On Wednesday, the UW Alumni Association hosted the third of four events in their lecture series specializing in history. Arbella Bet-Shlimon, an assistant professor of history at the University of Washington, enlightened the crowd inside Kane Hall. In 2017, Bet-Shlimon won the UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award.
She began the lecture by discussing the historical precedents of the Arab Spring, mentioning a number of protests from throughout the 20th century, including revolts in Iran in 1905, Egypt in 1919, and Syria in 1936. Bet-Shlimon says that these events set the foundation for a long history of dissent in the Middle East.
She used these examples to strike down the oft-cited narratives that the Arab Spring was incited by the Iraq War or nurtured by social media. “These takes on protest in the Middle East are self-serving, ahistorical, and false,” Bet-Shlimon asserted. “The roots of dissent in the region are much deeper than that.”
The speaker, who is of Iraqi and Syrian descent herself, categorized these movements in three ways. Some were driven by the need for access to basic needs, such as water. Others by the desire to hold leaders accountable by the rule of law, which Bet-Shlimon calls “constitutionalism.” Finally, she called some insurrections against illegitimate and oppressive governments that they hope to overthrow entirely.
The one common thread between these movements were feelings of anti-colonialism. From there, Bet-Shlimon moved toward dissent in the Arab Spring specifically. She started with the accomplishments of the demonstrations. “The successes of the protests have forever transformed many Middle Easterners sense of possibilities,” she said.
The title of the lecture comes from a chant popularized in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt: “The people want to bring down the regime.” While much of the Middle East faced protests in the years following 2011, only one nation has maintained its successes in holding down a regime. That country is Tunisia, but Bet-Shlimon classified their achievements as “fragile.”
Egypt, the country that inspired so many protesters, has been led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi back to military dictatorship. Bet-Shlimon connected dissent in the Middle East to Earth’s changing climate. “If climate change continues at the current pace, it will cause more conflicts and refugees,” she said.
In Syria, a drought that began in 2006 caused the “first grievance” with the government in 2011, which was the beginning of the protest movement there. In Syria, half of the population, which is a staggering 11 million people, have been displaced in some way, according to Bet-Shlimon. She closed the speech with a few lessons.
The first being that “the people of the Middle East have long had a sense of their rights.” Under this umbrella she fit democracy, rule of law, and the right for basic needs. Secondly, she did not hold back in criticizing the American government for their role in the violence in the Middle East. She called the foreign policy of the United States a “decades-long bipartisan disaster.”
Specifically, she noted that the idea of arming the enemies of our enemies has never worked and will never work. Third, she stressed the importance of dissent among the marginalized in examining the strength of a democracy. Lastly, she said that the Arab Spring protests suffered because “they lacked a coherent program for achieving justice.”
The inability to consolidate local factions can lead to backtracking, as in the case of Egypt. Bet-Shlimon finished the lecture by speaking to those who have hope for future generations. “The resilience of those who continue to believe in a better future for their children is the bravest form of dissent,” she said before being greeted by strong applause from the crowd.
For those interested in learning more about the Arab Spring, the UW Alumni Association compiled a reading list which includes Asef Bayat’s “Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring.”