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Of domestic demons and aggressive neighbors

It is as if Arabs have to confront their domestic demons of ISIS, sectarianism, extremism, while living in the shadows of their aggressive neighbors

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Last week a group of scholars, current and former officials and journalists from the Middle East, U.S., Europe, Russia and China met for two days at the inaugural forum of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, sponsored by the Emirate Policy Center. We met to discuss and ponder what can be done about Syria and Iraq – two countries in flames – and to ask are there any chances to prevent Yemen and Libya from moving on the same path of nihilism, whither Egypt after almost four years of tumult and uncertainty, the impact of non-Arab regional powers like Iran and Turkey on the ongoing conflicts of the Arabs, and the major powers policies (assuming that they have coherent ones) toward the Gulf region. And like most conferences the participants met but not necessarily their ideas.

Arabs chafing in the shadows of their neighbors

With the exception of the Americans whose positions ranged from explaining or justifying their government’s policies in the Middle East to denouncing it in absolute terms, the views of the Russians, Chinese and Iranians reflected in varying degrees the policies of their respective countries. Also, Arab participants, with few exceptions, remained fixed in the policies of their governments and the many givens and assumptions of Arabs about themselves, their neighbors and how they perceive the world perceiving them. The Arabs on the whole were on the defensive, seeing that their world is slipping away from them and yet unable to stop the decline, with some lashing at Iran’s hegemonic policies and others chafing at the predicament of living in the shadows of what they see as a belligerent Iran and an assertive Turkey trying to shape the trajectories of Iraq and Syria. It is as if Arabs have to confront their domestic demons of ISIS, sectarianism, extremism, while living in the shadows of their aggressive neighbors.

It is as if Arabs have to confront their domestic demons of ISIS, sectarianism, extremism, while living in the shadows of their aggressive neighbors.

Hisham Melhem

The unstated Arab concern that the region, particularly the Gulf, is losing its economic and strategic importance because of the radical changes in the energy landscape which is making the United States less dependent on oil from the Middle East was addressed by Rudy DeLeon, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who stressed that “there is no U.S. disengagement from the Middle East.”

Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies made a statement about the Gulf region that would have been unthinkable at the height of the Cold War: “The region is not very paramount in our external strategy, but we are interested in it.” The head of the Chinese Center for Middle East Peace Studies in Shanghai stated simply that “China has neither a strategy nor a vision toward the Middle East.”

Soviet Russia is alive and well

If Russia, as professor Naumkin claimed, is not now focused on or active in the Middle East as it was during the Soviet era, nonetheless the views of the Russian participants of U.S. policies in the region were also a throwback to that bygone era. The Russian scholars were ready to pounce on the United States in the Middle East even if the subject is Ukraine.

When Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, deputy secretary-general of NATO, spoke of “Russian aggression” in Ukraine, Vitaly Naumkin was quick to launch a broadside against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, stressing (partially correctly) that the invasion “unleashed the forces of sectarianism.” His colleague Elena Suponina, of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, spoke in apocalyptic terms about the immediate future of the Middle East, while stressing that “Russia was ahead of the U.S. in responding to Iraq’s military needs.” Suponina, who spoke in almost flawless Arabic, called on the U.S. to admit its responsibility for the terrible loss of life in Iraq after eight years of occupation. Not satisfied with a criticism that many scholars in the United States and the region could identify with, Suponina had to go the extra gratuitous step to claim that “Russia’s position in the Middle East is more principled than that of the U.S.” Oblivious of Russia’s role in Ukraine, she bellowed: “Russia’s position is grounded in the respect of the principle of the sovereignty of states.”

The illusive strategic concept

Even when the views appeared unanimous such as the need to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and to cut off their funding, the agreement would turn out to be incomplete or tentative when the question turned to implementation. Almost everyone agreed that military means, while crucial in this long war against ISIS, will not be enough and they should be complimented by alternative political and cultural visions; very few attempted to speak realistically about the dearth of effective and applicable alternatives. Harlan Ullman, of the Atlantic Council, after criticizing Washington’s “contradictory” policies in the region and the failure of governance in the Middle East and after proclaiming that “there are no good solutions for the crises of the region,” spoke of the illusive “new strategic concept” for the 21st Century to deal with a host of new threats in the region, the “biggest of which is ISIS,” not Iran as other analysts say. He wished that President Obama would visit Iran just to make that point.

The discussions of Iran, Syria and Iraq were stark and rigid and highlighted the need for different paradigms to address them. Former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian of Princeton University called on the Arabs to stop their hostility toward Iran and seek “regional solutions” to the conflicts between Iran and the Arabs. He obliquely criticized Arab societies for providing the environment that fostered ISIS’ ideology and after he said that the Sunni-Shiite divide is a reality, he pointed out almost cheerfully that “the international coalition is bombing Sunnis …” But Karen Eliot House, of the Belfer Center at Harvard University, would have none of that sanctimonious talk because “Iran wants us diminished in the region so that they will be the regional power.” Iraq’s predicament was summarized succinctly by former American diplomat Ali Khedery: “Iraq is a Shiite theocracy and a client of Iran. Iraq is not sovereign.”

Whither Egypt?

The Egypt’s session generated the most heat. Former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy set the defiant anti-Brotherhood stand by saying bluntly: “I don’t care if the world thinks that what happened last year was a coup, as long as the Egyptian people think it was a revolution.” When he was reminded of Washington’s concerns about human rights he shot back: “give me a break. U.S foreign policy is not about democracy, it is about your national security interests,” as if democracy in Egypt would blunt America’s national security interests. Fahmy said President al-Sisi believes that Egypt should reclaim its golden age and that the change in the region will come from Egypt. However, Fahmy glossed over Egypt’s tremendous structural economic problems and its historic political polarization. Ayman Al-Sayyad, editor of Points of Views and a former official in the Mursi government, presented a faint counterargument and rejected “the policy of exclusion” and bemoaned the fact that the Sisi government considers anyone with different views as a “Muslim Brother.” Khaled Almaeena, editor of the Saudi Gazette, urged Egypt to enact serious reform and wean itself from foreign aid, saying that “Egypt should not live on the kindness of strangers.”

The most analytical presentation was given by Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress, who noted that Egypt has changed substantially in the last few years in ways that are confusing to U.S. policy makers. Katulis, a seasoned observer who lived in Egypt, criticized those who claim that Washington meddles in Egypt’s internal affairs, reminding us that at times “Egyptian officials would come to Washington to urge us: don’t intervene in our domestic affairs, then later they would plead with us to interfere in their internal affairs.” Katulis did admit that the United States should have criticized the Mursi government more forcefully when he began to monopolize power. Katulis said that the strategic relationship is stuck in the past and that there is a need for a new foundation for new relations. Katulis believes that the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations will depend on how the Egyptians see themselves and how they can defeat extremism without undermining civil liberties. He concluded by saying: “Some people say that America may have lost Egypt, but that we could say also that Egypt may have lost America.”

Are “moderate Islamists” moderate?

Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, touched on a debate that is still raging in the region and beyond, particularly since the violent ouster of the Islamist government of Mohammad Mursi in Egypt: are there moderate Islamists? For Gargash there is a need to “reject instability born out of sectarianism and an outmoded and regressive view of religion.” He sees the rise of ISIS as a confirmation that “moderate Islamists” instead of becoming moderated through engagement, “are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups.” Gargash added: “This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of ideological extremism. Make no mistake: many of these movements that are described as ‘moderate’ in some lexicons provide the environment for greater radicalization and the emergence of groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh [ISIS].” That view was echoed by other participants, particularly the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood and the supporters of the new Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The proponent of the view that there are “moderate Islamists” and that the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups such as al-Nahda in Tunisia do represent the antithesis of the radical Islamists were not represented in the conference.

While I share the view that many radical Islamists trace their lineage to the Muslim Brotherhood and its views on Islamic governance and relations with the non-Muslim world, still the conference may have missed an opportunity to challenge that kind of thinking and could have enriched a debate that is not going to be settled anytime soon.

Finally, it was fascinating to attend a two day conference about the Middle East in times of upheaval in which Israel was mostly ignored, with the only frontal criticism of her policies delivered by an American diplomat.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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