The University of Michigan International Institute held a round table discussion yesterday to analyze the struggle against authoritarian rule in the Middle East and the underlying tensions that have led to widespread turmoil and political instability.
A crowd of about 70 people gathered in the School of Social Work’s Educational Conference Center to take part in the event, which was co-sponsored by the African Studies Center, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies and the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. The discussion featured University experts and professors who talked about how protests in Tunisia and Egypt have led to an overthrow of the countries’ governments.
Ken Kollman, a political science professor and the director of the University’s International Institute, said in his opening remarks that the purpose of the round table discussion was to provide a source of conversation following recent events in Egypt and Tunisia.
“It is a ripe time to have a conversation like this, but it is possible that the most dramatic events are ahead of us,” Kollman said.
Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate professor of history at the University, started the discussion by speaking about the history of the Egyptian government and the revolution that has been taking place in Cairo the past few weeks.
“(President Mosni) Mubarak represents a complex regime in Egypt,” Cole said. “The April 6, (2008) uprising was the kernel of today’s uprising. For the most part, this is a spontaneous uprising — they are calling it The Youth Revolution.”
In 2008, a group of protestors in Mahalla, Egypt were suppressed by the Egyptian government. The April 6 Youth Movement, an organization composed mainly of young people, was created as a result and mobilized mainly through Facebook and other social networking sites.
The current rebellion in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Cole said, is a left-wing revolution with a variety of specific goals like revitalizing the economy.
“What do they want?” Cole said. “They want an opening, they want economic opportunity … They want the factory workers to be better paid, better respected.”
Mark Tessler, the University’s vice provost for international affairs, said he thinks the uprisings in the Middle East are due to “injustice and … hopelessness.” The goal of the revolutions is to inspire democracy as citizens search for increased equality, he said.
“Resources won’t go away over time, and there is unemployment,” Tessler said. “People are finding a fundamental unfairness about it.”
Tessler described results from a research study he has been conducting to analyze political sentiments of citizens in various countries including Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Based on data he’s compiled thus far, findings show that most of the subjects demonstrate an overwhelming support for democracy.
Public Policy Prof. Susan Waltz, described the current revolution in Tunisia as a rise against the suppressive government instilled under former Tunisian President Ben Ali.
“I think what most Tunisians who would identify as middle class, well educated, would say they felt infantilized,” Waltz said. “I am passionately optimistic for the rationalist reform that is rising.”
Other speakers during the discussion included Nadine Naber, assistant professor of American culture and women’s studies, Philip Potter, assistant professor of public policy and political science, and Joshua Cole, associate professor of history. They addressed issues such as women’s roles in the revolution at Tahrir Square, media representations of the Middle East and the impact of religion on democracy in the region.