Monday, February 7, 2011

Many factors underlie turbulence in Egypt

The following editorial appeared in the Feb. 5, 2011 issue of The Spokesman-Review

By Raja S. Tanas, Ph.D.

Since Jan. 25, Americans have watched the current political unrest in Egypt with surprise, interest and great anxiety. We are looking for the reasons behind the sudden unrest in one of the more seemingly stable countries in the Middle East and in a regime that has been the strongest U.S. ally in the Arab world for more than 30 years.

Western media tell us that this is an exclusively Egyptian matter that is based on local economic hardships and political corruption. These factors may have indeed contributed to the current unrest. However, other factors that have been in the making for close to 100 years have relevance to the current unrest in Egypt as well as to the daily affairs of other populations in the rest of the Middle East. We already witness various forms of unrest and demonstrations in neighboring countries including Jordan, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen.

It is important to note that none of the 22 Arab countries, including Egypt, existed as sovereign and politically independent states prior to World War I. Their territories had always been parts of larger empires, the last of which were the Arab-Muslim and the non-Arab (Ottoman) Muslim Empires that spanned close to 14 centuries prior to World War I.

Following World War I, the victorious powers carved 22 countries out of the defeated Ottoman Muslim Empire, installed autocratic regimes to manage the masses and transformed part of Arab Palestine into a European-Jewish state called Israel in 1948. These are three grievances that Arab masses anywhere hold against the West.

The emerging Arab countries enjoyed relative calm between 1918 and the end of World War II as they were busy building infrastructures and institutions. However, the Arab masses were not at all happy with the autocratic regimes imposed on them when they became separate states.

America's relationship with the Middle East is still in its infancy. The first-ever official American contact with the Arab Middle East took place toward the end of World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the king of Saudi Arabia on Feb. 12, 1945.

In the aftermath of World War II, America was drawn into Middle Eastern affairs. Gradually, America filled the vacuum created when the declining empires of Britain and France finally left the Middle East.

Since the end of World War II, the Middle East has been at the center of world affairs. The region is considered strategically and geologically significant to the more technologically advanced countries such as ours.

Egypt, for example, owns the Suez Canal, through which at least 8 percent of the seaborne annual world trade and more than 2 million barrels of crude oil pass each day.

And the Middle East region as a whole holds more than two-thirds of the known world oil reserves in addition to huge gas reserves at a time when Western countries are buried under unprecedented debt.

The current political unrest and calls for regime change in Egypt could very well have catastrophic effects on the world economy and peace if the people of Egypt are not afforded venues for the creation of indigenous democratic political structures. In its role as the only superpower in the world, America has grave responsibility in this regard.

Egypt and the rest of the Middle East will continue to be at the world's center stage for years to come as long as the economies of technologically advanced countries continue to rely heavily on the abundant and relatively cheap Middle Eastern oil, and as long as there is no comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in sight.

The reader is invited to embrace the current political unrest in Egypt as an opportunity not only to learn about the grievances that the people of Egypt have against their autocratic government, but also as an opportunity to collect, process and apply knowledge in matters that deal with the Middle East region as a whole.

A robust understanding of the Middle East region is pivotal in helping the people of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East to achieve democratic governing structures in order to live in prosperity, to coexist with their neighbors and to create peace.

In the process of doing so, let us caution ourselves against unfounded stereotypes and prejudices, and guard ourselves against omissions, selective reporting and misinformation that in most instances bring about more confusion than understanding. The simple fact that Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners are not necessarily one and the same people can take us a long way toward understanding such a complex area as the Middle East.

Raja S. Tanas is a professor of sociology at Whitworth University, where he teaches courses on Islam and the Middle East. He received his bachelor's and master of arts degrees in sociology from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, after which he earned his Ph.D. degree in sociology from Michigan State University.

Note: The opinions expressed in works written by Whitworth faculty and staff do not necessarily represent the views of Whitworth University or members of its community. They are, however, symbolic of Whitworth's commitment as a Christian university to the free exchange of ideas.