Robin Wright believes “we may be in the greatest period of empowerment in world history.”
Wright will share the the Amphitheater stage at 10:45 a.m. today with Egyptian social entrepreneur Jawad Nabulsi, founder of the social entrepreneurship initiative, Nebny Foundation, in Egypt. Together, they will consider several aspects of the present and future Middle East as part of the Week Eight morning lecture platform.
“Consider this,” Wright said. “In the past 25 years we have witnessed the end of apartheid, the collapse of the USSR, the demise of Latin American military dictatorships, and now the amazing phenomenon of the Arab Spring. Five years from now, the U.S. might be asking if it really wants to use its political leverage or military muscle to defend Middle Eastern borders.”
Many of the borders in the region date back to the efforts of post-World War I diplomats whose unfamiliarity with the Middle East has been well documented.
Wright has written for the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Additionally, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic and Foreign Affairs magazines. She has earned fellowships from many of the most prestigious universities in the U.S., and has worked at several of the country’s most prominent think tanks.
Looking broadly at American policy and options in the Middle East, Wright said, “We have to first understand the scope of what is happening there.”
For one thing, she said, two-thirds of the population from Morocco to Iran is under 30 years of age.
“They are discontented, but may not have the maturity to devise practical alternatives to regimes they despise,” she said. “People in the Middle East, especially the young, have come to assume a diversity of ideas. They can communicate dissent. They can feel empowered to go to the streets. But forces unleashed by the Arab Spring are new. People in the region may not really know yet what they want.”
Some, such as Nabulsi, do.
He founded the Nebny Foundation four years ago. “Nebny” means “rebuild.” He said his foundation serves over 150,000 people and pursues non-political goals at the grassroots level.
“We tackle technical problems related to issues like education,” he said.
Nabulsi has traveled throughout the Middle East and says he has maintained close ties with young people all around the region.
“We are working for a better region,” he said. “We are trying our best to solve problems on the ground, quietly, out of the public eye and away from the media.”
Various Egyptian regimes had attempted to shut down his foundation four different times over the past few years, Nabulsi said.
“They all doubted our intentions,” he said. “They think we are looking for political power. We are not. Public support has saved us each time.”
The Middle East is “in an awkward, awful transition” at the moment, Wright said.
“There is a confluence of contributing factors,” she said. “Among these is a widespread, fervent, popular desire not to repeat the past in the region. And, for the first time, a majority of young people is literate — including girls. Al Jazeera was the first broadcast network beyond state control. Now, there is a wide proliferation of independent satellites. So much more information is available now to so many more people.”
The Middle East as we have known it for more than a century may have ended, Wright said.
“The Arab Spring is fundamentally about the idea of empowerment,” she said. “People began to understand their rights; most did not grasp their concomitant responsibilities.”
With such a shift, Wright said it’s hard to see how countries such as Iraq, Syria and Libya — among others — “will be able to hold together.” In the future, the U.S. will have to closely examine who it wants as allies in the region, she said.
And then there’s the Iran nuclear deal.
“Plain and simple, it’s the most important matter in the Middle East right now,” Wright said.
The Obama administration joined in negotiating that deal, and is now attempting to sell it to Congress and to the American public. Having traveled to Tehran, Iran, several times in the past few years, Wright wrote The New Yorker’s July 27 cover story on the deal.
“This deal goes further than any arms limitation deal we ever did with the USSR,” she said. “And we don’t give up any arms in this deal the way we always did in agreements with the Soviets.”
Discussing Iran’s motivations for negotiating the deal, Wright said, “Sanctions such as those being levied against Iran do apply pressure. Usually, the target nation’s society recognizes that, under sanctions, its economy is no longer viable.”
That might have been a factor in the Iranian willingness to negotiate the current deal, she said.
“The U.S. will always have an interest in making sure Iran is part of any regional solution, not a persistent problem,” she said. “The proposed nuclear deal can begin this process.”
Wright also sees the Iran nuclear deal as a potential template.
“The six nations which negotiated with Iran held together to see the deal through to completion,” she said. Those six — the U.S., Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany — have established a precedent here. Perhaps they can come together to deal with other regional issues, too.”