David Arnold, president of the Asia Foundation, delivered a talk yesterday on the current popular uprisings in the Middle East and the lessons they lend to Asian regimes. The talk, titled “The Arab Awakening: Governance Lessons for Asia and Beyond” was sponsored by the Center for Development, Democracy and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC).
Arnold, who served as president of the American University in Cairo (AUC) for seven years and represented the Ford Foundation in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, contributed a unique perspective on two regions of the world not commonly discussed in conjunction: the Middle East and Asia.
Although Arnold was not in Egypt during the protests that began Jan. 25, the factors leading to the uprising were clear to him.
“I saw all of the ingredients that were there for a popular uprising,” he said. “However, in truth I could never have anticipated the rapidity with which the protests spread or the fragility of the state apparatus.”
Arnold delivered his observations on the process and dynamics of regime change in the Middle East, focusing primarily on Egypt. He emphasized the role of the Arab youth as the “vanguard” of the revolution, the secular nature of the uprisings and the “empowerment” of women through their participation.
“The gender diversity is noteworthy,” he said. “Women of all ages…showed remarkable courage in standing shoulder to shoulder to their brothers, fathers and husbands.”
The patriotism and national pride engendered by the uprisings also stood out to Arnold. He contrasted the image of protestors wrapped in Egyptian flags calling for the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime with the notion of protestors against Vietnam showing the same patriotism.
“There’s an enormous sense of national pride in the fact that ordinary people were able to rise up and throw off the shackles of repression,” Arnold said. “The same national pride as Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis and Bahrainis who are struggling to rid their countries of rulers who they view as illegitimate.”
Arnold ultimately blamed the “freedom deficit in the Arab world” as the “primary and proximate cause of the Arab revolts.” He cited the 30 years of emergency rule, the systematic repression of opposition, arbitrary detentions and torture and a rigged election system as catalysts for the movement.
Concluding his talk, Arnold outlined the lessons the Arab revolts could give Asia.
“Economic growth by itself is not a substitute for good governance…and fundamental human rights and democracy are not as culturally bound…as some analysts would lead us to believe,” he said.
Arnold ended on a cautious but optimistic note, recognizing that there would be “bumps and challenges” on the way to reform. Real change, however, is in the long-term horizon.
Members of the Stanford faculty posed questions about U.S. involvement in the democratization process, Internet freedom under authoritarian regimes and ripples of change in the Muslim world, among other topics.
Erik Jensen, a senior research fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, asked how the reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death would have been different if not for the “Arab Spring.” Arnold responded by calling Al Qaeda the “biggest losers” of the uprisings.
“[The revolts] presented an alternative path to terrorism and violence,” he said. “The ideas [of Al Qaeda] have been discredited by regime change through peaceful protest and popular mobilizing.”
“The killing of Osama bin Laden is less of a big deal for much of the Arab world than it would have been in absence of the changes and sense of empowerment that many people in the Arab world are now feeling,” he added.