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The Dark List

Why nobody in the Middle East deserves to be an FP Leading Global Thinker this year.

I am not a big fan of lists. I happen to think that Kendrick Lamar owned 2013, but what is it to me if somebody else preferred Daft Punk or Kanye West, even Taylor Swift? How could anyone really say whether Lebron James is "better" than Michael Jordan? They're all great in their own way, meaningful to different people for different reasons, and I've never been very good at figuring out the rationale for ranking them. Thus, to the no doubt endless frustration of my colleagues, I've never been much help with the annual FP Leading Global Thinkers list.

But this year, my contribution to the list of the Top Middle East Thinkers would have been easy: nobody.

I mean, just look at the Middle East right now. It has been an absolutely abysmal year. Egypt's political process has been fundamentally broken. Libya and Yemen are falling apart. Tunisia's promising transition is jumping the rails. The Gulf monarchies are clamping down hard at home and stirring up trouble abroad. And Syria's catastrophe is a black hole at the heart of the Levant, with unspeakable human tragedy and unsettling effects rippling out across all its neighbors, while violence continues to spiral in Iraq. Does it look like anyone is doing any deep thinking?

FP didn't quite go for my "zero option." Still, the paucity of Arab political thinkers, leaders, and activists on this year's list is telling in comparison to 2011 and 2012. 2011's list featured such visionary activists as Tunisia's Sami Ben Gharbia, Egypt's Wael Ghonim and Mohamed ElBaradei, Syria's Ali Farzat and Razan Zeitouneh (who was sadly kidnapped on Tuesday), Libya's Fathi Terbil, Yemen's Tawakkol Karman, Saudi Arabia's Eman al-Nafjan and Manal al-Sharif, and Palestine's Mustafa Barghouti (sorry about Alaa Al Aswany). 2012's list added Bahrain's courageous al-Khawaja family and Nabeel Rajab, Syria's Rima Dali and Bassel Khartabil, along with Tunisia's Ahlem Belhadj. A depressing number of those -- and untold other -- activists have been imprisoned or killed, have faded from view, or have become lightning rods within hotly polarized domestic political battles.

Political leaders haven't fared well either. Al Jazeera's Wadah Khanfar was a solid pick for 2011, while 2012 caught Qatar's then-Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at the peak of his country's failed bid for regional leadership. Both have left the scene: Sheikh Hamad replaced by his son for reasons which remain murky, and Khanfar departing Al Jazeera ahead of the station's precipitous decline. Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were featured on both the 2011 and 2012 lists, but their reputations have suffered with Turkish foreign policy failures and growing domestic authoritarianism and repression of the Gezi Park protests. Khairat al-Shater of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Rached Ghannouchi of Tunisia's Ennahda were good choices in 2011. But Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood failed catastrophically in power, and Ghannouchi has become a polarizing figure in Tunisia's embattled transition. Let's hope that this year's addition to the list, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, fares better.

As it happens, FP chose three really good people to populate this year's list. Hossam Baghat and Heba Morayef rank among the very few Egyptians who came through the Morsy period, the coup, and the Sisi era with honor. (The same can't be said of the list's third Egyptian, Bassem Youssef, who jumped onto the "Muslim Brotherhood = Nazi" campaign which justified Egypt's military coup.) And Farea al-Muslimi has been a truly courageous activist in Yemen, whose frank testimony brought the reality of the drone war to America.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, and can't conceal the hard times that have befallen the thinkers, activists, and political leaders who helped make the 2011 Arab uprisings. It's not because the region isn't still brimming with brilliant, intense, energetic individuals determined to make a difference. But everyone -- in Washington as much as across the Middle East -- has struggled to find any purchase for positive new ideas in a region beset by failing institutions, political polarization, and the horrific toll of Syria's regional war. Too many, whether Egyptian foes of the Muslim Brotherhood or Syrian activists facing Bashar al-Assad's brutal depredations, let themselves be seduced by the promise of the easy fix of a military solution to their problems.

The list could have gone in a different direction, of course, with a "dark list" honoring the individuals who've done the most to make 2013 such a dismal year for the Middle East. Assad surely would deserve to be on it, for figuring out how to survive at any cost. And Iran's Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, rather than Rouhani, would probably claim a place for mastering the art of foreign support for a local proxy.

For instance, Time's popular vote winner for Man of the Year, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, clearly had a massive impact on Egypt's political trajectory in 2013. But FP was right to leave Egypt's coup leader off its Leading Global Thinkers list. Military coups led by generals who believe that the army must rescue the nation from disastrous civilian politicians and then attempt to rule through a personality cult and compliant civilian front men are historically a dime a dozen. Perhaps in a few years, after the inevitable failure unfolds, Sisi can get together for tea with Gen. Pervez Musharraf and talk about the virtues of rescuing democracy from civilian politicians. In the meantime, though, a coup that empowered the security services, badly divided activists, unleashed mass violence and repression, delegitimized the very concept of democracy, and broke Egyptian politics for years to come should probably qualify him for the wall of shame.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders such as former President Mohammed Morsy and 2011 FP Honoree Khairat al-Shater should probably be on the dark list, too. They failed utterly when given a historic opportunity to govern, proving wholly unable to forge a workable political consensus or to deliver on basic governance. It would have been far better had their incompetence been punished at the polls, of course. Egypt, and the entire region, would be a better place had a chastened President Morsy been forced to acknowledge his failures and change his governing style after anti-Brotherhood forces thrashed Islamists in parliamentary elections this year. But either way, in a single year, Morsy's failed presidency mortally damaged a mainstream Islamist political project which had been developed over decades.

Several Gulf leaders could easily make this list as well. True, it doesn't take that much deep thought for those monarchs to have stayed in power the last few years, given billions of dollars, aggressive and pervasive security services, and supportive foreign partners. It's hard to even contemplate that the region's leading thinkers might actually be the monarchs who are jailing citizens for sarcastic tweets -- to say nothing of their brutal repression of activists calling for political reform. But more thought, perhaps, has gone into their efforts to block hopes of democratic change and foment sectarian tension beyond their borders. Egypt's military coup and the subsequent repression and impunity might not have held up without extremely generous financial support from the Gulf. And Syria's conflict might not have descended into today's brutal sectarian war and jihadi revival had the Gulf states not been so keen on pouring guns and cash into their preferred armed groups.

The dark list should also recognize the jihadist thinkers and activists who brought al Qaeda and its affiliates back from the abyss so effectively. Whatever the actual role of the remnants of al Qaeda Central in guiding this new jihadist wave, Ayman al-Zawahiri seems to have had some useful thoughts on how al Qaeda could survive the death of Osama bin Laden. Leaders of jihadist factions fighting in Syria -- such as Abu Mohammed al-Jolani of Jubhat al-Nusra, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS, and Hassan Aboud of Ahrar al-Sham -- seem to have developed some innovative and effective thoughts on how to combine social services and rebel governance with insurgency and radical ideology. If it's intellectuals we want, how about Abu Musab al-Suri, the grand theorist of the leaderless jihad? And then there's the public Islamists of the Gulf, from Doha-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi to Kuwait's Nabeel al-Awadhy, who provided mainstream religious and intellectual sanction to the Syrian jihad.

Oof. No wonder FP's editors didn't take me up on the offer. When I think of the Middle East's most profound thinkers today it's a profoundly depressing list -- even if it accurately reflects a difficult year. Perhaps it's better to cast a wider net in search of those who cling painfully to the torch of principled human rights activism like Baghat and Morayef, or to keep the spotlight on political prisoners such as Rajab and Khawaja. There must be a way to shine a light on the thousands of unsung heroes working every day to ease the burden of Syrian refugees trying to give their children a normal life -- and to convince people and governments to send them a lot more money (Here's a useful list of groups which could use some help). And I would love to see scholars working on the Middle East join great academics such as this year's honorees Erica Chenoweth and Jim Scott.

But these all seem to involve lists -- and like I said, I'm no fan of lists.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

Marc Lynch

Spoiler Alert

What lessons do the success of Camp David and the failure of Oslo hold for America's nuclear deal with Iran?

The Geneva P5+1 interim agreement with Iran is already the most important Middle Eastern diplomatic gambit since the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel. The "Joint Plan of Action" produced a monumental, symbolic breakthrough after years of frustrating diplomatic gridlock, and laid out a tantalizing glimpse of a very different Middle East. It has rapidly normalized relationships and practices which had very recently seemed unthinkable. A successful final status agreement on the Iranian nuclear program would be a monumental diplomatic accomplishment. But like Camp David and Oslo, Geneva is only an interim agreement which leaves a vast array of core issues unresolved -- and offers a million opportunities for failure.

Camp David is the best-case analogy for Geneva, Oslo the worst-case analogy (and Munich is, of course, the black hole of analogies, a billion bad ideas gone supernova and sucking in everything that comes within its malevolent gravitational pull). Camp David suggests that implementation can be achieved against considerable odds, and in doing so galvanize radical strategic change in unpredictable directions. But Oslo suggests how easily Geneva can fail, given the opportunities it creates for spoilers to intervene and for implementation problems to sap its transformative power. That's especially troubling since Geneva's bargaining framework resembles Oslo's more than anything else.

But it is a measure of Camp David's success that few now recall that Egypt was for decades Israel's most militarily dangerous foe and the strategic linchpin of a pan-Arab order. Most policy analysts in the mid-1960s (and, most likely, in the mid-1970s) would have considered the idea of an enduring, decades-long Egyptian-Israeli security partnership to be outrageously implausible. Camp David shows that a seemingly unthinkable strategic reorientation of leading rivals is entirely possible, if not likely, and that once achieved can be normalized remarkably quickly.

The talks held at Camp David in September 1978 broke through the morass of years of grinding negotiations following the 1973 war that focused on the terms of disengagement. The window for such talks opened with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's shocking decision to address Israel's Knesset. Like today, both leaders saw an overwhelming strategic interest in reaching an agreement, even as they faced significant domestic and regional opposition. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin understood that a credible peace with Egypt would do more than anything else to guarantee Israeli security. Sadat, meanwhile, was impatient to consolidate his switch into the American-led alliance structure anchored in the Gulf and Israel. And yet it still took six months to sign a peace treaty and several more years for Israel to evacuate the Sinai.

The core deal reached between Egypt and Israel, and guaranteed by the United States, proved extremely robust. Egypt fully integrated into the U.S. alliance system, with its expulsion from the Arab League lasting only a few years, before its Gulf-facilitated rehabilitation. Israel has not had to seriously worry about a military threat from Egypt since the treaty, and has generally enjoyed active Egyptian assistance in policing the Sinai, blockading Gaza, and coordinating regional security policies. That's not a bad contribution to Israel's long-term security from a Democratic U.S. president viewed with suspicion in Tel Aviv and savaged as a foreign policy naïf -- if not disaster -- by a hawkish foreign policy establishment.

On the other hand, Egypt's removal from the strategic equation had unpredictable effects. Cairo proved completely unable to deliver the rest of the Arab world, especially after the provisions for a Palestinian homeland rapidly faded into the ether. Saddam Hussein's bid to fill the void of Arab leadership may have contributed to his decision to invade Iran in 1980, while Egypt's temporary expulsion from the Arab order heralded the long-term shift of power towards the Gulf. And many believe that the peace treaty with Egypt emboldened Israel to embark on its disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Camp David, finally, remained a cold peace, solid at the level of high politics and security cooperation but never transforming Arab political identities or discourse.

The Geneva process, however, looks more like Oslo than like Camp David. The Joint Plan of Action is a six-month interim agreement designed to allow each side to show good faith and build confidence and momentum towards a much more difficult final status agreement. This is precisely the logic of the Oslo process, which was equally built upon the same logic of small interim agreements paving the way towards a much more difficult final status agreement. Few need to be reminded of how badly that logic fared. Provocative actions and rhetoric on both sides destroyed the trust which cooperation was meant to build. Israeli settlement activity continued, Palestinian terrorist attacks escalated, deadlines were missed, and publics grew disenchanted. The spectacular failure of President Bill Clinton's efforts to reach a final agreement at the 2000 Camp David summit was only the coup de grâce.

The Oslo experience should inform how the participants approach the Iran negotiations. The politics surrounding the Geneva framework agreement create an environment exceptionally rich with potential flashpoints for undermining trust. Even the parties to the talks, who presumably genuinely want them to succeed, will face tremendous political pressure to exaggerate their accomplishments in the talks and denigrate the gains on the other side. The more that Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani's people feel the need to prove that they are "winning" the talks, the more likely for those talks to break down.

Meanwhile, opponents of the deal have been given a fairly clear guidebook to what moves might wreck an agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already stated that additional American sanctions would render the interim agreement void, a red line which tells congressional spoilers exactly what they need to do. And hardliners in the Iranian security establishment will not find it difficult to create confrontational moments in the inspections process -- to say nothing of the possibilities for mischief in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon. Israel and the Gulf states, which have made no secret of their skepticism, will also have little difficult finding ways to spark crises or raise new problems should the talks be proceeding too well.

Then there are the psychological legacies of decades of conflict and mistrust. Each missed deadline, contested interpretation, or reckless statement to the media will provide fodder for those seeking evidence of the other side's bad faith. Each side will tend to see these mistakes on their own side as obvious political gambits, unreflective of their own pure intentions. Violations, or even just unseemly comments, on the other side will be taken as true signals of malevolent intent.

In other words, this six-month period will give ample opportunity for spoilers on all sides to undermine trust, sabotage the process, and set the final status talks up for devastating failure. Both Washington and Tehran need to be keenly attuned to this logic, and focus on maintaining forward momentum, defanging potential spoilers, and avoiding negative spirals of mistrust and frustrated hope. Both sides need to demonstrate that they can and will deliver on the letter and spirit of their agreements. Focusing on short-term bargaining advantage or domestic political posturing will likely rapidly derail hopes of building trust through cooperation. Public diplomacy aimed at building support for the process and heading off the predictable flashpoints should be given as much attention as the negotiations themselves. We should forget Munich, learn the lessons of Oslo, and hold on to Camp David as proof that success is possible and worth pursuing.

KARL SCHUMACHER/AFP/Getty Images