Can Washington Win Over the Arab Street?

It's Not Who We Are, It's What We Do

In my book Of Empires and Citizens, I argue that at the height of the period of authoritarian rule in the Middle East, Arab societies were divided between those people who benefited from their leaders’ relationship with the United States, and therefore sought to preserve the dictatorships, and those who did not, and therefore sought democracy. For the pro-U.S. camp, which was mostly comprised of the affluent, the U.S.-backed regimes brought the stability necessary for economic growth. This group feared that democracy, which could bring to power anti-American Islamists, would weigh the economy down. The other camp, meanwhile, saw the United States as the primary underwriter of repression. This dynamic made Middle Eastern autocracies extremely durable: in the Arab world, the middle class, which tends to be the vanguard of democracy elsewhere, was at best ambivalent to rule by the people.

In his review of my book (“The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism,” May/June 2013), Marc Lynch implies that recent events in the Arab world have proved me wrong. He correctly notes that Islamist victories in Egypt and Tunisia have not brought the dramatic severing of ties with the United States that I argue some in the region had expected. Therefore, he seems to have concluded, those expectations must never have existed in the first place. Furthermore, they could not have informed the middle classes’ negative perceptions of democracy. Yet the data, painstakingly gathered over a number of years in a number of countries, show otherwise. In my 2007 analysis of polls of Jordanians and Kuwaitis, among those (mostly middle class) who were favorably inclined toward expanding trade and business ties with other countries, over 25 percent had favorable opinions of the United States. Only 12 percent of those who opposed trade ties had good views of the United States.

It is true, of course, that some middle-class and affluent Egyptians -- think Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who during the revolution maintained an anti regime Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said” -- eventually withdrew their (at least tacit) support for the regime, which they had previously supported. In research for my book, I found that the classes that have the most to gain from strong economic ties with the rest of the world remain deeply concerned about losing the United States’ partnership.

Some Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood—led Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait and the Muslim Brotherhood—led Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, appear sensitive to middle-class concerns about relations with the United States. They have bent over backward to prove to audiences at home and abroad that they are not the anti-American firebrands they have been made out to be. As Khaled Elgindy, of the Brookings Institution, has pointed out, the Muslim Brotherhood began softening the signals it sent in regard to the United States well before the Egyptian revolution. That included overhauling the group’s electoral program in Egypt in 2010 and 2011 by taking out inflammatory references to Israel and deleting entirely the section on Palestine. During the 2012 Israeli operation in Gaza, moreover, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new president and head of the Freedom and Justice Party, was a model of cooperation. He helped mediate an end to the violence, earning praise from the Obama administration. In fact, as Tarek Masoud, of Harvard University, has written, “in all the ways that are important to American foreign policymakers,” Morsi’s foreign policy has “appeared to deviate little from that of his overthrown predecessor.” And that tracks with my broader argument: large segments of Egyptian society would not have tolerated the Brotherhood if it had brought fire and brimstone to U.S.-Egyptian relations. The Brothers knew that, and changed.

Perhaps because Lynch recognizes that the Arab world’s recent dynamics are largely consistent with my book’s thesis, his review mostly elides my core argument and instead focuses on a secondary issue: the sources of Arab anti-Americanism. Lynch believes that Arab anti-Americanism is not primarily about U.S. policies but mostly a vessel into which aggrieved Arabs pour their assorted resentments and dysfunctions. To support his point, he notes that recent shifts in U.S. policy that one would have expected to tamp down anti-Americanism, such as ending the war in Iraq and throwing support behind some Arab revolutions, have not won Uncle Sam much gratitude. And he points out that many of the same groups that I believe once countenanced authoritarianism to maintain friendly ties with the United States have now become full-throated opponents of Washington. “In Egypt,” he writes, “liberals now accuse the United States of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to usher in a new kind of authoritarian rule there, all in the name of stability.” 

But there have been shifts in Middle Eastern attitudes toward the United States, exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood’s open and cordial cooperation with the United States. This shift of U.S. policy resulting in a more tolerant stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood explains this change. And that is powerful evidence that pro- and anti-American attitudes relate directly to U.S. policy in the region. Every policy stance creates winners and losers, and the United States must think carefully about whom it wishes to advantage and whom it wishes to disadvantage before jumping in. Better relations with Arab societies as a whole will require reconsidering U.S. policies that ignore the preferences of ordinary citizens, such as continuing to back authoritarian regimes, increasing drone attacks in the region, and supporting the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A carefully constructed foreign policy will have to take into account the preferences of the millions of Arabs across the region. Embracing the aspirations of citizens in the Arab Spring, for example, is a first and preliminary step in the right direction. Yet, the route to democracy and development is still long and arduous.

The United States should not expect immediate results. Lynch is correct to note that Arabs did not instantly embrace the United States after President Barack Obama announced the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq -- although it isn’t clear why anyone would have seriously expected such a reaction. It takes a long time to make things right, and recognizing past mistakes is a far cry from making reparations for them. At any rate, there is no evidence of some deep and durable Arab hatred of the United States. As my book illustrates, citizens across the region recognize that there is much to gain from closer ties with the United States. A carefully designed U.S. foreign policy should ensure that the United States’ geostrategic plans incorporate, rather than alienate, them.

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