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Keeping Alive the Hope of the Arab Uprisings

Keeping Alive the Hope of the Arab Uprisings

Conference panelists explore what a year of activism has changed, and what remains the same

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Conference panelists Negar Mottahedeh, Duke alumnus Paul Amar and miriam cooke during a break in the conference on "Arab Springs: Revolution and Repression." Photo by Julie Poucher Harbin.

Durham, NC - One year into a series of popular uprisings that have deposed three entrenched authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, democracy still has failed to take deep roots in the region. Cynics are already declaring that no true changes have taken place.

But scholars who met at Duke recently to discuss the "Arab Spring" said that regardless of the path the countries now take, an important popular and civic change has occurred throughout the region from which there is no turning back.

"The uprisings have not yet led to a social revolution.  There has not been a change in class structure, nor has there been distribution of wealth or a change in the nature of the ruling class," said Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Richmond.  "But we can say there has been a civic revolution in which there has been a seizure of the public sphere by the people. This is significant regardless of the outcome.  Even if the result isn't democracy, we should see this result as significant and permanent."

Carapico and more than a dozen scholars spoke at a conference "Arab Springs: Revolution and Repression," held in Von Canon Hall and sponsored by the Department of Asian and Middle East Studies, the Duke Islamic Studies Center and other Duke units. The conference's purpose was to bring scholars and activists together to discuss what has -- and hasn't -- been transformed in the region and what future can be imagined.

While grouped together under the phrase "Arab Spring," the uprisings from Tunisia to Yemen all have different sources and different paths. One similarity, Carapico and others said, is a new attitude about the relationship between the people and ruling class.  Following three or more decades of the region's authoritarian regimes muzzling civil society, the uprisings are reclaiming space for free expression, a more just economy and a demand for respect.

Carapico noted the interest in the West in developing non-government organizations to promote civil society and democracy. Several Arab leaders now point to that work as signs that the uprisings have a foreign influence meant to destabilize Arab society.

Carapico dismissed that idea. "Few of the activists have suggested that those efforts prompted the Arab Spring," she said.  "I think that if anything, the gist of democracy promotion and civil society promotion [from foreign sources] with three-year plans and mission statements and detailed budgets was to actually prevent this kind of mass uprising and to channel elite, white collar activities into manageable activities.  I find the idea that USAID helped stir up the revolution in Egypt to be ironic."

Instead she and others pointed to internal influences and noted ways in which the protesters weaved indigenous motifs and pan-Arabic slogans into creative and unexpected ways to express their demands.

In mixing descriptions of their research with stories from the uprising, the scholars outlined the continuing hopes that the uprisings can still achieve a more just future while outlining the obstacles that remain.

Egyptian scholar Zeinab Abul-Magd, comparing the 2011 uprising in Egypt with one in 1860 against colonial rulers, discussed how the military's control of a significant share of the Egyptian economy is blocking needed economic and political reform.  She added that the narrow focus of the West on elections, combined with the military's demand for stability, had contributed to the rise of political Islamists, whose organizational abilities surpass their popular support.

"SCAF [the ruling military council] gave us one choice: elections," Abul-Magd said. "We were given a vote for a constitutional referendum and for parliament, and we got screwed.  The constitution wasn't what Tahrir Square wanted.  The parliament wasn't what Tahrir Square wanted.  This is what 'democracy' has brought us."

Duke alumnus Paul Amar, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, noted the strong role women played in the uprisings in Egypt and said the post-uprising marginalization of women marked a continuing trend of a new kind of politics he called "the thug state" designed to strip citizens, both men and women, of basic levels of respect.

The elements of the "thug state" include the vulgarization of political discourse, including rhetoric that degrades reformers as anti-Egyptian, weak and feminine, strong ties to former Mubarak cronies and allies and the heavy use of security forces given impunity from acts of rape or threats of rape.  "The language of sexual harassment is now the description of the thug state," he said.  "Its basic function is no longer to seize wealth but the degradation of the people."

Sociologist Zakia Salime of Rutgers University also discussed the pressures of the uprisings on reformers and activists, outlining a split in Morocco between traditional women's groups and a new generation of youthful leaders interested in a different kind of politics.

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