Applying Lessons From the Arab Uprisings
By Leila Hilal, New America Foundation
February 12, 2013
The Arab uprisings that shook the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have raised significant questions about the efficacy of America’s leadership in the region. After decades of aligning with and materially supporting authoritarian regimes, the United States was forced to abandon several allied Arab leaders in a remarkably short amount of time, out of deference to universal values and public will. The result left Washington exposed, lacking long-standing traditional allies and doubting basic strategic assumptions.
Many in U.S. policy-circles responded to the uprisings by calling for a foreign policy rethink–a new approach that would improve America’s ability to adapt to geopolitical shifts and support envisaged democratic transitions. What is distracting from this line of debate is a growing tendency to view the region’s upheaval as disruptive, thereby demanding containment, rather than transformative and requiring strategic innovation. But America’s response should not be limited to merely managing crises. A larger opportunity is available for a broader rethink.
The protesters were motivated by longstanding grievances which were rooted in policies that bear an American footprint. American foreign policies contributed to the creation of a maligned political order which, in turn, was rejected by mass movements across the region. Ending U.S. military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoiding new ones, may be a step toward scaling-back U.S. interference. But it would be naive to conclude that the United States has withdrawn or is withdrawing from the region. Washington continues to wield significant diplomatic and material influence in the Arab world.
The question, therefore, is not whether or not the United States is engaged. The pressing questions are: How should the United States engage? Can it play a constructive role in supporting transitions in individual countries and regionally? Does a constructive role necessarily entail an active or interventionist one? Which policy mistakes have been the most damaging to progress in the region? How can they be avoided going forward? These questions implicate the larger strategic context defining U.S. policy in the region. President Obama’s second term is a fitting time to delve back into these issues as part of an inclusive, evidence-based rethink.
While it would be naïve to expect an imminent overhaul of U.S. strategy in MENA, domestic politics in the United States and events in MENA have unleashed processes that afford substantial opportunities to begin reviewing previous assumptions. Dialogue between MENA citizens and U.S. policy advocates, focused on how to influence bi-lateral and multi-lateral policies toward meeting the original demands for “bread, freedom and dignity,” may be able to positively influence the processes in play and potentially hasten national transitions in the region.
The New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force (METF) and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs of the American University of Beirut (IFI) collaborated to study these fundamental questions. We aimed to delineate an approach of “lessening harms” as a positive framework for debating a policy reset. We focused on Egypt in this first inquiry due to the country’s historical position as a key American ally. Egypt’s status as a country “in transition” was also taken into account.
The study’s methodology relied upon comprehensive consultations and expert study, including a workshop at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the summer of 2012, convened by METF and IFI. Analysts, academics, and civil society leaders from the United States, Europe, Egypt, and other parts of the Arab world participated. Institutional representation included the METF, IFI/AUB, Carnegie Middle East Center of Beirut, the Arab NGO Network for Development, and the European Council on Foreign Relations. METF also commissioned studies from Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based writer and political analyst on Middle East affairs, and Anne Mariel Zimmermann (née Peters), assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, and an expert on American foreign assistance policies in the Middle East.
Although the study was focused on Egypt, the findings presented are relevant to the wider set of U.S.-Arab relations, especially relating to American allies in the region with a high degree of dependency upon the United States (e.g., Jordan and the Palestinian Authority).
The Legacy of U.S.-Egyptian Relations
Decades of heavy American bi-lateral investment in Egypt did not lead to an environment conducive to human development or geopolitical stability.4 During the 1990s and 2000s when U.S. leaders intensively promoted economic and political reforms in Egypt, the country’s GDP grew notably, but impoverishment deepened, emergency rule continued, and authoritarianism became more entrenched.5 Similar economic and political conditions existed in Tunisia where pro-growth reforms proceeded against a backdrop of increasing state security control, growing income inequality, and substantial regional disparities.6 In both cases, public anger exploded into a revolution, propelled by deep-seated frustrations over living conditions and employment opportunities. Incidences of popular unrest are now occurring in other allied nations such as Jordan and Palestine, where regime resilience can no longer be taken for granted. Some predict that the Gulf States may similarly be susceptible to instability due to frustration over the political status quo and poor socio-economic conditions.7 Unpacking the legacy of the U.S-Egyptian relationship reveals several consequences of an American strategic policy that contributed to human insecurity and geopolitical instability.
American foreign policy has been hardwired around a core set of strategic priorities: (i) Israeli security; (ii) the reduction of threats to the United States, focused on counterterrorism and Iranian containment; (iii)
unfettered access to hydrocarbon resources; and (iv) American trade opportunities, especially relating to weapons procurement. Liberal values constitute a fifth strand of interests pursued in varying iterations and intensities. The fifth strand of interests, which is usually the most publically articulated justification of U.S. actions in MENA, is often subordinated to the four other strands of strategic priorities.
Of the four main strategic priorities or assumptions, three have made it difficult to adapt U.S. policy in the region despite the signs of instability. The first is the greater emphasis placed on national security over human welfare. For over ten years, federal budgeting for MENA has devoted an average aggregate of 70-80% of regional funding appropriations to peace and security (military budgets and weaponry), whereas the “Investing-in-People Sector” (health, education and social services, and protection for vulnerable people) has typically received less than 10% of the budget.8 Economic Support Funds (ESF), as a mainstay component of bi-lateral development assistance to Egypt, has shrunk from $800 million to $250 million per year. The $1.3 billion Egypt receives annually in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) has remained constant since 1987.9
The “limping gait” between a strong military leg and much weaker development one has been widely acknowledged by pro-democracy advocates in the United States.10 These acknowledgments have generally been grounded in the viewpoint that the United States should demonstrate a clearer commitment to human rights and development in Egypt. They tend, however, to avoid, albeit not deny, the fact that Washington’s conventional strategic prioritization has acted as an obstacle to adapting policy in the region.11 Many who promote democracy in MENA neglect to acknowledge the role played by the U.S.’s commitment to Israel in determining its overall posture in the region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American positioning vis-à-vis Israel is mostly treated as a distinct or separate issue regarding U.S. bi-lateral relationships in MENA. Sidestepping the centrality that Israeli interests play in shaping U.S. policy is a trend that is increasing in the wake of the uprisings as analyses and responses have become increasingly localized and reactive. An immediate and constructive point of focus would be to highlight the negative consequences of insisting on triangulating US-Arab bi-lateral relations with Israel.12
Commercial pursuits have also been contributing to the ossification of foreign policy in MENA. Bi-lateral trade agreements, USAID contracts, and weapons deals provide substantial economic and political opportunities for U.S. manufacturers, contractors and Congressional representatives, as well as the American people, through increased employment opportunities. The resilience of the U.S. military industrial complex is particularly pronounced in relation to Egypt given the excessive amount of FMF going to Egypt.13 Per bilateral agreement, Egypt is required to use Americanfunding to procure U.S. weapons, upgrades to existing equipment, and follow/support maintenance contracts.14 Egyptian arms purchases are made through the “Cash Flow Financing” mechanism which allows buyers and sellers to bank on anticipated federal funding, thus locking in future budget appropriations for Egypt’s military.15 Similar requirements apply to ESF development allocations, which are reserved by law to procure American contractors, expert consultants, food, and goods.16 With a complex set of interests at stake, adapting policy implicates a domestic political battle as well as international ones.
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