Friday, May 22, 2009

Evan's Corner: Summary of Project on Middle East Democracy Event

Project on Middle East Democracy
Rediscovering Multilateralism: Toward a Cooperative Approach to Middle East Reform

The Project on Middle East Democracy held a workshop entitled “Rediscovering Multilateralism” inviting powerful voices from the Middle East, Europe, and Washington to discuss new, more cooperative approaches to Middle East reform. After the workshop, POMED hosted a panel discussion to allow participants in the workshop to report their reactions.

The Panelists all expressed great gratitude that the European perspective was included in this Workshop. Nora Younis, an Egyptian blogger, was surprised to get this perspective, pointing out that similar workshops often focus exclusively on the Middle East in relation to the United States. Amir Motahari (European Commission) said that Europeans have “very high expectations” about the United States role in the Middle East. Motahari expressed that Europeans would be better served to be more involved, as instability in North Africa has an impact on immigrant communities in Europe. David Adesnik (DoubleThink Magazine) concurred, noting that the workshop opened his eyes to the issues of Arab minorities in Europe.

The panelists also attempted to summarize salient points from the workshop. Motahari emphasized that the EU cannot “buy” or “impose” reform, particularly as it has very little military presence in the Middle East. Younis added that engagement has to be comprehensive. The West cannot attempt to exclude political Islam from political involvement as this form of exclusion simply fosters more extremism. Adesnik added that civil societies are places where organizations compete freely for political space, and there must be “multiple, viable pathways” towards civic involvement.

After the panelists spoke, they allowed audience members to pose questions. Several people asked about neoliberal economic policies, which were supposed to foster political reform in North Africa. Motahari did admit that the results of these policies so far were “not satisfactory,” but also explained that the EU believes economic progress impacts political reform very slowly.

When asked about Obama’s upcoming speech in Cairo, Younis said she believed that Obama had “no real leverage” against Mubarak, and so she had no great expectations for the speech. Another audience member picked up on this idea, asking what Western governments can do to get leverage against Middle Eastern regimes. Adesnik argued that the United States military presence in the Middle East is quite problematic, as it makes the United States seem a hypocritical human rights advocate, and this weakens the United State’s leverage.

Finally, an audience member noted that Egyptians have been faced with a choice between an autocratic administration and political Islam. Where is the third option? Motahari explained that like it or not, most powerful opposition in Middle Eastern countries is some form of political Islam. Motahari went further, expressing that he would love for a third option to emerge, but he has yet to see one he would call “credible.”

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