America and the Arab Spring 

Dr. James Zogby
Founder and President
Arab American Institute

July 25, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Dr. James Zogby said that the Arab Spring represents a “fundamental and irreversible” change in the Middle East because, even if the regimes in the region do not change as much as some might like, “Arab public opinion is now self-aware” and will force governments to listen to its concerns. Even as a scholar of public opinion, he said that no one had been able to see this change coming. Dr. Zogby warned that many observers seem to be losing sight of the fact that these regimes were unpopular in large part because they supported U.S. policies, and cautioned that the United States remains on “thin ice.”

Dr. Zogby contradicted many other interviewees in saying that it was patronizing and self-serving for U.S. commentators to claim that the Arab Spring represented a debunking of al-Qaeda’s popularity or ideology. He holds that the radical vision of an Islamic caliphate established by al-Qaeda had never been a serious part of the discussions on how to bring about change to the region. Dr. Zogby did tentatively agree that social media had played a unique role in the protests, saying that he believed the movements were “not the Facebook revolution, but a revolution with Facebook.”

Dr. Zogby cautioned that the Arab Street is aware of anti-Muslim movements and discrimination within the United States. He warned that these factors will continue to be barriers to better relations between the United States and Arab populations. More significantly, however, he said that U.S. policy will always be more important that efforts at public diplomacy. He said that the “best of what we do” in term of public diplomacy (educational exchange programs) simply cannot be as effective as a revision of policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dealing with that issue in particular, he said, will get “more difficult, not less” as the “Mubaraks” of the region will not be around to restrain popular sentiment much longer.