Middle East 'revolutions': hopes and fears?

Saturday 29 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Lecture Theatre 1

The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa came out of the blue, with even President Obama admonishing the CIA for its failure to foresee events. Beginning in Tunisia in January with the ouster of Ben Ali, and spreading quickly to Egypt and later Yemen and Syria, mass popular protests evoked freedom and democracy in opposition to long-ruling elites. While the success of the uprisings has been varied, and the long-term outcome remains to be seen, the speedy toppling of rulers and regimes that had held power for several decades appears to challenge many commonly-held notions about the region. In particular, recent events seem to undermine claims that Islamic culture is inimical to democracy, and the assumption that democratic change could only come from without, through Western military intervention if necessary – the frustrated dream of George W Bush and the neocons. While Western powers are now involved in Libya, the engagement is not on their own terms, and with increasing doubts about the motives of some of the insurgents, the situation seems less black and white than many first believed. Earlier in the year, the question on everyone’s lips was ‘Why now?’ The pressing question now is what exactly is happening in the various countries.

Much ink has been spilt about the risk of an Islamist takeover, but political Islam has arguably been a marginal factor. Some have argued that rising food prices, a demographic bubble of young people, and diminishing opportunities made a popular response inevitable. But is there anything universal to these uprisings – in countries as diverse Bahrain, a wealthy Gulf monarchy with a degree of civic freedom, and Libya, a repressive post-colonial republic with much poverty despite its oil wealth? Or are the various uprisings, and their relative success or failure, best understood in terms of particular national contexts? Given the aged, ‘gerontocratic’ character of the old regimes, others have suggested the question is how they survived so long. Part of the answer may be the role of the West, and the United States in particular, for so long a dominant force in the region. Are we witnessing the dissolution of American hegemony and the Washington consensus? And given the historic importance of the region, will there be further global repercussions?

Is this truly a new revolutionary moment for the Middle East? Will the overthrow of authoritarian governments necessarily lead to democratic alternatives?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Maha Azzam
associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa programme, Chatham House

Ghazi Gheblawi
author; blogger, Imitdad; former cultural editor, Libya Today

Dr George Lawson
lecturer in international relations, LSE; author, Negotiated Revolutions: the Czech Republic, South Africa and Chile

Karl Sharro
architect; writer; Middle East commentator; co-author, Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture

Alex Hochuli
communications consultant, researcher and blogger based in São Paulo

Produced by
Alex Hochuli communications consultant, researcher and blogger based in São Paulo
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Shashank Joshi, Royal United Services Institute

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