The World Affairs Council Brings Dr. Paul Salem to Philadelphia "After the Arab Spring"

Andrea Van Grinsven, for GPA -- On June 10, the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (WAC) hosted Dr. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. to speak at the council’s program “After the Arab Spring: Successes and Failures in a Shifting Middle East.” Dr. Salem began the program by discussing the context and patterns of analysis for the recent transitions in the Middle East. He then opened the floor for questions from attendees, moderated by WAC President Craig Snyder.

Dr. Salem highlighted the empowerment of citizens in the Arab world as an important trend during the Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of regional protests that began in 2010. He applauded the youth activism that fueled many of the protests, crediting the younger generations as those who “started the first sparks and broke the wall of fear.”

“Once [citizens] realize they have power, they’re not as afraid,” Dr. Salem said, calling this “historical, irreversible power shift” a “genie that’s hard to put back in a bottle.”

Despite the Arab citizens’ successes in igniting change in the Middle East, Dr. Salem noted that many Arab countries are still struggling to execute a shift to democracy. He described countries in the region as “lost in transition,” because while the old systems are dying out there are no new systems being established in their place.

Dr. Salem partially attributes the transition struggle to the revolutions’ lack of leadership, noting that even if they are democratic in sentiment, leaderless revolutions leave no one to speak for the mass movement and no party to run for elections. He also pointed out that although the movements had strong political visions ­– to seek an accountable government, hold elections and eliminate corruption­ – they lack an economic vision, an equally important component as many revolution participants are driven by poverty and unemployment.

“The wave of democracy broke differently on different shores,” Dr. Salem said as he engaged the council in a discussion of why certain Arab transitions were more successful than others, contrasting Syria and Tunisia as an example. He listed national cohesion, strength of state, location, and the economy as factors that explain the divergent results of the uprisings and transitions.

Dr. Salem briefed the group on the situations in many of the transitioning countries, touching on conditions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. He called Tunisia “the most successful case” and remained hopeful about the futures of the other states. He noted that Yemen experienced a successful transition, but the country is “transitioning to failure despite their best efforts” because of resource poverty, namely a lack of water.

Dr. Salem was the least optimistic about the state of Syria. He criticized the United States’ inaction to intervene as a “historic mistake” and “moral disaster” weighing on the current administration and the next. Dr. Salem also expressed concerns about the rise of an Al Qaeda state in Syria.

During the Q&A portion of the program, an attendee asked Dr. Salem what advice he would give to the Obama administration in regards to aid for Syria. Dr. Salem stressed that, though late, U.S. intervention is still feasible. He recommended that the Obama administration consider military options that will protect Syrian civilians, such as weakening the Assad regime’s air power. He also advocated for providing robust backing to an “acceptable” opposition group. “They’re not angels, but they’re better than nothing,” he said.

During the Q&A, attendees also asked Dr. Salem for his opinions on issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the impact of the Bergdahl prisoner release on a potential Al Qaeda state.

This program marked the end of the World Affairs Council’s 2013 - 2014 event season. Those seeking their fix of world affairs before the council’s informative programs return in the fall should look into WAC’s upcoming trips and summer programs for high school students.