The problems facing the Middle East highlighted

War in the Middle East (photo by Shutterstock)

The most important challenges facing the Middle East are highlighted in a survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Our regular writer, Ahmad Abdul-Rahman, explains the results.

The challenges facing the Middle East - terrorism, extremism, civil war, foreign intervention, sectarianism, corruption, and authoritarianism - are both horrific and perplexing. With so many problems, it seems difficult to know where to begin in addressing them, and what roles external actors should play. This dilemma represents the starting point for the first survey of Arab experts conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for the International Peace Middle East Program.

The study represents detailed opinions of 105 experts from almost all Arab countries.  They include leaders, civil society activists, industrialists, scientists, former ministers, members of parliament, advisors and heads of state.

This survey is qualitative rather than quantitative in nature. The experts were not chosen at random, and the results do not necessarily represent the wider Arab public. However, as they are voices that may exert pressure or lead efforts for change and reform, since they provide an important insight into the political dilemmas in the Middle East. Experts' opinions are complex and often contradictory, and yet three topics in particular resurface: the legitimacy of governing, the prioritisation of local concerns, and democratic prospects.

Legitimacy of governing

After many years of the Arab Spring revolutions, the legitimacy crisis that helped precipitate these revolutions has not lost its resonance. Experts are almost unanimous in their deep dissatisfaction with the nature of their governments' handling of the many challenges they face. The topics that capture their anger take many forms, from authoritarianism to corruption, nepotism and outside interference. These various sources of discontent highlight the inherent absence of meaningful social contracts between states and citizens in most countries of the Middle East.

Prioritisation of local concerns

Despite the region's many geopolitical challenges, the region's governance crisis is drawing experts' inward focus to local matters. Media reports on the Middle East, both Western and Arab focus on acute crises in the region, such as the military campaign against the unilaterally declared Islamic State, the conflict in Yemen, and the Saudi-Iran regional rivalry. While there is no consensus among experts on the underlying causes of unrest in the region and in their own countries, the challenges closest to home are prioritised on issues such as authoritarianism, corruption and lack of accountability.

Prospects for democracy

Experts generally view democratic governance not as an end in itself but as a means to improve accountability and tackle corruption. Although they overwhelmingly support representative democracy, they tend to distinguish democratic institutions from their external trappings. They express great indignation at the missed opportunities resulting from the failure of governance, and see that there are direct links between the absence of political pluralism and the rise of waves of extremism facing the Middle East.

The most important results of the study

• Arab experts who were included in the study expressed their strong dissatisfaction with their governments. Although many experts have served, and some continue to serve, in senior government positions, only four out of 93 respondents from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) expressed satisfaction with their governments. Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni experts were frank in describing the general collapse of state institutions and ruling legitimacy.

• Experts were asked about the possibility of implementing democracy in their countries. Only six out of 101 believe that democracy is not suitable for their country. However, Arab societies have a great deal of experience with authoritarian regimes that skillfully manipulate the trappings of democracy to create a thin veneer of legitimacy. Few experts spoke of democracy in an exemplary tone, and a large number of them made clear that democratic governance is not an end in itself but rather a mechanism for improving accountability and tackling corruption.

• Experts want armies capable of defending the sovereignty of their countries, but most of them want this role to be limited to external defence. Despite the growing security threats, only about one in five participants advocate a direct role for the military, either in providing internal stability or in protecting the internal political order.

• Experts tend to want a separation between religious and political institutions, and about six out of 10 experts explicitly oppose a role for religious authorities in governance. In contrast, about a quarter of these experts advocate that religious authorities have a limited advisory role, such as spiritual guidance and the promotion of tolerance.

• Experts favor a mixed economic system while retaining an important role for government. Most of them refer not to technical, fiscal, or regulatory fiscal policy issues but to the more fundamental issues of fighting corruption, reducing nepotism, and enhancing transparency.

• Regarding the role that the US should play in the Middle East, the experts were ambivalent, and their opinions included a lot of deep skepticism about US policies. Two out of 10 asked the US to stop its involvement, limit its military role, or play no role at all.

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Saturday, 30 September 2023