The successes in a recent wave of revolutions in the Middle East are a promising sign for the future of democracy in the region, but significant change will take time, a panel of experts argued Friday night.
More than 200 people filled the auditorium at the FedEx Global Education Center to listen to a panel discussion on the Arab Spring, featuring six scholars who focus their work on the Middle East.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were the main focuses of the discussion.
Panelist Carrie Wickham, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, said the demands and grievances of the protesters had existed for a long time, but technology aided the protestors' ability to communicate quickly.
"Before, they were not able to wake the sleeping giant," she said.
"I think even the activists were surprised by the numbers."
Wickham told the story of a young Egyptian man who was beaten to death by the police. When his brother took a picture of his bloody face and uploaded it to Facebook, the man became a martyr as his picture circulated the internet, she said.
"Regular citizens could get real, damning proof," Wickham said.
"Many risked their lives to snap a picture on their phones."
All of the panelists said they were hopeful about the revolutions and optimistic for the future of the states, even if the transition to democracy, particularly in Egypt, is difficult.
"The idea that Egypt can sustain an authoritarian system is gone," said panelist Alfred Stepan, a professor of government at Columbia University and founding director of its Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion.
"There is a sense of dignity in the citizens that we are the owners of this country."
Panelist Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said he was confident future elections in Egypt will be more free and fair.
But Masoud noted that revolutions, such as those in Algeria and Sudan, have failed in the past.
"We shouldn't forget that the wheels of history can move backwards," Masoud said.
Udai Muhammed, a graduate student at N.C. State University who attended the event, said he was doubtful about the prospect of democracy in the region.
Muhammed — who said he moved to North Carolina from Syria three months ago — asked panelists their opinions about the relationship between Islam and democracy, adding that he didn't believe democracy could fit with Islamic culture.
"We should not accept the idea that Muslims can't be democratic," Stepan responded. "It needs a re-reading like Catholicism needed a re-reading."
Andrew Reynolds, chairman of UNC's global studies department, moderated the discussion.