The New Arab Awakening

Why Middle East moderates need to seize the opportunity in Egypt to craft a new political movement.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The rejection by Egyptians of their Islamist government marks a turning point — not only for that country, but for the entire Middle East. Over the course of the past couple weeks, the Egyptian people have made a clear and powerful statement that political Islam cannot and should not be allowed to suppress the broader popular will for moderation and tolerance. Islamism, or any ideology for that matter, is no replacement for competent and responsible leadership. But let us not discount this momentous opportunity: the second Egyptian revolution is a bellwether for moderates in the region who should now seek to regain the initiative.

The Arab Spring has given voice to Arab peoples eager for dignity, for change, and for inclusion. But this call for tolerance risks being drowned out by an increase in violence, an unwelcome rise in sectarianism, the uncertain role of Islamist political groups, the growth in foreign meddling by regional aggressors, and a deepening economic crisis. The voice of moderation, the spirit of compassion, and the respect for others must be nurtured and protected. 

Now is the time to implement a new agenda — endorsed and promoted by like-minded countries from within the region and beyond. This approach needs to represent an urgent, consistent, and linked effort to bolster Egypt’s moderates and prevent extremists from taking any more advantage of the Arab Spring. The United Arab Emirates has just delivered $3 billion in aid to Egypt’s interim government to help see it through this crisis, but that’s just the beginning. What is needed is a broad, six-part program to craft a new moderate political agenda in the Middle East.

First, we need to resolutely oppose the rise in sectarian politics that serves only to sow division and conflict, rather than unity and dialogue. In many countries, from Syria to Iraq, we are witnessing a dangerous widening in the Sunni-Shiite divide and sharp divisions even within Sunni Islam. There has also been the persecution of Christian and other minorities, encouraged by those who see it as in their narrow political interest to provoke such tensions. We need to stand firm in support of the principles of religious tolerance and pluralism, both practicing them at home and advocating dialogue across the region.

Second, it is imperative that we do our utmost to prevent extremist groups from exploiting the emerging political vacuum to seize power and foster instability. Groups with well-organized international networks, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda, have used the transitions in the region as an opportunity to divert people to their cause and to impose a very narrow and dangerous interpretation of Islam. We must provide support to moderate voices and help build strong and competent institutions as an alternative to the vacant promises of political Islam.

Third, as part of our resolve to take on the extremists, we need to redouble our commitment to the empowerment of women. We must reassert every girl’s right to an education, ensure women play leading roles in public and political life, and strive to protect women from violence and repression by ideologues who act in the name of a false religiosity. There can be no moderate political force in the Middle East without women at the heart of defining what kinds of societies emerge from the changes occurring across the region.

Fourth, we must inject a much greater sense of urgency into the search for a two-state solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The legitimate anger felt by many at the ongoing injustices suffered by the Palestinian people is being exploited by extremists to garner support for their own illegitimate causes. The moderates in the Arab world, in Israel, and in the Quartet, should grasp this opportunity to come together strongly behind the Arab Peace Initiative — and be prepared to take some political risks in order to find a solution. Furthermore, the U.S. government must show leadership and resolve to reach a mutually acceptable solution with all parties. 

Fifth, vulnerable countries and revolutionary movements are at great risk of being undermined and influenced by extremist leaders in other countries. We must help these countries and movements to deal with problems like the additional pressures caused by refugee populations or by acting decisively to stem the flow of young men, many radicalized, from traveling to fight in Syria. And the international community must send a clear and unified message that extremist governments must refrain from meddling in the internal affairs of other countries or risk isolation or other, more profound, consequences.

Finally, if we’ve learned anything from Egypt and from the transitions in the region, it is that promulgating ideology is no replacement for creating opportunity. We need an urgent and concerted effort to provide education, create jobs, and build aspiration. Young people need to have a sense of purpose, but rampant unemployment and poverty in the region undercuts this message and provides fuel for radicalization. Extremist groups prey on these vulnerabilities. Our response should focus on promoting responsive and inclusive governance, investing in education and healthcare, and creating the conditions for people to be able to build better lives for themselves.

These are the pillars for success for moderates in the region. But while building these pillars takes time, Egypt needs our help now. Foreign assistance is a start, but a functioning government that provides needed services for its citizens and fosters economic growth is critical for long-term stability.

Of course, other nations across the region also face grave and immediate dangers — and each country must be allowed to plot its own path.  But these countries should be encouraged and supported to accept, promote, and protect universal values of tolerance and openness. And they should not be asked to go it alone. The United Arab Emirates and like-minded friends in the international community should be there to support them in this urgent task.

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