Friday, March 4, 2011

Hopeful Signs?

The other day at a forum on "Egypt, Social Media, and the Middle East" I praised the Obama Administration's handling of the wave of domestic unrest sweeping across the Arab world. And my colleague Greg Miller stressed that a role for Islam in the politics of these countries does not mean that we are headed for another Iranian Revolution. All of us stressed that the current situation is overall hopeful and not scary. Other than rising oil prices, which will only go up next week, the news is mostly good.

Our message: Let's not lose the good news in the midst of the upheaval. In the long run, in most countries, this process should yield more stable and legitimate governments.

This morning I see more positive signs that our hopeful analysis is holding up so far--and that the Obama foreign policy players have handled a fast-moving crisis pretty well:

  • The Washington Post reports that administration officials actually understand the distinction between al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In fact, they are preparing for the possibility that peaceful Islamist political parties might play roles in the transitions in places like Egypt and Tunisia. (In Tunisia the Islamist al-Nahda party has been legalized.)
  • Foreign Affairs, the voice of the foreign policy establishment, published an excellent piece about sectarianism in Bahrain by Kristen Smith Diwan, one of the leading experts on Bahrain alongside Rutgers' Toby Jones. If people are listening to her analysis, which seems highly accurate in light of my experience in Bahrain, they will realize that empowering the Shia opposition in a truly democratic process (as opposed to the faux democracy of the past decade) is safer than repression. So far our government has been on the right side of this. As I told the forum crowd the other day, Obama most likely told the Bahraini government not to shoot their own people anymore. That's a wise policy right now.
  • The other foreign policy establishment, (which is now owned by the Washington Post), ran a piece early in the week on Saudi Arabia by a respected expert on Saudi Arabia that reinforces my concerns that serious protests will emerge next Friday, March 11. The title is ominous: "Yes, It Could Happen Here." Really, if it can happen in Oman, it can happen anywhere. And while large-scale protests next Friday could scare the oil markets, it could also scare the Al-Saud family into a process of dialogue with opposition forces in the country that could yield something like a constitutional monarchy.

Of course, we could all be wrong. The chaos in Libya, which is quickly turning into a civil war, could turn out to be the norm across the region. But for the moment, it seems like level heads are mostly prevailing in the region and in Washington.

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