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May 3, 2011

Back from Cairo, Khalidi talks Arab revolutions

Columbia University Arab Studies professor Rashid Khalidi weighed in on the U.S. response to the situation in Libya Friday at I-House, adding insight from his recent travels in Cairo.

“Washington has been forced to respond tepidly [to the Libyan situation],” Khalidi said. “One can only wonder what will happen when the attention of the American public wanders.”

Discussing what he called “recent preliminary observations on the recent Arab revolutions,” Khalidi offered his opinions on the upheavals that started in Tunisia and have since spread throughout the Arab world, though he was careful not to make any long-term assessments.

“It is impossible to say if these revolutions can be sustained,” he said. “What is sure is that the elite in these countries will not easily cede their power.”

While the ongoing revolutions in Syria and Libya are still unresolved, Rashid explained the far-reaching effects that they and others like them have had on the balance of power in the whole region.

“The Arab dictators have been put on notice that they can no longer ignore their peoples,” Khalidi said. He highlighted the loosely networked, decentralized organizational structure of the recent revolutions as the key to their success, adding that the absence of a single leader inhibited the effectiveness of government crackdowns.

However, at least one attendee was doubtful of the long-term success of these revolutions, pointing out how the differences that exist between the various nations make it difficult to pass any concrete judgments at this point.

“I think he was a little too optimistic,” said Elias Gotz, a visiting political science graduate student. “How I see it, when he quoted and gave examples, it was always from Egypt or Tunisia, but in Libya it’s more like a struggle between ethnic and tribal groups.”

Khalidi admitted that the same loose style of organization that he believes aided Egyptian revolutionaries has proven problematic for rebels in Libya.

“We’ve seen the problem with leaderlessness, not so much in Benghazi, but more in the battlefield,” Khalidi said. “You can’t fight a guerilla war in the desert. They will need a much higher level of sophistication to fight a war, especially in the desert.”

However, Khalidi argued that the success of the revolutionaries has forced Western powers to depart from previous foreign policies in favor of a more democratic approach to the region.

“Far from giving support to democracy in the Middle East, the United States preferred to deal with autocrats who were pliable to do their bidding,” Khalidi said, also criticizing the Saudi Arabian government for undermining the revolutions.

Khalidi also argued that the revolutions have displayed an emerging public sphere in the Arab world, brought together by cell phones and other technology. However, he was careful not to overemphasize the importance of technology in the revolution, as he said the Western media had.

“The Arab world has shown that it exists as a cultural and intellectual whole,” Khalidi said.

Before taking up his position at Columbia, Khalidi taught at the U of C for eight years as head of the Center for International Studies.

The University of Chicago human rights program, Center for International Studies, International House Global Voices Program, and Center for Middle Eastern Studies sponsored the

lecture.

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