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The Arab Awakening: Reconstruction, deconstruction or just construction?

By Greg McGowan Best Defense department of think tank affairs The United States Institute of Peace recently held a briefing on the challenges of reconstruction in the post-authoritarian nations of the Arab world. Here’s the scorecard: Tunisia: While hardly a free society under longtime dictator Ben Ali, Tunisia did have some degree of institutions and ...

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

By Greg McGowan

Best Defense department of think tank affairs

The United States Institute of Peace recently held a briefing on the challenges of reconstruction in the post-authoritarian nations of the Arab world. Here's the scorecard:

By Greg McGowan

Best Defense department of think tank affairs

The United States Institute of Peace recently held a briefing on the challenges of reconstruction in the post-authoritarian nations of the Arab world. Here’s the scorecard:

Tunisia: While hardly a free society under longtime dictator Ben Ali, Tunisia did have some degree of institutions and civil society in place. Tunisians must now build on this preexisting framework to reconstruct their government apparatus on a level playing field. Already, they have made some promising strides in this direction. Legitimate general elections last October saw the Islamist al-Nahda party (banned under Ben Ali) earn control of the Constituent Assembly that will draft the country’s new constitution. Democratic processes began to crystallize soon thereafter, when secularist and leftist parties joined with the Islamists in a coalition government. It appears that with respect to governance, Tunisia is on the right track.

Many concerns will have to be addressed, however. Stimson Center President and CEO Ellen Laipson noted that for the first time in decades, secularists are no longer protected by the exclusivist policies of dictatorship; they must learn how to operate in a more open, representative political environment. This means engaging and finding common ground with Islamist parties whose views will undoubtedly conflict with their own. Tunisian women are particularly worried, fearing that the social equality they enjoyed under Ben Ali will be jeopardized by the new Islamist-dominated coalition.

Egypt: This is a harder case. The SCAF, Egypt’s "transitional" military government, has proven oppressive, unreliable and staunchly unwilling to relinquish power. The military government’s ongoing detainment of U.S. and other foreign pro-democracy activists is troubling, and underscores anxieties from Cairo to Washington over the trajectory of Egypt’s revolution. Ambassador William B. Taylor, Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions at the State Department, had some stern remarks on the subject: "The Egyptians have a big responsibility now to fix the current problem. Everything we do on assistance to Egypt depends on solving this NGO problem."

Egypt is a test of deconstruction. Hosni Mubarak dismantled Egyptian civil society, with his administration swallowing up most of the country’s institutions. He used the Emergency Law to suspend the constitutional rights of all Egyptians, scaring his population into silence and using his security forces to arrest, detain, torture and murder Egyptians with impunity. Now the SCAF is preserving the old order. Before any genuine progress can be made, this paradigm must be deconstructed and a new understanding must be built between Egyptian state and society.

But the adverse circumstances in Egypt are not grounds for overreaction or taking sides by Washington, Laipson cautioned, which will lead only to alienating parties whose partnerships must be preserved in the long term. This includes the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, who won 70 percent of seats in Egypt’s recent elections. The U.S. must put its reluctance aside and confront the reality that Islamic values are, and will continue to be, central to the populations of every nation impacted by the Arab Awakening. Laipson and Taylor agreed that the rise of Islamist parties did not necessarily signal "a repudiation of secular government." The Islamists were not the agents of change. The revolutions were not about religion. The fact is, Islamists are connecting to major segments of their populations on universal ideals like fairness and responsive governance. This dynamic did not seem to trouble Ambassador Taylor, who estimated that the pragmatists within the Islamist parties would ultimately prevail. Put simply, their concern for what happens once they actually take power and have the responsibility to govern will compel them to partner with the U.S. and integrate into the international community. In the meantime, however, Washington must understand its limits in Egypt — that it is not viewed very positively and that its reform efforts are not necessarily going to be well received.

There are still practical ways to facilitate reconstruction in Egypt and advance U.S. interests without being viewed as meddling in its domestic politics. The country is in dire economic straits, and desperately needs U.S. assistance to divert what Taylor called "financial collapse." Indeed, it was a troubled economy that drove many Egyptian poor to the streets in the first place, and a troubled economy will undoubtedly undermine any future political or social progress. The U.S. should therefore focus its short-term efforts in Egypt on improving economic conditions, working together with the World Bank, IMF and the international business community.

Libya: The panel participants seemed encouraged about the prospects for reform in Libya, as economic conditions in the country have improved markedly. Even so, Libya presents a unique situation in that it requires wholesale construction of electoral and civil institutions. Rule of law must be established from the ground up, and supported by a legitimate law enforcement apparatus and judicial system.

Libyans have demonstrated a tremendous amount of pride and resourcefulness and taken impressive strides towards construction of a nation they can finally call their own. They are aided by several factors. As Taylor noted, the country is "resource blessed." Funds frozen under the Gadhafi regime are thawing and being appropriated for Libyan society, while oil and gas production is expected to reach pre-revolution levels by year’s end. Given its small population of only around 6.5 million, domestic revenue streams should be able to directly impact the construction of Libya’s new society. Rather than pouring money into the country, the U.S. can best serve the Libyan people by helping to maximize the efficiency of state-building initiatives. Technical assistance will be extremely valuable in Libya leading up to, and following, the general elections slated for June.

Last week the Obama Administration submitted its FY 2013 budget request, which included a $770 million Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund. Ambassador Taylor, who will play a key role in the implementation of the fund, described it as a flexible mechanism that will allow the U.S. to provide concrete support for real reform. The issue, he went on, is that "we don’t know where the plane is landing. We’re not flying these planes, we’re just giving advice to the pilots."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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