Vandewalle talks Arab future
By Heather Szilagyi
Published on Tuesday, February 14, 2012
While the Middle East will remain volatile for some time and reform movements are “far from done,” there is reason to be optimistic about the region’s future, government professor Dirk Vandewalle said in a lecture titled “The Middle East a Year Later: Business as Usual?” on Monday in Raether Hall at the Tuck School of Business.
Vandewalle’s lecture focused on the progress made by North African and Middle Eastern countries since the beginning of last year’s popular uprisings. As one of the world’s leading experts on Libya, Vandewalle gave his perspective on current events in the Middle East with a theme of “reasonable optimism.”
In an interview with Dartmouth, Vandewalle said that both the awareness and involvement of young people are the most promising indicators for the future. The uprisings have been a “truly unique phenomenon,” as they occurred in countries in which civil societies were thought to be completely dismantled, yet civil society led the uprisings, Vandewalle said.
However, the protesters’ “lack of programmatic unity” should temper this optimism, he said in the lecture. While the great upheavals in the Middle East are not revolutions in the traditional sense, they have the potential for revolutionary impact on societies in which change was thought to be impossible only a year ago, Vandewalle said.
“People who professionally follow the region, like myself, were really surprised by the uprisings,” he said, emphasizing their spontaneous nature and the oppressive regimes they aimed to overthrow.
These uprisings should not be classified as revolutions, which are typically defined as the classical order being displaced by a new social class taking power, Vandewalle said.
Vandewalle added that observers in the West have misinterpreted events in the Middle East, citing a tendency to oversimplify the uprisings by identifying poverty as the root cause. Severe corruption and daily humiliation — combined with government failures to provide adequate jobs, education and infrastructure — were the true causes of unrest, he said.
While it is easy to attribute this unrest to a poor financial system, it is “very ironic” that many countries that saw uprisings were doing well economically, Vandewalle said. Though Tunisia’s economy was exclusionary, for example, it had been steadily improving for the 10 to 15 years preceding last year’s revolt, he said.
Vandewalle drew a distinction between what he considers the “core countries” — traditional countries with productive economies, including Tunisia and Egypt — and the countries bordering the Persian Gulf, which are “unproductive in many ways.”
Islamist parties won significant representation in recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt, putting the United States in a difficult position due to its concern about these parties’ involvement, he said. The successful parties belong to more moderate Islamic motives, however, and they are “the only ones that can keep the more radical ones in check,” Vandewalle said.
The Persian Gulf differs from the “core countries” because of oil money, which “allows [rulers] to buy off people,” according to Vandewalle.
While countries around the Persian Gulf have spent $150 billion to buy political acquiescence, Vandewalle said the nations in this region are “not totally immune” to reform because they want to be seen by the international community as modern economic powers.
Other reasons for optimism in the Middle East include the increasing involvement of the Arab League — a “toothless tiger before literally last year” — and its support for military intervention in Libya, he said.
Vandewalle said he believes Syria will involve itself in the Middle Eastern situation within the next few weeks as a result of international pressure.
United Nations intervention over the past year has been in accordance with the Responsibility to Protect policy, adopted by the U.N. in 2005, which gives the international community the right to protect civilians of a sovereign state when the state does not or cannot do so, he said.
If proper investment and the input of international expertise lead to economic reform, the Middle East may actually develop a modern middle class, he said.
Economic regulation will be a major challenge, as will the replacement of traditional regimes in a “race against time” to accomplish goals quickly, according to Vandewalle. The Transitional National Council in Libya, for instance, does not yet have real institutional power, he said.
At one point, Vandewalle said he believes Iraq is headed toward a revolution of its own because tensions in the region have not been alleviated since the U.S. entered Iraq.
Friction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims will increase over time, according to Vandewalle.
Vandedwalle said he believes that Iraq will split up into different territories, with varying access to oil resources.
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for International Business and Tuck News.