Against the backdrop of violent street clashes between revolutionaries and riot police in Tunisia and Egypt, dictators being toppled and a whole region shaken by recent uprisings, the Arab Student Union hosted a panel discussion called the "The Arab World on Fire" Thursday evening.
The event, to the surprise of some its organizers, was a huge draw and brought in a larger-than-expected crowd. Just prior to the event, ASU treasurer Mashel Al Abdullatif said he felt the event might attract 45 to 60 attendees interested in seeing a presentation about ongoing antigovernment movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria. However, within 24 hours of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once again declaring to the world he would not step down from the position he has held for 30 years, the University lecture room filled past capacity with nearly 200 people in attendance.
What played out as the evening progressed included strong emotion, displays of national pride and patriotism, and at times even anger and rolling arguments between the events attendees and presenters.
Presenters on the four-person panel included Algerian-born graduate student Amel Benhassine-Miller; University Arabic instructor Mohamed Jemmali, who originally hails from Tunisia; University Arabic professor Hanan Ahmad, from Egypt; and comparative literature professor Michael Allan, who, based on his extensive travels and studies in the region, also spoke about Egypt.
Jemmali spoke first, relating the abuses and excesses of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his close circle of family and friends. These abuses that came to a head in December 2010 when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in public to decry the seizure of his business by government officials last year, setting off a revolution that drove Ben Ali from power in January. He had held the presidential post since 1987.
Allan and Ahmad spoke next about the widely covered revolution currently underway in Egypt.
Allan insisted that the story commonly heard in the media, that events in Tunisia quickly to spread to Egypt where a revolution broke out on Jan. 25, was not entirely true. He insisted that the Egyptian revolution was well planned under a coalition of anti-Mubarak elements in the country called Kifaya, or in Arabic, "enough."
Allan outlined in his presentation how the movement had been building since the early 2000s amid shows of support for Palestine and in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The movement continued with a series of demonstrations against police abuse and strikes throughout the decade.
Meanwhile, Ahmad thanked the people of Tunisia for helping to cause the events in Egypt and then went on to highlight how because half of Egypt's population is under 30, they have only experienced one president in their lifetime: Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981. Political unrest along with high unemployment and economic woes play heavily into anti-Mubarak sentiment, Ahmad said.
"After a long time of being shy when I say I am Egyptian — from what has been going on in my country for 30 years and being governed by an iron fist and people are accepting the status quo and not doing anything about it — I am so proud today to be an Egyptian, seeing my people die in the streets fighting for their own freedom." Ahmad said.
Benhassine-Miller, the final speaker, discussed events in her homeland of Algeria, which has also experienced anti-government uprisings against its long-serving president Abdelaziz Boutaflika. Opposition groups have declared they will hold large anti-government demonstrations in the nation tomorrow.
Demonstrations and mass protests against the long-ruling dictatorships of these North African nations have led to a number of similar demonstrations against authoritarian rule in large swaths of the Middle East and Arabic-speaking world. Government upheavals in Jordan, Yemen and even Syria have all been reported since the events in Tunisia and Egypt.
Questions in the question-and-answer session after the panel discussion primarily centered around foreign influences' roles in the uprisings of North Africa and the potential political successors to any future governments and stability and economic issues that could follow. The potential domino effect that a successful revolution in Tunisia, and potentially one in Egypt, could have in the Middle East was also discussed.
Both ASU co-directors Emily Stokes and Beshara Kehdi said the event was a success.
"With all of the current events going on, people are paying more attention to the Middle East," Stokes said.
Kehdi praised the event and the larger-than-expected crowd and said he felt it was a good indicator that there was an interest among students to learn more about the region in focus.
"This shows that what's going on in the Arab world is really affecting students here at the University of Oregon," Kehdi said. "There is a demand for people to learn more about the Middle East."
Kehdi also said he saw this event as an indication that the University should move to offer a Middle Eastern Studies degree and suggested his organization would be interested in holding events like the panel discussion in the future.