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Philip Seib Headshot

'Arab Fatigue' and Today's Middle East

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DOHA --- As always, the Al Jazeera Forum, held more or less annually in Qatar, featured a diverse array of speakers: senior government officials from the region; Arab "outsiders" seeking to bolster their credibility; academics, journalists, and other ne'er-do-wells from around the world; and Al Jazeera's own roster of experts.

Three years ago, at the 2011 Forum, optimism was everywhere, as the "Arab Spring" spawned expectations about the demise of despots and the rise of democracy. But this year, the mood was far more uncertain. The title of the Forum was, "Change in the Arab World: Where To?" No one had a definitive answer.

A survey of the Arab political landscape finds little cause for hope. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, has the best chance to find democratic stability. But Libya is an anarchic mess, Syria is a blood-soaked disaster, Egypt has merely bought time with its military coup, Bahrain might yet completely explode...and on and on. Most of this year's Forum participants recognized this dire situation and set aside whatever remained of the 2011 euphoria, talking somberly about the need to build institutions and establish the rule of law.

An encouraging note was the relative absence of discussion about the role of the United States. When provoked, participants were happy to denounce American hypocrisy in dealings with Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria, but gradually Arabs seem to be realizing that they need to clean up their own mess.

This is important, because in the United States and elsewhere in the West there is a decided "Arab fatigue." After the excruciating Iraq War, how many Americans want to spend more lives and money in the Middle East? President Barack Obama might be criticized for failing to intervene to halt the mass murder that is taking place in Syria, but if U.S. voters were asked about this, how many would favor intervention that put American personnel at risk? Maybe 5 or 10 percent? Obama faces a horrendous moral choice, but his "do very little" approach accurately represents the sentiments of his constituents (as well as of most of his military leaders).

For the longer term, "Arab fatigue" means that the time of a forceful U.S. presence in the region is over. The most useful assistance that American and other Western governments can provide is aid that stimulates Arab economies. With 60 percent of its population age 25 or younger, the Arab world most desperately needs to create jobs. Time and again at this year's Forum, speakers spoke of the desire for "dignity" as the root cause of the 2011 uprisings. In part, dignity means having an opportunity to provide food, housing, and schooling for one's family. Although they receive little notice, some of the most successful Western efforts in the region are addressing this: loans for entrepreneurs, job training for young women and men, trade arrangements to provide markets for Arab products.

Such programs tend to be overlooked because the more volatile aspects of the region's politics attract so much attention, but these economic fundamentals are the keys to finding answers to the "Where to?" question.

Related to these matters is the persistent emphasis on "democracy" as a stated goal of Arab reformers. Judgments about the success or failure (mostly failure) in reaching this goal tend to be based on the Western experience. But if democracy, in the sense of a public shaping its own political destiny, is to be achieved in this region, it must be a truly Arab democracy. It must be rooted in Arab tradition, norms, and culture, and not be a Jeffersonian transplant from the West. Figuring out exactly what this means is one of the greatest challenges facing those who want to see Arab politics evolve. This will involve building an independent justice system, meaningful freedom of speech, opportunities for women, and other political characteristics that exist only rarely in the Arab world today. Given the existence of "Arab fatigue," impetus for such change must come from within.

Creating a brighter Arab future cannot be accomplished solely by turning out hundreds of thousands or even millions of Arabs into the streets. A lesson from the events in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011 is that political passion does not in itself ensure lasting political change, and the subdued realism of this year's Al Jazeera Forum participants reflected this. For those pondering "Where to?", recognizing this is the start of a new path forward.