USC Aiken panel focuses on Tunisia, Egypt

AIKEN -- Transitions into democracy can be messy, Tom Wood advised.


Despite demands for more freedoms in Egypt and Tunisia by protestors, a country like Switzerland isn't going to happen overnight. Instead there will be a period of probable instability, and interim steps will more closely resemble Argentina or the Ukraine.

On Wednesday, a panel of University of South Carolina Aiken professors injected history lessons and personal insights into a public discussion of the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt. About 200 students and area residents attended the event.

Wood, an assistant professor of political science whose focus is the Middle East and Central Asia, was joined by Roger Deal, an assistant professor of history who has studied Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, and Layech Mahfoudhi, a foreign language teacher and a native of Tunisia.

The December protests in Tunisia, previously considered a quiet, stable country , caught the international community by surprise, as did protests that followed in Egypt the next month. The three panelists drew upon the region's history and international politics to help understand what happened and what could happen next.

Deal noted the current regimes in both Egypt and Tunisia had come out of revolutionary movements that intended to bring freedom and prosperity, but which became focused mostly on pushing out the old.

"There's a need for a strong hand to bring about such revolution and reforms," Deal said. "But that ultimately led to these authoritarian regimes."

Mahfoudhi said conditions like high youth unemployment, limited freedom of speech and a corrupt ruling class that flaunted its wealth laid the groundwork for Tunisia's protests. Twenty-five percent of Tunisia's youth are unemployed, and that rate is 50 percent among college graduates, he said.

"Because of its silence and stability they called Tunisia the miracle nation," Mahfoudhi said. "But there was a growing sense of injustice and unfairness. The quietness and stability were actually hiding so much anger."

A college-educated street vendor in December burned himself in protest of his poor prospects amid Tunisia's poverty. News of the incident spread through the social networks and initiated a wave of protests that led to President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's resignation in January.

The unease spread to other Arab countries, and a few weeks later a protest organized through Facebook broke out in Egypt. There, youth unemployment was also high and food prices had spiked in recent years. Like Tunisia, Egypt operated as virtually a one-party state. Its president, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, had ruled for 28 years.

Wood talked about Egypt's likely future in the wake of Mubarak's virtually certain resignation. It isn't going to look like Iran, where protests, also organized through social networks, led to little change. Wood thought a transformation similar to Mexico's was more likely.

"Countries that successfully move from autocracy to democracy very often have some experience with a constitution and multiparty politics," Wood said. Egypt and Mexico both have such a history. Iran does not.

Wood also said Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood movement was not something to be particularly afraid of as part of the emerging political scenery. The group is more political than religious and has been running social services in Egyptian cities for years.

"Just like political parties in other countries, the Muslim Brotherhood is religiously informed, but it maintains a separation between church and state," Wood said. "I do admit they have some radical factions, but the group is largely a moderate one."