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Friedman explains context of Arab spring

NYT columnist Thomas Friedman presented a lecture titled "Democracy and Energy: the View from Tahrir Square" in a packed Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Friedman broached a hodgepodge of topics, including the Egyptian uprising and the struggle for Palestinian statehood. (DAN SCHWARTZ/The Stanford Daily)

In a Wednesday evening discussion at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, New York Times columnist and Middle East expert Thomas Friedman explored the causes and implications of the popular uprisings in the Arab world. The talk, titled “Democracy and Energy: the View from Tahrir Square,” was sponsored by Students for a Sustainable Stanford, the ASSU Speakers’ Bureau, Stanford in Government and Hillel.

Friedman opened his talk by explaining the context of the Middle East’s recent history, especially the fact that nearly all of the region’s governments are autocratic.

“For the last 50 years, we in the West…basically treated and looked upon the Arab world as a collection of big gas stations,” he said. “Our basic message to them all was, ‘Guys — and they were only guys — here’s the deal. Keep your pumps open, your prices low, don’t bother the Israelis too much and you can do whatever you want out back.’”

He went on to describe how the al Qaeda terrorism network and its now deceased leader, Osama bin Laden, were a product of what was going on “out back.” He added that there were three large “human deficits” in the Arab world: freedom, women’s empowerment and education.

“[Arabs] know their own human potential and it was not being in any way developed,” Friedman said. “If I got to write the ‘bill of particulars’ for all these Arab regimes, they would be guilty of the worst crime I can think of: the soft bigotry of low expectations about their own people.”

The revolution in Egypt carried particular significance, given its size and stature in the Arab world. Friedman spoke about his experiences covering the downfall of its former president, Hosni Mubarak, and the challenges still facing the country. He characterized the current transition of moving from “Middle East wholesale” to “Middle East retail.”

Friedman placed special emphasis on the Muslim Brotherhood, a large Egyptian Islamist group and the main political opposition during Mubarak’s rule.

“Mubarak cleared out the entire political space between his regime and the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “He refused to allow the emergence of a single authentic, legitimate, centrist Arab nationalist party.”

He described how Mubarak used this arrangement to his advantage, by presenting himself to the U.S. as the only alternative to the Islamic rule of the Brotherhood.

The next topic of discussion was Israel’s role in the region and the evolution of the struggle for Palestinian statehood. Friedman explained how the country’s security situation, which depends on stability of the Egyptian and Syrian borders, was deteriorating. He added that Israel needed to find a credible Palestinian negotiation partner and that its enemies in Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas were baiting it.

“They are dedicated on one proposition — Israel must never leave the West Bank,” Friedman said. “That is the central principle of their strategy because if Israel stays in the West Bank, in a very short period of time, you will have Israel ruling a minority of Jews over a majority of Arabs between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. We know what that’s called — it’s called apartheid.”

“In an age of Facebook, Twitter and incredibly open politics in the world, it is the key to de-legitimizing the Jewish state,” he added.

Friedman finished his lecture by discussing climate change and its effects on world food prices, increases of which served as the immediate impetus for the Arab revolution.

His final thoughts were on American politics and the U.S. government’s failure to either remedy its budget or produce a policy to deal with climate change.

“We are actually tempting and taunting the two most powerful and emotional forces on the planet at the same time: the market and Mother Nature,” he said.

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