No going back: How America and the Middle East can turn the page to a productive future

Ever since President Trump abruptly decided to withdraw troops from northern Syria, there’s been growing debate about the role of America in the Middle East. And there should be. This is a region that about 400 million souls call home. And it’s right on Europe’s doorstep. If we’ve learned anything since 9/11, it should be that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere….Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In other words, anger on one side of the world can strike at the hearts and lives of us here in America.

So what injustices are making folks angry in the Middle East today?

From sea to shining sea (in this case from the Mediterranean to the Arabian seas), the Arab world — with few exceptions — either sees citizens rising up in protest, citizens who are suffering from government repression, or citizens living through civil war. Although each country is unique, the core complaints across them are some combination of poverty, corruption, and an absence of freedom.


Let’s start in Lebanon, where this past week hundreds of thousands of people across the multi-religious country have been demonstrating to protest the government’s failure for decades to provide even the most basic services like water and electricity. They’re also protesting against a system where the same families have dominated government — and reaped huge financial spoils — since the country’s founding. Thus far, the protestors have already gotten meaningful concessions from the government, and are calling for more reforms of the sectarian system that on the one hand has created disenfranchisement and corruption but has also kept the peace among the religiously diverse Christian, Shiite, and Sunni country.

Similarly, Iraqis have also been protesting in large numbers against unemployment, ineffective government services, and that regional culprit, corruption. In Iraq, through a similar sectarian system, the rich have been getting richer and the poor, poorer.

Across the region, ordinary citizens are rising up against an elite class that is accumulating enormous wealth through enormous corruption and for basic rights. This is a region where in most countries, the top 1% generally earns more than the bottom 50%. That might have been tolerated in a pre-social media world, but now that ordinary citizens can see the extreme wealth of the elite, and can use social media to organize, extreme income inequality just isn’t stable any longer.

Now let’s turn to Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, where the situation is very different than Iraq and Lebanon, but whose citizens still suffer from varying degrees of the similar problems of stagnant wages and lack of democracy.

Jordan — though making progress on corruption — hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and faces growing protests about wages by ordinary citizens. In Egypt, protests against corruption and inequality are eliciting a brutal response. And in Morocco, sizable demonstrations by teachers also erupted earlier this year.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, face a unique triple-problem of: first, a West Bank where the leader is nearly 15 years into a four-year term; second, a Gaza Strip that is nearly uninhabitable, with the highest unemployment rates on earth; and third, an Israeli military that still sits on top of this system, not-so-indirectly controlling the Palestinians’ movement outside these tiny territories and the import of the most basic goods. (Israel even controls the population registry).

Then there are the cases of Algeria and Sudan. which have gone through mass protests with millions on the streets — revolutions leading to changes in government — and are still finding their ways forward.

Libya, Syria, and Yemen, in contrast, have gone through a different set of experiences: outright civil wars that first began as street protests to confront corruption, poverty, and lack of freedom, which sadly have led to a nearly complete breakdown of ordinary life for vast swaths of the population. All three are in some ways divided, with regional and global powers often making the situation worse. And Yemen is facing a humanitarian catastrophe of biblical proportions, which is perhaps the worst in the world.

Even America’s closest allies like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — which might seem stable, and where military spending is among the highest on earth per capita — have to resort to such significant repression of freedom of expression that Freedom House ranks them as some of the worst in the world. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the bottom half earn one of lowest proportions of income at the world, at 8% and 9% respectively.

Although these sets of countries have vastly different political and security contexts, citizens of all suffer from many of the same ills. Only in Tunisia, and perhaps a few other places, is there modest hope that the current levels of — and trajectories for — freedom, corruption, and prosperity are promising.


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