G8 Should Focus on Improving Governance in the Middle East
WASHINGTON—The stability of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will no doubt be on the minds of G8 leaders as they meet in Northern Ireland. While the need to intercept and interdict violent extremism remains a priority, a concerted effort is needed to address the issue at its source. Ideological Islamism is part of the problem, but there are deeper causes — such as concrete issues of governance — that do not require a confrontational stance by the G8 countries, but instead a range of both bilateral and multilateral approaches.
Islamists in the Middle East fall into two main camps: accommodationists who proclaim the compatibility of their ideology with democracy, and radicals who reject the international order, condoning or promoting violence to fulfill their vision. The dominance of their discourse in Arab politics notwithstanding, Islamists of both camps have had little success in their decades-long efforts to mobilize their societies. The wave of protests that has been sweeping the region since 2011 is driven by concrete demands and universal values — freedom, dignity, empowerment, social justice, and employment reform. Yet, the lack of capacity of civic forces — targeted and marginalized by the autocrats — has allowed accommodationist Islamists to accede to positions of power. But Islamism has no developed political or economic theory. The ruling accommodationist Islamists have thus had to borrow methods and approaches from ousted autocrats. Unequipped to tackle issues such as bad governance and corruption, Islamists concentrate instead on identity politics and cultural issues — useful, albeit temporary, distractions from the unfulfilled burden of reform. The failures of the accommodationists provide their radical counterparts with the opportunity to promote the implementation of an unspecified and undeveloped shari‘ah order. The key to stability in the region — addressing people’s socio-economic grievances, integrating marginalized areas, and establishing law and order — is good governance, which has so far remained elusive. Rather than falling into the trap of debating the compatibility of Islam and democracy, societies in the region would benefit from a focus on institution-building to realize the promise of citizen empowerment that the Arab Spring carried. Many local voices, across the ideological spectrum, argue for such a path, and they ought to be the primary interlocutors of the international actors with a stake in seeing the region extract itself from its malaise. Countering radical narratives will be best accomplished by denying them potential recruits created by failed state environments. Kinetic and intelligence action has significantly degraded the reach and power of violent radical organizations.
Vigilance in policing can help contain the threat of self-indoctrinating radicals. But the real reversal of the violent radical threat in the region will only be accomplished with the fostering of inclusive polities that deliver for their citizens — a difficult task that has a chance of succeeding in the Middle East only with international support.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.