviet Union and the rest of Eastern Europe. 

This Czech uprising was akin to events that would transpire in Tunisia forty years later in that it was a harbinger for political transformation across Europe and the United States in that seminal year. However, the Prague Spring took place at the height of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and the United States in competition over Europe, and was therefore defined through Western ideologies and considerations. There were no such influences in Tunisia in 2010, and the youth movement for change there was motivated by different and disparate socioeconomic and political momentums.

In the United States, the capital city of Washington, D.C., came to a standstill after four days of protests and riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. The antiracism protests came amid a growing civil rights movement and demonstrations against the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. With the political tide turning against him, then-President Lyndon Johnson bowed out as the Democratic nominee for reelection, setting up a possible showdown between his rival in the Democratic Party, Robert Kennedy, and Republican Party candidate Richard Nixon. Kennedy’s assassination in June of 1968 left the door open for Nixon’s presidential victory later that year.

In May 1968 French President Charles De Gaulle fled France to Germany, fearing a coup amid unprecedented student and youth protests and civil unrest which shut down the country for nearly five weeks. In Germany, De Gaulle was able to secure the backing of a top French general. He then returned to Paris, dissolved the National Assembly, and called for elections in June. Although De Gaulle would survive the civil unrest and lead France until April 1969, the May 1968 protests changed France’s cultural and social face forever and transformed the relationship between the people and governing institutions.

While the student protesters of 1968 had not won politically, there was an acceptance in Europe and the United States that the cultural war for gender rights, minority rights, and sexual rights—all of which had animated the spirit of 1968—had won. Inversely, the seed of Glasnost—the gradual “opening” of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev—was likely sown in the “Prague Spring,” which would eventually lead to the end of the Soviet statist system, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and a new world to emerge for Eastern Europeans.

Clearly the Prague Spring was fundamental in the modern history of the United States and Europe. The protests on either side of the Iron Curtain were against statist control and oppression of marginalized groups. There was a stark divide between statist dictators on the one end and the voice of the voiceless on the other. The empowering of peoples seeking more liberties presented Western observers with the dichotomy of “free” people reaching up to shake dictators from their positions of power.

Revolts in the MENA Region over the Past Ten Years

Fast-forward forty-two years to December 2010.

Mass protests in the region began in Tunisia, first on the periphery of critical events in the Arab World such as the Israeli–Palestinian issue and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi—a street vendor in the Tunisian rural city of Sidi Bouzid decrying years of harassment and the unjust confiscation of his property by police officials—set himself on fire in protest. 

Bouazizi died from his burns a few weeks later, and Tunisia was thrust into massive oppositional movements which resulted in the fall (and flight to Saudi Arabia) of that nation’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14, 2011. This was the spark that lit the fire which spread eastward and toppled regimes no one thought would fall, setting the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa on a new path.

Protests spread to Iraq in early 2011, but the government remained in power. Then, in 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over wide swaths of the nation, which resulted in a coordinated international response to eviscerate ISIS from Iraq by the end of 2017. In recent years protests against corruption have continued, and a proxy war between the United States and Iran has intensified with the U.S. targeting armed pro-Iran groups in Iraq.

Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have all been affected by the events of the past ten years. In Iraq and Syria especially, Kurds fought against ISIS and Kurdish minorities such as the Yazidis suffered greatly at ISIS’ hands. There is now a growing feeling among Kurdish leaders that political independence or regional autonomy within their respective nations is a necessity. 

In Syria starting in 2011, there were protests and then a bloody conflict against the Bashar Al-Assad regime. This war resulted in one of the worst humanitarian crises of the twenty-first century when millions of Syrians fled to neighboring countries and Europe. As in neighboring Iraq, ISIS was able to take advantage of the Damascus government’s waning control and occupy much of eastern Syria starting in 2014. Yet, outside influencers, namely Russia and Iran, have helped the state turn the tide, and Damascus looks poised to reestablish Assad’s rule across the country in the near future.

Libya overthrew its dictator of forty-two years, Muammar Gaddafi, at the end of 2011 and since 2014 has been embroiled in a civil war which has become the focal point of many regional and international powers. The majority of the North African country is presently split between forces loyal to the Libyan national House of Representatives and the Libyan National Army and the army loyal to the Government of National Accord. Meanwhile, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Arab powers, Turkey and Russia have all been active in supporting groups on the ground.

Yemen had gone through a number of civil wars and much civil strife since the south Arabian nation’s unification in 1990. In 2011, an uprising started with common Yemenis and tribal members of the Houthi–Shia minority against the Ali Abdullah Saleh-led state. Protestors complained of economic woes and endemic government corruption. Since 2014 Yemen has devolved into a blood civil war dividing the country into two halves, the north and the south of the country. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran have all had active roles in the war.

Bahrain was wracked by sectarian strife influenced by neighboring Iran as the country’s Shia minority strove for more rights in the Gulf state. The conflict became so rife at one point that Bahrain’s government called for security support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to quell revolts during a three-month state of emergency in 2011.

Still other nations have had a complete change of government and ruling structure. Tunisia redrafted its constitution after 2011, making it one of the best examples of a democratic system in the region. By 2021 the country has created a political system which incorporates the Islamist party the Ennahda Movement and other leftist parties to create an impressive example of open political discourse for the MENA region.

Meanwhile, neighboring Algeria saw the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019. Sudan, after years of inactivity, had mass uprisings across the country starting in 2018, which resulted in a power-sharing system led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Other nations, such as Morocco and Jordan, have experienced protests against government policies and rulers have responded with reforms.

Egypt, the largest nation in the Arabic-speaking world, had a prolonged period of mass protests from 2011 to 2013 in which the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was elected and then ousted from power. Following the protests of 2013, former general Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi became President of the North African nation and has since won reelection in 2018.

Iran has experienced a wave of protests since 2011, with the rise of the coronavirus in 2020 hitting the country particularly hard. Turkey was not initially affected by the protests in the rest of the Middle East in 2011; however, the 2013 Gezi Park Movement against the economic Liberalist policies of the Recep Erdogan-led state and a subsequent failed coup in 2016 were shocks to the country.

Looking at Political Variances on the Ground to See What Will Come Next

Does the term “Arab Spring”—connected as it is to the Westernized concepts of democracy and freedom for the masses as opposed to the oppression of the rulers/dictators—adequately capture the hopes (some shattered) and ambitions of the revolutionaries and instigators of change in the Arab World since Bouazizi’s death?

The connotation of “political spring” is too simplistic and two dimensional to help understand political change. The idea of a political spring may have worked to tell stories and create journalistic and sociological narratives; but, peel back the idea of a political spring and one sees that the “people” strive for power or “democracy” and “freedom.” 

Who are the “people,” and what do these masses really want?

The reality is that the process of modernity in MENA-region nations has almost always been connected to elites and the military. Militaries have set up the states, built universities and hospitals. A large number of infrastructural advances have oftentimes been connected to military authority and suzerainty. While dissidents can complain of corruption within militaries, the fact remains that the militaries of the Middle East and North Africa have often been fundamental in transforming their respective nations.

Meanwhile, political Islamism in its various forms is another important voice. Yet, what kind of political Islam do different groups espouse? Some forms of Islamism have been transformed over the years by a healthy relationship with modernity. This kind of Islamism certainly has a place at the table of power brokers in the MENA region. However, some forms of Islamism are animated by violent extremism, and these forms need to be fought against. 

In the years since 2010, we saw the massive mobilization of Islamist political ideologies, most affiliated with vicious and violent groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their offshoots, which have sought to overthrow governments in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. These Islamist insurrectionist waves dominated half of the past decade and left the countries where they operated in ruin. Surely there is nothing spring-like about their rise and fall from power.

Ultimately, history and politics have played out much differently in the MENA region than they have in Europe and the United States. Who the rulers are, who the ruled are, what the people want in terms of democracy and freedom are complex and conflicted issues. To then graft events in the Middle East from 2010 to 2013 as part of a western-based political spring paradigm is problematic.

Social change has always been a muddled process. It was muddled in 1848; and in 1968; and it was muddled in 2011. Idealized concepts such as a political spring make us myopic when we need to get down to work after an uprising is over. And so, it is time to leave aside the dualism of political springs and no longer use the term “Arab Spring.” 

Ten years on from 2011, the MENA region has transformed. We know not what the future holds: but we can be certain that, when looking at the past and the delicate process of revolt and change, it is necessary to use a political rubric that connects with the realities and variances on the ground so that we can better understand what will come next.

In the Zone: The Long and Winding Road to Middle East Disarmament

Ever since the late 1960s, when Israel constituted the first case of nuclear proliferation outside of the five recognized nuclear weapons states (the US, China, France, UK, and the Soviet Union), the threat of weapons of mass destruction has long ranked as one of the leading sources of regional instability. The spread of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs throughout the region, the recurring use of chemical weapons in regional conflicts, most recently in the context of the Syrian civil war, and the threat and actual use of force to counter WMD threats, most notably by the United States and Israel, have become ever present features in the volatile security landscape of the Middle East.

While the threat of regional WMD proliferation has been the subject of much academic scholarship and policy analysis, much less attention has been devoted to the ambitious policy initiative to address it; namely the establishment of a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (WMDFZME).

A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction:
A New Approach to Nonproliferation
By Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Emad Kiyaei

Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Emad Kiyaei fill this gap with an important book, A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A New Approach to Nonproliferation, a timely work that offers a wide-ranging treatment of the zone initiative. Both authors are eminently qualified for this task, bringing a diverse repertoire of experience to the issue of WMD proliferation in the Middle East; Mousavian is a former Iranian diplomat (currently a visiting scholar at Princeton University) who served as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Kiyaei is an Iranian analyst and a director of the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) a civil society initiative dedicated to advocating for the realization of the zone. 

Charting a pathway toward the zone

Much of the book reads like a detailed primer on the multiple WMD proliferation challenges facing the region, as well as the complex technical, diplomatic, and regional security issues that must be addressed in order to establish the zone. The book surveys the background and evolution of the multiple WMD programs that constitute the main sources of proliferation threats in the region: Israel’ acquisition of an undeclared nuclear program that provided the impetus for the first proposals sponsored by Egypt and Iran dating back to the mid-1970s for the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East; Iraq’s vast WMD complex that was subject to the most coercive disarmament regime in modern history under UN auspices after the 1991 Gulf war; Libya’s fledgling WMD program that was dismantled under international pressure in 2003; Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal; and Iran’s long-standing nuclear program that is the focus of current nonproliferation diplomacy. 

The authors put forward a number of innovative approaches designed to provide the architecture for the WMDFZME. A regional nuclear fuel bank under international supervision would dissuade countries of the region from developing their own fuel cycle by providing an assured supply of nuclear fuel for their civil nuclear programs. The security framework underpinning the zone would be anchored in a ‘Persian Gulf Cooperative Security Arrangement’ (PGCSA), in essence a sub-regional framework that would only include the Gulf region given the difficulty of establishing a region-wide framework encompassing all countries of the Middle East. Establishment of the  zone would come about through a gradual phased process, beginning with general agreement on the fundamental principles of the zone, followed by a series of confidence-building measures (CBMs) to include limitations on conventional weapons, regional cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and verification mechanisms for disarmament, and culminating in the sequenced accession of all regional states to the various global nonproliferation treaty frameworks covering biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, in that order. 

An Iran-centric approach

Yet, while the book strives toward comprehensiveness in its approach, the one issue that receives the most focus is Iran, and in particular the painstakingly negotiated agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) to cap Iran’s nuclear program, otherwise known by its formal designation as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The opening chapters offer a detailed examination of the evolution of Iran’s nuclear program, and the negotiating history of the JCPOA focusing in particular on the core bargain of the agreement; the stringent controls imposed on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to bloc the pathways to its acquisition of nuclear weapons, in exchange for lifting the far-reaching sanctions regime that has exacted a crushing toll on Iran’s economy.  

Given this focus, the authors offer what can be described as an Iran-centric approach to the establishment of the zone, arguing that Iran’s experience can serve as a template for a region-wide approach toward this objective. The book correctly observes that the JCPOA “involved some of the most complex diplomatic [nuclear] negotiations ever undertaken”, and that the various control measures covering Iran’s entire nuclear fuel cycle, together with the extensive verification mechanisms—considered among the most stringent in the history of nuclear arms control—can effectively be regionalized to serve as a template for the extensive WMD prohibitions and verification regime at the heart of the zone. 

The authors also devote much emphasis on the fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei banning possession of all WMDs, which in their view “places a religious obligation on the majority Muslim population of the region and their respective governments to support the realization of the zone and commit to WMD nonproliferation”. While there is a precedent for religious institutions taking a strong position in support of nuclear disarmament, most notably the Catholic church, one is hard pressed to understand how Khamenei’s fatwa can serve as a basis for broader Sunni Muslim support for the zone, let alone provide a foundation for Jewish sanction for such an endeavor that could foster concerted public debate in Israel about its own nuclear posture. Similarly, the security framework proposed by the authors in the form of the PGCSA is very much tailored to Iran’s national security requirements in that it is predicated on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Gulf. This has been a long-standing Iranian position that would effectively remove the most direct threat to Iran’s security while undermining the security of the Arab gulf states given their reliance on the U.S. defense umbrella. 

Untangling complex linkages:

Much of the challenge involved in establishing the WMDFZME stems from the fact that it is a uniquely novel endeavor. While various other regions have benefited from the creation of nuclear weapons-free zones, never before has there been an attempt to negotiate a regional zone free of all classes of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical and biological. The broad scope of prohibition, the elaborate treaty framework required to anchor the legal basis for such a zone, and the exacting verification provisions necessary to ensure effective compliance all constitute a set of highly demanding prerequisites without precedent in the realm of arms control or disarmament. 

However, the challenge of the zone endeavor stems not just from the need to satisfy these stringent conditions. The issue of WMD disarmament in the Middle East is itself connected through complex linkages to the broader global nonproliferation regime, the constantly shifting matrix of Middle East regional security politics, and the intricacies of the US-Israeli alliance—all of which pose formidable challenges to the zone project. 

The book does not adequately untangle these linkages, offering only a cursory treatment on many of the key questions that could have benefited from a more in-depth analysis. For example, the authors do not delve into the motivating factors prompting regional states to expend scarce resources, as well as tolerate much risk, in the pursuit of WMD programs. This applies to their survey of Iran’s nuclear program which they attribute to the need to satisfy the country’s growing energy needs. Notably, the authors avoid any acknowledgement of, or insight into, the military dimensions of the program; a fact that is widely accepted by the international community, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Without understanding the underlying drivers of regional proliferation, it is difficult to understand how to address them through the zone.

No less important is the issue of devising a diplomatic process to negotiate the creation of the zone. This in turn, raises a series of fundamental questions. Should the zone be negotiated at the global level through the United Nations or the periodic review conferences of the NPT, or at the regional level between countries of the Middle East? What of the fact that many states in the region do not even have diplomatic relations, or indeed even accept the legitimacy of their regional rivals? And what should be the role of outside powers that must also undertake commitments of their own in order to keep the zone WMD-free? How the United States in particular should relate to the zone is not addressed, a notable omission given the predominant U.S. role in regional security, and the fact that Washington continues to provide diplomatic cover for Israel’s undeclared nuclear program, a product of a tacit understanding between the two countries dating back to the late 1960s. As a result, the United States has blocked every attempt to launch a negotiating process to establish the zone out of deference to Israel’s objections. 

These questions are hardly pedantic. The sensitivity of WMD disarmament has meant that issues of process are as contentious as the substance. How countries talk about the zone, under what terms, and in which particular international or regional forum, are no less important than how WMD programs are dismantled, how this should be verified, and under which legal prohibitions. 

How to negotiate the zone is linked to a more fundamental issue of the relationship between arms control and regional security. This is a conceptual conundrum that revolves around the question of whether the resolution of the region’s conflicts should constitute a prerequisite for establishing a WMDFZME in order to foster a more benign regional security environment, or whether the zone should come into being separately from the settlement of these conflicts. This question has long stood as the principal source of contention between Egypt and Israel over the broad approach that should govern regional arms control. Israel has consistently argued that achieving meaningful progress on the zone must be conditioned on resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, regional acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, and a process of confidence building through security cooperation between Israel and the Arab states. Observers have termed this ‘the long corridor’ approach; only at the end of it can Israel muster the confidence to engage in meaningful arms control. As the initiator of the zone proposal and is most forceful advocate, Egypt has argued that the zone can mitigate regional conflict at lower levels of armament, and therefore should not be held hostage to the noble but arduous task of achieving peace in the Middle East. Failure to reconcile these fundamentally divergent approaches to arms control has constituted one of the primary obstacles to advancing the cause of Middle East disarmament over the past four decades. 

On this question of the relationship between arms control and security, the authors’ analysis offers contradictory assessments. They state clearly that “any progress on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process will inevitably provide positive momentum toward the zone, but should not be held hostage to it”. Furthermore, the authors correctly observe how the JCPOA itself offers a fascinating case study of how the issues of arms control and regional security can be compartmentalized. The agreement was the result of a decades-long negotiating process between the United States (as the principal actor in the P5+1 group) and Iran—two countries without a formal diplomatic relationship, and a legacy of mutual animosity with few parallels in contemporary international politics. Yet, U.S. and Iranian negotiators managed to reach a tacit understanding to deliberately insulate the nuclear file from the issue of Iran’s interventionism in the region’s conflicts. The thorny challenges of Iran’s threats to regional security were thus not allowed to intrude on the arms control track that produced the JCPOA. 

This compartmentalization, however, produced a regional backlash from both the Arab Gulf states and Israel as they faced the growing threat of Iran’s regional adventurism, which in their view was magnified manyfold once Iran was free of the constraint of sanctions. The sustained regional pushback against the JCPOA, a factor that at least in part prompted the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, shows that the issues of regional security and arms control are not so easily decoupled. This linkage also comes to the fore in the authors’ proposal for a PGCSA as the basis for a sub-regional zone in the Gulf. That the proposal is predicated on Iran’s call to ‘regionalize’ the security of the Gulf region through the removal of America’s military presence, highlights the degree to which Iran’s arms control approach is tailored to its own particular conception of regional security. 

A blueprint for a comprehensive approach:

The decision of the Trump Administration to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA, has prompted Iran to gradually walk back many of the restrictions on its nuclear program that it had accepted under the terms of the agreement. Most significant in this regard is Iran’s decision to reconstitute its enrichment program, including increasing its stock of enriched uranium, resuming research on the design of new centrifuges, and its threat to curtail access for IAEA inspectors to its nuclear facilities, a step that would undermine the verification mechanism designed to ensure Iran’s compliance with its commitments under the agreement. The cumulative effect of these measures is to place Iran on a trajectory toward achieving a breakout capacity— the ability to rapidly constitute a military nuclear capability—which is precisely the outcome that the JCPOA was intended to forestall. 

The Biden Administration recognizes the urgency of this threat and has clearly enunciated that reviving the JCPOA will be among its foremost foreign policy priorities. Resuming the negotiating process with Iran, dismantling the multiple layers of sanctions against Iran’s economy reinstituted since Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, negotiating a follow-on agreement that would cover Iran’s missile program, and doing all this while managing the domestic politics in both Washington and Tehran will require deft diplomatic handling. 

Yet, the JCPOA, impressive as it is in terms of its technical sophistication, represents a piecemeal solution to the Middle East’s proliferation problem, far short of the type of comprehensive approach embodied in the WMDFZME proposal. This ad-hoc approach has long characterized the U.S. strategy of addressing WMD threats in the region whether through the use of military force as was the case with Iraq and Syria, or coercion as applied to Libya, or a mix of diplomacy and economic pressure vis-à-vis Iran. Unfortunately, this approach has proven to be inadequate in halting the proliferation trend in the region. The threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program is only the latest iteration of this trend; today Iran, tomorrow some other country will pose a similar challenge. 

The absence of a comprehensive approach for a region-wide disarmament framework which is at the heart of the zone proposal has only abetted this trend. The challenges facing the establishment of a WMDFZME are no doubt formidable. Yet, Mousavian and Kiyaei have provided us with a valuable blueprint for such an endeavor. As the international community grapples with the immediate challenge of Iran’s nuclear program, those in Washington and other capitals charged with this task would be well-advised to consult this important book and perhaps devise a more considered approach to rid the Middle East of the threat of mass destruction that continues to hang over the region. 

Messages to America

Joe Biden assumed the office of U.S. President on January 20 after a tense and polarized election marked by the outgoing president’s reticence to honor the result, his extraordinary demand toward officials in the State of Georgia to overturn the vote count, and his call to supporters to assemble in opposition to the election certification process.

When protesters breached the halls of Congress on January 6—to the shock and condemnation of the American public and under the shadow of possible legal consequences for the president—Trump backed down somewhat. He called on protesters to respect the law and reluctantly committed to a peaceful transfer of power. But in a stark break from political tradition, he did not participate in the inaugural rituals which all U.S. presidents (except four, the last being Andrew Johnson in 1879) have attended. Congress, in turn, has started impeachment proceedings against the former commander-in-chief on account of his attempts to sway the vote and incite violence at the U.S. Capitol. If successful, an impeachment will prevent him from returning to political life in the future.

Donald Trump has always boasted that he flouts the conventions of traditional politicians, that much is true. My previous writings and statements reflected my distress with many of his policies, especially in regard to the Palestinian issue and his attitude toward the multilateral system. On this last account, the most exasperated with Trump were America’s allies in NATO, who were all the more delighted at Biden’s victory, who adopts many conventional positions, including support for U.S. allies across the North Atlantic. Notably however, Biden addressed foreign affairs in his inaugural speech quite briefly, harping on the common refrain that the United States will return to lead the international community, “not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example”.

However, it is naïve to imagine that events in the U.S. or around the world will stabilize simply because a traditional president has replaced an erratic one. The challenges and transformations in the world order are simply more profound than that. For this reason, I am obliged to direct a number of messages to America as well as its partners.

First, on the domestic level, if the U.S. truly desires to unite its people despite their diversity, then it must remedy the deep resentment felt by its citizens on both the left and right of the ideological spectrum towards the nation’s political and economic leaders. It must also ameliorate the widespread polarization in the country. Interestingly, Biden devoted much of his address to this subject. I will not propose particular recommendations on this matter, as every people must forge its own way without external intervention.

Second, on the international level, if the United States hopes to preserve its global standing, its leaders must recognize that international, regional, and domestic balances of power have shifted. Indeed, all states must reconsider their relationships with allies, friends, competitors, and foes alike.

The United States in particular must define whether it aspires to remain a superpower, benefiting from the opportunities of global influence but bearing the obligation to preserve international peace and security. If so, the U.S. must work to guarantee the fairness and longevity of the international system. Alternatively, America may decide to become an isolated giant, only concerned with the narrow, direct interests of the short term.

Either way, the United States must integrate into the new international order; the bipolar world of the Cold War has metamorphosized into a multi-polar arena. Regional disputes multiply while global, strategic confrontations recede in the background. All the while, the mantle of economic power is on the brink of moving from the largest capitalist country in the West to the People’s Republic of China.

The United States must also accept a global, multilateral form of democracy of which a multiparty system built on consensus, not domination, is an integral part. This will require taking more constructive positions toward multilateral institutions and their treaties. Encouragingly, there are indications that the U.S. intends to return to that leadership role. The recent U.S. ascension to the Paris Climate Accord is case in point. The U.S. must also adopt a proactive stance on disarmament-related negotiations, especially with regard to nuclear non-proliferation and the peaceful use of outer space.

American leaders must also let go of the belief of American exceptionalism—that their country’s experience is “unique and exceptional” and the insistence that others must follow its model. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has of late criticized this posture of dictating policy and called for the United States to work with other countries with greater respect. A few months ago, Biden’s candidate for director of the Central Intelligence Agency William Burns also wrote an article that his country “does not have the patience or the dexterity to spread democracy abroad. 

Third, if the United States wishes to preserve its global influence it must prioritize active diplomacy, particularly tools of international mediation. Military action will not command domestic support in the absence of a direct, strategic threat to U.S. national security, especially given the “operational fatigue” the nation suffered in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. The recourse to excessive force against small and middle-tier states will also meet rebuke in the international arena.

Rather, America should engage in legitimate international competition in both economic and political realms. The U.S. after all emerged victorious over the Soviet Union economically, before it won the ideological and security contest. The time has come to aggressively negotiate with Russia and China without falling into cycles of hostility and chronic polarization 

Fourth, if America aspires to be an authentic guardian of peace and stability in the Middle East even after its total acquiescence to the Israeli right it must recognize a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders headquartered in East Jerusalem. The U.S. consulate in the city should also reopen. America must once again pursue durable Israeli-Arab peace in accordance with international law, rather than entrench and condone the illegal status quo. This goal may be accomplished by the call to freeze conditions on the ground and immediately resuming talks between Israel and the Palestinians under the auspices of the United Nations and the participation of the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Israeli-Palestinian bilateral Talks would precisely delineate the borders of the Palestinian state and resolve other detailed issues in the negotiating arena.

The United States should also address the risks of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East in a more holistic and detailed manner, simultaneously building on the positive elements of the Iran Nuclear Deal while patching its deficiencies. Intensive negotiations must convene to guarantee a region permanently and totally free of nuclear weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. Talks should include Iran, Israel, and all Arab states, and provide steps to build trust between Tehran and its Arab counterparts. These measures can pave the way for arrangements and assurances to reduce the regional political tensions. Analogous steps between Turkey and the Arab world will also be useful.

I look forward to a more positive U.S. posture in the world arena, however, I also call on the international community to take initiatives toward reforming the international system. The matter isn’t an American issue or responsibility alone and should not be. It affects us all.

“Reconciliation” in the Communiqué of the Gulf Cooperation Council

The author of this essay apologizes for the mistake in the above title. There is in fact no mention of “reconciliation” between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain—member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—and Egypt, on the other, in the final communiqué issued by the GCC Summit held on January 5, 2021 in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. 

This essay stresses the importance of understanding, cordiality, and integration between all Arab states, and thus welcomes and calls for the settlement of their disputes. However, it is not about the said “reconciliation” as such, but rather about the method adopted to reach it. Method is key to understanding the soundness of objectives and the solidity of achievements. Here, I consider that the method adopted by the summit is not conducive to definitively settling divergences nor does it conclusively achieve the objectives of the GCC’s common action. The subject of the essay will be addressed in three parts: the first analyzes the relevant paragraphs of the communiqué. The second discusses the thirteen conditions announced by the four boycotting countries in June 2017 as a prerequisite to lift their air, land, and sea embargo of Qatar, while the final part reflects on Egypt’s stand par rapport the announced reconciliation.  

The communiqué’s introduction mentions the attending dignitaries from the GCC member states and the secretary-general and is followed by a 120-paragraph long statement arranged in twenty-two sections. Throughout the text, there is no specific mention of ‘reconciliation’ (musalaha) nor of the boycott of Qatar which persisted for almost four years. The term was only used in preparations for the summit and in the comments surrounding it. The fact that the summit was even convened with the Emir of Qatar himself in attendance implied that reconciliation was a tacit objective. Aside from the Emir of Kuwait, he was the only head of state in attendance and received a warm welcome from the Saudi Crown Prince upon arrival—another indicator of the spirit of reconciliation. As for the communiqué itself, it only alluded rather obliquely to “healing the rift” in relations between member states and to “reverting joint Gulf action to its natural course”.

Mutual understanding between the six member states of the GCC, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, are first apparent in the praise accorded to Qatar for organizing the elections to the country’s Shura Council next October. The communiqué welcomed the election of a Qatari citizen to the presidency of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption and applauded Qatar’s preparations to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and for hosting a Horticultural Exposition. Mutual understanding also appears in the approval by the six member states, including Qatar, of ten extremely harsh paragraphs toward Iran. This is in addition to paragraphs in other sections of the communiqué condemning Iran’s support for various movements and a section on anti-terrorism that praises the decisions of some countries to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. 

Let us pause at the section on Iran and question the true extent of consensus among GCC member states on the most extreme position towards that country. It is well known that Oman maintains cordial ties with Iran while Kuwait is keen to remain on non-hostile terms with its neighbor across the Gulf. It may then seem reasonable to question whether Qatar, along with Kuwait and Oman, actually concurs with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain in their extremist attitude toward Tehran. This casts a shadow of doubt on the communiqué as a whole. Paragraph 74 calls for any future international negotiations to lump and address Iran’s conduct in the region—its ballistic missile and drone programs, and its nuclear program—together in one basket, on the one hand, and calls for the participation of the Gulf Countries in such negotiations, on the other. The same paragraph underlines the necessity of nuclear non-proliferation and calls for pursuing efforts aimed at creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the Middle East. 

From the Gulf countries’ perspective, it is logical to tie the three issues of concern to them together and to ask to participate in any prospective U.S. negotiations with Iran. However, including nuclear non-proliferation and the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction means adding Israel and its nuclear arsenal to the equation. Would the United States put Israel’s nuclear weapons on the negotiating table and would the Israelis accept that? This is the same Israel that the UAE and Bahrain did not ask anything of relating to its nuclear stockpile when they concluded agreements with it just a few months ago. In addition, is it conceivable for Egypt not to participate in negotiations for a WMD-free zone when it was the progenitor of the initiative in the first place? It should also be noted that since 1974, Egypt and Iran, and then Egypt on its own, have repeatedly proposed to the annual General Assembly the importance of establishing a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Expanding the negotiations framework also means including regional parties, such as Iraq. An expansion in the negotiations framework is in Iran’s interest since among the new prospective parties there are some which would be sympathetic to Tehran’s position or not partake in international pressures on it.  

The section of the communiqué on the Palestinian question is five paragraphs long and can be summarized as committing to the Arab Peace Initiative, to the resolutions adopted within the international legal framework, and to the two-state solution—which calls for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The paragraphs on Palestine reject the annexation by Israel of settlements in the West Bank and also underscore the importance of continued funding and support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) so that it continues providing its services to the Palestinian people. These are strong passages, but they invite us to wonder about their credibility. The UAE’s agreement with Israel did not include a single word about the international legal framework. The Emirates also hosted last November a delegation from the Israeli settlements, which announced that it had finalized important commercial deals with Emirati companies. 

The lofty rhetoric about Palestine also rests uneasily with the lavish praise, mentioned several times in the communiqué, for the United States, the great power that moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, closed its consulate in East Jerusalem, announced that Israel’s annexation of settlements was lawful, and cut funding with the intent of terminating the work of UNRWA. Finally, the strong paragraphs were adopted in the presence of the former U.S. president’s son-in-law, the chief architect of all the hostile measures against the Palestinian people that were meant to undermine the goals mentioned in this section of the communiqué.

Conditions of Boycott Removed?

We move to the second part. There is no mention in the communique of what the attendees agreed to or even discussed with regard to the 13 conditions declared when the boycott of Qatar was first imposed. The four states that launched the embargo had announced in June 2017 that Qatar must accept all 13 conditions within ten days. Among those conditions were the following: Qatar must reduce its diplomatic representation with Iran; cease military and intelligence cooperation with Iran; close the Turkish airbase; cease any military cooperation with Turkey; cut state ties with all terrorist, sectarian, or ideological organizations, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, and Hezbollah; accept the lists of terrorist groups designated by the four boycotting countries; and close the Al-Jazeera news network and its associated channels. In an article published at the beginning of July 2017, I anticipated that Qatar would not give in to the demands, which were not realistic. At least based on the communiqué, the countries boycotting Qatar appear to have failed in their attempt. Success in implementing any policy requires the definition of achievable goals. 

The third part of this article is about Egypt’s attitude regarding the boycott and reconciliation. It is striking that GCC officials only referred to the “Gulf reconciliation”, as if Egypt were not a principal party to the boycott. This observation is made regardless of the merits of the boycott. An invitation to attend the summit was extended to the Egyptian president, which he rightly declined, but Egypt was represented at the summit by its foreign minister. This is understandable given Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It is only unclear in which capacity it attended, whether as a guest, observer, or witness. What is not understandable is Egypt’s signature on the summit’s communiqué. Communiqués published at the end of conferences are not usually signed. The GCC member states chose to have this particular communiqué, supposed to list the “understandings” they reached, signed. So be it. But what does Egypt have to do with it? Egypt is not among the states on whose behalf the communiqué was issued. This is purely a GCC communiqué.    

Settling disagreements between Arab states is in their best overall interest. Egypt may therefore wish to enter direct negotiations with Qatar, without eluding any issues or sweeping them under the rug. What transpired with Saudi Arabia having negotiated with Qatar directly before the summit may justify such an approach. Qatar and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement to restore all their links to what they were before the boycott, including diplomatic relations, and to open their borders. This bilateral agreement was also not mentioned in the statement published by the summit. 

Most likely, this is what caused the Saudi, Qatari foreign ministers, and the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs to interpret the results of the summit differently. The Saudi minister emphasized that what occurred in the summit at AlUla was a “complete resolution of the dispute with Qatar and a full return to diplomatic relations.” He mentioned that the four states collectively agreed to normalize relations with Qatar, including commercial air flights. The Qatari foreign minister agreed with his Saudi counterpart, saying that the future steps are “a return to natural diplomatic relations as they were before the crisis on the part of all parties,” adding that “we are not about to impose conditions by one country on another.” He then said that the dispute about Al-Jazeera was not discussed during the negotiations over reconciliation with the Arab quartet. In contrast, the Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs declared that the steps to be implemented within a week after the agreement “include practical steps of airways, maritime shipping, and commerce.” He added that “as for other issues such as resuming full diplomatic ties, they will take time given persistent geopolitical disputes such as Turkey and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood; “some matters are easier to resolve, and some will take a longer time.” 

The discrepancy between the Saudi and Qatari ministers’ rhetoric, on the one hand, and the Emirati minister’s declaration speaks for itself and does not require further comment.  

Disputes between states are natural in the international system and should not be seen as aberrant even when they arise among states that share a common culture and region, such as the Arab states. What is deeply wrong is that these states follow, time and again, the same approach: one that does not resolve disputes but rather leaves them open only to reemerge at later times. 

Arab states need to innovate mechanisms to settle their disputes with sincerity and candor. These should include political mechanisms of extended, detailed negotiations, aimed at reaching compromises without sacrificing essential interests.