March 2, 2011

Media provided spark for Middle East revolution

The primary reason for the recent Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East was not frustrations boiling over, a moment of government weakness or even outside aid, according to journalist Joel Mowbray. It was the media.

In a talk given in Professor of Political Science Sue Hulett’s Contemporary American Foreign Policy class on Tuesday, Mowbray, whose columns have been syndicated in the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, spoke about how information transmission spread the word about an unemployed, illegal fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire.

The vendor, who had been slapped by a female police officer after being caught setting up an illegal fruit stand, had nowhere to go to complain about police brutality.

“In an act of complete desperation, he set himself on fire,” Mowbray said. “He gave himself up for a cause: the cause of being heard.”

Following the vendor’s death, popular uprisings occurred in Tunisia, Libya and many other Middle Eastern countries, fueled by the informal media.

“Most media people are blogging and using Twitter. Any one of us can do that,” Mowbray said. “It was the fact that we had this kind of info transmission that led to the self-immolation of an unemployed, illegal fruit vendor, sparking the fall of a dictator.”

The most noteworthy uprising in the eyes of the West was in Egypt, with President Hosni Mubarak stepping down after 30 years in power. What is next for Egypt is uncertain, however.

“Egypt is at best a crapshoot going forward,” Mowbray said. “It has no secular infrastructure.”

Despite Mubarak’s oppression of his people and rooting out of opposition groups, the U.S. was supportive of him for nearly his entire time in office, largely due to a “false choice” set up by Mubarak, Mowbray said.

“He said, you can either have me, the secular, West-friendly dictator, or the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “He cracked down on other Muslim opposition groups. As long as Mubarak was the only alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, he got a free pass.”

That the U.S. did not pressure Mubarak to allow more opposition was a major flaw in its policy, Mowbray said. He pointed to former President Ronald Reagan, who required diplomatic sessions with developing Asian countries to begin with a report on human rights and civil society. This process played an important role in creating democracy in these countries.

“Over time, even if you’re running a thugocracy…society starts to blossom and a middle class moving up the hierarchy of needs,” Mowbray said. “Eventually, you have elections.”

Still, Mowbray cautioned against conflating elections with democracy, stressing the need to develop a free society first.

“Elections are the capstone of democracy, not the cornerstone,” he said.

Senior Kevin Meyers asked if Mowbray believed the uprisings would continue to spread. Thanks to the “invisible hand” of Iran, Mowbray believes they will.

“It’s not going to end because [Iran] is a very well-financed backer,” he said. “By focusing on what’s going on in the Arab world, we don’t pay attention to Iran’s nuclear program, which is good for Iran.”

Junior Yumna Rathore addressed the idea of Iran itself falling to a popular uprising. Although Mowbray acknowledged the weakness of the Iranian regime, the lack of media in Tehran makes it difficult for news of other protests to reach Iran.

“The tree is falling in the forest, but there’s no one there to record the sound,” he said.

In Egypt, Mowbray believes that elections are still a long way off. He suggested that having the military in control for the next year or so would be best for Egypt’s stability.

“If we held elections now, there would be a power vacuum, and the Muslim Brotherhood would step in,” he said.

For now, Mowbray believes the United States needs to support the Arab people, not Arab dictators, as it seems unlikely that Egypt was the last of the Middle East’s popular uprising.

“If the self-immolation of an unemployed, illegal fruit vendor can upend government after government after government in the Muslim world, how stable is that system?” Mowbray said.

Mowbray’s visit to Knox was sponsored by the Knox Political Science Department, the Intellectual Diversity Foundation and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Anna Meier

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