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Friday, August 23, 2019

Middle East in turmoil

by Linda S. Heard

© AP Images, Supporters of Egypt's ousted President take to the streets of Cairo
© Shutterstock
© AP Images, A Syrian man mourns over a dead body
© AP Images, This image purports to show bodies being burried in Damascus

Linda Heard speaks with former US Director of the Office of Press and Public Affairs and Ambassador to Bahrain, J. Adam Ereli to get an informed overview of a troubled region undergoing historical transformation.

Ambassador J. Adam Ereli began his 25-year-long Foreign Service career in Cairo. Fluent in French and Arabic, his assignments overseas have included stints in Qatar, Yemen, Ethiopia and Syria. He served as US Ambassador to Bahrain from 2007 - 2011. I caught up with him while he was revisiting Manama to hold discussions with members of the Bahraini government and officials. Unrestrained by diplomatic-speak, Adam Ereli is forthright, erudite and holds nuanced opinions on crises plaguing a region beset by conflicts and threats.

Those heady days in 2011 when the socalled ‘Arab Spring’ was being celebrated are fading from memory. I asked J. Adam Ereli whether he believed that the current volatility in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen represent the birth pangs of democracy or are those countries moving back to authoritarianism or forward to Islamist states.

“The Arab Tsunami is a better description,” he said. “I am really uncomfortable with the lexicon that is used to describe events because I think, in one sense, that words like ‘democracy’, ‘authoritarianism’, ‘fundamentalism’ have lost their meaning because they mean different things to different people. What is clearly at stake here is the social contracts between those ruling and those ruled.

“There are those calling for greater levels of political participation; you can call those democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt] worked through a democratic process but was not at all democratic when elected. Broader political participation was replaced by different forms of authoritarianism, not in the form of a military dictatorship but an Islamic regime that was intolerant and exclusionary. They rigged parliament, they ran through a constitution and fired judges then the military comes back with ‘a coup’ and took authoritarian measures.

“This points to the failure of a vocabulary to accurately describe what is happening. The Arab Spring led to people questioning the social contracts which they inherited – you rule and in exchange you get this and we get that. That deal got broken a long time ago [in Egypt] and people said ‘Okay, I am tearing this contract because you broke it by being too repressive or too whatever and now they are basically negotiating a new contract. On this we suffer from a very wide cultural divide between East and West. I don’t mean that in terms of the West being anti-Muslim and the East smarter and more developed. There is a cultural divide on the terms of political debate.

“In the US or the UK, when there is a political disagreement, they yell and scream and call each other names, but we know that at the end of the day they will sit in a room and compromise on health care, raising taxes or military action; they will find a way in the interests of public good. This is borne from a long tradition of a constitutional political process that has rules and a track record of abiding by those rules. In the West, politics is a blood sport but if you don’t have those rules politics is literally a blood sport. In this part of the world [the Arab world] those rules don’t exist and people can’t see their advantage in agreeing to concessions because the other side thinks they don’t get anything. When we talk about a democratic process, they [in the Middle East] are not having the discussions we are used to having.

“Just because you don’t have all of democracy does not mean you don’t have any democracy. What’s frustrating about the West’s debate, the rulers, by definition are seen as repressive and autocratic and the opposition is by definition tolerant and democratic. That has led to bad decision-making by the West. The leaders aren’t all bad and the opposition isn’t all good. The opposition is often more ruthless than governments, so let’s not have any illusions about white knights and bad knights.”

There is a popular perception in Egypt that the Obama Administration actively supports the Muslim Brotherhood over the people’s will as displayed on June 30th. Ambassador Ereli insists that perception is false.

“What we supported was the people’s choice. We were trying to achieve responsible governance by a freely elected authority,” he says. “Does that mean we support the Brotherhood? It is not up to us to dictate who should be elected. We were prepared to work with the elected government that’s now been overthrown. You play with the hand you are dealt with and now that Gen. Abdel Fatah El-Sisi is in power there’s not a lot we can do about it. We will find a way to deal with that reality and work with him to try to steer things in a responsible way.”

I asked whether he thought the US should cease giving Egypt US$ 1.5 billion in annual aid as many in the Administration and Congress are advocating.

“I think that would be a big mistake. I really do. It would undermine our leverage if the US packed up its toys and walked away from the playground. That’s silly talk.”

When the Assad regime in Syria appears to have escaped the bullet in the form of punitive strikes over its alleged use of chemical weapons, I asked for the Ambassador’s opinion on President Barrack Obama’s response to Syria’s infringement of his red lines.

“The US has been weakened on the world’s stage by not taking decisive action on Syria. Obama is right that the American people are divided and it would be better if he had Americans behind him. However, the longer we wait the greater the cost to the US and our allies as well as our influence in the region. Was he right to go to Congress? He’s the President. He’s knows better and I wouldn’t like to second guess that.”

America, Saudi Arabia and various Gulf States back the Syrian opposition. I asked J. Adam Ereli how much of a factor Assad’s relationship with Iran motivates such support.

“Assad has made enemies of his neighbours and bears responsibility for his own predicament. It is not all about Iran but Iran is of concern. Assad remains in power for one reason: he has the support of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah. He was on the ropes until Tehran and Hezbollah doubled down with more soldiers and more weapons. In December, we thought Bashar was a dead man walking but Iran is keeping him there which is not helpful to the Gulf where Iran is a destabilizing regime that’s expanding its influence and causing all kinds of mayhem. If Iran succeeds in defeating the West and preserving Bashar, it will be emboldened to go after other rivals/enemies. Either Assad goes and there is chaos in Syria where Islamist extremists such as the Al Nusra Front will get a base of operations or he remains, thousands die and Iran comes out the victor. There are no good options on Syria; it’s about which option is less bad.”

Do you feel Iran is an existential threat to Israel should it succeed in gaining nuclear weapons capability and would you bless an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities?

“Iran is a threat to the entire region and the world. The regime is premised on three dangerous functions, religious rule, the exportation of the Islamic revolution and the endorsement of the use of terror and weapons of mass destruction as tools of state power; not to mention ruthlessly effect internal repression. Iran doesn’t just threaten Israel. It projects power that isn’t limited to conventional weapons. What does the world do about this? Israel, Europe and the Middle East are all threatened but I believe in a policy of containment until Iran is willing to accept international norms on nonproliferation and cooperates with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). It seems to me that attacking countries doesn’t solve problems as we’ve seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; one problem may be removed but attacks create a whole host of other problems. The threat of an attack has a certain utility because it focuses attention on the need for change.

How should the Obama Administration shape its policy towards Iran given that its new president, Hassan Rouhani seems to be more moderate than his predecessor and has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the US?

“Caveat emptor [buyer beware]! What we see in Rouhani is a change of tactic. Iran’s overriding strategic imperative is religious proselytizing combined with WMD and militarism. I don’t see one guy turning that situation around. One man a regime does not make and against that one man is the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who controls Iran’s foreign policy. I am a skeptic.”

On Bahrain, where J. Adam Ereli, spent many years, he is positive. “It’s a country of warm people trying to deal with its problems instead of sweeping them under the rug. I’m impressed.”

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