Matt Crowley/The AS Review
On Tuesday, Feb. 8, the on-campus chapter of Socialist Alternative held a public forum to discuss the ongoing protests in the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt, and the short-term and long-term effects they will have around the world.
Joining Socialist Alternative member and Egyptian-American activist Ramy Khalil were Western professors Chris Wise and Barbara Rofkar, both of whom have in-depth knowledge of the situations taking place in the Middle East. Wise is an Islamic studies professor who once taught in Jordan, and Rofkar is an international studies professor and a board member for the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force.
While protests in Tunisia, Syria and Sudan were also talked about, the majority of the discussion focused on the uprising in Egypt, where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, who has led the country since coming to power in 1981. The protests began on January 25 and show no sign of stopping.
Professor Wise opened the forum, after a short video showing the chaotic situation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where the majority of protests are taking place, by giving his take on the situation, tying in the U.S. government’s reaction to the unrest. The U.S. has backed Mubarak, like several other Middle East leaders, in an effort to keep relations between the U.S. and Middle East countries strong. According to Wise, the Egyptians were always fond of former President Bill Clinton during his time in office in the 1990s, and even though President Obama shares some of Clinton’s progressive ideas, the two presidents’ foreign policies are very different.
“If you talk to people on the streets, the feeling is that Obama is not much different than George W. Bush,” Wise said.
Wise said the Egyptian revolt against Mubarak is in some ways a revolt against the U.S. as well, which has held a strong presence in the region even before Mubarak came to power. The question is then: What will happen to the more than $2 billion Egypt receives in aid from the U.S. annually, which is second only to Israel? Without an ally in power, the aid, which mostly goes to the military and economic sectors, could see a significant decrease, a concern for a country whose poverty and unemployment rates were one of the reasons for the protests in the first place.
Next was Rofkar, who opened her statements by saying, “I have a lot more optimistic view than professor Wise.”
“I think we inspired the Arab world when Obama was elected, and when he went to Cairo and talked,” she continued. In 2009, Obama visited Cairo University for a speech where he called for a “new beginning” in relations between Islamic nations and the U.S. in order to promote peace in the Middle East.
Much like the 2008 elections, the protests in Egypt have been largely a grassroots, youth-led movement. And while Rofkar feels like positive change will eventually come to Egypt, for that to happen, we need to change first. While the U.S. has prided itself on spreading democracy across the world, to Rofkar, we have been consistently mixing up democracy and capitalism.
Khalil said that he thought the high rates of unemployment in Egypt, even for college grads, are not only a source of frustration for the Egyptian people, but evidence that the capitalist system does not always work.
In Egypt and all across the Middle East, the frustration caused by unemployment and poverty is only compounded by the fact that the ruling class, including President Mubarak, holds vast amounts of wealth.
Khalil went on to say that he thinks the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest Islamic political group who has supported the anti-Mubarak protestors, would not be an ideal candidate to replace Mubarak’s government.
Since the Brotherhood is a right-wing, religious party, Socialist Alternative would much rather see a socialist party rooted in the protest community that supports democracy but is against capitalism. Whether Egypt will see this or more of the same now that Mubarak will leave office is yet to be seen.