By Joshua Falk
The Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies hosted a discussion on the Egyptian popular uprising yesterday, drawing commentary from history professor Joel Beinin and political science assistant professor Lisa Blaydes. History professor Robert Crews moderated the event, which took place in the Bechtel Conference Center.
“If any of you have paid any attention to the recent events in Egypt at all, you’ll probably notice that the analysis of the causes has focused on two things: Tunisia and the role of social media,” Beinin said.
But Beinin downplayed the importance of these two factors and critiqued prevailing media coverage, which tended to overemphasize Tunisia and social networks.
“I want to suggest that the more fundamental factors in explaining these events are structural and historical,” Beinin added, stressing the significance of vast unemployment and World Bank/IMF neo-liberalization efforts in Egypt.
The Egyptian regime’s attitude toward political demonstrations since 2000 has been unclear, Beinin said, citing the 2005 protests as an example.
“There have been, since 2000, a series of political movements that the regime has sometimes tolerated and sometimes repressed,” Beinin said. “You had, for the first time in 50 years, demonstrations that weren’t simply crushed by the security forces.”
He also said Omar Suleiman, the recently appointed Egyptian vice president whom the United States backs, does not represent fundamental change from Mubarak’s 30-year reign.
“There is a problem in American political discourse,” he added. “Hosni Mubarak, for decades, has been considered a moderate.”
“Why does mainstream American political discourse resist from calling a spade a spade?” Beinin said.
In a discussion of the likely demographic breakdown of the Egyptian protests, Blaydes cited poll data examining Egyptian attitudes toward peaceful protest.
“Of the men who were polled in this sample, you had about a one in two chance of saying you’d participate in this kind of demonstration,” Blaydes said.
Roughly half of the Egyptian population lives on fewer than $2 a day, she said. Corruption is a major grievance among Egyptians. A government survey showed that the Egyptian public thought that businessmen, who often have close ties to Mubarak, were the most corrupt group in society.
She pointed out that Egypt is quite conservative relative to the rest of the Muslim world.
“We don’t know how religious preferences might translate into votes,” she added.
Blaydes also stressed the importance of implementing a system of voting and governance that maximizes electoral voices and protects the rights of women and religious minorities.
Beinin cautioned that implementation and survival of democracy are the result of struggle.
“Even in the best of circumstances–and I’m not so convinced that Egypt is facing the best of circumstances–we’re not going to see a switch turned off or on and we’ll see democracy,” he said.
“I think that we need to honor the preferences of average Egyptians in whatever sort of government we have moving forward in Egypt,” Blaydes said.
She stressed the need to redistribute income away from the very wealthy to the masses, “who are suffering under some pretty oppressive economic conditions.”
Beinin added that the Egyptian educational system needs a massive overhaul in order to equip students for citizenship, modern business and technology.
“If you were to interrogate the median Egyptian about a whole range of issues, you would be horrified,” Beinin said.
In response to a question from an audience member, Beinin noted that American endorsement of a particular candidate would only serve to de-legitimize that candidate.
“The best thing for the United States to do is absolutely nothing,” Beinin said.
Beinin has written extensively about workers, peasants and social movements in the modern Middle East. Blaydes’ research includes work on Middle Eastern politics and political economy. She has written about political institutions in Egypt.