By Sarah Queller
“There are a number of futures open to the Egyptian people,” Professor of International Studies David Rowe told a standing-room only crowd of students and faculty interested in better navigating the mass protests in Egypt. Rowe moderated the faculty-led “Egypt in Tumult” panel on Tuesday, Feb. 8 in Peirce Lounge.
Rowe opened the panel with background information on Egypt’s sociopolitical context and framed the panel as one aimed at “understanding our interaction with this corner of the world” with greater “intellectual sophistication.” Rowe noted that “Egypt in Tumult” was likely the first in a series of discussions about the uprising.
Assistant Professor of History Nurten Kilic-Schubel discussed the “long history of popular mass protests” in Egypt and in the region. Kilic-Schubel said the revolts in Egypt were sparked by the collapse of the Tunisian regime, but that there was already a growing tension in Egypt, and there have been a string of mass demonstrations there over the past few years. From a historical perspective, she argued that building dissatisfaction with President Hosni Mubarak’s rule could be traced back to dissatisfaction with Anwar El-Sadat’s economic reforms in the 1970s.
Pamela Camerra-Rowe, associate professor of political science, cited poverty, inequality, corruption and repression as the foundations of Egyptians’ demands for political change. A specialist in democracy, Camerra-Rowe stressed the dangers of protesting an authoritative regime, especially one with control over the military. “What happens from here out?” she asked. “There is no guarantee of an orderly, peaceful or successful transition to democracy.” Camerra-Rowe argued the desires for order and security are paramount, but noted that the protestors are diverse, and though they may stand united against Mubarak, they may not agree on the ideals for a new order.
The tumult in Egypt, according to Religious Studies Professor Vernon Schubel, has little to do with religion. Policy makers looking for the “right explicatory narrative” have turned to religion because it is an interesting and convenient angle for covering a foreign conflict, he said. “There is an assumption that all problems in Arab countries are related to Islam or the Arab-Israeli crisis,” Schubel said.
The final panelist, Provost Nayef Samhat, explored the United States’ interests and role in the region, first emphasizing the importance of controlling the oil routes there. Samhat noted three major United States policies in the Middle East – the containment of Arab nationalism, the exclusion of other nations from shaping the region’s politics and the pursuit of maintaining stability by supporting key states, most importantly Saudi Arabia and Israel. The outcomes of democracy are uncertain, he said, adding that the U.S. tolerates democracy in the Arab world only “when we can control it.”
Following the professors’ presentations, attendees were urged to ask questions. Dara Frank ’11 asked whether Egyptians harbored resentment toward the U.S. for supporting Mubarak’s government. Schubel said the protestors are victims of the “daily humiliations of corruption” and are aware that Mubarak’s regime has been upheld by U.S. support, but said President Barack Obama’s administration is unsure of where to stand. “Regime change has risks,” Camerra-Rowe said, adding that some protestors have said the U.S. is not supporting them enough, but the nation is going to look after its own interests. Samhat, however, said Mubarak could have “crushed” or “eliminated” the movement, so these “quiet signals” suggest that he is aware of American sentiment.
Bryan Kurtzman ’11 asked how the United States could have been so “blind-sided” by the outbreak of protests, to which Rowe offered that “political opposition to authoritative regimes is very dangerous” and there are “powerful incentives to be untruthful.”
Other attendees raised the role of social media, the model of democratization in Iraq and the future of Egypt’s relationship with Israel.