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Why We Must Talk

These are realities not only in Egypt but throughout much of the Middle East. What can Western policymakers do to address the fact that the politics of the region will be increasingly bottom-up, influenced by the voices of a young, diverse civil society? To begin with, we need to recognize that we can no longer concentrate so heavily on negotiations with elites. We need to support political solutions that will take effect at the popular level: economic development, better health care, institution-building, and on-the-ground initiatives in support of peace.

In order to do this, we have to find ways to engage in political dialogue also with groups that are different from us. As has become vividly clear in recent months, many governments in the Middle East are not able to correctly interpret and respond to the signals sent by civil society. But we need to find better ways to be directly in touch with groups in civil society, which now have their own demands and methods of organizing. In a world in which information technology gives the voices of diffuse groups much more potential influence, we have no choice but to engage them. But it is also in our own interests. Would it not have been valuable to have engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups in a critical dialogue earlier? This isn’t a particularly drastic suggestion. It simply means that we take the groups that are part of “the people” in the Middle East as seriously as we do in our own and other democratic societies.

Understanding the diverse nature and interests of, and within, different Islamic groups—and the strategic value of dialogue with them—is also why we should support a policy of dialogue between various Afghan factions, including parts of the Afghan Taliban. Portraying the Taliban as a monolithic entity distorts and ignores the realities of southern Afghanistan in ways that make it impossible to develop realistic and effective strategies on the ground. It is conventional wisdom that governance is the key to a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. But without a political process of dialogue that encompasses all representative groups, governance will remain flawed and fragile.

As defenders of dialogue, however, we need to go further. We need to remind the international community that dialogue with some parts of the Taliban and other Afghan parties is intrinsically necessary because any long-term solution in Afghanistan (at least one that does not involve a large international military presence) must ensure that important constituencies within the Pashtun community and traditional tribal power-holders are willing to support (or at least not militarily resist) the Afghan state. Certainly, this is far from an ideal situation. Even moderate elements of the Taliban endorse ideas and policies—toward women, for example—that are anathema to me and to many others. Moreover, it won’t be easy to identify a solution everyone can live with. But the truth is that while it will be difficult to do this through dialogue, it is impossible to do so without it.

Many of those who most strongly oppose dialogue in international relations prefer to live in a world they wish existed. Some of them believe that imposing a particular political system in other countries by the use of force is worth large expenditures of wealth and of life. Others take the view that a “clash of civilizations” requires us to build walls to protect our society from an inevitable global threat. Some maintain that the willingness to negotiate and compromise will be interpreted as a sign of moral and military weakness. None of these approaches points to a plausible way forward. And the cost of pursuing any of them is high.

In contrast, defending and employing dialogue is neither a naive nor utopian strategy. It shows strength to be willing to talk to the adversary. It is not weakness. And it is not cowardice to debate your opponent and try to persuade the world to follow you by speaking your values. It may take some courage.

In this sense, the defense of dialogue springs from a perspective best described as principled realism—an approach that attempts to find solutions that both improve the world and recognize the constraints of the current global order. As defenders of dialogue, we always keep open the option of walking away rather than talking. But we also believe that we shouldn’t be so quick to do so. The fact that there may be some positions and conflicts that cannot be resolved does not mean that the possibilities of dialogue shouldn’t be actively explored. Dialogue is more important to our globalized world than it ever has been. We must therefore defend it all the more strongly. At a time that seemed far more dangerous than our own, John F. Kennedy formulated the principle that has since been too often disregarded: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

When I visited Cairo recently I met many of the key players behind the Egyptian uprising. My aim was to understand the driving forces behind this historic process of change. I met representatives from the groups who had filled Tahrir Square, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Should I not have met them? The Muslim Brotherhood is a social and political reality in Egypt. It was not in the forefront, but it played a decisive part in the January and February uprising and it will be a player in the upcoming fragile process of building a democracy in Egypt. I can see no valid reason why we from the West should not recognize this reality and why we should not engage with them as we do with the other factions that are now forming in Egypt.

Our challenge today is to support the democratic forces in Egypt. We should exclude none. I disagree with the Brotherhood on many important issues, such as the role of religion in politics, the rights of women, and the rights of minorities. But by not talking to its representatives we make no difference. We should hold the Brotherhood accountable and expose its members to universal standards on issues such as equality between all religions, between women and men, and the key principles of democracy. Singling them out for exclusion could push them into the role of martyrs, further strengthening the perception of the West’s double standards. And who knows, perhaps the Brotherhood, with its visible diversity, may emerge as a social and political counterweight to the antidemocratic sentiments that do exist in Egyptian society, both within the remnants of the previous regime and among much more traditionalist Islamic salafi groups.

—March 8, 2011

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