Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Impact of Iran's Protest Movement on Arab Civil Society

The Impact of Iran’s Protest Movement on Arab Civil Society

Tuesday July 21, 2009

The Middle East Institute

On Tuesday July 21. Syrian civil society activist Ammar Abdulhamid gave a presentation entitled “The Impact of Iran’s Protest Movement on Arab Civil Society” to assembled guests at The Middle East Institute in Washington. Abdulhamid is the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, and is also a prominent advocate for democracy in the Middle East.

Abdulhamid sought to throw some cold water on those who see progress in recent events throughout the Middle East. First, he noted that one of the few positive things about Bush’s Middle East strategy was the former administration’s insistence on referring to certain Middle Eastern regimes as authoritarian or tyrannical. Obama’s recent overtures to regimes spurned by the former president, in Abdulhamid’s view, are seen as more strategic than genuine by Arab civil society. In other words, the new American government is aware that it must change its tone, but has no real commitment to supporting reform throughout the region. To back up this point, Abdulhamid noted that funding for political opposition in Syria has been cut by the new administration.

Abdulhamid also dispelled the notion that any successful outcome for the opposition in Iran should be seen as the start of a regional sea change. Abdulhamid illuminated that while Iran has a strong tradition of domestic civil society, in many Arab states, civil society is isolated and linked to foreigners or educated elites. Furthermore, any new Iranian government is still likely to have strong ties to elements seen as bad actors in other countries, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. This may make it difficult for civil society to champion Iran as a model for reform.

Unlike in Iran, Abdulhamid argued that in the Arab world, the powerful Islamist character of political movements, and the secular nature of educated elites and civil society activists make for a poor partnership. Abdulhamid noted several cases in which Islamist movements have gained popular support, only to be met with chagrin by many supposed democracy advocates. Abdulhamid argued that populations will necessarily make errors in their choices while building a democratic process, and civil society needs to take a more long-term view. Abdulhamid stated that the current status quo is a “slow death” and he would rather see an “explosion” than an “implosion.”

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