I was fortunate to spend last week in Cairo and Dubai speaking with academics, policy analysts, public officials, journalists, and activists from various Middle Eastern states. As someone who is interested in how U.S. policymakers and pundits debate, describe, and defend the role of the United States in the region, my trip provided an informed -- though admittedly selective -- window into how engaged citizens perceive U.S. foreign policy. In particular, four points stood out.
First, there is a broad desire for political leaders to actually lead -- either individually or cooperatively, through regional bodies like the Arab League -- on major regional issues, from the Palestinian situation to chronic water shortages. On Sunday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi warned: "Everyone should remember, the peoples of the region are different than before. The leadership in the region is different." However, few people held out much hope for this new leadership for three complimentary reasons:
1) There is tremendous skepticism of all forms of state authority, regardless of religion, ideology, or how the leadership came to power. As a young Egyptian activist noted: "This is an era of suspicion, and we don't trust our own leaders."
2) The most plausible contenders for assuming a greater leadership role were Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. However, it remains to be seen whether the political leaders in those countries are up to the challenge -- with particularly acute disappointment over Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's habit of overpromising and underdelivering.