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INTERVIEW: Trump re-election would mean ideas he stands for deeply rooted in US society

Prominent Political Scientist AbdelMoneim Said spoke to Ahram Online about the coming US elections and its possible effects on the Middle East

Dina Ezzat , Friday 23 Oct 2020
Abdel Moneim Said
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Ahead of the final debate, scheduled this evening (Thursday evening in the US) between the two candidates for the US presidential elections, AbdelMoneim Said, one of the most informed political scientists and commentators on the subject, argued that when all is said and done, so much of what has been established during the past four years in the Middle East cannot be changed if Democratic candidate Joseph Biden finds his way to the Oval Office to replace the incumbent Donald Trump.

“It is true that, for example, if Biden is elected he will try to re-promote the concepts and values of Liberalism, along the lines of the Western model, to the Middle East; but it is important to remember that Biden is not Barack Obama [the former US President] and he will not be bringing back the Obama style of promoting Western style democracy in the Middle East; Biden is a lot more conservative on this matter,” he said.

Consequently, Said argued, it would be rather simplistic to assume that there would be immediate, or any for that matter, major changes in the relationship between the US and Egypt under Biden, if Trump failed to get re-elected.

Trump’s failure to get re-elected is one of four possible scenarios for the outcome of the US presidential elections that takes part on 3 November – despite the fact that early voting has already been on-going for a few days now.

The two extreme scenarios that Said projected included one where Biden would win by a small majority, “ something similar to the situation of the George W. Bush and Al Gore,” in the US elections of 2000 where some recounting of votes had to be made; and another whereby Trump would get a small majority victory and cry foul to get a legal deal by which he would concede defeat in return for exemption of any possible legal charges that he would, otherwise, have to face if Biden secures a major victory.

Just two weeks before elections day, the polls were indicating a victory for Biden. However, having closely watched the 2016 elections between Trump and Hillary Clinton; Said is quick to remind that the polls could still be misleading; given the polls had indicated a Clinton victory four years ago.

“It would be a mistake to say that Trump is certainly set to lose; after all, Trump’s views are not without considerable followers in the US ,” he said.

He added that the comfortable election of Biden, next month, is as likely a scenario as the re-election of Trump; neither should be discarded as possibilites.

Actually, Said is willing to argue that the election of Trump in 2016 was part of a much bigger, global, wave where people chose to elect “the strong man on an embedded nationalist agenda.”

“This was not just about Trump in the US, but it was also about Narenda Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and so on,” Said argued. He added that whatever the outcome of the US elections on the first week of next month, it would be wrong to assume that this ‘mood’ will disappear fast. “It might last for a decade or so,” he said.

“And of course the possible re-election of Trump would mean that those ideas are a lot more deeply rooted than originally assumed – or at least that this was not just a fast passing moment for the US,” he said.

In any case, Said is convinced that there are new realities that have been unfolding in the Middle East, during the past four years, that cannot be reversed even if Biden is elected.

One thing that Said immediately referred to in this context is the new status of the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian cause, he argued, had during the past ten years lost its long uncontested status as the number one priority for all Arab countries.

“So many things happened including the huge devastation that befell some Arab countries like Syria or Libya,” he said. “Actually, it is worth noting that during the past few years the word ‘refugees’ that has for long been associated in the Arab lexicon with the situation of Palestinian refugees, is now used a lot more often to refer to the millions of Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Libyan and many other refugees whose numbers are certainly much bigger than Palestinian refugees,” Said noted.

There is also the situation of the ultra-radical militiant Islamist groups that have been so present in this region during the past few years like IS, he added.

“This is clearly a very different situation from the way things were about ten years ago; when the Obama Administration, like some of us once did, believed that it was not a bad idea to allow 'moderate' Islamists to have their chance of ruling some leading Arab countries, like Egypt – on the assumption that those radical Islamists were not going to adopt the ‘one man – one vote – one time’ approach,” he argued.

However, Said added that it did not take the Obama Administration long to be “taken aback” by the shocking measures that some of those Islamists were taking to contextualize themselves as the uncontested rulers – “just as [Egypt’s] Mohamed Morsi, when he issued the constitutional declaration,” in November 2012 to make his decisions immune to any legislative or judiciary revision.

Consequently, Said said, it is also simplistic for some to assume that Biden, if elected president, will act to bring back the Islamists into power.

Certainly, he added, it is even unrealistic to assume that Biden would try to take the confrontational line that the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush used, for eight successive years prior to the election of Obama in 2009, to forcefully introduce concepts of Western democracy into the larger Middle East or even at the heart of the Arab world.

The call for democratization in this region, Said argued, should never be judged by the current state of affairs in Western democracies. “In fact, these democracies had a path to walk before getting to the point where they are today; in the US the path to end slavery, women's suffrage, and to allow Americans of African origin to attend all restaurants and take all buses was never a short walk,” he argued.

“I think it has become clear that it is just wrong to try to compare the situation in Egypt with that in the US; the situation in Egypt should be compared to that in some of the Asian countries that are trying to mobilise all possible forces to overcome huge development shortcomings,” he said.

Moreover, Said stated that “it would be a big mistake” to say that the Obama administration had, in the first place, orchestrated the Arab uprisings of the year 2011. It is true, however, that they “encouraged these uprisings”; it is also true that they saw how things have unfolded, and the huge destruction that befell some countries as a result of some disturbing subsequent political choices, he stated.

In addition to flowing with the current ‘new reality’ of the Palestinian situation, and the situation of prioritizing development over adopting Western democratic values in Arab countries; Biden, if elected, would also have to deal with the new ‘regional reality’ whereby cooperation is more based on joint economic and security interests rather than on joint political motives, Said argued.

Within this context, Said points to the Arab-Israeli normalisation process that has so far included both the UAE and Bahrain. He also points to the creation of new cooperation entities with an economic identity, like the EastMed Gas Forum that is bringing together Palestinians and Israelis on the economic agenda.

“I guess it has become an established fact now that most Arab states are a lot more interested in prioritizing economic cooperation; political cohesion will follow later when a strong enough base has been created,” he said.

“We have seen Lebanon agreeing to start talks with Israel over maritime demarcation out of an interest to secure economic rights,” he said.

Meanwhile, if Trump is elected, Said added, he would wish to re-affirm his policies that have been based on supporting strong leaders who prioritise the concept of a strong nationalist state, to which the incumbent US president himself subscribes.

Trump, he added, would continue his policies of disengagement from the Middle East – which had actually been initiated by Obama – “And I think here we are talking about the larger Middle East,” he said.

Trump would also continue to insist that American protectionism does not come for free, Said said; and he would be expecting a lot more investments from countries that enjoy this US protectionism be it Japan or Qatar.

Trump, Said said, is unlikely to shift positions on matters related to the adoption of developing countries to the values of western liberalism.

If re-elected, Said added, Trump will continue to manage his relations with strong leaders of nations, “just as he has been doing with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.”

“We saw how Trump sided with Egypt on the issue of the GERD for example; first when he agreed to mediate a deal and to do so through the Treasury Department, then he got the World Bank on board, and then he imposed sanctions on Ethiopia,” for having failed to honour the deal it had negotiated, Said said.

Trump, Said added, was by and large accommodating to Egypt’s wish to multiply its armament resources – “despite some Israeli concern and even objections.”

Meanwhile, Trump would also try to encourage countries like Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and others to move forward towards normalising relations with Israel – “and I think it would be easier for Sudan to go first, Saudi Arabia still needs its time,” Said added.

It is true, Said acknowledged, that while several Arab capitals may prefer that Trump get re-elected; it is equally true, in his opinion, that these countries have no big reason to worry if Biden gets elected.

“There is an exaggerated apprehension I think,” Said stated; adding that Biden cannot, nor would he want to, change the main rules of engagement in the region as they have been established during the past four to five years.

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