Scholars Test the Winds of Change at Campus Forum
By Sandra Seitz
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. ...
T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
One year out from the Arab Spring, when thousands of demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, bringing down a government and demanding democratic reforms, a panel of scholars gathered to discuss Egypt’s turbulent present and uncertain future.
As part of the panel, Prof. Wagdi Zeid, visiting scholar in the Department of English, used the poem above as an apt metaphor for the situation in Egypt.
“April – spring – is the time when the land should be regenerating after a long winter,” says Zeid. “Regeneration, or coming back to life, is painful because it has to go through a confrontation of the past with the present: a juxtaposition that points out how badly things have decayed.”
Three international experts participated on the panel: Gregory Aftandilian, former State Department Middle East analyst and an associate of the Center for Middle East Peace, Development and Culture; Yoram Meital, chair of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University in Israel; and Zeid, playwright and former Egyptian cultural attaché to the United States and Turkey.
UMass Lowell Provost Ahmed Abdelal moderated the discussion.
Aftandilian described the changing fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood. They gained a majority in Parliament, but have been pushed back from attempts to dominate the Constituent Assembly – charged with writing the new constitution – and to field a candidate for president in the upcoming elections.
“The Brotherhood’s wings have now been clipped,” says Aftandilian, explaining that when the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission disqualified the Brotherhood candidate, the military candidate and the fundamentalist candidate on technical grounds. Aftandilian thinks three power centers may be emerging – Parliament controlled by the Brotherhood; the presidency, perhaps with a charismatic leader; and the military, which remains influential.
Causes for Optimism
During discussion, the panelists all pointed to uncertainties in the current situation in Egypt, yet found some reasons for optimism.
“I feel more optimistic than I did six months ago. A revolution is not one event, but a series of transitions,” said Meital.”
Added Abdelal, “Many Egyptians are frustrated with the transition and I would not exclude the possibility of another uprising.”
According to Zeid, “Egypt needs education and help from the outside, but people must understand that Egyptians have their own way of doing things” and are not inclined to the extremes, he said.
“If economic growth can recover, then I will feel optimistic,” said Aftandilian, referring to Egypt’s recent financial crisis, mounting debts and increases in food prices.
Wael Kamal, program director of Journalism and Media Studies, commented, “There is a silent majority of people sitting at home [in Egypt] waiting for something to happen. They are a major force right now and are looking for any solution that will provide stability.”
Undergraduate student Derek Doubleday, who just completed his junior year in philosophy with a concentration in communications and critical thinking, attended the forum.
“The benefit of an event like this is in gaining an awareness of what’s going on outside our community, in the world in general,” he says. “The speakers are experts, they know first-hand what’s going on.”