December 16, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 246

What Next, After A Bitter 10 Years?

December 16, 2020 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 246

Ten years after Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against corruption in the country, the anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring generates many a retrospective.[1] I would not be surprised to find that there is a lot of consensus as we look at this date: The region as a whole is in worse shape than it was a decade ago. It is not more democratic and humane. If anything, autocratic rule seems crueler and more cynical.

On the plus side, Tunisia itself hosts a fragile democracy, and Sudan is freer today than it ever was under Omar Al-Bashir, and is even attempting attempts a full transition towards democracy. Saudi Arabia has taken some important steps towards social, religious and economic reform, but has studiously avoided political reform. The regional downside is greater with rivals in Syria, Yemen, and Libya fighting amidst the rubble and ruin, while Lebanon and Iraq are imploding.

An entire generation of heroic Arab activists has been repressed, killed, silenced, or driven into exile. In general, very little has been done to improve the lives of ordinary citizens or enhance their personal dignity. The region is poorer and thirstier than it was, while corruption remains rampant. Anecdotally, I see more despair than anger these days. And migration seems as much a preferential option as revolution.[2]

There is no great democratic groundswell among the powerful who rule the region's authoritarian regimes. These rivals are actually more alike than different in many ways. Instead of Arab states evolving into pro- and anti- democracy blocs, they have organized themselves mostly over their positions on the region's three rising non-Arab powers: Iran, Israel, and Turkey. These are more loose groupings rather than formal alliances. With slight shadings and nuances varying according to local characteristics (a state like Oman is relatively friendly towards both Israel and Iran), pro-Israel states tend to lean towards being anti-Iran, and vice versa. Turkey also evokes strong likes and dislikes according to local alliances.

The anti-Israel/pro-Iran bloc includes Algeria, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Qatar. The Palestinian Authority belongs there as well, as does Hamas-ruled Gaza. The bloc leaning towards Israel/anti-Iran bloc comprises Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, and Morocco. Jordan belongs there too, although the Hashemite Kingdom seeks to warily maneuver between Qatar on the one hand and KSA/UAE on the other. Of course, the latter, more pro-Israel bloc is also that of America's traditional allies – some of whom have old, uneasy ties with Israel (Egypt, Jordan) and others (UAE, Bahrain) newer and more positive ones.[3]

In my view, America's interests lie more clearly with the latter bloc of authoritarian states than with the more anti-Israel, pro-Iran/Turkey bloc of rival authoritarian states.[4] The Trump administration intuited this, but only in a very superficial, transactional way. A good U.S. policy outcome would be the strengthening of this "moderate, pro-American axis" of states to work more closely together with each other, with Israel, and with the U.S. while encouraging them to curb their brutal worst instincts against their own populations. Such an American stance would encourage – not the bridge too far of "democracy" fatefully connected to political Islam, but, at the very least – a more sincere respect for human dignity and the aspirations of a long-downtrodden population. Blunt but friendly behind the scenes engagement with allies rather than carte blanche for dictators, as often seemed to be the case under Trump, seems like the better option.

Such an approach would see the release of figures such as Coptic activist Ramy Kamel in Egypt and women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul in Saudi Arabia, accompanied by quiet diplomacy aimed at avoiding the repeat of such self-inflicted human rights wounds in those countries. It is not a panacea or magic wand, but consistent American engagement and humble diplomacy with our authoritarian counterparts could probably accomplish more gradual change than grandiose public shaming and posturing about democracy ever will.

My expectation of the Biden administration in the Middle East is that it will make many of the wrong choices and "switch sides," especially given stated Democratic priorities involving both Iran and democracy promotion.[5] Pursuing an understanding with Iran while castigating some Arab regimes over their domestic policies could be a dangerous combination. A new Democratic administration will likely distance itself from the "moderate pro-American" bloc – especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt – while seeking to demonstrate that it is "different" than Trump specifically on human rights and democracy. But how that is done can make all the difference.[6] This bloc, allied with Israel, doesn't need to be passive in the face of American diktats and can exercise its own agency.

Arab regimes have been whipsawed by the last two American administrations. Obama seemed to embrace the Arab Spring (Mubarak's Egypt, Qaddafi's Libya), and then didn't (Morsi's Egypt, Assad's Syria). He gave a greenlight to Saudi Arabia and its allies over Yemen, in part as a result of alienating the Saudis over the Iran deal. That alienation was not so much because of the nuclear dimension of the JCPOA, but because the Americans caved on the ballistic missile and Iranian regional intervention issues.[7] Trump was an American president much more to the liking of our traditional Arab allies in many ways, but his seemingly shallow and transactional way of doing diplomacy made them anxious at times. Would a deal with Iran have been on the table in a second Trump administration, and would Trump have continued to coddle an expansionist Erdogan? Those seemed like well-founded Arab concerns.

Given the limited bandwidth of any American administration on the Middle East due to greater challenges both at home and abroad, a less ambitious, narrowly focused agenda might make more progress. Certainly, the idea of listening more to American allies in the region on Iran is a good idea, if that is truly substantive and not just for show.[8] Regardless of what diffident and distracted Americans may decide to do, the right scenario for that existing bloc of pro-American states is to enhance cooperation and strategies among each other and nurture careful reform with an eye on enhancing their own stability and a degree of human dignity.[9] This intraregional coalition building is the prudent way to go 10 years after a round of attempted revolutions that seemed to have ended in making a bad situation worse.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI. 

[1], December 14, 2020.

[2], August 12, 2020.

[4], December 15, 2020.

[5], November 28, 2020.

[6], December 15, 2020.

[7], December 15, 2020.

[8], December 11, 2020.

[9], May 27, 2020.

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