RT Crossfire Advanced Questions and Talking Points

We filmed an episode of Crosstalk today, so I thought I would share my talking points in advance of the show being aired on Monday.  Not everything here was said, but the questions they sent in advance will give you a broad sense of what was said on the show.

Is the term Arab Spring or Arab Awakening appropriate anymore? Do we
need to invent a new and different term to describe what is happening
in the Arab Middle East today?
It was never appropriate in the beginning.  When you spoke to protesters in the individual countries they would always refer to their countries “revolutions”.  I think our best method of looking at the phenomenon in the region, is to keep referring to them in this manner.  This helps us keep on track of the fact that whilst there was a “demonstration” effect that helped them spread across the region, all the revolutions were country specific.  It is safer to refer to the “revolutions” occurring through the region.  This is also particularly the case, as we don’t, and have never known, the directions these revolutions will take.  Spring and Awakening suggests a transition process to democracy, and it is far from guaranteed that this will be the case.
What to the countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria have in
common today (if any thing beyond being Arab Muslim countries)?
These countries still have a lot in common beyond being Arab Muslim countries. They have deeply troubled economies, high youth unemployment, a disproportionately high youth demographic, deep troubles with rule of law and security.  These are in fact the same conditions that led to the uprisings in the first place.  They differ in many of the problems they face, but broadly speaking the underlined causes of the revolutions are still there.  
Over two years ago many in the west (and their proxies on the ground
in the Arab Middle East) talked of democracy and western values in a
region in the hands of dictators for decades. Where does democracy
stand today in the region?
Any one who has studied democracy in the Arab world over decades will tell you that the region always takes one step forward, and two steps back.  But the Arab spring demonstrates that there is popular demand for rights, dignity and freedom.  The revolutions are a major leap forward for democracy in the region, and the genie has been let out of the bottle.  There is less willingness to accept the security guarantee of dictators, as the people in the region see that this hasn’t provided them with the basic things they need in their daily lives.  Of course, the situation on the ground differs across each of the countries, and some are moving forward more rapidly with what look like basic democratic institutions than others.  But overall, democratisation is a long process, and we certainly stand in a place where democracy looks more plausible today than it did in 2010.
To what degree have events in Syria been a “game changer” for the region?
Events in Syria are very important, and have important regional repercussions.  But overall, what happens in Syria is going to have little effect on the domestic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  We also have an important example of a more successful transition in Yemen, which shouldn’t be forgotten.  The problem with Syria has to do with the nature of the state structure.  The security forces are tied to the regime itself, which wasn’t the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and NATO intervention in Libya cancelled that particular dynamic out.  Are there going to be serious security problems in Syria for the forceable future, that will impact Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon?  They certainly will, but alternative trajectories are in place for the countries already undergoing revolutions.
Has western overt and/or covert involvement been a plus or minus in
the region over the past two years?
There was a period when US and EU involvement in the region was particularly high – throughout 2011-2012.  There was a greater emphasis on trying to promote democracy, and on helping successful democratic transitions to take place.  The September 11 embassy attacks, however, have lowered the willingness of the US to focus on this, and return to a more traditional “security and interests” focus.  So post-2012 the US has pulled back its presence in the region, and missed important opportunities.  Because of the problems with the way EU foreign policy is conducted and made, they have followed in the US foot steps.  

The show airs on Monday, so any feed back is welcome on here or twitter @ozhassan.

Postscript:  Link to Youtube show


US Cuts Aid to Egypt – Holding Back the Toys

The reaction to the Obama administration cutting aid to Egypt has been mixed.  Israel has talked of its strategic necessity for peace and the Egyptian government has talked of how they regard it as the “wrong decision” and interference in domestic affairs, whilst Tamarod has welcomed the suspension of aid.  Reading twitter as the news began to break showed a level of strategic confusion over why the administration had chosen to act now.  Indeed, @slaugtherAM commented how odd it was given the current talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Nevertheless, the devil here is in the detail.  The symbolic and temporary suspension of 12 F16 fighters, Apache Helicopters, 4 tanks, harpoon missiles, a $260 cash transfer and $300 loan guarantee is not a complete and permanent suspension of aid.  The US is continuing to fund education health, counter-terror and military training programmes.  In that sense the timing reflects what President Obama eluded to in his speech to the UN general assembly, and ideas about how to react to the coup since July (the current Presidential style is contemplative and slow to say the least – as we witnessed over the troop surge decision in Afghanistan).  This is in effect a package that is symbolic and will make very little substantive difference to the US-Egyptian relationship.  Yes, the Egyptian’s want the technology – they are good “toys” – but this is not a serious attempt to influence the future political path of Egypt and does not cut deep into the heart of the relationship.  What is significant however, is that it reflects the first practical experiment of the Obama administration’s  report on US-MENA relations issued just before the Arab Spring began that conclued that peace between Egypt and Israel was no longer premised on the 1978 Camp David agreement, but by the fact that war was not in Egypt’s interest (read more in my book).  Is this a significant moment in US-Egypt’s relationship?  Maybe – it could turn into an interesting episode but ultimately the stability agenda continues; but it could also be the start of the Obama administration starting to slowly enact some of the strategic thinking about how to develop a grand strategy for the MENA region that it developed at the end of 2010 and throughout the Arab revolutions.  Yet, given the strategic importance of Egypt, the former is more likely.

Conversation on Twitter

Conversation on Twitter

Suez Concerns leads to US crude oil topping $100

The political uncertainty in Egypt is has having a direct effect on the global economy.  Concern that the flow of oil tankers through the Suez Canal could be disrupted has led to the price of US crude oil reaching $100 a barrel – the highest level in more than a year.  This comes as a direct result of the Suez Canal being a key choke point in the global oil trade.  Indeed, 5% of the seaborne crude, along with 14% of seaborne liquified natural gas flows through the canal.

Within this context, the canal is a pivotal point for the global economy, and therefore a key target for protesters to damage the Egyptian government. Disrupting the flow of traffic is therefore a key strategy for anti-govenment protesters, which was evident in February when the canal had to close, and in March when speedboats were released in the canal to create obstacles for maritime traffic.

Notably, this comes on top of disrupted supplies from Libya from armed militias and terrorist organisations like AQIM (see my interview in the Sunday Express).  Indeed, as reported in the FT, “Antoine Halff, the influential head of the International Energy Agency’s oil markets division has warned of a delayed impact of the Arab Spring on oil production, and the IEA is now forecasting no net growth in oil output from Africa’s four Opec members over the next five years.”

This clearly provides a new strategic landscape for both the US and EU to navigate as they try to overcome the consequences of the 2008 economic fall out.

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Viber in Saudi Arabia: The politics of social media and communication

Flag ~ Saudi Arabia

Flag ~ Saudi Arabia (Photo credit: erjkprunczyk)

Change is clearly happening in Saudi Arabia. In the past authorities have sought to try people who use social media, to object to government authority, quietly and under the radar of the population as a whole.  However, over the past few months these trials are being conducted more widely and in the open.  First thoughts should be that this is excellent news for the judicial system, and a commitment to openness.  However, these trials should be seen more as a deterrent – more like public beheadings than a commitment to opening the political system.  They are a demonstration of how worried Saudi authorities are about the Arab Spring.

It is in the same light that Viber, the communications app (covered in the last edition of IST), has been blocked by Saudi authorities (it has also been blocked in Iran and the UAE). Viber are now attempting to restore at least a partial service, within weeks, to their 10 million Saudi users. The benefits of viber are that it offers a private communication system in an authoritarian state.  But, its closure marks another line in the sand put down by the Saudi’s that want access to their populations communications systems. Something that it appears the US and UK enjoy through the PRISM system. As the new politics of communications unfolds, in the era of Big Data, it appears that the tension lines are between a triad of Liberty, Privacy & Security.  That is the debate in the Middle East as well as in the US and Europe.

English: Tomb of Muhammad in Madinah, Saudi Arabia

English: Tomb of Muhammad in Madinah, Saudi Arabia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New-look “International Studies Today” magazine


The new look BISA International Studies Today magazine was launched today, and includes a short piece by me entitled “American Democracy Promotion and the Arab Spring“.


In the aftermath of September 11 2001, the George W. Bush administration came to see the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa as a national interest.  As such, it constructed a democracy promotion policy as both a method of engaging with the Middle East, but also as a method of “draining the swamp” and countering terrorism.  Within such a context, the revolutions sweeping across the Middle East could be perceived as a success for what George W. Bush termed the Freedom Agenda.  Indeed, within certain neoconservative circles in Washington D.C. it is argued that events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have vindicated the Freedom Agenda.  However, a closer look at the Freedom Agenda reveals a contrary story about what the Bush administration was attempting, and the success of its democracy promotion policy in the region.  Once the policy is more closely understood, rather than the Arab Spring demonstrating policy success, they are in fact the ultimate expression of the policy’s failure.


A closer analysis of the Freedom Agenda reveals that the Bush administration espoused particularly narrow definitions of what it understood by essentially contested concepts such as “freedom” and “democracy”.  As such, when the Bush administration spoke of promoting “democracy”, freedom”, “security” and “peace”, what it meant was the promotion of top-down, elite-led, neoliberal conception of democracy.  This was to be done by force in Iraq and, after some considerable changes of strategy, in Afghanistan.  However, for ally regimes, what was offered was a strategy of incrementally reforming autocratic regimes whilst maintaining regional stability.  This was a shift form the status quo policy in place before September 11 2001, in that the US was pushing for reforms in the region.  However, unlike in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and once elected in 2006, Hamas, the political power of authoritarian allies and friends was not challenged either militarily or covertly.  This was because …

Follow the link for the full article


About the Transatlantic Interests Project …

This project evaluates how the Arab Spring has affected US and EU policy towards regional allies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The events in one country after another were viewed from across the West with a mixture of awe and hope. There was great respect for the bravery of individual citizens who seemed to be willing to risk everything for a chance to topple existing authoritarian regimes, and this was coupled with a genuine desire to see personal political freedom extended to those people who had previously enjoyed very little of it. At the same time, though, as the wider population in the West was watching with great anticipation the efforts of indigenous democracy campaigns to cast off their existing political shackles, it must be noted that the Arab Spring itself serves as direct repudiation of the democratisation policy previously being conducted in the region by both the US and EU.

The project seeks to understand this tension by exploring how strategic calculations which attempt to balance democracy promotion by external actors with the security of other interests in the region are being transformed by events. Encouraging democratic transition in the MENA has been the stated aim of US and EU policy-makers since September 11 2001 in the name of national security at home, on the assumption that the socialisation of individuals to democratic norms will lessen the chances of the MENA becoming a breeding ground for terrorist organisations. Significantly, though, the one model of democracy promotion which does not appear to have been on the agenda of policy-makers in Washington and Brussels was the type of bottom-up demand for democracy from civil society groups which animated the Arab Spring. Western policy-makers instead have always preferred a policy of gradualism which tried to work with the region’s existing autocratic regimes. The Arab Spring challenges such a strategy in the most dramatic way imaginable, as it does the assumption that autocratic regimes will provide regional stability. This has fatally undermined existing policy, leaving US and EU foreign policy establishments struggling to create a new grand strategy of engagement with the region. The project explores this gulf in policy making, charting: (i) the new initiatives which have emerged from Washington and Brussels to replace the now largely defunct policy which dominated before the Arab Spring; and (ii) the tensions which remain from the failure so far to remove all remaining vestiges of the original policy.

Arguably the biggest challenge which continues to face Western policy-makers is the need for the US and EU to discover whether they have the foreign policy-making capacity to cope with the new regional realities on the ground. In particular, this might mean having to challenge the vested interests which have become embedded in their own security cultures if they are to promote that capacity successfully. The debate is currently in a continual process of reframing, as events are ongoing. This project seeks to trace that process of reframing in an attempt to show just how flexible the US and EU might now be to respond successfully to upcoming developments in the transition movements which were first activated during the Arab Spring. After all, it is not clear what the region will transform into: will the end result of the uprisings be more peaceful and stable democracies, a reversion back to autocratic rule after a temporary pro-democracy hiatus, the seizure of power by Islamist-dominated governments that are openly hostile to the “West”, or a complex combination of all three when viewing the region as a whole?