The ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa will not be resolved without economic reform in the region, President Obama said in his speech on Mideast issues at the State Department on Thursday.
"Politics alone has not put protesters into the streets," he said. "The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family."
His proposals include debt relief and private investment to support America's objective of promoting reform across the region — aspirations that must confront the economic realities of the Middle East in order to succeed.
Economic factors were a crucial spark in the beginning of the uprisings, Georgetown University's Samer Shehata tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "In Tunisia, you had unemployment of about 15 percent," he says. Youth unemployment, he adds, is three times as high.
In Egypt, Shehata continues, 40 percent of the population is living at or below poverty. Like many other Middle Eastern countries, Egypt faces rampant corruption, cronyism and increasing income inequality, too. And across the region, he says, decades of oil-fueled oligarchies must still be removed before economic investment can turn the region around.
That kind of change may require more investment than the president is offering, Shehata says.
"Many people have spoken about an Arab martial fund," he says, a vehicle that would include tens of billions of dollars in aid — "not simply limited to debt relief, to really make an impact on many of these countries."
Yet it's not all about economics for protesters in the streets of Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, even as their demonstrations — and the subsequent reactions of oppressive regimes — may contribute to instability and a lack of economic investment in the region.
"It has to be emphasized," Shehata says, "the Palestinian issue is an issue that affects people in the Arab world at the level of identity." That's a factor that's not appreciated well enough in the U.S., he says.
The instability caused by an endless Israel-Palestine conflict has sometimes been used as an excuse for a lack of economic development in the region, he says. Theoretically, economic development shouldn't necessarily require a peaceful relationship between the two, "but there's no question a resolution would only be good economically as well."
GUY RAZ, Host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
For more than six months, the world has watched as almost every country in the Middle East and North Africa has experienced some significant public uprising. And this week, President Obama decided it was time for him to address those changes and perhaps begin to recalibrate America's Mideast policy.
BARACK OBAMA: But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.
RAZ: A chance to pursue the world as it should be. Reading between the lines of the president's Mideast speech, that's our cover story this weekend. Today, we'll take a look at the political and economic parts of his plan, and tomorrow, the thorny issue of Israel and Palestine.
But first, a quick look at what prompted the speech, and it started six months ago with the story of a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller who was humiliated by a corrupt government official in Tunisia. He set himself on fire, and that sparked a wave of protests that toppled the government.
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Unidentified Woman #1: Tunisia's president has announced he will not seek re- election in 2014. Deadly riots have broken out over rising unemployment and restrictions on civil freedom.
Unidentified Man #1: Let's go next to Cairo, Egypt, where anti-government demonstrations have broken out on the streets.
Unidentified Woman #2: The protestors say that they have problems with the police and with the security forces that, for 30 years, have imposed a state of emergency here.
OBAMA: Leave now, Mubarak. We want him leave now. Please, Mubarak, if you really love this country, please leave this country.
STEVE INSKEEP: We're following news that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has apparently resigned. That is according to...
RAZ: A week after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in the face of mass demonstrations...
Unidentified Woman #4: The Arab world has erupted in protests.
Unidentified Woman #5: To Iran, where thousands of government...
Unidentified Woman #6: ...went to Yemen, where Friday...
Unidentified Woman #7: Bahrain is also being besieged by...
D: The situation is more volatile in neighboring Libya. Demonstrations against Moammar Gadhafi's rule...
OBAMA: Yesterday, in response to a call for action by the Libyan people and the Arab League, the U.N. Security Council passed a strong resolution that demands an end to the violence against citizens, to include the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya.
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Unidentified Man #3: The assault began on Saturday. U.S. and British warships have launched 124 cruise missiles, three B-2 stealth bombers.
Unidentified Man #4: In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has ratified a law...
Unidentified Man #5: And tens of thousands of people, Chris(ph), who have gathered in Tahrir Square, frustrated that the revolution is not moving as fast as they would like.
Unidentified Woman #9: It was the bloodiest day in more than a month of escalating protests in Syria. Locals...
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RAZ: Now, those uprisings across the Arab world have shattered long-held doctrines and assumptions in the corridors of American diplomacy, and they've an effect on President Obama, who many believed was moving U.S. policy away from the idea of pushing for democracy abroad.
But here he was on Thursday, making that very case.
OBAMA: First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.
RAZ: Now, to many Mideast observers, this sounded a lot like President Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.
Here's Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
JOSHUA LANDIS: This struck me how different this was from 2009. 2009, he came out and said: Democracy promotion Bush had stressed so much is not going to be the number-one item.
In this speech, he reversed that. He came out and said: Democracy is number one for America. We're going to support the people against the tyrants. And he said this Arab Spring has changed everything.
RAZ: He said that, Joshua Landis, it is the policy of the United States to support reform in this region. Is - was that - I mean, that didn't sound like it was a new policy.
LANDIS: Well, he's always maintained it, but he hasn't pushed it. He was trying to withdraw America from the Middle East and get out of Afghanistan and Iraq. And this, in many ways - I mean, this is the second thing that struck me, is that this is the beginning, in some ways, of a slippery slope. Clearly, the United States is thinking about a post-Assad Syria. They can deal with a post- Assad Syria.
RAZ: The president said that President Assad in Syria has a choice now. He can either lead a transition to reform and presumably democracy, or get out of the way.
LANDIS: Or get out of the way. The get-out-of-the-way is going to be the operative phrase, here. And every Republican is going to remind President Obama of this, every day. Assad is not a reformer. He's not going to bring democracy. He's not going to leave power. And that's doing to corner America.
RAZ: How important, though, are those words? How meaningful are they to people in the region?
LANDIS: They're very important. Americans don't appreciate the extent to which Syria - the average Syrian believes that somehow, the United States has helped Basil Assad and Bashar al-Assad into power, sanctions them. And that's why bin Laden believed that al-Qaida had to attack America, the far enemy, because America was the puppet master pulling the strings of all these Arab dictators.
The Arab Spring has reversed that logic and shown that people can lead in overthrowing their own governments, and that the United States is willing to follow them.
RAZ: Overall, this is billed as a major address by the president on the Middle East. Reading between the lines, you can see the argument that's made by the White House. But it seemed, as he was giving it, to be a pretty measured speech. Do you think it was as significant as the White House suggested?
LANDIS: It's important for Obama in the campaign. Is it that important for the United States in the Middle East? This was high on atmospherics, low on specifics. This is not going to change the Middle East. The basic structures of American foreign policy are there. They're not going to change.
RAZ: That's Joshua Landis. He's the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He spoke to me from member station KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma.
Joshua Landis, thank you.
LANDIS: Well, it's been my pleasure.
RAZ: Now, as we mentioned earlier, another part of the president's speech focused on economic reform in the region. If you take oil out of the equation, the entire Middle East, a region of 400 million people, exports fewer products than Switzerland.
And Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, says you can't push for political reform without tackling the economic side.
SAMER SHEHATA: In Tunisia, you had unemployment of about 15 percent, and youth unemployment three times as high. In Egypt, you had about 40 percent of the population living at or below poverty. You had increasing income inequality. Corruption was increasing.
What the president has put forward, of course, isn't going to solve the problem. Many people have spoken about an Arab martial fund that needs to be put forward. We're talking about tens of billions of dollars, not simply limited debt relief, to really make an impact on many of these countries.
RAZ: I mean, you have economies, and certainly we've learned about it in Egypt, where you have elites, essentially oligarchs who control huge parts of the economy - telecommunications and energy. Has there been too much of a focus on political reform, and not enough of a focus on economic reform from the U.S. perspective?
SHEHATA: Well, I think that there has been, you know, concern with economic reform, not just by the United States, but, of course, by the international financial institutions, the IMF and the World Bank and so on.
But I think one of the things - and you implied this - that was not focused on carefully was to what extent were these economies really market-oriented economies that were free, that were fair. I mean, there was all kinds of cronyism, all kinds of corruption, all kinds of nepotism.
RAZ: Which still exists.
SHEHATA: Which still exists. Of course, that has to change if these countries are going to progress not only economically, but politically.
RAZ: The president, of course, addressed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and we will talk more about that on the program tomorrow. But I'm wondering: Has that been used, Samer, by people in the Arab world as an excuse for the lack of economic development?
SHEHATA: I think, certainly, some governments have tried to manipulate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for their own purposes.
At the same time, though, it has to be emphasized - and this isn't appreciated, I think, well enough in this country - that the Palestinian issue, the suffering of the Palestinians, the continuing occupation, the lack of statehood is an issue that affects people in the Arab world at the level of identity, and that motivates them to protest, to take to the streets, to criticize their governments, to criticize the United States for what many people believe is an unfair policy with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
RAZ: But you could still have economic development and an absence of corruption and all these other things with that conflict continuing. I mean, those two things are not entirely linked.
SHEHATA: Yes, theoretically possible. Of course, it's harder in countries that are closer to the conflict, the bordering states, the insecurity on the suitable environment for attracting both domestic and international investment, as well as in states justifying expenditures on security issues, on armies and so on. So, yes, theoretically possible, but there's no question that a resolution of the conflict would only be good economically, as well.
RAZ: Samer, the president had dealt with a whole range of countries. You talked about Bahrain and Syria and Yemen and Libya and Egypt and Tunisia. We didn't hear anything about Saudi Arabia.
SHEHATA: That's right. We didn't hear anything about Saudi Arabia. At the same time, when he talked about issues of democracy, political freedom, civil liberties, rights of religious minorities and women, he made those statements as universal statements. He didn't say: These principles will be applicable in some countries, but not in others.
Secondly, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States was sitting in the front row and also was listening to what the president said. His statements were made as principles that the United States will pursue across the region, without exception.
RAZ: Let me ask you about how this is seen or perceived from the Arab world. I mean, this is the president of the United States standing up and saying: This is what we stand for and this is what we will promote and this is what we expect you to do. Of course, if the president of China or Russia say the same thing, I imagine it wouldn't have quite the same impact. But if - are these things internalized in the region? Do people stand up and listen and say: OK, that makes sense. We hear you, Mr. Obama.
LANDIS: Well, I think different groups of people in the region, different countries have different levels of interest in what the president had to say. I don't think, quite frankly, people in Tunisia or Egypt are concerned with what the president had to say about democracy promotion or reform right now. Those aren't the issues there.
But certainly, protestors in Syria, for example, opposition elements in Bahrain, dissidents elsewhere, as well as regimes, oppressive regimes in the region were probably listening very intently to hear what the president had to say.
RAZ: That's Samer Shehata. He's an assistant professor of politics at Georgetown University, talking about the president's speech this past week.
Samer Shehata, thanks for coming in.
SHEHATA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.