We Need More Engagement in the Middle East, Not Less

The first Muslim-American elected to Congress explains why we need to judge new governments in the Middle East by their actions, not their religious affiliation

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Ed Giles / Getty Images

A protest following midday prayers in Tahrir Square on September 14, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt.

Early last month, extremists attacked our diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt, killing Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans following the release of a crude anti-Islamic video. The reaction has sparked urgent discussions about the “Arab Spring” transforming into an “Islamist Winter.” Some of my colleagues in Congress say the only option for the United States is to disengage from the region.

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But now is not the time to cut U.S. aid to Libya and other Arab countries. Given long-time U.S. support for Arab autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and, at one time, Saddam Hussein, cutting aid would send a message to the millions of people yearning for freedom that “we’ll support your oppressors, but not you.” As both President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said in their addresses to the United Nations General Assembly last week, instead of withdrawal, we need a deeper engagement strategy on economic, cultural and security fronts that is sensitive to local concerns.

The millions of protesters who flowed into Tahrir Square and dusty streets across the Middle East in 2011 weren’t trying to trade secular dictatorships for religious ones, but rather tyranny for democracy. According to a Pew poll from July, overwhelming majorities in these countries support democracy and reject extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Egyptians, for example, favor democracy by a 2–1 margin.

While support for competitive elections and free speech is strong across the region, many people also want their religion to play an important role in political life. Just as there is active debate in the U.S. about the role of faith in politics on issues ranging from school prayer to faith-based initiatives, there are diverging opinions in the Arab world. And just as we have diverse political movements ranging from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement, these countries have a broad range of opinions on the best path forward for their new democracies. We should judge the new governments by their actions, not their religious affiliation.

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For example, we must acknowledge that the Egyptian government was far too slow to protect our embassy in Cairo when it was first attacked. However, it has taken positive steps since President Obama intervened. In Libya, government forces fought courageously to protect our consulate, and their government is now working aggressively to bring the perpetrators to justice. Despite the tragedy, reformers, including over 30 women, won the most seats in Libya’s election.

Instead of abandoning the region’s people at a critical moment in their history, the United States should broaden its economic, educational and security relationships in the region. First, we should diversify and deepen our commercial relationships beyond oil and natural gas. The Arab Spring was largely a response to economic desperation. Strengthening our engagement through trade missions and entrepreneurship summits like the one President Obama convened in 2010 will help expand opportunity in the region and create new markets for U.S. exports.

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Second, we should increase educational and cultural exchanges with Arab countries. In 2009, the Iraqi government doubled the number of Fulbright scholarships for Iraqi students to study in the United States. It became the largest Fulbright program in the region — at 70 scholarships a year. Educational and cultural exchanges are one of the best ways to improve relations and build human capacity in the region. We should partner with Arab governments to boost the number of exchanges for students, teachers, legislators and journalists.

Third, we should enhance our security relationships through programs to train police officers, advise efforts to collect weapons and disband militias, and help secure borders and ports of entry. These initiatives would lay the groundwork for democratic and economic development and would improve our security as well.

Our own democracy took decades to develop. We can better advance U.S. national security and our interests in the region by initiating a more robust and sustained strategy of engagement. Let’s get started.

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