Faculty members and students came together in Tilton Hall on March 2 for a robust panel discussion offering analysis, opinions and historical perspectives of the recent political and social upheaval in the Middle East. The full panel discussion can be viewed here. Srini Sitaraman, professor of political science, moderated the panel, which included Doug Little, professor of history; Anita Häuserman Fábos, professor of international development and anthropology; Taner Akcam, Kaloosdian/Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies; Khatchig Mouradian, doctoral student of Holocaust and genocide studies, and Samer Said ’13, a political science student. The panel, titled “Popular Protests, New Media, & Change in the Middle East,” was sponsored by Clark’s Political Science and Asian Studies departments. Little said the current situation in Egypt and Libya may mark a transition in United States policy in the Middle East, which has been marked by close relationships with “friendly tyrants” who have cooperated with the U.S. on issues of security and oil but who are “aren’t all that democratic.” These relationships with autocratic oil-rich, anti-communist regimes were deemed so valuable during the cold war that the U.S. provided military assistance to keep the dictators in power, and as a result keep the oil flowing.
‘If we mean what we say in terms of believing in self-determination, believing in free elections, we have to be prepared to take a deep breath and let the process unfold.’ – Prof. Doug Little
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Middle Eastern leaders were able to refashion themselves as a bulwark for the United States against radical Islam, the “threat du jour,” Little said. Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi’s recent assertion that al-Qaida was the source of the Libyan uprisings was simply his attempt to push a sensitive button. “At some point you get an administration in power in the United States that’s got some sophistication, looks at the situation, and says, ‘Radical Islam, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida are not at the root of what’s going on here,” he said. Little said, “Friendly tyrants with whom we associate ourselves are very, very good using that Islam threat to their advantage in terms of cementing a relationship with the United States. … That’s how Mubarak managed to hang on to power from 1981 right down to last month. That’s how the Saudis continue to hang onto power.” The United States should not only support democratic efforts in the Middle East, but issue a “strong apology” for supporting dictatorial regimes in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, insisted Akcam. He said Middle Eastern countries have traditionally faced two choices for governance: a military dictatorship or Islamic fundamentalism. But the recent uprisings highlight other progressive choices that are more in line with the modern world.
Akcam said traditional Islamic countries have been conflicted in trying to reconcile their religious underpinnings with modern, secular institutions that are borrowed from western civilizations. He pointed to Turkey as a country that has meshed democratic structures with Islamic culture, a marriage he believes can be replicated in the Middle East. “People in the Middle East are showing that Islam is not contradictory to democratic values,” he said. As former Director of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the American University at Cairo, Häuserman Fábos offered an insider’s view of Egypt under the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. She recounted how the country’s secret police, through repressive measures that included making arrests on manufactured charges, abduction, torture, wiretapping and other means of surveillance, created a “culture of fear” to quash any perceived dissent. Häuserman Fábos said the regime attributed any attempts at social change to outside influences. University students would be arrested simply for wearing their hair long and listening to heavy metal music; security forces regularly rounded up refugees and other foreigners in nighttime sweeps. Women’s rights groups were targeted for bringing feminist ideas into the country. Dossiers were collected on American professors or anyone doing research that was “of interest” to the government. The police also waged a war on Islam, which included attacks on entire Islamic neighborhoods, she said. Even students wearing long beards were tagged as Islamic sympathizers.
“There was a pervasive sense that we had to take this all for granted,” she said. “It was part and parcel of life in Egypt.” The recent revolution meant “the culture of fear for 30 years, somehow, very rapidly fell away. People found their political voice and lost their fear.” But Egypt’s revolt wasn’t instantaneous, she added. The resistance had been brewing for some time. Häuserman Fábos cited the April 6 Youth Movement, an Egyptian Facebook group started in Spring 2008 to support striking workers in the town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra. The Movement has since become a key player in organizing labor strikes and anti-government rallies. An unfortunate result of the Libyan protests has been the victimization of refugees and immigrants who came to that country to work or seek asylum, said Häuserman Fábos. She noted the reports of these people being set upon by Libyan crowds, and of refugees being held and tortured as they tried to smuggle themselves across the borders of Arabic states. Minority repression has been an offshoot of the rekindling of Arab nationalism, and refugees have been made political pawns in arrangements with neighboring countries, she said. Khatchig Mouradian noted that while it’s common to refer to the uprisings as the “offspring of Facebook” because of social media’s role in fomenting the protests, the dynamics are far more complicated — Facebook may have been the midwife to these revolutions, but nothing more. The movements had their roots among intellectuals and political parties in the region, he said. Intellectuals in particular have created a tradition of dissent and disobedience to the regimes in a number of Middle Eastern countries, Mouradian said. He cited a poem whose theme — “If a people one day wants to live, destiny has to give way” — is “echoing across the Middle East, indicating that intellectuals, poets, writers did have an impact.”
Mouradian said a recent op-ed piece by New York Times writer Thomas Friedman pointed to other hidden reasons for the revolution, including Barack Obama’s visit to Egypt in 2008 and the recent ousting of political leaders in Israel on charges of corruption, a virtual impossibility in most of the Arab world where leadership is not held accountable. “One should not ignore the fact that this was a popular movement,” Mouradian said of the protests. “It did not happen overnight. People have been waiting for this moment. … Several factors lined up and created the necessary momentum for these revolutions.” Other pro-western countries like Saudi Arabia are struggling with these recent developments, he said. The key, Mouradian said, is to “create a paradigm shift where we don’t view people in the Middle East as people who can only be controlled by tyrants. “Anyone who says they know what’s going to happen — they’re really not paying attention,” he said. “There’s no way to predict what will follow all these revolutions and changes. “There’s no way you can keep this constantly boiling anger and frustration from exploding.” As a native of Palestine, Samer Said ’13 said he’s bearing witness to a sense of Arab unity that he hasn’t experience in his lifetime.
The revolution created optimism and hope for spreading democracy in a region “that was considered to be the heart of darkness towards the west,” he said. He was quick to note that the underlying issues have been overshadowed by the news-friendly drama of the revolutions. Arab dignity, nationalism and unity are things “that Arabs are always brought up on, exposed to, but we haven’t seen,” he said. Said cited statistics illustrating widespread poverty through the Middle East, saying the lack of employment opportunities for young people has been a driving force behind the protests. If there is no positive change to the current economic system, then the revolution’s goals will not have been reached. “The real revolution is just starting,” he said.