News  McGill profs discuss Arab uprisings

Hastily scheduled roundtable attracts a hundred faculty and students

On Tuesday night, around 100 students and professors filled Arts W-215 to attend a roundtable discussion entitled “Recent Events in Egypt and the Middle East: A Conversation.” The event was organized by professors in the Institute of Islamic studies. Jamil Ragep, director of Islamic studies, moderated the discussion.

According to Ragep, the idea to hold a discussion in response to the recent events in Egypt came from Islamic Studies professor Prashant Keshavmurthy, who also participated in the discussion.

“It had to be done very quickly…and we wanted to be topical about it,” said Ragep. Efforts to organize the panel and find professors to speak began last Friday.

Department professors Malek Abisaab and Khaled Medani opened the discussion with lecture style comments and analysis on the protests in Egypt and Tunisia.

Abisaab began his comments by reading the poem Mohammed Bouazizi wrote for his mother. Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in December, and subsequent death, catalyzed the nations uprising and overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

In later remarks, Medani touched on the number of myths that recent political events across the Arab world – from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen and Jordan – have been “punctured”.

“Is it a result of a spontaneous uprising? I think it isn’t, it is really a three decade transformation of political and economic changes. … There is a great deal of hope, not only for Egypt and Tunisia, but for those other countries,” Medani said.

Professor Setrag Manoukian and Keshavmurthy responded to audience questions during a question period that lasted over half an hour.

The role of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook in the uprisings were of particular interest during the question period. Manoukian said that attributing the events in Tunisia and Egypt to technology alone is “presumptuous.”

“You have to consider how that enters into a broader dynamic in the sense that maybe technology is the most concrete sign of the way in which political communication works in a particular moment, but there has always been political communication…there have always been mechanisms to spread the news very quickly that now seem to us maybe outdated,” said Manoukian.

Several questions were directed toward the popular comparison of the Egyptian protests to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. “Comparisons are good to think with but they are always very limited,” Manoukian responded.

Medani expanded on the Iran-Egypt comparison, saying, “This is not a revolution…it is a popular protest and part of a social movement. … These people are asking for reform in the present institution and within the Egyptian constitution.”

Medani said he also enjoyed the student participation in the discussion.

“My impression was that it would be more interaction with the students…and that’s what it was like in the end. It was very good because it was more participatory than doing a lecture series,” Medani told the Daily. “It is very nice to see everyone so engaged in this region. It’s really important.”

During the panel Medani noted that the protests have been “surprisingly peaceful…given the amount of people on the streets and the potential for violence.”

Since the panel on Tuesday night, violence between supporters and opponents of embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak intensified Wednesday morning and, according to the BBC, gunshots were heard in the area of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.