Rediscovering Multilateralism: Toward A Cooperative Approach to Middle East Reform

On Friday, May 22, 2009, POMED and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation – in conjunction with Georgetown University – hosted a public panel discussion which culminated its day-long workshop entitled “Rediscovering Multilateralism: Toward a Cooperative Approach to Middle East Reform.”

The three panelists were David Adesnik – defense analyst, writer for Doublethink Magazine, and former foreign policy adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign; Nora Younis – a well-known activist in the Egyptian blogosphere and Multimedia Editor for Al-Masry Al-Youm an influential Egyptian daily newspaper; and Amir Mir Motahari – a national expert at the General Directory for External Relations at the European Commission. Knut Panknin, program officer for FES, moderated the panel. Each panelist shared their own personal views and did not speak for their respective organizations.

Panknin launched the discussion by highlighting the urgent need to continue the trialogue between political reform experts in the United States, Europe and the Middle East encouraged by past POMED and FES workshops. He invited each panelist to share a personal reflection from the previous day’s deliberations as a preface to revealing their conclusions.

Motahari expressed admiration that the workshop’s 15 participants successfully deliberated on several sensitive issues and complex problems despite their diverse backgrounds. And while concrete policy prescriptions would come from deliberations at an upcoming workshop, he noted participants accurately assessed and addressed the myriad impediments to and opportunities for reform in the region. Younis expressed her gratitude to engage in the trialogue as a way to address her personal frustration with Europe’s ambivalent political reform agenda. Adesnik lauded the workshop for broadening his understanding of how Arab migration to Europe affects the EU’s policy goals for the region.

Following these introductory statements, each panelist shared the deliberations of the workshop’s working groups. Representing the group focused on changing Western policy in the Middle East, Motahari explained that European expectations are very high for increased US engagement in the Middle East peace process. He argued that the rising tide of radicalism in the wake of the Gaza War has made the cost of not having peace in the region unbearably high. Citing this as a foundation for his argument, Motahari highlighted a European-American consensus that regional peace must precede political reform. He also acknowledged the virtual impossibility of externally imposed reform and cited the EU’s poor track record in this area specifically. Motahari stressed the need to broaden international engagement with Islamists and to expand political dialogue beyond the Western minded elite.

Younis presented the findings of the working group on Political Inclusion. She began by sharing the group’s belief that Middle Eastern political systems should be opened to all non-violent groups and parties through full legal access and participation. She also stressed the group-wide conviction that the West can no longer shun dialogue with Islamist groups, nor should they necessarily discourage their political participation throughout the Middle East. Younis further argued that putting Islamists “in the shade” would facilitate their becoming more popular while divesting them of the responsibility to fulfill their grandiose political promises.

Adesnik, representing the working group on civil society in the Arab world, argued that multiple pathways to political participation should be open to ordinary Middle Easterners. He also stressed that sufficient political space is the foundation for sustainable civil society in the Arab world. Adesnik continued by acknowledging the inherent difficulties in convincing autocratic regimes to tolerate the threat of open political participation to their rule. He urged intermediate steps such as arranging high-level meetings with political dissidents as symbolic gestures to political reformers. He also stressed the need to develop strong bilateral ties with political parties in the region while acknowledging the West’s questionable track record of choosing regional winners and losers in the past. Adesnik cautioned such support could breed dependence and prejudice further regional reform.

Before opening the floor to questions, Panknin invited two other workshop participants in the audience to share the deliberations of working groups on migration and human rights. Zoe Nature, a Visiting Scholar at the German Council on Foreign Relations, emphasized the divergent priorities for Europe and the United States for encouraging political reform in the Middle East. The EU, she stressed, seeks to use regional political form to encourage more North Africans to remain in their home countries rather than migrating.

One of the workshop participants, Oula Farawati, a well-established Jordanian journalist, argued that political reform in the Middle East boils down to the issue of human rights. She contended that Middle Eastern governments assume their signature of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is sufficient without actually implementing or seeking to apply the standards outlined in such international agreements. She argued that new mechanisms must be developed to ensure regional governments uphold their human rights responsibilities.

During the question and answer portion of the event, Adesnik responded to an audience query about the conflict between values and interests in the political reform debate. He acknowledged this conflict, noting specifically how American efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would require the cooperation of conservative regimes in the region who view political reform as a strategic threat. He asserted that there is no way to make decisions in the long term that do not compromise values. He contended, however, that short-term political considerations must not overwhelm the long-term goal of systemic political reform.

Two panelists specifically addressed expectations for US President Barack Obama’s upcoming address to the Muslim World from Cairo on June 4. Motahari stated he was more interested in what Obama would omit from his speech than what he chose to include. Younis said ordinary Egyptians have very low expectations for the speech. She argued that Obama is trying to turn half enemies into friends without giving up on reform – a process she described as “a very difficult tradeoff.” Furthermore, she revealed that Egyptians are more interested in Obama’s relationships with Hosni Mubarak’s would-be successors such as his son Gamal Mubarak and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

On the issue of Palestine, Motahari argued that no broader regional change could occur until the creation of a Palestinian Unity government and until the lifting of the Gaza blockade. In addition to these concrete steps, he asserted that symbols of progress were required alongside real progress. Responding to a question on the willingness of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, Younis contended that Arab states should first “normalize relations with Palestine” by opening borders and increasing economic cooperation before they seek normalization with Israel.

In response to a query on American political reform strategy, Adesnik noted that there was a backlash against the policies of the Bush administration, which many believe focused too rigidly on elections. Elections, he argued, were ineffective without systemic political reform.

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