Expert to speak on Egypt and Middle Eastern Instability July 10

Dennis Ross

The U.S. doesn’t want Egypt to become a failed state, but it’s a possibility we can’t really control.

That’s the view of Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East expert, who will speak at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Wednesday, July 10, at 7 p.m. in the Music Recital Hall, 2400 E. Kenwood Blvd.

Ross, who is currently a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has served in several presidential administrations from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.  UWM’s Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation Jewish Community are co-sponsoring the talk.

Ross’ topic, “Instability and Transformation of the Middle East: Threats and Challenges 2013” is particularly timely in light of the current upheaval in Egypt. Much will depend on whether the military can restore a functioning, inclusive interim government and then hold elections, and on how the Muslim Brotherhood responds, he said in an interview last week.

“The Arab Spring was a misnomer,” Ross says, because peace and transformation won’t happen that quickly. The Middle East is moving in a positive direction toward peace and stability, he adds, but it’s not a linear process and may take 10 to 20 or more years to accomplish.

A key issue is that Egypt and other countries that underwent government changes in the Arab Spring didn’t have the infrastructure, civil institutions and tradition in place to make democracy work.

In a functioning democracy, he says, “the winner [of an election] doesn’t get to ignore the rights of the minority and do whatever,” but that’s what happened in Egypt. Ousted President Mohammed Morsi focused on setting up an exclusionary government comprised of his Muslim Brotherhood followers, and didn’t focus on broader economic issues, according to Ross.

Ross does see key differences between Egypt and Syria, both involved in current conflicts. In Egypt, the struggle is between those who want to establish a more secular government and those who want to establish an Islamic state. Even devout Muslims there support a more secular government that works, he says, since much of the discontent has grown out of economic disruption under Morsi’s government.

They’ve had a terrible economic collapse,” says Ross, with, for example, electricity blackouts multiple times a day. “People want to sweep out the existing government. The military is becoming a fulcrum of change and stability.”

Violence in Syria, in contrast, is much more sectarian, with the country divided along tribal and religious lines. “I’m dubious Syria can be put back together, because of the sectarian divides,” he says, a situation that’s been made worse by the continuing conflicts and terrible brutality – long-simmering hostilities played out in a world of social media and instant communication.

The United States can’t control the situations in Egypt and Syria, says Ross, but, on the other hand, “We can’t really be indifferent, because Syria and Egypt are major influences. Unlike the Las Vegas motto, what takes place in Syria doesn’t stay there.”

With refugees pouring into Jordan, Lebanon and other nearby countries, and extremists also infiltrating, “these countries are being buffeted by the consequences,” says Ross.

The U.S. has to try to exert a positive influence where it can and support groups that can effect real change. “We have a big stake and some influence on the margins, though we can’t really control what happens.”

On the positive side, many Middle Eastern countries haven’t been affected by “the awakening,” says Ross. “The monarchies, even those that aren’t oil rich, have some semblance of legitimacy with their people. They’re looking at Syria and Egypt and thinking, ‘That’s the last thing we want.’ So it doesn’t look like it will spread immediately.”

Ross was a student in the 1960s, and was inspired by the Kennedys, particularly Bobby Kennedy, he says, to go into public service. “I’m a believer that the U.S. has a very positive role to play in conflict resolution and mediation.”

His own experiences during negotiations also inspire him – Ross was instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians to reach the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, successfully brokered the 1997 Hebron Accord and facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty.

“I’ve looked into the eyes of those who were victims of the violence. That’s what gives me the passion and commitment to deal with the issues.

And, if there’s one thing he’s learned in his years studying, negotiating and working in the Middle East, it is that even the experts are often wrong.

“People haven’t been able to predict very well what’s going to happen next – even those who live in the country (affected).  You need to retain your humility, and not become a victim of your own assumptions.”