JCRC panel ponders recent upheaval in the Arab world

Audience members speak with panelists following the Jewish Community Relations Council discussion on ‘Crisis in the Arab World’ at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building in Creve Coeur. Photo courtesy of the JCRC.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The stunningly rapid explosion of youthful protests that led to the unexpected overthrow of Presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt after decades-long authoritarian rule and the contagion of similar protests throughout the nations of the Middle East and North Africa caught even longterm experts and observers of those regions by surprise. To help assess and understand the situation there, the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis (JCRC) invited a group of experts for a panel discussion on the “Crisis in the Arab World,” which was attended by about 175 people at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building last Tuesday.

“When those of us at the JCRC planned this event two weeks ago, we already knew something truly monumental was happening. No one really knew the scope of what was happening or how it would all unfold, and events are still rapidly unfolding throughout the region,” said JCRC director Batya Abramson-Goldstein.

The panel moderator was William H. Frievogel, director of the Journalism School at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, a contributor to the St. Louis Beacon and former longtime journalist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Panelists included Repps Hudson, also a veteran journalist and former writer at the Post-Dispatch who has traveled to Israel and other Mideast countries; Morris Kalliny, a Christian native of Egypt and professor of marketing at St. Louis University, who has written extensively about Arab culture with a focus on advertising and media; and Ital Sened, a native of Kibbutz Revivim in the Israeli Negev, who is now professor of political science at Washington University and director of its Center for the New Institutional Social Sciences.

In introducing the program and panelists, Frievogel said the upheaval in Egypt has been reminiscent of another “popular uprising that crossed international borders” – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

“I feel now that my heart is battling against my head. My heart has been with the protesters, but my head keeps worrying if the end results in Middle East turmoil will be good or bad in the long run,” Freivogel said. “We worry did Obama blow it? Was he too hesitant or too willing to throw over a steadfast ally in President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt? Will there be more dominos with protests now in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and even renewed protests in Iran? What role will the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood play in the post-Mubarak Egypt?”

Kalliny noted Egypt’s enormous influence as both an African and Middle Eastern nation with 85 million people. “Egypt under Mubarak has played a huge role in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians for the past 30 years and played a major role in the first Gulf War,” Kalliny said.

He added that both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Christian community were persecuted over the (Anwar) Sadat and Mubarak years, and that under Mubarak, “no opposition of any sort was permitted; he ran a one-party system. There is a wide gap between the privileged and wealthy few and the masses, many of whom have to live in poverty on the streets.”

Kalliny said growing up in Egypt until he was 18, he was afraid to admit he was a Christian. “Most Egyptians were both afraid and ashamed of their government for all those years,” he said.

The recent uprising in Tunisia and Egypt started, Kalliny said, when a police officer slapped the face of a fruit vendor in Tunis and Cairo police beat a man to death. “His picture was put on Facebook and the rebellion in Tahrir Square built from a few hundred to 25,000 to 500,000 until five million were on the streets protesting the Mubarak government,” he added.

Hudson said when the uprisings began his first thought was that they wouldn’t be good for the region and its stability. “Israel’s interests and security have been based on accommodations with authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Jordan, and now Israel finds itself on the wrong side of history,” he said. “Will Israel have to put aside its assertion that it is the only democracy in the Middle East? If Israel’s keystone was Hosni Mubarak, how could it be good for Israel if he is gone? The new military government has said it will honor the peace treaty with Israel, and of course that is good.

“As was the case when other revolutions started, the French Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, even the American Revolution, no one really knew when they started how they would turn out. We are in another such time when no one really knows what is happening or is going to happen,” Hudson said.

Sened said he looked at the current crisis through the prism of the “precise science” of political science. “I am all for democracy, and I hope some of the things I predict might happen will not happen. But we have a failed state in Egypt, which has collapsed and is now under direct military rule. There is a theory of revolutions based on what is called the ‘J Curve.’ When there is a long-term authoritarian regime with no revolutions, and then there is a sudden rise in income levels that is just as suddenly cut off, and food prices go up, people who had been doing rather well find themselves much worse off, and rebel.”

Sened also stressed that the events in Egypt had “absolutely nothing to do with either Israel or the United States. One thing is certain, lots of things about the region will change.”

Sened noted that some years after the Berlin Wall fell, some of the states that emerged, like Russia and Belarus, have authoritarian regimes. Egypt’s recent revolution has resulted in a huge economic loss due to a drop – now a complete halt – in tourism. He also said that Egypt lacks the institutional structure or tradition of a true democracy – since there is only Mubarak’s party, which has been overthrown. The only truly organized political force now is the Muslim Brotherhood.

“One thing is certain at this point,” Sened said. “A nation of 85 million people cannot be run by Facebook. There is huge poverty in Egypt and right now all it has politically is the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The biggest loser may be the United States, Sened said, as the nation is “clearly caught in a dilemma: Americans are for democracy, but autocratic regimes have served American interests in the region for 30 years.”

Even though Egypt’s military leaders say they will observe the treaty with Israel, Sened said it is up in the air “whether the younger generation of the protesters will have the commitment and ability to sustain the peace treaty and the peace process.”