“The US likes to divide the world into people they can form and people they can take a there is always a Pakistani that they can take to lunch,” he said. “But the world is rather more complex than that. I don’t think the US has ever really understood the domestic constraints in Pakistan.”
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
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.”
On Tuesday, February 17, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion with Gulf-based blogger and member of the PS21 international advisory group Sultan al-Qassemi. He discussed the changing nature of social media in the middle east over the last decade.
The discussion was attended by a selection of activists, academics, regional experts and others. It was on the record and you can hear a recording of it at this link.
A full transcript can be found here: transcript – Sultan al Qassemi
Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion from PS21 executive director Peter Apps.
“Social media has evolved…… from being a tool for activists and secular forces to being used by extremists such as ISIS,” said Sultan. “The social media companies are adapting and are beginning to block some of these users so that may change. Governments have also adapted… it’s a very different environment.”
Across the region, Sultan said that the morale of activists and more liberal forces had been heavily dented in the four years since the “Arab Spring”. In countries across the region, governments had clamped down seriously on activists, many of whom are now largely withdrawn from public facing platforms like Twitter into closed Facebook groups and other more secretive platforms.
While the old Al Qaeda franchises struggled to adapt to social media, the Islamic State had been much more effective, using it as a major platform to promote its ideology and activities.
In general, the last four years in particular have seen a fracturing of the Mideast media scene. The one-time dominance of a relatively small number of satellite channels such as Al Jazeera has been somewhat undermined. There are now more voices on a wider variety of platforms. One of the fastest growing in popularity is the Arabic language Russia Today, which trades heavily on conspiracy-type stories and criticisms of Western foreign policy.
While regional governments have adapted in the sense of being able to clamp down on social media dissent, Western governments have not. The various attempts by the United States to combat the Islamic State on twitter have been little seen and gained little traction. The exception is the media outreach from arts of the Israeli government, the military in particular.
“They are criticised and mocked that they are in the conversation,” said Sultan.
Other attendees saw some similarities to what had occurred in western activism in recent years — again, primarily since the Occupy and other movements. What had once been large, popular movements have become much more inward looking, self-critical and much less confident.
Several participants expressed concerns that the increasingly fractured nature of the debate made peace building and traditional negotiations ever harder.
The situation varied somewhat from country to country. Tunisia, Sultan said, was probably now the second most liberal country in the Middle East for media after Lebanon. Egypt, in contrast, was much less liberal as were most of the Gulf states. In Iran as elsewhere, government had moved much more into the social media space and was using it aggressively as a propaganda tool.
“Every government in the region except Lebanon has jailed online activists,” said Sultan.
It was not an exclusively negative picture, however. Some new online platforms were making progress, at least in documenting events. Elliot Higgins, the UK blogger dubbed “Brown Moses” was very successful in exposing weapons deliveries and shipments in Syria. A new online newspaper in Yemen, Sultan said, offered some hope of giving greater clarity to that conflict.
The discussion was well received by all those attending.
“The focus was the topic of the discussion as much as the speaker which makes it more interesting,” said Sultan. “I’ve been with PS21 since the beginning and it’s good to see it finally taking flight.”