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Professors Explain How Uprisings in Middle East All Stand Apart

UCLA History Professor James Gelvin and Gabriel Piterberg resist the temptation to view democracy as a wave and Middle Eastern countries as dominoes, the Daily Bruin student newspaper reports.

By Loic Hostetter for The Daily Bruin

Politicians and media outlets have pointed to the initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as catalysts for protest movements developing in other areas of the Middle East.

But UCLA professors say it is a mistake to consider all of these rebellions as a homogenous democratization movement.

“We can’t really look at this as an undifferentiated wave of democratization that’s taking place across the Middle East, or particularly the Arab Middle East. It’s not working out that way,” said James Gelvin, a history professor at UCLA who specializes in modern Middle Eastern studies.

The first riots began in central Tunisia on Dec. 17, when a street vendor set himself on fire in the city of Sidi Bouzid.

Since then, democratic uprisings have spread to multiple countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Iran, Algeria and Bahrain.

The causes are deeply rooted in the individual political and social histories of each country, Gelvin said. Each one has been characterized by authoritarian governments, widespread economic stagnation, and an immense demographic “bulge” of people under the age of 30 and worldwide inflation, he said.

The time was ripe for revolution, and would-be protestors needed to see that success was possible. But the causes of each uprising are distinct from one another, said Gabriel Piterberg, a UCLA history professor who also specializes in Middle Eastern studies.

“It’s tempting to see all these things as causing one another because they are happening at the same time,” Piterberg said.

Gelvin said the situation in Lebanon is very different from what is going on in Egypt or in any other place in the region.

In Yemen, protesters are calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has held office for 30 years. But the protest is less forceful than that of Egypt, where all factions of the protest movement took to the streets to oust President Hosni Mubarak. Yemen’s less centralized government has reduced the intensity of the outcry.

Protestors in Lebanon, meanwhile, are voicing their support of the regime recently deposed by the militant political group Hezbollah. These protestors hope to prevent the creation of an authoritarian regime, rather than depose an existing regime.

Piterberg said regime change will likely lead to shifting power dynamics in the Middle East. But he said it is too early to draw conclusions about what will happen on a country-by-country basis.

American relations in the region will likely change, Piterberg added. For example, if new democratic governments emerge, the U.S. may be pressured to reexamine the distribution of foreign aid to those countries.

Piterberg summarized the situation with an Arabic saying: “The reckoning day of every dog comes.”
“Maybe the reckoning day of a few dogs has come at last,” he said.

Center for Near Eastern Studies