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“Arab Spring” prompts academic self-reflection

[photo]
Panelists Dr. Fadia Kiwan and Dr. Fawwaz Trabulsi, with the discussion moderator, Dr. Bassel Salloukh (center).

[photo]
Leila Saleeby Dagher, LAU Alumni Association Board president, opening the event organized by the LAU Retirees' Circle, as Dr. Layla Nimah, former LAU vice president for Student Development and Enrollment Management who coordinated the event, looks on.

April 4, 2011—

Failure to anticipate regional upheavals should occasion academic self-reflection, according to a panel discussion, titled “The Democratic Changes in the Region in Light of the Arab Intifadat,” which was held in LAU Beirut’s Irwin Hall on March 28.

The unprecedented wave of uprisings in the Arab world, which have swept away the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, triggered Western intervention in Libya, and sparked major demonstrations in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, by and large caught the academic community by surprise.

In a heavily attended panel discussion, Dr. Fawwaz Trabulsi, professor of political science at LAU and the American University of Beirut, said the failure of scholars to anticipate the uprisings sheds light on analytical flaws in academia.

“Our academic programs were always directed away from the possibility of upheaval,” Trabulsi said.

“Despite our awareness of the existing poverty, the ethnological systems that ruled the region, the huge youth demographic, and the mass emigration from villages to cities, no one saw these revolutions coming,” he added.

Citing what he described as the mistaken assumptions of dominant political analysis, Trabulsi criticized the common focus on “regional stability” and insisted that the suppression of Islamists by various Arab governments was unwise.

“Consensus academic opinion was that worsening conditions would marginalize the extreme Islamists,” said Trabulsi, who is also a columnist for local newspaper As-Safir. “The moderate Islamist movements would benefit through the civil services they offer, the argument went, and meanwhile the governments would remain unchanged.”

The uprisings have provided the striking spectacle of people in large numbers simply bypassing their political parties, according to the second panelist, Dr. Fadia Kiwan, professor of political science and head of the Political Sciences Institute at the Université Saint-Joseph.

Kiwan said that Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, which served as a catalyst for the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, was merely “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Kiwan outlined various motives for the Arab revolts, distinguishing between direct and indirect causes.

“Among the indirect reasons for the uprisings is the fact that the failing Arab nation-states have been artificial ones, founded after multiple wars and by contradictory groups of people,” Kiwan said.

“Other indirect factors for revolt include Western interference, increase in poverty rates, a lack of citizen engagement in political life, rising interest in Arab nationalism, a lack of investment on the part of states in their own economies, the rise of social media among Arab youth, and the absence of incremental state measures to improve living standards ,” Kiwan added.

Among the more direct causes of upheaval, Kiwan cited the demands of middle-class and bourgeois youth for a freer society as particularly important.

Regional entrepreneurs who have steered clear of government corruption, trade unions and other elements of civil society have also been pivotal to the success of democratic movements, according to Kiwan.

The discussion was organized by the LAU Retirees’ Circle and moderated by Dr. Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of political science at LAU Beirut.
 


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