Unrest Spreads in Arab World
The Arab world has been shaking with revolutionary fervor since protesters ousted the oppressive president of Tunisia and inspired several similar movements in Egypt other countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In at least eight countries where oppressive regimes have ruled for decades protesters have rallied to the call for democracy and government accountability.
As the unrest spreads across the Arab world, so does the violence of the states' response. The worst crackdown to date has been in Libya, where protests have mounted in the eastern parts of the country, putting the 40-year rule of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi on the defensive. It has been difficult to calculate the death toll in the country, but reports coming out of Italy, which has long had a close relationship with Libya, estimated that about 1,000 civilians have been killed.
Violence has broken out in other countries, though to a lesser extent. On February 17 and 18, the Bahraini government opened fire on protesters in the capital. Protesters there reportedly numbered 100,000 - one-fifth of the country's entire population. The violence has since ebbed, as the Bahraini government called for calm and pledged reform measures.
A similar pattern has arisen throughout the region. In Yemen, the government ordered its security forces to end violence between protesters and is forming a committee to address their demands, while the Algerian government officially ended a 19-year-old state of emergency.
Here at The New School, a panel of experts joined in the worldwide debate sparked by the protests. Gathered at the Theresa Lang Community Center on February 24, the group discussed the causes and possible consequences of the ongoing events that are shaking the Arab world.
Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, spoke about the impetus for the protests. Focusing on Egypt, he said the call for democracy was caused by more than just online social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.
"Anyone who has been to Egypt in recent years knows that the country has been simmering, that the ‘social temperature,' so to speak, has been rising toward the boiling point," he said.
While Lockman said that years of oppression spurred the protests, John VanderLippe, associate professor of history and associate dean of faculty and curriculum at The New School for Social Research, focused on neoliberalism, which he said has failed the Arab world and hasn't benefited everyday citizens in that region. He speculated that the biggest consequence of the protests will be the demise of neoliberalism as an international economic model.
Another major question is how exactly the protests will affect American foreign policy. President Barack Obama has remained relatively neutral thus far, although the United Nations and NATO are making moves to stop the violence in Libya. However, if new leadership arises there, as it has in Egypt and Tunisia, then the United States may have to choose between democracy and stability.
"They're understanding more in Washington that any government that is democratic, that in some fuller sense represents the will of its people, is going to be less likely to take orders from Washington," said Lockman.
But the questions of international neoliberalism and U.S. foreign policy are still secondary to the more basic and immediate demands of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have shown no sign of letting up.
While the panel of experts represented the intellectual arguments that have been circulating as a result of the protests, perhaps the voice of the protesters themselves was best heard by a woman in the audience, Amna, who is half-Libyan and had only recently returned from her home there. Her voice shaking, she spoke for 10 minutes about the plight of the Libyan people and their renewed hope for the future.
"Nobody thought Qaddafi could be toppled," she said. "This man - every family in Libya has his blood. He has touched every family in Libya. Everyone."