Recent upheavals in the Middle East have already achieved significant changes in the “status quo.” Changes in the political leadership in Tunisia and Egypt were followed by the ongoing Libyan conflict and unrest in Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria. In the context of the newly emerging security architecture in the Middle East, how will the power relations between regional actors look like? What would be the implications of the Arab Spring for the Arab-Israeli peace and the US policy in the region? This event will analyze the prospects for a new Middle East from different country perspectives in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Elliot Hentov (Princeton University)
Matthew Duss (Director of Middle East Progress, Center for American Progres)
Burhanettin Duran (Chair, Political Science and International Relations Department, Istanbul Sehir University)
Yousef Munayyer (Executive Director, The Palestine Center)
by Omer Ozbek
Matthew Duss stated that the recent events in the Middle East come as a surprise to the US foreign policy establishment. He mentioned that the status-quo in the Middle East was unsustainable which was based on US support for a number of dictators in the Middle East rule as long as they kept their people down and kept the oil flowing. Duss pointed out that in recent months, the people in the Middle East had very decisively rejected this deal. Duss said that there is a realization in the US government that “we must reject that deal as well.” He underlined that now everyone wants democracy in the Middle East but the transition methods and results of democratic governance are questioned. He argued that the previous US policies produced anger and extremism and the Bush administration’s Iraq operation as a solution to the problem and a democratic model to the rest of the Middle East did not work out. He stated that the problems in the implementation of democracy in Iraq handicapped the democratization efforts in the region. He pointed out Obama administration’s efforts to avoid such mistakes and reset the relations with the region. He identified the current developments in the Middle East as an opportunity for the US to establish a new relationship with the people in the region in a range of fields other than military issues. He laid out the main issue for the US as follows: “how do we manage the tensions in the region as ethically and responsibly as possible?”
Yousef Munayyer started his speech by defining the Arab Spring as the second wave of decolonization in the Middle East. He mentioned that the first casualty in the Arab Spring is the widely held belief in the dichotomy between radicalism and moderation. He stressed the revolutions have created a potential to reshape the region by defining foreign policy not based on narrowly defined regime interests but popularly defined national interests. He referred to the struggles of his father’s generation in Egypt and compared those to the struggles of his own generation. Munayyer mentioned that the Arab civil society guards against “romanticization” of the revolutions and focuses on the institutional development and safe-guarding of governments in the hands of the people. He underlined that domestic and foreign policy in the new governments should be cautious to avoid disasters and based on popular will. Munayyer said that the success of civil uprisings led to the demise of Bin Ladinism, which he defined as the ideology that violent and radical uprising is the only method for change. He warned against the resurrection of Bin Ladinism with the failure of secular Arab nationalism. Stressing the importance of new free media, Munayyer commented on the US media coverage of the events as the first time the Arab youth and demonstrations were portrayed positively.
Burhanettin Duran stated that the recent events in the Middle East surprised Turkish foreign policy makers as well since Turkey expected to stabilize the region through increasing trade, investment, and travel among neighbors. He mentioned that establishing cooperative relations with existing regimes in the region conflicts with the efforts to build a new regional order. He underlined that these goals can be realized through a gradual and peaceful manner. He argued that Turkish policy makers were stuck between meeting the demands of the protestors and encouraging regimes to adopt reforms. He gave examples of Syrian case where Turkey faces a dilemma of regime’s survival or change after successfully developing bilateral relations in the last years. Duran claimed that leading principals of Turkish foreign policy are even more relevant now and it is very early to talk about success or failure of these principals. He pointed out Turkey’s unique ability to approach both sides of the conflicts in the region. He referred to Turkish state as the only consolidated democracy in the region that can serve as an inspiring example for all the stages of democratic consolidation and economic development. He mentioned that Turkey’s critical and independent stance towards Western policies in the region while being integrated with the West can serve as a unique example as well.
Elliot Hentov argued change is obviously coming to the region and, from Iran’s perspective, change is no longer considered the symbol of opposition to existing order. He argued that despite having deep ties to specific groups in countries like Iraq and Lebanon, Iran is an isolated country in the region. He explained Iran’s efforts to shape the outcome of the current wave of change and decrease its isolation in the region. Hentov said that Iran has opportunities to accomplish these goals in the short run as the new Arab governments define their policies in a fractionalized political environment. He said that Egypt is no longer in the anti-Iranian camp after Mubarak and new diplomatic relationships with Iran are being established. He argued that the new slogan of Iran for the region is “neither for the West, more against the West” as opposed to the 1979 slogan of “neither at East, nor the West.” He underlined that the Iranian model does not correspond to the people’s demands and Egypt has already shown it can play an anti-Persian, anti-Shiite leadership in the region.
In the Q&A session, Duss stated that the economy was not the primary reason for the uprisings. He said that the recent revolutions especially in Egypt and Libya were uprisings to change the old status quo. He emphasized that people in the Middle East do not want a country which is ruled by men with guns anymore, instead they want democratic countries and systems of accountable, uncorrupted institutions.
Addressing a question on how a new government in Syria might behave towards Egypt, Iran, the US and Israel, Munayyer stated that the new possible Syrian government may distance itself from Iran and improve relations with the new Egypt. However, since the Syrian foreign policy is dependent on the national interests of Syria such as retaking the Israeli occupied Golan Heights back, it is not expected that any kind of Syrian government will act friendly towards the US and Israel.
Duran, speaking about how Turkey would contribute to the democratization process in Syria, mentioned that from the early days of upheavals in Syria, Turkish government sent envoys to al-Assad trying to persuade him to make certain reforms for a more democratic Syria. Duran said that democratization needs a system of institutions, and that since Turkey is the only country in the region with truly democratic institutions, Turkey can help Syria by being a good role model.
The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) at Washington, D.C. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to innovative studies on national, regional, and international issues concerning Turkey and US-Turkey relations.