Posted by Nicole Khamis on June 08, 2015 in Blog

Ambassadors, journalists, intellectuals, government workers, and advocacy groups all gathered at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri center to witness the public launch of the Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST) this past Thursday.

The Atlantic Council created MEST in February 2015 under the bipartisan co-chairmanship of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley.

The goals of the MEST are twofold: first, to examine the underlying issues of the region, while identifying ways in which people in the Middle East can build and support government institutions for long term stability in the region.

Atlantic Council President and CEO Fredrick Kempe introduced the comprehensive strategy initiative as collaboration between countries to explore the Middle East’s biggest challenges and how adequately address them. “It is not,” he stated, “Americans talking to Americans about what others ought to do.”

Unique to this task force is the network of supporters and advisors spanning the globe, with a special focus on experts in the Middle East. This characterizes MEST’s crucial component of forming the U.S strategy to the current crisis in the region by listening to the primary actors: people of the Middle East.

Secretary Albright stressed the need to create a long term approach to the crisis in the region with an emphasis of the people from the region. She highlighted the unique, multifaceted  approach of MEST, which will focus on “engaging with a diverse range of think tanks and academic experts; foreign policy practitioners and civil society leaders,” while also engaging with people on the ground.  

Stephen Hadley emphasized the project of MEST “will start with the views and interests of citizens and leaders in the region.”

AAI President James Zogby participated in a panel discussion on his findings from Zogby Research Services with co-chairs Albright and Hadley, and Gallup pollster Mohamed Younis.  

Reviewing the findings of his polling’s of the past 15 years, Zogby said that people in the Middle East are just like everyone else: “Contrary to the myth that [people in the Middle East] go to bed at night hating Israel, wake up in the morning hating America, and spend the day in the mosque hearing some preacher teach them to hate a little bit more, they actually went to bed at night thinking about their kids and woke up in the morning worried about their jobs, and spent the day working real hard to try to get a better life.” He also de-bunked the infamous Bush quote that we in American are “Hated for our freedom.” On the contrary, Zogby said, “Arabs like our values, but they don't like the way we treat them.”

In a 2010 Polling, Zogby asked participants from the Middle East to rank the most important issues. Of the top 3 issues were healthy care, unemployment, and education.

Democracy and government failed to emerge as top issues.

An additional question to the poll asked what America could help with. Healthcare, unemployment, and education resoundingly remained the top priorities.

On the issues that people of the Middle East prioritize, the U.S. was effective “in doing what the people of the Middle East did not care much about, and not good at doing what they cared most about” Zogby said.

Due to the U.S.’ past trajectory in the Middle East, Zogby continued by stating that Arabs in the region are conflicted in what they want the U.S. to do and how they want them to do it, but still see value in having a relationship with the U.S.

Focusing on elevating Arab voices, Zogby’s polling effectively shed light on the true wants and needs of Arabs, which are too often not accounted for.

Mohamed Younis, Senior Analyst at Gallup Polling emphasized the importance of adequately addressing the grievances which extremist groups such as ISIL exploit such as employment, poverty, and safety.

Rabab El Mahdi, Associate Professor of Political Science at the American University of Cairo, joined the panel via teleconference and echoed both Zogby’s and Younis’ points: “When people have to make a choice between their personal safety and their freedoms, between the safety of their children and being able to live in a democracy, they, rationally, tend to choose their own personal safety.”

Ms. El Mahdi challenged the outmoded rhetoric that people of the Middle East are irrational actors, stating: “The idea that there is something wrong or exceptional about this region needs to be rethought.”

She also cautioned MEST in how they will achieve stability, raising the important point that its definition of stability should not come at the cost civilians in the region.

Stability and achieving it long term in the Middle East will remain a central component of MEST. Aided by intellectuals and experts on the region such as Zogby, those who attended feel confident that focus will remain on the people in the region and elevating their wants and needs.

MEST, with its central theme of listening to those on the ground, will have the challenge of not taking the leadership role that the U.S. commonly sees itself in, but rather assisting actors in the region to achieve their vision of a better future. 

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