Dr. Nathan Brown, Mr. Adel Iskandar, and Dr. Kristin Diwan
Transcript No. 376 (9 November 2012)
9 November 2012
The Palestine Center
Dr. Nathan Brown:
Thanks very much. What I want to focus my remarks around is the issue of elections in the Arab world, and, in a sense, the meaning of the current moment of elections and electoral politics in the Arab world because we seem to be entering or the members of some of those societies in the Arab world are entering a new era, in politics, in which electoral outcomes are not known in advance. That’s not true in every country in the Arab region, but that is true in a couple of very significant ones, and elections are actually very old in the Arab world going back in some countries to the 19th century, but the idea that you would have competitive elections in which the electoral outcomes are not known in advance is new.
So what I want to do is first take a historical moment, how did we get this way, to review the history of the elections in the Arab world; second take a look at the current moment, how is this changing and the role of elections and electoral outcomes plays now in the Arab world; and third, what I‘d like to do is to, because this is the Palestine Center, return it to the issue of how this will effect anything having to do with the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian issue.
So let me begin on that kind of historical note, as I say, elections go back to the 19th century in the Arab world, I think what might be entering a fourth phase of elections, so let me talk about the first three. Elections in the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century, and even the mid-20th century in the Arab world were essentially much less competitive affairs in which members of the society had some role in selecting which member of a small political elite would represent them. This is not unusual, in the history of elections elsewhere. It certainly was the origins of our federal election system, which was very much, deliberately had some indirect elements in it. In the Arab world this was done sometimes by having multi-stage elections, suffrage would be widely distributed, but they would elect somebody who would then in turn elect somebody who would run in national parliament. There were sometimes literacy requirements, for voting, which cut out an awful lot of the population. Interestingly enough, a literacy requirement was not included in Iraq during the mandate period, when one was proposed, precisely in order to allow tribal leaders, many of whom were illiterate, to be elected. So the rules were deliberately engineered, in a sense, so that these were about not necessarily full participation from below but about mediating within the political elite.
That era basically began to give way to a second era, about mid-twentieth century, in which elections served a very different purpose, in which, essentially, they were ways of making the regime appear inevitable. The first actual experiment with this that I know of, there may have been others, was actually again in mandate era Iraq, where when the British got the mandate for Iraq, they were expected by the League of Nations to show some sign that the mandate and the political system that they were implementing, which was a Kingdom of Hashemite monarchy, had some kind of popular support. So they did something which they presented to the League of Nations, as having held a referendum. What they actually did was to go around all of Iraq, getting people to sign a loyalty oath to the king, and then collected them and surprisingly everybody who signed it had signed it, so they presented that as an electoral outcome to the Arab world. You laugh but that was essentially what elections were about in many countries for, actually in a few places still right up the present. When elections were held, they were really about ratifying choices and solidifying a regime, and not done in any particularly persuasive way either. What they were designed, it seems to me to do, was not to fool the citizenry, because nobody was fooled but again to make the regime appear inevitable.
A third phase actually occurred beginning about the 1970’s, so I think in some Arab countries, and spread to most, but not all of them, and at that phase elections became really about negotiating relationships between regime and opposition, with one cardinal rule: the opposition lost. As long as you knew that the opposition was going to lose, everything else was negotiable. So what I’d like to say about those elections, the rules were written on water but the results were written in stone. A couple times, some people broke the rules, the Algerians threatened to break the rules and Palestinians threatened to break the rules, and found out the hard way what happens when you try to break that rule written in stone. For others, opposition was given a real voice, opposition was given sometimes seats in parliament, and important things that came with it, and an ability to address their constituency, sometimes parliamentary immunity and that sort of thing, but electoral outcomes had no real impact over the holders of political authority or over determining the major directions of public policy.
So that’s what elections were about until very recently. Then in 2011 we suddenly get elections in which the results really matter and determine major policy directions and who’s governing the country. How did this happen? This is the second part of my talk. Well it’s a little bit puzzling in a sense, because if you think about it, these uprisings that the Arab world witnessed were not about elections, they about people who had given up on elections. If you take a look at the revolutions, the Arab uprisings of 2011 are often compared to, that is the color revolutions of Eastern Europe, one remarkable difference is that the color uprising were generally oriented around elections, electoral fraud, claimed electoral fraud, around a specific election campaign where the rules were kind of skewed against the opposition, but the opposition thought it might be able to use as a way to push an opening, and that sort of thing. Tunisia had elections, Egypt had elections, the people who were involved in these revolutions, had given up on them, did not run in them, and had no faith in them. There is a partial exception we might here from Kristin about and that is what is happening right now in Kuwait – where the issue is really in a sense what sounds like an arcane dispute about how many votes an individual Kuwaiti gets, but is really about an electoral law, and an intense confrontation – but that’s very much the exception.
That effected the nature of post-uprising politics, because what it meant is that when revolution succeeded, those people who would organize and lead them, were not necessarily oriented immediately towards elections. They had pulled off impressive organizational feats, bringing down what looked to be really entrenched authoritarian regimes, but they were not necessarily in a position, nor were many of them interested in turning around and turning that into electoral politics. In fact there were no real well-established rules about electoral politics, about who was going to vote, who was going to write what in and that sort of thing, these are people who had to make things up from scratch. The Egyptians had to do it in a sense, the Egyptian military made many decisions for Egyptians. Tunisians, the real interesting thing about it was, just in a couple trips to Tunisia, whenever I would ask the question about why is it that you’re doing things this way, the answer I would usually get was, well back in the late 1950’s, when we got our independence, this is how we did it. So in essence, they had no real agreed upon set of rules, they went by default and they basically said let’s go back to independence and start all over again, and do it right. That’s essentially the Tunisian answer, and the Egyptian answer in a sense was no good answer and they’re still fighting over the basic rules by which political reconstitution will take place.
What I think that means is it tells you something about the role of elections right now, in post-uprising countries, because any attempt to move beyond a post-revolutionary situation, political reconstruction, in this environment, in which uprisings have taken place, and in the 21st Century, will inevitably involve elections. That means that in a sense, the elections are inevitable, even if there’s no real agreed upon set of rules in advance, the results of which therefore should not surprise us, that we have those Islamist forces often ones, especially in Egypt, but in some other places as well, that played this crooked game in the past, therefore being much better positioned, and also ones that were very very good at discovering how to organize and mobilize constituencies.
The problem, it seems to me, for the Arab world right now is that when you have meaningful and competitive elections, you have an imbalance. You have one fairly organized and fairly capable set of forces and no effective electoral counterweight to them. What is happening right now, and I’ll leave a lot of the details on Egypt to Adel, who I think will follow me, is you have, it seems to me, for the first time in a long time, in a country like Egypt, a very decentralized, dispersed, pluralistic environment – that is to say, a country that was governed, dominated by one individual, by one institutional presidency, really for half a century, suddenly has multiple centers of power. But the emerging leadership in the new presidency, of Mohamed Mursi, I think, has gotten the message, that they do have to reach understandings and they do have to reach out to other political forces, but the other political forces that they are most concerned about are those that are probably already within the Egyptian state. It is more important for them to reach an understanding with the military, with the security apparatus, with the judiciary, than it is for them to reach across to non-Islamist forces. When they are concerned with other forces on the society side it’s Salafi much more than it is with liberal non-Islamist leftist forces, socialist forces, nationalist forces, of various stripes. And that strikes me as in a sense an unhealthy situation. It’s not about anybody’s intentions; it’s not about anybody’s democratic credentials, but essentially a system in which the political competition that does take place is not a competitive multi-party environment. That gives me some worry over the long term about what kind of political systems can emerge from this. I think there is too much focus on what’s in people’s souls and hearts, and too little focus on structural conditions that are impeding the emergence of democracy.
Let me turn then to my third topic. What does this mean for Palestine? First let me talk about the impact of the post-uprising environment on the Palestinian situation. In a sense I think – a bumper sticker answer would be “a return to the 1960’s.” A return to the 1960’s in the sense that you will have great popular support for the Palestinian cause, and very little action, at least for the short to medium term. The uprisings that have occurred in places like Egypt and Tunisia have really riveted the attention of these societies inward. These are very inward looking moments in these places right now. In those societies that have not undergone uprising, it’s still a very inward looking focus. You can take a look at Jordan right now, you can take a look at Kuwait, that’s really what the focus is about. So it is certainly the case that in a post-uprising environment in some societies and in what may be a pre-uprising environment in some others, there’s all kinds of ways in which popular support for the Palestinian cause will be voiced.
And the fact is that what is driving an awful lot of these uprisings is the sense that those people who hold political authority are completely unaccountable and are making decisions essentially in their own personal interest, and certainly not in any kind of conception of the common interests or the national interests. Their ineffectiveness in international affairs is certainly part of their loss of legitimacy, domestically, without question. So it certainly in that sense has contributed to an environment in which existing regimes have been toppled in some countries and pushed hard on others, but that does not translate into immediate action, and we’ll probably hear more from Adel, but we’ve seen this most dramatically in the Egyptian case where you have a leader from the largest civil society organization in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood, now serving as president with a very strong commitment to the Palestinian cause, hard wired into the brotherhood since its origins, and a Palestinian policy that is different in nuance but nuance only thus far from its predecessor. I’m not sure that’s going to continue indefinitely, but it is going to continue for the short term. So the impact on Palestinian politics, in what was already a frozen regional environment, is I think to freeze things still more deeply.
What about the impact inside Palestinian politics? This is a question I get asked all the time. Why was there no uprising or is there a prospect for popular uprising in the West Bank and Gaza? Or, the question that is sometimes asked is “what’s the prospect of Palestinian elections shaking things up?” And, my sense there is that it is impossible to ….. a basic mistake was made in 2006 both by Palestinians and by the international community, a really fundamental mistake, which Palestinians are still paying the price for. In 2006 Hamas was elected. There was an intense international effort and a domestic effort to make sure that they would not enjoy the fruits of that power. This should not be a surprise to people. All those people who participated in that effort forgot or were too impatient to realize was that in 2010 Hamas would have to face Palestinian voters again. Now it’s not clear if they’ll have to do so in the current leader’s lifetime. The Palestinian political system and the electoral system which was probably the most developed in the Arab world at that time, was shattered. That’s using the passive voice – people shattered it. People broke it on purpose, and Palestinians are paying the price for it today.
Palestinian elections will not be possible, in any kind of unifying sense, until the Palestinian leadership comes together. What that means essentially, is a divided Palestinian Authority, the two-halves of which, major national movements, essentially have to cut a deal before you can have elections. So, rather than having elections determining who holds power, those who hold power will determine elections, and that’s a return, essentially, to the Arab past, which is not good news.
What about movement outside of those movements? In my mind, and I’m talking as an analyst, not as an advocate, I live in suburban Virginia and will not participate in any Palestinian uprising whether I support it or not, but my sense is that is the only path forward for the Palestinians – some kind of popular mobilization that puts real pressure on those leaders. Why hasn’t that happened? Well, it was tried, and it was tried fairly seriously about a year and a half ago, and actually got some traction. What it forced the Palestinian leadership to do on both sides of Hamas and Fatah’s part, was to agree to national unity. And as soon as they came to that agreement, they told those people who were leading this popular campaign that politics was now back in the hands of adults and they could leave the room and go home. That’s essentially what happened.
The problem for Palestinians right now, it seems to me, is almost the exact opposite of the ones that faced Egyptians and Tunisians during the uprising. Egyptians and Tunisians during the uprisings had no real political forces to speak for them. The political field was dominated by these big regimes that just sat there, and completely controlled the system. The Palestinian political space, unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian political space, is not empty. Hamas is a very real organization, and Fatah, for all of its problems, still exists and occupies the political field. So the moment you have popular mobilization, they’re not entering an empty Tahrir Square where every voice can be heard, but instead they are entering into an environment in which political leaders are very well practiced, in at least manipulating politics in terms of their own short-term agenda. Some breakage of that monopoly probably has to take place, in both the West Bank and Gaza, and the existence of essentially authoritarian regimes in both places I think that makes it very very difficult, and conditions of occupation make it very more difficult still. But if there’s any path forward for the Palestinians, and again I want to make clear I’m saying this as an analyst, not as an advocate, it seems to me that for the Palestinians to become again actors within their own politics, it will be dependent on ordinary Palestinian citizens re-entering and forcing their way, their agenda on their leaders, and forcing the attention of regional and international leaders to them.
Will that take place? Someday I think it will. I don’t know if it’s going to happen anytime soon, and here I will just say as an advocate rather than as an analyst, I just hope when that happens, not too many people get hurt. Thank you.
Hello everyone. Thank you very much Nathan, I’m going to piggy back on a lot of the points that you made. Thank you for bringing up various issues pertaining to the Egyptian polity and what’s happening there. I just want to say that even though most of my commentary and remarks are going to be contained under the rubric of a discussion on the Egyptian foreign policy, at the same time I think the Egyptian foreign policy translates into a lot of regional parameters, a lot of impact outside of Egyptian national boundaries, and has a significant role to play as far as the US government’s role to play within the region at large. I’m actually at the point now of complete perplexion, as far as Egyptian foreign policy… I mean I think that most of us are probably in the same position. So when I was asked to talk about Egypt’s evolving foreign policy, it was like, well is “evolving” really the right word? Is it evolving, is it devolving, or is it just revolving? Silly play on words but really it cuts to the issue of where is the Egyptian foreign policy going?
But there is one thing that has to be said, and that is the fact that, for the very fact that we are discussing the Egyptian foreign policy implies that something that was the status quo for the past thirty years under the Mubarak’s NDP has shifted in some way, shape or form, at least rhetorically speaking. So I want to talk a little bit about two levels: one is a rhetorical shift in foreign policy and a substantive shift in foreign policy, whether the two actually cohere in some functional way. Now of course, as Nathan explained there has been or there appears to be a significant geo-strategic shift in the region at large, and of course it’s very difficult for us to be able to gauge what this means. We can look at elections as a barometer of the increasing interest in political engagement, as well as its ability to translate into functional elections that might be considered transparent or more so than any other exercise previously so all of that is quite interesting. But I would actually argue that the geostrategic map has not been redrawn – and actually quite the contrary, that what ended up happening was that all of the different players, the masterminds, if you will, that were part and parcel of the development of regional and domestic policies in the region have come to the fore.
So now we can begin to see the fault lines between the different camps and how that translates – and given the fact that we’re not really talking about Syria on this panel, I’m just going to interject by saying that Syria is a critical example of precisely that. So when you pick up, literally, both the state media and the independent press of various countries in the Arab world, you can see how the landscape and the contours of politics actually look. And, arguably, it is no different from what it was five to ten years ago, but with slightly more manifest destiny associated with it. So I think that there have been some shifts but I don’t think it is a cataclysmic shift. It’s not that the chairs have been knocked off entirely, but people have switched roles, and the people sitting on chairs are slightly different, which brings me to a discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, not a seamless connection, but I think to a large extent we understand and we process the Muslim Brotherhood as a political entity, on a variety of different levels. Nathan mentioned their civil society role, their impact on the domestic level, but they’re also quite a significant player, and quite a powerful player regionally speaking and internationally. They have both coherent dogma, they have a sophisticated ideological system, and they have an institutionalized political order that they can utilize and deploy when they see fit, to be able to translate into institution building or at least institutional reform. So when the Muslim Brotherhood assumed the role of authority in Egypt, initially and in a very de-fanged way, through the parliamentary elections, which later of course the parliament was disbanded, but in a more functional and visible way in Mursi’s presidency we begin to see the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time actually test out a lot of their rhetorical discussions to see if they translate well on the ground.
Arguably, they don’t translate well. They don’t translate well on a variety of different levels because in the larger arithmetic of international and regional politics, being adamant and having a contiguous, coherent position, political position, can sometimes put you in trouble when you’re dealing with competing parties. So there’s no shortage of examples of this. Since Mursi’s assumption to the presidency, there’s been the slight “tiff among friends” if you will, of course Mursi doesn’t really acknowledge that, between the United States and Egypt, where President Obama said “We’re not really sure if we’re friends with Egypt,” or “Is this a friendly relationship or not?” Mursi gave an interview to Charlie Rose when he was in New York, and he reiterated the same positions, and said, “We’re friends but we’re not allies,” identifying a clear distinction. The Arabic translation is a little bit more interesting,so “we’re friends but not allies.” So Charlie Rose tried to push him, “What do you mean by allies? Are you working together in a concerted effort as far as policy is concerned?” And Mursi didn’t really want to delve into that too much so as to not to create rifts beyond what was already stated.
So that was one problem. Another major public image quagmire that the Muslim Brotherhood tends to face quite often, is the fact that there is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is extremely different in terms of its sensibilities, its institutionalization, and its morale, if you will, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and is very impenetrable, if you will, to the Muslim Brotherhood ideals. So how does that translate as far as Egypt’s face abroad? So when it comes to basic things like protocol, the relationship between Egypt and Israel, you might recall there was that basic letter of credence, sent from the Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi to Benyamin Netenyahu, appointing a new ambassador, spoke in very colorful terms about the relationship between Egypt and Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood initially came out and said that this letter was never sent, that it was a fabrication, and then came back and said, well, actually it’s protocol – and it was released, and it came out. Did the president sign it? Initially no, but actually, yes. So the shift in public discourse surrounding the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood in its international dynamics has come back to hurt the Muslim Brotherhood quite significantly, because all of a sudden they don’t seem as coherent in their public message as they have always appeared to be.
Now of course, as a pragmatic organization, the Muslim Brotherhood over the eighteen months of SCAF’s rule, has also been quite opportunistic and very pragmatic, and very realist in their state of affairs, which has meant in many instances they’ve spoken out two sides of their mouth, which is the way politics is supposed to operate. So the question is, do we judge the Muslim Brotherhood based on their ability to craftily design a foreign policy that meets the Egyptian national interests at this current moment, or do we judge them based on the fairly strict rhetorical parameters that are consistent with their own organizational structure and organizational philosophy. I don’t think there’s an answer to this, but what I can say is that the United States needs a partner, and has always needed a partner. We hear that often in the case of the Palestinian Israeli stand-off, but the same applies in Egypt. The American administration and administrations to follow will always need Egypt to be both coherent and an active participant in a relationship that is extremely strategic. I would argue that Egypt is not only as strategic now as it was before, it’s perhaps even more of an important strategic partner for reasons that I’ll explain momentarily. But the key for the US government is to ensure that US interests in the region are sustained, and maintained, and that nothing really threatens those. Unless of course the American foreign policy in the region is redrawn, I don’t see glowing indications of this happening, but nevertheless, I think the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Mursi both in private and in a very subtle way in public have essentially re-affirmed and confirmed to the American government that the key issues will not be touched, that things will not change. And we hear that from a variety of different sources, whether it’s Jimmy Carter after conversations with Mohamed Mursi or the foreign ministry articulating it in subtle terms as well.
But identity politics is really where it’s at right now. The Egyptian political scene, often perceived as extremely homogeneous, completely coherent, that Egyptians are “one and the same” is falling apart. And this is something that any future government in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood, now will struggle to try and create some meaningful logic out of. In fact, as we speak now, there’s a protest in Tahrir Square in support of Shari’a’s imposition in the constitution, which is currently in draft form, and from the little news that I’m getting, it appears that the protest is quite sizable. So this is a show of force on the part of the Salafis and various other groups right of the Salafis, if one could imagine such a thing existing. But the Muslim Brotherhood have basically disowned this particular protest, which of course is an indication that they’re prepared to play politics across the spectrum, but this is a force to be reckoned with. There is political expression that re-articulates Egyptian identity as an Islamist identity, and is quite forceful in its rhetoric, and is prepared to deploy in the streets and bring out significant numbers. This is not a negligible point.
In addition to that, the Egyptian foreign policy is defined not just by the identity politics but also defined by the constitutional turmoil, currently unfolding in Egypt. The US government as well as various governments in the region would like to see Egypt take a step forward in terms of the design of a constitution that represents the plurality of Egyptian society. Now that we’ve shattered the view that Egypt is a homogenous nation, knowing that there are Copts and Baha’is and Shia’s, and Sufiyeen, and Nubians, and Sinai Bedouins, and amazeeg, etcetera etcetera, in Egyptian society, that all of them have to be part and parcel of the design of the constitution. So there is some degree of rhetorical pressure from the world at large to ensure that the Egyptian constitution is representative, so that it can become a model. Arguably, the result is not of that kind or of that ilk – and that serves a particular problem.
There is also the significant fragmentation of the political scene at large. For any foreign policy to be functional there needs to be some sort of unified vision for the country, and this is quite absent in Egyptian society right now. Fragmentation really undermines the outreach of the Egyptian government. In addition to that there is also the media component – in the aftermath of the toppling of Mubarak, sixty new satellite stations were registered and ratified, as well as tens if not hundreds of newspapers, it’s almost impossible to keep track of, many of which have actually taken a fairly strong stance in opposition to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists at large – and that of course creates a dis-equilibrium that will translate into fairly non-contiguous disconcerted effort on the part of the Egyptian foreign ministry to communicate Egypt’s goals and what they are trying to accomplish.
In addition to that we also have the fragmentation of the non-Islamist front. Liberal parties are not playing a particularly significant role, and arguably the most problematic thing about the Egyptian political scene right now as far as foreign policy is concerned is the issue of blame. There’s a blame game being passed around so if a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, or even a low-level official in the Egyptian bureaucracy were to meet with an American official, and there were to be news about this, automatically it would translate into criticism of this state of affairs, and the opposite is true. So, ngo laws or civil society organizations receiving even the most miniscule of funding from either the US government or sub-contractors, that of course translates into hefty criticism in the Egyptian polity, so the Egyptian political scene, rhetorically is very much opposed to strong relations with the United States, and yet, nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Mursi need to continue sustaining this relationship almost against their own personal will – I don’t know what their personal will is, I should take that back, but there’s something inconsistent with the ideals of the Muslim Brotherhood as Nathan seemed to suggest.
The other problem with Egyptian foreign policy is the issue of reciprocal altruism. The Egyptian government needs to scratch the back of another country, and have their back scratched by others. And I find that this is probably the most complicated scenario right now. There’s a tremendous amount of concern about the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood regionally, there are other countries who see the organization as a major nuisance in their domestic state of affairs and that any organization that resembles them or has inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood needs to be quieted or silenced. So all of a sudden, the current Egyptian government has re-articulated the notion of regional power. I’m going to give a few quick points on this issue of Egypt’s regional power.
First of all, Egypt is trying as best it can, to play the role of intermediary and a broker on many different levels, but predominantly in the standoff in Syria between Bashar Al Assad’s regime and the Syrian opposition. Very few results have actually come out of this brokerage, but nevertheless it still exists and it’s an attempt for Egypt to basically flaunt its power in the region at large, and perhaps to play a counterpoint to the growing influence of Turkey in the region, and of course Qatar, so Egypt needs to re-assert its perennial role as a parental figure in the eyes of the region at large and that doesn’t seem to be working particularly well. And of course, reaching out to Iran, we’ve heard a lot of news about Mursi’s visit to Iran. I would argue that this both reaching out and not reaching out to Iran, that it was both a double-edged sword for the Iranians and for the Egyptians, but it was a sign that we’re prepared to engage in diplomatic communication but this diplomatic communication will remain very much within the structure and the parameters that we define. So it seems as though it’s a zero-sum game as far as Egyptian regional power is concerned.
The Saudis of course must play a role to try and appease the current Muslim Brotherhood because their rhetoric if not subdued could become quite problematic, especially in the Gulf, an area that is staunchly monarchical and not particularly conducive to the kind of change that the Muslim Brotherhood advocates on a regional level. The recent input of the new authority in Egypt I think is quite important, the Muslim Brotherhood is very much a regional and international entity – and this is something that we cannot forget even though they have a role to play within the Egyptian polity, but their inspiration spans across the region, we know about… we understand the relationship with Hamas and other locales across the region, not to mention Kuwait and elsewhere, so the Muslim Brotherhood do have that pan-Arab element to them, which of course can be used to exert Egyptian foreign policy in the region, but so far it has been contained largely because the region may not be receptive to it, or perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance in Egypt might be less condusive to emulation, if you will. It doesn’t look like it’s going particularly well for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, so why follow in their footsteps. So there is that component….and then of course, the decisions on the part of the Egyptian government as to whether or not to shift from soft power to hard power.
Traditionally Egypt has been an influential country, culturally, in the region with declining influence over the past 15, 20 years. But now there’s a new instrument, a new tool in the hands of the soft power institutions and that’s basically Islamist politics. It’s something that can be used. There is also an increased military dormancy over the past 30 years. Egypt has a functional military and quite a sophisticated one at that, but still very much contained and now we start seeing the first level of military engagement in Egypt in the Sinia peninsula, but it doesn’t seem to be going particularly well either, so that’s not something to flaunt. So what’s really left? At the end of the day, the Muslim Brotherhood can turn to their comfortable spot, which is an Islamist pax egyptiana, if you will. It’s to basically try and utilize what they find to be the most convincing rhetorical tool that can cross Egyptian national boundaries, but also bring people to the polls on a fairly regular and sustained basis, and in hope that in the long term they can create some degree of identitarian coherency inside the Egyptian polity that can eventually translate into a meaningful and sustained foreign policy.
What does this mean for Palestine? Nathan really covered this in a spectacular way, so I’m not going to try and reiterate it, but just to keep in mind that the Egyptian political entity that rules right now, both in terms of Muslim Brotherhood and the institutions that are at its whim to a large extent, are taking actions that would otherwise be considered completely inconsistent with their own ideals. In the next 24-48 hours, according to a recent statement from the Ministry of Defense in Egypt, they will be going after the Gaza tunnels, not just the Gaza tunnels, but along Sinai they’re going to be going after the Gaza tunnels and hopefully, for them, shutting down all the tunnels. The fact that they will strike with an iron fist, it’s called “Operation Eagle” on the part of making sure to subdue the Sinai situation, and that they continue to give assurances to both the United States and Israel in almost every respect as far as highly protected terrain for the Camp David Accords with very limited opportunities for redrafting or amendment. In fact the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, about three months ago, had come out and said that any re-adaptation or any amendment to the Camp David Accord, even when it pertains to cultural exchange or trade agreements will have to come with the agreement of the Israelis first. So this is an Egyptian government that is prepared to forego its own influence in the region at the expense of everything else. Thank you very much.
Kristin Smith Diwan:
I want to thank the Palestine Center for inviting me – it’s really such a pleasure to be here. I haven’t come down here in a while and I used to love to come down here as a student, so it’s nice to come here in a different capacity as well. I’ve been asked to talk about the GCC states, or the Arab Gulf and their role in the Arab Spring, in this kind of post-Arab Spring era, and I’m going to be a bit contrary and not start where most people start when they talk about Gulf influence, and that is I’m not going to start by talking about money. There’s definitely no question that a lot of the growing confidence that the Gulf has had in the past decade, in particular during this last oil boom period of elevated oil prices, has come from the growth of their, this wealth that they’ve had and the ability for them to use this wealth to really gel their identity as this particular sub-region within the Arab world, and the confidence then to project that across the region, and I think that’s really noticeable to anyone here whether in media obviously, and growing in entertainment and social networks and all of these sorts of things. There’s also no question that the wealth of the Gulf has found its way through to influence other Arab states, even before the Arab Spring, through foreign investment and through what Greg Gauze used to speak about as riyal politik direct aid to governments, which is something that we do need to address and look at in this period.
But instead of looking at that in particular, I want to take the influence of this wealth in a different direction, and that is the way that this wealth provided all of these labor opportunities for people all around the Arab region, to come and work in the Gulf. I think you in the audience probably know this because almost everyone here probably has some family member who has gone to work in the Gulf, and this has really been accentuated in the last decade, but it obviously has been going on for quite some time. I want to stress that because what that means is that we’ve had this real flow of both money going out but also people coming into the Gulf for a very long time, and what this has done I think is created a surprising sort of richness in some ways and is a kind of subterranean richness in a lot of the political thinking, particularly withiin the Islamic fields in the Gulf. We’ve had all kinds of hybrid thinking emerge from this, from Muslim Brotherhood activists who came to the Gulf and mixed with and had to wrestle with Wahhabi tenets and Salafi actors that they found there, and across the Gulf region Kuwait has also been a pivotal actor. So we see a lot of different hybrid groupings in the Gulf right now.
So when I look at the Gulf political field, and particularly its Islamic elements, its Islamic political field, what we see is this incredible diversity, and we have definitely a trend of loyalist Salafis in the old Saudi model, but we also have a ton of different Salafi iconoclasts that are present throughout the Gulf, along with Salafi jihadis who are still present. Muslim Brotherhood obviously has a really big role in the region, but you also have the same sort of divisions that you see in Egypt, when we talk about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a lot of frustration of younger people, and of youth or even youth gets stretched in this context up to people in their thirties – but we have the same sort of splits in Gulf Muslim Brotherhood movements that we see in Egypt, a lot of frustration with youth, with the hierarchy of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the rigidity of it, and a greater receptivity in this Gulf environment with a lot of people coming and going, to thinking beyond just a narrow Islamic state, and to try to think of a more open system that would allow for a more civil state that would incorporate different kinds of elements to the public so that Islamists wouldn’t exactly dominate. All of those are really present, and I think we don’t always see them because of the political structures of the Gulf.
In some states you can kind of see them, but the ability for them to express themselves in organizational forms that we would recognize, and definitely to express themselves in terms of the political orientation of these states does not always come through. But I think that, especially Adel in your speech when you were talking about the importance of this new Islamic political field, a lot of that is being generated in the Gulf, and that’s really where I want to place most of my remarks – thinking about that sphere and how the Gulf has the ability to influence that growing transnational sphere which I think has really been empowered in this Arab Spring where we are not just talking about state governments anymore , we’re talking about populist politics that really have a chance to make a mark on the region. I’m going to do this though in a more traditional way, I guess, which is to look at it as it gets expressed in different state actors then, because the states obviously do have a really big role.
I think what we see when we look at state actors, the Gulf actors playing a role throughout the region and we do see two states that stand out obviously, and that are displaying what I would argue are different visions towards the Arab Spring and that is of course Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But it’s important to note that these states also have to deal with this Islamic field and that they’re drawing the expression from within what is taking place on the ground, and sometimes fighting against it. In doing this, I may simplify a bit the postures of these two states, in a way that’s a bit unfair, but I think I do believe that they have two distinct orientations, and so I’m going to do it in a way that at least sharply brings out what these two orientations are, and see what their different orientations, what their different appeals, and what their real strategies are in this new regional environment.
So let me start with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a status quo power, and what’s interesting in this period is that we’re living in a revolutionary order, so what does a status quo power do when you have tremendous change going on all around them? I think what we’ve seen is Saudi Arabia becoming a lot more active and a lot more aggressive in expressing their position within the region and in determining, trying to really use their influence to determine outcomes, and I think that can be understood because status quo powers can’t sit and accept the status quo anymore when a lot is going, they have to become active to then change things. When we look and try to understand their regional activism, we can definitely highlight a couple of things. One is definitely the essential political conservatism of Saudi Arabia, and I mean this in a couple ways, but most predominantly in the conservatism of a monarchy, which obviously is not receptive to revolutionary type politics of any kind. We really saw this in Saudi Arabia’s rather quick reaction in the Arab Spring, in looking to defend not only itself, but to defend all other monarchical orders in the region. It was really fascinating to see Saudi Arabia taking the lead and pressing for an expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council to extend to Jordan and even Morocco, which I had no idea that Morocco was anywhere near the Gulf. When I first read this news, I actually thought it was satire, but it wasn’t. I think that really strikes to the concern that Saudi Arabia had in this new order and their desire for more control, and to make sure that these orders would be safe and that we wouldn’t see any monarchies falling in this period.
The second strong element of that of course was the decisive Saudi intervention in Bahrain when Bahrain was the first state in the Gulf to really draw upon this new spirit that was coming in very soon after the timing of their first protest, the February 14 protest came very soon after the successful movement in Egypt in bringing down Husni Mubarak, and I think that was really a scary time for a lot of the monarchs in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia was quite determined to act rather very decisively in organizing this peninsula shield force and directly intervening under this force which was mostly Saudi national guard groups to not allow things to go further in Bahrain. It is interesting to note that it didn’t have a huge potential for success but there were negotiations going on with the main opposition and with parts, elements of the monarchy at that time, and I think being somewhat supported by the United States, so there was some kind of move towards maybe allowing for some reform in Bahrain that would have given a different tenor to where things would be going in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia was clearly not happy with that, and then acted very decisively.
The second element of course of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain speaks to my second posture of Saudi Arabia in the region and that is obviously the strong eye that Saudi Arabia has on Iran, and their concern always for how Iran will come out in this new environment, and wanting to make sure that Saudi Arabia is in a better posture than Iran is, and to take advantage in fact, of Iran when they can in these different battles. Bahrain was really a red line in that because the Saudis not only in looking at the position of Iran also in looking at Iran I think it’s important to note for all of the states in the Gulf and even around the region the pivotal role that the American intervention in Iraq played in that, the discomfort that a lot of the monarchies and Sunnis in the Gulf felt with the empowerment of Shia’a in that country and the distrust that they had for that and what that might mean for an empowerment of Iran, and they were definitely very keen to not allow any sort of experiment like that happening in Bahrain, which of course if there were some democratic empowerment would have been to the benefit of the Shia majority in that country.
So I think when you put these two things together, the Saudis trying to do, I mean the one perhaps puzzle or the interesting thing in this has been the Saudi role in turning towards Syria, and I think this is really key, because I think in Syria, it [Saudi Arabia] found a way to get out of some of the difficulties. Because Saudi Arabia was taking an anti-revolutionary stance and here that was clear in Egypt, but they didn’t want to stand on a popular level to be seen as some sort of counter-revolutionary power in this period. And I think Syria, and championing what was happening in Syria on some level, allowed Saudi Arabia to both take part in the Arab Spring but to suddenly change its message. Instead of then having at least what some elements of the Arab Spring, where people were coming out of Egypt and Tunisia, of these sort of citizen revolts and the transformation of the domestic order in a way that we had hoped at one point might have been a little bit more inclusive of different elements, what you really saw I think for Saudi Arabia in looking towards Syria was a chance to position more of a “Sunni Freedom Campaign”, to put a distinctive Sunni element to the liberation struggle that was happening there. That’s been very useful both in mobilizing the public, and the Gulf public is very mobilized on the Syrian issue, again against Iran, and inoculating the public, from any sort of appeals that might come from that angle, and also in turning then any threat that Saudi Arabia may have felt from its own public because the nature of the struggle had changed.
Let me turn a little bit to Qatar then. Qatar is even more perplexing because it is quite surprising to see this small state play this very vigorous role – and I heard it described once in trying to explain what Qatar is doing is that it’s nothing more than a vanity project of two men. I think that may have been Greg … as well, and if it was Greg Else, it makes sense because it’s almost impossible to understand what Qatar is doing from a real politik or power politik perspective. It doesn’t make sense that Qatar is playing this kind of role – and of course we can look at Qatar and think of it more in its role of trying to project more soft power in the region, but I want to say that it’s more than even that. Obviously Qatar has had this long role with Al-Jazeera that has been able to project it into regional politics quite a lot, but I would say that Qatar wouldn’t have the influence that it has in this period if it weren’t championing a certain position. I think what Qatar has been doing is trying to position themselves to champion what is after all a very popular position. I think they’ve been taking positions where they get a lot of receptivity amongst broader Arab publics, and I think a lot of the Arab public right now is in favor of these dramatic changes, they are also oriented a little bit towards the Islamists, probably centered more in Muslim Brotherhood politics but maybe a little bit more expansive than that. I think a lot of Qatar’s soft power emerges from actually championing these positions that get a lot of popular appeal. That then looks a little bit different from Saudi Arabia.
I want to highlight one more thing that Qatar has really done, partially in creating this space. We all know that Al-Jazeera has played a really big role in allowing a lot of these different kinds of points of view to come and cohere and have discussions, but another thing that Qatar has been doing that I’ve become very aware of, in talking myself with a lot of youth across the Gulf and trying to understand where they’re getting their political positions, and what’s intellectually challenging them is how much the role of these public intellectuals that Qatar has championed has been playing in the formation of opinion throughout these areas. Qatar has been doing this with a lot of different people. I think actually this battle of ideas is really important, and I think it’s played a role in gelling this sort of Islamist position and also a lot of the different thinkers there are people that are closer to the Muslim Brotherhood and maybe taken a step away from them. This has had a lot of influence with a lot of young activists.
It also gives Qatar another way to come at the Iran issue. I think Qatar is not quite as concerned with it as Saudi Arabia is, but I think in their policies by basically presenting an alternative to the old politics of the resistance front by championing those sorts of issues, by the Emir of Qatar going to Gaza for instance, than they are able to take the public, any sort of public, and inoculate them from anything that Iran might try to throw at this time, which is also important. And that allows for a certain confluence between the positions that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are taking. So I think when you look at the different conflicts there are some places where they definitely disagree in where their positions are, and Egypt might be a little bit less now, but in Syria they may be able to find some common grounding in what they want to achieve.
One quick note – I don’t have much time to talk about it, but a lot of these ideas as they are projected abroad also are playing out, like I said, in the Gulf itself. I think it’s worthwhile to step back from some of the initial assumptions that the Gulf monarchies were sort of immune from the Arab Spring, that was already not true from the, if you look at the tremendous unrest that happened in Bahrain, and the outcome of that, but we can see, I definitely see in the research and the studies that I do, that a lot of this conversation and a lot of this desire for reform and a lot of the push for finding a common stance that will allow for the kind of reform that would really hold Gulf monarchies much more accountable is definitely still there and Kuwait is definitely the place to watch for that right now. They’ve had tremendous protests in the past year, more recently it’s even escalating much more, you’ve had perhaps over a hundred thousand people in the street. This is a wealthy Gulf country – people have a lot to lose in that state, and it’s quite tremendous to see how people are willing to mobilize, and go out in the street, pushing essentially for more power for the parliament versus the monarchy, and I think what’s been fascinating me too is to see how all of the different Gulf states, even beyond the Gulf, are really watching that, and Kuwait is always kind of an insular political culture, but right now everybody is really paying attention because everyone knows that if they do manage to hold a certain coalition, and force this kind of change, it’s really something that will be noteworthy throughout the Gulf. Thank you.
Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has served as a Carnegie Scholar and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and is the author of six
books, including When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, January 2012) and Palestinian Politics After the Oslo Accords: Resuming Arab Palestine (University of California Press, 2003).
Adel Iskandar is a media and communication scholar who teaches in the Communication, Culture and Technology (CCT) program and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He is the author and coauthor of several works including Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism (Basic Books) and Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation (University of California Press). His forthcoming books include Mediating the Arab Uprisings (Tadween, 2012) and Egypt In Flux: Essay on an Unfinished Revolution (American University of Cairo Press, 2013).
Kristin Diwan is an Assistant Professor in Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service. She works in both comparative politics and international relations, specializing in Arab and Islamist politics. Professor Diwan has many publications on the politics and political economy of the Arab Gulf, among them “Sovereign Dilemmas: Sovereign Wealth Funds in Saudi Arabia,” Geopolitics, 14/2 (April 2009); “Bahrain’s Shia Question,” Foreign Affairs (March 2011); and “Kuwait’s Impatient Youth Movement,” Foreign Policy (July 2011). She is currently completing a book manuscript on the emergence of Islamic banking in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states entitled From Petrodollars to Islamic Dollars: Islamic Finance in the Arab Gulf.
This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.