Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Conversation: The Impact of the 2011 Uprisings on World Politics, Part V

Yohanes, you gave a pretty good description of how autocrats corrupt and abuse state institutions. And your explanation of what happens to the state when autocrats leave office makes sense, though I do wonder how often this occurs in reality. For example, are there any instances of the state trying to reconstitute itself after leaders step down/are forced out? Conceivably, this could be a path that Egypt follows, especially if the military never relinquishes power.

Additionally, I think you’re right that the U.S. should warn these new reform countries that the transition to democracy can be a slow and incremental process, one that is often fraught with peril along the way. Expectations in these countries are high right now, and there is the risk of severe disappointment if the transition to democracy suffers setbacks here and there. People cannot lose hope if things do not go as planned right away; they must be prepared to pursue political and economic (and perhaps cultural) reform over the long-term.

In my opinion, the failure of the U.S. to provide these kind of warnings to Russian citizens during the 1990s helped to damage Moscow’s entire reform project. Clinton Administration officials acted as cheerleaders, extolling the virtues of democracy and open-market capitalism–essentially, they championed political and economic reform as a panacea to all of Russia’s problems. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Arguably, Russia’s problems only got worse through the 1990s: political and economic corruption, a widening gulf between haves and have-nots, terrorism, and violence, among other things, were constants in Russian life. Democracy quickly became associated with disorder and chaos. And feeling fooled and duped by the West’s false promises of democracy, Russians opted for leaders who promised to provide security and stability, even if that meant their country backtracked from the reform process.

Now, onto your questions.

(1) Undoubtedly, the uprisings will impact the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Let us take the case of Egypt as an example. Over time, as the country internally stabilizes, Egypt will turn its attention to the peace process. And at that point, given that Egyptians will have more input on foreign policy issues, and given their attitudes on this specific issue, Israel will likely face increased pressure from Egypt to get a deal done with the Palestinians based on borders from 1967. And Israel knows this. Additionally, because the U.S. is seen as Israel’s backer, Washington will also face pressure to get a deal done.

Where will this lead? When we reflect on the lack of progress over the decades, it is easy to be pessimistic about the likelihood for peace. But I believe the uprisings could be a good thing. At Washington’s bidding, Hosni Mubarak supported the regional status quo, leading Egypt to avoid pushing Israel too hard to work with the Palestinians. In effect, this allowed the Israel-Palestinian conflict to get swept under the rug, and played into Israel’s hands. A more open and free Egypt will no longer take this approach. Egypt will not avoid or ignore the longstanding conflict. Instead, it will likely make a greater effort to make progress on a deal, and this, in turn, might lead others in region to behave similarly, adding a sense of urgency and momentum to the stalled talks.

And while some might fear that the new democratic governments in the Middle East will exhort Israelis to take a bad deal, there is another way to look at this issue. For instance, if these governments significantly get involved in the peace process, they will then have a stake in how the talks move along and in their outcome. Their reputation and credibility will be on the line–important factors to democratic regimes. Hence, from this perspective, these governments will have an incentive to demonstrate–both to their domestic and international audiences–that they can be an effective, responsible partner and mediator in the peace process.

(2) I am not sure where the uprisings will spread next. But I can tell you which governments are unlikely to fall: Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Yes, both countries are home to protest movements filled with people who have serious, deep political and economic grievances. But unlike the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, which had dictators who were abandoned by the U.S., the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain still have the support of Washington. Why? Team Obama knows that Saudi Arabia will not capitulate to the protesters calling for regime change and it will not let Bahrain’s monarchy fall. Anything that substantially changes the political dynamics in either country could provoke widespread chaos and violence. And so here, the overriding imperative of the U.S. is to preserve regional stability; complete political transparency, democratic elections, and the like are secondary concerns at the moment.

As a result, the U.S. is pushing for what American officials call "regime alteration." Team Obama will continue to stick by the leaders in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as long as they start the process of political and economic reform and refrain from committing an unacceptable level of violence. The U.S. is making the bet that existing leaders both countries can take steps toward reform that is meaningful and credible to their political opponents in the streets and cafes and homes and on the Internet. Whether this is a good bet, we will see in the coming weeks ahead.

What are your thoughts, Yohanes? And I am curious to hear how you think al-Qaeda is impacted by these uprisings? As you know, there is an ongoing debate between those who see the uprisings as hurting al-Qaeda and others who believe the uprisings will prove to be a boon for the organization. Which side are you on?

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