Beyond Cairo: Prospects for Change in the Middle East

February 14, 2011 — Ellen Laipson and Dr. Steven Heydemann joined us for a discussion on the current unrest in the Middle East and a general discussion on the history and potential for true revolution in the region.  Laipson is President and CEO of the Stimson Center as well as Director of the Southwest Asia/Gulf Regional Security Program.  Laipson has a distinguished career in government service at the National Intelligence Council, National Security Council and the Department of State.  Heydemann is Vice President at the United States Institute of Peace where his research focuses on authoritarian governance, economic development, social policy, political and economic reform and civil society in the Middle East. 

Laipson began by taking a wider look at the history of revolts in the Middle East and sought to explain how these previous events developed and played out in the region.  She stressed that there is never a monocausal explanation for revolution and that historically, few revolts actually produce profound societal transformations in governance.  She identified three overlapping vectors that were critical to understanding the political climate in the Middle East and how revolts develop within this context.  These vectors include the general history of revolts in the region, the advance or decline of human development indicators and the connection between Islam and politics. 

Laipson described past revolts in Egypt, Iraq and even the Arab Spring of 2005 as times when it was believed that fundamental changes to the political structures in the region were occurring.  In hindsight, these beliefs turned out to be premature.  However, she emphasized that several factors have changed the current dynamic.  She explained that countries in the Middle East are generally middle income countries that fall within the middle of the Human Development Index.  Egypt and Tunisia certainly experience poverty, but they are by no means the poorest countries in the world.  Increased public expectations from stronger GDP growth rates coupled with wider gaps between the rich and the poor and high levels of unemployment have increased societal tensions and the perception of inequality.  So while the middle classes in both Egypt and Tunisia were growing, they were not growing at pace with unemployment and the expanding youth bulges.  Additionally, while Islam has always been a part of the medium of political discourse, it is now an integral part of the discussion of democracy in many countries.  This is not to imply that Islamist parties are undemocratic, but that they have roles to play in any democratic transition and that they have to be treated as a part of mainstream politics. 

Hydemann then addressed the potential for change following the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.  He explained that many regimes have known about the dangers of rising unemployment and inequality gaps for years and they were attempting to address these issues.  He explained, echoing Laipson’s earlier remarks, that social pressures alone are not the cause of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.  He pointed out that Egypt and Tunisia have largely homogenous populations, a growing middle class and internet access and strong GDP growth rates but growing economic inequality.  The opposition forces were able to unify in both countries largely because they had a synergy of interests based on these factors.  These issues are present in other countries in the region but they are thinly distributed across the region. 

Heydemann and Laipson then took questions centering on the transition that is currently developing in Egypt.  Heydemann stated that a type of “Pacted Transition” was possible in the case of Egypt in which the military oversees the transition to democracy while maintaining its position and privileged status and preserving its right to intervene to protect the nation.  Laipson said that a model similar to that of the Turkish experience, where the military acted as a caretaker for civilian governance and watched over a long period of transition was possible.  Laipson then addressed how the US’ relationship with its allies in the region would play out in the future.  She explained that both Egypt and Tunisia were countries with which the US had longstanding security cooperation.  Engagement would not end, it would just have to be adjusted and the relationship with Egypt’s military would more than likely continue without major changes as the military remained the arbiter of power in the country. 

Security for a New Century is a nonpartisan discussion group for Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. All discussions are OFF-THE-RECORD. It is not an advocacy venue. For more information, please call Mark Yarnell at (202) 224-7560 or write to [email protected].

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