February 4, 2011 — In the wake of pro-democracy popular uprisings that ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, and that are continuing to push for the swift removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, America must adjust to a new, more independent Middle East, where events are largely outside of our control. And that's a good thing, University of Virginia politics professor and Middle East expert William Quandt said during a panel discussion Thursday evening.
The discussion, "Revolution in Tunisia, Egypt and Beyond: Democracy on the Horizon?," drew a standing-room only crowd of more than 300, mostly students, to the auditorium of the South Lawn Commons Building. It was organized by the Center for International Studies associate director, Majida Bargach.
The atmosphere remains tense in Egypt, with thousands filling the streets of Cairo. The Obama administration has been prodding Mubarak to swiftly transfer power and beseeching the Egyptian military to continue to refrain from violence. While Egyptian police are notorious and hated for their repression, the Egyptian army is generally respected by the Egyptian public, making it the "one institution that matters in Egypt," said Quandt, Edward R. Stettinius Jr. Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the College of Arts & Sciences, who helped craft the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt as a former senior staff member of the National Security Council and aide to President Carter.
The Egyptian protesters have been very disciplined, refraining from violence and policing themselves, checking everyone for weapons to prevent or defuse any outbreaks of violence that might be instigated by forces loyal to Mubarak – which could provide a pretext for a crackdown, Quandt said. One of the protest slogans has been an Arabic phrase that translates to "Peacefully, peacefully, peacefully."
"I don't see that in very many revolutions around the world that people have such self-discipline," he said.
The protesters have wisely treated army officers as friends; another slogan is "Hug a soldier," Quandt noted. As long as the army continues to remain neutral and doesn't fire on civilians, and the protesters continue their tactics, he said, "Egyptians have a pretty good shot of making the same type of transition as Tunisia."
Egyptian opposition leaders are saying they would like an outcome that looks a bit like Turkey – a democracy in which multiple parties contest elections and power transfers peacefully, Quandt said. If Egypt arrives at a similar system, the Muslim Brotherhood – a conservative Islamist party that has renounced all terrorist tactics since the mid-1980s, but was repressed by Mubarak and still makes some in the West nervous – will undoubtedly have a stronger voice, but not a dominant role, because less than 30 percent of the population identifies with the group.
"In the last couple of days, people in Washington are having to get used to some new challenges," Quandt said. "The Middle East is in a period of self-assertion, and I think that's fine. We need to figure out how to develop good relations with more independent-minded countries. It will mean we should stop thinking of countries as clients to be bossed around and more as partners trying to develop common interests. And that's a real challenge because we like to boss people around."
"Tunisia was a trigger event in the region, but Egypt, for the United States, is a much bigger geo-strategic development," Quandt concluded. "Some people are nervous about the consequences. I'm actually quite sanguine about where we will be with a democratic Tunisia and democratic Egypt, including the spillover effects."
A democratizing Middle East, he added, will leave America "much better off in all important ways" including ending the embarrassment of supporting Middle East dictators.
Tunisian poet Miled Faiza, an Arabic lecturer at U.Va., said he was happy and proud that his cousins were among the nation's youth who played a large role in the protests that toppled Ben Ali. The protesters organized around unifying messages and plans, partially through social media like Facebook and Twitter.
With social media as a key enabler, Faiza was optimistic that the Tunisian example may spark similar uprisings among youth across the Middle East who are disaffected, repressed and often unemployed in countries ruled by repressive regimes.
"These dictators have nowhere to go thanks to the Internet, and we're gonna bring them all down," Faiza said.
While it was relatively easy to topple the Ben Ali regime, Faiza worried that it would not be easy to change the mentality of "a people who have lived under dictators for 50, 60, 80 years," including a police-state culture where police trainees are "brainwashed" to assume that people won't respect them unless they use intimidation and violence. In Tunisia, police are omnipresent, stationed on every corner in every town, city and university, making Tunisians always wary of police harassment.
Panelist Nejib Ayachi, president of the Washington-based Maghreb Center, respectfully disagreed with Faiza's concerns over the lingering impact of the Tunisian police state, noting that in other countries police forces had been successfully retrained after the removal of a repressive regime.
Tunisian-American student Saoussen (Suzy) Mahjoub was also optimistic about the turn of events in her country. She had studied pre-law in Tunisia for a year before transferring to U.Va., where she is now an economics major.
Mahjoub trembled with emotion as she read an Arabic poem she had composed one night during the protests when she woke up and could not sleep. "Emotionally tired" and worried about her family and friends when she wrote it, the poem called for a "Dove of Peace" to deliver her country from the ruins of "death, fires, and darkness."
For her entire life, Ben Ali had been an entrenched fixture of Tunisian life, so when she heard he had left the country, she "didn't know if I should cry, laugh or cheer."
Mahjoub's former "History of Law" teacher was among many law students, professors and lawyers leading protests calling for freedom, democracy and an independent judiciary system. Learning of their participation, Mahjoub believed that finally her teachers would no longer just be teaching the theory of law, but "they are going to finally apply it, and make it real and true and livable." The departure of Ben Ali marked the birth of "a new Tunisia," she said.