Middle East Turmoil

USF professor Mohsen Milani, an expert on the Middle East, weighs in on the historic shift happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere.



By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Mar. 7, 2011) – With events in the Middle East unfolding at alarming speed, University of South Florida professor Mohsen Milani offers his views on the spreading upheaval in this question and answer session.


Chair of the Department of Government and International Affairs, Milani is an internationally-renowned scholar who is routinely consulted by government agencies and media outlets around the world for his analysis of developments in the region. He has published more than fifty books, book chapters and articles about the Middle East. His latest piece, “Meet Me in Baghdad: U.S.-Iranian Tensions Flare in Iraq,” was published in Foreign Affairs. He is currently writing a book about Iran’s regional policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.


Q.  What is the significance of the uprisings in the Arab world?

A.    The Arab world has seen many coups and changes of dynasties in the past.  But for the first time the Arab masses are employing peaceful and dignified resistance to free themselves from their despotic leaders and build a democratic order.  These essentially non-ideological uprisings are bringing dignity and pride to the Arab lands. The crippling feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness that kept these societies stagnant is being replaced with the recognition that political change is possible and desirable and that people can determine their own destiny.  Today, we are at a crossroads and face two very different destinations. Is today’s Arab world analogous to Eastern Europe, where after the collapse of the Soviet Union a democratic order blossomed? Or will the “Arab Spring of democracy” have the fate of many of the former republics of the Soviet Union where the popular yearning for democracy was crushed and despotism resurfaced in new garb? 


Q. What commonalities do these uprisings share?

A.  These uprisings are taking place in countries with young and dynamic populations as well as high unemployment, paralyzing corruption, huge income disparity, and pervasive poverty.  The governments are suffocatingly repressive and deny basic rights to the people, are generally secular in orientation, and have, with the exception of Libya, close ties to the U.S.  People have thus far not demanded revolutions, but governmental accountability and transparency, and free and competitive elections.


Q.  You seem to prefer to characterize what’s happening as uprisings rather than revolutions.  Why is that?

A.   There hasn’t been any revolution, not yet.  A revolution is a fundamental, rapid and violent change in the nature, structure, personnel and worldview of the state, which results in a titanic transfer of political, economic, and military power from one class or group to another.  There have been no massive structural changes or total transfer of power in Egypt or Tunisia, as there were in the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  In Egypt and Tunisia, two dictators were removed from the existing power pyramid, but the structure of the pyramid itself has remained intact. In both cases, the military is in control and in charge of the transition to a new order – hopefully a democratic one. In both cases, there has been no fundamental change in their domestic and foreign policies.  Still these uprisings, particularly in Egypt, could become a “game changer” in the region.  


Q.  Why do you single out Egypt?

A.  Egypt, with its great civilization, is the most populous Arab country, the center of gravity and the trend-setter of the Arab world, and a key pillar of American strategy in the Middle East and North Africa.  In 18 momentous days and inspired by a young generation that creatively used social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, the Egyptians ended Mubarak’s long rule.  Following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Gene Sharp of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Egyptian protestors relied on non-violence methods to defeat one of the most powerful Arab dictators.  To its credit, the Obama Administration supported the “democratic aspirations” of the protestors and stood on the right side of history.  Moreover, the U.S. prudently pressured the armed forces not to apply brute force against the protestors, a policy that allowed the army to maintain its cohesion and prestige in the post-Mubarak era. It is premature to predict if the military will facilitate a smooth transition to democracy, as the Turkish military has done, or it will, as suggested by some experts, impose “Mubarakism without Mubarak.”


Q.   The wave of democracy has moved to Bahrain. What is the significance of this? 

 A. This is quite important.  It is estimated that some two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves are located in the Persian Gulf region.  Although Bahrain is not a major oil producer, instability there would further destabilize the entire region, create even more uncertainty in the oil markets, and put still more pressure on oil prices, which would slow down the economic recovery in the U.S.   


Bahrain, a tiny island with a small population and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has recently witnessed huge demonstrations in support of major reforms. The population is 60 to 70 percent Shi’i, while the ruling monarchy, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the U.S., is Sunni.  Should the al-Khalifa rulers grant major concessions to empower the Shi’is, it could inspire their brethren to demand serious reforms in Qatar, Kuwait, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, where they constitute about 10 percent of the population and are mostly concentrated in the oil-rich provinces.  It also would strengthen the regional standing of the Islamic Republic of Iran – a Shi’i dominated government.  To render the uprising in Bahrain ineffective and prevent it from spreading to other parts of the region and to deprive Iran from gaining any strategic advantage, Saudi Arabia and its regional allies are reportedly prepared to provide $10 billion of direct aid to Bahrain to appease the opposition.  King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has also committed $30 billion to prevent an uprising by the youth, unemployed and disgruntled masses in his own kingdom.  We will find out how effective these measures have been on March 10, when the “Day of Rage” is scheduled to reach Saudi Arabia. (See Milani on Saudi Arabia: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41391792/ns/world_news-mideastn_africa/.)  


Q.  Do you care to predict what will happen next?

A.  No, because we have entered into uncharted waters and are at an early phase of a complex process that will take a while before it reaches maturation. For example, should Muammar Gaddafi, the mercurial strongman of Libya, succeed in crushing the opposition and reestablish his dictatorial rule, it would strengthen the hands of other dictators to suppress their opponents. Regardless of the political consequences of these uprisings, we are witnessing a profound shift in the consciousness of a good portion of the Arab population, a shift that contains powerful yearnings for freedom, and, as such, this awakening has frightened every dictator and theocrat in the world.  Moreover, a refreshing new narrative of tolerance, non-violence, and freedom is slowly gaining popularity in the region, a narrative that is antithetical to Bin Laden’s ideology of hatred, wanton cruelty and violence, and extremism.  And that is extraordinary news.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.