May 20, 2013 — When told by the student introducing the event that he would be expected to offer his thoughts on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Dr. Robert Malley retorted that the events to which she referred were not entirely Arab, not really a “spring,” and were not experiencing any aftermath. Malley’s immediate confrontation with the nomenclature used by media consumers to describe events in other parts of the world ended up being a consistent theme throughout his talk that evening.
The event — hosted by the Olive Tree Initiative at UCLA and titled “A Post-Arab Spring Update” — was billed as an opportunity for students and community members to learn about the current geopolitics of the Middle East from one of today’s foremost experts on the region. In the Clinton administration, Dr. Robert Malley served as Special Assistant to the President for Arab-Israeli Affairs and as Assistant to National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. Today, Malley, who is the son of an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and an Egyptian-born Jewish father, serves as the Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group in Washington, DC. Malley was interviewed at the event by Dr. Russell Burgos, who lectures for UCLA’s Global Studies Department.
Following his rejection of the nomenclature used to refer to the uprisings that have taken place in the Middle East and North Africa over the last two and a half years, Malley proceeded to take on other misconceptions about the so-called “Arab Spring.” Notably, he confronted many of the sources of optimism with which the first moments of the uprisings were met by Western analysts. Whereas American journalists and scholars portrayed the uprisings in aspirational terms — as being a movement of the people against oppressive regimes; as a movement toward democracy; as a revolution for the social media age — Malley pointed out that these characterizations largely differed from reality.
Although the uprisings pitted citizens against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, countries such as Libya and Syria pitted citizens against fellow citizens, with the regime falling on one side or another. And whereas many in the U.S. looked to the Arab Spring as a secular, democratic response to Islamist extremism and tyranny, in reality, Islamist parties ended up reaping the political spoils in at least two countries’ post-revolution elections, and given the behavior of President Mohammed Morsi, there is still no assurance that Egypt’s revolution achieved anything in the way of democracy. And while social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook played a large role in many of these revolutions, particularly among the youth, every revolution that deposed a dictator went far beyond social media, bringing bodies into the streets and in some cases leading to considerable carnage.
New Political Realities
Following his verbal tussle with common misconceptions about the Arab uprisings, Malley offered a few assessments of how the uprisings have changed the political landscape of the region.
First, he asserted that the Islamist component of the uprisings is undeniable. The victories of Islamist parties in elections in Egypt and Tunisia demonstrate the depth of the desire of voters in those countries to see change. And the fact that 49 percent of Egyptians did not cast their votes for President Morsi is an indication that the bulk of Morsi’s appeal lays not in his policies but in the fact that he is simply not Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, Malley recounted his experiences of speaking with Egyptians who are now nostalgic for the Mubarak days.
Malley also pointed to the increasing fluidity of the region’s colonial-era borders. Today, Iraqis are fighting on both sides of the Syrian conflict, and an estimated quarter of Hezbollah’s personnel are currently involved in assisting the Assad regime in one way or another. Furthermore, the Kurdish populations of Iraq and Turkey have demonstrated renewed vigor in realizing their national aspirations, and there have also been murmurings of pan-Islamism among some of the revolutionary elements in Syria, which also challenge the European-devised borders that currently give the Middle East its political shape.
Lessons for the U.S.
All of these shifting political realities, Malley urged, contain crucial lessons for the U.S. and its policy toward the Middle East. First, he stressed that American policymakers would do well not to assume that the fact that American intervention brought a leader to power automatically means that the leader has pledged any allegiance to the U.S.. In fact, American policymakers need look no further than Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki to find American-installed heads of state who propagate animosity toward the U.S. on a daily basis. Furthermore, Malley warned against the tendency of American policymakers to capitalize on indigenous animosities to achieve American goals. For example, he addressed the question of whether the U.S. would be wise to go to war with Iran if Saudi Arabia did so first. Although this would seem expedient, Malley stressed that this will create new animosities from which the U.S. does not currently suffer. Were they to engage in war with Iran, the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would bring with them their open distaste for Shi’i Islam and their historical animosity toward Persian people. While the U.S. might arguably gain from a successful altercation with Iran, to enter such a conflict on Sunni Arab terms rather than its own terms would create new problems in the long term that Iranians would be likely not to forget.
A Word About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Before the event ended, Malley took a few questions from the audience. One question in particular stands out as relevant to the Jewish community. A student asked whether Malley believed that Yasser Arafat deserved as much blame as he received from President Clinton and others for his rejection of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of 92 percent of the West Bank and Gaza in a final-status peace deal offered at Camp David in 2000. Malley responded first by saying that Arafat did deserve some blame for not actively making offers and counter-offers, which could have salvaged the peace talks. However, more important to Malley was the fact that every years since the Camp David talks, the Israeli offer has gotten better. In fact, today, the mainstream assumption in that Israel will ultimately grant the Palestinians the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza after land swaps. Therefore, Arafat’s acceptance of any less than that would have been diplomatic suicide.
Furthermore, the fact that Barak’s offer of 92 percent was heralded as a monumental step for Israel ignored the reality that Palestinians live with on a daily basis — one in which the colonial force that rendered them stateless is destined to hold onto at least 78 percent of their historical homeland and is determined to hold onto more. Malley theorized that the blame Arafat received for what turned out to be a wise decision on his part is symptomatic of a larger American problem. Americans, Malley asserted, tend to believe that the opinions expressed by the people to whom they relate most, such as Israelis and Western-educated secular Arabs; Americans may believe that these opinions are representative of entire populations, when in reality they represent only a small fraction of the big picture. Therefore, Malley expressed his wish that American policymakers make a greater effort to understand the indigenous psychologies and perspectives that are least familiar to them. Greater attention to local perspectives, combined with humility, may hold the key to a more productive American policy toward the Middle East, even as the future political makeup of the region remains undetermined.