Questions Remain After The Arab Spring
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The bloom of protest we call the Arab Spring led to profound change across North Africa and the Middle East. Apparently impervious autocracies cracked under the pressure of marches and demonstrations. Bleak predictability gave way to transition, sometimes with relative peace, sometimes amid clouds of teargas and even civil war.
Now everywhere across the region, everyone wonders what comes next. That question means different things in Libya or Syria, where the old regimes hang on, and in Egypt or Tunisia, where the people will elect new governments in just a couple of months. Expectation and reality vary from country to country.
If your family is from this part of the world, what's changed for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a writer who spent three months in Puntland to write "The Pirates of Somalia," but first after the Arab Spring, and we begin with Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.
DALIA MOGAHED: Thank you, it's great to be here.
CONAN: And let us begin with Egypt, where it appears that expectations of change are outpacing reality.
MOGAHED: They are. There is so much optimism. We took a survey in April and then again in July and found that 90 percent of Egyptians say that they plan on voting in the next election. Nine out of 10 also believe the next election will be fair. They believe the economy will improve.
There is so much optimism, but at the same time, there is also a great deal of concern about security issues, as well as local struggles with the economy. Even though the national economy is something that people are optimistic about, and the future, their lives have actually gotten much harder.
CONAN: The tourism that forms a large part of the country's economy is - well, that's gone on the rocks, and there's a lot of frustration, too, that change is not happening quicker.
MOGAHED: There is. About 75 percent of Egyptians want to see Mubarak go on trial, for example, and that hasn't happened yet. And that's just one example of a part of the revolution that has yet to manifest.
CONAN: Tunisia, very similar kinds of frustrations. We read of riots in the streets of Tunis in the past few weeks.
MOGAHED: Yes. There was so many expectations with what they were about to - what they were able to accomplish with peaceful protests. But like all transitions, they aren't happening fast enough.
CONAN: Also let me introduce another guest here in Studio 3A, Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan. He once served as Jordan's ambassador to the United States. Now he serves as vice president for studies and a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And thanks very much for coming in today.
MARWAN MUASHER: Thank you.
CONAN: And it's interesting: We've seen very different situations in countries that were led by civilian presidents: Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya. Monarchies have enjoyed a very different fate, at least in the short run.
MUASHER: Well, you look at the monarchies like Jordan and Morocco for example. They enjoy, first of all, more legitimacy than many of the regimes that you talked about. The monarchies are not under attack. Reform of the monarchy is what people are asking for rather than an abolishment of the monarchy.
And so these countries have more time than other countries that have been led by minority regimes, you know, for decades. The question today is whether these countries will use the time wisely to get ahead of the street and put in place a serious reform process or think that this time, you know, might give them a false sense of security that they don't need to do much.
CONAN: You talked about minority regimes. The one kingdom that is a minority regime is in Bahrain, and that's where most of the trouble has been.
MUASHER: Obviously, Bahrain needs a political solution. It cannot be - the solution cannot be addressed through economic or through security means. You have 30 percent that are Sunnis, 70 percent that are Shiite. Obviously, the status quo is not sustainable, and you need a better form to run the country than what exists today.
CONAN: Let me ask you, though, a broader question, and it relates to some of the things that Dahlia Mogahed was just talking about, and that is this sense of expectation. A year ago, you would have said there is very little sense that change is even possible. Now it seems change is happening so fast, people can't keep track of it.
MUASHER: Well, we need to look at the process of change. On one hand, of course, there's a sense of empowerment that is permeating now across the region. For decades, Arabs felt the powerlessness - powerless over decisions either taken by their countries or by the outside community. That is being shattered.
There's a new sense of empowerment that they can have a say in the decision-making process and the future of their own country. But at the same time, I think it would be wrong to assume that this is going to be a linear process, a process that is going to go smoothly, without any problems.
Let us remember that most of these countries' civil society is almost absent. Political parties have not been given a chance to operate. Regimes' leaders have changed, but the regimes have not changed. The military is still strong in Egypt. It is still strong in Tunisia.
There are a lot of hurdles that need to be crossed, if you will, before people make a smooth transition to democracy. The economic models that need to be put in place are not clear, either.
In Eastern Europe, when the Berlin Wall fell, people knew what kind of economic model they wanted to migrate to, from a centrally-planned economy to a market-oriented one. In the Arab world, that's not the case. Economic reform has a bad name in the Arab world because it has not been coupled with a political reform process, and therefore many people feel that the benefits of economic reform over the last 20 years have gone to an elite few and have not been trickled to the general public.
And so there are many, many challenges that need to be addressed, and that is why I do not really like to call this the Arab Spring. I'd much prefer the phrase Arab awakening. This is the start of a long process that is going to be measured in decades rather than in months or years.
CONAN: Dahlia Mogahed, I know much of your work focuses on Tunisia, and in Egypt, as well. One of the things we were talking about was the economic model. This was, to some degree, perhaps overblown at the time, the Facebook revolution. But nevertheless, better educated, young, smart people were a key element in Tahrir Square that eventually overthrew the regime and triumphed.
Those people, are they going to be satisfied with the economic models that we've talking about? I mean, where are their energies going? Are they trying to start up businesses? And if they are, are they running into that ferocious Egyptian bureaucracy?
MOGAHED: Well, I think there's a lot of things going on. First of all, the intellectual elite that were the beginnings of the revolution in Egypt were motivated not so much by economic needs as much as a need for freedom, a need for justice, a need for dignity. And those were the kinds of things that we heard so often at Tahrir.
It doesn't mean that economic needs weren't there, but they weren't primary. Now, what are those same activists doing now? They're not focusing on the economy, actually. One of the problems in Egypt right now is there isn't enough debate on the economy. Everyone has almost flipped from only focusing on their basic needs and economic issues to now only talking about politics.
It's what you hear everywhere in Cairo, and I think that that's going to eventually catch up with Egypt, where they're going to have to think about what are those economic policies, not just what kind of elections they want.
CONAN: There's been obviously a great hunger for politics, and people are slurping it up.
MOGAHED: They sure are. It's really amazing.
CONAN: As people look forward, though, I mean, nobody knows what's going to happen in this election, nobody knows what the government's going to look like.
MOGAHED: Nobody does know. What is interesting in the polls, though, is that no one group has anything near a majority. So a lot of talk is - I hear a lot of talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. We found in our poll that they have about 15 percent support in the general public, not a majority by any means.
The interesting thing is that most existing political parties just have very little support. It's really a political white space in Egypt right now.
CONAN: You're nodding your head, Marwan Muasher.
MUASHER: I am. I think the Muslim Brotherhood in particular has been used as a scare tactic for so long by Arab governments to scare people, you know, away from pluralistic systems.
I think in closed political systems, where you only have two alternatives, either the political establishments or, you know, the Islamic opposition, people are going to flock to the Islamic opposition if they're not satisfied with the status quo.
In a pluralistic system, where you open up and offer alternatives to people, then the Islamic parties will have to compete against, you know, a multitude of other parties rather than just against the political establishment.
So I think, you know, this notion, particularly in the West, that you can ignore or exclude Islamic organizations from political activity is simplistic at best. What we do need to, I think, ensure is that all parties, Islamic and otherwise, commit to the principle of peaceful means and to the principle of political pluralism at all times.
And if Egypt and other countries succeed in enshrining these principles in the emerging constitutions, then over time I think we will have a healthy and pluralistic society in Egypt and elsewhere.
CONAN: Just as Tunisia and then Egypt led the parade of peoples who started marching in the streets and demanding changes, do they see themselves as models? If you ask them that question of whether they see themselves - and if so, they must be very proud.
MOGAHED: There is a tremendous amount of national pride in Egypt right now, specifically where I've been, where I visited after the revolution. Just one example of that is before the revolution, about 25 percent of Egyptians wanted to leave Egypt, wanted to migrate. And it correlated very well with their satisfaction of their standard of living.
What's so interesting now is that people's satisfaction with standard of living has actually decreased after the revolution, yet their dedication to Egypt has increased. Their likelihood of wanting to stay in Egypt, despite all the hardships, has actually skyrocketed.
So in so many different ways, people now feel like they have a sense of ownership, that they have a stake in this game called their country's future. Before the revolution, they very much saw themselves as observers.
CONAN: Also saw a lot of people go back who had left and emigrated, and now they want to be part of that future, want to take part.
MOGAHED: There is. Anecdotally, I've heard of many people quitting their job in the Gulf and going back to Egypt to help build.
CONAN: We're talking about the Arab Spring, or Arab awakening, if you prefer, and what comes next in countries from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Syria. If your family is from this part of the world, what has changed for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Change continues to sweep much of North Africa and the Middle East. That change, though, looks very different in different countries.
Today in Libya, government forces disguised as rebels attacked opposition fighters near the strategic oil town of Brega. The standoff and the NATO air campaign continue there.
Syrian forces opened fire on a funeral procession today in the city of Homs, as that country's four-month-old uprising continues. And in Tunisia, where the Arab spring began, the interior ministry says an unknown group blew up a pipeline that carried fuel from Algeria. Violent protests have broken out in recent days as the country prepares to vote in October on a group to draft a new constitution.
We're talking today about what comes after the Arab spring. Our guests are Dalia Mogahed, who serves as executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and co-wrote the book "Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think"; and Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan who now serves as vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of "The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation."
If your family is from this part of the world, what's changed for you? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. And Ibrahim(ph) is on the line from Tulsa.
IBRAHIM: Hello, Neal, thank you very much. I enjoy your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
IBRAHIM: The question is: With all this Arab Spring and all the changes and (unintelligible) that is happening, in what way do you think the U.S. policy will change with these changes in place? Because the U.S. policy in the past, as we all know, were more inclined towards supporting the dictators in all these regions, and they were aligned with them.
With the Spring coming on and the freedom coming on, in what way will the U.S. policy change in the immediate future and in the long run? And I'll take my answer off the air, thank you.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. And Marwan Muasher, I'll throw that to you. What do you think?
MUASHER: Well, in the past there is no question that the United States prioritized stability over democracy, or over reform, if you want. We've heard rhetoric since the Arab uprisings that suggest that the United States want to pursue a new policy of stability through reform rather than over reform.
Frankly, that has not been yet translated into any meaningful new policy. First of all, Arab countries are different, and there are different interests for the United States in each Arab country, and that explains in part why the reaction to Libya has been different than the reaction to Bahrain, has been different than the reaction to Syria.
And therefore, while it is easy to say that from now on, the United States is going to sort of prioritize democracy more, the interest part of the equation suggests that that so far has not yet been translated into any clear policy.
I think that's frankly shortsighted. I think that there is a new atmosphere in the Arab world and that if the United States is going to continue to apply old policies to new realities, it will continue to suffer from a credibility gap, which is becoming, you know, bigger and bigger by the day in the region.
CONAN: Yet you see the - at least some representatives of the Saudi government, the monarchy there, bitterly criticizing the United States for, as they see, abandoning their old friend President Mubarak in his time of need and making it clear that they would brook no American effort to support the protestors in Bahrain, which they see as vital bulwark against Iran.
MUASHER: I see a growing gap between Saudi Arabia and the United States in the coming period. When the issues were peace and security, two issues that both countries saw eye-to-eye on, even with 9/11, the two countries were able to cooperate very effectively on these two issues.
Now that the issue of reform has come in, it's a complicating factor. It's an issue that both countries do not agree on, and I do not yet see any serious move on each part to actually address this and come to terms with it. I do see a growing gap there.
CONAN: Let's go next to - I'm sorry, did you want to say something, Dalia?
MOGAHED: I was going to say that supporting democracy is in the long-term interest of the United States, and I think President Obama has articulated that. To make that - if that is really our interest as Americans, I think there's three things that we can do to make that happen.
Number one, we need to step back and allow the political process in Tunisia and Egypt to take its own path. The worst thing that we can do for our allies, right now, is impose or get - or become too helpful in that political process.
CONAN: Do you see any sign of that?
MOGAHED: I think that there are intentions to want to help. What the Egyptian people have made very clear in our research is that they don't want any outside influence, and they're especially afraid of American manipulation of their political system.
They don't want any outside funding to political groups, for example. And that is especially the case among those who see America as a political model.
CONAN: Okay, let's get another caller in. Let's go to Khalid(ph), Khalid with us from Union City in California.
KHALID: Yes, hi, I have a question for both guests, actually two questions, if I can. Why do you think there is no uprising in countries like Algeria and Sudan the same way we see it in Northern African countries? And my second part of the question is that do you think the U.S. will treat an uprising in the Palestinian territories against Israeli occupation the same way they treat the uprising in Syria or Libya? And I'll take my answer off the phone.
CONAN: Okay, thanks very much. The first question, well, Sudan seems to be a little bit busy at the moment.
MUASHER: Sudan has indeed a number of problems, including Darfur, including Abyei, including, you know...
CONAN: South Sudan.
MUASHER: South Sudan. So I think they're a bit busy with their own. But I think that this is a phenomenon that we have seen in countries that are not very homogenous and where different communities have different needs and demands.
So you've seen in Iraq. You've seen it in Lebanon where there is no national consensus on the demands of the country and where there are - there is a weak central, if you want, government and sectarian needs and interests. That might explain in part why we have not seen the same kind of uprisings that we have seen elsewhere.
On the Palestinian issue, I think that I've always said the United States is not going to be able to regain any form of credibility with the region if it argues to the region, that if you are an Egyptian or a Libyan or a Syrian yearning for freedom, then we are with you, but if you are a Palestinian yearning for freedom, it's complicated.
That's not an argument that will win hearts, not just among the Palestinians, but among the rest of the Arab world. What will happen also if the Palestinians treat also, you know, participate in these uprisings in a peaceful way, I think that will put Israel in a very difficult position, where the Israelis will not be able to, you know, shoot Palestinians for weeks or months.
CONAN: Well, it could also be quite a challenge to the Palestinian Authority.
MUASHER: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, you cannot really exclude any Arab country from what is going on. I think that this is a feeling, as we talked before, of power - of empowerment that is sort of new in the Arab world, a feeling that people can effect change and can effect change peacefully.
CONAN: Dalia Mogahed, why Egypt and Tunisia and not Algeria?
MOGAHED: Well, I think there are a number of reasons. But one possible reason is things according to our research are actually a little better in Algeria. So what we found in Egypt and Tunisia before the revolutions is that their sense of life satisfaction - it's an index that we measure around the world - the life satisfaction index of Tunisians and Egyptians was plummeting as their GDP per capita was rising, and they were getting accolades from everyone about their economic reform.
It - not only wasn't it trickling it down, but it was actually causing people to plummet further and further into poverty. We don't see the same - at least not to the same degree in Algeria.
CONAN: Marwan Muasher has to leave us in a couple of minutes, and I wanted to take advantage of his presence for the moment. We've been talking about places where either there was dramatic change - Tunisia and Egypt - or whether there are promises of reform in Bahrain or Jordan, and we'll have to see whether that happens or the degree to which that happens in those place.
Clearly, Libya and Syria are different cases. Libya, you can sort of see what the end will be, how we get there quite nobody knows. Syria is, well, this is very dangerous.
MUASHER: It is indeed. This is a minority regime where not 10 percent rule over, you know, 90 percent of the population. Any reform, any serious reform process, for such a regime means that they will, you know, be out of the picture.
CONAN: Lose power.
MUASHER: And therefore, there is no interest on the part of the regime to, you know, engage in any such serious reform. If I, frankly, have to make a prediction of where these three countries will be a year from now, I would say that they will have different systems in all three of them.
CONAN: Really, change in all three?
MUASHER: I think so.
CONAN: You can see it in Libya. It's a little hard to see in Syria or at least the mechanism is going to be hard to see.
MUASHER: I think any regime that goes against its own people and starts killing its own people has lost any kind of legitimacy it has. It is very difficult for such a regime, whether it is in Syria or otherwise, to, you know, rebound back from the situation.
CONAN: Marwan Muasher, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it. We're sorry you have another engagement, but we understand you have to leave. So we appreciate it.
MUASHER: Thank you.
CONAN: Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies and Middle East specialist of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, foreign - former foreign minister of Jordan, who also served as Jordan's ambassador to the United States. He joined us here in Studio 3A. We're going to continue with Dalia Mogahed, who's executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, co-author of "Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think."
And this - let's go next to - this is - if I hit the right button, Ahmed(ph), Ahmed with us from Bloomfield in Michigan.
AHMED: Yes. Oh, thank you for taking my phone.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.
AHMED: All righty. I got a comment and a question.
CONAN: Go ahead.
AHMED: The comment, first, is about all these dictators or autocrats that have ruled the Arab countries for the past 30 or 40 years. Those guys have not done anything good for their people other than the whole time, their time is preoccupied with just holding onto power. And my question is, why, all of a sudden, after 30 or 40 years that the West, and especially the United States, figured that these guys are no good, and now they are on the bad side? Where, like, Hosni Mubarak, I mean, he served the interest of America more than the interests of his people.
I had - my father, he visited Egypt about two years ago. And the poverty that he saw in Egypt, he said he's never seen in his life. And on the other hand, the guy has accumulated 50 or $60 billion. And I wanted to see why - I mean, I could have told you this 20 years ago, where you guys, nobody wanted him. And speaking as an Iraqi-American, I know, you know, we've been through a lot in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. But back in the days when Saddam used to serve the interests of the United States, you know, with the Iraq-Iran War, everybody, you know, including Secretary of State Rumsfeld who went and visited in 1980, shook his hand and patted him on the back. All of a sudden, he became a bad guy. And I wanted to see why, all of a sudden, again, with all these guys in the Middle East now that, oh, you know what? Oh, by the way, these guys are all bad. We should get rid of them.
CONAN: Well, things have changed, Ahmed. But that's a short answer. As you think of the example of Saddam Hussein, though, these strong men - the autocrats, as we describe them - they did serve a purpose of stability. They held places together - obviously, Iraq undone, certainly, at the hands of the United States, but clearly a lot of that instability was there already. That was inherent in Iraqi society. Saddam ruled with an iron fist, of course, but he held a society - that country together and all the competing interests. And, Dalia Mogahed, that is not inconsiderable. You have to count that as part of it.
MOGAHED: You certainly do. And I think one of the most interesting questions I get when I go to Cairo is why did it take Obama so long to side with the people? In their view, it took him forever, that he only did it at the very end when it was apparent that there was no turning back. And I think that what's important to understand is at the end of the day, America has its interests. And its interests were, at one point, served by these autocrats. When these dictators became unable to deliver stability because the people had risen up and had made their desires clear, had refused to accept the status quo, then America's interests simply shift.
They shift to the people versus their dictator, and that's why we change sides. I think that that's something we're always going to do as a nation-state with interests. We will always go with where our interests lie. And at this point, it is with the people, and so we have to shift our policies to where our interests now are.
CONAN: We're talking about what comes after the Arab Spring. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Hamid(ph), Hamid with us from Denver.
HAMID: Good afternoon, gentleman. Wonderful program.
CONAN: Thank you.
HAMID: And lady, of course. I wanted to make a correction. I do not consider any of these revolutions. Fifty, 60,000 people on the streets of Cairo do not represent 80 million Egyptians, and I support them. This is not in disagreement with the cause. As the wonderful site STRATFOR, Strategic Forecasting, correctly analyzes the situation in the Arab world, these are minor shifts that are going to lead to major things. By no means these should be called revolutions. There is no such a thing as Arab streets.
And the lady was correct just now by mentioning this is about the interest of the United States, as well as it should be. And Mr. Mubarak was just the last brick on the tip of the pyramid. The military regime that is in power did this, got rid of him, and he will have a little cushy job in Saudi Arabia somewhere (unintelligible)...
CONAN: I suspect not, but...
HAMID: And I do not see Egypt going through a sea change in the way most people, including people in NPR, think that it has gone. Libya is a whole different story, and, of course, Bahrain is a whole different story. Bahrain has nothing to do with what you have talked about. Bahrain is about Iran trying to wedge its way into the region, taking advantage of the vacuum the U.S. is about to leave by letting Iranians run the show in that area.
CONAN: Let's stick to Egypt just for a moment. And we're talking about...
MOGAHED: Well, thank you for your analysis. I do have a different analysis, however. According to our research, 83 percent of Egyptians say they supported the protests that overthrew Mubarak. Eleven percent actually participated in them. And that's about seven million people, at some point, participated in the protests. So it was much more than 60,000.
Now, what the future holds for Egypt, will it be a sea change or will it be just an upgraded autocracy? Of course, it's hard to tell. But what has changed, and what has changed fundamentally is the psychology of the populace. It is a - it has gone from submissive and willing to accept abuse, essentially, to one that has a sense of entitlement and a sense of ownership for their future. And I do think that that is an important change that will ultimately determine the makeup of the next government.
CONAN: Hamid, thanks very much for the call.
HAMID: I hope, too.
CONAN: Well, let's hope so. Anyway, appreciate the phone call. And Dalia Mogahed, thank you very much for your time today.
MOGAHED: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
CONAN: Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Her book, "Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think."
Coming up, Jay Bahadur wanted a close-up look at modern piracy, so he spent three months in Somalia talking with pirates and learning that much of what we thought about them is wrong. Join us for that. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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