For the last two years participants at the Islamic World Forum wrestled with some of the policy and analytic challenges related to an Arab world seemingly transformed. Revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and regime change in Yemen, promised a new Middle East. There even seemed hope that pariah regimes like Bashar al-Asad’s Syria would fall.
This year, however, one of the challenges is stasis: Syria seems trapped in a brutal and bloody civil war. Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen all have governments that are finding it difficult to consolidate authority. So the challenge now is not just the fall of old regimes, but the danger of prolonged regime weakness and its implications.
The greatest risk is that civil war, not democracy, will spread. Iraq and Lebanon, infected by sectarianism spilling out of Syria, seemed poised for even greater violence. Governments in Libya and Yemen still do not control much of their own country, with armed groups big and small threatening their rule. Even in Egypt, the government’s writ in an important part of the country, the Sinai, remains weak. Less dramatically, but more insidiously, weak governments are unable to make the structural reforms that will ensure economic and political success.
The United States must work with regional governments to address the issue of regime weakness. Part of this will involve aid and technical assistance, but at most such programs will lead to limited gains. The biggest challenge will be helping put out, or at least contain, regional fires like Syria and prevent them from spreading further.
For the United States, however, meeting this challenge is impossible without the support and leadership of states in the Muslim world. The growing sectarianism emanating from Syria is finding echoes throughout the Muslim world, and it is also increasingly inciting Muslims elsewhere. The United States cannot speak credibly to this issue but should support allied efforts to do so.
We look forward to the forthcoming U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar as an opportunity for officials and policy makers on both sides to listen, learn and engage on how we can best move forward together.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.