How My Booth Classes Helped Me Negotiate a War

Author speaking at a panel on Arab TV

Author speaking at a panel on Arab TV

By: Mohamed Okda, Executive MBA 2018

Back in 2006-2008, I was in the midst of obtaining my EMBA from GSB (before it became Booth). While I greatly enjoyed “Essentials of Effective Management” with Prof. Linda Ginzel in Chicago,“Decision-Making and Negotiation” with Prof. George Wu and “Strategic Leadership in Management Networks” with Prof. Ronald Burt both in Singapore, I never would have thought that I would be using the science and skills I learned here at Booth in a conflict zone only a few years later.

Since the dawn of the Arab Spring (though some now call it the Arab winter), I was propelled into the midst of conflict across the Middle East. Born into an Egyptian family with a history of political activism, I found myself a participant in the political building and shaping of a New Middle East. From Egypt to Syria, Lebanon to Tunisia, my journey’s inception found me leaning heavily on the skills I acquired at Booth classes across the board. In a few months, I became a connector between Western representatives, religious and rebel groups in Egypt and Syria, and both religious and secular groups in Europe and the southern Mediterranean. Working with these differently-minded groups, I actively tried to avoid biased decision-making. More profoundly surprising was the analysis bias which resulted in flawed interpretations, and often times led to prolonged conflict and suffering. One example that comes to mind is when some Western officials labeled certain groups "radical" based on their religious doctrine, while completely ignoring historical, cultural, and regional dynamics while calling other groups "moderate" just because of their secular appearance. Another example of this bias I ran into originated from the United States’ “dark history” (aka its 2003 invasion of Iraq and lack of post-invasion governance plan); most political, religious, and societal leaders labeled any US/western “'military or diplomatic" intervention as ill-intended or a new kind of crusade. This only encouraged more problematic relationship dynamics between sides who needed to work together.

Back in 2015, I was in Turkey near the Syrian border. I was there trying to persuade a Syrian rebel group to cease considering joining a designated terrorist group in an alliance. My argument to them was that this alliance would only harm their cause of toppling the Syrian regime and confronting Iranian influence in the region. It took around six weeks of hard work and discussions, but I prevailed. They declined the alliance, and later they became an ideological fighting force against ISIS and Al-Qaeda allied groups.

How did Booth help me work so effectively in a crisis situation? I used the lessons gained from “How to Persuade a Majority” (aka “12 Angry Men”) in Strategic Leadership. First, I listened for days getting to know my audience and their motivations. Second, I gained credibility by only speaking the truth and never sugarcoating any delicate issues. Third, I explained that most people tend to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks when contemplating joining a radical group, and that any value coming from an alliance with a radical group will be more than erased by the adverse outcome. Fourth, I revealed the benefit of not joining said radical group to these Syrians, (i.e. acceptance and/or an end to hostility from global and regional powers, a possible seat at the negotiating table, etc). Lastly,, I began building bridges between my audience and other principal players interested in the Syrian conflict where clear communication was presented openly and intentions clarified.

A decade or so later after Booth, I still regularly use these principles to negotiate conflicts and mediate crises. While I won't be able to avoid all conflicts or end major crises, I have amassed the skills and experience to try, and for a significant share of those, I thank my professors and classmates at Booth.

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Mohamed Okda is a political consultant, focused on the Middle East political Islam movements. Active in the issues of interfaith, crisis mediation, religious-secular dialogue, de-radicalization, and crisis economics, he is the founder of Inside into Crisis a conflict advisory.  Mohamed worked extensively on issues of de-radicalization, conflict resolution in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.