Sahar F. Aziz
Professor of Law; Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar
Rutgers University Law School
Arab Center Washington DC
Non-resident Senior Fellow
Arab Center Washington DC
Sarah Leah Whitson
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Director of Research and Analysis
Arab Center Washington DC
On November 12, 2020, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a webinar titled “The Impact of the 2020 US Election Results on Middle East Policy: A Post-election Assessment.” The event featured Sahar F. Aziz, Professor of Law, Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar, and Director of the Center for Security, Race, and Rights at Rutgers University Law School; Nabeel Khoury, Nonresident Senior Fellow at Atlantic Council; Yousef Munayyer, Nonresident Senior Fellow at ACW; and Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Imad K. Harb, ACW Director of Research and Analysis, served as moderator.
Sahar Aziz said that the United States has historically supported dictators in the region and President-elect Joe Biden, though he has asserted that he will issue “no more blank checks” to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has a track record as vice president that may prove otherwise. In general, she noted, Democrats have rhetorically supported human rights but have not held dictators in the region accountable. Aziz also criticized waivers to the Leahy Law, which freezes security aid to countries because of their human rights violations. She argued that “counterterrorism has been, continues to be, and will always be a red herring” and is employed by the United States to support dictators. Further, she said that US policy has shown that Washington does not truly uphold human rights principles in Egypt or elsewhere. For their part, Egyptians strongly support good governance; however, Aziz stressed that Egyptian society is debilitated by a deteriorating education system, which contributes to bad economic conditions, as demonstrated by the youth unemployment bulge.
Aziz also stated that Arab authoritarians’ use of US-bought weapons to suppress their citizenry contributes to anti-US sentiment in the region and produces instability. Aziz advocated for a transition to indigenous forms of democracy in accordance with Egypt’s social and religious norms—a process that must involve Egyptian civil society, activists, journalists, and reform-minded officials. If Washington impedes the agency and political space for reform, Aziz added, progress in Egypt will not be consolidated and sustained. She called on Biden’s administration to end indefinite pretrial detention in Egypt, back international and independent monitoring of Egypt’s horrendous prison conditions, and support development reform, which is often overlooked in US foreign policy.
Nabeel Khoury noted that some in the region may prefer the policies of President Donald Trump, such as in Lebanon and the Gulf Arab states, as they believe Trump would “cut down Iran to size for them.” Although President-elect Biden’s foreign policy approach will be different, his ability to accomplish his goals will depend on the outgoing administration’s establishment of “facts on the ground” in the Middle East, which Khoury said may limit Biden’s maneuverability. For example, if Trump provokes a clash with Iran, this will complicate Biden’s preference to stress diplomacy to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and expand the agreement into a broader understanding on various conflict zones in the region—all of which are opposed by Saudi Arabia and Israel.
According to Khoury, Biden is expected to focus on Yemen, another conflict zone in which Iran is involved, though not to the same extent as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although US support for coalition forces in Yemen began during the Obama Administration, Biden is coming to office at a different time, Khoury explained, and is likely to take different positions regarding Yemen. He pointed to the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which has succeeded in placing Yemen—where the worst humanitarian disaster in the world has been unfolding—as a priority on the Biden agenda, for moral and humanitarian reasons as well as for regional stability. Khoury stated that this particular conflict provides an opportunity for Biden to take a stronger diplomatic role in the conflict.
Sarah Leah Whitson emphasized that Biden’s election as president comes as both good and bad news for a “rights-respecting democratic future” in the Middle East. First, she said the end of a Trump White House will signal that the former president’s “excessive romance” with the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman must be curbed and that US arms should not end up in Yemen, where these two monarchies are waging a catastrophic war. In the early presidential debates, she noted, Biden was clear about his intention to end US arms sales and subsidies to the Gulf, though he has been more cautious about making such definitive statements since then. According to Whitson, the second “good” that will come out of a Biden presidency is the lower likelihood of a war with Iran, as Biden may attempt to return to the Iran nuclear deal and decrease sanctions on the country to improve the humanitarian situation there. This approach will also help mend relations with Europe, she continued, which have suffered due to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.
Whitson asserted that it was President Barack Obama who greenlighted the war in Yemen and increased arm sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia—what she described as payback for the Iran deal. Furthermore, she argued that Biden is not progressive on the Middle East; rather, his ideology is rooted in an old-school approach that seeks to bring the region under US influence including by military means, such as the invasion of Iraq. She noted that another challenge that Biden will have to confront stems from continuing pressure from Israel. Moreover, he is not likely to proactively reduce arms sales to the Gulf, including the pending F-35 sale to the UAE, which could technically be revoked during his term. Instead, she affirmed, US ties with Gulf monarchies will likely remain strong throughout Biden’s term, especially since they have been bolstered by the recent normalization agreements.
In addressing the effects of a Biden presidency on Israel and Palestine, Yousef Munayyer emphasized that as the United States struggles with a plethora of domestic issues, including the coronavirus outbreak and an economic decline, foreign policy will not be a priority for the incoming Biden administration. Furthermore, within a limited scope of foreign policy, the importance of the Israel-Palestine issue will likely be defined based on its role in domestic politics. Munayyer said that in the United States, the Israel-Palestine issue is undeniably tied to Iran due to the narrative bolstered by the pro-Israeli lobby that presents Israel as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic. He explained that the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, which Biden is keen on reentering, depends largely on the result of Iran’s summer 2021 presidential elections, which could result in elevating the strategic importance of Israel for Washington.
Munayyer also mentioned that the incentives that pushed former President Obama to engage in Israel-Palestine diplomacy are no longer in place: Obama took office in January 2009, shortly after Israel’s bombing of Gaza in 2008-2009 and George Bush’s failed attempts to negotiate a peace deal between the two sides. Under today’s realities, Munayyer continued, Biden is not likely to take risks—not even to reverse the consequential decisions Donald Trump took that altered the fundamental parameters of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Any change to the current status quo, he concluded, will not be top-down but will come from bottom and up, pushing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the forefront of public attention and forcing Biden and his administration to respond.