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America and the Arab Spring 

Mr. Thomas Carothers
Vice President for Studies
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

July 21, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Mr. Thomas Carothers was considerably more tempered and cautious in his responses to the Arab Spring than many of the other interviewees. He acknowledged that a tectonic shift had indeed occurred in the mindset of the Arab Street, with an increased sense of individualism and calls for reform coming to the fore. But he said that the political movements thus far amount only to a “number of uprisings,” not yet a shift toward fundamental social and political change. He was also less optimistic about the idea that the Arab Spring represents a rebuttal of al-Qaeda’s narrative of violent change, worrying that opportunities had opened up for extremist groups to assert themselves in states like Libya and Yemen.

Mr. Carothers looks to see true political progress in the Arab Spring, not just in free and fair elections, but via a new constitutional order that allows for separation of powers in a democratic manner. He is most interested to see how military institutions negotiate a new position in society, and said that their newly defined role will be key to realizing how much the old regime power structures have truly changed. Mr. Carothers credited pan-Arab media as the most critical force behind the protests, but said that social media had also been important in contributing to the emerging attitude of self-empowerment.

Mr. Carothers said that the United States had missed opportunities over the years to work against human rights violations and unfair elections in Egypt and Tunisia, but that it had acted speedily enough during the Arab Spring to support protestors given the rapid speed of events. He commented that “behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts.” were made in Bahrain to reverse the oppression there, but that the absence of change both in that country and in Syria despite U.S. diplomatic pressure indicates “a lack of political leverage.”  Mr. Carothers did not find this particularly disconcerting, however, since he believes that rarely in history has outside pressure produced significant internal change.