NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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Dr. Dan Schueftan is director of the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center.

The Perils of the “Arab Spring”:
An Interview with Dr. Dan Schueftan

The Middle East is a very different place today from what it was a year ago. A wave of massive civil unrest has toppled longstanding regimes in some countries and brought strife and civil war to others. To learn more about these events and their ramifications for American and Israeli interests in the region, Near East Report interviewed Dr. Dan Schueftan, director of the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center and a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa’s School of Political Sciences and Israel’s National Security College.

Near East Report: In your opinion, how do events in the Middle East over the past year—the so-called “Arab Spring”—affect Israel’s standing in the region?

Dan Schueftan: Israel has always lived in a very unstable environment. And now it’s probably getting more hostile and more unstable, certainly in the immediate and foreseeable future. Egypt, for example, is far more unstable now than it was under Mubarak.

Due to the presence of so many actors in the Middle East, including non-state actors, instability is structural to the region and violent eruptions every once in a while are to be expected. The most difficult challenge posed by current events is that responsible governments, even if considered unpleasant by the Western world, may be replaced by irresponsible regimes. Violent eruptions will then become more widespread and difficult to control.

NER: What about the possibility that instability and a deteriorating economic situation in Arab countries might force them to focus inwards, and therefore devote less attention to foreign policy issues and to Israel?

DS: To judge by generations of experience, this is not what typically happens. Sooner or later, the pressure is projected outside. While other societies in different parts of the world that have been under pressure managed to improve their situation, this requires a willingness for self-examination and a sense of self-criticism.

For instance, India is emerging as a great success despite a prolonged and very harsh colonial rule, because Indians are asking what they have done wrong and how they can fix it, rather than just blaming others for their troubles.

NER: How do these events influence American interests in the region?

DS: These events weaken the American position in the region and make it more difficult for the United States. The United States has lost much of its credibility with certain governments. The Saudis, for example, have been uncomfortable with the U.S. reaction to events in the region.

When friends of the United States do not trust the country and its enemies do not fear it, the position of the United States will inevitably be weakened. To change this situation, it must be made clear that the United States is willing to help its friends and make its enemies pay.

In addition, many Israelis are concerned about the American position in the region. These Israelis don’t see the American administration as being hostile or unfriendly, but they view it as not sufficiently assertive against enemies of the United States, especially Iran, and as not supportive enough of friends of the United States in the region. The more trust the Israelis have in the United States, the more willing they will be to consider concessions.

We’ve seen the United States playing a very positive role at the United Nations, though this came after a long period during which Israelis were not sure where America stood. Mainstream Israelis would hope that the new trends we’ve seen at the United Nations will continue.

NER: Is there anything positive in these events from an Israeli or American point of view?

DS: Maybe the awareness of many Arabs that democracy is something they should seek. I don’t doubt that the thousands that went to protest in Tahrir Square actually wanted democracy. However, I’m not sure if their desire for democracy is accompanied by full awareness of the costs of democracy, particularly a solid commitment to pluralism, which includes, for example, higher standards regarding the rights of women and minorities. I don’t see much of that and consequently I don’t have much hope that these events will lead to real democracies.

NER: Given this reality, what can the United States do to defend its interests?

DS: A crucial thing the United States can do is to support Jordan. A strong and stable Jordan is in the interest of the United States and the Middle East.

The United States also needs to address fears regarding its reliability as an ally. If in the hour of truth you don’t support your friends and you let your enemies get away with whatever they want, this will inevitably undermine your credibility.

NER: How do you view the developments in Egypt over the past few months?

DS: The current situation in Egypt is grim and its economic future seems bleak. The three groups vying for power—the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the populist parties—cannot promote real economic reform. The gap between soaring expectations and diminishing opportunities will lead to further social unrest.

The Muslim Brotherhood is smart enough not to put forward a candidate for the presidency and I’m not even sure they want to dominate the parliament. They don’t want to be responsible for the inevitable economic disappointment, but to benefit politically from the discontent on the street.

NER: What can the United States do in light of these developments?

DS: A strong Egypt, which can deal with its economic problems, is an American (and Israeli) interest. This is not only due to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, but also because Egypt used to serve as the anchor for the struggle against Iranian-sponsored radicalism and other forms of radicalism in the region. Egyptian leadership, together with Saudi and Jordanian participation as well as behind-the-scenes support from the United States (and Israel), is crucial.

Unfortunately, there is not much the United States can do to this end. It should not delude itself into thinking that the Muslim Brotherhood is a viable partner.

NER: What will happen to Egyptian-Israeli relations once a new government is formed in Egypt?

DS: I don’t think the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is at risk in the immediate future. What the Muslim Brotherhood wants is not instant war with Israel. Rather, they are patient and if they get what they want, Egyptian society will change in such a way that in the long run Egyptian leaders will become more radical vis-à-vis Israel. BACK TO TOP