Middle East Political Turmoil Discussion

Submitted by on February 20, 2011

To clarify and help make sense of historic events happening in Tunisia, Egypt, and the Arab world, Fairfield University held a discussion in the Lower Level of the Barone Campus Center on February 16. Entitled “Dialogue on the Political Turmoil  in the Middle East,” the talk was led by Dr. Marcie J. Patton, Professor of Politics, and included about 20 of her students along with a diverse group of faculty.

Photos by Jean Santopatre

An audience of about 60 students, faculty, staff, and community members partook in this interdisciplinary dialogue, with numerous professors addressing perspectives on human rights, historical roots of protest, religion, the influence of social media, and the relationships that Middle Eastern countries have with one another. With professors grounded in political science, international studies, history, religious studies, and social media on hand, students asked a variety of questions addressing the myriad of problems in the Middle East.

Dr. Patton started the discussion by giving a timeline of events leading up to the mass protests in Egypt in January, pointing specifically to an incident when a Tunisian man struggling to support his family lit himself on fire after being publicly humiliated by a policewoman. This event made Mohammed Bouazizi a legend in Tunisia and Egypt, and his actions sparked demonstrations over unemployment and government corruption across the Middle East.

Many students in Dr. Patton’s classes, and another who studied abroad in Jordan, commented on a sense of Pan-Arabism arising in the Middle East. The public outcries that started at the end of January were deeply rooted, with Egyptian citizens living for years with relatively low income, high unemployment, and misuse of power. Dr. Patton explained that while Arab leaders supported President Hosni Mubarek, the Arab people had a strong disliking for him. There was general consensus that the Middle East is filled with complicated regimes that need to change for the sake of their people.

For years, the main opposition to Mubarek’s rule has been the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned officially by the government yet had the support of the people. Although President Mubarek resigned on February 11, 2011, the faculty agreed that the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn’t win elections but would probably hold seats in Parliament.

The dialogue next turned to the role social media played in mobilizing the Egyptian protestors. According to Dr. Gisela Gil-Egui, Associate Professor of Communication, many believe that Twitter and Facebook were major factors inciting citizens to rally together, yet cell phones and the Internet actually make up a small part of Middle Eastern culture. Less than 25% of people in the Middle East have Internet access, and two-thirds own a cell phone – relatively small numbers considering the rapid spread of such technology in more developed countries, she said. Gil-Egui also pointed out that Satellite television plays a more important role in the social media aspect of the Middle East, further commenting that these forms of technologies “acting as a catalyst for these movements should be taken with a grain of salt.”

As college students in 2011, we have been witnesses to several significant historical events in our lifetime. These include the tragic day of 9/11, the destructive forces of Hurricane Katrina, the inauguration of an African American president, and now the revolutions taking place in the Middle East. After 18 days of non-violent protests in Egypt, the Parliament disbanded. Tunisia has seen rapid change as well, as their leader has been removed from power. And now Libya is experiencing uprisings and innocent people are dying there every day. As up and coming global citizens of the world, we must learn to pay attention and not take the freedom we have in this country for granted. It is our responsibility to acknowledge these events, learn from them, and help promote positive change.

The faculty panel included:

Dr. Eunsook Jung, Professor of Politics
Dr. Martin Nguyen, Professor of Religious Studies
Dr. Ali Yaycioglu, Professor of History
Dr. Gisela Gil-Egui, Professor of Communication

The student panel included:

Steve Bottari ’11 – Politics & Communication major
Peter Caty ’11 – Politics major
Andrew Eagan ’11 – Politics & Film major
Clare McElaney ’13- Politics and International Studies major
Dan Jones ’13 – Politics major
Bridget Butterworth ’13 – Politics major
Schuyler Smith ’12 – Politics, History and Philosophy major
Laura Gilmartin ’12 – Politics and International Studies major
Taylour Equi ’12 – Middle East Studies major
Sarah Hassan ’11 - English/Journalism major
Sam Olyaei ’11 – International Studies and Economics major

Other students who participated on the panel:

Julianne Whittaker ’12 – International Studies & Economics major (studied in Jordan)
Ali Abdul Majeed ’12 (student from Iraq)

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