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Eye on Current Events: Egypt, Libya and the Middle East

History professor Elizabeth Frierson talks about the revolution in Egypt and the rebellion in Libya.

Date: 4/7/2011
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Melanie Cannon
Elizabeth Frierson is an associate professor in the Department of History and former director of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cincinnati. Studying the Middle East since the 1980s, Frierson has kept a close eye on the revolution in Egypt and the rebellion in Libya, writing op-eds appearing on ABC, NBC, Fox affiliates and PBS and participating in local forums.

Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Frierson.
Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Frierson

After Egypt was successful in its revolution against leader Hosni Mubarak, the Middle East has seen uprisings in a number of countries. Why do you think this is?
We have seen uprisings in not only military dictatorships but also in wealthy Gulf countries, across a broad spectrum of geography, economic systems and political regimes. One common factor among most countries with uprisings is that 50 percent of their population are in their late 20s and younger, short on economic opportunities, tired of variants of despotism, and seeking to change their individual and national situations. Still, plenty of the people in their streets are older and finally finding their chance to speak out against a long list of grievances, again individual to each setting.

Historically speaking, do these citizens have a chance to successfully overthrow those in power?

It’s likely that in most situations we’ll see the same elites in power, with perhaps some new political actors added, but entirely new systems of government will be rare. In Egypt, for example, democratic institutions have long existed – parliament, elections, political parties – but have been constrained or outright oppressed, hijacked or manipulated with election fraud. A common theme in the region is a call for greater transparency and accountability, and that may in fact be answered in some countries.

The people of Libya have been rebelling against Moammar Gaddhafi for the heinous crimes he has committed against them. How is Libya’s situation similar and/or different than Egypt’s?

Gaddhafi has closed Libya off from the rest of the world, eliminating foreign language training, spying on anyone who ventures abroad, playing out political, cultural and criminal scenarios that could be described in many ways, but “weird” will do for this short format, and violent. Libya is like the compound of a vicious cult leader who conceals his crimes with doctrines and practices of secrecy, and which outsiders give up on because they can’t find a way in, and because they are repelled by the actions of the leader (Lockerbie). Egypt on the other hand is a major player on the world scene, full of foreigners and, more importantly, full of Egyptians who have traveled, studied, and worked abroad, from migrant workers through the former head of the UN, deeply engaged in world politics, and open to influence and to scrutiny from all angles. Egyptians have taken to the streets often in the past century, and they were brave to do so again in 2011, but it took great courage for the Libyans to rebel, great courage in the face of a much higher risk of death, rape and ongoing reprisals.

How does the U.S. involvement affect the rebellion? What are the implications of our involvement?

The call by some of the rebels for U.S. protection is a lovely bit of naivete and idealism on their part, proof of how isolated Libyan society has been, but also that our ideals have currency abroad. They still believe in us, but from a distance and a lack of familiarity. Their colonial and recent history is with European realpolitik rather than American realpolitik. North Africa west of Egypt has been a European sphere of influence. Egyptians by contrast still believe in us because they’ve seen NGO’s and USAID and other non-military forms of foreign aid, even as they’ve been angered by some of our policies. It is significant that the Egyptians called for our moral support but not for military support. There is no telling at this point how NATO involvement will affect events in Libya. It is a day-to-day scenario, and it was immensely smart of Washington to move forward ONLY with multilateral support, so when things go south, and they will go south, we will not take all the blame as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan recently.

How will the Libyan rebellion affect stability in the Middle East?

At this point, it is just one more point of unrest and instability. If Gaddhafi or his ilk retain rule in Libya, then there will be a lot of dissidents in exile. This is nothing new. If Gaddhafi goes down and we see an actual change in the form of government, then there will be a different group of angry dissidents in exile and perhaps under prosecution at The Hague. The question is: at whom will each group be angry? What money will they be able to access? How much harm can they cause? Will their international networks still be in place? Or, will a new regime start a truth-and-reconciliation process to reintegrate people whose loyalty choices were restricted?

Read more about UC's discussions on Egypt and Libya:

UC Researchers Explore the New Revolution – Its History and Its Impact
The spark, the eruption, the youth movement and social networking – a UC forum explores the history behind the new revolution sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in what’s becoming the new normal.

UC Forum Examines Revolution and Human Rights in Libya

The March 2 discussion will examine the current situation in Libya as well as its international ramifications.

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