CSAD Quick Reaction: Assessing the Arab Spring and Democracy in the Middle East

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This morning at the CSAD conference panel “Assessing the Arab Spring and Democracy in the Middle East” panelists broadly addressed the recent uprisings in the Middle East. Panelists included Danya Greenfield, deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, Karan Bhatia, General Electric vice president and senior counsel for international law and policy and  former deputy U.S. trade representative, James Zogby, president and founder of the Arab American Institute and John Agresto, former provost and dean at the American University of Iraq and former Kenyon professor. For the purposes of full disclosure, I was Dr. Zogby’s intern last summer at the Arab American Institute, and am currently interning with Yalla Change, a collaborative campaign of which AAI is a partner organization.

Zogby’s remarks started with the sharp observation that Arab voices are often excluded from the conversations that shape policy toward the region; the presentation that followed worked to bridge that gap. He provided a series of recent (post Arab Spring) polling data from across the Middle East (for more information on his perspective, I highly recommend his latest book, Arab Voices, which has a chapter analyzing the Arab Spring in its latest edition). JZ Analytics polling revealed that Arabs, by and large, are not interested in America’s “help” in establishing their own democracies. A major point of agreement for panelists Bhatia, Greenfield and Zogby was that economic exchange can and should be a source for positive interaction.

In his remarks, Agresto noted in retrospect based on his time in Iraq that the “right” question to ask regarding democratization is not, “don’t all people want freedom?” Rather, the question to ask to determine if a country will succeed as a liberal democracy is, “Do you want your neighbor to be free?”Agresto laid out his distinction between “bad” and “good” democracies, and at least implied, as Elliott Abrams directly stated earlier in the day, that there is something innate about Arab culture that is incompatible with democracy. In particular, he referred to conversations with Iraqi citizens who expressed deep sectarian divisions.

This became a point of contention with Zogby (and demonstrated their differences in worldview), as Zogby reminded the audience that America has itself not yet achieved the “free neighbor” paradigm Agresto extolled. Zogby said, “We’ve made it unacceptable to be a bigot, but haven’t erased bigotry,” citing FBI training manuals and Department of Justice stagnation regarding the stereotyping, treatment, and framing of Arab culture in law enforcement at the federal level, as well as cultural responses to the Trayvon Martin case as examples. As opposed to Agresto’s ethnocentric view of America’s purported role, Zogby emphasized the importance of humility and understanding why our strategies don’t work, instead of blaming the culture or politicians within the countries we engage for failed or struggling new systems.

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