The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But as violence assumed a more prominent role in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, the straightforward and attractive image of organic protest against authoritarian rule became muddied. The uprisings and their consequences—the murders in Libya of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others, the democratic enfranchisement of illiberal factions, the Mali unrest, the ongoing crises in Egypt—have forced Western liberals to grapple with their fears regarding both regional instability and Islamists and their attempts to insert religion more prominently into governance and the public square.
So what does the future hold? As we watch these riveting, often exhilarating, and sometimes horrifying events, the bottom-line questions in all our minds are simple. Can democracy take root in the Arab world? How long will it take? Ten years, 20…50? We all hope for a great transformation, in which Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and their neighbors embrace democracy and pluralism and cast off autocracy and extremism. But is there reason to be optimistic?
While we cannot make specific predictions, we can say broadly that the ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. They are: economic growth and equality; education policy; security-sector reform; transitional justice; decentralization; the development of regional norms on democratization; and—in many ways, the linchpin for everything—the flourishing of a more pluralistic politics. These are the seven pillars of the Arab Future. They are the yardsticks by which we can measure progress in the region in the coming years.
The United States has not played a central role in this story. Nor should it be expected to. Change must be initiated organically and in accordance with the perceived interests of local actors. The United States, along with the international community, cannot dictate change, but it can guide and encourage it. Despite debates about American decline and diminishing leverage, the United States remains the most potent outside actor in the region and will, with its allies, have a role to play in supporting regional change.
Economic Growth and Equality
If transitioning states fail in retooling their economies, the prospects for reform in other areas are dim. Virtually all the nations of the region have a long, long way to go. With the exceptions of the petro-rich Gulf states, which post impressive economic numbers for obvious and anomalous reasons, the region is in terrible economic shape.
Per capita GDPs are low. According to the CIA World Factbook, the highest per capita GDP in the region (outside of the petro-monarchies) is Lebanon’s $15,500 per year, which ranks it just 78th in the world. Egypt, at $6,500, comes in at number 137. Syria, at $5,100, is 152nd. GDP growth is also meager. According to World Bank data for 2011, Jordan’s GDP grew at 2.6 percent, Egypt’s at 1.8 percent; Tunisia’s “grew” at -1.8 percent; Libya’s was not even calculated. In terms of income inequality, the region has just one country in the world’s top 50 least unequal countries, as measured by the Gini coefficient: Egypt sneaks in at number 50. (The United States has nothing to boast about here, ranking 97th.)
These lagging indicators are exacerbated by the region’s demographic youth bulge and, according to the World Bank, the highest levels of youth unemployment on earth. Youth under age 25 represent 60 percent of the region’s population. The 2009 Arab Human Development Report, one of a series of controversial reports sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme and independently authored by intellectuals and scholars from Arab countries (and attacked by nationalists and Islamists alike as serving Western interests), estimated that the region would need to create approximately 51 million jobs by 2020 to keep pace with new entrants; some more current estimates for needed employment gains range as high as 80 million new jobs in the coming decade.
Unemployment is also high among the most educated of the region. The 2011-2012 Arab World Competitiveness Report notes that among those with a college education in states for which statistics were available, 43 percent are unemployed in Saudi Arabia, 22 percent in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and 14 percent in Tunisia.
Of course, the economic challenges vary from country to country. The World Bank recently described the region as having a “two-track growth path” between nations that export oil and gas and those that either import or produce small quantities (which include Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia). This divergence is illustrated succinctly by a comparison of the 2010 per capita GDP of two Gulf countries: Qatar, which is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and registered at $72,398, and Yemen, which reached a paltry $1,291. The bank’s current forecast for economic growth in oil and gas exporting countries is 4.8 percent in 2012, and just 2.2 percent for importing countries.
Such disparities and stagnation have meant the basic economic questions that have been largely resolved in the West are now once again a feature of open political discourse, particularly in the region’s transitioning states. These questions tap into long-dormant notions of social justice rooted in the region’s twentieth-century history, when Arab nationalism was often coupled with a state-dominated economic model. However, expectations for economic change are incredibly high, bordering on the fantastical, and managing them will be essential for the region’s leaders. It is nearly inevitable that they will be judged harshly if they fail to improve the material conditions of citizens. A lack of progress runs a real risk of sparking popular backlash against the uprisings, alienating people from the electoral process, and raising the specter of authoritarian relapse.
In light of these expectations and the current economic dilemmas, five priorities emerge. First, governments must recognize that the main prerequisite for economic reform in transitioning countries is a firm political foundation upon which they can make difficult decisions that might entail some degree of social dislocation. Western policy-makers and local technocrats have often disaggregated economic reform from the politics that undergird it. But that’s a grave error. The importance of some semblance of consensus politics is heightened by the current polarization in the region’s transitioning countries, most notably Egypt, where the botched transition and disastrous constitutional drafting process have created the prospect of institutionalized crisis and political dysfunction.
Second, the region’s leaders must deal with their citizens transparently. Economic decision-making has often been opaque. This has led to the belief, heightened by recent history, that reforms will inevitably entail distortion and corruption.
Third, regional governments will have to work to ensure that macroeconomic gains have a tangible impact on unemployment and social mobility. The gap between GDP growth and per capita GDP growth for the region is among the world’s highest (meaning that population growth has outstripped economic growth). The disconnect represented by long-term structural unemployment is at the root of disenchantment, particularly among the young; coupled with the flagrant corruption associated with crony capitalism, past performance has hindered current efforts and tarnished perceptions of economic policy.
Growth will inevitably require some level of fiscal discipline to manage debt. However, austerity cannot form the crux of economic policy or provide the roadmap toward inclusive growth. As such, more progressive taxation to create a broader revenue base is essential, as is support for small and medium enterprises, including assistance to bring many of these businesses out of the underground economy. This will necessitate reforms to ensure greater transparency, reduced bureaucracy, and a predictable legal framework. It will also require that the international community eschew ideology and lend its support for big public-works projects that can employ large numbers in the near term and improve dilapidated infrastructure.
Fourth, economic policy will also face challenges with respect to gender. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2011, in Egypt and Yemen, for example, the labor force participation for women is a meager 24 percent and 21 percent respectively. Remedying such gender gaps and providing expanded opportunities would enhance productivity and increase economic security.
Finally, regional economies will have to implement economic-diversification and investment policies focused on high-growth and labor-intensive economic sectors, such as clothing and textiles. This type of diversification can contribute to more stable, higher rates of growth. For non-oil-producing countries, this will require investments in infrastructure and technology.
What is the state of education in the Arab world? The UN Human Development Index offers the following statistics: In Libya, students have 7.3 years of schooling on average; Tunisia, 6.5 years; Egypt, 6.4 years; Syria, 5.7 years; Yemen, a sobering 2.5 years (for the United States, it’s 12.4 years).
A March 2011 UNESCO report found that while the region has made progress on elementary and secondary education in the last decade, it still lags behind most of the world. Over six million primary school-aged children—the vast majority of them girls—do not attend school. Enrollment in post-secondary education is 21 percent, below the worldwide average of 26 percent. Teacher salaries are often abysmal—in Egypt, for example, the starting salary is $20 a month, rising to $70 a month after five years. This has led to perverse practices, such as teachers withholding information in the classroom to encourage participation in private tutoring sessions for those few students whose parents can pay for the extra time.
Another problem is the rigid and outmoded pedagogy that is practiced in the region’s schools. There is a heavy emphasis throughout secondary education on rote memorization and a lack of focus on analytical and creative thinking, which are essential to advanced learning. This approach has limited the capacity of students to translate their education to the labor market.
Educational participation also reflects clear patterns of inequality. A 2007 World Bank study focusing on economic performance in the Middle East and North Africa noted that “[p]overty and level of education are strongly and consistently correlated in populations in the region, meaning that programs targeting secondary and higher education will reach few if any poor children.”
Aside from poor investment and outcomes, education in the region faces an additional problem: The educational systems of the region have been corrupted by the imperatives of regime survival. Among their primary functions, schools have been a means of maintaining order and control. This has led to censorship and limitations on research deemed threatening to the state. Today, Islamist regimes pose another threat. Mohammed Faour of the Carnegie Middle East Center predicts that “the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia will target education reform to ensure more Islamic content is included in all students’ schooling.” This will create new barriers to inquiry and research.
To the extent that the educational sectors of transitioning societies have seen reforms, they have largely centered on political activism and expression. State interference in political life in Egyptian universities, for example, has declined since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Similarly, university administrations have been shielded from direct political intervention, with Cairo University and other campuses holding internal elections for administrative leadership positions.
What needs to be done? The most urgent priority must be dealing with the mismatch between educational attainment and the requirements of the labor market. Closing this gap will require investment in advanced research and scientific institutions. It will also require greater coordination with the private sector to better tailor educational programs to labor demands, as well as pedagogy reform that begins a shift toward critical thinking and analysis and away from the more traditional and outmoded forms of learning. Vocational training and technical schools should also be encouraged as practical alternatives to university education and contributors to the production of skilled labor. Finally, it is critical that reformers protect inquiry, creativity, and expression against the potentially stifling imperatives of ruling Islamist political parties.
The financial strains on educational systems will be difficult to ameliorate at a time when resources are stretched. The youth bulge has put further pressure on the education sector. The countries of the region must reassess their budgetary priorities and consider options once thought politically untenable. For example, national universities in Egypt are currently free. Ursula Lindsey, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Middle East correspondent, argues that some students should be charged fees in light of current budgetary realities.
The pressures on public education have also encouraged private institutions of higher learning to proliferate in some Arab countries. While some have adopted higher standards (exacerbating social divisions in the process), others are nakedly opportunistic enterprises responding to market demand and often do a poor job of preparing students. As such, the establishment of accreditation bodies is absolutely necessary to ensure baseline metrics for the approval of new institutions of higher learning.
One of the major drivers of popular outrage in the Arab world has been and continues to be the repressive and brutal tactics of the security sector. Yet there is a great deal of variation among the region’s security apparatuses. In Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces have largely been focused on external security rather than repression, with such duties falling to internal security forces and mukhabarat, as the region’s intelligence services are known. This is in stark contrast to Syria, where the conscript army and elite military forces have been used to violently suppress internal dissent and armed opposition. In Libya, security-sector reform represents a unique challenge due to the proliferation of regional and independent anti-Gadhafi militias that have remained outside the scope of centralized authority. In Yemen, the balkanized security sector and its divided loyalties represent a key impediment to centralizing authority behind a reformist agenda. Other countries in the region that have not experienced regime change or transition, particularly Bahrain, have increased repression in the hopes of smothering any impetus for change.
The security sectors of the region are steeped in a brutal and corrupt culture that privileges confessions and encourages torture in the service of both maintaining regime security and policing minor crime. Those detained for petty crimes often suffer the same coercion and abuse met by citizens arrested on suspicion of oppositional activities or terrorism.
Changing the prevailing cultural norms and professional practices of sprawling security bureaucracies will take many years. The first step for any credible reform effort must be centered on vetting and removing the most corrupt officials from positions of authority. Because such steps can be destabilizing in transitioning societies, reformers may have to take a more cautious approach. In some instances (especially if retaliation is a concern), administrative reassignment might be more prudent than removing a potential offender from a sensitive position. Targeted vetting is absolutely necessary if institutional reform is to take root, as it signals intent and begins the process of establishing working norms of behavior.
Reform will also require that democratization extend to civilian control and oversight. In many countries this will necessarily be a gradual process of normalizing civil-military and civil-police relations. The early stages of transition will be critical in terms of establishing the legal frameworks governing these relationships. While no constitutional or legal order is self-executing, provisions that mandate legal and budgetary transparency are essential even if the record of compliance is incomplete for the region’s emerging democracies. In this sense, Egypt’s new constitution, which enshrines military privilege and autonomy, is a profoundly negative step that effectively places the country’s most important security institution outside civilian purview.
Training programs to increase professionalism and reform institutional culture must also be retooled and implemented, and recruitment should better reflect each society’s ethnic and sectarian composition. Additionally, establishing meritocratic promotional structures will help guard against future politicization of the security sector and decouple it from regime maintenance. Finally, monitoring and advocacy by civil society will provide a key check on abuse, and setting a durable and robust legal framework for such groups will be an important safeguard against repression.
Security-sector reform is a difficult task, but precedent for success does exist. A key example is post-apartheid South Africa, which took an ambitious, long-term approach to integrating former adversaries into the government and shrinking the size of the security sector. Similarly, the experience of post-Communist Eastern European countries is largely positive; a relapse into security-sector repression is no longer a possibility in many of these societies. The impediments to effective security-sector reform in the Arab world are numerous, but the conditions for it do exist—even, surprisingly, within the security institutions themselves, thanks to a small number of internal stakeholders who support reform as part of their efforts to professionalize their services.
Transitional justice—commonly defined as the measures employed by post-conflict and post-authoritarian states to cope with legacies of mass abuse and atrocity—has to be an integral part of efforts to consolidate change in the Arab world. Establishing a thorough accounting of past abuses would help lay the foundation for a more accountable political culture and provide a basis for credible national reconciliation.
Transitional or post-conflict justice took form as a discipline in the 1980s and 1990s with several noteworthy efforts, including the truth-and-reconciliation process in South Africa, numerous prosecutorial efforts in Latin America, and the ad hoc international tribunals to address the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These developments produced an emerging consensus that dealing with histories of mass atrocity, abuse, and repression was a necessary prerequisite to creating open and responsive politics and a democratic culture.
What these varied experiences have made clear is that on issues of accountability, there are no rigid formulas for success. National responses to past repression and abuse reflect each country’s particular history and context. Furthermore, the pace of such efforts shows that transitional justice is not solely a concern in the immediate post-authoritarian environment. In fact, prosecutions in Argentina arising from the “dirty war” of the 1970s are still making their way through the criminal-justice system. This stands in contrast to the more immediate nonprosecutorial efforts undertaken by South Africa to address past abuses and repression. And efforts to wholly avoid the past, as in post-Franco Spain, will not necessarily preclude successful democratic transition.
Still, compiling an unimpeachable historical record of abuse, repression, and atrocities is an important step in protecting against authoritarian relapse, particularly during turbulent and inconclusive transition periods when the allure of law and order may propel reactionary politics. These types of initiatives will also play a role in capacity building, since transitional justice involves complex legal and investigatory issues that require the devotion of resources and professionalized attention. Even in instances where transitional justice has fallen short of optimal standards, as was the case with Iraq’s efforts to prosecute Saddam Hussein and key Ba’athist leaders, the effort improved professionalism among investigators, prosecutors, judges, and forensic experts. Finally, such efforts, even if they’re imperfect, can help establish the principle of judicial independence.
Fashioning a political consensus behind transitional justice can be critical for transitioning societies. Relatedly, the facile and cynical use of transitional justice as a means to serve narrow political ends can corrupt the process and further the impression that such efforts are merely an exercise in cementing newly constructed political and social status. While the mix of methods will necessarily vary, prosecutions remain a legitimate and important, if limited, tool for holding accountable high-level actors in positions of responsibility and authority. In light of the inherent limitations of prosecutions, other forms of accountability should be encouraged, including bureaucratic vetting to ensure that those complicit with past abuse can no longer serve in government. Such processes should be tightly focused on past behavior and avoid the temptation of blanket purges based on mere association.
However, prosecutions and vetting alone cannot begin to cope with the extensive histories of abuse and criminality that the societies of the region will be forced to confront. And for this reason, other means will be necessary to establish thorough and rigorous accounts of past crimes and repression. Truth and historical commissions can play an important supplementary role, particularly in establishing the historical record. The distortion of history is an ever-present danger in the transitional setting, and fundamental reconciliation is not possible if the basic facts and history of political repression are unacknowledged by significant sectors of society.
Autocracies are characterized by centralization—power in the hands of one oligarchy, one group, one junta, sometimes one person. Democracies are characterized by decentralization—power dispersed across different branches and levels of government, intended to give citizens and their elected representatives a bigger say.
The countries of the Middle East and North Africa lag behind the rest of the world with respect to decentralization. There are myriad historical explanations for this state of affairs, and a recent study by the World Bank pointed to the still-potent legacy of the Ottoman Empire, with its centralized approach to tax administration and the experience of decolonization in the region. Throughout the region, deconcentration is the norm, where administrative management and responsibilities are simply redistributed among different levels of the central government and geographically dispersed rather than being shared with autonomous local governments.
Decentralization should be seen as an opportunity to explore and refine development strategies, since local governments often have a clearer understanding of issues that affect them, including transportation and social services. Localized administration also reduces administrative costs and streamlines procedural requirements.
How can top-heavy regimes decentralize? Arab governments have a broad array of potential approaches. Most important are credible municipal and provincial elections, which establish greater political accountability and help to break patterns of regional neglect. True accountability in turn will depend on service provision, and devolution of authority will be necessary to create the basis for such judgments. While this will vary dramatically among and within countries, it will entail some authority to design, finance, and manage the delivery of services to constituents. This will require the delegation of some degree of financial authority to impose taxes and/or borrow funds for development and infrastructure purposes.
Of course, changes for the better in any single state, no matter how dramatic, will remain precarious without strong regional norms—states adopting generally similar standards of behavior and adhering to them. The strongest states, along with stable regional organizations, must encourage reforms and new standards.
Throughout this period of regional upheaval, it has been evident that revitalized notions of collective identity and transnational ties have spurred widespread activism. Shared media space, including satellite channels and social media, has encouraged these trends and helped to regionalize the politics of protest. It has also made the behavior of autocratic rulers a subject of intense interest for Arab citizens, marking a departure from past attitudes.
This pressure has had an impact on the regional state system, where the Arab League has undertaken nontraditional interventionist steps in response to the crises in Libya and Syria. The Arab League has condemned abuse and repression within targeted member states and advocated for international intervention to precipitate regime change.
The lead role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar on these issues is representative both of the dramatic shift in the regional balance of power and the prioritization of strategic interests. However, while the motivations for regional actions are suspect based on the identity of their sponsors, these interventions nevertheless mark an important departure that will have long-term effects on regional norm-building. For a regional political order that has long been zealous in its defense of sovereignty and indifferent to human rights, these steps will likely have far-reaching unintended consequences.
The emergence of regional norms will also depend heavily on the success of the ongoing transitions and the establishment of a critical mass of democratic countries within the Arab world. It will also depend on the willingness of newly democratic states to champion human rights and encourage democratic reform beyond their borders. The emergence of such a bloc would be a boon to reformers in undemocratic states and would likely accelerate regional democratization. Similarly, it might also provide a vehicle for increased regional friction between transitioning states and states that chose a different path with respect to dissent and regional change.
In an important sense, all the preceding factors depend to varying degrees on these societies becoming more pluralistic—allowing more democracy, more dissent, more breathing room for secularism. The ongoing transitions, however, have made clear that the future of open, pluralistic politics is far from assured. In fact, key political actors in the region have made it their goal to support notions of religious supremacy and to restrict rights and freedoms based on regressive interpretations of Islam and Islamic law. Coupled with the region’s zero-sum politics, the challenge of pluralism can be seen in terms of preserving space for dissenting political opinions and protecting equal citizenship for religious and ethnic minorities.
At root, much of this discussion is grounded in the approach of Islamist political parties to constitutional construction and ideas of citizenship. Tunisia’s Ennahdha party, for example, offers a more minimalist approach to Islam’s role in a constitution. Ennahdha’s leader Rached Ghannouchi has stated that his party is satisfied with the description of Tunisia in Article 1 of its old constitution as a Muslim country. In contrast, Egypt’s new constitution privileges certain forms of specialized religious discourse and establishes a constitutional order bound by religious interpretation. In this regard, religious institutions and clerics will have an active role in legislative matters and affairs of state. The implementation of Islamic law in Egypt represents a critical issue that will extend beyond the drafting and approval of constitutional frameworks. This process will represent the critical step in whether or not Egypt truly remains a “civil state” that embraces an expansive definition of citizenship and anti-majoritarian protections.
The slow glide toward repression is a key concern, as the region’s Islamist parties have a highly majoritarian definition of democratic politics. This emphasis on the mandate of the ballot box at the expense of rights protection is further aggravated by the rightward pull of more rigid Salafi political parties. In both Tunisia and Egypt, Ennahdha and the Muslim Brotherhood have been loath to alienate these actors, seeing them as both allies against non-Islamists and rivals in the electoral setting. The region’s mainline Islamists would also have to make clear that violence has no place in democratic politics. While these groups have long abandoned violence as a tool, cynically allowing other actors to intimidate and coerce political opponents will fuel cycles of violence.
With the radicalizing effects of the civil war, Syria’s post-Assad fate will be heavily influenced by how that country’s Islamists deal with their more radical brethren. If mainline Islamists refuse to distinguish their politics from those of their radical Islamist rivals, the future for pluralism is bleak and, in that postwar context, could lead to mass atrocities and revenge killings. It could also lead to Syrian soil being exploited by transnational jihadi groups with goals that extend far beyond Syria’s borders.
This potentially grim future is not limited to the fate of minority populations, but could also apply to dissent. The region’s lack of experience with practical politics, inclusion, and democratic discourse has led to a zero-sum understanding of political power and an abiding allergy to direct criticism. The difficult art of compromise is not a self-evident practice and will be dependent on robust representation of non-Islamists in elected positions, the rise of effective civil-society groups, and the slow acculturation to a more dynamic political life.
More importantly, the coming years will illustrate whether political movements grounded in Islam can govern effectively and whether their approach to governance will respect the role and rights of non-Islamists within the Arab world. To the extent that the region’s newly empowered Islamists fail at these tasks, they will stigmatize democratic politics in the Arab world and chill support for further democratization. Lastly, if these groups attempt to re-establish a form of repressive stability, the revitalized politics of the region will likely lead to further instability and violence.
Lessons for U.S. Policy: Conditional Engagement
As the old colonial-era powers faded from the Arab world, America’s role in the region gradually but steadily increased throughout the second half of the twentieth century. U.S. strategy was driven by the region’s abundant natural resources, a commitment to Israel, and the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. With the collapse of communism and the rise of Islamist militancy, recent decades have seen an additional focus on terrorism that has further entangled the United States in the geopolitics of the Middle East, often in disastrous ways. The challenge now for the United States is to adopt a more balanced posture in keeping with its national interests while remaining engaged with a transforming and still-volatile region.
A first step is to properly assess U.S. interests and threats in the region, which are often exaggerated. Protecting the free flow of oil, which is not currently threatened, does not require an imperial footprint or a sprawling U.S.-underwritten regional security architecture. The outdated Carter Doctrine—the 1980 declaration that the free flow of oil from the region was of vital importance to U.S. economic and national-security interests—should be updated to more realistically reflect both interests and strategy. The United States should also be clear that Israel is no longer a besieged state fighting for its existence but the region’s unparalleled military power facing no serious threat from Arab armies. Lastly, the United States should assess accurately the threats it faces from the region. It has nothing remotely resembling a peer competitor, including Iran, a country with limited expeditionary military capacity. The terrorist threat, while persistent, is not existential and cannot serve as the unifying link of American grand strategy.
In light of this reality, the United States should seek to trim its military footprint, thereby limiting its exposure to the repressive actions of nominal allies and aligning its expenditures with actual interests. This is not to say that the United States should liquidate its positions and abandon its allies in the region. In fact, predictions of American decline in the Arab world are often rooted in a misconception of the historical role of the United States. In his description of Arab politics in the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Malcolm Kerr, a leading American Arabist of the day, observed, “From 1959 onwards, apart from one or two peripheral exceptions, the crucial decisions governing Arab affairs lay in Arab hands.” The United States remains the most prominent external actor in the Middle East, but it has rarely dictated political outcomes—nor will it now. Accepting these limitations is an appropriate starting point to constructing more effective strategy.
From the perspective of U.S. interests, regional stability will always predominate, and at this juncture, it is unlikely that transitioning states can adopt a retooled model of repressive stability. This narrows the options for prudent U.S. policy. In a changing Arab world, unconditional support of nominal allies will endanger the very stability that the United States prizes. As the necessity for representational politics and good governance grows, the policy dilemmas of old might begin to fade; the outmoded desire for client states might be supplanted by mature relationships with states that share important strategic interests with the United States. In this light, the ideal of democracy will likely come to be seen as a more necessary ingredient to stability and protection of American interests.
The United States must make clear to regimes that its support cannot substitute for the support of a country’s own citizens, and that the judgments of those citizens regarding their regime’s legitimacy must ultimately dictate the position of the United States. This is a critical message for America’s undemocratic allies in the region, and this conditional engagement represents the only plausible path forward for the United States.
The uneven performance of the region’s democratically elected Islamist leaders also suggests a policy approach toward states that have suppressed the forces for change—namely, encouragement of bottom-up democratization. Doing this would include taking steps such as pressing for municipal and provincial elections as a precursor to broader reforms. In pushing such a course on countries that have avoided regime change, the United States can explore anew the feasibility of more gradual reform, which has often been employed rhetorically by authoritarians to avoid actual reform. Further, an approach that seeks to impart governing responsibilities upon opposition groups will ease their potential transition to national leadership.
The United States also should not make assumptions about the inevitable role of Islamists. While they remain the most organized and potent political force in many countries in the region, the United States shouldn’t view the Arab world with an essentialist lens that sees in Islamist rule the natural equilibrium. Such an approach will alienate non-Islamist political forces and encourage the monopolization of power by Islamist groups. The emerging politics of the region are likely to be dynamic and the prevailing political order in transitioning countries will be fluid. Assuming Islamist predominance will also create a misplaced permissiveness with respect to religiously based repression. What might be termed the soft bigotry of Orientalist expectations would undermine notions of universal values and encourage an inherently unstable model of governance that will ill serve U.S. regional interests and undermine the prospects for peaceful and sustainable change.
Finally, any retooled U.S. approach to the region will require a more robust commitment to diplomacy that understands interactions with friend and foe alike less as a conferral of legitimacy and more as a means for furthering U.S. understanding and preparedness.
These course corrections by the United States would represent a welcome shift, but they will not fundamentally determine the trajectory of social and political change in the region. That can be decided only by its citizens. Prior to the uprisings, the Arab world was headed toward further stagnation and malaise. While that grim outcome is no longer certain, the region is now in the midst of a transformation that will likely require a generation’s progress before definitive judgments can be made about its success or the lack thereof. That success will be tied directly to how Arab societies and governments deal with the seven challenges described above. While progress will be variable, these seven pillars will offer a useful measure of the Arab world’s growth.