US think tanks: Intissar Fakir, the builder

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s voice in Washington, D.C

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 22 April 2022 06:00, updated on Monday, 2 May 2022 17:49

Intissar Fakir
Intissar Fakir

When Middle East Institute President Paul Salem asked her to launch a North Africa programme last year, the Moroccan-born Intissar Fakir made the case for a broader focus on Africa in Washington’s oldest Middle East think tank.

This is part 6 of a 7-part series

  • Think tank: Middle East Institute, North Africa and Sahel Program
  • Title: Director (since June 2021)
  • Program inception: June 2021
  • Country of origin: Morocco
  • African languages: Arabic, some Berber (+ French)

“[…] North Africa is connected to the Mediterranean, it’s connected to the Arab world, but I think it’s irresponsible not to connect it to the rest of Africa,” she says. “[…] that’s why I wanted to bring in the Sahel region.”

“You see that playing out in Morocco, you see it also playing out in Algeria, and even Tunisia. All of these countries have ambitions to be connected to the rest of Africa, much more than they had been in the past.”

Educated in the US Midwest after a childhood in Marrakech, Fakir says she ended up in the Washington think-tank world “organically” due to her interest in helping policymakers gain a better understanding of what’s going on in the world. She comes to MEI from Carnegie, where she edited the Sada journal covering change and reform in the region following the 2011 Arab Spring.

“It’s very much a platform for people who you wouldn’t necessarily hear from — not just the elite who have dominated the discourse,” she says of the Sada and the explosion of fresh voices in the foreign policy sphere. “These people can talk for themselves, they can communicate their own ideas.”

In high demand

Fakir says native North Africans have been in high demand in Washington after the traditional focus on the region was upended by the Arab Spring. All of a sudden, countries like Libya and Tunisia were in the headlines with a very narrow “pipeline” of traditional Western experts to help make sense of them.

“Pre-2011, if you had any interest in the Middle East, you really just sort of studied the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq and Iran. That’s about it. Maybe your interests would have stopped in Egypt. North Africa was always sort of a peripheral area […] but of course, all of that changed in 2011,” she says.

She says Washington needs experts from the diaspora “who have the connections, who have the linguistic advantages, who have the cultural understanding to sort of navigate that world”. That in turn can help a US audience have (sometimes difficult) conversations based around realities on the ground rather than unrealistic expectations.

I don’t think this is a generation of Arabs [which believes that] in order for me to be accepted in this sort of Western world, I have to shape myself a certain way.

“I’m trying to come at it from the perspective of these countries themselves,” she says. “I’m trying to highlight what they identify as their own priorities, and challenges, and issues.”

She says the new generation of regional thinkers is ready to share hard truths, for everyone’s benefit – if the West is willing to listen.

“I don’t think this is a generation of Arabs [which believes that] in order for me to be accepted in this sort of Western world, I have to shape myself a certain way,” she says. “We have seen, on many occasions, the consequences of not hearing the full picture, of not having a full understanding of what’s going on.”

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