Friday, 11 February 2011

Expert panel discusses the ‘Arab Spring’

A couple of days ago I attended an impromptu panel discussion at the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter on the question of whether events in the Arab world at the moment constitute an ‘Arab Spring’, or political awakening.
The event attracted a large crowd that filled two lecture rooms. 

The speakers at the public event were:

Tim Niblock -Professor of Arab Gulf Studies

Dr Lise Storm - Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics

Professor Gerd Nonneman -Professor of International Relations & Middle East Politics; Al-Qasimi Professor of Gulf Studies

Professor Ilan Pappe- Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies

Also due to speak was Omar Ashour (Lecturer in the Politics of the Modern Arab World and Director of the MA Program in Middle East Studies) but he was engaged at the time in spontaneous media commitments.
As the speakers began, news came in that President Hosni Mubarak would possibly be announcing his resignation that evening. As it turned out, it wasn’t to be until the next day although the excitement was tangible in the room.

The chairman gave a brief introduction in which he stressed the importance of political models; for example Ukraine in its recent ‘Orange’ revolution had the regional model of Georgia to follow, yet Tunisia, the first Arab state to experience a revolution, had no regional model to follow. This makes it difficult to predict events. He also added that for the first time, a united opposition representing slogans from across the political spectrum has arisen against the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. A third vital consideration he mentioned was the role of the US and how it would try to best place itself to limit damage to itself and its reputation on the Arab world.
Below are the points discussed by the panel members.

Tim Niblock
 Historically, there has always existed an ‘Arab street’ with the ability to affect political developments at some level. The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have aroused a keen sense of liberation that has inspired a renewal of civic engagement in these countries, along with a conviction that the people can influence events.
Over the last 20 years, western countries have pushed for democratization in the Arab world, yet the last 2 weeks have been far more significant in changing the course of Arab politics. Support is needed from external political powers, but will nonetheless be problematic. There is also the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining the upperhand. However, the stark reality of democracy is that one must tolerate perceived threats or otherwise have no democracy at all. For democratization to happen, the Muslim Brotherhood must not be excluded.

Lise Storm
She described herself as a pessimist, claiming that profound change (i.e. new state structures representing the people) is unlikely in both Tunisia and Egypt. Plans to ban Ben Ali’s political party have been set on the agenda in Tunisia, but no tangible action has been forthcoming and no election date has been set. There is little rush to implement democratic reforms and the interim government still contains many old figures from the previous political elite. More civil society engagement is needed for more change.

Gerd Nonneman
In both the monarchies and republics of the Middle East, political activity on the part of civil society has not been entirely absent in the last two decades. However, the recent events have helped to break the psychology of fear. Although protestors may succeed in toppling the current structures, they may be more deeply rooted than we imagine.
The grievances of the people in Tunisia and Egypt are high levels of unemploymentvisible corruptionfactions in the regime (elements more favourable to reform and willing to accommodate change), societal organisation including endogenous civil society capabilities aided by social networking such as Twitter and Facebook; and exogenous factors of whether the regime has an outside protector (i.e. USA and Saudi Arabia) and whether they will give unquestioning support to the regime.
Regarding the Gulf States (GCC), Bahrain is the most likely to witness change because of the relative deprivation of the large Shia population. The eastern province of Saudi Arabia has also historically seen protests, but is unlikely to result in positive change.

Ilan Pappé
There is certainly no model that academics can apply to the events in Tunisia and Egypt. In recent times, the internet has been seen as a dehumanizing phenomenon, but the events in Egypt show the real human face of the internet.
It is not possible for academics to study and typify the views of the masses such as in Egypt. Traditionally, even academic books have claimed that the ‘Arab mentality’ is passive, needs an authority figure and is anti-democratic.  We will now have to use these books as fire wood in the long winter months!
Maybe what emerges in Egypt will not be known by a Greek name [i.e. democracy, autocracy etc.] but by an Arabic name. 

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