“It is absolutely the wrong policy to support autocratic leaders because they are somehow better than an Islamist government. The choice must rest entirely in Egyptians' hands."
There are no easy answers for Egypt, an expert tells us in an interview during the course of the changes taking place in this critical area of the Middle East. Her introductory statement declares, however, that Egypt's citizens must set their own course in relationship to their government. She follows it by saying, " A constitution which guarantees equal rights for all minorities, in advance of the election, is necessary.”
The Middle Eastern Studies Department at Portland State University has been teaching students for many years about the Arab countries. It has helped prepare students for advance studies in the region or for various careers in government. For other students, it has facilitated understanding of the history and politics in a region the Department years ago envisioned would become a growing area of interest in the world.
A young female journalism student once studied in the Middle Eastern Studies Department fifty years ago. The perspective on the world given by professors who specialized in teaching about the Middle East became valuable in journalism, education and counseling careers, where multicultural understanding has been essential. Against this background, as that student of long ago, I recently interviewed one of the professors at Portland State University to obtain her insights on the uprising in Egypt.
Lindsay J. Benstead, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, and expert in Middle East Studies, tells us, as quoted above at the outset, that support of autocratic governments simply because they are not Islamic has been a poor direction for American policy.
This question and answer exchange gives Professor Benstead’s observations on the events still unfolding in Egypt:
Q:. Given the background of history of the Middle East, is Egypt unique in its political movements presently and if so, how?
A: No, Egypt is not unique in most respects. The demographic and economic conditions there are similar to in those Arab countries which do not have large oil earnings and small population. However, authoritarianism, albeit with differing levels of political liberalization, is a constant across the Arab world. It is because of flawed elections and political corruption that all regimes will be increasingly pressured to reform.
Q: What do you predict might be the eventual outcome of the rebellions taking place in the Middle East?
A: It is very difficult to say what the outcome will be. Some political scientists believe that Islamist parties, like all parties, will moderate as a consequence of participating in the political process. For them, the result will be a democratic Egypt with a moderate, Muslim-oriented government. Muslim-oriented means that the values and beliefs of Islam inform the policy of the state, but the legal framework is not one of sharia law. Others see a possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood will win a majority and implement sharia law, which is a central pillar of its platform. This platform could deny minorities equal citizenship rights or lead to laws such as jail or the death penalty for apostasy, as exist in some countries with sharia law. At some point, the Muslim Brothers are likely to have a strong showing in the election--perhaps even in the first election--and it will be up to the Egyptian military to decide how to handle their win. Recall that the Islamic Salvation Front won the first free and fair election in the Arab world, which took place in 1990 in Algeria, and the military canceled the election. The result was a decade-long civil war, which we all hope will not happen in Egypt.
Q: From your perspective, how do you see the present movements impacting relations with the United States and other Western powers?
A: If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, this will affect Egypt's relations with the US because the Egyptian government will oppose US support of the status quo in Israel. The Egyptian government may also wish to open the border between Gaza and Egypt and this will affect Israel's security. But, I must underscore, that we do not know what the new government's policy would be toward Israel. We can be reasonably confident that any new government will want to maintain stability and may even contribute constructively to building peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Q: How can Americans help to foster among themselves a better understanding of the Middle East and its factions so as not to consider all of them with the same broad brush as terrorists?
A: The best way is to keep in mind that there is great diversity in the Muslim world in terms of culture, lifestyle, values, and beliefs. People are more or less the same everywhere--same needs, desires, hopes, and dreams.
Q: How does your program and classes help to meet the needs of educating Americans on the Middle East?
A: Each member of our program's faculty has a different disciplinary and personal background. Speaking for myself, I try to introduce new material to students with the goal of getting them interested in lifelong learning on the subject. I find that many students do not have a basic understanding of the countries in the region and so, at least in introductory courses, I try to help foster basic knowledge of the history and politics of the region.
Egypt’s prominence in the world, its geographical location, and its influence on its neighbors raises concerns for what might occur as a response to the present rebellion. The perspective of experts, like Professor Benstead, allows us to see the wide range of possibilities that might occur. These possibilities present a challenge for U.S. policy towards the governments of the Middle East, as she tells us, as they continue to grow and change in citizen response to concerns about their future.