Political science professors Robert Freedman and Steven David presented their insights on the Arab Spring in Mudd Hall last night in a discussion panel organized by the Arab Student Organization. Anthropology professor Niloofar Haeri was also scheduled to join the panel; however, she was unable to attend.
The discussion between David and Freedman touched on the Arab Spring from both a holistic level as well as a more local perspective, detailing specifics about the individual uprisings that occurred in multiple countries in the Middle East.
In a general view, Freedman attributed the broader movement of the Arab Spring to five fundamental causes: the fact that these countries had been led by rulers who had been in power for decades, the pervasive sense of corruption in these countries, rapid price inflation, the general search for dignity among the youth and the unifying elements inherent in social media.
After agreeing with the points previously made by Freedman, David explained the phenomenon through a different lens. Prefacing his views with a reference to the region’s dominance in innovation around the year 1000 and relative stagnation for the 1000 years following, David stated that the Arab Spring was largely a result of the disappointment and frustration among the youth of the region.
“Region by region, countries embrace democracy, embrace modernity, embrace the Internet. Countries do better economically. Women are given equal rights. There are equal rights for people of different sexual persuasions. And the Arab Middle East, among other regions of the world, seems to have been left behind,” David said. “I think at least some of the forces that brought on this were trying to have this region catch up with the rest of the world.”
The two went on to answer questions which largely focused on the situations in Egypt, Syria as well as the effects of the Arab Spring on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In terms of Egypt, both David and Freedman showed concern. Freedman noted the rising influence of muslim extremism in Egypt, mainly that of the Salafis who recently had a leader call for the destruction of the Sphinx and Pyramids on the basis that they were idols. He described the Salafi influence as having “holier-than-thou” dynamic in which the Salafis are pushing for the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood to be more true to traditional Islam in their demands. According to Freedman, the culmination of all the changes Egypt has seen since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is the writing of a new constitution, the results of which are yet to be seen. Freedman referenced the boycotts in Egypt over the past few months, in which groups of women and liberals have shown disapproval of the level of influence of Muslim extremism in the writing of the new constitution.
“The key to Egypt now is writing the constitution. Will there be protection for women? Will there be protection for non-Muslim minorities? And to what degree will the role of the Sharia be dominant?” Freedman inquired. “This is what is currently at work.”
David and Freedman also expressed worried sentiment towards the recent actions of Egypt’s current president, Mohamed Morsi, in regard to his dismissal of the established independent judiciary. David showed how this is a step backwards in Egypt for those who hope the country will embrace a liberal democracy. A liberal democracy, as David explained, is more than mere elections. Rather, a liberal democracy embraces human rights, freedoms, and, especially important to this case, a system of checks and balances. David also pointed out the importance of liberal democracies in that they never go to war with each other.
The conversation then shifted focus to the turbulent situation in Syria, where approximately 40,000 Syrians have been reported dead. Freedman addressed the situation in Syria as one of the most complex in the region, as there are multiple factions among the population and division among resistance forces.
In terms of the role the US should play in Syria, both David and Freedman agreed that they wish the United States was doing more to end the bloodshed and get rid of the oppressive regime of Bashar Al-Assad. It was noted that the situation in Syria is largely the development of a civil war and history has shown that foreign intervention in civil wars often have messy outcomes.
However, that did not stop David and Freedman from supporting a more active role of the US in Syria.
“I am fully cognizant of the notion that we don’t know what’s coming next. But we know what’s happening now, and I find that unacceptable,” David stated.
Furthermore, David and Freedman saw the uprising in Syria as one of the most important on the international stage. Freedman framed this largely on the basis that Assad’s rule in Syria served as one of Iran’s last allies in the Middle East. If rebel forces succeed in overthrowing Assad, Iran would be weakened and with it Hezbollah and Hamas.
“What happens in Syria is going to affect the entirety of the Middle East,” David explained. “The reverberations are going to be with us for a very long time, for good or for ill.”
On the topic of the Arab Spring’s effect on Israel and Palestine, both professors expressed a grim outlook on the current status of any peace process. “An already dead process has become dead-er,” David stated referencing the increased anti-israel sentiment among Jordan and Egypt, two countries who formerly had diplomatic ties with Israel. However, both professors agreed that for peace to become possible, democracy has to be present in the Arab world.
In all, the professors were able to break down the Arab Spring in a comprehensive manner without delving too far into the future where, both professors agree, there is little certainty.
Junior Fatima Alkhunaizi was a key player in organizing this event. Alkhunaizi, the current Co-President of the Arab Student Organization, recalled feeling frustrated at the lack of attention the Arab Spring received on campus when it occurred in her freshman year.
“Now it’s close to the two-year anniversary of the beginning of Arab Spring,” Alkhunaizi explained. “So I thought it would be a good opportunity to raise awareness, increase the level of education on campus, or just bring attention to the fact that this is going on.”
Junior Daniel Benarroch was one of many students in attendance. Benarroch said he was very pleased with the panel discussion. Talks like these, Benarroch said, help connect students to a more all-encompassing guide as to what is going on, rather than media sources that are largely biassed.
“I was kind of sad that the other speaker was not here, since she would have brought a more inside view if the Islamic perspective since she is Muslim,” Benarroch said.
Although the professors were very good at examining the many sides of the uprisings that constituted the Arab Spring, the absence of Haeri was largely felt. Even David made note of the absence of a Muslim perspective on the panel.
“Only in America does the Arab Student Group invite two Jewish guys to talk about the region,” David stated.