The Arab Spring brings regional experts to Stanford

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Clockwise from left: Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah, Consulting Professor at FSI; Conference participants watch Mustafa Barghouthi by live videoconference from Ramallah; and Ahmed Saleh, an activist from Egypt.

As a new era of democratic change swept across the Arab world this year, the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy (ARD) at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law hosted two conferences to examine the Arab Spring. On April 29, twelve internationally renowned Egypt scholars convened at Stanford to probe the root causes of the Egyptian revolution and debate the challenges facing the transition period. The second annual ARD conference held May 12-13, brought Arab activists and academics from the region together to provide a comparative perspective on political activism.

Participants in the Democratic Transition in Egypt conference were hesitant to label the popular uprising in Egypt a revolution in light of the fragile transition period. According to Professor Jason Brownlee of the University of Texas at Austin, "repressive agencies of the old order still exist in Egypt: the military intelligence, state security, and the general intelligence service."

Scholars unanimously agreed that nascent opposition parties face the enormous challenge of organizing during a hurried transition period and within a competitive party and campaign structure. Professor Samer Soliman from the American University in Cairo emphasized this point, "the party law is designed to bias the old guard and a legacy of suspicion towards political parties leaves youth hesitant to join or form political parties."

Significant discussion was dedicated to the role of the Muslim Brotherhood who many argued is the only well-organized opposition party in Egypt capable of commanding a majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Scholars were left wondering how to translate the success of this popular movement into a constitutionally-based political system representative of all societal interests.

The From Political Activism to Democratic Change in the Arab World conference featured eight activists from Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Yemen--in addition to a live presentation from Ramallah by Mustafa Barghouthi --who were joined by leading scholars to provide a grassroots perspective and original voice to the uprisings.

Panels presented country-based case studies highlighting the key challenges activists face in diverse Arab states and societies to evaluate the potential of democratic transition to take root. While variation exists in each country, it was clear that activists faced the same obstacles in pursuit of their goals and clearly benefitted from this shared forum at Stanford.

A new generation of young political activists connected through social networks learned through the revolutionary experiences of their Facebook friends. Stephane Lacoix, Sciences Po

Participants emphasized the contagion that spread protests across the region, beginning in Tunisia. Stéphane Lacoix of Sciences Po illustrated this point, "a new generation of young political activists connected through social networks learned through the revolutionary experiences of their Facebook friends."

Looking forward, participants agreed that these revolutions are far from complete and challenging work lies ahead. According to CDDRL director Larry Diamond, "democratic change is not produced by grassroots protest and activism alone but requires organization, strategy, and hierarchical structure.”

In each Arab country, tribal, sectarian, political, and religious division threaten the stability of the fragile transition period. In the near term, participants stressed the importance of delaying elections to give time for political parties, institutions, and leadership to develop so the status quo does not reassert itself.

The role of external actors-- from the US to the GCC--was cited as exerting influence on the internal politics in each country. Activists collectively commented on the inconsistency of US foreign policy in the region, which has placed strategic interests above ideological ones, not actively pressing for change in Bahrain, Jordan, and Syria in the same way as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

A tone of cautious optimism imbued both conferences as scholars and activists alike were hesitant to declare the Arab Spring a success, stressing that time will determine the ultimate outcome. Both conferences allowed the ARD Program to make a substantial contribution to the body of scholarly research on this topic as conference papers will be published in an edited volume.