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Experts discuss unrest in Arab world

By Jonathan Epstein
On September 6, 2011

The Crown Center for Middle East Studies hosted "Beyond the Arab Spring: A Discussion of Recent Developments," to discuss the ramifications of and prognosis for the series of uprisings enveloping the Middle East; the forum took place last Thursday in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall.

The highlight of the event came when the moderator, Prof. Shai Feldman (POL), announced a surprise speaker: "Sometimes we get the privilege of going into a jazz club in New York and there's a great band playing and all of a sudden one of the great musicians walks into the club and sits in the bar and sometimes the players even ask him to take the sax and join them for a set or two. We're actually quite fortunate because we have that jazz player with us tonight." The jazz player in question was Robert Pelletreau, the former assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and former ambassador to Bahrain, Tunisia and Egypt.

The featured panelists were Prof. Kanan Makiya (IMES), Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies; Dr. Abdel Monem Said Aly, president of the Al–Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and senior fellow at the Crown Center; and Prof. Naghmeh Sohrabi (HIST), associate director for research at the Crown Center. Feldman asked each a series of pointed questions about the catalysts and subtleties of the uprisings, focusing on each panelist's country of expertise.

There are two key factors that explain why the 2009 Iranian uprising failed and the current uprisings have succeeded, according to Sohrabi, the resident Iranian expert. Momentum and resiliency characterize the current crop of uprisings, she said.

"You have in Tunisia and Egypt and Syria a swelling of the number of people who go out into the streets as the event goes on and in Iran you had the exact opposite: you had the biggest number right after the [2009] election and every event after that got smaller," said Sohrabi.

She also explained that the difference in the diction of the slogans epitomized what the end goals of the uprisings were. "The most famous slogan that came out of Iran in 2009 was a slogan, ‘Where is my vote?'" she said. "And the most famous Egyptian slogan was ‘The people want the fall of the regime.'" She credited the Egyptian uprising for possessing a "more communitarian" character.

Sohrabi cautioned that if the situation in Egypt deteriorates, then other authoritarian states could limit reforms by pointing to Egypt as a "boogeyman."

In discussing potential implications of the Egyptian uprising, Said Aly, an authority on Egyptian politics, stated that the player with the most to lose in the overthrow of the Egyptian government is Israel. "I can tell you, and I know I'm at Brandeis, that Israel is the loser in this," he said. "The issue of peace could have been accomplished in the 1990s, or in the last decade, … but I don't think that the coming generation to rule our country [Egypt] will accept more concessions." He added that "one of the things that we take at issue with [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak is that [he was] too weak" in accepting concessions.

In an interview with the Justice after the event, Said Aly stated that the Egyptians would not accept anything less than exact 1967 borders, including control of East Jerusalem, in a peace agreement. Hitting on a frequent theme of his, Said Aly predicted that efforts by the Saudi government to increase government services and salaries would not work because the current uprisings are "about dignity."

Pelletreau asked, "Should the American embassies in these countries have foreseen what was coming? ... What should we have done differently?"

"Some things are readily measurable," he stated. "You can measure unemployment … other things are a little more elusive, and they escaped us."

Pelletreau said that the use of technology among Arabs, including five million Egyptians on Facebook, was growing "much faster than I think any of us realized."

"We also underestimated that this global recession was hitting, perhaps, a different class, a different group, of youth in these different countries, because in Tunisia, for example, where education is virtually universal, the people who came into the streets were university graduates," continued Pelletreau, who had aspirations "the way a fella in the [Egyptian] Delta might not."

Pelletreau additionally pointed to the role of WikiLeaks in arousing public anger by turning rumors of government corruption into fact. He further blamed Tunisian President Ben Ali's prostate cancer for preventing him from seeing many people and causing him to have "his fingers less on the pulse" of his country, and saw similar effects of ill-health on Mubarak's abilities to govern.

In response to a question about what element of the current uprisings surprised him the most, Makiya answered, "the tenacity of young people."

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