First Annual Conference – Democracy in the Arab World: The Obama Legacy and Beyond

The Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) convened its first annual conference on October 14, the focus of which was democracy in the Arab world. The panelists offered diverse perspectives on the challenges to democracy in the Arab world, the causes that led to failed or undemocratic transitions, the failure of the Obama Administration to support Arab democracy efforts, and opportunities and recommendations for the next Administration.

ACW Board Member Randa Famhy and ACW Executive Director Khalil Jahshan delivered the welcoming remarks explaining the mission and functions of the Arab Center Washington DC in providing insight on economic, political and social life in the Arab world and on US policy toward the Middle East.

Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, delivered the keynote speech via video conference, setting the tone for the conference and addressing the structural issues in the Arab states that led to the failure of democratic transition. The uprisings of 2011 rose against authoritarian regimes and their repressive policies and demanded democracy and human rights, which can only be achieved in a democratic society. However, the uprisings of 2011 led to civil war, the eruption of violence and disagreement between Arab elites over who was responsible for the violence. According to Bishara, Arab Democrats believe that the failure of democracy was attributed to the old regimes, which offered no opportunity to allow citizens to participate in the political process. He blamed the patriarchal nature of Arab society and political elites for the failure of democratic transition. Regarding the Obama legacy, Bishara stated that President Obama’s approach to the Middle East was superficial and shallow-minded, driven by his desire to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor.

“Is it the yearning for change or the failure to make it happen that should be blamed for violence?” – Azmi Bishara

During the conference, the panelists discussed the current state of democracy in the Arab world and the factors behind its failure. Using the uprising in Syria as an example, Lina Khatib of Chatham House explained the evolution of the opposition in Syria from an opposition group demanding change and democracy to one ultimately co-opted by Jihadist groups. Among other things, this evolution was brought on by the failure of the Obama Administration to fully back the opposition forces as well as the failure to react to the red line that President Obama had established against Assad. The US policy of non-intervention in Syria has allowed Russia to assume a direct role in the conflict, while the US mishandled the entire situation. Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC, argued that the US needs a new approach toward Syria; one that features a strong US presence. In Ziadeh’s view, the only recourse to the Syrian crisis is the use of force as a means of starting the political transition in Syria, similar to the approach the US used in Bosnia, which led the parties to the negotiating table.

“We have had an almost obsession in the US with categorizing groups in Syria into so-called moderates or so-called extremists. This misses the dynamic on the ground: lots of people don’t join groups out of ideology but out of a desire for military effectiveness, the need to generate funding, feed their families, or because of local ties” – Lina Khatib

Concerning Egypt, Emad Shahin of Georgetown University argued that “the Egyptian state is not a neutral agent and therefore lacks the capacity to be inclusive to tribal, religious or sectarian groups.” According to Shahin, for a democratic transition to succeed, a transfer of power from the state apparatus to outsiders should occur, not a transition into another similar regime or the military and intelligence. These factors all but guaranteed the failure of democratic transition in Egypt. It was a false premise that anyone expected the Arab world to undergo rapid democratic change in 2011. However, as Michelle Dunne, Director of the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained, some did anticipate a better outcome in Tunisia due to Habib Bourguiba’s major investment in human development, which left a long-legacy for Tunisia’s transition to democracy, albeit a fragile one.

“A Major challenge for actors outside the region, including the United States, is to develop ways to interact with the region that go beyond security assistance and arms sales” – Michelle Dunne

Iraq, on the other hand, was doomed to failure due to societal fractures on a sectarian basis. Abdulwahhab Al-Qassab, Associate Researcher at Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, argued that the major reason behind the failure in Iraq was the introduction of fragmentation of the country on sectarian and ethnic basis, as a result of the US invasion of Iraq. The sectarian conflict gave no legitimacy to the elections, and was later exploited by groups like al-Qaida and ISIS. Marwan Kabalan, Associate Researcher at Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, asserted that the Obama Administration failed in Iraq, and that there is less hope for democracy in the region today. External players, particularly the Obama Administration, did nothing to help the Arab Spring and support transitions. He noted that the result of not supporting democracy – or dealing with it as a side issue – achieved the opposite of what the US wanted the Middle East.

“President Obama did betray the cause for democracy by supporting the election of Maliki, however the President was not elected to promote democracy but rather to withdraw troops from Iraq” – Marwan Kabalan

Regarding the Obama Administration’s policy toward the Middle East, Peter Beinart, Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at CUNY, disagrees. He posited that Obama has long believed that US overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm the economy, the ability to deal with other challenges and more importantly endanger the lives of US service men and women for reasons that are not in the direct American national security interests. Amaney Jamal of Princeton University argued that economics remains a key challenge and one of the dominant grievances in the region, and thus needs to be incorporated into US policy. Public opinion data presented by Jamal show that for most citizens in the Arab world, the economy is the most important concern, while the MENA region continues to receive the lowest amount of foreign direct investment than any region in the word. Jamal added that the Arab-Israeli Conflict also is an obstacle to reform, as investment in the Arab world is perceived through this seemingly intractable instability.

“For all the talk about the success and failure of the Arab Spring, we should be thinking about the ‘economic failure’ that came about with the Arab Spring” – Amaney Jamal

Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University acknowledged that the US has many misperceptions about the Middle East. There has been little effort, post-9/11, toward understanding the factors that led to the Arab Spring or the events following the Arab Spring. According to Fukuyama, for the Obama Administration the biggest problem in the region is not democracy, it is state building. The legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan gives proof to the theory that democracy building or military intervention will not succeed without efforts to work toward state building. Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University argued that there is a need to overcome the politics of fear in the region, and focus on building democracy through building consensus. Brumberg argued that part of the failure of the Arab Spring is the lack of consensus building. He noted that “the Tunisian example should remind us how important it is for the opposition to see beyond their own ideological, sectarian, social or economic divisions, and build a common agenda.”

“The big problem in the Arab world is that the sense of nationhood has never been really forged and never had the opportunity to be forged” – Francis Fukuyama

Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), recommended a series of future policy steps toward the region, including consistent messaging on human rights and democracy, willingness to take bold actions to encourage non-democratic governments to take meaningful steps towards human rights and reform, and engaging more broadly with the region such as with civil society.

“The absolute top priority for US policy in the Arab World should be helping the people of the region have governments that respect the rights of their citizens and democratic institutions that encourage the full participation and engagement of their citizens” – Stephen McInerney

A recording of the conference sessions, as well as Dr. Azmi Bishara’s keynote remarks can be found below: