POMED Notes: The Middle East and Arab Spring: Prospects for Sustainable Peace
On Tuesday (9/11) the Johns Hopkins SAIS department hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Middle East and Arab Spring: Prospects for Sustainable Peace on Tuesday,” part of a series of events exploring the relationship between democracy and conflict. The panel included Azizah al-Hibri of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Layers for Human Rights, Dr. Muqtedar Khan of the University of Delaware, Laith Kubba, of the National Endowment for Democracy, Dr. Peter Mandaville of George Mason University, and Joseph V. Montville of George Mason University as the moderator.
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Joseph V. Montville, as moderator, introduced the conversation by proposing that there is religious sanction in Islam for religious pluralism. He also stated that the “Arab Spring is about encouraging democracy and religious pluralism.”
Dr. Muqtedar Khan began by stating his belief that once the “euphoria of overthrowing dictatorships has settled down, the real work beings,” since the new governing party must not only deal with the change of government structure, but also inherits the problems of the previous regime or dictator. Additionally, Khan emphasized that although countries such as Egypt and Libya have seen regime change, the struggle with political change is still prevalent. Khan introduced the concept of “civil state” as a new way for both progressive and Islamic political parties to reach a broader base when discussing political or democratic change. The concept of civil state is especially appealing because it is seen as the opposite of a military state. The need for this universal language is felt especially by organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda party in Tunisia, who are feeling pressure for the first time from both liberals and conservatives in their respective countries. Khan ended by stating that economic development will be the ultimate gauge of both success and sustainability throughout the country affected by the Arab Spring.
Azizah al-Hibri took the stance that “democracy must seep into the consciousness of the people for it to be viable,” arguing that it must be an organic movement and cannot be forced from the top down. When discussing prospects for peace, al-Hibri focused on women’s issues, calling them “the canary in the mine.” She discussed the debate of inheritance law reform in North Africa as an example of the lack of checks and balances in government. She echoed Khan’s sentiment that although many countries in the Arab Spring have seen regime change, they haven’t seen a change in government itself, including the lack of women in influential positions. Al-Hibri went on to cite the debates surrounding the language in the Tunisian constitution which suggests that women are “complimentary” to men as an example of the major challenges facing women in post-revolution Tunisia. She also recounted an experience she had in Egypt when she went on to a panel discussing divorce and custody law in Egypt that occurred during to the revolution as proof that although discussions surrounding these issues are happening, change will be slow to occur unless you “educate the masses.”
Laith Kubba introduced the concept that the struggle to modernize government in the Middle East is not unique to the region, but makes the distinction that the presence of Islam is a powerful force both culturally and historically, and governments must merge the cultural past with the present identity. Kubba discussed how the growth of enlightened thinkers within society coupled with the youths vision of the future, may provide the best opportunity for a mass following toward political change. Kubba explained that “we’re on the verge of a burst of new discourse,” and that an evolution is taking place within Arab societies. Following on this thought, Kubba emphasized the important of the youth movement.
Dr. Peter Mandaville focused his presentation on the United States government’s understanding of the Arab Spring, admitting that the discussion generally focuses on the rise and fall of specific groups or people, instead of focusing on the broader issues. He continued by saying that at the heart of U.S. policy in the Middle East is an assumption of a disconnect between Islam and liberal political ideology. However, he concluded that the decision to communicate with the Islamic political elements in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia after the “fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali was a nonissue, it was simply a question of what tone should the policy take.” He concluded with the difficult position the U.S. finds itself in when dealing with Egypt, for on one hand there is a need to call on Morsi to respect democracy and human rights, however the actions of the new government aren’t any worse than those of the previous regime, which the U.S. turned a blind eye to.
During the question and answer section, the panelists were asked to discuss what role the media and NGO’s have to play in a peaceful resolution to the Arab Spring. Al-Hibri used Egypt’s media as an example, saying that the new political sphere has opened up the possibility for both progressive and repressive dialogue, while Dr. Khan reminded the panel that social media ultimately made the revolution possible, and that “media will always reflect the sentiments of the masses.” In response to the question about NGO’s, Kubba said that dysfunctional governments and economies cannot change without a wide range of NGO’s, and Dr. Mandaville followed, saying that while the new political parties are developing, particularly those with more liberal orientations, NGOs are needed to fill the space and help guide the new parties’ focus.