America and the Arab Spring 

Dr. John Esposito
Founding Director
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
Georgetown University


June 30, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Dr. Esposito defined the Arab Spring as a “quantum leap” forward for the Middle East, which he describes as having been dominated by authoritarianism since “so-called independence” from colonialism. He believes that the ouster of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt created a “tsunami of change” for the region, and that the label “Arab Spring” is rhetorically appropriate because it evokes imagery of rebirth and renewal. He did caution, however, that the Spring is sure to be fraught with “April showers and storms,” and that even limited measures of reform toward constitutional monarchies (especially among the Gulf states) should be viewed as positive steps.

Dr. Esposito believes the successful completion of the first election is a poor indicator of political change in infant democracies because the number of strong parties is, by default, minimal. Rather, he said that a successful transfer of presidential power in the second or third election will be key to determining how much actual democratic transition has occurred. Polling data Dr. Esposito has analyzed indicates to him that the majority of Muslims are in favor of democracy. He sees the Arab Spring as a rebuke of al-Qaeda’s strategy of violence for political change and as an indictment of the organization’s failure to accomplish its stated goals.

Dr. Esposito said the inability to engage with religious actors is an “Achilles’ Heel” of U.S. foreign policymaking, exemplified by reluctance to communicate with the de-radicalized Muslim Brotherhood. He said that the Obama Administration denied both a U.S. moral imperative and strategic interest when it “drug its feet” in calling for Mubarak’s exit. Dr. Esposito believes a new narrative for U.S.-Middle Eastern relations is needed, including younger personnel in the State Department who can view issues free of past prejudices and assumptions, as well as the involvement of more Arab Americans as Secretaries and Ambassadors (citing the high number of Jewish Americans in these positions).