7 leading thinkers react to the ‘turmoil’ in the Middle East

Tonight I went to an Intelligence Squared event entitled “Turmoil in the Middle East: Is the genie of democracy out of the bottle?” where 7 key academics and journalists on the Middle East reacted to the events in recent weeks.

On the panel were Oxford academics Tariq Ramadan and Eugene Rogan, brilliant SOAS academic Deniz Kandiyoti, City Uniersity academic Rosemary Hollis, journalists Nabila Ramdani and Roger Cohen and American military strategist Edward Luttwak.

I can’t go into too much detail as it was a two-hour event but I wanted to summarise the top 5 points I took away.

1. No one has a clue what is going to happen next.

So often with academics they try and explain away every little event but it seemed that all of them, bar possibly Luttwak, were just revelling in the amazing scenes in the Middle East and particularly at the fact that no one predicted them. Eugene Rogan was asked which country was going to be next and he said: “who knows? That’s the excitement of 2011.”

2. No one knows anything about the Muslim Brotherhood.

For seven figures who have spent their careers studying the Middle East, the knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood was fairly limited. Tariq Ramadan stressed that they have “historical legitimacy” as they have been a key organisation in Egyptian politics for well over half a century but he stressed they had not been leading the movement.

The lack of specific knowledge did not stop all the speakers from saying they had nothing to fear from the Brotherhood. Comparing the Muslim Brotherhood with the Islamic regime in Saudi Arabia, Ramadan called on the West to stop being hypocritical in its stance, saying “we do not have a problem with Islamists as long as Islamists protect our interests”.

But not one of them was able to pin down more accurately exactly what the Muslim Brotherhood stand for. They really are an enigma in current politics, and there seems a genuine willingness to pull them into the political mainstream.

3. The West should back out

All the speakers more or less said that the West should back away and leave the Egyptians and the Tunisians to determine their own path. Rosemary Hollis warned that the West should be “very careful” about being too forceful with its advice as this may push the people away as historically such ‘advice’ has been self-serving and the Arabs know that. Cohen added that the worst possible scenario would be a war on Iran as this would feed the anti-Western very forces in Arab countries that we should be trying to calm.

4. Israel must change to react to the current situation

All the speakers were critical of the Israeli influence in Egypt, with a number pointing out that they backed cruel and unjust dictators across the Middle East. Roger Cohen said that when he was in Tahrir Square Israel just wasn’t an issue, but added that they had to respect international boundaries on issues like the settlement. Another speaker made an interesting point about how Israel was being hypocritical in criticising the rise of Islamic fundamentalism when too often religious justifications are used to justify their policies.

Again Luttwark proved the exception to this rule, mounting an interesting but slightly weak defence of Israel. He denied outright that Israel had always backed Mubarak, and said that the state would welcome a democracy on its doorstep. But then he used an interesting phrase, saying that relations with Egypt would probably go from a “cold peace” to “colder peace” if the Muslim Brotherhood won an election.

5. A sense of enthusiasm

Bizarrely, all the speakers were excited by the changes in the Middle East. I say this not because I am not excited but because you would have expected the organisers to get a counter view. But the speakers, unlike the audience who were roughly 50-50, were all optimistic about the revolutions in the Middle East, with a shared commitment that this was changing the shape of world politics for the better. As Eugene Rogan said with the last words of the night – “I think this year will see a series of actions. This is the beginning, not the end.”

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