Revolt and reform

Written by | April 17, 2012

Middle East Studies Center panel discussion unpacks importance of sudden popular uprisings

What happens after the revolution? As government control and authority shifts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and many other North African and Middle Eastern countries, it’s no longer a question of whether the revolution will succeed or if war will ensue, but how it will reform. How will these shifts and changes play out as government becomes redefined?

On Tuesday, April 24, the Portland State Middle East Studies Center will host a panel discussion on the post-revolution reform efforts in North Africa. Titled “Revolt and Reform: Electoral Politics in the New North Africa,” the discussion features PSU assistant professor of political science Lindsay Benstead and associate professor of political science Ellen Lust from Yale University. This free event will be held in Smith Memorial Student Union room 294 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Since late 2010, an unprecedented wave of popular uprisings across North Africa have forced seemingly entrenched dictators from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Known as the Arab Spring movement, these citizen uprisings have triggered political unrest in other North African countries and across the Middle East.

These revolutions represent the “toppling of authoritarian regimes that seemed quite firmly entrenched,” said James Grehan, MESC director. “What astonished everyone was the ability of the Arab world to get rid of these dictators.” This has repercussions all over the world, he explained, “because it represents successful aspirations for more representative forms of government.”

“The great surprise about the Arab Spring was not that the dictatorships fell, but that they fell so quickly after so many years—actually, several decades—of authoritarian rule,” Grehan said.

The Arab Spring movement began in Dec. 2010 as citizen uprisings in Tunisia forced then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power. Uprisings have since snowballed all across the Arab World. Democratic elections are now being held in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco, in addition to Tunisia. Lust explained how these uprisings started: “I would say it was a combination of forces: continued economic crises, unemployment, especially among youth, growing inequalities and a failure of the political institutions to be able to respond to these demands,” she said.

The Tunisian Revolution “was an event that on the one hand was ‘expected,’ in the sense that people said for a long time the situation was unsustainable, and on the other surprising, because no one expected it would happen when it did. It literally took a spark to set [the Arab Spring] off,” Lust said.

Social media has played a role in organizing these revolts, although Lust explained that the role of social media is often exaggerated. “The Iranian revolution took place without it, and so did movements that changed Africa and Eastern Europe. Social media may have had an influence, but I think it is often overblown,” she said. Additionally, she said that things had reached a tipping point due to very diverse set of circumstances destabilizing the regimes.

The biggest mystery to be explored by the panel is why these revolutions are suddenly occurring now. Lust, in an article titled “Why Now?”, explains that the focus needs to be shifted “from a search for immediate causal factors to a greater recognition of…gradual, interrelated changes in political, economic and social spheres that eventually create the conditions conducive to earth-shattering events.”

Benstead initiated the April 24 panel in order to invite Lust to together unpack these uprisings and discuss their ramifications. According to MESC Outreach Coordinator Elisheva Cohen, both Benstead and Lust bring invaluable experience to the discussion. “They are both experts and have traveled extensively within North Africa and have a lot to say about the revolutions,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of information and misinformation, and it’s good to hear scholars and experts and get a well-rounded sense of Arab Spring and the long-term impact.”

The event’s co-sponsors are the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at PSU and the Portland Center for Public Humanities.

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