The array of challenges facing the Middle East—terrorism and extremism; civil war and foreign intervention; sectarianism, corruption, and authoritarianism—is both daunting and dismaying. With so many problems, it is difficult to know where to begin to address them and what roles outside actors, including the United States, should play. This conundrum is the starting point for the first survey of Arab experts conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. Questions were asked in both English and Arabic, and the survey represents the detailed views of 105 experts from almost every Arab country. These men and women are some of the region’s most accomplished political thinkers. They include civil society leaders and activists, industry leaders, scholars, former cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, and advisers to heads of state. Some emerged during the Arab Awakening; others have decades of experience.
This survey is qualitative rather than quantitative in nature. The experts were not randomly selected, and the results are not necessarily representative of the broader Arab public. But as voices that might press for and lead efforts for change and reform, they provide considerable insight into the Middle East’s policy dilemmas. The experts’ views are complex and often contradictory. However, three themes in particular stand out: government legitimacy, prioritization of local concerns, and democratic prospects.
Five years after the Arab Spring, the crisis of legitimacy that helped precipitate it has lost neither its resonance nor its urgency. The experts are almost unanimous in their extreme dissatisfaction with their governments’ responses to the many challenges they face.
The objects of their ire take many forms, from authoritarianism and militarism to corruption and cronyism to external interference. These varied sources of discontent highlight the underlying absence of meaningful social contracts between states and citizens in most Middle Eastern countries, as well as the lack of a common understanding of the ingredients necessary to rejuvenate them.
Despair runs especially deep in the region’s several collapsing states. A number of experts from Libya, Syria, and Yemen lament the difficulty in contemplating governance challenges where governance has effectively ceased to exist.