SMC Panel Looks at the Region in the Wake of Revolutions

The popular uprisings that have swept through the Middle East like wildfire this year have transformed the political landscape, but will they lead to lasting change? Will the region finally move toward economic equity and democratic rule? Or will it descend into post-revolutionary chaos?

These were the central questions addressed in a panel on “Revolutions in the Arab World: Politics, Religion and Economics” sponsored by the Center for the Regional Economy. The panelists were Professor Hisham Ahmed of the Politics Department, an expert on Middle East politics, and Professor Tomas Gomez-Arias, director of the center and an expert in international economics.

“It is an historic, hopeful moment for the Arab people,” said Ahmed.

In swift succession, the string of uprisings known as the Arab Spring has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, led to mass demonstrations and strikes in Yemen and Bahrain, sparked a deadly revolt in Syria and chased Moammar Khadafy from the capital of Libya.

Ahmed said the revolutions were the inevitable, if belated, reaction to a host of sins, including widespread corruption; monarchical republicanism, in which ruling families clung to power; an unjust legal system that spawned notorious human rights abuses; and regimes that refused to tolerate any form of protest.

“The Arab citizen enjoyed neither liberty nor justice,” he said.

Gomez-Arias said that although some of the regimes affected by the revolutions have vast oil wealth and others are mired in poverty, “one thing they all had in common was the huge amount of control the government had on the economic system.”

Huge subsidies that were supposed to level the playing field mostly benefited the elite, he said. As a result, the vast majority of people felt left out, particularly the young, who suffer from chronic unemployment, and anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit. The sense of disenfranchisement led directly to the cascade of revolts, he said.

Ahmed agreed, saying, “Egypt was sitting on top of a volcano for many years.”

But while the widespread revolts are generally celebrated in the Middle East and in the West, new concerns have arisen about who will have the upper hand in the new Arab order.

Will the Arab spring bring greater democracy or will it succumb to the destiny of the French Revolution, the Communist Revolution or, more recently, the Iranian revolution which, for a time at least, led to much greater repression? These concerns are especially strong in Egypt, where the military, which took the reins of power after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, has re-established a state of emergency that gives them absolute control of the nation.

Ahmed said he did not share those concerns and argued that thrust of the political movements in the Middle East is toward liberal democratic governments. “The protests grew out of a burning desire for greater democracy,” he reminded the audience of hundreds of students, faculty and staff and community members. He noted that in Egypt, the Islamic Brotherhood did not initially get on board and only later sided with those who led the street protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

“The revolutionaries are people who have opened up to the rest of the world,” he added, citing their use of Facebook and Twitter to organize their protests.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this process is not reversible,” he said. “The transition to democracy won’t happen overnight, but it will happen for real because when people taste freedom, who wants to go back to oppression?”

However, he cautioned that Western policies will certainly influence the results and said politicians will have to exercise tremendous caution in shaping their policies toward the region.

Ahmed criticized President Barack Obama’s address at the United Nations in which he opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state through the U.N. Security Council.

Nevertheless, he said, “There’s always room for positive relations based on mutual respect. We need to open up to these cultures and stop viewing them as inferior. If we do, we will gradually do away with this idea of the clash of civilizations.”

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

The Center for the Regional Economy, which is supported by the School of Economics and Business Administration, brings together faculty, students and alumni at Saint Mary’s College with business, governmental and nonprofit groups in the Bay Area and Asia-Pacific Region in support of an economy that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

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