Culture: The Missing Piece From the President's Speech

In his long awaited speech about the Middle East President Obama reaffirmed America's role in supporting democracy in the region, but in a world that's experiencing monumental shifts the focus on culture has to take center stage in formulating strategies for foreign policy.
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In his long awaited speech about the Middle East President Obama reaffirmed America's role in supporting democracy in the region, but in a world that's experiencing monumental shifts the focus on culture has to take center stage in formulating strategies for foreign policy.

We are now living in an interconnected world through knowledge and information. The transition from hegemony to a participatory leadership style with the Arab world has started but policy makers haven't fully laid out the process and the mechanisms that the Arab world needs for sustainable change. There has to be a higher degree of sophistication in the understanding of the mindsets in cultures that can support emergence of institutions that lead to democracy in Egypt, Tunisia and eventually Palestine.

It is fair to say that from a strategic perspective, the Administration should not have labeled the speech as historic unless it intended to announce a policy shift as substantial as the change that is taking place on the ground in the region. The Arab Spring remains the most dynamic unfolding of social change in more than five decades, messy no doubt, but very telling of a new narrative written by young Arabs that did not live in the mental prisons in fear of dictators that their parents lived in. This is because Shadia in Cairo can communicate with Olaf in Sweden and discuss the principles of freedom and democracy that make his country a heaven for its citizens.

The uprising is an evolutionary stage of development in Arab cultures that topples governments and dictators, but has yet to harbor enough political and social roots to move it in the direction of order and nation building. These are the cultural nuances and upward shifts in sophistication of mindsets that are taking root for the first time in the Middle East that have to be addressed. Today, the US has an unprecedented opportunity as the leader of the free world, to co-design with leading Arab states a roadmap for young Arabs that show the long and arduous road that leads to democracy. In helping the US and the Arab States design for the profound shift that is taking place in the Middle East and for our Middle East policy to have the profound and meaningful change that lays the foundation to a peaceful long term alliance I would outline the following plan of action: Pursue A Stratified Approach to Arab Democracy: The Arab Spring is the region's first attempt at organic nation-building since the end of the colonial era. This is the region's first attempt at building democratic structures that fit the realities on the ground of each country. Leading Arab states together with the US should advocate a plan for a systemic developmental roadmap that can become the rallying call for every Arab woman, man and child. This plan would fit the value-system landscapes of each culture and should be embodied in the spirit of the following steps:

  1. A study of the profiles of the citizens in the country seeking democracy. This step starts by assessing each individual country's history, religion, topography, and cultural evolution. Who are the Egyptians, who are the Tunisians, who are the Libyans? How has modern history in the region and in their respective countries shaped their cultural evolution? What is their psychological makeup? How has religion shaped who they are today? In an address to the Senate Committee On The Future in 1979 at the dawn Iran's Islamic revolution, Dr. Jean Houston, the foremost leader in the Human Potential Movement, advised the committee's members on the need to look at the culture as a whole when it comes to Muslim countries, and not try to impose the West's own thinking on Iran and Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, she warned, the disparity between culture and the Western notions of modernization would create an inevitable opportunity for the triumph of a fundamentalist regime. Which, of course, is what happened with the ascendance of Khomeini. Forty years later, and after our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan it doesn't seem that our leading politicians have understood the crucial roll that culture plays in politics.
  2. Identifying each country's zones of synergy. These are the respective sources of national wealth, be it natural resources or human capital, active or dormant. This will form the basis for a viable private sector that can provide jobs that fit the landscape and various capacities of the citizens. From building cement factories and designing sustainable agricultural models for laborers to creating the most advanced hi-tech research and development companies.
  3. Studying the Forms of Governance that work. This will be the painstaking process that will take years to evolve into a coherent platform for governance. Now we can talk about what form of democracy fits those citizens who live in such dynamic landscape, and what form of institutions are needed. Would a centralized form of democracy for this stage of development fit better than a multi-party democracy?

All this should happen with an enlightened co-leadership that can create an overarching goal for a patriotic national cause that brings forth the state into the community of nations and that Shia, Sunni and Christians alike within that nation can rally behind. The importance of setting a common, overarching goal was recently confirmed to me on a trip to Oslo where I attended a presentation by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate FW De Klerk at the Oslo Center for Peace. He spoke retrospectively about the two major factors that led to democracy in South Africa, inclusivity and leadership. Stating that leaders should be able to align with their constituencies and bring all parties to the table or else the entire effort will be "like a soccer match in which one of the teams did not appear." Nurture Infant Democracies: A bold declaration in new US foreign policy should be made towards making a conscious effort in balancing America's values and our strategic and economic interests in the region, and our willingness to compromise the pursuit of those interests if they interfere with people's aspirations for freedom. A point that was clearly stated in President Obama speech. Sadly, we are faced with a tradition of mistrust towards the United States in the Arab world, as it's often seen protecting the two things closest to it; oil and Israel. Some of that mistrust and anger is justified and some just stems from the Arab street projecting their aggression onto what professor Fawaz Gerges calls the "Far Enemy" represented by the US and Israel. When "the near enemy" is the brutal dictator who imprisons and kills his critics the far enemy becomes the favored choice on whom to project the anger of repression. A conscious look at balancing our practices abroad started with the President's speech and has to be followed with practical steps on the ground and in our foreign policy. This will go a long way in planting the seed of mutual trust and respect with the Arab street. We have to view the region through the lenses of infant democracies that need the guiding moral compass of a mature democracy. Align with and Empower Regional Nations of Influence: To create the paradigm shift that will establish our new participatory leadership role the US should call on the major power brokers in the region like Saudi Arabia and Turkey and facilitate the stage for them to play a more assertive role in brokering political deals in return for security guarantees. Although Saudi Arabia was criticized for supporting the Bahrain regime in quelling the Shia uprising that was in part influenced by Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, King Abdullah remains one of the most progressive reformers in the region. He is by far one of our closest allies in deterring Iranian influence in the region. Behind the scenes the Saudis have teamed up with the Turks in an effort to pry Syria out the clutches of Iran, which if successful can pull the rug out from under the spread of Iranian-brand apocalyptic Shia ideology known as Wilayet Al Faquih, that is threatening not only Israel, but every oil rich country in the region. The unholy alliance between Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas is now being broken thanks to the behind the scenes work of the Saudis who are making strides in convincing Syria to move Hamas' headquarters to Qatar, a moderate Gulf state. This type of regional leadership should be encouraged especially when it comes from another Muslim country on which far enemy projections aren't made. Pursue a Systemic Approach to Economic Development: The US is teaming up with Arab Gulf States to help in the economic development of emerging Arab democracies. Along with the IMF, the World Bank and the respective countries that are being rebuilt, the leaders in charge of these development plans should have an "ecosystem" approach to development that address the causes of corrupt business practices. Said E. Dawlabani, an expert on economic emergence in the Middle East writes "Egypt, which is considered to have some of the most evolved business practices in the region, is also the most corrupt. The spoils of foreign direct investment and international aid went to the elite in government, the military and their inner circle and this will not longer be tolerated by the masses of people on the street today. Business practices in most of the region are geared to make one family or one clan posses power through wealth over the next family or clan." This long-term development raodmap will not be similar to that of Europe or Japan under the Marshall Plan. 2011-05-23-Fatah2108056.jpg The Arab Spring is signaling the birth of Industrial Age values that is emerging simultaneously with the information and knowledge age. These are the value-systems that built the modern day middle class in first world countries. This must be promoted through responsible corporate practices, and matched by transparency in governments that believe in their people as their ultimate national strength. To affect real and lasting change, a plan similar to the Marshall Plan in its ambition must be undertaken and tailored to fit the tribal and feudal mindsets that are prevalent in the region to lead them collectively to more enterprising practices based on merit not nepotism and clannish alliances. This type of commitments will require long term planning from all parties involved, especially the respective countries that are being rebuilt. Their governments and private sector have to be held accountable to higher standards in order for the entire culture to emerge and establish a permanent presence for the middle class, which is every advanced culture's insurance against chaos and collapse. Maximize the use of Technologies that Anticipate Change: Since we don't have a full grasp on the changes that are taking place in the region, we have to gather information through technology that anticipates threats and future trends in the world and specifically in the Middle East. Technologies on the cutting edge that have made their way into advanced business practices and in the Pentagon must be applied in scanning the horizons for every variable that impacts cultural evolution. A system similar to the RAHS (Risk Assessment & Horizon Scanning) program in Singapore, which explores methods and value-system research that compliment scenario planning, is a good example. Relying on technology that scans the horizon will not only make the world a safer place, but will add complexity and precision to a diplomatic corps that can act on information in real time. Here's a partial list of political maneuvers that we should have anticipated in Egypt had we had this technology:

  • We should have known a lot more about the Muslim Brotherhood. They are ideologically organized around a set of Islamic principles yet have branched out into five factions spanning from the extremists to the more enterprising thinking factions. A few weeks ago Sheikh Qardawy a radical member of the MB who was ousted by the Mubarak regime, and was a fixture on Al Jazeera TV, made a triumphant return to Tahrir Square where he riled up the cheering crowd with his radical speech. When the young Google executive, Wael Ghoneim, who's credited with the uprising took to the stage he was booed and asked to step down immediately. The young executive had the support of more than 70% of Egyptians, while the Muslim Brotherhood had much less support, yet their ideological glue keeps them well organized, and might get them to a majority in the Parliament in the next election, even though they refused to have a candidate in the upcoming November elections.
  • Four years ago, the Egyptian Army broke rank with Mubarak when he appointed his son as his de facto successor. The army had encourages the uprising in Tahrir Square and helped direct the anger of the people towards Mubarak. Now, the demonstrators are being robbed of what they've accomplished as the army runs and governs the country. Having a general in charge could lay down a smooth transition towards democracy, but how can we anticipate what the army's intentions really are and how can we be sure the next formula for governance will be a multi-party system that does not allow for one party to dominate?
  • In order for the young women and men who started this uprising to have a say in the form of democracy their country should have, the United States in partnership with wealthy Arab States should sponsor civic institutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Palestine that teach in practical terms the principles of democracy and nation-building. Nafiz Rifaee, a Fatah leader, tells me that these young men and women have no desire to follow an ideology or an Old Guard mindset to create their political platform, they have to have a love for their country and a willingness to learn the process and mechanisms for building a democracy with viable institutions.

Building a Viable Palestinian State: The issue of Israel/Palestine is of critical importance as it's built deep in the psyche of Arab Nations when most of these Nations were gaining their independence and came to view Israel as the entity that deprived Palestinians of Nationhood. Right or wrong this is how Israel is viewed in the Arab world. Not sure if the president furthered his cause by announcing his support for a Palestinian state with 1967 borders and land swaps. He did well slapping the wrists of Israelis publicly by announcing his position on the conflict, yet did little to hold the Arabs and Palestinians accountable in the pursuit of peaceful coexistence. In a recent conversation with complexity strategist, Dr. Don Beck he explained " too often peace-making consists of stretching across a deep and historic wound, thus attempting to seal it over at the top. Unhappily, the trapped '"poison" and angry motives of pay back revenge are trapped within, only to fester and even grow more destructive." This is precisely why peace-making has to address the real causes of the conflict in a systemic and thrive and help thrive manner. It makes little difference what documents the politicians sign, unless the populations, which have been engaged in the conflict, are in step with their leaders' vision. Based on the Spiral Dynamics Systems model created and field-tested in South Africa by visionary geo-political strategist Dr. Don E. Beck, who was praised by FW de Klerk recently in Oslo as one of the architects of the transition from apartheid, we have been working since 2005 with Palestinian community leaders on creating a national platform for building Palestinian institutions. Our work culminated in a Nation-Building conference in Bethlehem that provided a unique forum for community leaders including Fatah 3rd and 4th generation members that focused on the viability of a future Palestinian state. The participants called on President Abbas to set up a "nation-design conference" that would unleash the brightest minds in Palestine and throughout the world to create a developmental roadmap for Palestine based on much of the principal outlined in this article. This call for nation-building was informed by the needs and aspirations of all Palestinians, and put forth a vision of a thriving region. It honored the past while building the infrastructure necessary for the younger generation to emerge socio-economically and overcome the region's historic conflict. For moderates in Israel, a plan such as this would provide the assurance they need to enter into a partnership of mutual peace and prosperity, while quelling the extremists in Hamas and Israel's far right parties. What was amazing but not surprising was how Palestinian professional women emerged as leaders at the forefront in designing for their future state. If the US intends to remain in a leadership position in a rapidly changing Middle East, it would benefit in adding some of the principles outlined in our work and incorporate them into a development template for a design conference that could play an essential role in creating a successful Palestinian state. This can only happen if President Abbas continues to strengthened Palestinian institutions before announcing an independent state at the UN in September and on the sole condition of Hamas dropping the antagonistic calls for Israel's destruction in its charter and acknowledging its right to exist. Another image that stayed with me from FW de Klerk's speech in Oslo is his description when of the initial intent of Apartheid to protect the Whites in a sea of Black Africans, but ended up isolating and limiting the same people it wanted to protect. I don't believe that the same conditions for Apartheid exist in Israel/Palestine -they are more complex and layered historically-- however, I can't help but compare how Israel is following similar patterns. It's only natural for me to ask at this point, where's Israel's De Klerk?

Like the president I am not claiming that this new Middle East development map will be easy to implement by the eager citizens of emerging Arab democracies. The region is going through monumental shifts that demand long term planning and the United States must be a the helm directing this change if it is to regain its status as the leader of the free world. Elza S. Maalouf is an Arab-American futurist and cultural development specialist focusing her work on cultural and political reform in the Arab world. She is the President of the Center for Human Emergence Middle East a think tank that emphasizes the scientific understanding of cultures.