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Uncertain future for Egypt, say faculty experts in panel discussion

February 14, 2011

Faculty experts on panel included (l-r) Drs. Hovsepian, Will and Coyle. (Photo/Dan Carr '13)

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has resigned, the military leaders are calling for open elections and most of the protesters that filled Tahrir Square have peacefully dispersed. But is it just an interesting but brief departure from history in a region long controlled by military regimes? Or could it possibly be the turning point that forever changes the country and reverberates throughout the Middle East?

A panel of top faculty experts gathered at Chapman University today to debate just such questions at a lunch time panel discussion in Beckman Hall titled  “The Arab Youth Revolt: Chapman Experts Discuss the Events in Tunisia, Egypt and the Greater Middle East.” And while their views diverged on key issues, they agreed that it’s difficult to predict what will come next.

“The victory that has been won on the 11th is the easy one,” said  Nubar Hovsepian, Ph.D., associate professor, referring to Mubarak’s resignation Friday. “The bigger battle remains ahead.”

Americans may not have the political stomach for what could fill the vacuum if the idealism of recent events wanes, said James J. Coyle, Ph.D.

“I would only issue a word of caution and that is: The Jacobites brought us Robespierre, Kerensky brought us Lenin. We have to be careful on what we wish for,” Dr. Coyle said.

But the panelists differed over the ultimate significance of the revolt.  While the two agreed that “the bigger battles” are ahead, the nascent pro-democracy upheaval the world just witnessed in Egypt ushers in a new spirit of public discourse, said Dr. Hovsepian,  a former political affairs officer in the United Nations, journalist and author of The War on Lebanon, and Palestinian State Formation: Education and the Construction of National Identity.

“Fear of fear is over. Which basically means the entire edifice of the legitimacy of the authoritarian structure has been destroyed,” he said. “What has been reversed is the structure of authoritarian rule that has taken place in the area since the end of colonial rule.”

The energy was impressive, but the youth movement’s call for democracy did not really fuel the widespread outpouring of support, said Dr. Coyle, co-author of Politics in the Middle East:  Culture and Conflict, director of Global Education at Chapman University and a former U.S. government official in the Middle East. Poverty was the driving force in Egypt, as well as Tunisia and in neighboring countries where protests are unfolding this week. Hungry and jobless people will soon turn away from idealism in favor of economic security, he said.

“What’s the cause of all this? Poverty. Lack of prospects for meaningful employment. In states that are not supported by oil wealth, the levels of discontent, of economic difficulty, are unprecedented due to the economic downturn in most of these countries. …  The supporters are in Tahrir (Square) today. They’re no longer calling for democracy. They’re calling for jobs.”

If the bumpy road to some form of democracy is endured, Americans might find themselves conflicted between supporting the form of government they hold dear and a regime that guarantees access to the resources they dearly want, such as oil, said Donald Will, Ph.D., the Delp-Wilkinson Professor of Peace Studies, a former nongovernmental observer at the United Nations and a presenter at the First UN Seminar on the Question of Palestine in 1980.

“These undemocratic regimes are often in control of resources that we very much want. … If you get a democratic leader, they’re going to share the wealth more. They’re going to cut into the super profits. …  Because democracies will do their best, inequalities in the United States will prove that it’s not always easy, but democracies will usually demand that resources and wealth be somewhat more equitable.”

The panel was sponsored by Wilkinson College as part of The Wilkinson Report lecture series, which seeks to illuminate current affairs through the lens of the liberal arts. Highlights from the event may be seen in a video produced by Chapman University’s Panther Productions.

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