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Crown Center panelists put crises in context

In a panel titled “Beyond ISIS: What Should the Next U.S. President Know about the Middle East?” on Thursday, Sept. 15, five scholars from the Crown Center for Middle East Studies agreed that governmental corruption and post-revolution uncertainty are common problems in countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Eva Bellin, panel moderator and Robert Kraft Professor of Arab Politics, asked each panelist to provide an explanation of how cultural and governmental shifts should influence the U.S. perspective. They stressed that in order to even think about intervention, military or otherwise, U.S. officials needed a deep understanding of the complex relations between countries in the Middle East.

Shai Feldman, Judith and Sidney Swartz, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and a politics professor, felt that the talk would shed some light on the cultural significance of these countries. “I think that if there is an answer that comes across in all of this … to avoid making mistakes … you have to acquire the texture of a region. It’s not a military target. It’s a region with people, multiple ethnicities, multiple religions, backgrounds and histories,” Feldman said.

Panelists spoke about the impact that revolutions have had on their countries of study. Ahmad Shokr, Crown Center Junior Research Fellow, addressed the power struggles in Egypt in recent years. In 2011, an uprising removed Hosni Mubarak from power after serving as president for three decades. A democratic election that year resulted in naming Mohamed Morsi president. He was subsequently removed in a coup in 2013 and replaced by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Shokr was in Egypt when the 2013 uprising began. He indicated that since then, things have not improved in the country, citing a “combination of police repression and draconian laws” as means of silencing political dissenters. “The possibility of political pluralism in Egypt has not looked bleaker over the past five years than it does today,” Shokr noted.

He warned against looking at revolutions as distinct events “within a vacuum.” “The events of 2011 awakened a sense of political possibility. Revolutions do not happen in a single day,” said Shokr.

A military coup in Turkey that began on July 15 attempted to remove President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power. The coup was ultimately unsuccessful, leading panelist Serra Hakyemez, Crown Center Neubauer Junior Research Fellow, to explain why.

She partially attributed the failed coup to a lack of full support on the part of the military. Hakyemez stated that 1.5 percent of the military actually participated in the coup. Hakyemez also remarked on the nationalist and religious response to the coup. Erdogan gained the support of monks who in turn influenced their followers. Turkish people flocked to the streets in defense of the president. “Erdogan, nation and homeland, they became one [in] the same,” Hakyemez said.

A shift of leadership occurred in Saudi Arabia in July of 2015 when King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud took the throne. According to Pascal Menoret, Renée and Lester Crown Professor of Modern Middle East Studies, King Salman has begun modernizing the country and working on a set of economic reforms. However, he has completely tabled discussion on political reforms. “A king is saying, ‘We are revolutionizing Saudi Arabia,’ without ever talking about politics,” Menoret said.

Scholars used the common theme of corruption to link Iraq and Iran. David Patel, Crown Center Senior Research Fellow, characterized corruption in Iraq as “more than rampant.” Between 60 and 80 percent of employees are public servants who are paid by the government. The Iraqi government operates on a patronage system, previously fueled by high oil prices. According to Patel, 95 percent of Iraq’s budget is made up of oil revenue, and prices have crashed in the past two to three years, sending Iraq into an economic crisis.

He explained that the problem of corruption goes deeper than just getting rid of corrupt officials. “You can remove a few bad apples, but if it’s the barrel that’s bad, you’re just going to have to do it again the following year,” Patel said.

Iran is also experiencing an economic downturn. Naghmeh Sohrabi, Charles “Corky” Goodman Professor of Modern Middle East History, spoke about the nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran, explaining that it has simultaneously changed everything and nothing at all. “From the perspective of many people, it doesn’t feel like anything has gotten better in the past 15 or 16 months,” Sohrabi said.

President Hassan Rouhani blames the nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran for a large amount of problems in Iran. “The nuclear issue became a very convenient way of not talking about problems that require a long term solution,” Sohrabi said.

Students, alumni and researchers asked questions after each member of the panel responded to Bellin’s questions. Overall, the panelists said that simply asking for intervention on the part of the U.S. is an oversimplification of the issues facing Middle Eastern countries. Structural changes are slow and intervention needs “textural” relevance.

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