Harvard Panel Calls Egyptian Protests 'Historic Moment'

IOP Egypt
Beth Drucker

Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns moderates a discussion with Tarek Masoud, Malika Zeghal, Roger Owen, and Rami Khouri (left to right) about Middle Eastern politics in light of recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon at the IOP on Thursday.

As bloody protests continue to rock the streets of Egypt, a panel convened at the Harvard Institute of Politics yesterday to discuss how the U.S. should approach the complex situation called it “the most historic moment in the modern Arab world in the last century.”

The panelists offered historical context for the recent spread of political instability across Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab nations, and said that even for countries in which the government remains in power, the unrest will fundamentally alter the political fabric of the region.

The panel—Rami G. Khouri, a journalist from the American University in Beirut; Tarek Masoud, a HKS professor; E. Roger Owen, a history professor; and Malika Zeghal, a near eastern languages and civilizations professor—said that high unemployment in many nations has been coupled with a widespread belief that governments have failed to protect their citizens.

The recent success of the Tunisian protests in ending former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s reign has sparked protest movements in other nations to oust governments that have grown unpopular with their people, Masoud said.

“The wall of fear has fallen and has changed the psychology and culture of the region,” said Zeghal. Several panelists agreed that while the U.S. is in a difficult diplomatic position, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a long-standing ally, the U.S. should stand strongly behind the demands of the Egyptian people for a fully accountable democracy.

Khouri, the journalist, said that the U.S. must back its pledge to encourage the creation of a democratic government in Egypt.

“The U.S. and Europeans missed the boat when they refused to deal with Hamas when they won a democratic election,” he said, referring to the political group that came to power in Palestine in 2006. “They should not miss the boat again this time.”

All of the panelists also warned that while Americans might see Mubarak’s regime as beneficial to U.S. foreign policy, fighting the will of the Egyptian people could be disastrous for the U.S. in the future.

“Eventually [the Egyptian people] are going to achieve their freedom, and they’re going to ask, ‘Where was the U.S. when I was engaged in this process? Was it with me or was it against me?’” said Masoud, the Kennedy School professor.

Despite emphasis in many media reports on the potential for Islamist groups to capitalize on the protest movement and gain power, Zeghal said that the unrest should be seen as a nationalist revolution, rather than as a religious one like the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

“If the Islamists come back—and they have started to come back—they will have to participate in a democratic transition as any other movement,” Zeghal said.

Looking ahead, all of the panelists agreed that the actions of Egypt’s army will be key in deciding who ultimately holds power. But Khouri said that it is unrealistic to expect that unrest on Egyptian streets will to result in a rapid democratic transition.

“It took the United States 300 years to go from slavery to giving women the right to vote and blacks equal rights. These things take time,” Khouri said.

Following the event, several students said that the talk had presented a different perspective than the one offered by the media, especially about the potential rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a dominant Islamist group in Egypt.

Some students also said that they appreciated the panelists’ call for the U.S. to follow its proclaimed message and support the creation of democracies.

“[The event] was a call to citizens of the United States to keep an open mind and keep supporting democracies everywhere in the world,” said Jordan E. Sessler ’13.

— Staff writer Monica M. Dodge can be reached at mdodge@college.harvard.edu.

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