By Annemarie Ulbrich
During the last couple of months the world witnessed deep changes taking place in Middle Eastern and North African countries such as Egypt and Tunesia: The fall of well-established leaders, regime changes and elections generating new opportunities for the formation of more democratic structures have been in the public eye since the inception of the movements during last year’s Arab Spring. The Third Annual Atkin Conference organised by the The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR – www.icsr.info) did not only seek to analyse what happened in the region in 2011 but also tried to anticipate the future of the countries involved. The event, entitled “The New Generation in the Middle East”, took place at London’s King’s College and brought young leaders from the region together to discuss current developments.
Since its foundation in 2008 the ICSR and the Atkin Foundation have offered young leaders of tomorrow from the Arab world and Israel the opportunity to stay in London for a period of four months. By bringing together people with different backgrounds and ideas, leadership is fostered and occasions for the exchange of ideas and research are created.
Executive Director of ICSR and presenter of the event Prof. Dr. Peter R. Neumann – also member of World Security Network’s Advisory Board – offered an insight into the events by explaining to the audience the ongoing process of change in the Middle East and the ideas of young people active in the region.
The developments of the Arab spring surprised many as the region seemed stable, but as a new generation claims more rights and has come together with the help of social media, the change has in fact not been so sudden. Dr. Hussein Ibish, Executive Director at Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, even states that the Arab uprising has been expected since the early 70s with Egypt at the epicentre of events. He nevertheless adds that the when and how of the uprising have indeed been a surprise. Himself a member of the Arab-American diaspora, on the question of how diasporas can advance peace in the Middle East, he claims that the community was very inspired by the events which even caused euphoria. However, a regime change has not taken yet place as a military regime still exists, Ibish adds. Diasporas which seem to be an important factor for continuing change should therefore put more pressure on their respective governments to prevent them from supporting dictatorial regimes. It should be remembered that only elections can serve as a proper instrument to attain legitimacy in a democracy as majorities are able to determine the leaders.
As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is also of great importance for the Middle East, possible solutions to this problem were also discussed at the event. Ron Skolnik, Director of Meretz USA and member of the American Jewish community, describes the majority of his community as too passive and lacking concern for the affairs of Israel. Nevertheless, he notes that the community expressed its support for the Arab Spring as it is an important event for the region. The Palestinian diaspora, represented by Dr. Manuel Hassassian, Palestinian Representative to the United Kingdom, on the other hand sees the Arab Spring as an historic moment which has brought all Palestinians together. They all hope for an end to the occupation by Israel but Hassassian doubts that Israel is ready to negotiate on this matter. He recognizes the fear existing on both sides which prevents the two parties from communicating. He adds that a two state solution will not be an option as it is impossible to divide the territory. On the other hand, the one state solution can only be successful if the two parties agree to work together as equal partners – this is unattainable unless Israel accepts the Palestinian side and agrees to offer them more rights. Hassassian and Ibish agree that assistance from outside is needed: Ibish describes the US as a powerful, although imperfect, broker. Hassassian on the other hand sees more potential on the European side for assisting with the negotiations but fears that they will be kept from intervening by the US government.
In any case, diasporas should set aside their group identity to unite into one homogenous group that brings together all those wishing for peace. Neumann affirms that overcoming tribal identities may encourage the development of democracies in the area as they are all united by a general interest in fostering democracy and the continuing rejection of military dictatorships.
The event also discussed the influence of social media on the uprisings of the Arab spring. As one of the fastest instruments of communication, social media offer the possibility for different people to come together. Exchanging of information and overcoming censorship becomes possible. Mahmoud Salem, one of Egypt’s most popular bloggers, explains that the Internet has been for some years the only open space where the people could satisfy their hunger for information. With the introduction of Facebook and Twitter new tools developed that made an even faster spread of information possible. Even though social media are not able to start an uprising, as they only serve as an addition to the traditional media, he underlines their impact on the fall of President Mubarak in Egypt. People united on Tahrir Square with the help of these means of communication. Furthermore, the publication of videos on YouTube via Smartphones facilitated communication. Malik Abdeh, Chief Editor of Barada TV Syria also confirms the importance of YouTube in his country. As Syria is mostly relying on traditional media and there is strict censorship as well as restricted access to some websites on the Internet (Facebook was banned until the end of January 2011), the transmission of images via YouTube as well as communication with the help of Skype are of great importance. Even though most people have access to a TV set, the channels are often owned by the state or, if private, often affiliated with the regime and thus only show propaganda images. Michael Weiss, communications director at The Henry Jackson Society, adds that there is growing Internet accesses in Syrian homes: The number of people with access to the Internet has grown from 30,000 in 2000 to 3.5 million in 2009. This has not been without a reaction from the Syrian state: a kind of cyber army has been created that persecutes opponents of the regime who are active on the Internet and on platforms such as Facebook. At the same time, Weiss points out the isolation of the Syrian people. As no Western journalists are allowed to investigate inside the country, no Western media portrayal of the events in Syria exists and the people in Syria find themselves excluded from the outside world.
Michael Young, Editor at the Daily Star Lebanon, hopes that the revolt against the institutions of oppression will lead not only to their replacement with democratic ones, but also to the development of a system of pluralistic media. Abdeh adds that the biggest challenge for Arab media will be financial, as they currently depend on the state or the support of NGOs. Commercialisation will be needed to secure the independence of the media as they can no longer remain dependent on the state. Salem concludes that it will be interesting to see where the countries in the Middle East will head now in the aftermath of the uprisings. Even though people will fight for women’s rights and against religious discrimination, it will nevertheless take time and patience to change the situation as these regimes have existed for several decades.
This is also the case in Egypt as the fall of President Mubarak may be the beginning of a change within the state, but at this point nobody can be sure in which direction the country is heading. Dr. Armany Soliman, a current Atkin Fellow and Egyptian citizen, claims that a long and hard process lies ahead of the country which will include the clash of different ideologies. Dareen Khalifa of the Egyptian Council on Human Rights in Cairo agrees, stating that the Egyptian people may have come together to get rid of Mubarak, but everybody is aware of the fact that the people have to continue their fight for freedom with a military regime not the perfect solution. Dr. Omar Ashour of Exeter University points out that with the democratic transition still in progress a dangerous situation has been created. As currently no institutions exist that could help to solve conflicts between different religious or ideological groups, the danger of suppression has to be acknowledged. Both young and old have to be brought together which will also cause difficulties, as they do not always share the same ideologies. Nevertheless he is optimistic about the future development of his country – but apart from fostering the democratization process, the economy needs to be strengthened even though few resources exist. International investments are thus urgently needed. Khalifa agrees that only with the help of economic development change can take place and underlines the importance of fostering the tourism sector. She also sees the diversity of the country as an opportunity for change as everyone can speak out now – listening to different voices and overcoming Anti-American and Anti-Israeli sentiments is the way to democracy. In her opinion, the democratization process will also include women becoming active in the field of politics, a field that has been under the control of old Muslim men for a long time. To reach high positions in politics, Egyptian women have to get in touch with women from other countries active in that sector to exchange experiences and knowledge. But as with every other part of the democratization of Egypt, this will also take time and patience.
Bringing together people with different backgrounds was also an important factor in demonstrations taking place in Israel this summer. The weak policies of the 80s in the health and education sectors now show their results, says Talia Gorodess of Tel Aviv’s Reut Institute. The demonstrations led people to rethink their role as citizens: there is more to do than just paying taxes and voting. An important point of the events in Israel was that the politics of peace was excluded from the agenda which is why 90% of the public supported the demonstrations. Different ethnic groups, Arabs and Israelis, as well as people from the whole political spectrum finally came together because the protests were all about civil and social issues. Gil Murciano, also current Atkin Fellow and member of the Reut Institute, adds that as a positive outcome of the Arab spring, people have become more involved and are no longer content to let others decide for them. As a result of the current events, Israel also needs to rethink its actions in order to achieve changes without the elites being the only ones communicating.
But what will have happened this time next year in the new Middle East? Dr. Sabri Saidam, advisor to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, foresees a decline of US influence on the Middle Eastern region and on the Israel-Palestinian conflict as Americans will be busy preparing for elections next year. Saidam also doubts that the Middle East will be a stable region again in one year’s time and even fears the start of a war between the Israelis and the Palestinians if Israel does not agree to change its politics. Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation agrees – he describes the changes due to the Arab Spring as highly influential on the politics and the environment of Israel. He thus expects the new Arab democracies to put more pressure on Israel to press them find a solution for this long-term conflict and the peace process that does not seem to advance. Moreover, he advises the Western democracies not to be so arrogant about the situation by imposing possible solutions on the involved parties as we do not have perfect democracies ourselves. Apart from that, he wonders whether the monarchies in Yemen and Saudi-Arabia will undergo some kind of eruption which would be interesting to witness. Nahum Barnea, winner of the Israel prize for communication, agrees with the pessimistic outlook of his colleagues concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover he claims that Israel might also face difficulties with other countries such as Egypt and Jordan which could be a threat to existing peace treaties.
Annemarie Ulbrich, Editor Germany at World Security Network Foundation, is currently enrolled at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, where she is pursuing a Master of European Studies programme specialising in European Culture and Politics.