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Stimulating debate, inspiring change
“THE F UTURE O F D EMOCRACY I N T HE M ENA R EGION”
Summary Report – Roundtable Discussion with Professor John Esposito – 21st February 2017
On the 21st of February Forward Thinking1 and Global South2 convened a roundtable discussion
with Professor John Esposito3 on “The Future of Democracy in the MENA Region.” The meeting
took place in the House of Lords and was hosted by the Lord Alderdice.4 It brought together a
diverse range of individuals with expertise on the Middle East and North Africa to debate the
long-‐term trends and structural challenges confronting the region; the current outlook for
democratic reforms; and the implications of the Trump administration for regional and
The potential for democratic changes in the MENA region was perceived to be extremely low in
the short-‐term, with the majority of regional states either fully authoritarian and resistant to
reform; in the midst of partial or total collapse; or as yet unable to provide a viable alternative
to authoritarianism. Regional actors capable of driving change were said to have been curtailed
and it was questioned if any international power had the necessary leverage, let alone political
will, to encourage regional powers to engage in serious reforms. At best, it was hoped that the
Trump administration would adopt an isolationist position but it was acknowledged that the
trends in the government that misrepresent Islam as a dangerous political ideology, could lead
to an interventionist, and destructive, American foreign policy.
Yet while the prospects for radical change were said to be dim, it was simultaneously agreed
that without such change an “explosion” in the region would be inevitable. Young people would
again be the drivers of this explosion due to the fundamental inability of many MENA
governments to offer meaningful opportunities for employment or political participation, and
therefore a dignified life.
Forward Thinking is a charity working in the sector of conflict resolution that seeks to create a more inclusive Middle East Peace Process and to
facilitate dialogue between the Arab/Muslim and Western worlds. See http://www.forward-‐thinking.org/
Global South is a newly formed think tank seeking to foster improved policy making and relations between states in the Mediterranean and
global south. See http://www.globalsouth.eu/
John L Esposito is University Professor, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in
Washington, D.C. He is also the Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown and
Director of The Bridge: Protecting Pluralism-‐-‐-‐Ending Islamophobia. Past President of the American Academy of Religion and Middle East Studies
Association of North America, Esposito has served as consultant to the U.S. Department of State and other agencies, European and Asian
governments, corporations, universities, and media worldwide and ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations and was a member of the
World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders and E. C. European Network of Experts on De-‐Radicalisation.
4 John, the Lord Alderdice is a Liberal Democrat Life Peer in the House of Lords; a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Centre for the
Resolution of Intractable Conflict based at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford; Chairman of the Centre for Democracy and Peace
Building, President of ARTIS (Europe) Ltd, and Chairman of the World Federation of Scientists Permanent Monitoring Panel on Motivations for
Terrorism. Lord Alderdice played a significant role in the Northern Ireland peace process, serving as a leader of the Alliance Party from 1987 –
1998, where he was involved in the negotiation of Good Friday Agreement, and subsequently appointed the first Speaker of the new Northern
Ireland Assembly in 1998.
Concerns were raised about the direction such an “explosion” might take, with a significant
number of young people said to be disillusioned with the idea of democracy after the failure of
the Arab Spring and angry at the perceived hypocrisy of Western powers.
It was agreed there was no silver bullet for any these challenges and that it may take decades
for these to be fully resolved. Indeed, some suggested that challenges would intensify in the
short-‐term and that the world had entered the “third world conflict” – the end of the old order
and the beginning of a new age of confrontation. However, several potential principles were
identified that may help policy-‐makers and other actors as they grapple with the unfolding
situation in the MENA region:
v Ensure that any analysis of the region incorporates nuance and an awareness of geographic,
cultural and political diversity. For example, grouping ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Muslim
Brotherhood, Ennahda all under the banner of “Islamists” without acknowledging the vast
differences between them, obfuscates more than it clarifies and risks leading to counter-‐
v European powers should resist the tendency towards “confirmation bias” – the tendency to
listen only to regional interlocutors whose analysis matches their own.
v European countries must be quicker to react to developments in the MENA region,
recognising that geographic proximity ensures events in the Middle East can rapidly have
direct implications for Europe. Instability in Libya and Syria and the subsequent
refugee/migration crisis in Europe offer only the most glaring example of this.
v The international community should speak out on human rights issues, recognising that the
denial of rights is a driver of violence and extremism.
v Acknowledge that there are limits to what “outsiders” and the international community can
achieve in the MENA region and recognise that the rush to intervention has often created as
many problems as it has solved. There is a need for regional ownership of both the
challenges and potential solutions in the MENA region.
1. Limited prospects for democratic change
Six years after the Arab Spring, the regional outlook could be defined by “a lack of light at the
end of the tunnel”, with a significant proportion of the MENA still controlled by “authoritarian…
corrupt and inept” governments, hostile to democracy and resistant to change. Another swathe
of countries – Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen – are in the midst of conflict and varying stages of
state collapse. Mounting tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have only served to intensify
state breakdown, with fears that they could eventually lead to further conflict in the Gulf.
In this context, the question was raised as to what forces could act as viable drivers of positive
change. Tight state controls over civil society and NGOs, limits their ability to generate support
and impetus for any reforms that might challenge ruling elites. Political opposition is either
oppressed or co-‐opted, while Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood that once
represented the most organised challenge to existing elites are under sustained pressure within
the region and viewed with suspicion internationally.
Accordingly, it was felt there were few political forces domestically that were capable of
changing the status quo.
Similarly, the priority for the majority of the international community was not seen to be
interested in encouraging reform but rather promoting economic ties and ensuring stability. The
muted reaction to the removal of President Morsi and the subsequent “Arab winter” was said to
expose the limits of Western interests in defending democracy in the MENA region. This trend,
it was argued, is reinforced by a deliberate strategy from Gulf countries to deepen ties with the
West, thereby creating incentives to mute criticism. These ties are multifaceted, not only
comprising business interests -‐ such as the sale of arms -‐ but also in the supply of money from
the Gulf to Western academics and think-‐tanks to try and create supportive policy
environments. Yet even in the absence of such ties, it was questioned whether the international
community had the necessary leverage to encourage reforms amongst MENA states whose
leadership wasn’t inclined to change.
It was acknowledged that some countries exist outside this framework, with Morocco and
Tunisia held up as two reformist examples that could possibly present a successful alternative
model. However, their size may limit their ability to influence others, and both countries still
face considerable challenges – not least how to create thriving economies that sufficiently meet
the aspirations of their populations. Turkey, once appeared to offer a regional model, but after
the response to the attempted coup and subsequent efforts to change the constitution, it was
suggested that it was now “hard to see Turkey as a model for anything… [a model] for what and
2. The outlook for MENA youth and potential for a “second Arab explosion”
If the immediate prospects for change in the MENA region appear dim, it was argued that it may
eventually be forced by an “explosion” from the region’s youth. It was noted that the region still
has a significant youth bulge, with around 60% of the population still under the age of 30. Faced
with repressive regimes, young people may not be proactively seeking to drive change.
However, many governments are currently failing to offer their young populations any
meaningful opportunities – especially economic opportunities but also the chance to engage
politically and have their views heard and respected.
Indeed, without a “new social contract”, it was felt such a situation will prove unsustainable – as
frustration amongst large, educated, young populations will eventually reach critical levels if
they are not offered avenues to fulfil their aspirations for a better life. But realising a new social
contract would require fundamental reforms in most countries in the MENA region, beyond
what most ruling elites are willing to accept. However, even in countries where reforms are
underway, such as Tunisia, anger is widespread, with the growing sentiment that “you can’t eat
the Revolution.” Some doubted whether the region’s young people could be convinced to wait
for reforms to make an impact, questioning why they would accept a process whose benefits
might not be seen for a generation.
Were an explosion to occur, concerns were raised over what direction it might take after the
failure of the 2011 Arab Spring. It was claimed that some young people had become
disillusioned with democracy after the experiences of the past 5 years, and increasingly hostile
to a West that was seen to be hypocritical and willing to support dictatorships if it served
economic and political interests. Some also suggested that the election of Donald Trump, with
his rhetoric against Muslims, could intensify the disenchantment with democracy and the West.
As a result, any uprising, were it to occur, could quickly turn violent, a situation that it was felt
existing governments would seek to exploit to delegitimise their opponents and present
themselves as a necessary bulwark against instability.
3. The Trump administration – believers in “clash of civilizations”?
The election of Donald Trump has added further uncertainty to the MENA region, with the
administration sending mixed signals on a number of foreign policy issues. While there is a trend
in Trump’s rhetoric that suggests he could pursue an isolationist position, a number of his key
advisors and officials were argued to have made statements that suggest the US could adopt a
far more interventionist approach. Most prominently Steve Bannon’s statements over a number
of years suggest he believes the West is engaged in a fundamental clash of civilisations against
Islam. General James Mattis has also given statements suggesting he views Islam, not as a
religion, but as a political ideology that poses a threat to the United States that needs to be
confronted and defeated.
In the circle around President Trump there appears to be a tendency to conflate all Islamist
movements as part of the same “radical” ideology – a belief that may be encouraged by
governments in the region that seek to delegitimise potential political opponents. Furthermore,
foreign policy experts in the Republican establishment are either leaving or not joining the
administration, potentially strengthening the position of those who hold such beliefs.
Concerns were also raised that any terrorist attack against the United States would exacerbate
these tendencies and unleash a massive reaction from the Trump administration, both
domestically and internationally. It was argued that it would reinforce the belief amongst Trump
and his advisors that “Islam is the problem”, and thereby justify an aggressive crackdown. The
implications of such a crackdown within the United States could be to reinforce the perception
of all Muslims as foreigners and a potential fifth column, likely deepening community tensions.
Ultimately, participants felt that the Trump presidency was unlikely to be a benign force in the
region and instead risked intensifying a number of long-‐term challenges and increasing the
possibility for confrontation. There were even suggestions that the world had entered a
fundamentally new age, “a third world conflict” where existing norms and structures were
breaking down, and that the Trump presidency was merely a symptom of, as opposed to a
4. What way forward?
In spite of the bleak prognosis for the MENA region, areas for optimism were identified. It was
noted that despite the multitude of problems affecting the Middle East and North Africa,
movements espousing violent extremism (Al Qaeda and ISIS) had little popular support. The
inability of their worldview to provide any meaningful social change was said to be widely
acknowledged, and demonstrated by their inability to attract more than a relatively small
number of followers, outside of the warzones in Syria and Iraq. This relative resilience of
communities to violent extremism in spite of these challenges should be more widely
recognised in policy-‐making and any analysis of the region.
Other participants argued that although the Arab Spring had not realised the hopes held in
2011, it had exposed the bankruptcy of the existing social order and would eventually inspire a
new generation to push for change. They suggested that much of the current analysis on the
Arab Spring was taking too short-‐term a view, and that the positive forces unleashed by the
2011 uprisings may play out over decades through a more gradual process of reform.
Looking ahead, there were calls for actors in the region to take greater ownership of their
challenges and to recognise the limits of the international community in delivering positive
change. Continual blame of the West for the MENA region’s challenges, it was suggested,
underplayed the agency of domestic forces and obscured the necessity of regional powers
finding their own solutions. Simultaneously it was argued that the West needed to recognise the
mounting flaws in its own model, and cease attempting to impose their vision on other parts of
the world. Instead, Western countries were encouraged to enter a period of introspection,
examining the fundamental reasons for its own crisis of democracy without blaming outside
*This report is a summary of a roundtable discussion with Professor John L. Esposito and does not necessarily represent the
formal position of any participating organisation, including Forward Thinking and Global South. This report represents Forward
Thinking’s interpretation of the discussion and any errors contained in the report are the responsibility of the author alone.