IMGXYZ4248IMGZYXThe Arab Spring has swept through the Levant and North Africa, prompting civilian uprisings and full-scale regime change in Egypt. The revolutions in Egypt and Syria, especially, captured the world’s attention. David Schenker, director for the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explored the evolving politics of the Middle East as well as the influence of both China and the United States in the Levant during the Arab Spring. This event was co-hosted by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Beijing.

Egypt’s Evolution

After massive social unrest and the ousting of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in early February 2011, Egypt’s economy deteriorated. Egypt’s long-time alliance with the United States has also become increasingly problematic since the revolution.

  • Lack of Political Change: Schenker explained that the revolution itself remains a remarkable achievement. However, he added, President Mohamed Morsi undermined Egyptian democracy by ushering in a non-consensus constitution. This resulted in increasing dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by Morsi.
  • Weak Economy: Egypt’s economy continues to decline, explained Schenker. As a result, investors have fled, affecting two of Egypt’s main sources of government income: foreign direct investment and tourism. He added that the problems of corruption in business contracts with the former Mubarak government, continued subsidies, diminished foreign reserves, and uncertainty over whether Morsi will nationalize Egypt’s private companies further exacerbate Egypt’s economics woes.

Syria’s Increasing Instability

The protracted civil war in Syria, Schenker stated, will result in further regional instability.

  • Ongoing Revolution and Regional Involvement: Due to the mass displacement of Syrians and the reluctance of other countries’ to become involved in the conflict, Schenker explained that the Syrian civil war has become a regional issue. The Assad regime is supported by Iran and Hezbollah while Sunni-majority states Saudi Arabia and Qatar have thrown their support behind the Syrian Sunni rebels. He added that the flow of weapons across Syrian borders has increased dramatically, while foreign fighters have flowed into the state.
  • More Problems for Syria: Schenker concluded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will inevitably be overthrown. However, he predicted that Assad’s overthrow will result in attacks on the Alawites—the current ruling elite—and Christians, who did not actively participate in the revolt but may be targeted as well. He predicted that Syria will follow a path similar to Libya’s, with militias refusing to disarm. As a result of the conflict, Schenker said, Middle Eastern borders may be redrawn to match the new political, ethnic, and religious divisions.

China’s Role in the Changing Levant

Schenker stated that in addition to the growing instability in the Middle East, the U.S. “pivot to Asia” has created to a potential power vacuum in the Middle East that China, as a global power, could fill. 

  • China Reluctant to Intervene: Chinese scholars explained that China is not interested in getting further involved in the Middle East. Several observed that the United States has switched from supporting the evolution of nations to supporting revolution while China has gone the other way: supporting gradual evolution rather than revolution. However, Schenker stated, China currently derives nearly half of its energy from the Persian Gulf and will thus be impacted by instability in the Middle East.
  • Potential for Chinese Investment: Schenker recommended that China increase its presence in the Middle East through foreign assistance. He explained that China’s “values-free, interests-focused” foreign policy enabled it to back loans, joint ventures, and the kind of foreign assistance grants needed to stabilize the region economically.