James Traub, an author and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, discussed recent protests in the Middle East and North Africa with an audience of nearly 150 people during a presentation at the University of Central Florida Tuesday. He also made other presentations on and off campus.
The event, organized by the UCF Global Perspectives Office, was a feature of two 2011-2012 programming themes, “People Power, Politics and Global Change” and “Covering Crises from the Frontlines.”
Traub began his speech by noting that the current state of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa differs greatly from the situation six months ago. Then, he said, there was a sense of euphoria and great optimism throughout the region. With the departures of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak inspiring similar political movements elsewhere, there was a hope that these events would become a region-wide “dawn” for democracy, Traub said.
Today, the feelings in the region are much more somber, Traub noted, and said we might start calling this period the “Arab Winter” instead of the “Arab Spring.” He added that while Tunisia remains a bright spot in terms of progress, post-revolution Egypt is facing tense uncertainty.
He said uprisings in Syria and Yemen have reached a bloody stalemate, while the civil war in Libya has continued. He posed the questions: Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Will democracy prevail? If it does, is democracy going to be a positive development for these countries?
To answer those questions, Traub looked back at the factors that preceded those uprisings.
He explained that those countries had developed governments that can be best described as “liberal autocracies.” That is, autocratic rulers would allow just enough freedom to prevent their citizens from undermining their control. To those leaders, “reform became a cynical game,” Traub said. Reform was a transition that would never come to fruition, he said, because ultimately, the leaders in question were unwilling to reform themselves out of control.
According to Traub, the distinguishing factor between the quick and effective revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the bloody and protracted efforts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, all come down to the role of the army in each country. He said the army either refused or was not ordered to fire on protestors in Tunisia and Egypt, while in the other cases, the government was able to direct at least some of its forces against its own people.
Traub pointed out that toppling the ruler is merely the beginning and often the easiest part of a revolution. Sustaining democracy will be the greatest challenge for those countries going forward, he said, adding that Russia, Venezuela and Ukraine are all examples of how democracy can be rejected if it fails to deliver on its promises before it is fully accepted.
In closing, Traub addressed social media’s role in the “Arab Spring.” He noted that social media is not necessarily democratic in nature, and that when states catch up with dissenters–as the Chinese and Iranian governments have demonstrated–“It’s not always a force for liberation,” he said.
In addition to the Global Perspectives Office, sponsors and partners of Traub’s presentation included UCF Student Government Association, UCF Global Peace and Security Studies Program, The Sibille H. Pritchard Global Peace Fellowship Program, Lawrence J. Chastang and the Chastang Foundation, LarsonAllen LLP, UCF Nicholson School of Communication, UCF Office of Diversity Initiatives, UCF Book Festival 2012 in association with the Morgridge International Reading Center, UCF Diplomacy Program, UCF Middle Eastern Studies Program, UCF Political Science Department, UCF LIFE and the Global Connections Foundation.