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A Month Into ‘Arab Awakening,’ Governments Now ‘Afraid of the Public’

February 17, 2011 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown examines the broad themes in the regional upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa with Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars, and University Of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a broad look now at the upheaval sweeping across the region.

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland. He’s conducted numerous public opinion surveys in the Middle East.

And, Shibley, I will start with you, because it is interesting to think about public opinion now, isn’t it? What — what — what happened? Did it suddenly shift? Did it suddenly awaken? What’s going on?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University Of Maryland: You know, if you think about a month ago, governments were scaring the public. If you had to ask me what is the state of affairs, it was state of affairs where the public was afraid of governments.

A month later, governments are afraid of the public.

JEFFREY BROWN: Governments are afraid of their — of the public?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Governments are afraid of their people.

That is a remarkable change. And I think it’s the beginning of what I call an Arab awakening, the likes of which we have not seen. It’s an empowerment that is maybe akin to something like the Industrial Revolution in Europe. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? That — that large?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: And I mean that they — and let me just tell you why. And I don’t say that lightly, and I know that this is only the beginning of it. There’s going to be setbacks. Things are not going to go flow in a certain way.

But there’s an individual empowerment, an individual empowerment the likes of which we have never witnessed in the Middle East. And it’s really almost entirely a function of the information revolution. I’m not saying that’s the cause of these events.

We know, every single year, when I poll in the Middle East, I ask the question, so what’s new? I never ask the question, is there reason for people to revolt? I always ask the question, why haven’t people revolted already? That’s been the state of affairs.

So, this is a new vehicle, new empowerment. And it’s — and it’s interesting, actually, to look at it, because it gives us also a guide into separating some of the countries in terms of where it’s likely to spread and where not.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, let’s get to that.

But, first, because, Haleh, we’re — on the one hand, there’s this huge uproar, but also we’re now seeing — we just saw in these clips — some real serious pushback from governments, Bahrain, in Yemen. We saw it in Libya yesterday. We saw it in Iran the other day.

Governments are fighting back. Are they able to?

HALEH ESFANDIARI, Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars: I think they — in some countries, like Iran, they have succeeded. In other countries, they may not.

We see two trends now taking place in the Middle East. One is the clampdown which we saw in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and we might see maybe in Algeria, if it happens, you know?


HALEH ESFANDIARI: But then there’s the other trend, which is the trend we saw in Tunisia and Egypt. But what is interesting is that, for the first time — I think I agree with Shibley — that you have the younger generation taking the matters in their hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the similarity you see throughout?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Through the region, until, you know, the — months ago, we always expected that, if there was a change, a revolution, a push, it would have been the people in their 40s and 50s, the middle classes and so on.

But no, these are the children who grew up under this regime in Egypt. It’s the children who grew up under Mubarak for 30 years. In Iran, it’s the children who grew up in the revolution. You know, so you have a whole different, I think, phenomenon popping up in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shibley, focus a little bit more on the differences, then, because now we have — we have got out some of the similarities.

In Bahrain, for example, you have this secular — I mean, you have — I’m not — sectarianism is the word I’m looking for — sectarianism differences.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, in my opinion, when I look at it in terms of where it’s likely to have success and impact, this trend and empowerment that is spreading, there are really three factors.

One is how open the society is to the information revolution. I mean, oddly enough, in my own opinion, the more we isolate regimes, the more we prolong their lives in some ways, in part because they can point out to some foreign power. And people are fearful. They — everybody wants to get rid of repressive regimes, but they want to get rid of foreign intervention even more. And governments can use it. And you don’t — you want to take away — that away from them.

But second, if you look at the empowerment, you know, what explains it, it is, number one, people obviously get more information outside of what their government provides. Number two, they know what the rest of the world has, and they have links to it. And number three, they have an instrument for mobilizing politically without the need of political intermediaries, political parties or organizations.

So, the more open a society is, frankly, the more empowered and the better the organization. That’s number one. Number two, I think that the more homogeneous it is, the easier it is. In Egypt and Tunisia, it was a little bit easier, because it was not an ideological revolution. There were no major societal divisions at the core of this revolution. They were primarily public empowerment versus regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, regime versus a kind of mass of the population?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: A kind of mass, and whereas when you look at Iran, frankly, there’s obviously huge and empowered opposition that’s been there, and it’s going to be there. And they might be even more empowered.

But every evidence we have is that the regime also has grassroots constituents that could be mobilized. How that’s going to play itself out, we don’t know. And places like Yemen, too, where, yes, Yemen, there’s obviously a resentment of the regime, but there are so many layers of differences. Governments can use that — in Bahrain, up to a point.

Although the majority, maybe two-thirds, are Shia, there are still Sunnis who will rally behind the government. So divisions matter within every society. And that’s a factor.

But the third one is economics. I mean, this is not about economics. This movement that we see in the Arab world, this is really more about dignity and liberty. But economics plays into it. Obviously, the gap has been a factor — the gap between rich and poor has been a factor. The richer countries are just up to a point insulated, but that wouldn’t stop it from happening, because people are looking for empowerment.


Are those the factors you — expand on it.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I would like to add a fourth one to what Shibley said.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, yes, yes.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: And this is education.

You are now suddenly dealing with a generation of young people who are education — educated, who knows what is going on in the rest of the world. And there is the sense of awakening. We want the rule of law. You know, we want transparency. We want accountability from our government.

We challenge our government, you know, the sense of empowerment. But then, in each country, it has its own, I think, it manifests itself differently. You know, in Tunisia, to be very honest with you, we always thought, this is the most secular country in the region when it comes to women’s rights. It has the most progressive family law in the whole region. It had — 90 percent of its people were educated.

But then 30 percent of the young would always like to emigrate, leave Tunisia. So, there was this dichotomy there. In Egypt, it’s a totally different situation. You have these people who feel that, how can you live with $2 a day? It is impossible. How long can a young couple postpone marriage and live with their parents?

All these little — in Iran, you feel you have everything at your disposal but not freedom. So, the quest in Iran is for freedom. But I think, as Shibley said, in maybe Egypt and Tunisia, it’s for dignity (INAUDIBLE). And, in Bahrain, it’s repressing a Shiite minority.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, just — just briefly, in our last minute, so you’re looking at similarities. You’re looking at differences.

The U.S. — we all have to figure out a way to respond, right?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, look, for the U.S., let’s be honest. This is not a time to just react. First of all, you have got to take the side of the people who are going peacefully to get their freedom. You can’t allow violence against them in places where we have influence. That’s number one.

Number two, this is not just a reactive mode. We have got to sit back. We’ve defined our interests in a way that went against the aspiration of the public in the region. With the public empowerment, we have got to sit back and think deep.

JEFFREY BROWN: And a last word? A broad-brush response, or country by country?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think broad response.


HALEH ESFANDIARI: I mean, there is no difference between Egypt and Bahrain. If in Egypt you insisted on a change and transition, then you have to do the same thing in Bahrain, and you have to be more vocal in Iran and in other part of the country. But realpolitik is something else.


Haleh Esfandiari, Shibley Telhami, thank you both very much.