The Spring of Arab Discontent

Friday, November 30, 2012

By Katie Cardenas (B.A. '12)

Vanderbilt students and Sherif Barsoum, director of International Student and Scholar Services, visit Luxor as part of the Religion and Culture of Egypt Maymester course.

Confident, poised, and gracious, U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey appeared ever the eloquent diplomat during her speech to the Vanderbilt community on the Arab Spring and Egypt’s political situation since the series of protests in 2010 that shook the world. Serving as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2008 to 2011, Scobey addressed the monumental nature of the changes that swept through the Middle East in addition to emphasizing the United States’ commitment to ensuring peace, security, and reform in a country faced with a suddenly uncertain future.

“I can honestly say, without any hesitation… what happened in Egypt was the most exciting event of my foreign service career,” Scobey stated as she opened her address. “Watching 82 million people rise up and say ‘enough’…was akin to seeing political science in action.” Scobey described the build-up of frustration and stalemate with the progress among leadership as intrinsic to the citizen action that instigated the ultimate fall of the reigning dictatorship.

Scobey identified telltale warning signs of an impending revolt from a 2002 U.N. Human Development Report, which highlighted the deficits of freedom, knowledge, and the empowerment of women as a hindrance to success among Arab countries. Carried out by the region’s own scholars, the report showcased an educated populace without access to opportunity for growth. Coupled with the fervor of youthful advocates and a burgeoning social media revolution, the conditions proved right for a simple act of protest to set off an uprising.

“You cannot underestimate the decades-long denial of human rights that wore away at the soul…it was a want for dignity and social justice,” Scobey stated, referring to the underlying bases of the revolt. “Issues of presidential succession, economic grievances…lead to indigenous and spontaneous citizen action demanding a change from a corrupt government.”

It was an explosive combination that citizens themselves were not fully cognizant of until the events of Arab Spring proved otherwise. Sherif Barsoum, director of International Student and Scholar Services at Vanderbilt and a native of Egypt, echoed the discontent of his fellow countrymen and emphasized the volatile nature of the protests that shook his country.

Two old men debating politics underneath revolutionary graffiti, Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt.

“People were ready for a change and had reached a boiling point. However, these events had been tried before…and we thought things would return to normal.” Barsoum described the astonishment of most Egyptians when what was supposed to be a small revolt instead transformed into revolution that changed the world.

He reiterated the causes behind Arab Spring, and underscored the importance for Americans to be invested in the future of the Middle East. “Egypt is one of America’s oldest allies,” he stated passionately. “It’s the center of the Arab world and historically, a center of civilization.”

Like Barsoum, Scobey emphasized the significance of the relationship between the United States and Egypt. “Times are changing,” she stated, “and the United States is doing what it can to support elections and institutional reforms that will bring around rule of law and democracy.” The ambassador drew on speeches by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both of whom support a policy of cooperation, communication, and mutual respect between both countries. However, she made sure to clarify that the revolutions now known as the Arab Spring, “…are not ours, or by us, or for us, but the outcomes are important to us.”

Cairo, Egypt

Ultimately, the ambassador framed the current situation of the Middle East as one characterized by progressive change, democratic reform, and hesitant hope. “These challenges and opportunities are historic and transformative,” she summarized. “It will take patience to sort out these complex problems, and we just don’t know how things will turn out.”

Many in the audience agreed with the ambassador’s optimism and wait-and-see attitude. “It is amazing to see history in the making,” said Chris Fink (B.A.’14). “Things will change, but there is just so much uncertainty.”

While many watch the Arab world with caution, it is those with the deepest roots who remain firmly faithful to their country’s future.

“Egypt has a long history, strong national identity, and wonderful cultural assets,” said Barsoum. “We have survived for the past 7,000 years, so we will survive this and can for the next thousand years.” With fortitude as unshakable as Barsoum’s, one thing remains certain for the Middle East—the enduring strength, loyalty, and courage of citizens who began a revolution will continue to ensure the longevity of a region that desires a lasting peace and dignity for its people.

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Margaret Scobey

A native of Memphis, Margaret Scobey graduated from the University of Tennessee and pursued doctoral studies in history at the University of Michigan. Prior to her posting in Egypt, Scobey served as ambassador to Syria and was appointed director of Arabian Peninsula affairs in the Department of State for Yemen, Jerusalem, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Peru. During this time, she also was staff assistant to the assistant secretary of Near East and South Asian affairs, watch officer in the operations center, political-military officer in the Office of Arab-Israel Affairs, and deputy director of the secretariat staff.