Published August 16, 2013

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The United States isn’t responsible for the recent violent confrontations in Egypt, but it is stunningly clear that the Obama administration’s approach to the Arab uprisings is in shambles. Cataclysmic upheavals like those coursing through the Arab world are rare; rarer still is a second chance at shaping the outcome of such change. Yet this is what the crisis in Egypt offers. The United States and its European allies need to broaden the international community’s narrow focus on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military and seize the opportunity to craft — in partnership with Egypt and other Arab states in transition — the architecture necessary to sustain democratic change. Lessons from Eastern Europe in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse suggest an alternative model worth considering.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton launched a historic effort to bring the former Eastern bloc into transatlantic institutions. The headlong embrace of the European Union and NATO supplied cohesion to disoriented former communist states. However halting those countries’ progress toward membership, the fact that society shared an affirmative goal helped tamp down political excess. In nations from the Baltics to the war-torn Balkans — including five states with significant Muslim populations — citizens came to understand that disputes ultimately have to be resolved within state institutions.

The Arab world has no such assured common destination, making internecine violence almost inevitable. Egypt and its fractious neighbors desperately need a unifying vision that can inculcate respect for democratic norms across glaring differences. Although Arab nations have no interest in joining the European Union or NATO, the Arab world can draw on the model of Eastern European transition, with fledgling Arab democracies devising their own supra-national organization dedicated to advancing democracy. Like the E.U. in its infancy, this Union of Arab Democracies (UAD) could start with limited objectives and evolve toward ambitious goals, including, ultimately, pan-Arab political union. The prospect of an organization designed not just to partner with but eventually to rival the United States and the European Union could win support across the spectrum of Islamists, secularists and members of minority religions for whom the quest for Arab dignity is the shared, central preoccupation. The union’s mission, composition and relationship with Western institutions would be distinctly different from that of the Arab League, which has no real democracy development function for its disparate membership and cannot, as structured, advance the demands of so many for representative, accountable government.

The organization’s Arab character would pave the way for far more meaningful partnership than exists with the three key Western organizations responsible for overseeing the Eastern European transition: the E.U., NATO and the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Turkey, a long-standing NATO and OSCE member that commands respect in the Arab world, could play a mentoring role, boosting Ankara’s democratic credentials at a crucial moment in its own history. Mentors could help Arab states design their ownAcquis Communitaire, the raft of laws and regulations that every aspiring E.U. state must pass and implement to demonstrate its democratic bona fides. This collaboration would far surpass the patchwork of programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the E.U.’s Egypt Task Force and, instead, open the possibility for the intensive engagement that has transformed Eastern European institutions.

This Arab Acquis would be less exacting than its European counterpart to accommodate obvious differences from Eastern Europe (for example, Egypt already has a market economy, albeit one badly in need of reform) and among Arab states, as well as debate over the role of Islam. Still, obtaining formal agreement on core principles would go a long way toward establishing respect for democratic norms. In turn, the Arab union could spur progress on reducing trade and other internal barriers among member states. The formalized relationship between the UAD and NATO could also target civilian control of the military, a critical reform that has been absent from Egypt’s 30-year cash-and-carry relationship with Washington.

Membership criteria would be up to the charter members. To achieve its aim of creating a supra-national “destination” for fledgling democracies, the union could link three categories of Arab countries: those organized as democracies (Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority); those transitioning from dictatorship to democratic rule (Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen); and monarchies that are liberalizing (Morocco, Jordan and possibly Oman). Bahrain and fellow Gulf states, Algeria and other Arab League states in Africa might be accorded observer status, while Syria and Sudan would be excluded.

To succeed, the UAD would have to be — and be seen as — an Arab initiative owned by respected Arab leaders who recognize that the region desperately needs a positive, collective vision for a democratic future of the kind that galvanized Eastern Europe. The likelihood of launching a bold, indigenous endeavor would grow if Arab leaders knew that it would have international support from the outset. Shared European (including Europe’s Muslim states), Turkish and U.S. support for what would need to be a homegrown Arab enterprise would help catalyze the union effort in the region while dampening the tendency to reject it as a made-in-Washington Trojan horse.

With once-in-a-century upheaval underway in the Arab world, the West cannot afford cynicism. What’s needed is not a Marshall Plan-like flood of development aid but a vehicle to coalesce the region’s inchoate aspiration for democracy and reform. The Middle East isn’t contemporary Europe, and at the moment this kind of organization may strike some as unnecessary. But as bleak as the situation is today, the Arab peoples will not stop yearning for good governance and respect for the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties. Why allow cynics to set limits on the region’s potential future? A Union of Arab Democracies, backed with as much Western support as its founding members want, could supply what’s missing from the Arab world’s turbulent transition toward democracy: a unifying vision and respect for democratic norms.


Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar and vice president for new initiatives at the Wilson Center.

Edward P. Joseph is senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.