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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: The Arab Spring One Year Later

Washington, DC, USA - A roundtable discussion hosted by the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs on February 29 featured an appraisal of the Arab Spring upon the first anniversary of the events in Egypt that overthrew the Mubarak regime. Panelists included Nizar Farsakh, General Director, General Delegation of the PLO to the United States; Dr. Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine; Dr. Douglas Johnston, President, International Center for Religion and Diplomacy; Joyce Karam, Washington Correspondent for Al Hayat, a leading international pan-Arab daily; John Pinna, Director, Office of Government and International Relations, American Islamic Congress; Tarek Nahabet, international affairs specialist and former program manager, Global Campaign for Middle East Peace; and, Dr. Andrew Wilson, co-author, Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine. Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director of UPF’s Office of Peace and Security Affairs, moderated, and Dr. Mark P. Barry, Senior Fellow, Summit Council for World Peace, acted as rapporteur. Also attending were Tomiko Duggan, Director of Public Affairs, UPF International, and William Selig, Deputy Director, UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs, as well as two observers from the Citizens Proposal, Glenn and Louise Strait. Dr. Betancourt provided Welcoming Remarks and asked for a moment of silence for those who lost their lives in the Arab Spring.

The overall theme proved to be highly complex, with many nuances as well as equally compelling points of view. The first topic discussed was whether Arab Spring is the best term to designate the events of the last year in the Arab world. One participant offered that we must use the plural, whether it is “Arab Springs,” “awakenings,” “transformations,” and so forth, if not to use terms such as “revolution” (Libya) or “regime decapitation” (Egypt) in specific cases. There was general agreement that “Arab Spring,” however, conveyed hope, even if it was not necessarily an accurate term to describe the range of events last year. Differences were also noted in how young people, who make up 70 percent of the Muslim population in the Arab world, reacted as opposed to older generations. All agreed that the Arab Spring has begun a long process and that we have likely entered the Arab Decade.

An underlying broad theme that emerged was that intrinsic to this region is the importance of narrative, that each nation’s self-identity is based on a specific narrative that describes its collective human experience, and that those nations that underwent upheavals last year will still act on the basis of their narrative as well as their universal aspirations. The Arab Spring was experienced differently in each country in the Arab world—or not at all, as was the case in most monarchies. The level (or relative absence) of violence, the degree of change achieved, and the resulting stability of each country were variables that distinguished the past year’s events in each case. It was felt that Tunisia is the best model of a beneficial outcome of the Arab Spring, whereas Egypt still retains its military leadership but has held parliamentary elections—with Islamic parties winning a majority. Yemen has seen little change in the past year, despite its uprisings and resignation of its president. Libya, absent Qaddafi, is now divided along tribal lines between rival regions, east and west. There was common agreement that outside nations must allow the regional actors to solve their own situations and not interfere out of self-interest; this is definitely the aspiration of the affected Arab nations. However, some felt that if Israel and/or the United States attacked Iran over its nuclear program, that could be the end of the Arab Spring, as well as a potential death blow to the Palestinian–Israeli peace process.

The chief focus of the Arab Spring in early 2012 is Syria. It was agreed that Syria is incapable of reform and that President Bashar Assad does not have the resources to survive in the present circumstances. So far, there have been no major military defectors in Syria, and government military units attacking rebel forces so far are from elite Alawite units, not the Sunni military rank and file. Given the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council, it appears no one will rescue the Syrian people from the outside. For Russia, collapse of the Assad regime could mean loss of the warm-water port of Tartus that its navy uses. It was argued that Russia’s interest in preserving this strategic asset needs to be appreciated by those who would enlist its aid to end the conflict. Iran will suffer a major blow if Syria falls, as it has been Iran’s chief client in the region. The risk of Iranian involvement should the United States get involved is worth considering, but so is the benefit of a weaker Iran. Syria’s conflict, it was concurred, could spill over into Lebanon, Iraq, and even Israel. What happens in Syria can determine the whole outcome of region. In that light, it was agreed that Turkey is central for solving Syria’s crisis and is a key to the whole region. A negotiated solution based on a concerted diplomatic effort by the United States, Turkey, Russia, and other actors was seen as less likely, but not impossible.

It was felt that the United States has to balance its interests and values, which explains why it both supports the Arab Spring where it has occurred yet also bolsters the region’s monarchies.

The increase of Islamization in the region’s politics was not seen as a threat but as a natural process that is seriously misunderstood in the West. There was considerable discussion about Islamic parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as the more radical Salafis. We have already seen a shift in the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, as these parties have moved from powerless opposition groups to become major players in government. At the same time, the more radical Salafis have been losing ground. The group felt that the West should not fear the natural process of acculturation that will occur as Islamists and secularists alike find common ground in the pursuit of good governance.

One participant noted that creating democracy is hard work; a country cannot backslide on it. Another participant noted that the search for values as a basis for social transformation is a necessity to prevent revolutionary fervor from sliding back into despotism. Yet one should not expect Arab culture to mimic the social theory of the West. At least one Arab commentator, it was noted, has raised the issue of citizenship as a value to be pursued in a post-Arab Spring world. Citizenship brings with it universal rights, but this is a novel idea in a society where human value is traditionally linked to tribal loyalties. The development of citizenship, as well as the growth of democracy, will require a functioning judicial system, something that is also largely lacking in the Arab world. The question remains whether these Arab societies will be transformed through new values and new ideas or end up deferring to traditional cultural norms.

The prominent role of women in the Arab Spring was said to be highly undervalued. Although women were important catalysts of the initial revolutionary phase, as events ran their course and gains were consolidated, these women activists were marginalized. Women continue to face enormous obstacles to entering the political arena in most countries that underwent the Arab Spring, notably Egypt. However, in Morocco, a constitutional reform gives women considerable representation in the new parliament.

The conflict between Palestine and Israel was briefly discussed, with a focus on the role of the Quartet (United States, EU, Russia, and the UN). There was broad agreement that chances are not good for the peace process to move forward in 2012 given that the exploratory talks in Jordan have halted and the American presidential elections in November inhibit a more vigorous U.S. role. Some participants said the key starting point is that Israel should present a map of how it envisions ceding territory to a Palestinian state as a basis to renew negotiations. Without such a map, the talks become largely polemical.

Discussion focused also on the role that the EU and countries of newly advanced economic development such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), as well as Latin American nations such as Chile, could play in aiding the Arab Spring. One participant suggested three ways they could help:

  • Through trade and investment
  • Cease siding with Syria, so these countries clearly stand on the side of democracy
  • Providing analogous lessons in transitioning away from authoritarian rule. The experiences of nations in Latin America, which have taken their own paths to throw off dictatorship and transition to democracy, deserve more study by the Arab world.

Enormous ground was covered in the two-and-a-half hour program. Dr. Betancourt submitted for the record Concluding Remarks that eloquently summed up the spirit of the proceedings. For the text of his remarks, click here.

For information about UPF's Middle East Peace Initiative, click here.
See also the issue of the International Journal on World Peace on The Arab Spring, One Year Later.

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