BCLS experts untangle the Arab Spring

by in Politics, World.

Supporters of Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrate at the end of the second day of voting in Egypt's constitutional referendum in the Shubra district on January 15, 2014 in Cairo, Egypt.

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on January 15, 2014 in Cairo, Egypt. Ed Giles/Getty Images

Building off themes introduced at last year’s Blouin Creative Leadership Summit, the 2014 edition gathered leading analysts, journalists and academics on the Middle East to “Decipher the Impact of the Arab Spring”. The panel moderated by NYT Magazine contributor Robert F. Worth was rich in expertise and perspective to say the least: Alon Ben-Meir of the NYU Center for Global Affairs, Sunjeev Bery of Amnesty International USA, Marina Ottaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, and Paul Sullivan of Georgetown University were all present.

(Photo by: Sarah Trigg)

(Photo by: Sarah Trigg)

True to the spirit of open debate present at last year’s summit, the panel’s themes ranged far and wide, in terms of both geography and history.┬áThe discussion kicked off with a broad question: How to evaluate the short-term consequences of the Arab Spring? Marina Ottaway noted that she viewed the events of 2011 as a “great disappointment,” which did not augur the beginning of a better period for the Arab world as so many had hoped. Nonetheless, Ottaway remarked that the positive changes brought about are here to stay, the most notable being the mobilization of political forces. After all, the Wilson Center scholar reasoned, such forces won’t be “demobilized”, not even in those Arab countries currently at war.

The panelists discussed more than the ramifications of the Arab Spring, reaching back to the myriad of factors that prompted social unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in 2011 — and differed on the most predominant one. Alon Ben-Meir emphasized the role played by economic factors, noting the need to empower people from the bottom up, and focus on the root causes — not the symptoms — of the Arab Spring. Others, notably Daniel Pipes, dissented, and emphasized that ideology was driving people to turn to political Islam more than economic conditions. (Watch Daniel Pipes dissect the Arab Spring in our Blouin News Q&A.)

Another spirited topic was that of solutions. Amnesty International USA’s Sunjeev Bery stressed the need for civil society and infrastructure. Paul Sullivan added that any region-wide strategy should separate religion from political movements, i.e., ISIS, noting that they are actually not political movements “but failures”. The panel ended with no single, concrete solution, but rather an insistence on a nuanced, multilateral approach — taking into account the history of the region, its turbulent present, and its uncertain future.