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On Thursday, February 25, 2015, PS21 held a discussion with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy on the Arab Spring@4: What Next? In Washington DC.

Chair: Sidney Olinyk, former Pentagon chief of staff for Middle East policy. Member of the PS21 international advisory group.

Ari Ratner: former State Department political appointees. Fellow, New America

Nancy Okail: Egyptian activist, executive director for the Tahrir Centre for Middle East policy

Leigh O’Neill: policy director, Truman National Security Project

The full transcript of the event can be had found here: PS21 Arab Spring Event Transcript Full audio can be found here.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion.

Western governments and the US in particular were seen as being continuously behind the ball when it came to tackling the chaos that followed the revolutions of 2011. On the ground, frustrations continued to rise particularly with the reassertion of military rule in Egypt. Four years on, there is widespread pessimism including about the ability of foreign policymakers to tackle similar situations in the future.

“As anyone who has worked in government knows, it’s very difficult to keep up with our own internal systems, let alone the internal dynamics of a foreign country… undergoing revolution,” said Ratner.

The immediate revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere had several effects, he said. Firstly, the price of oil rose sharply, helping those energy producing regimes and seriously undermining the remainder. Across the region, America’s allies looked at the abandonment of Egyptian President Honsi Mubarak and immediately worried about the credibility of America’s support for them.

The West’s ability to respond was seriously curtailed by the global financial crisis, he said, coupled with other subordinate crises such as the Japanese earthquake and the Eurozone crisis.

It was, several speakers cautioned, too soon to tell who the real winners and losers would be.

“What is happening is a battle of narratives,” said Nancy Okail. “The more powerful group is the one that sets the narrative. The victor is the one who writes history at the end of the day.”

Authoritarian regimes such as the new rulers in it you, she said, had been relatively ineffective at taking back the narrative, reframing themselves as the bulwark against chaos. The activist and pro-democracy groups, meanwhile, had in many cases fractured and lost the initiative.

Okail found herself on the receiving end of what she called a “huge smear campaign” after she returned to Egypt to push for political reform. Western-funded and backed NGOs in particular were targeted, she was arrested and put on trial.

“I see the case of the NGOs as a microcosm of everything that happens in the country,” she said. “The lack of rule of law… they had control of the media and because of that we were portrayed as enemies of the state and spies. (They) claimed that we were trying to implement this huge Zionist plan to divide Egypt.

Leigh O’Neill pointed in particular to the sample to as one nation which stood out in particular for its stability. She attributed this partly to the Jordanian government strategy of “regional relativism”, making sure the population knew how bad things were elsewhere.

“Jordanians are fed a steady diet and have embraced regional relativism,” she said. “They look around and they see things are not so great (elsewhere). That is something that the government and the people of Jordan have in common.”

Still, she said many of the problems that helped push Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in Tunisia were also true in Jordan.

“What does it take to like yourself on fire because you are subject to this relationship with a state?” O’Neill asked. “That’s an important story to tell and remember particularly when we unpack… and talk more honestly about what authoritarianism is and whether it’s “benign” or not so benign.”

Okail in particular warned against too positive and interpretation of events in Tunisia, widely regarded as one of the few success stories

“I worry so much when people over romanticised Tunisia,” she said. “It’s definitely in the best scenario in the region.(Tunisia has the largest number of recruits in ISIS and that tells you something.”

Ari Ratner said overall he remained broadly optimistic that Islamic State itself could be militarily defeated or weakened. Dealing with the underlying problems of the region, however, was more difficult.

“I have pretty strong faith that is something that is achievable,” he said. The military… are pretty effective at killing people, killing terrorists and fighting insurgencies. We will muddle our way through, and Isis will be defeated… This is just my own suspicion (but) ISIS is not the predominant story in the region.”

“The much bigger question is how you address the underlying conditions at which something like ISIS emerges,. There is no easy answer to this, in my mind.”

Many of the underlying causes of both the Arab Spring and ISIS were identified in May 2002 UN report on the region, he said: shortcomings of freedom, lack of rights, education, access to science. Few of those problems have been solved.

The simple truth, Okail said, was that in Egypt and elsewhere the youthful activists and women in particular found themselves largely sidelined in the aftermath of the revolution.

Many of those risks were also present elsewhere, Ratner said.

“It’s a very unstable world. Everywhere, to some extent, is a pool of gasoline.”

Okail said governments were often particularly ill suited to dealing with such dangers.

“Most policymakers look at the immediate situation,” said Okail. “They want to solve what is going on now without a long-term vision or strategy for what happens next. They need an actionable plan: something to do right now showcase for the media and the taxpayer. And they are very quick in identifying all recognising victory and defeat.”

Small victories, however, she said, were possible.

“Opportunities go back to the battle of narratives,” she said. “These regimes care so much about the image we can use this as an opportunity… right before a UN meeting, they might release prisoners. These are small windows of opportunity that we can keep pushing.”

For US policymakers, Ratner said the region offered little bit difficult decisions. On Saudi Arabia, for example, it was unclear whether the US pulling back nominations would make things better or worse.

“The world is always hypocritical — it’s the nature of the beast,” he said, pointing to the multiplicity of interests within the US government “people compare the US government to an aircraft carrier but it’s more like a carrier battle group because there are lots of ships in formation and if you change course only a bit that can mean a big thing.

As to the bigger picture, it was still too soon to tell what the last four years really meant, he said.

“I think it was Chou En-Lai that was asked how he viewed the French Revolution and he said it was too soon to tell,” said Ratner. “That was 200 years afterwards… but it’s certainly been a traumatic period.”

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