After the Arab Spring

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s Note: On March 20, Shadi Hamid participated in a discussion, moderated by Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman, on the Arab awakening one year later. Hamid debates the current situation in Syria, and whether military, humanitarian, and multilateral intervention are due; how republics and monarchies differ in the region; and what will eventually come of the past year’s uprisings.

JONATHAN TEPPERMAN: Should we all relax about the Arab Spring? Will the Arabs ‘rise to the occasion?’

SHADI HAMID: Well, I don’t think this is a time for us to step back. I think this could be, or perhaps could have been, the best opportunity for the U.S., and I don’t think we’ve seized it. I worry that the window of opportunity is closing, with the whole Arab spring. If you look at a number of countries, with the exception of Tunisia, it’s not looking very good. Our closest ally, Egypt, essentially held several American citizens hostage, and they had to stay in the U.S. embassy because they would be arrested if they went out. In Libya, the revolution worked, the opposition was able to gain power, but now there are very serious challenges, such as certain groups wanting autonomy from the rest of the country and different militant forces fighting each other. So, that strengthens the argument for more international intervention, not less, because there is a chance that we’ll go backward, there is a chance that autocrats would rise again. If anything, that’s why I think that this is the time for the U.S. to fundamentally reassess its foreign policy, along with our allies, because of course it can’t be a unilateral action. With Europe, with Turkey, with other emerging democracies, we have to find how we can help, how we can support these transitions. The Obama administration is committing 1 to 2 billion dollars to Egypt. That’s, quite frankly, embarrassing. That’s a very small amount considering what Egypt has to face. I know there are budgetary constraints here, but that’s why I think there has to be bold leadership, and we need an administration to make the case to the American people that it’s in our interest, and that it’s in line with our ideals to do more.

TEPPERMAN: Do you believe that the arc of history will bend toward democracy and justice on its own? If not, what does the United States do?

HAMID: The reason that people don’t like us and haven’t liked us for such a long time is because we were supporting autocratic regimes for decades. It is more complex than that, but that was one of the major grievances. There is something to be said for atonement, and we Americans have to atone for some of the sins of the past. I’ll say something on leverage; I think the Obama Administration seems to have a problem with the concept of leverage. Leverage only works if people take your threats seriously, so when we threatened to withhold aid to Egypt, the military in Egypt did not take that threat seriously, and they were right, because now we’re planning on resuming the aid, even though the fundamental issues haven’t been resolved. Americans are still being charged, there is a war being waged against Egyptian NGOs, nothing has fundamentally changed, but we gave in. On Bahrain, is the relocation of the fifth fleet on the table? Probably not, but let’s say we did put it on the table: the Bahrainis wouldn’t take us seriously on that, because they know that we are not actually going to do that. The Syrians, they don’t think we’re actually going to consider military intervention. Our threats aren’t credible.

Watch the full discussion »