In an Arab world where incendiary rhetoric and intransigent — even dangerous — political posturing is commonplace, Marwan Muasher offers a voice of reason.
A former deputy prime minister of Jordan, ambassador in Washington, World Bank vice president, and current vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Muasher was speaking out on the need for political and economic reforms in the Middle East years before the current upheaval sweeping the Arab world. Now at Carnegie, buoyed by the latest events, he has a high-profile platform from which to project his moderate yet progressive views.
It’s apparent that people who matter are listening. Muasher’s op-eds have been published in major American and international newspapers and he is an occasional guest on National Public Radio, “The Charlie Rose Show” and other influential, intellectual television and radio programs.
At Carnegie, Muasher oversees the think tank’s Middle East programs in Washington and Beirut. On a recent rainy day in April, Muasher met with The Diplomat in his tidy office near Dupont Circle to discuss the rapidly evolving developments in the Middle East, as well as the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process and the U.S. role in the region at large.
All three are topics he understands very well. In 1995, Muasher opened Jordan’s first embassy in Israel, and from 1997 to 2002, he served in Washington as ambassador, negotiating the first free trade agreement between the United States and an Arab nation. He then returned to Jordan to become foreign minister, playing a central role in developing the Arab Peace Initiative and the Middle East roadmap, after which he served as deputy prime minister, with a focus on reform and government performance. During this time he also led an effort to produce a 10-year plan for political, economic and social reform — a specific blueprint that he says would have changed Jordanian laws to open up elections, improve freedom of the press and reduce gender discrimination, gradually shifting from a monarchy-based system toward a meritocracy. As he put it in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “Little surprise that an entrenched political elite shot down these efforts.”
Muasher told The Diplomat that he accepted the Carnegie Endowment post because it provided him with a place to conduct serious, scholarly work that is not saddled with ideological baggage or a preconceived agenda.
“I needed a place where I could write and voice my views about the need for reform in the Arab world,” Muasher explained. “I felt that Carnegie could be such a place. It is a highly regarded think tank that is seen as objective and research-based. Our scholars’ opinions are always informed by solid research.”
The think tank offered another appealing virtue: It doesn’t operate in an English language-only echo chamber.
“All of our publications on the Middle East are published in both Arabic and English, so I thought this was the right place for me to pursue interests that I had had for a long time,” he said.
Of course, the political protests and uprisings in the Middle East — which have spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Yemen and beyond — have dominated the international headlines all spring and by extension, Muasher’s work. Not surprisingly, he had no shortage of opinion about the rapid-fire turn of events.
“I think there is an underlying theme that cuts across all of the recent uprisings we have seen, and that is a call for better governments and dignity,” he said. “In all of these countries, they certainly have different visions and different degrees of legitimacy, but the one factor that has united all of these protests is a call for dignity and better government.”
He added: “It is an issue I have been concerned with for a very long time because most Arab governments have ignored it and not addressed it in any serious way.”
Muasher said many Arab governments have long acted as if the only pressing issue in the region is whether the Israelis and Palestinians might come to some kind of peace agreement, when in fact there are serious internal problems festering within just about every country in the Middle East.
“This is a formula for disaster,” he declared. “The Arab center cannot be credible if it focuses only on peace and ignores other issues. We are seeing the results of this today.”
Muasher cited high unemployment, inadequate education systems, an entrenched class of elites and a general feeling of disenfranchisement among Arab citizens as fueling the discontent and unrest. He said he “believes in” revolutions, but doesn’t see them ushering in fundamental change overnight.
“I believe reform must be gradual but I also believe it must be serious,” he said. “The old guard in the Arab world has for a long time used the fact that there are no protests in the street to paint a false picture that the Arab publics were satisfied. But the status quo is not sustainable.”
He adds that while reform must be homegrown and gradual, it also must be holistic and can’t rely on cosmetic fixes like bumping up salaries — something governments in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and elsewhere have tried in order to placate angry citizens.
“So far, the response to these uprisings has been either financial handouts or ad hoc programs [from the ruling elite]. Very few countries have said, ‘We are ready to engage in a serious, comprehensive process that looks not at just one or two laws but at everything that needs to be done,'” Muasher said.
He also warned: “You cannot just engage in ad hoc programs that do things in an isolated manner but don’t add up to a reform process that leads to power sharing.”
Perhaps the most effective way to stabilize Arab countries is to balance their different branches of government, according to Muasher.
“We need stronger parliaments that are able to exercise oversight authority on the executive branch that would lead to a system of checks and balances,” he said. “The executive has been too dominant in the Arab world. As a result we have seen things like corruption increase dramatically in recent years. The result is evident in places like Egypt and Tunisia.”
He also argues that putting power in the hands of a small cadre of political elite in the executive branches of government leads to arrogance — and corruption. Naturally, the masses who are left out of the nepotism loop feel isolation and anger.
“We need new social contracts between a state and its citizens,” Muasher said. “I think that the old way of ruling is a way of the past. The old arguments that the status quo can be sustainable forever have now been proven false.
“The state government operates as if it is the master of its people instead of its servant,” he continued. “Here in the United States we use the word ‘public servant’ — but they don’t use that word. People don’t feel as if they are being treated as citizens or as if the rule of law is being applied. There is too much nepotism when people just want to be treated fairly and to feel that they have a part in the decision-making processes of their countries.”
In his writings, Muasher has often lamented that Arab governments embraced economic reforms but hardly paid more than lip service to political reforms.
“The two processes should go together — both are equally important,” he told The Diplomat. “This notion of economic reform can’t happen without political reform. The results we have seen in economic reform — liberalization of trade, privatization of state-owned industries, globalization, etc. — all of these have been done without the benefits of checks and balances.
“And what we have seen in all of these countries is the benefits of these reforms going to an elite few. As a result, economic reform has a bad name in the Arab world. Not because economic reform is bad but because it was not exercised the proper way, in a way that ensured no one could abuse the system.”
But Muasher says the political elite in Arab countries still don’t seem to get that time is running out on the old ways of doing things.
“They act as if the Arab people don’t go into the street today, there is no problem,” he charged. “They use it as an excuse to do nothing. What I am arguing now is that there needs to be a wake-up call and fast by the political elite, understanding that this cannot go on and will not go on as before.
“Whether that is happening or not I still have my strong doubts,” he added.
One factor that gives Muasher some hope is that across the Arab world, the population is extremely young. About 70 percent of Arabs are 30 or younger. This youth bulge — which is disproportionately unemployed — has sparked many of the protests. It could also be a major force for change as the younger generations take advantage of social media and travel beyond the region for their education.
“The new generation is more educated and more exposed to the outside world,” Muasher pointed out. “They have had exposure to the new world that the old guard has not and they are not willing to stay silent anymore.”
Yet that doesn’t mean gradual reform will be any easier than revolutionary reforms, Muasher cautions.
“This is not going to be a smooth process by any means,” he said. “The Arab governments have made sure there are no strong civil societies or political parties and therefore it is difficult to come up with leadership in this new era.
“We have seen this in Egypt and we have seen this in Tunisia, but I also think the initial signs in Egypt are promising,” he continued. “You have seen a younger generation who truly want a pluralistic society, who truly don’t want a repeat of a system where the president is everything. I’m not naïve enough to think this is enough to ensure an orderly process, but they do send positive signals.”
Muasher noted that a common misperception about the Arab world in the West is that if democratic reforms are instituted, then Islamic radicals will win elections, making Arab-American relations even more strained.
“In a democratic, open, pluralistic system, the Islamists will have to compete against a number of alternatives to the political establishment,” he said. “But in a closed political system where people who are dissatisfied with the political system have nowhere to go … some of that support going to Islamists is a protest vote. It’s not because of [widespread] support of Islamist policies.”
Muasher predicted that open, democratic systems in most Middle Eastern countries would naturally produce some Islamist representation, but the Islamists wouldn’t dominate Arab governments.
“The Islamists will get their fair share, which in a place like Egypt or Jordan probably is around 20 percent of the population, as all polls indicate,” he said. “That is an important force in society but it is by no means a majority.”
He pointed to Egypt as a case study. In the early days of the Egyptian uprising, many pundits predicted the rise of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood.
“But the Muslim Brotherhood did not position themselves as leaders of the revolution, or uprising — I actually don’t know what to call it so far,” Muasher said with a laugh. “If they had done so, it would have created a big backlash. I think the Islamists in Egypt so far have indicated they will not field a presidential candidate and won’t contest more than a third of the seats in a new parliament.
“There is the beginning of the realization in the Arab world that it is no longer acceptable for any force to be dominant, whether it is Islamists or the traditional political establishment. There is nothing wrong with the Islamists being a part of the process, and they have been part of the process in places like Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait.
“The important thing to insist on is that they employ peaceful means. As long as they have peaceful means they are entitled to their positions.”
Turning to the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Muasher insists the time is ripe for third-party involvement, contrary to the notion of some who say there is too much else happening in the Middle East to focus on the decades-old dispute.
“This is exactly the time and exactly the situation that begs a third-party intervention so the dust does settle on the right side,” he argues.
Muasher said Obama’s speech in Cairo two years ago, in which he pledged “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims,” was widely praised in the Muslim world. But in the two years since, that same world has seen mostly war or inaction, especially in the moribund Israeli-Arab talks, from the United States.
“The U.S. needs to not just accelerate the pace of Arab-Israeli peacemaking but bring it to a resolution and soon,” he said. “Getting an agreement fairly soon would help the U.S. with its credibility on other issues in the Arab world. The pace has been far too slow and far too ineffective.”
Muasher believes the Israelis and Palestinians are too firmly entrenched in their competing positions to ever come to a workable agreement. And that’s where the U.S. role can take shape.
“The approach so far has been to get the two parties back to the negotiation table and expect that against all odds they will arrive at an agreement…. This bilateral approach has exhausted its possibilities.
“Both parties need things from the other party that they can’t get on its own,” he said. “The Israelis don’t just need peace with the Palestinians. They need a solution to the Hamas problem and the Hezbollah problem and the Iran problem.
“The Palestinians don’t just want an agreement with Israel — they want support for that agreement from the Arab and Muslim world so they are not called traitors on compromises they will have to make to reach an agreement,” said Muasher, author of “The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation,” a 2008 book whose basic message is that time is rapidly running out for a comprehensive solution to the festering conflict (also see “Jordan’s Former Foreign Minister on the Promise of Arab Moderation” in the October 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Despite the frustrating lack of movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Muasher said he’s excited to see changes pulsating throughout the Middle East, but cautioned that no one can predict what the end result will be.
“It’s still too early to see how things will develop in Egypt or elsewhere,” he said. “One thing is sure in my view is that the Arab world is not going to be the same. There is a fear barrier that has been broken. There is a myth that has been shattered that Arabs don’t go out in the street [to protest]. There is a call for better governance that can no longer be ignored. Given all of this, what is the response to this? It will be measured not in months or even years. The full repercussions can only be measured in decades.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.