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Prospects and Challenges in the Middle East

Prospects and Challenges in the Middle East
Lecture to Hillel at Stanford, Stanford Reunion Weekend
October 17, 2013

Anyone who would be so bold as to attempt to make sense of the constantly shifting political sands in the Middle East today must be truly an expert or something of a fool.  I am not an expert…  but Serena Eisenberg asked me to do this, so here I am. 


I’ll do my best, drawing from my recent engagement with the Arab world, on which we now have a program at my Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law; my several visits to Israel, most recently this past May; and, at least in the question and answer period, the work we have done at the Hoover Institution on Iran over the last decade.

Let me begin with an overarching observation.  Nearly three years after the inception of what has been termed “the Arab Spring,” there is a lot more continuity than change in the nature of Arab regimes. Only in four countries did dictators actually fall—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. 

Only in Tunisia has the democratic process been genuine and robust enough to call the political system an emerging democracy today, although it is still struggling to reach a final constitutional agreement and then hold new elections.  In Yemen, the constitutional dialogue has been hung up on a profound identity and political cleavage between north and south, and complex divisions along other religious and geographic lines.  Moreover, the former dictator, Abdullah Saleh, has not given up on the goal of trying to reclaim power for himself, or at least his son or his clan.  In Libya, as we have tragically seen, the central state is a fiction, as a welter of private armed militias vie for control.  There is no national army, and hardly even a police force.  Hence, assassinations, kidnappings, and extortion are rampant.  Even the Libyan Prime Minister , Ali Zeidan, was briefly kidnapped recently, possibly revenge for the US apprehension on Libyan soil of the terrorism suspect, Abu Anas al-Libi.  In one of the great understatements of the post-liberation era, the prime minister recently warned, after his release, “If we don’t get help in forming the police and army, things are going to take a very long time.”  While in London this past week, he pleaded for security assistance from the West.  Libya underscores a basic point we should have learned in Iraq:  If you don’t have a state, you can’t have a democratic state.

Egypt remains, for the moment, very much a state, but not one that has made any progress in addressing its fundamental problems.  Despite the military’s commitment to write a new constitution and then hold elections, the dominant and overwhelming power remains what it has been for sixty years, the military.  After a brief detour of civil society mobilization, electoral competition, and a precipitous move by the Muslim Brotherhood to establish political hegemony, the military is back in charge, and it does not intend to leave.  The fact that the military forced President Mohammed Morsi out of power only after mass mobilization in the streets by a very broad swath of society does not change—or justify—this underlying reality.  Neither does the immense personal popularity of Egypt’s current de facto ruler, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  As one Egyptian liberal recently observed in the Guardian: "More troubling still, al-Sisi has become a cult hero, with campaigns petitioning him to run for president and polls showing he would win, if he ran. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is a man of integrity, the temptations of excessive power and popularity could potentially doom Egypt to decades more of dictatorship."

If one sets aside its cynicism and ruthlessness, Egypt’s military has been an impressively clever political actor.   It has crudely and successfully fanned Egyptian nationalism to play off the society against the United States.  Now we are in a situation where, if we cut off aid, we are the bad guys.  Already, most of Egypt thinks the Obama Administration was siding with the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi was president—except for the Brotherhood itself, of course!  This is what happens when a great power acts like a weak one and just falls behind whoever is the government of the day.  But that’s not all.  The military has managed to position itself as the savior of Egypt’s liberals, its secular forces, and its Coptic Christians, even though the security apparatus ferociously hounded and repressed these same social forces during the Mubarak era, and has been implicated in previous violence against Christian churches and communities.  And there is more:  The military has also played the most puritanical Islamists, the Salafis, against the Brotherhood.  Divide and rule.  It’s an old story, and the autocrats of the Middle East have been at the game of political survival a lot longer than the Obama Administration has been in the game of trying to figure out what their game is—and alter it.

I am reluctant to dwell on Syria, because it is just too appalling and depressing.  Well over 100,000 people have been killed so far, nearly half of them civilians, and at least another 5,000 are dying every month.   Some 10 percent of Syria’s population of 22 million has now fled the country as refugees.  Neighboring Jordan hosts half a million of them, and is being badly strained politically and developmentally by the pressure.  The sprawling Zaatari refugee camp, with 120,000 residents, is now the fourth most populous place in Jordan. Lebanon is also badly strained, with nearly ¾ of a million Syrian refugees.  And there is no end in sight.  If we had embarked on an organized campaign with a clear strategy to help the non-Islamist resistance early in the conflict, there might have been some chance of success, or of forcing Assad to the bargaining table.  Now we a dramatically more dangerous situation.  Can you imagine a worse possible scenario than Bashar al-Assad murdering tens of thousands of his own people, using chemical weapons, brutalizing and destroying his country, and then surviving in power?  I can:  A revolution that succeeds and brings Al Qaeda to power in Syria, with a mission to wage jihad against the West and an agenda for their country something like the Taliban in Afghanistan.  As a result of our delays—and the pathetic divisions within the Syrian political resistance—the radical Islamists now have the upper hand among resistance forces in the civil war.  For this reason alone, the Russian offer that Obama accepted—working through the UN to try to inventory and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons—was the best of a lot of horrible choices at that moment.  We still need to try to arm and assist the more secular resistance.  But we need to tread very carefully.  And our goal should be to try to achieve some kind of negotiated settlement, which will require the partition of the country.

Strangely, Yemen, which is the poorest of all these Arab countries and the one that has most recently fought a civil war, has a chance to make it.  Despite the significant presence of Al Qaeda in parts of the country, despite the strong determination of much of the South (which has most of the oil, but has seen little development) to secede again from the country and declare a separate state, despite an array of ethnic, regional, clan, and sectarian divisions so complex that even outside experts probably do not fully understand them, Yemenis have at least been talking to one another.  Since March, they have been meeting formally and informally in a National Dialogue Conference—with very artful and constructive support and facilitation by the United Nations—to try to craft the basic parameters of a new constitutional bargain.  They are still far apart on the most difficult issue, of how to divide power and resources between north and south, and between other units.  And this is a country on the edge, with some 13 million people, more than half the population, needing some form of humanitarian aid.  As Tom Friedman noted in a column a while back, it could be the first country to run out of water if they don’t get effective governance to address the looming ecological disaster.  But dialogue is better than war, and having seeing the National Dialogue process up close this past summer, I do believe there is still a chance for accommodation—in part because of the role of the UN, which is the only actor that enjoys broad trust in the country.

In four Arab countries, then—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen—there is at least some transitional process still alive, and some chance for a more pluralistic politics to emerge in the years to come, even if there are false starts along the way.  Elsewhere in the region, authoritarian regimes seem to be in the driver’s seat.  Most of the Gulf monarchies have thrown staggering amounts of money at their populations in the last two and a half years in order to purchase anew their quiescence.  One, Bahrain, only survived by unleashing massive, brutal repression of popular protests, with security assistance from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors.  With support from friendly Gulf monarchies, the Jordanian kingdom is just trying to hang on, buffeted by intense cross-winds from allied regimes that tell the king to hang tough, and from principled forces and shrewd observers within and without the country who are warning King Abdallah that time is running out for fundamental reform. 

We often observe a bit wryly here at Stanford that we have a “duck phenomenon” with many of our students: they appear calm on the surface, but they are often paddling frantically beneath the water.  The Jordanian monarchy looks a bit like that as well, and ever more so as neighboring Syria continues its violent meltdown.  I am sorry to say it, because the last thing we need is for another country in the region to experience a sudden political meltdown, and the last thing Israel needs is for this to happen in a partner to a peace treaty, strategically placed on its border.  But the monarchy in Jordan faces serious and growing problems of political legitimacy, and it cannot correct them without serious political reforms that move the country in the direction of greater accountability, rule of law, responsiveness, and yes, democracy.

Jordan is one of two countries in the region where reform could happen in a reasonably orderly fashion, mediated from above by a monarchy that would gradually adapt to a new constitutional role in which its power would be limited and largely symbolic, while the people would choose and replace the real leaders of government in free and fair elections.  The other country where this could happen—and where the power of the monarchy and the relative coherence and moderation of the society is such that the country is much better positioned to make it happen—is Morocco.  This is a 350-year-old monarchy, in a very old and well-established state.  People are not seeking radical change.  But like a growing number of people across the Arab world, they do want change:  they want dignity, economic opportunity, and an end to debilitating corruption and arbitrary rule. They are tired of crony capitalism and favored interests.  Tired of arrogant and grotesque inequality. They want political voice, political freedom, and a rule of law.   What they are getting instead is feckless, incompetent rule by a detached and disinterested king, a small coterie of deeply corrupt palace elites, and a largely compromised and ineffectual political class.  This cannot go on indefinitely.  Too many people are hurting, economically vulnerable, or simply embarrassed by the political spectacle.  If the monarchy does not move forward toward fundamental democratic reform, it will be at risk of sudden death when something triggers mass protests.

I do not have time to review the politics of the entire region, and I want to close by talking about the choices that Israel now faces.  But let me just note the general point: The Spring of Arab Uprisings may have passed for now, but we remain in an extended period of political instability in the Middle East.  The genie of authoritarian stability will not be put back in the bottle.  For a time, stability may be purchased through state patronage, shameless handouts, or cynical divide-and-rule politics.  But this is all just more of the same tactics of short-term political survival.  Eventually, it must run its course.  There is a new generation in the Arab world.  It is the Internet and mobile-phone generation, the generation that grew up watching Al Jazeera on satellite television.  It will not be so comprehensively and indefinitely manipulated as in the past.  It has expectations.  It wants economic opportunity, social justice, political accountability and a better life.  Regimes that do not deliver these things will not last indefinitely just because they have lots of money, police, and soldiers—or even regional and international backing.  That is the real lesson of the Arab Spring.

Now what does all this mean for Israel?  In some respects, not all that much, because these titanic political struggles have turned many of these countries inward.  They are tired of—and less susceptible to—efforts to try to deflect attention from regime failures by whipping up a new round of demonization of Israel.  I don’t think there is quite the same mileage in it any longer for a desperate political leader.  And in any case, the rulers in Egypt and Jordan are constrained by peace treaties they know it is in their interest, and their country’s interest, to honor.  And behind the scenes, the security cooperation between Israel and these two neighbors has been surprisingly good. 

But people in the region do still identify in a certain sense with pan-Arab identity.  They still have an affinity for the Palestinian cause.  And they are still as a matter of principle, offended by their plight. 

In two trips to Israel in the last two years, I have been struck by two things.  One was political decimation and psychological depression of the Israeli left, not the radical left, the whole left of center.  The other was the striking change in mood and position of Palestinians on the West Bank—not Palestinian radicals but moderate and pro-American, secular professionals and intellectuals without who would need to be among the first constituencies to support any peace agreement.  They are also in a state of depression and despair.  A growing number of them no longer believe that a two-state solution is possible.  The alternative, which is gaining support, is a one-state solution.  Their position is:  The settlements have gone too far. They have become too permanent.  They will never be evacuated. Too much land has been taken.  What’s left is not a viable state.  So just make us equal citizens in a single state.  Everyone will be equal, and then we’ll press our case.

Anyone who follows demographic trends knows this is a formula for the end of Zionism, the transformation of Israel from a Jewish state into a multinational state that would eventually, perhaps not that long in the future, have an Arab majority and a Jewish minority. This is and will remain clearly unacceptable to most Israelis.

Yet the logic of the current situation leaves a dwindling, and I fear evaporating, set of alternatives.  About two decades ago, I was among a number of Jewish professors in the United States who participated in discussions that led to the creation of a remarkable and invaluable institution in Israel, the Israel Democracy Institute.  Its purpose from the start has been to deepen and invigorate democracy in Israel, in part by seeking to build a consensus for an Israeli constitution.  During our founding deliberations, there was one theme that resonated above all others.  If we looked over the horizon, we could see that Israel could not remain a Jewish state and a democratic state while it became Greater Israel, annexing or gradually absorbing the Palestinian territories.  It could be a Jewish state and a democracy by negotiating a two-state solution that would enable Palestinians to live in a separate state of their own.  It could remain a Jewish state, absorb the territories, and cease to be a democracy, denying a significant share of its population political rights. Or it could remain a democracy, become a single state, and give up the Zionist ideal of a homeland for the Jewish people.  It could be any two of these, but not all three.

We are approaching the historical moment when Israel must choose one of these three options.  Three times in the past eighteen years, Israeli prime ministers approached the brink of daring breakthroughs for peace, because they looked over the horizon and could not bear the other two options.  Each time fate tragically intervened.  One was cut down by assassination, another by a stroke, a third by allegations of corruption.  Since Ehud Olmert’s serious contemplation of a far-reaching peace agreement with the Palestinians in 2008, the quest for peace has collapsed, Israeli settlements have further expanded, and disillusionment has hardened on all sides.  A growing number of Israeli moderates and centrists—forget about the left—worry deeply, agonizingly, that time is running out to solve this problem in a way that can preserve Israel as a secure, Jewish, democratic state.

There is no denying the depth and immediacy of this dilemma.  Neither should we expect that the status quo will be sustained by existing or reconfigured regional relationships.  As I have argued, the Arab Spring is not finished with its work of bringing down autocrats and remaking the Middle East. This could create a turbulent and unfamiliar regional context for Israel in the years to come.

Ultimately, I believe that Arab democracies will be better placed to sustain an organic peace with Israel, because what Arab peoples want above all else is dignity, freedom, and prosperity.  These cannot be obtained by perpetual conflict, and most Arabs know it.  But what they see as the humiliation of the Palestinian people—disempowered, without a viable state or economy, bereft of hope for a solution—is a nagging wound, an affront to the dignity of all Arabs.  If it is no longer seen as a cause for war among neighboring Arab societies, which face inward to confront their own gigantic problems, it certainly is an obstacle to a truly lasting peace.

None of this is to absolve the Palestinians and their leaders of responsibility for the failure to grasp prior possibilities for peace, beginning with the unequivocal renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  It is only to say that the status quo is not sustainable.  We are living through a time when the Middle East is being remade.  There is a real possibility for non-Arab actors to help steer it toward peace and democracy, and in the end, the two are inextricably linked.