Middle Eastern expert offers view of Arab Spring movements at PSU talk

Juan Cole, an expert on the Middle East and democracy, spoke Monday at Penn State about the significance of military influence during the Arab Spring revolutions.

Cole, also a blogger at Informed Comment, explained the circumstances that could lead to successful democratic transitions to a packed Foster Auditorium.

“I think it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the outcomes of these political revolutions were almost completely determined not by the people on the streets, but by the (military’s) attitude towards them,” said Cole.

The military’s influence had a particularly notable effect on the outcome of the revolution in Egypt.

“The military decided the shape of the transition,” said Cole. “It allowed the local government to get into power for a year. It oversaw the writing of the new constitution and will oversee the presidential elections to be held this summer.”

However, the military may have retained too high a degree of control after the revolution began to settle.

According to Cole, the military in Egypt never really gave up its power. It set up a system for a new constitution and election process, but military influence continues to pull the strings. The new constitution was crafted by members of the Egyptian elite who were appointed by the civilian government. That same government was in turn appointed by the military.

Cole said that Egypt will move toward democratic ideals, but may not be able to fulfill Western ideas of democracy.

“I think it’s certainly the case that they will have elections. Whether the elections are democratic or not is another issue,” said Cole.

Some of the plausible presidential candidates are refusing to run because they think it will be a fixed election.

A very substantial part of the electorate is going to be denied the opportunity to vote for candidates of their party, according to Cole. The Egyptian government has declared the Muslim Brotherhood, heretofore a major political group, to be a terrorist organization and has banned it from the election.

These circumstances limit the power of the vote for Egyptians.

As a result, Cole said it was likely that military official Abdel Fattah el-Sissi will win the presidential election.

“I think there will be elections. I don’t think the elections will meet international standards (of democracy),” said Cole.

Despite the overbearing influence of the military, Cole said that the youth of revolutionizing countries are also invaluably influential. In Egypt, young people made the difference between successful reformation and a failed revolution.

According to Cole, the Arab Spring upheavals were “the revolutions of the 20-somethings.”

“We stress the role of the youth,” said Cole. “So many of the observers in the region have said that this kind of change would never have occurred if it hadn’t been for young people, their idealism and their willingness to risk their (lives) for a better future.”

Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of “Engaging the Muslim World” and “Napoleon’s Egypt.” His latest book is “The New Arabs: How the Wired and Global Youth of the Middle East is Transforming It.”