By Dr. Laura Culbertson
Faculty Member, International Relations at American Public University
It was two years ago this December when protests erupted across the Arab world following the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on Dec. 17, 2010. During these two years, the world witnessed the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, as well as the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. The protests initiated a civil war in Libya that resulted in the death of Muammar Gaddafi and fueled an ongoing civil war in Syria.
These have been two years of dramatic change across the Middle East, bringing an end to regimes that had held onto power for decades and leaving us with a sense of uncertainty about what is to come next for the region. From the perspective of an instructor introducing students to the history, culture, and politics of the Middle East, these past two years have been a fruitful source for topics of discussion and debate and have presented students with an opportunity to see the concepts and theories we explore in class play out in the real world.
An important question we address in our classes is the “compatibility” of liberal democracy on the Western model with the societies of the Middle East and the Islamic world in general. We have long had examples of Muslim democracies such as Turkey and Indonesia to consider, and the attempts to install democratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade have provided us great opportunities to debate the promises and pitfalls of the democratization of the Islamic world. But witnessing the grassroots transformations in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya as citizens hold new elections has given students a new and immediate window to explore old and new debates about democracy.
On the question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, the success of religious parties such as the Ennahda (Renaissance) Party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood (under the auspices of the Freedom and Justice Party) in Egypt has also given us a new opportunity to witness, discuss, and debate the role of Islamist political movements in electoral politics. Most recently, a new wave of protests against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi following his declaration of special executive powers in November 2012 has led many to question whether the Muslim Brotherhood is truly interested in participating in a democratic system while others have seen Morsi’s moves as an attempt to test the waters as the first democratically elected President of Egypt. Similarly, people following Egyptian politics are watching the solidification of secular political parties that may challenge the Muslim Brotherhood in future elections.
While the ongoing violence in Syria captures the most attention, it is important to remember that the new Egyptian Constitution was only signed into law on Dec. 26, 2012 and neither Tunisia nor Libya currently have a ratified constitution. The fledgling governments of these states are still finding their bearings. Constitutional referendums are scheduled in Tunisia and Libya for 2013. In other words, two years after the Arab Spring began, dialogues are still ongoing and there are no signs that the political and cultural phenomenon that is drastically reshaping the Middle East will soon abate.
About the Author:
Dr. Laura Culbertson is Associate Professor of International Relations in the School of Security and Global studies. She has been with American Military University since 2011. Dr. Culbertson has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan (2009).