In view of the pace of change in political events taking place in the Middle East and North Africa, it’s not surprising that the context of an interview completed on April 6 should already be slightly outdated.
Since Priyanka Philip, a third-year honors student at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business, conducted the following interview with Hrair Balian, director of the conflict resolution program at the Carter Center, on behalf of GlobalAtlanta, the presidential race in Egypt made an abrupt change that is still to be resolved.
The election commission has barred the main presidential candidates from running and they, in turn, filed appeals, which were denied. New candidates are running in the election that is now scheduled for May 23-24.
The scope of the interview, however, including Mr. Balian’s views on the role of Islamist parties, the reduction of female parliamentarians in Egypt, the impact of the depletion of foreign reserves in Egypt and elsewhere, the effects of the loss of tourism in the region, the negotiations surrounding the nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Iran, Henry Kissinger’s comments about the “Arab Spring” and his personal criticisms of the U.S. administration’s policies toward Israel, among other topics, remains pertinent.
Mr. Balian oversees the Carter Center program’s effort to monitor conflicts around the world and work with other Carter Center programs on human rights, democracy, the Americas, China and health.
GlobalAtlanta: First, we’d like to ask you, based on your background and your long-time experience dealing with the Middle Eastern and North African region, what is your personal opinion on the events stemming from the Arab Spring?
Mr. Balian: First of all, thank you for calling on me. Personally, the Middle East is a region in which I was born, grew up, and spent my formative years as a young man. Whatever happens in the Middle East touches me personally, intimately, and is very close to my heart.
The events in the Middle East of the last year are different from other upheaval that I have witnessed either as a child, a young man, or later professionally. It’s different on a number of fronts. One, for the first time in the Middle East, mass movements have affected change in the region through nonviolent methods.
In my experience, change always came through the barrel of the gun. Demonstrations were put down by the army shooting at unarmed protesters, political parties would arm themselves, and the military would organize coups. That’s how change came about. In contrast with the past, for the first time in my life, the current uprisings brought about change through nonviolent mass movements.
Another aspect is that recent mass movements are not organized by political parties, or well known political leaders, or generals. They were organized by ordinary people, through social media. This is a different kind of movement that the Middle East has experienced.
GlobalAtlanta: As a pioneer in observing elections, the Carter Center’s Democracy Program was able to observe the election process in both Egypt and Tunisia. From the Carter Center’s observations, are there strong indications that these elections propelled these countries toward democracy?
Mr. Balian: I think both of those countries have embarked on a road toward democracy. But anyone who expects democracy to come from this movement without any setbacks is just dreaming. These are revolutions. Revolutions never follow a steady trajectory. There are ups-and-downs, defeats, and disappointments. But overall, the trend is toward democracy. The fear factor has been broken. The people have felt the power of their numbers. I don’t think they will go back to the old days of dictators getting away with anything and the masses not reacting.
GlobalAtlanta: As you said, there are a lot of things to take into consideration, as this is a revolution. For future elections, what improvements should be taken into consideration?
Mr. Balian: When i was in Egypt with President Carter, he gave a few messages. One was that yes, Islamists have won elections in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. It was the people’s choice. It would behoove all concerned including the international community to respect the people’s choice.
Second, the international community needs to remain engaged with whoever wins the elections and not to isolate or shun them. That’s the only way that the people who come to power can respect their international obligations, and their international obligations include human rights.
The third message he gave is that the biggest disappointment he saw, particularly in Egypt, was that women lost in the elections. In the previous parliament under the dictatorship, women had a sizable presence in parliament. In the current parliament just elected in Egypt, only five or six women were actually elected out of about 400 members of parliament, which was a big disappointment.
GlobalAtlanta: Do you feel that the political efforts being made toward democratization will allow women to be more empowered?
Mr. Balian: Women were empowered in this revolution through their own actions. They were in the street, on the forefront of the protests. They were leaders of the revolutions in Tunisia, in Egypt. They should have had their place in parliament, but they did not because of the male-dominated conservative political parties and a very conservative electorate as well.
GlobalAtlanta: The Muslim Brotherhood announced that one of its leaders will run in Egypt’s presidential elections scheduled to take place in May. What thoughts do you have about the strong presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, its clash with the ruling military council and its aims to gain control of both the legislative and executive branch impacting Egypt’s democratic transition?
Mr. Balian: The Muslim Brothers got approximately 44 percent of the National Assembly. They will have to form a coalition with other parties, most likely not the Salifists, the 2nd largest political force in Parliament.
During the past year, the Muslim Brothers made a number of promises to the Egyptian people: that they will not compete in more than 30 percent of constituencies for Parliament, and that they will not have their own candidate for the presidency. Yet they competed in more than 50 percent of the constituencies and they put forward their own candidate for the presidency. While there may be good reasons for changing their promises, the result may be a loss of credibility.
They have committed other mistakes as well. When the members of the Constitutional Assembly were nominated, the Muslim Brothers controlled the body and as a result the liberals and minorities withdrew from the Constitutional Assembly. In any event, the nomination of Constitutional Assembly members was found to be unconstitutional and the whole exercise will have to be repeated. I hope this time, the Muslim Brothers will act more wisely.
GlobalAtlanta: Moving from Egypt to what’s going on in Syria. The Syrian government recently accepted Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. Do you think the Syrian government will follow through on this plan and withdraw troops, or do you think military intervention might be necessary?
Mr. Balian: I’m not in the habit of reading fortunes in coffee cups as people do in the Middle East , so I can’t predict if military intervention indeed will take place. But I would say it’s a step forward that the Syrian government accepted Annan’s six-point peace plan. Rather than guessing whether the Syrians will implement the ceasefire, it behooves everyone to encourage the government and the opposition to respect the ceasefire.
It takes two to tango in a ceasefire. It won’t work if only one side decides to put down arms. That will only give the government reason to continue the deployment of troops in the cities.
GlobalAtlanta: How is the turmoil in Syria affecting the business climate in the emerging democracies of the Middle East and North Africa?
Mr. Balian: Not just in Syria, let’s talk about the whole Arab Awakening in the last year. I think every country that was involved in the continuing upheaval -Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen – have suffered enormously from an economic point of view. Take Egypt for example. Before the upheavals, the country had foreign reserves of over $30 billion. Those reserves have been depleted down to around $10 billion in the last year.
When you go to Cairo, you don’t see tourists. In Tunisia, it’s the same. I mean, these countries generate significant revenues from tourism. And if tourists continue to stay away, the economies will suffer. When you talk to shop owners in Cairo, they have had enough revolution. They want stability, calm, and security, so that tourists will come back.
The situation is worse in Syria. In addition to loss of revenues because tourists are staying away, sanctions have had significant impact on the economy.
GlobalAtlanta: Just to clarify, was the $30 billion in reserves in Egypt?
Mr. Balian: That’s Egypt only. Syria’s foreign reserves were maybe around $20 billion. That’s been depleted by and large. When you deplete foreign reserves, the currency falls as well. And in the case of Syria, the currency, which was worth 45 Syrian Pounds to the dollar up until November, is now around 80 or 90 pounds to the dollar in the black market.
GlobalAtlanta: Another concern that is in the global spotlight is Israel’s pending decision on launching a military attack on Iran. How would this decision impact its relations with nations in the Middle East and in North Africa?
Mr. Balian: If Israel launches a military attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, I think it would be an unadulterated disaster. The sanctions on Iran are having serious impact on its economy. At least partly as a result, Iran is moving toward negotiations.
Unfortunately poor people suffer most from sanctions.
A few years ago, a proposal was developed by Turkey, Brazil and South Africa to process Iranian nuclear fuel outside the country. Measures were proposed to guarantee that Iran would not enrich uranium to weapons grade. But thanks to the west’s intransigence a possible deal fell apart..
There is no reason why we can’t get back to the same agreement now
One thing the West must understand is that the Iranians are a proud people. We can’t just put their face in the dust and expect them to cooperate. We have to give them a face-saving opportunity. So, through the diplomatic process Iran can be brought where the international community wants it to be.
If Israel becomes impatient and attacks Iran, all bets would be off. First, it is doubtful that bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities would accomplish what the international community wants to accomplish. It may delay by a few years Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons if that’s what they’re doing. The damage of that delay would far outweigh any time gained.
One needs to think about how Iran would react to an Israeli attack. They are likely attack Western interests in the region; they would attack Israel. They would attack oil production facilities; the Strait of Hormuz, where oil supplies transit destined to the U.S., Europe, China, India and others. U.S has military assets in of the Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, would be at risk. So we’re truly talking about a disaster if Israel attacks Iran. The benefits would be minimal, if any.
GlobalAtlanta: The U.S. has taken great measures to extend its support to these nations that are striving to reach the goal of peaceful democracy by offering political, social, as well as financial backing. In light of U.S. stance, what do you think is the role of the U.S. in this process of transition into democracy?
Mr. Balian: Henry Kissinger had a very interesting op-ed last Sunday in the Washington Post on this issue. He wrote whatever interests the U.S. has in pressing for democracy in the region, it has to be pursued within the confines of U.S.’s national interests.
The foremost U.S. interest in the region should be to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. wants to keep the oil production in the region in full swing. The U.S. wants stable countries in the region. Beyond those interests, the most important thing the U.S. can do in the context of the Arab revolutions is to do no harm.
GlobalAtlanta: As a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, do you think that President Obama has lived up to this honor in his efforts to keep the peace in the Middle East and North African region? Do you believe that he has acted in accordance with the three national interests that Dr. Kissinger spoke about?
Mr. Balian: Personally I am disappointed with President Obama’s performance in the Middle East in the last three years.
He started with flying colors, promising to be a fair broker in the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Arab world. He gave a beautiful speech in Cairo, touching on all the right chords.
But when it came to delivering, he stumbled over the very first obstacle that he encountered, and he kept on stumbling following that repeatedly and repeatedly and repeatedly. So, I’m very disappointed with what he’s done. Perhaps, he’ll do better in a second term, but seeing is believing.
GlobalAtlanta: What should he have done?
Mr. Balian: Either he should not have promised so much. Or he should have delivered what he promised.
For example, when he said that continuing to build settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem would be an obstacle to peace. Israel said “No” and continued the settlement project unabated.
The Israeli intransigence should have had consequences. Instead the U.S. backed down. It’s damaging to national interests when you put a condition down and there is no consequence.
The U.S. could have withheld some assistance, perhaps military-assistance to Israel, or the U.S. could have withheld the tax exemption of donations from the U.S. to Israel for the benefit of settlement construction.
GlobalAtlanta: The phenomenon coined the “youth bulge” has surfaced quite a few times when discussing the recent changes in North African and Middle Eastern transitional countries. How has this great population of young people impacted the transition? Does the voice of the young generation of these freedom fighters play a key role in the changes these countries are going through? How are Middle Eastern and North African countries securing jobs for the surge of young people entering the workforce?
Mr. Balian: That’s a very important question. That’s exactly what triggered the whole Arab Spring. The youth bulge. Some 60 percent of the population in most Arab countries are under the age of 30. More people graduate from schools and have no jobs and no opportunity to get a job in the near future. They were the ones who went into the street and demanded freedom and dignity. Dignity was the second most, if not the most important demand in Tunisia, in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, in Morocco, in Jordan, in Yemen. Youth were fed up going through school only to face years of unemployment after. They were on the forefront of the movements that formed the Arab Spring, and they are still active and they’re still very much in the streets.
GlobalAtlanta: Are the governments in these countries working toward more employment opportunities for these young people?
Mr. Balian: Well, they’d better. Otherwise, we’re going to see more revolutions, and this time more violent revolutions. The days of the Arab leaders just doing what they wished regardless of what the streets wanted, what the streets demanded, are over. The streets have a say now. The fear factor has gone. The streets will make their voice heard one way or another.
That also applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The streets will demand more from their leaders to help Palestinians, more than they have demanded until now.
And Israel should understand this and respond differently.
GlobalAtlanta: More than one country in the Middle Eastern and North African regions are developing a new constitution. With new constitutions, will there be new measures that will help improve business relations between these countries and their global business partners?
Mr. Balian: Hopefully, the new constitutions being drafted in many of the countries like in Tunisia and Egypt will require more transparency in all government dealings, which is a totally new concept in the Middle East.
Business dealings will also fall within this transparency requirement, and the people will see how business is conducted in their countries and legitimately demand that the population benefit from these business deals and not just the elites.
GlobalAtlanta: What advice could you give to GlobalAtlanta readers who might be potential investors or entrepreneurs interested in doing business in the Middle Eastern, North African regions?
Mr. Balian: I’m not a businessman, so I can’t advise in business. But obviously, these are all developing countries. There are huge economic opportunities.
GlobalAtlanta: In terms of business opportunities, what do you think is actually possible in this mercurial environment? Are we talking about housing, roads, infrastructure, and tourism?
Mr. Balian: That’s difficult for me to comment on really. The more businesses learn about these countries and are culturally sensitive to their needs, the more likely it is that they will make investments that are more sustainable in the long-term.
The Middle East is a diverse region.. In some of these countries, per capita GDP is over $100,000 (Gulf Emirates) and in others barely $2,000 (Yemen).
About 390 million people live in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt alone has 85 million. People look at the events of last year, and assume that the whole population of the region behave like the folks at Tahrir Square. But Egypt is not Cairo. And Cairo is not Tahrir Square. They’re different, very different.
GlobalAtlanta: Do you think that Westerners have certain misconceptions about Middle Eastern and North African countries?
Mr. Balian: Oh, absolutely. The myth in the West is that Arabs and democracy don’t go together, Arabs and authoritarian rule go hand in hand. I think events in the last year if nothing else, have proven that that’s a total fallacy.
GlobalAtlanta: How can those misconceptions be changed?
Mr. Balian: You don’t have to worry about changing the misconceptions. The events are changing the misconceptions. Go to Tahrir Square and look at the energy in those demonstrations. It’s just phenomenal. I was there two weeks after Mubarak fell in Cairo. President Carter wanted a first hand assessment. So, we were on a flight and went to Cairo. The energy level we witnessed there was just phenomenal.
GlobalAtlanta: Do you think that without going there and seeing firsthand that people here will be able to understand, or do you think it will take a long time before they understand?
Mr. Balian: I think a lot of people have understood.
GlobalAtlanta: Just one more question really quickly, sometimes when talking to Westerners, they consider all the Middle Eastern countries are very similar, especially their culture. How do you feel about that?
Mr. Balian: They’re different. There significant differences between countries. There are similarities as well. Obviously, the language is the same, but Arabs from Morocco and Iraq may not understand each other sometimes.
There are different dialects. There are cultural differences, economic levels are different, histories are different because they’ve gone through different colonial rules and wars. There’s a spectrum of differences.
This interview was originally published on April 16, but because of typographical errors that were introduced mistakenly in the layout process, it is being posted again. GlobalAtlanta apologizes to Mr. Balian and Ms. Philip for the previous errors.
Mr. Balian joined the Carter Center in 2008. Previously, he served as director for the office of the U.N. Secretary-General’s High Representatives for the Elections in Cote d’Ivoire, where he focused on facilitating and certifying democratic elections. He also led field activities in Bosnia for the International Crisis Group between 1996-98, specifically focusing on early warning of conflict resumption and promotion of sustainable stability.
Ms. Philip is pursuing her B.B.A. of accountancy. This year, she interned at GlobalAtlanta through the Robinson College’s CIBER program, researching current events in the Middle East and North African regions, with specific focus on new developments in these countries economically.