Winners and Losers in a New Middle East

Protest in Tunisia; photo via Flickr by Nasser NouriThe Middle East faces a moment of truth as country after country rises up against its authoritarian leaders. No government is secure against the people-powered protest movements sweeping the region. These dramatic events will likely be the greatest U.S. foreign policy challenge over the next decade. The regional security framework — with new roles for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Israel, and the likely Palestinian state (or states) — is evolving, and Washington must reexamine how it defends its regional interests in a new way.

Egypt and Tunisia are relatively smoothly navigating their transitions to more open, democratic societies. Where events in Egypt, in particular, lead is of critical importance. After a long dormancy, Egypt is reemerging as a regional leader, reaching out more deliberately to all states, including its erstwhile rivals Iran and Syria.

The foreign ministry quickly signaled the approach Cairo intends to take, emphasizing that while sensitive to the concerns of other countries, Egypt will play a bigger, more assertive role in the region. Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said while Egypt seeks to “open a new page” with all countries, Cairo expects relations with the United States “to be closer than ever.” Or, as Arab League Secretary-General and likely presidential candidate Amr Moussa has put it, “In a time of major changes, strategy should be revisited” and “the changes in the Arab world…taken into consideration.” U.S.-Egyptian relations “should continue to be solid,” but with democracy emerging, it “will not be a matter of a telephone call to one person.”

Egypt’s new foreign policy approach will more closely reflect the long-ignored sympathies and preferences of the populace. One important player in the new approach will be the Muslim Brotherhood, an integral — but by no means dominant — part of Egyptian society. The Brotherhood has kept a low profile in post-Mubarak Egypt, and has declared that it will not seek the presidency in the new Egyptian government — though one if its members has announced he would seek the post as an independent.

Egypt will more vigorously seek to resolve Israel’s differences with Syria and Lebanon, and to achieve a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Cairo’s support for the recently brokered unity agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reflects Egypt’s new orientation on the Palestinian issue. It entails some distancing from Israel’s policy on Gaza and on Hamas, which not only controls Gaza but also retains significant support in the West Bank. A more flexible Egyptian line on Hezbollah is also in the cards. Initially, these changes will generate additional tension between Israel and Egypt. But there will not be a renunciation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord; and ultimately the new relationship will be in Israel’s as well as Egypt’s long-term interests.

Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia appear to be managing the new stresses created by popular movements reasonably well, though excessive rigidity and caution may redound to the detriment of the Saudi ruling family.

Protests in Saudi Arabia are so far low-key. But the Saudis will ignore at their peril the winds of change sweeping the region. More government grants and subsidies will not satisfy the appetite of average citizens for increased political participation. The government will have to create additional jobs for young people, and the ruling family will have to find a way to reduce the political influence of the kingdom’s clerical establishment. Most importantly, a representative system of government in which the influence and privileges of the royal family are more limited is desperately needed.

Israel and Palestine

Israel has a golden opportunity to integrate into the region. Trepidations and wariness aside, Israel should look at what is happening in the Arab world with guarded hope. In fact, Israeli President Shimon Peres has spoken positively about what the developments in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the region mean. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown more skepticism, claiming the Arab Spring could turn into “an Iranian Winter.” But he has also said that movement toward more representative governments in the region does not present a threat to Israel.

The ability of Arab governments to deflect internal unrest by focusing on Israel’s sins will diminish. More assertive publics will force the new Arab leaders to press Israel to fully withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. Going forward, Israel will have to think more in terms of shared interests with the Palestinians. It must make peace with them and establish itself as a good neighbor that can contribute to the region’s stability and development. Rather than reflexively opposing the May 4 Palestinian unity agreement, Israel should seek to use it as a way to advance the goal of two states living at peace with each other.

Israel must avoid its typical government paralysis and act quickly to advance its position in the emerging, more democratic Middle East. Israel remains militarily strong, but its ties with its main supporters are fraying. Time is not on its side. Israel must act posthaste to align its actions with its rhetoric.

The Palestinians have benefited from the changes in the Arab world. But they also must make good use of the opportunity they have been provided. This will require President Mahmoud Abbas to engage in adroit diplomacy with Israel as well as positive signals from Hamas designed to increase Israeli confidence that a Palestinian unity government will be a reliable partner for peace.

The Non-Arab Powers

Iran, despite being a short-term beneficiary of the regional changes, also must adapt to an environment in which Egypt takes a more proactive stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It must engage its Western adversaries, especially the United States, in a meaningful way. Washington should be ready to respond to positive moves from Tehran, using U.S. economic and technological prowess to provide incentives for reform. Rather than focusing almost exclusively on the nuclear issue, the United States should address human rights, cultural diplomacy, and trade.

The United States should encourage Tehran to shed the undemocratic aspects of its political system that prevent the will of its people from being fully expressed. One direction Iran could take would be to limit the powers of the Supreme Leader, possibly through term limits.

Iran cannot exclude the United States from the region. However, as the recent decision by Iran and Egypt to reestablish diplomatic relations suggests, a U.S. policy that seeks to isolate Iran is not feasible. Focusing primarily on containment will be counterproductive because of Iran’s geopolitical importance, regional trends, and the nature of our interests in the area. Additional efforts to isolate Iran would more likely diminish our influence in both the Middle East and another hotspot —Afghanistan and Pakistan — than to stimulate a change in Iranian behavior. Our focus should be on regime reform rather than regime change, letting the Iranian people decide on specific changes and how they will be made.

Turkey has positioned itself for a broader role in the Middle East — one based on more than being an ally of Israel and the United States. Turkey, a democracy that maintains both Islamic and secular aspects, is well situated to benefit from developments in the region, particularly as a mediator between other states in the area. But it will have to share the stage not only with Iran but also with Egypt, which has some advantages: strong ethnic, cultural, and linguistic affinities with most of the other Arab states and no imperial legacy.

The Losers

Arab Spring losers include extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, which will be deprived of the ability to feed on the frustrations engendered by corrupt and repressive regimes. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and in Yemen will shrink and may well disappear. But for this to happen governments will have to accept religious parties that do not espouse extremist views into the political arena.

Other losers will be rulers who refuse to heed the call for greater public participation in political affairs. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Moammar Gaddafi in Libya both seem on the way out because they have failed to understand why presidents Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali fell — they did not provide any reason for their publics to mitigate their insistence on regime change. As of mid-May, Saleh seemed more likely to go first. But if the NATO-led coalition continues to ratchet up the pressure on Gaddafi’s regime, the situation could change quickly in favor of the Libyan opposition.

The rulers of Bahrain and Syria could also be in trouble if they do not reach out meaningfully to those demanding reforms. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s mid-April lifting of the repressive State of Emergency law, in effect since 1963, is a positive sign. But this move was late in coming and will prove meaningless if Assad does not engage the protesters in significant dialogue and instead continues to treat all forms of dissent as illegitimate, resulting in the killings of hundreds of protesters.

The number of deaths and wounded in Bahrain has been small in absolute terms but significant given the country’s small population. Moreover, the government’s repressive tactics, directed rather indiscriminately at middle-class Shiite Bahrainis, and some opposition Sunnis, are ill-advised. They are likely to alienate the moderates who could help the governing Sunni minority avoid a violent uprising down the road. On the positive side, the government has said it will lift the state of emergency in June, and there are reports of possible third-party mediation between the government and the opposition.

What Way Forward for the United States?

The confluence of U.S. economic problems, the cost of deploying well over 100,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the challenges resulting from the Arab Spring have starkly limited the resources Washington can use overseas. A decade of military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown Americans the limits of our ability to determine outcomes abroad with military power and illuminated how many unmet needs we have at home. The U.S. public and U.S. politicians have a strong and growing desire to more equitably share with others the burdens of world leadership. Osama bin Laden’s death has strengthened the urge to reduce our overseas presence.

But the Arab Spring shows that, in many respects, the United States remains an indispensable nation. An extended period of intense U.S. involvement in the Arab and Muslim worlds is certain. Still, the United States need not lead the efforts to deal with every regional crisis. Indeed, we are likely to be most effective when acting in concert with others.

As the Libyan conflict shows, in certain situations force will have to accompany admonition. But we should rely less on military remedies and more on diplomatic and economic tools, including developmental aid and trade and cultural ties. These carrots, combined with the stick of sanctions when necessary, will better advance our goals.

International exchanges of people and ideas should play a big role. These exchanges will include both political elites and members of civil society as well as military personnel. Military representatives will be exposed to U.S. concepts of civilian control of the armed forces. Civilians should get a fuller appreciation of the significance of transparency, accountability, and the orderly transfer of power.

Events in the Middle East are happening so quickly and with such force that we must act deftly. We need to focus on opportunities and worry less about risks, especially in situations that we can influence but not control. Naturally, there is concern regarding the eventual winners in individual countries. But U.S. preferences notwithstanding, most of the authoritarian leaders we supported are leaving the scene. It is imperative that the United States establish cooperative relationships with the governments that will replace them.

Under the new dispensation, the countries in the region will display greater independence from the United States. At the same time, our partners and we must hold these emerging democratic states to a higher standard. To the degree that the new governments meet the aspirations of their people for greater control over their lives, almost everyone is likely to be a winner over the longer term – the Arab world, Israel and Iran, as well as countries beyond the region, including the United States.

Large majorities of Americans sympathetically view the democracy movements in the Arab world. Developments in the Middle East and our responses to them are affecting how we are perceived in the region. But the changes also are shaping how Americans see the peoples of the region and Muslims generally — abroad as well as at home. The popular, largely youth-led revolts in the Middle East will be as important for our national security as they will for the countries of the region.

Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us to deal better with ambiguity and to set aside our penchant for neat and clear outcomes. Now, the ongoing upheavals largely beyond our control in the Middle East are giving us an opportunity to more closely align our policies with our interests — and our values.

Benjamin Tua, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a retired US diplomat.