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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Report on the 2011 Revolutions Round Table
Patricia Adeyemi, University of Florence
La Pietra Dialogues
February 27, 2012

Bridget Kendall, Diplomatic Correspondent for the BBC, Max Rodenbeck, the Economist´s Chief Middle East Correspondent, and Francesca Paci, La Stampa´s Special Middle East Envoy, shared an inside look at the 2011 Revolutions, what it looked like on the ground, and how recent crises are likely to unfold, in a conversation with NYU Florence Professor and Middle East expert Marcella Simoni.

What is the Arab Spring? What are the factors that favor and others that seem to be obstacles to the development of democracy in the Middle East? What is the role of the West, and, more specifically, the European Union and the United States? And what role do new social forces play in the revolts, such as feminist movements, fundamentalist organizations, and new media?

The panelists addressed all of these questions with insights enriched by their experiences on the ground.

The Arab Spring, they argued, can best be described as an ‘awakening’ rather than a revolution. It grew out of central core characteristics of Arab regimes (authoritarian rule, young populations, a widespread sense of resignation about the future) but with particular manifestations in different countries based on local cultural context. Paci underlined the importance of geographical position, colonial and post-colonial heritages, and the proportion of ethnic and religious groups.

All agreed that it is too early to tell if these popular movements will be successful. Protesters are mobilizing against existing regimes and know what they don’t want, according to Rodenbeck, but aren’t as clear about what they do want and what the society of the future may look like. Moreover, there isn’t a fertile ground for building democratic institutions. The outbreak of the revolts in the Arab World has its origins in an “emotional response” to a situation that had become unbearable, but as Kendall said, an organized civil society will be decisive afterwards, when the State structures will need to be modified radically to favor the development of a democratic process.

Kendall emphasized that the West was caught by surprise by the Arab revolts. The United States, France and United Kingdom intervened in Libya because not doing so would have been worse and because their global prestige was on the line (leaders were also concerned about the imminent elections). But Western countries have played, according to Rodenbeck, a marginal role in the current revolts, what is happening now in many Arab countries is an endogenous phenomenon, an “internal product”, that grew out of the internal conditions of the countries involved.

The West, for the first time, doesn’t want to be involved either. The US prefers not to play a leading role. Since Iraq, the Obama Administration has tried to distance itself from Bush Administration policies and the view of the U.S. as the “world’s policemen”. Obama has tried to avoid further inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Arab World.

Europe, on the other hand, has had difficulty uniting to forge a common response. The reactions to the crisis have been national. As Kendall pointed out, the EU doesn’t speak with one voice as it did in 1989 when the Soviet Union dissolved. The economic crisis has also turned government’s attention inward and has made them especially reticent, according to Paci, to broach the subject of structural funds.

The internal focus of the revolts can also be seen in the peripheral attention devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paci explained: the various Arab populations now see their governments and not the State of Israel as the major cause of their problems. Rodenbeck pointed out that Israel in now in a very delicate position, especially with respect to the situation in Syria, with which it has shared its “most peaceful border” up to now. For the first time Israel will have to deal with the Arab street and not just with Arab governments.

Another important characteristic of these movements is the role new social forces are playing.

After the outbreak of the revolts, Kendall says, it was almost impossible to have access to countries like Libya and social networks and Youtube played a pivotal role in providing reporters information they couldn’t otherwise obtain.

The role of new technologies and social networks was extremely important, but it has frequently been overestimated, Paci underlined. Yes, the rebels used them to organize, but the authoritarian regimes also made an extensive use of them, transforming them into an instrument of control.

Rodenbeck explained that two new factors need to be considered: on the one hand, many feminist movements were connected to the previous regimes that now have fallen, and, on the other hand, Islamic fundamentalist organizations (that mostly hinder the struggle for gender equality) up to now were limited in their operations by the authoritarian regimes, but now are back on the scene.

So what is new about these revolts? They are for the first time home grown, the product of popular mobilization not guided from above, and the international context is almost irrelevant, at least for now. For the first time the Arab people are looking within, not waiting for help to arrive from abroad, and not mobilizing against an external enemy.

What are the likely outcomes? It’s hard to predict. It’s too early to imagine what the future institutions of the various Arab countries will look like, and to identify the model of democracy they may follow because the dynamics are complex and there is a lot of uncertainty if democracy can actually take hold.

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