Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

The folly of jumping to conclusions over regional ruptures

From the events of 2011 to the conflation of those in Algeria and Sudan today, there is no place for sweeping generalisations in analysis of Middle Eastern politics

Sudanese demonstrators gather outside the army complex in the capital Khartoum. Ashraf Shazly / AFP 
Sudanese demonstrators gather outside the army complex in the capital Khartoum. Ashraf Shazly / AFP 

It is almost a decade since the former US president Barack Obama gave his famous Cairo speech on June 4, 2009.

It was, and remains, a remarkable piece of oratory, which delivered a prescription for future American engagement with the region and was conceived as a way to heal the wounds inflicted during the interventionist George W Bush era.

It worked. His words were generally well-received. In hindsight, however, we know now that his speech painted a false picture of where the Obama years might lead.

The 44th US president spent much of his time in office significantly scaling back the foreign policy vision he outlined in Cairo, and he became overly focused on agreeing a flawed nuclear deal with Iran as he sought to fashion his legacy. That obsession came with a heavy price.

When the “red line” of chemical weapons strikes was crossed later in Syria by the regime of Bashar Al Assad, Mr Obama looked the other way. When challenges presented themselves elsewhere he often proved indecisive. His seeming preoccupation with not jumping in and doing something stupid, ended up meaning that the US fell back and made mistakes all the same.

In short, Mr Obama’s speech suggested a US foreign policy agenda rich in thought and humanitarian engagement, only for all its promises to be unpicked in a little under two years.

The former president’s advocates will argue that he could not have foreseen the uprisings that spread across the Arab world at the beginning of 2011, presenting huge challenges to the region and to US foreign policy. They will say his hand was forced by what unfolded.

It might all have been so different.

While the Cairo speech was very much on point in recognising areas of concern for the Middle East – especially when Mr Obama referenced the need for greater economic opportunity and development – the administration’s response to the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria lacked clarity of thought.

Unsure whether to respond to events as a regional rupture or as discrete, individual crises, the administration hedged its position by considering the uprisings as a unified movement, issued calls for broad, unspecified change and then applied inconsistent solutions to the growing problems.

This meant that the grand sweep of the Cairo speech collapsed into a much more withdrawn settlement that helped facilitate the complicated set of circumstances still evident across the region today.

If the events of 2011 taught us anything, it is that we should be cautious before putting general labels on individual circumstances

The central flaw in both policy development and, indeed, in commentary around that time was to be seduced by the theory of contagion that became attached to what were termed “the Arab uprisings”.

The view that was presented was the events in question represented a revolutionary shockwave that had struck the entire region. Commonality of circumstance was used to justify that argument – principally that intransigent, entrenched leadership was the root cause of unrest. To that idea was fused broad talk of the winds of change sweeping in, and the vague notion that anything was possible. It was an intoxicating but false perspective.

A similar simplification of complex calculations has recently been applied to events in Algeria and Sudan, to suggest a repeat of 2011 may be under way today. This line is not backed up by the events themselves.

The removal of Omar Al Bashir in Sudan and the departure of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria after mass protests may make it seductive to conjure images of Tahrir Square and Avenue Habib Bourguiba in 2011, particularly as both men had been in power for decades, but the economic and social compulsions at work in each country today are different from those at work eight years ago in North Africa. This is not some kind of regional contagion revisited.

If the events of 2011 taught us anything, it is that we should be cautious before putting general labels on individual circumstances. A lack of nuance and understanding didn’t help many in the international community to get their policies right eight years ago – and it won’t now, either.

They also showed that leadership change is not a destination in itself. Clear and careful roadmaps will have to be drawn up in both Sudan and Algeria to ensure proper transition and to enable the prospect of a better future. The journey ahead is also likely to be tough and filled with obstacles.

More than anything, what we should have learnt from the Cairo address it is that grand strategy is one thing, but if it is not applied evenly or resourced adequately it is doomed to be an unfulfilled vision.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Updated: April 17, 2019 04:19 PM

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