Savir's Corner: A new American strategy

The Mubarak-Pentagon axis must be replaced by a Tahrir-Harvard one.

First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390 (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters))
First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters))
It would seem only natural that with Middle Eastern societies espousing more Western values of greater democracy, freedom, respect for human rights, gender equality, freedom of the press, market economies and social justice we would witness a rapprochement between the Arab Spring countries and the United States.
Many of the battle cries in the squares of Arab cities could have been taken from the American Declaration of Independence. Yet the Arab pursuit of life, liberty and happiness has left the United States on the sidelines, criticized by the liberals and Islamists alike. American and Israeli flags can still be seen burning in Tahrir Square.
Barack Obama came into office with the best of intentions to move closer to the Muslim world, intentions which led him to his now famous Cairo speech of 2009; to support the toppling of Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak and to help NATO to bring about the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Yet in every credible public opinion poll, the United States and indeed the Obama administration itself have fallen to the same low rates of support in all Arab countries that typified the much criticized George W. Bush.
The underlying factors of these Arab attitudes are mostly cultural (and even religious) in nature. The West has been seen for decades as a secular affront by modernity against more traditional societies. The power of the United States is interpreted as an arrogant, colonial, imperialist, capitalist and abusive power. On a policy level, the US is perceived as the No. 1 ally of Israeli policies of occupation, settlement and military might, with the Palestinians being the prime victims of a “Washington-Jerusalem axis.”
This antagonism has been further fueled by a sense that American society is Islamophobic, especially since September 11.
Many of these perceptions are misplaced. The United States is a beacon of freedom and democracy, it has used its power, in recent years, mostly with prudence, and it has generally been an honest broker in its peace building efforts in the Middle East.
This definitely applies to Presidents Clinton and Obama who cannot be seen as enemies of the Palestinians, on the contrary. And yet, these anti-American sentiments persist in an era when the vox populi matters and is constantly amplified by technology. This psychologically rooted reality is of strategic significance. Change must occur on both sides – in America and in the Arab world.
The United States must make a greater effort to understand the dominant influence of the young generation in the Arab world – 60 percent of Arabs are under 30; among these young, 25% are unemployed, with the rate in Egypt reaching 34%. The region’s universities are not developing the necessary skills for the labor market, as has been noted by Adriana Jaramillo, World Bank education specialist.
A survey published in February 2011 in Time magazine showed that the No. 1 wish of the young in the region is to live in a free, modern country which offers job opportunities. This is especially true for women, who are the majority in the Arab student body. Women’s equality being a barometer of progress, this is an important trend to be encouraged. This is an Arab “Tahrir & Facebook” generation yearning for empowerment, education and employment.
If the United States seeks a new strategic deal in a more democratized region, it must reach out to the young generation directly. Relations in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the information revolution are developed with people, not merely with governments. The US must first listen to the grievances of the young in the region with regards to US-Arab relations.
More important, the United States has much to offer, from self-interest not paternalism, when it comes to education, mainly higher education, which can also affect the employment situation. If in the past the US shipped tanks to pro-Western dictators in the region, today it can electronically “ship” academic know-how from the leading academic institutions in the world to Middle East students. Such programs already exist in the Gulf in countries such as Kuwait and Dubai (for example, the Dubai Harvard Initiative), yet the United States needs to think strategically and develop such distance learning programs for the entire region, from schools such as Harvard, MIT, NYU, Wharton, Carnegie Mellon etc. to the Arab student body (and also the Israeli one), and involving the American hi-tech industry as well, in order to transfer such know-how.
In doing so over a period of years, the United States would not only foster higher education (which is in the process of being globalized anyway), but also serve employment conditions and, perhaps most important, empower the future leaders of the region. The American academic financing model is built around philanthropy and that model should also be used for the Middle East.
All of this seems to be well understood by the State Department, as stated in the “leading through civilian power” document of 2010 (QDDR): ”... civil society, universities and humanitarian organizations can often act in a manner that a government simply cannot, as thought-leaders... and agents of positive change. Our partnerships will promote innovation and technological change... and information sharing.”
The Arab world, too, needs to change to make such a new relationship possible. It must understand the dramatic success story of the United States in most walks of life, and that this stems not merely from capitalism and military power, but primarily from the fundamental values on which the US has developed since its independence. Furthermore, from a real-politic point of view, it should be clear to the Arab nations that when it comes to international intervention in the region and the peace process, the United States remains the one power that can make a difference (although not with ease in an election year), as it did with Sadat and Begin and Rabin, Peres, Arafat and Hussein. The Arabs must also accept the unshakable American- Israeli alliance.
The Middle East will greatly benefit from such a fundamental change in the equation between America, as a society and a government, and the region, by creating a new strategic deal, not based on weapons’ exports, but on education exports. This does not replace peacemaking in our region as the prime priority, but will facilitate it. This idea is exemplified by an online academy I have recently initiated – the YaLa Young Leaders Academy, in cooperation with leading institutions in the region and the world, with a potential of more than 50,000 students, from the Arab world and Israel. The Mubarak-Pentagon axis must be replaced by a Tahrir-Harvard one.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.