The uprisings sweeping the Arab world will carry far-reaching—and difficult-to-predict—consequences for regional and international politics. Both Arab regimes and foreign powers are being forced to reevaluate their positions on issues as diverse as economic reform, the role of young people in politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Carnegie hosted a panel of experts from the American University of Beirut who have been uniquely positioned to observe, comment, and engage in all aspects of the recent developments. The panel included the university’s president, Peter Dorman, and professors Rami Khouri, Karim Makdisi, Rami Zurayk, and Rima Afifi. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.

The Roots of Revolt

  • Dignity: Citizens in the Middle East have long felt a dual lack of dignity, both as individuals in relation to the state and as Arabs in relation to the outside world, argued Afifi. Mohammad Bouazizi in Tunisia and Khaled Saeed in Egypt were the Rosa Parks of the Arab Spring, Khouri said. They were ordinary citizens who refused to acquiesce to oppression and demanded that their rights be respected. In doing so, they tapped into a common sentiment among millions of Arabs, a shared feeling of material deprivation and political alienation. 

  • Material deprivation: Socioeconomic indicators such as poverty, level of education, and income vary widely across the Arab world, Afifi noted, but the most important indicator of economic discontent is inequality within a country. Inequality leads to a sense of deprivation and unhappiness with the present system. Free-market reforms, added Zurayk, have led to widespread unemployment and corruption and further increased popular anger. 

  • Political alienation: Arabs have long been humiliated and oppressed by their rulers, and the recent protests are an attempt to make their governments legitimate again and assert their rights as citizens, Khouri argued. Lebanon has not seen similar protests, he added, because in Lebanon, even the poor have a means of accessing the services of the state through the sectarian representation system. 

What Future for the Arab Spring?

  • Arab self-determination: The Arab Spring has revived the existence of a pan-Arab identity, said Zurayk, and the popular uprisings have replaced the Arab League as the voice of the Arab people. The protest movements mark the first Arab attempt toward rule by consent and self-determination, agreed Khouri. Like similar processes in the United States or Eastern Europe, the popular movement will take time and likely face serious reversals, but the basic historical process is unstoppable, he added. 

  • Meeting economic demands: Economic factors have played a large role in the current protests but transitional governments will have a hard time quickly satisfying the material demands of their citizens. People in Egypt fear that, even after elections, they will end up with the same economic policies and the same leaders in power, said Zurayk. Part of the problem is that secular leftist parties were destroyed during the Cold War and today the only political forces that articulate popular economic grievances are the religious groups, he added.

  • Tackling the hardest cases: Tunisia and Egypt removed dictators in a pretty straightforward fashion, but Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria have proven much more complicated and bloody, said Makdisi. Syria in particular presents a difficult case, Khouri observed. If the regime were to collapse, the spillover effects on the region would be massive because of its implications for stability in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and other volatile areas.

  • Potential spoilers: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a conservative organization and is hoping to stall change by propping up the regime in Bahrain and inviting Morocco and Jordan to join it, said Makdisi. Yet nobody in the Arab world thinks the Gulf regimes can stand without U.S. support, added Zurayk.

The Role of Youth

  • Agents of change: The Arab youth bulge is often portrayed negatively by scholars and the media as a potential source of instability in the region. Yet youth have considerable potential to be catalysts for positive change, if they have an opportunity to express themselves and articulate their vision for the future, Afifi argued. Youth have the energy and optimism to believe they can still change society.

  • Education: One of the major causes of unemployment in the Middle East, Afifi noted, is an education system that doesn’t prepare young people for the jobs available. The past decade has seen a proliferation of U.S. university programs in the Middle East and a lot of interest in an American education, added Dorman. A U.S.-style liberal arts education, which emphasizes critical thinking and writing as well as respect for diversity, has become the gold standard in the region, he added.

U.S. Policy in the Middle East

As President Obama prepares to deliver a major address on U.S. policy toward the Middle East, the panelists described what they hoped he would, and would not, say.

  • Judging the U.S. Response: The United States has earned a B+ for its response to the Arab Spring, Khouri said. It has been inconsistent but it has largely stayed out of the region’s affairs. Yet it needs to address its double standards, added Makdisi, and explain why it has intervened in Libya but not Syria and Bahrain.

  • The Palestinian Question: The main litmus test for U.S.-Arab relations moving forward will be the U.S. position on the Palestinians, argued Makdisi. The United States needs to show that it respects the self-determination of all peoples. There is a massive double standard in the United States on human rights violations by the Arab regimes and by Israel, Khouri agreed, and a powerful sense of revulsion in the Middle East at the inconsistency between the two. 

  • U.S. Relevance: The United States inspires neither fear nor respect in the Arab world, said Khouri; it has marginalized itself in the region. The troop movements by the GCC into Bahrain indicate that Arab countries no longer think they can rely on the United States as a protector, he added.

  • President Obama’s Speech: No one can figure out what the United States stands for in the region, Makdisi said, and Obama’s speech on Thursday will be a good opportunity to define this. If the president wants to re-legitimize the United States in the region, he should express U.S. support for the rights of all human beings, argued Khouri. He should not tie the Arab Spring to Osama Bin Laden’s death, he added. 

  • Following Up: Obama’s speech will be less relevant than his Cairo speech in 2009, Makdisi noted, because very little has happened since Cairo. There is speech fatigue in the region, Khouri agreed. People want more than words. The Arab youth in particular are getting tired of inconsistencies between what the United States says and what it does, concluded Afifi.