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After the Dictators: Maha Azzam's hopes and fears for the Middle East

At the beginning of March a packed lecture theatre at City University’s Olive Tree Programme’s Middle East Forum listened attentively as Dr Maha Azzam took stock of the rapidly developing situation in North Africa and the Middle East.

Dr Maha Azzam

At the beginning of March a packed lecture theatre at City University’s Olive Tree Programme’s Middle East Forum listened attentively as Dr Maha Azzam took stock of the rapidly developing situation in North Africa and the Middle East. The associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House completed an auspicious panel that included the New York Times journalist Roger Cohen and City University professor of Middle East Policy Studies and director of the Olive Tree Scholarship Foundation, Rosemary Hollis.

Maha Azzam began by arguing that it has been the absence of democracy across swathes of the region that has in the past contributed to a rise of radicalism and Islamism. However, she said democracy is finally on its way and is being achieved without the violence that has, often erroneously, come to be associated with the region. The Middle East protest’s strongest statement against the minority jihadists that overwhelm perceptions of North Africa and the Middle East has been that yes radical change is needed, but it can be gained without resorting to violence or terrorism.

Dr Azzam went on to caution that although what is being witnessed is a revolution, it must be viewed in context. In Egypt and Tunisia the revolution has upset the long-standing political order but it is still very much underway. In fact some have argued that the events in Egypt constitute an internal coup and the term revolution has been much debated.

However, she maintained that there is much to be optimistic about. What has been witnessed is the breaking down of a barrier of fear. This has been bubbling for the past five years and Egypt was very much on the brink of change as far back as 2005. The political and economic disparities in Egypt have long created a scenario ripe for explosive mob riots, yet the recent protests took absolutely everyone by surprise, even those who anticipated that this was inevitable.

Observers in Egypt looked on as events unfolded in Tunisia and saw that street protests could in fact bring down a regime. The Facebook generation in particular were galvanised. Opposition to autocratic regimes and people protests had been brutally suppressed since the 20th century with state security apparatus ensuring that all those involved paid a high price, as has sadly been the case in Libya. Now ordinary people had done what generations before them had failed to achieve. This was the dawn of a new era. Tahrir Square was filled with an array of Egyptians, not just the techno-savvy youth. Women were highly visible as were all echelons of society from diverging religious and political backgrounds.

Dr Azzam spent some time examining the role of the military in the revolution, calling them the backbone of Egypt. The military has a vested interest in playing a crucial role that oversees the transition to civilian government, while retaining power and influence in society. The Egyptian military receives considerable international aid due to Egypt’s geographical and political importance, which betrays the fact that the west continues to enjoy a degree of influence over it. Yet Dr Azzam stated that as long as the military is seen as a guardian of stability and security the question will remain whether Egypt is actually on the path to true democracy.

The final part of Dr Azzam’s lecture analysed the current and continuing role of political Islam in the future of Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern countries. She discussed the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has deliberately downplayed its role in the formation of a new constitution. Muslim Brotherhood members have been deeply involved in the protests and large numbers of their young supporters form part of the Facebook generation. The Muslim Brotherhood’s members were active in the revolution but seemed to eventually concede to more secular forces. This could be because they are all too aware of the fear of political Islam in the West, and, may also symbolise an internal change in politics within the Muslim Brotherhood. What could be emerging is an evolution of secular and leftist politics and the resulting coalescing of demands.

According to Dr Azzam the stake of the Muslim Brotherhood will eventually be significant but tempered. They do not form part of the radical Islamist discourse we have come to expect of Islamist organisations and movements. Dr Azzam cited the fact that some Muslim Brotherhood members are looking to the AKP in Turkey, as evidence of this. It remains unclear which direction Egypt will take politically, but what is indisputable is a strong desire to move towards a diluting of Islamist government and the creation of free government.

The big question on the audience’s lips was whether the spirit of revolution would spread to Saudi Arabia. As we all now know the protests planned in the Gulf state were banned and the threat of unequivocal measures to repel protestors ensured that protestors stayed away. However Dr Azzam maintained that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States were not immune to the calls for change. The contexts are different to Egypt and Tunisia but the grievances – namely desire for government accountability and political participation – remain similar. With non-radical middle-class elites and Islamists alike pushing for change, the days are numbered for autocratic regimes.

For further information about City University's Olive Tree Programme visit http://www.city.ac.uk/olivetree/