Senior Fellow, Century Foundation
Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy
National Correspondent and Former Cairo Bureau Chief, Washington Post; Former Middle East Correspondent, Time Magazine
Only the transcript is available for this event.
HAUSLOHNER: Hello. Welcome. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I’m Abigail Hauslohner. I’m a national correspondent at the Washington Post. Today’s meeting is titled “The Legacy of the Arab Uprisings.” And I will be presiding over today’s discussion. I’d like to welcome CFR members from all around the nation and the world who will be joining us, including a lot who will be joining through livestream and teleconference. We will hear from them during the Q&A later in the discussion. And I’d like to introduce our panelists.
We have, to my right, Amy Hawthorne. Oops. Don’t worry, Amy. I wrote down your bio. Amy is the deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy. She served previously as a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where she focused on U.S. policy toward Egypt and on U.S. and European strategies to support political and economic reform in the post-2011 Arab world, with a concentration on Tunisia.
Michele Dunne is the director and a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East. She was the founding director of the Rafiki Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and served for many years as a Middle East specialist in the U.S. State Department.
Thanassis Cambanis is an author, journalist, and fellow at The Century Foundation, where he specializes in the Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy. He is the co-director of the foundation’s Arab Politics Beyond the Uprisings and is the author of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, as well as A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel. And you all have copies of their bios that provide a bit more detail.
It has been almost nine years since the outbreak of a wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East. Gave rise to regime change in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. And as well as some of the most intractable and devastating wars in recent memory—most notably in Syria. We have also seen a wave of newer uprisings in Algeria, Sudan, and Lebanon. I’d like each of our panelists to start off by providing some background on these Arab uprisings, why they began in the first place—taking us back nine years—and why they’re still going on. I’d like to start with Amy.
HAWTHORNE: There are so many—can everyone hear me? First of all, good afternoon and thank you so much to the Council for inviting me. I just wanted to say at the outset that since 2011, since the initial wave of uprisings, there have been a lot of us who have been saying, you know, this isn’t over. The next wave is coming. So here we are, living in this moment of history, of another wave. Why did Arabs in their millions take to the streets starting in Tunisia, almost exactly nine years ago, in December 2010? There are so many factors. And analysts and scholars will be debating the catalysts and the reasons why for years to come.
I’ll just mention, I think, a fundamental reason—and then maybe my colleagues can weigh in and add or disagree—which really I think at the root of this is the failure of governance, the failure of these Arab regimes, these Arab governments to create governing systems that can produce, you know, stable, secure, and prosperous lives for most of their citizens. Of course, there are so many other factors that come into play in each particular country. The country context, the national context is different, historical and cultural specificities, absolutely.
But I think an overarching factor was people’s frustration with really, really poor governance for decades, and governance—poor governance that they felt they were unable to change, really through any other way except taking to the streets. And I think that’s what motivated Tunisians, and Egyptians, and Yemenis, and Bahrainis, and Syrians, and all the rest in the first wave. And it’s also what I believe is a core motivation for people in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq today, taking to the streets again in their millions.
DUNNE: OK. Thanks, Abby, and also thank you to the Council for inviting me.
I agree with you, Amy, about poor governance. But I also want to get to the question of why was it that that governance was acceptable for—acceptable enough for a long time in all these Arab countries, and then became unacceptable. And there are a lot of different factors we could look out, but I just want to single out two. One of them is that—and they sort of interact. One of them, I think, is rapid population growth in the Arab region. And the Arab region has for some time had the most rapid—second-most rapid population growth of any region in the world after sub-Saharan Africa. And of course, it varied a lot country by country. But suffice it to say, now, that population growth has come down in a lot of countries. It’s a real mix now. There are still some Arab countries that are growing rapidly and others that are not anymore. But at any rate, it puts the Arab countries right now in this very large youth bulge. They have a large cohort of young people.
Now, that could be a great thing in terms of economic development and so forth. And it has been in some other parts of the world. But at the same time as that was happening, you know, the economic model of most of the Arab states—basically, you know, drawing on, and this is a gross simplification, but drawing on hydrocarbon revenues—states drawing on hydrocarbon revenues and not developing really productive economies, not generating jobs in anything like the numbers needed for all these people entering the labor force, not taxing citizens, or under-taxing them. You know, it varies from country to country. And government services sliding downhill in many places.
So this all, you know, I think led to a situation in which, you know, what we sometimes refer to as the social contract between, you know, citizens and governments just broke down, is breaking down, is slowly breaking down, you know, in one country after another.
CAMBANIS: Just to add a couple of framing thoughts: The first wave of Arab uprisings that broke out in late 2010 surprised, I think, most people, including their leaders and participants. And those uprisings came at a moment in history where a lot of people theorized, I think without basis and sometimes for consciously or unconsciously racist reasons, that the Arab world was a place where people were content to live under oppressive governments and were willing to accept systems in which there were no politics and no avenues for reform, expression, incremental change. And the uprisings quickly put paid to that notion. And they were a sort of first test by publics in the region of a lot of questions.
One, what did—what did Arab publics want? What were they—what were they willing to push for? How much could we understand the Arab region as a region in which different countries and populations were actually drawing from and interacting with each other. And we very quickly saw in the two or three years that those uprisings flourished as largely non-violent and political phenomena that there was a great deal of energy behind the aspiration for better governance, as Amy said, but also more rights.
And I think the ineffable formula here is people need enough of one or the other to remain quiescent: They need to feel they have dignity, or rights, or due process, or political outlets or they need to be governed well, and have economic opportunity and, you know, the ability to express their consent in the system that they’re ruled by. If you deny them both of those things systematically and govern them rapaciously and extractively, eventually what we’ve seen, in the Arab region, is that people react.
These new uprisings, which are now four major countries—Algeria, and Sudan, and then Iraq and Lebanon, none of whom were part of the first wave of uprisings—have taken a far different course. These are very—these uprisings began with the demand that the other uprisings ended with, which is the overthrow of the system. So they didn’t come in asking for bread, freedom, and social justice, or some kind of, you know, basic decency. They came in and said: We want an end—we want an end to this system. And it’s not our job to tell you what comes next.
And I’ll end with the observation that all these uprisings are symptomatic of a complete foreclosure of politics. People don’t go to the streets and knowing that they’re likely to get killed or risk getting killed—as is the case in Sudan, and Iraq, and there’s always that danger lurking in Algeria and Lebanon. People don’t do that unless they have literally no other option to express their political preferences or to achieve some kind of improvement in their living. And that is a real willful failure by these regimes, which have been put on notice for at least ten years that they weren’t paying attention for the ten or fifteen years before. They’ve been on notice since late 2010 that this is not tenable without a great deal of violence. And they have not made any adjustments.
HAUSLOHNER: So let’s talk about that. As we’ve noted, simply the fact that these uprisings—which started nearly a decade ago—are still very much going on, this is still a period of upheaval in the region. And that says something about what has not changed. Let’s talk about lessons that have been learned, starting with the regimes—both the governments and ruling parties, ruling families in countries that did see the early uprisings—you know, some of them obviously were overthrown and replaced—and in other countries that are now weathering protests.
I’d like to start with Michele on this one.
DUNNE: OK. So you want to speak first about what the regimes have learned rather than what the protesters have learned?
HAUSLOHNER: Let’s talk about—and then let’s move onto the protest movements, and we can talk about how those have changed.
DUNNE: Well, I mean, sadly, one of the things that the regimes have learned is that they can use a lot of brutality, you know, and get away with it. Now, you know, that differs a bit from country to country, but that—you know, we’ve seen a level—a level of state violence against protesters that I think many of us might not have anticipated, you know, before this all started. It wasn’t—I wouldn’t say it was unprecedented, but it wasn’t typical in the regime—in the region, that is. So that’s—you know, that’s one thing. And you know, it’s also, of course, you know, led regimes to draw a lot more on external support—whether financial or in some cases military. And that, you know, in some cases they need to resort to that.
But just to turn to the protesters quickly, the protesters now are extremely suspicious. They’re very alert to that. You know, they’re very alert to the dangers of foreign support and foreign intervention. And so—and there’s been—there’s been plenty of cooperation among different regimes to try to, you know, help each other out, you know, against each other’s political activists, or that kind of thing. What they still try to do, but are much less able to do than in the past, is buy social peace with little economic benefits. So to the extent that they can, you know, regimes will do things like let’s raise, you know, the salaries or pensions of military officers, or civil servants, you know, in order to keep people loyal. Or let’s—you know, if we roll back austerity measures a bit, things like that. They’ll try to do that.
But the reality is, that right now the regimes are less able to do that than they were even when this all started, you know, eight, nine years ago. And that’s because the—you know, the value of the kind of the hydrocarbons on which the whole—the whole region floats is going down because of the changing world energy picture. And you know, that’s—it really has changed the situation. Many of them—they’re not sitting on reserves and they can’t even ask each other. They can’t—some of the other regimes can’t rely on the Gulf for as much largess as they could have back when this all started.
HAUSLOHNER: I wonder if, Amy, if you might be able to talk a bit about sort of contrasting two of these earlier spring—or, Arab uprising states, Egypt and Tunisia, that obviously had very different outcomes in terms of governance or, you know, who is governing them now. And Egypt obviously has seen those recent waves of protest, and yet both of these forms of government in both of these countries have obviously learnt quite a bit from their 2011 and since then experiences and have made calculations and adaptations. Can you talk a bit about what we’ve seen, how they’ve handled recent stressors?
HAWTHORNE: Sure. I mean, as we all know, Tunisia was where all of these uprisings—this current wave of uprisings—of course, I should add that students of history of the Middle East, history of the Arab world, know that uprisings have been going on for a long time, different forms, different contexts. So I would say the wave—the current wave that started in 2010, Tunisia was the only country, as we know, to emerge from that and actually move from the protests to a democratic transition.
All of the other regimes in the region—whether it was Egypt, where Mubarak was ousted but the regime remained intact, or Syria, or Jordan, and Morocco, and Algeria, where in 2011 they did not experience this kind of mass protest—sustained mass protest to the degree that some other countries did. The goal of all of these regimes, with the exception of Tunisia which really is a special case, have been to stay—to stay in power, to remain in power. And that’s very important that we start sort of with that concept in mind, because that explains how we got to where we are—how we got to where we are today, including Egypt but also Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and the rest.
The demands of the protesters in 2011 were, of course, they had their national specificities, but there was a general demand for bread, freedom, and social justice—rights, economic dignity, economic opportunity, et cetera. And for the most part, I think we can say that none of the Arab regimes at that time actually responded in any meaningful way, except for Tunisia, to what their—what their citizens were demanding. Instead, they made some small concessions, some cosmetic reforms here and there. But everything they’ve done for the past eight or nine years has been with the goal of staying in power, with remaining in power.
And that is on the spectrum from Bashar al-Assad and what he has done, you know, leading the murder of half a million or so of his own citizens, all the way to Morocco and Jordan, monarchies with sort of a softer approach, but nonetheless trying to keep their ruling systems and governance and economic systems more or less intact, to Egypt where we see under President el-Sisi an incredibly brutal crackdown and a—and a very, very repressive state that in many ways is more repressive than the one that existed under Mubarak.
So the regimes that experienced these convulsions in 2011 basically did not—what they focused on was staying in power. They did not focus on responding to the demands of the people in the streets at that time. And I think the governments that came out of those 2011 protests relatively unscathed, without mass protests, they didn’t learn the lessons either. (Laughs.) They’ve also focused on trying to remain and keep themselves in power. And they’ve done that, as Michele alluded, you know, through repression, through cooptation, through dividing the protest movements—all sorts of mechanisms. But they haven’t actually figured out any way of addressing the protesters’ fundamental demands.
And I think there are many reasons for that. But the core one is that to do so might actually require them to leave power, and they don’t want to leave power. So when I look at the situation that we’re in today, I’m worried because I see a new set of regimes that are—actually spent the last eight years maybe hoping that this wouldn’t happen to them, you know, building up their repressive infrastructure as we see in Iraq to use against their own citizens, but not actually figuring out any solutions to any of these underlying problems.
Just say one sentence about the protesters. It’s different in every country, but I agree with what Thanassis said, that there is a sense of deep, deep anger and deep, deep—I think in some cases—desperation, that people—a lot of these people who are in the streets feel, I think, that they have nothing to lose. They are so desperate, they are so frustrated, and they are willing to stay in the streets as long as it takes until they meet their main goal, which is sweeping everyone out of power. Will they succeed? We don’t know. But they are not satisfied with the stepping down of a Ben Ali or a Mubarak. They want the whole system removed. And that is different than at least at the beginning of 2011.
HAUSLOHNER: Thanassis, I know you have something to add, so I’d like you to step in, but also since Syria is such a unique case, even in the context of all these uprisings and where we are now, I’d like you to just take a moment to talk to us about Syria and how it has—how the Assad regime has evolved and learned from these past nine years.
CAMBANIS: Can you all hear me OK with these doubled-up mics I have? OK.
So we spend a lot of time talking about things being not sustainable because they’re things that we don’t like. And one of the sad lessons of the last decade is that awful, abusive, violent governance can be sustainable. Regimes like Sisi’s actually might be sustainable, even if it’s at the expense of the wellbeing of their countries. And that’s something that I think is very hard to digest because it’s a terrible—it’s a terrible outcome. And the dictators and the repressive regimes in these different countries, there are—I’m going to—I’m going to quickly touch on some of the categorical differences between some of them. But they all have studied each other. And over all of them looms very large the leadership by example of Bashar al-Assad.
Very quickly on in the nonviolent civil uprising against his country’s misrule, he decided to go for total victory or total defeat. He was not interested in any compromise whatsoever and sacrificing even a little bit of his family’s stranglehold over the ruling system. And the slogan, which is by now, you know, like all around the region people repeat this as a sort of sad byword for how rules approach their citizens, he said: Assad or we burn the country. And that became literally what they did, if not burning it, reducing it to rubble. And this is a country that is wrecked—I mean, it may—the last time I went to Syria before I was blacklisted, one of the regime talking points was—to its own supporters—was: Do you want us to end up like Libya? To which I said, as bad as Libya is—and this was in 2016—Libya’s much better off than Syria is today.
Now, you know, that’s a terrible kind of scorekeeping to try to keep. And today I’m not sure that the assessment still stands there. But that was the threat. It was blackmail—violent blackmail of the population. And from Assad’s vantage point, it worked. He stayed in power. His country is ruined. But it’s his. And other regimes have taken note. So the government of Iraq, when it was faced by a national uprising—different circumstances—but they went very quickly to not yet maximal force, but to a great deal of force. There was no—there was no adjustment period, like we saw in Egypt, or even in Sudan, where there was a slow ratcheting up of repression and violence against demonstrators. They went, you know, straight to snipers and murder. And that is a technique that these regimes think will work. And it might work. I mean, this is the—if the goal is to stay in power.
Now, one quick distinction to make is there are states here that really do function as states. So Egypt, there’s a government, there’s a state, there’s an economy, there are lots of distortions in it. But you can conceive of a better-governed Egypt through what remains of its state apparatus. Same with Iraq, which has oil revenue and other institutions. Less so with places like Syria and Lebanon, where the ruling regime—it’s not really a state. It’s a regime. And it has no overlapping interests with its own population. They extractively gain wealth by the way they pillage the national economy, and there isn’t actually a framework in which they can step back from power and remain wealth, or autonomous, or alive, our out of jail.
So once you have these regimes that can only survive as individuals while keeping their countries under their boot, they no longer have a place to go. And that’s their fault, right? That’s not something the people of these countries can change or that foreign policy of regional powers of the United States can change. But it creates a really terrible problem set.
HAUSLOHNER: We have a couple more minutes before we’ll open it up to question and answers. But I’d like you guys to talk about this latest wave of uprisings which—in Sudan, in Algeria, in Lebanon, in Iraq. Obviously, there are a lot of parallels to what we saw years ago in other countries that led the way, but there are also some really notable differences. And on this I’d like to start with Michele.
DUNNE: OK. Well, let me say a couple of words about Sudan and Algeria. So you know, there are ways in which one can see the strong parallels between the protests there and the protests that took place in other countries a few years ago. But first of all, the grievances, I think, and the things that the protesters bring forward have been refined a little bit. There’s common ground with the grievances of 2011, but I think—and this, I think, applies to Lebanon and Iraq too—the issue of economic inequality and of corruption. I think those issues are more—even more in the front now than they were a few years ago. I mean, they were certainly there in the protests a few years ago. The corruption issue particularly. I mean, we see this in a lot of places in the world, and the kind of disenchantment with the political elite because of the kind of behavior that Thanassis was just talking about, and their ineffectiveness politically as well as their corruption economically.
And the protesters are taking it very quickly to, well, why do we have these problems? And then it gets a little more specific country by country. I would say obviously in Lebanon and Iraq you have this issue of sectarian bargains that have sort of skewed the political systems, which were supposed to be quasi democratic. And then you have the issue of Iranian and other external involvement. In Sudan and Algeria, you have more the region of—the issue of the military dominating the—you know, the political system, and dominating decision making, and something that people are going against explicitly. And some of the things I think that the protesters there have learned—I mean, one of them is—and one difference between the protests now and those that took a place a few years ago in a general sense is these protests go on a lot longer. They get people out in large numbers, in the streets, you know, on some sort of a regular schedule, over a much longer period, over months and months, rather than a shorter time.
As has already been indicated, they realize that just removing the figurehead of the regime doesn’t do it, OK? And they also now don’t trust the military. Certainly the example of Egypt looms large here, right? Don’t leave this in the hands of the military and trust them with the transition. And particular, don’t trust a quick resort to elections. I mean, it’s really—it’s an ironic situation in which elections are becoming, like, the favorite tool of, you know, militaries and other elites. Oh, let’s just quickly have elections, right? And but the protesters are becoming quite suspicious of that. It’s not that they don’t want elections ever, but they don’t want to be rushed into them with old regime candidates, and bad rules that they think are unfavorable, and so forth.
And as I mentioned before, they’re also calling out foreign interference. You know, discussion of Iran’s role in Iraq and in Lebanon, but in Sudan, for example, they went out very strongly against Gulf influence, Saudi and Emirati influence. Now, you know, those countries are still players there. They haven’t been—you know. But they’ve had to kind of be a little careful with their game, right? I mean, people saw that—you know, that the military commander visited the UAE and Egypt and then right before a really vicious, very violent crackdown on protesters. And so you know, people have become very suspicious. Actually, you know, you see protester people saying: We don’t want your money, Saudi Arabia, and so forth. You know, we’ll eat beans, you know, and not take your largess. Again, that game is far from over, but people are a lot more—people have learned to be very suspicious of what I would call regional frenemies.
HAUSLOHNER: Quickly back to Thanassis, and then to Amy, and then we’ll open it up to questions.
CAMBANIS: I guess the only things I would add is—actually, I completely forgot what I was going to say.
HAUSLOHNER: Could you just tell us a little bit quickly about the protests in Lebanon and also in Iraq, and how—what we’re seeing that’s really new in that?
CAMBANIS: Well, so—OK, I did remember what I wanted to say. People remember that there was, in 2005, a massive popular protest in Lebanon that actually resulted in Syrian troops having to leave Lebanon. So there was a cause and effect that was satisfying to a mass citizen demand. In the uprisings that we’ve seen since 2010, with the exception of Tunisia, people haven’t really gotten most of what they want, or any of what they want. And in Iraq and Lebanon both, these are countries that have witnessed so much violence and so much threat to the integrity of their state. In Lebanon’s case, mostly from the civil war but which people still remember it. In Iraq’s case, right up until the war with ISIS ended two years ago.
So people in general in the political class and in the citizenry were reluctant to provoke instability. They really do—so it’s not just the reactionaries who say, you know, don’t ask for too much, our countries could collapse, and we could all die, or terrible things could happen. People take this seriously. That is a real risk. And what changed is that—so, in Iraq, what changed is after the victory over ISIS, after people suffered an incredible amount and most families lost somebody—either at the hands of ISIS or fighting against ISIS in the Hashd al-Shaabi, in the official armed forces. And when it’s all over, what they’re left with is the same group of cronies that were put in power by the U.S. in 2003 continuing to look the country and literally giving nothing back. And it’s as basic as: Share a little bit of what you’re stealing. And the answer is, no, we’re not going to share a penny. And this is a rich country—or, at least, a potentially rich country with revenue.
And people are already dying. So it’s not that life is good, why rock the boat? The boat is on its side. People in Basra are drinking poisoned water. People in the Sunni areas are displaced. They’re living in camps. Life is barely livable, or not livable for many tens of thousands of people. So there no longer is that calculation of: Do I want to take the risk? You’re already living the risk, so you might as well make a demand. And what is also new in both these cases is that the protest movements are engaging in politics. It’s no longer that they’re saying, as the first wave movements did, it’s not our job to create the solution. It’s your job, you thieves. That may be true, morally, ethically, but they realize politically they need to propose a solution. They need to also be sensitive to public opinion. So protesters are careful not to disrupt normal people’s lives too much, to shift their tactics, and to engage in outreach, and to try to make their demands not only sympathetic but clear, and feasible.
That’s a work in progress. I think from a sort of vetting perspective it probably won’t work, because the states just have so much resources and willingness to use force against their own people. But it’s a better bet than the first wave uprisings were. And Sudan in particular was an amazing case where the protest movement became very politically engaged, entered negotiations, and has really learned from the lessons of especially Egypt’s failure. And the transitional council they’ve negotiated—it’s so smart, and it’s—you know, again, it’s a hard thing to win. You’re fighting against a really entrenched, violent state apparatus. But it has a fighting chance because it’s built on all these lessons.
HAUSLOHNER: We’re running a little bit over. Amy, is there anything you’d want to add, under a minute, and then we’ll go to Q&A?
HAWTHORNE: Sure. I think my colleagues have mentioned some really important differences with the protests today as opposed to the wave almost nine year ago. But there are also some important similarities, at least in the case of Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq. These protests, these mass movements, just like in 2010-2011, don’t have a single identifiable public leader. I’m not so sure they’re leaderless. There are people who are organizing these protests, and they’re doing so incredibly skillfully, in my view. But they intentionally don’t coalesce around one leader. That is similar to what we saw before. Also, from what I understand, in some cases—you know, in many of these cases sort of traditional opposition political parties were not the drivers, because they’re discredited and coopted. That was also the same in 2011.
So there are actually—there are important differences but there are actually some parallels. And I think it’s fascinating that nine years later we’re seeing in some ways uprisings that look kind of similar to the ones in 2011 in terms of their shape, the type of people who are participating, the way they’re mobilizing, and how they are really trying to avoid—at least at this stage, we’ll see what happens—coalescing around a single leader and kind of a clear maybe immediate set of demands that they would like to negotiate with the regime. So there are actually some interesting echoes in today of what we say almost nine years ago.
HAUSLOHNER: Thank you.
At this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. And I’d like to ask you to wait for the microphone and to speak directly into it. Please when you, stand, state your name and affiliation, and please limit yourself to one question, and be concise, as there are many members who would like to ask a question. And obviously this is a big topic, and lots of ground that we unfortunate have not yet had a chance to cover.
Q: Hello. I have a question about the relationship between current uprisings—
HAUSLOHNER: And if you could, state your name and affiliation.
Q: I’m Michael Gfoeller. I’m a retired Foreign Service officer. Sorry about that.
So thank you for a fascinating presentation, first of all. And secondly, do any of the participants on the panel see a relationship between the ongoing revolt in Iraq and Lebanon, on the one hand, and the revolt going on in Iran, especially over the last week, against rising fuel prices, which now seems to be dealing with a lot more than just the original fuel price issue? And if you see a link, what’s the role of Ahvaz province in Iran in any linkage between Iraq and Iran?
CAMBANIS: Are we going to take a batch of questions and then answer them, or are we—
HAUSLOHNER: Oh, we’ll do one at a time. Is that—Michele, is that something you want to handle, or do one of you want to jump in?
DUNNE: Well, look, so I don’t have the detailed knowledge to answer your question specifically. What I would say is there’s a bit of—there’s some common thread regarding Iran’s regional role. So obviously, you know, people in Iraq, people in Lebanon, you know, overtly complaining or protesting about—in part—about the role of Iran or the role of Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Inside Iran—I mean, so we keep seeing these economically based protests breaking out in Iran periodically. And the most recent one’s directly related to this hike in gasoline prices. And it’s very difficult to see what’s going on. The internet’s shutdown and, you know, you’re—(laughs)—journalists are getting telephone reports of what people are saying in protests, what they’re doing.
What I’ve heard, at least so far—and there may be those in the room who are following this far more closely than I do—is that protesters are not necessarily blaming the price hike on foreign powers imposing sanctions on Iran—you know, which is the actual cause of why they have to put the gasoline prices up—but on the Iranian regime’s own behavior, that they should somehow manage this better so as not to have sanctions and therefore not to have to impose these hardships on the population. So there’s a thread there.
HAUSLOHNER: Do either of you want to—
CAMBANIS: Yeah, I would just—I would say there’s—I mean, there’s a tendency in the U.S. to want to connect everything to Iran. And so, you know, in Iraq people are chanting, you know, Iran bara, bara. In Lebanon, people are complaining about Hezbollah. But that’s one of the things they’re complaining about. These are not anti-Iran protests. These are anti-rapacious misrule protests. And Iran is one of the sponsors of these regimes. We also are one of the sponsors of these regimes. And some of the forces shooting unarmed protesters in Iraq may be forces supported by the United States. Some of them might be snipers, you know, trained by Iran. So we have to be really careful not to—not to see this as some kind of regional shift in Iran’s fortunes or the region’s view of Iran. I think what it is symptomatic of is the region’s lack of patience with being misruled. And that speaks to what’s happening in Iran.
Ahvaz is its own—I mean, there was some—there were some uprisings in Ahvaz earlier this year, and there has been some special repression there. But I think that’s also—I don’t think there’s a separatist movement there, or any sort of sense that there is—that Iran is going to have trouble holding together its multi-ethnic governing coalition inside its borders.
HAUSLOHNER: Right here.
Q: Thanks. Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council.
If I might just say a word on Iran. We’re waiting for more information. We’re waiting to see how the government crackdown is going to affect this. Whether they’re going to nip it in the bud or it’s going to continue. But I think there is a vein, and that is of frustration on the part of many Iranians with the same-old, same-old parties and factions. You know, similar to Lebanon, just tired of the same old faces, and a lack of—a lack of hope that the future is going to get better now that the U.S. has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, sanctions are back, and so on. So this sense of frustration and hopelessness I think may be pervasive in a lot of these countries.
My question is about U.S. policy. When the Arab uprisings happened, President Obama said and did quite a lot. Certainly encouraged Mubarak to leave the scene, supported Tunisia, was generally supportive but not to the extent that he was willing to really get involved in Syria that deeply. We have a very different administration now. What, if any, impact does U.S. policy or the lack thereof have on these uprisings. Is the U.S. just not seen as credible anymore because of Trump’s views of human rights? What should the U.S. be doing? Thanks.
HAUSLOHNER: Thank you. Amy, do you want to?
HAWTHORNE: That’s a great question, Barbara. I obviously haven’t surveyed all of the protesters in these countries, but just from talking with friends and colleagues who are involved in some of these protests, they certainly—you know, they would like the world community, and the United States, and the community of democracies to do the right thing and support their demands, but they’re not expecting much. And they’ve paid close attention over the last eight, nine years. And maybe some of them had their hopes raised in certain countries only to be disappointed by the United States and, frankly, also by Europe. So I don’t think that they’re looking for—at least at this stage—any specific—they’re not anticipating that the U.S. or some outside power will kind of step in and encourage the leader not to shoot on peaceful protesters, or so on and so forth. I think that there seems to be a mood of not wanting overt involvement or—by the United States and others, or just really not expecting much from the United States. Which, by the way, is a very rational—(laughs)—accurate expectation.
In terms of the U.S. role, you know, I don’t think it’s any surprise to say that the Trump administration is not interested in the internal politics of these countries. Or key people in the Trump administration are not interested in the internal politics of these countries. So the U.S., for a variety of reasons, has not played any visible public role. And it doesn’t seem to be a top priority. Of course, there’s a perennial concern on the part of the United States about stability in this region. And to the extent that these protests go on, especially I think in Lebanon and Iraq, and really produce significant instability that would be seen to threaten core U.S. interests, I think you will see maybe the United States getting more involved. But right now, I just can’t imagine that there would be any interest at the highest levels of this administration in doing anything to support these protesters’ demands.
HAUSLOHNER: Did you have something to add?
CAMBANIS: Go ahead, Michele.
DUNNE: Yeah, I just wanted to add. I mean, not—you know, not so surprisingly, but it’s a very confusing picture with the Trump administration, right, because you see, you know, on the one hand, you know, of course President Trump, like when Sisi was visiting, you know, New York right at the time of the protests in Egypt and September made this statement very, you know, directly supportive of Sisi, and seeming to support repression. And they’re, you know, doing confusing things like withholding military aid from the Lebanese army right now. Unclear exactly what’s behind that.
At the same time, I went back and looked and the Trump administration, either the White House or the secretary of state or, you know, or State Department, have made statements supporting the right of protesters and calling on governments to exercise restraint and not use violence against them in all four of these countries. But did you know that? I mean, these are not high-profile statements. You know, but they’re—
Q: Only on Iran do they—does Pompeo make these statements.
DUNNE: Right. Well, yeah. But, yeah, Pompeo made one too, I think, about—I think it was Lebanon. So anyway, I mean, there are—you know, it’s very confusing. Certainly I think that the tone that President Trump sets with, you know, his relations with authoritarian leaders, you know, is a major problem. I also want to say, I think it was very confusing during the Obama administration too, and the last—you know, what happened back in 2011-2012. You know, there was a—as we’ve seen now in the books and everything coming out, there was a great deal of disagreement inside the Obama administration, among Cabinet members, about how to react to these things. And it also led to a very confused and ineffective U.S. response at that time.
CAMBANIS: I do want to say something really quick, if I can.
I think that—I mean, the U.S. can do a couple things. One, it can reduce its expectations of how much we shape events in the region. So the better we do at saying: Things will happen there, and we don’t control them. Two, we can reduce complicity. OK, so when Iraqi soldiers are using—let’s say they’re using American weapons to fire at armed protesters. There are levers there where we can say: You know, we can’t stop you from doing that, but we can remove the bit where we’re behind it.
The third thing is we actually do have a lot of levers if we remain engaged to reduce atrocity, OK? So we can’t end this rampant abuse of power, but in the case of Iraq there are a lot of Iraqi officials who have houses in this urban area, and wives, and kids who are in school here. And they like coming here. They like shopping here. They like visiting. Many of them are U.S. citizens. Many of them are French citizens, U.K. citizens. These are allies of the United States that in the past with, you know, diplomacy and interaction have done things for the United States. I don’t know if it still works that way anymore given the last few years—(laughs)—of mismanagement of our diplomacy. But that is a real space where, instead of things like sanctions that are blunt instruments or cutting funding to the Lebanese army, you can quietly go to a Lebanese leader and say, hey, guy, you’re not going to be able to come back to France if you keep this up. We’ve talked to the French and the French are going to make this very inconvenient for you. And that does change behavior. It’s quiet. It is incremental. But it’s the kind of lever that we do have.
HAUSLOHNER: Yes, in back, the gentleman. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Abderrahim Foukara from Al Jazeera.
To my mind, this is the first time there are protests in the Arab world when there are questions about the future of liberal democracy with the Boris Johnson phenomenon in the U.K., the rise of the right in several countries in continental Europe, even the travails of the American political system under the Trump administration.
My question is to what extent do you think—do you feel that these doubts are percolating into these protests in the Arab world, and if they’re not, why do you think that is? Thank you.
HAUSLOHNER: Takers? Who wants to start? Go ahead, Thanassis.
CAMBANIS: Well, I think that in the Arab world there hasn’t been any liberal democracy to reject. The most—the only pluralistic systems that I’m aware of at all are Iraq and Lebanon, which are hardly democratic. So the right, the extreme right, and the ethnocratic and sometimes racialist movements have been in ascendance in many countries in the Arab world throughout this period of time.
So I think they do take a kind of encouragement and permissiveness when the supposedly liberal West reveals itself to be just as susceptible to, you know, ethnocracy and light fascism. But I don’t—I don’t see that as having affected the still-minority and fledging movements for accountability and reform and transformation.
The odds are against them, at any rate. But I think in terms of their own domestic legitimacy, my take—I mean, we just spent three years doing a project on citizenship and rights—the quest for citizenship and better rights in the MENA region and what we found is that actually Arab countries that have been working for decades against oppressive systems are actually, in some ways, ahead of their Western counterparts in thinking about ways to articulate and demand better-burnished rights against erosion by authoritarian regimes and legal practices. So, in some sense, because they’ve been through this long period of darkness, they’re already well versed in making the case.
Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll succeed. But it does mean that they know what to ask for.
HAUSLOHNER: Yes. Ma’am in the front.
Q: Thank you. Marcelle Wahba, former FSO.
I just want to thank all of you for a great presentation in spite of the fact that it’s very depressing. But I wanted to go back to the comment about the fact that this increased brutality that we’re seeing after eight or nine years after 2010 and 2011 that it can be sustainable, and I agree with that.
But, in my mind, that—I think that eventually things will change. I mean, people are not going to continue to accept that level of brutality forever. So in countries, especially like Egypt, as you track some of these activists and these groups of activists who come together to create these networks, are you seeing any signs that they’re maturing in ways where they can actually, first of all, formulate a credible alternative to what they want to see from a government like Sisi’s or in even countries like in Lebanon, which is also very complicated?
Can they—you know, five, ten years from now if things blow up again, are we just going to see a repeat of 2010, 2011, with people exhilarated in the streets and no real substantive change? Or are you seeing some development in these activist groups and, hopefully, a change for the better next time around? Thank you.
HAWTHORNE: One thing that I see is that—Michele referred to this earlier—people’s demands, I think, are—take Algeria as an example. Algerians have been in the streets twice a week, every Tuesday and Friday, since February with, like, unbelievable levels of peaceful mobilization. They are demanding the removal of the entire system and the regime.
From what I can tell, they believe that no new political system—they don’t want—they don’t want to put forward, as far as I understand it, their demands for what comes next until they have removed the current, what they believe, corrupt and repressive order.
So they seem to be, for the most part, very focused on that goal now and then turning to, one would expect, what—I mean, of course, there are people within these movements who are formulating ideas and plans and constructs for alternative forms of government.
But I think the sense of mistrust of the current regimes are so high the idea that these—at least on the part of a lot of protestors—that the people who are currently in power in these countries would be good faith counterparts to actually negotiate a new political system. They don’t seem to have any faith in that and so they’re focused on removing these people.
Now, will that work? That is a huge question, and at what point does there become a need or a decision among the protest movements that there needs to be a negotiation process, and that’s why Sudan is very interesting because it was a negotiated brokered transition.
So that’s what we need to watch for in the coming weeks and months in these countries to see if there will be shift to say, OK, we’ve been in the streets for months but we need to negotiate and exit out of this, or will the protests shift to even more sort of anger and a feeling that we’ve referred to in our comments earlier of just it doesn’t matter. You know, we have nothing to lose by just continuing to, man, bring down the whole system. I actually don’t know, really, which way things are going to go in these countries.
HAUSLOHNER: We have room for probably just one or two more questions. Right here.
Q: Hi. Kevin Sheehan of Multiplier Capital.
I’d like to follow up on that general theme about what’s different in 2019 as opposed to 2011. Sense of déjà vu. I remember being in this room in 2011 when a panel of experts like yourselves opined on the Arab uprisings and their view was it was unlikely to end well for the protestors because they were disorganized and to the extent that there would beneficiaries it would be the military that could point to the fear of anarchy as a way to crack down and the Brotherhood in Egypt because they were organized, and I guess it was one of those occasions which happen every now and then when the experts are right.
So we go back to 2019 and, certainly, Thanassis is pointing out that there’s some lesson learned among these organizations and there may be a way to take the protest movements and actually institutionalize them in a way that could place demands in the system.
What role does social media play? Because that really strikes me as one of the big differences of 2019 as opposed to 2011. Because I can see it would help organize, on the one hand, but it’s also available as a form of social control on the other. Thank you.
HAUSLOHNER: If you’d like to take—
CAMBANIS: We’ll take two questions and—OK.
HAUSLOHNER: Yeah, sure. We can—we can take one more and then—if you guys promise to remember that.
CAMBANIS: Yeah, I will remember it.
HAUSLOHNER: Right here. (Laughs.)
Q: Frances Cook, the Ballard Group.
I would like to ask this expert panel about the two dogs that haven’t barked yet. Morocco is notable by its calm in a North Africa in flames. The other country that has really good internal security, but sits in the worst real estate in the Middle East, is Jordan. And I’m wondering what you all would predict for those two places. Those are two places that haven’t really gone over the edge yet.
HAUSLOHNER: Thank you. All right. Two very different questions. Who wants to—
HAWTHORNE: Do you want to start?
CAMBANIS: Sure. So to answer your question about, you know, what’s different, I wrote a book about the Egyptian uprising and, you know, one of the—the main thesis of that story was that yes, it’s the regime’s fault because they were awful and they crushed the movement, et cetera. But lesson learned from that movement is you’ve got to have leaders, you’ve got to have a political agenda, and you’ve got to try and get power or else you’re not going to defeat power.
I don’t think that lesson has been learned and that is the main reservation I have about these lovely appealing people power movements. You know, not that—not that a counter coup is the way to unseat an authoritarian regime but, you know, you’ve got to get support from inside the military, from inside the political parties, from inside the government, if you’re going to have a fighting chance against a government like Iraq’s or a government like Lebanon’s.
So that is, I think, a really frustrating lack of lesson learned. And, you know, Lebanon, very politically astute population and a very small country, like Tunisia. It’s small enough that it’s feasible to imagine some kind of negotiated outcome that’s better than what came before.
But it’s not going to happen if people don’t engage in politics, and what it comes down to it’s similar to a lot of these big transformational policy questions where you say, OK, great, let’s get people in the same room. It’s, like, OK, great. Get them in the same room. What are you actually going to ask for? What are you going to talk about?
And if, when it comes down to it, you don’t want to upset the sectarian power-sharing apple cart or you don’t want to say, you know what, we can’t have our prime minister be based on having to be a Shi’a and the president be a Kurd or, you know, there has to be someone from the military and so on—if you’re not willing to stand up and say, we need to change that and here’s what we should change it to, then you’re not going to actually transform these systems. And these systems, on the other hand, have been very opportunistic and very—unfortunately, they haven’t been smart about governance but they have been smart about figuring out ways to stay on power.
And, I mean, these protests in Egypt it was amazing that people did it after all the repression that’s happened, which is, I think, kind of a miracle of human nature. But the government, they used newfangled and oldfangled methods very effectively. They shut down the subway system and they shut down the internet, and that was kind of the end of that, and they arrested a bunch of people and it was over in a week.
HAUSLOHNER: Right. Social media then and now, and Morocco and Jordan.
DUNNE: OK. Well, one thing is while I agree with most of what you said, Thanassis, I do think we have to stop looking at this as, like, people came out and they were crushed and now that’s over because, I mean, how many times do we have to see this to know that we’re talking about waves, right, and we’re talking about waves that will continue—that this whole region is in, you know, probably a multi-decade, you know, transformation economically, demographically, and, ultimately, politically. To what, we don’t know exactly, you know, but no predetermined outcome of that. But that, you know, this is going to keep going.
One of the lessons that I do think the protestors have learned in some places in here—let me, again, look at Algeria and Sudan—is that the process of transition matters, right, and they have resisted going for sort of quick solutions because they’ve seen that in a number of other places and, you know, Egypt among them, having the powers that be impose a quick—you know, quick elections or quick solutions that put permanent new arrangements into place quickly after an uprising was a disaster, you know, and what they really need is something that would be a longer—you know, a longer transition process, a consultative process, in which new arrangements could come to be, right.
And so that’s why—I know it’s not as satisfying, you know, for us looking at it from the outside. We’d like them to have the precooked solutions right in their mind and say, here’s exactly, you know, what we want. But in a way, I think it’s not realistic for them to do that and they’re looking at it a little bit more incrementally which, in a way, is a good thing.
On Morocco and Jordan, I would just say this. I’m sure they’re feeling very nervous in the palaces because if you look across the region it’s the two remaining countries, really, that don’t have oil wealth and so forth that haven’t had major uprisings. They have had smaller uprisings. They’ve had significant protest activity and recently, right.
And so, you know, for a long time, you know, as we’ve seen the uprisings have pretty much all been in the republics and not the monarchies and the whole idea that the monarchies add some element of stability or sense of recourse that people have, I don’t know, you know. But I definitely think those countries bear careful watching because they each have, you know, really significant economic and social problems.
HAUSLOHNER: We’re at 1:31 p.m. and I was told very strictly that I must adjourn at 1:30. But I encourage you all to mob Amy for the last word. Thank you all for coming. (Applause.)