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LSU Community Discusses "Unrest in North Africa and the Middle East"

For the past several weeks, the eyes of the nation and the world have been focused on protests in North Africa and the Middle East. The uncertainty of the situation and the lack of resolution thus far have drawn the attention and concern of people worldwide, including many in the LSU community.

On Feb. 8, a number of students, faculty and staff attended a panel discussion on "Unrest in North Africa and the Middle East" to learn more about the causes of the popular demonstrations against North African and Middle Eastern governments and to explore some implications of these events for both the region and the United States.

The panel was put together by the LSU International Studies Program and moderated by Leonard Ray, International Studies Program director. Panelists included Mark Gasiorowski, professor in the LSU Department of Political Science and International Studies Program; Touria Khannous, assistant professor in the LSU Department of Foreign Languages and International Studies Program; and Reem Meshal, assistant professor in the LSU Department of Religious Studies.

"From time to time during the semester, we like to hold a couple of events to help create a discussion on a variety of topics, and this semester the obvious topic is the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa," said Ray, who hesitated to use the word "revolution" instead of unrest. "We are witnessing something that certainly feels and sounds like a revolution."

Ray opened the discussion with a recent timeline of events in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Syria and Morocco, where protests have already taken place or are being planned.

He said that the recent protests can be traced to Dec. 17, 2010, when a man in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest police confiscation of his vegetable cart. Following this event, other protests were held, which in turn, snowballed into an antigovernment movement.

Meshal, who is Egyptian, disagreed that the events in Egypt began with the man in Tunisia.

"That may have in fact have been the final spark, but the events in Egypt were proceeded by many, many factors long before the Tunisian revolution," she said.

A number of students, faculty and staff attended the panel discussion on "Unrest in North Africa and the Middle East" on Feb. 8.

The three panelists each gave a brief presentation from their own perspectives and areas of expertise.

Khannous, a native of Morocco, teaches Arabic and international studies. Last year, she led the first LSU summer abroad program in North Africa, and she is planning the trip again this year. She took a group of 16 LSU students to visit Morocco tourist destinations, such as the beaches, deserts and music festivals.

"Behind this nice façade, it's a country of contrasts," said Khannous, who noted the gap between the rich and poor and the king's power as factors contributing to these contrasts. "Given some of the variables that have been applied to other parts of North Africa and the Middle East, there is potential for trouble too in Morocco."

Khannous said that she is often asked about the events in North Africa and whether the same thing will happen in her native country. To answer, she studied a number of demographic factors about the population of 35 million in Morocco, including median age, economic data and household income spent on food. Another important factor she looked at is the ease of access to the Internet for Moroccans.

"More and more Moroccans of different classes have access to the Internet, and we know that the Internet has been crucial to the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt," she said. "If we take into consideration the criteria of income inequality and other factors such as food and Internet usage, Morocco is ripe for revolution."

Khannous said the conditions in Morocco could worsen and become intolerable – for instance, if birth rate swells a population while weather conditions and trade restrictions force households to spend more than half their income on food, while a regime anticipating the challenge becomes more repressive and deploys an elaborate domestic spy system.

"Would we then favor revolution?" she asked. "It very much depends on what alternatives we could discern. What would a revolution replace, and to what effect, with what purpose? With regard to Morocco, how much capital and how many more people apprehensive about a change of regime would leave Morocco? And if Islamists augmented their power, what kind of Islamists would they be?"

Meshal, who teaches religious studies, has a focus on the history of the Ottoman Empire and a particular expertise on the relations between Coptic Christians and the Muslim Ottoman government in Egypt.

"I think as everyone at LSU and across the world recognizes, the Middle East is a very significant and important part of this globe for strategic reasons and obviously for resources," she said. "Within the Middle East, Egypt is one of the major players, perhaps one of the most important countries. At 83 million people, it is the largest Arab country in the region, and as the saying goes, 'As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East.'"

Leonard Ray, International Studies Program director, organized and moderated the panel discussion.

Gasiorowski teaches Middle Eastern politics and is a leading expert on the politics of Iran.

"These events that are playing out in Egypt now and Tunisia a few weeks ago are just rocking the entire Middle East," he said. "It's likely to be a very different region after all this plays out than it was a month or two ago, and it's going to affect U.S. interests quite substantially."

A major focus of the panel was that there has been no resolution yet from the protests and the uncertainty of what these movements will mean for the United States.

"Events are unfolding even as we speak today," Meshal said.

Khannous said that it's time for watchful waiting because "the Egyptian situation has to be alarming to any American president of any party because we don't know if the Egyptian popular will turn out to be in the U.S. interest or not."

Gasiorowski covered four possible scenarios that could emerge in Egypt once there is a resolution: secular democracy emerges; Islamic democrats with a group like the Muslim Brotherhood come to power; radical Islamists leaders take over; or a reestablishment of the current regime.

"The two democratic scenarios are best in the longer term," said Gasiorowski, who pointed out that U.S. policy toward the Middle East over the past few decades has been a failure. "I think that a democratic outcome of this unrest in Egypt and elsewhere could be a very good thing for the United States. It could really shake the pillars of U.S. policy and force the U.S. government to maybe redirect things a little bit in a direction that is more popular in the Arab world and looks better in the Arab world and maybe after a transition period, puts U.S. policy in a more effective direction."

Meshal wanted to debunk some myths that have been reported by media on the unrest and hoped the panel changed paradigms people have had about the region.

One myth is that this is "a simple binary between a dictator and its people."

"This is not simply a struggle between people and a particular individual, but one between a sovereign or popular movement and a regime," she said.

Another common myth is that this unrest is between secular and Islamic groups, but Meshal noted that religion hasn't played a big role in the protests.

"Hopefully, it [the panel discussion] will get us all thinking about some of the paradigms that we use that have been challenged by some of the more recent events, perhaps get us thinking about the very definition of democracy," she said. "It has raised some very important questions as far as U.S. foreign policy in the region is concerned. Can the U.S. balance principles against interests in the region or will interests predominate at the expense of people in the region?"

Meshal's own interest in the protests has a more personal touch than many others who attended the panel. Being Egyptian herself and having studied at the American University of Cairo, seeing everything play out gave her a bittersweet feeling to be more than 6,000 miles away in the United States.

"I can't tell you the number of times I've wished I was there in that square," she said. "At other times, of course I've actually been relieved to be here and safe, especially when the violence has seemed to be out of hand. So to say the least, it's been bittersweet."