Sarah Yerkes Interview

SaSYrah Yerkes, Visiting Foreign Policy Fellow- Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution

1. How is being a WIIS member valuable to you?

I first joined WIIS about a decade ago when I was just starting out in my career and at that point it was incredibly valuable as a networking tool. I remember attending a WIIS career fair at one point and that was really helpful because there were all sorts of different jobs represented within this field and I was able to talk to different people and learn about the plethora of jobs that were out there. I was also able to meet other people, both men and women, who were doing this sort of work. And now I would say WIIS is useful to me as both a network and a platform that allows its members to see what other women are doing and to get more confidence in your own work and to connect with others to see the paths other women in the field have taken which can give you ideas about the different ways you can navigate your career going forward.

2. How did you become involved in your current work?

I got involved in the Middle East in college. I took a Middle East studies 101 class my first semester freshman year of college and just fell in love with the Middle East and never looked back. In terms of my current work in the think tank world, I was a research assistant at the Brookings Institution about a decade ago. It was my first exposure to think tanks and I loved it. It was incredible to meet all these amazing people whose books I had read and who I had studied in graduate school. The opportunity to work with them and see how they conduct their research was really great, so I decided that I wanted to come back and be a scholar at some point. I got my Ph.D. and did a stint in government in order to really understand the policy process inside out and then came back to Brookings as a Visiting Fellow.

3. Do you have any advice for women on advancing their careers in the Peace and Security fields?

The biggest thing I think, for both men and women but especially for women, is to build a network and support structure and that doesn’t mean just a superficial list of contacts on LinkedIn but a real support structure where you identify other women, or men, though I think it helps women to find other women, who you trust and people who you respect who will let you bounce ideas off of them whether it’s career advice or it’s substantive discussions about your work. Finding those people early on in your career who can serve as a support network is really important not only because it can help you find jobs later on but also because it can give you the confidence to talk through problems that you are having.

The other thing is to not be afraid to speak up. A problem for a lot of young women, but also for men and women at multiple stages of their career, is to realize how much valuable experience you have and trust your expertise.  I frequently see women sitting at the back of the room at think tank events or they won’t raise their hand even though they have really good ideas to contribute that they aren’t putting forward. I think it’s a confidence issue. A piece of advice that was given to me early in my career is that you probably know a lot more than you think you know and you probably know more than most people in the world on your area of expertise so don’t be afraid to speak up and take chances.

4. What do you think is the role of men in advancing women’s participation in the Peace and Security field?

I think one concrete thing men could do is to be mentors for women. I know I talked a little bit earlier about the importance of networks and building support structures. I think having mentors is incredibly important in any field, but people generally pick mentees to whom they can relate - so people will gravitate towards mentoring someone from their same gender, race, ethnicity, home state, or other things with which they identify. I think that causes a lot of female to female and male to male mentor relationships, though both men and women would be better served if more men in senior positions would be willing to mentor junior women and vice versa to expand your horizons. Since our field is so heavily male dominated there are more senior men so women are sometimes missing out on networking opportunities by only speaking with female mentors. Vice versa I think it could give senior men a perspective into the changing field.

5. You’re very critical of the Egyptian government under el-Sisi. What would you say is your greatest opposition to his rule and which, if any, of his actions do you support? Also for a country that has seen so much upheaval in recent years what do you think is the path forward for a more stable representative government.

I’ve been very critical of el-Sisi and my main problem with his government is his blatant disregard for human rights. I could list twenty different examples of egregious human rights violations under Sisi right now, but I won’t do that. Egypt has been on a declining path since the revolution. There was this moment of hope at the beginning of the revolution in 2011 that was quickly washed away and unfortunately the situation in Egypt, particularly in regard to respect for human rights, has gotten worse and worse since time has gone on. The reason I say that is not purely for moral reasons, though I do believe you should respect human rights because that’s the right thing to do, but from an academic perspective I think the Sisi government’s behavior is harmful to Egypt in multiple ways.

First, on top of the human rights abuses, there’s a tremendous decline in economic performance. If you combine those things: repression, economic crisis, you get violent extremism. And the other thing is that Egypt needs stability and stability and human rights abuses do not go hand in hand. A lot of times authoritarian leaders will repress dissent because they think that will lead to stability but in most cases that does the opposite. So once again this is bad for Egypt. As an American and as someone who has served in the US government I think it’s embarrassing for the United States to be so outwardly supportive of the Egyptian government when they are doing these things. The behavior that el-Sisi is exhibiting makes it harder for the US to support him.

As far as which of Sisi’s actions I support, I think his behavior comes from a genuine desire to elevate Egypt and make Egypt play a bigger and more productive role on the world stage. So I’m supportive of that goal, even though I don’t think he’s doing it the right way. Egypt could be a bigger and more important player and you see this in Egypt’s attempts to facilitate an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. El-Sisi recognizes that Egypt has the power and ability to play that role and I think that’s a good thing. What they can do to right the ship and return Egypt to a place of prominence is to stop repressing human rights and implement the gradual democratic transition that they have been promising to do, since all these things will benefit Egypt in the long run.

I think that Egypt has gone down this path of repression and they also have a major terrorism problem so I think the first step towards a more stable government is to work with international partners to address terrorism. They are trying - they are part of the counter-ISIL coalition and I think the United States has been supportive of Egypt’s counter-terrorism efforts, but most importantly, there needs to be recognition that you can have democracy and human rights and still combat terrorism. Egypt needs to implement policies such as security sector reform. Another big problem is that the government is out of control in the sense that el-Sisi is not in control of the government so they need to establish better communication between the branches of government and getting the security services and interior ministry under control so that el-Sisi can make sure that they aren’t going rogue. I think that would be tremendously helpful.

 

6. In 2006 in an assessment of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East you expressed your frustration at the rise of extremist governments through democratic means by declaring, “The major barrier to effective U.S. support for Arab civil society at present is not the Middle East Partnership Initiative's internal capacity, but the hostility of autocratic Arab governments to any greater independence or activism in the nongovernmental sector. To preserve recent gains by the non-governmental sector and ensure that alternatives to Islamist political parties have the chance to establish themselves and grow, the U.S. government should frontally address with its Arab government partners the imperative for improved freedom of association.” How has your opinion on this matter changed in the past decade, and how did your work with the military influence your current views?

I think unfortunately things have gotten worse, not better, since 2006. We’ve already talked about Egypt, but we’ve also seen crackdowns in the media across the Middle East, particularly in Morocco and Lebanon. Even in Israel, which is one of the two democracies in the region, we’ve seen in the past few weeks more and more laws that are rolling back democracy. Though this isn’t just in the Middle East; recently we’ve seen a global closing in on civil society and freedom of association.

As far as the US role in the Middle East, I don’t know if my views have changed tremendously. After working in the government, working with the military, working with the State Department, you see a lot more of the trade-offs you have when you’re inside government and making these policies and figuring out how to advocate for human rights and freedom. Unfortunately at the end of the day a lot of times freedom and human rights don’t win out over issues of security and economic policy. That doesn’t mean people in the policy and think tank world shouldn’t be advocating for that, I still think we should, but now that I’ve been on the inside I’ve learned how to identify the tradeoffs.

Also another big thing I’ve learned and that we’ve seen with the Arab Spring is that changing policy is tremendously difficult. There is a clear bias towards the status quo and you see that both in the US and in the Middle East. I work a lot on Tunisia which, while it has its challenges for sure, it is the one success story where you see this remarkable shift in policy which is such a rare thing. I don’t think it is necessarily an example for the rest of the world. I don’t think other countries can follow Tunisia’s lead directly, on the contrary most Arab Spring countries have all gone back to where they started or have gotten worse since 2011. I think there needs to be recognition that these things are really hard and there are tradeoffs for every single one.

I think my work with the military definitely showed me the tradeoffs that come with national security issues though it didn’t change my views on the importance of promoting human rights and promoting democracy. I did find that the military is very invested in promoting stability in the region. One of the interesting things I learned working with the Joint Chiefs was just how reticent the military was to enter into conflict and use force, especially since there’s this perception on the outside that the military is the one pushing for military solutions and that hasn’t always been the case. I think the military would actually be more supportive of these democracy programs then the State Department at times.

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