Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Panel Explores Trends in Egyptian and Arab Society

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Panel Explores Trends in Egyptian and Arab Society

Article excerpt

George Washington University's Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) held a half-day conference in Washington, DC on Oct. 3 to celebrate the launch of a new edited volume titled The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East. Three panels addressed the political, social and economic repercussions of the Arab Spring.

The panel titled "Publics and Others" began with a presentation by George Washington professor Nathan Brown, who warned that emotions can influence the tone analysts and scholars use when discussing international affairs. Offering self-criticism, Brown said this is particularly true in the way he and many others have discussed political developments in Egypt.

When the 2011 protests toppled 29-year autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Brown said, his assessment of Egypt's future, while analytically sound, was likely too optimistic. Conversely, he added, after several years of continual unrest and political drama the current atmosphere surrounding discussions on Egypt is likely overly pessimistic.

Brown cited four specific factors he "should have paid more attention to" when discussing revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere.

First, he said, more consideration should have been given to the fact that Egypt, unlike Tunisia, never had a clear post-transition roadmap. While leaders in Tunis drew lessons from the country's 1956 independence from France, Brown noted, officials in Cairo apparently adopted their transition plan from the Internet. "The rules were made-up as they went along," he said.

Second, Brown described the challenges posed by poorly functioning institutions. While most countries impacted by the Arab Spring had democratic processes in place, he pointed out that these processes had very little importance, and thus very little credibility when they started to take meaning.

Third, Brown said, Arab society is still reeling from the "divide-and-rule" policies of now-deposed leaders. Because most opposition groups engaged directly with authoritarian governments, they rarely engaged one another, he explained. Not surprisingly, these groups have had difficulty communicating with each other since 2011.

Finally, Brown said, scholars should have better predicted the rise of "paranoid sectarian politics." In the absence of a centralized and powerful state, he said, it's common for societal divides to emerge as various actors battle to define the country's new direction. …

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