How to Revive Obama’s Middle East Policy? Some Responses.

How to Revive Obama’s Middle East Policy? Some Responses.

Last month, an article of mine on Obama’s (faltering) Middle East strategy came out in Democracy: A Journal Ideas, which prompted some insightful responses in the blogosphere. Jim Arkedis of progressivefix and friend of DA seemed to like it. The Cairo-based Boursa Exchange (TBE), on the other hand, wrote a longish critique. A couple of their points are worth flagging.

In the article, I criticized the Obama administration for cutting assistance to Egyptian NGOs. As I argue toward the end of the piece, civil society assistance has too often been used as a sort of default policy stand-in, in the absence of bolder, more effective strategies. Increasing civil society assistance in the Arab world might very well be the most regurgitated, unimaginative policy proposal at our disposal. TBE argue that “democratization aid tends to go toward things like workshops to teach people about democracy and paying native English speakers to write the reports about how money is being spent that funders demand.” Too often, this is true. But I’m more concerned with what the reduction of assistance says about our priorities in Egypt. Budgets, after all, speak louder than words.

And there are ways to make U.S. civil society assistance more effective. Depending on how you define terms, the Muslim Brotherhood is arguably the largest civil society organization in the Arab world, with a vast, interlocking network of hospitals, clinics, mosques, schools, foundations, boy scout troops, and day care centers in numerous countries. Those that argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is an anti-democratic organization – and therefore uncivil – are a bit off the mark. For instance, he Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Jordanian Brotherhood, might very well be the most democratically run political party in the Arab world. Even the Egyptian Brotherhood, which is less democratic, is still more internally democratic than most of its secular counterparts.

As I note, however, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has an informal ban on funding Brotherhood-affiliated organizations in Egypt and has not allowed Brotherhood leaders to participate in conferences that receive MEPI funding. This led to me to suggest the following: “As a simple first step to remove such hurdles, Secretary Clinton should issue a directive explicitly permitting all State Department employees to meet with and incorporate members of Brotherhood in their programming.”

TBE write “but we also think it quite simplistic when writers claim that regimes in the region use the Palestinian issue to focus citizens’ anger away from the regimes’ own misdeeds. It has been our experience that people (not just in the Middle East, but everywhere, if you can imagine) are perfectly capable of denouncing injustice abroad without forgetting about injustice at home.” I don’t believe I made any such claim, although it is, in general terms, an accurate one. There’s only so much one person can be angry about, particularly when it’s much more practical for the average Egyptian to become angry about Israel than to become angry about domestic politics. The former is permitted, sometimes even encouraged, while the latter can land you in jail. I think I know which one I’d choose. 

TBE then go on to critique the two policy “pillars” that I recommend for U.S. policymakers – “positive conditionality” and Islamist engagement: “We don’t find the idea of positive conditionality likely to be implemented.” Neither do I. That’s why I wrote the article.

Later: “Hamid presupposes that the Brotherhood wants to talk to the US.” This is not a presupposition or even a supposition. A number of Brotherhood leaders and officials have explicitly told me that they want to talk to the U.S. Of course, the conditions have to be right. But the desire is there. To some extent, it’s already happened in isolated instances, informally and off-the-record, sometimes through interlocutors and other times directly. More generally, the Egyptian Brotherhood, in recent years, has devoted increased attention and resources to reaching out to Western audiencesand in particular the policy community. In 2005, the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, the organization’s top decision-making body, launched an internal initiative under the title “Re-introducing the Brotherhood to the West.”

In a section called “our solutions,” TBE say “the most important thing US-based democracy-in-Egypt-supporters could be doing right now is voicing full-throated support for a settlement in Palestine.” Well, this is precisely what I argue against in my article. Democracy has been held hostage to the peace process long enough. How much longer should we wait? What if a peace settlement is finally signed 30 years now? Are Egyptians supposed to wait 20 years for their freedom, and why should Egyptians wait for Palestinians to form their own state, before they can control their own?

Fortunately, the U.S., can walk and chew gum at the same time (although, in practice, this hasn’t always been evident), by supporting the peace process while simultaneously having a more assertive pro-democracy posture toward its autocratic allies, who, in any case, haven’t made for great allies.