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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  
international  stability.    
 
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.      
                                                                                                               
1

 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/    
2
 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/    
3
 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.    

 

1  

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-­‐
productive  policies.  
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.    
 

2  

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  
for  whom?”    
 
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.    
 
 

3  

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  
driving  force.    
 
 
 
 

4  

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  
forces.    
 
 

*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.  

 

 

5  




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