Dr. Paul Beran, the Outreach Director at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University is a researcher, writer and teacher on civil society in the Middle East. International Business Times spoke with Beran to discuss the current unrest in the region.
IBTIMES: Have scholars who follow the Middle East been taken aback by the rapidity of recent events in the recent?
BERAN: On the whole, long-time watchers were perhaps taken a bit off guard, since no one could predict the timing of these revolts.
As long ago as 1996, some analysts were predicting the "imminent" demise of Hosni Mubarak because of growing domestic economic social pressures in Egypt.
But, even in Egypt, where these social woes have been known about for many years, it took a lengthy period of time for these problems to bubble over into the formation of on-the ground opposition political movements.
IBTIMES: The two regimes which have already fallen – Tunisia and Egypt – are not monarchies. Is this a coincidence?
BERAN: Most of the unrest has occurred in nations with dictatorial/presidential regimes, not so much in places with monarchical regimes, although we are seeing more clashes in Bahrain and to a lesser extent, Jordan.
Still, I don't think there is anything "magical" about a monarchy. The advantage monarchs perhaps have is that they can blame others for the failings of a society (for example, the king of Jordan recently sacked the government) and take appropriate action without themselves being accountable. Thus, kings and princes seem to have more of a "legitimacy of authority" and seem to be more durable than other type of regimes.
Even presidential dictators like Mubarak and Ben-Ali of Tunisia had to answer to and be accountable to someone in order to remain in power – and they both proved to be unable to offer resistance to the massive protests in their respective countries.
IBTIMES: The people who are protesting – are they simply seeking to redress economic and political grievances? Or are they seeking to radically alter their whole societies – that is, by establishing the kind of freedom and civil liberties we have in the West. These are, after all, mostly traditional conservative Islamic societies.
BERAN: I would disagree with the assessment that all Arab countries are "traditional, conservative" societies. There is a wide range of diversity across the Arab world and each country has its unique characteristics.
However, I will say that the protests we have witnessed so far have not really been "revolutions" according to the classical definition of that term. In a genuine revolution, we see a complete overhaul of a country's social, political, and economic order – we are not seeing this happening now. The protests in Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, were designed specifically to remove the executive authority – and they have succeeded.
IBTIMES: You don't think they want to create a Western-style democratic government in these countries?
BERAN: No, I think they first want to create and nurture a participatory style of government in their own context – and each type of government would differ according to local customs and needs. But there would be some commonalities, including, voting rights, freedom of expression, a free press, and, perhaps most importantly, greater transparency of the government and the granting of more authority to the legislature and courts relative to the executive.
IBTIMES: Would it be more difficult for, say, a very poor country like Yemen to establish a democracy, or even a quasi-democracy?
BERAN: I don't think there is necessarily a link between poverty and democracy, or the lack of democracy. Consider the case of India – when it gained independence from Britain in 1947, it was a very poor nation, but still a democracy. They've since raised their living standards by leaps and bounds. Thus, a country's economic abilities must be assessed, but may not be determinative.
As for Yemen, yes, it is an economically poor country by almost any standard. But Yemeni politics tend to be decentralized, with significant power held at the local level .
IBTIMES: How do you think the U.S. government has handled the ongoing changes in the Middle East?
BERAN: Some observers have said that the Obama Administration have done a good job in responding to this crisis, "threading the needle," as it were.
But I think they've done a poor job. From the beginning, the US government should've expressed its support for the protesters in Egypt. We are seeing a generational change in the Arab world -- a new generation of youth that is educated, globalized and demanding changes. The US should have identified this trend long before and repositioned its values and interests in the area accordingly.
IBTIMES: Doesn't the US have to walk a tightrope here – that is, it needs to endorse democracy, but at the same time preserve its own economic/strategic goals in the area?
BERAN: No, I don't believe that that argument holds any longer. In the past, the stereotype was that an authoritarian government created stability; while a truly democratic government would invite chaos. But look at Turkey and Israel – they are both democracies with participatory governments – and they are not chaotic. And they are not the only example in the region.
I believe the stability vs. democracy paradigm is false and that the US needs to discard it.
In more than one way, this period of US foreign policy shows a level of hypocrisy, between US rhetoric of supporting movements of democracy and the lack of actual support for them when they challenge long-held levers of power held by regimes that have been helpful to achieving US interests.
President Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009 was important for turning a new rhetorical page in US relations with Egypt and the wider Middle East. The US now has a chance to follow up that rhetoric with support in new ways.
IBTIMES: What, thus far, has been the key turning point of all this unrest?
BERAN: I would say when the Egyptian army said they would not shoot protesters, nor use any kind of violence against the civilians. That represented a sea change and spelled the final doom for the Mubarak presidency. What was keeping Mubarak in power for over 30 years was to a large extent fear – when that fear was removed, the bottom fell out from under him and he had to quit.
IBTIMES: Do you think Israel is now in an ever more dangerous situation, with its ally Mubarak having fallen?
BERAN: This is a misconception about the Middle East. Israel is not a weak vulnerable nation. By nearly every parameter -- diplomatic, financial or military -- it is a regional superpower. It has never lost a war.
There is no chance that I see that the peace treaty with Egypt will be broken, as an international agreement it is enduring. However, with a new government taking over in Egypt, some elements of the treaty might be amended – but all this would mean would be that Egypt might become more vocal and critical of Israel's policies, particularly with regard to the Palestinians.
IBTIMES: Could we see the spirit of rebellion spreading to other parts of the world?
BERAN: Regimes who feel threatened by what has been happening are not limited to the Middle East. Consider China which has censored some news coming out of Egypt and Tunisia. Clearly, they are afraid of the implications of a peoples' revolt and are feeling uncomfortable.
Also consider that the ongoing turmoil in the Arab countries has nothing whatsoever to do with religion or Islamic politics. Rather, it's something more universal – an attack on governments that are neither participatory nor responsive to peoples' needs; combined with a rising new generation of youth frustrated by limited job opportunities and a desire to change history.
I think they can and are inspiring other peoples around the world with similar problems.