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UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2011

ToreroNews 

Summer 2011by Nathan Dinsdale

Revolutionary Road

USD professors give insight on the Arab Spring

It’s been a while since Avi Spiegel crossed paths with a razor. The burgeoning stubble on his face is threatening to break out into a beard at any moment. His brisk gait barely slows as he unlocks his office door and jettisons an armful of documents onto the desk in one deft motion.

“It’s been a hectic last few months,” Spiegel says with an apologetic grin. “Which you can probably tell by looking at my office.”

Moving boxes stacked on the floor are half-empty. The walls are bare except for unadorned picture hooks. Only the desk — overflowing with papers, folders, books and an Apple laptop — bears any sign of active habitation.

Spiegel has had more pressing matters to consider. He did, after all, begin teaching a USD course called “Politics in the Middle East” precisely when conventional sociopolitical wisdom about the region took an abrupt detour out the window.

“The entire class was set up around the question of why authoritarianism is so durable and democracy so elusive in the Middle East,” Spiegel points out. “That’s one of the core questions that scholars have been looking at for years. Which is why this is such a pivotal moment.”

The groundswell of revolutionary fervor started in Tunisia, then quickly gripped Egypt and continued to spread during this so-called Arab Spring throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In a matter of days, countries that barely registered on the global radar were thrust into the spotlight.

“It’s exhilarating, there’s no doubt about it,” says Necla Tschirgi. “When you see a situation that’s basically been frozen in time change so dramatically, it’s certainly a momentous period in history.”

The seismic shift in geopolitics just happened to coincide with the arrival of two professors at USD — Spiegel and Tschirgi — whose academic expertise is steeped with years of experience in the region. Given their grassroots experience, neither professor was surprised about the underlying causes of the widespread insurrection against long-standing authoritarian regimes known for the often-brutal subjugation of their citizenries.

“It was entirely predictable,” Tschirgi says, “and yet nobody saw it coming.”

What shocked Middle East scholars and foreign policy experts was how suddenly governments either disintegrated or were severely shaken given the iron-fisted leadership of rulers like Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

“It’s not just that these leaders fell but how quickly it happened,” Spiegel says. “To see these regimes that were so firmly entrenched collapse basically overnight — and by young people literally marching themselves free of authoritarianism in a matter of weeks — is unbelievable.”

That tangible immediacy — along with the use of technologies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — has translated into a surge of enthusiasm within USD classrooms. “I’ve never seen students more interested, more engaged, more captivated,” Spiegel says. “As a professor, you can’t ask for anything more.”

In the days, weeks and months since the Arab Spring first began, Tschirgi and Spiegel have been called upon repeatedly to provide commentary and analysis. It’s a task for which both are uniquely qualified.

Tschirgi, a native of Turkey, studied political science at the American University of Beirut, taught at the American University of Cairo and has worked for organizations like the International Peace Academy and the Peacebuilding Support Office at the United Nations.

Spiegel, who is fluent in Arabic, has spent years conducting research (including for his PhD dissertation at Oxford) into the changing dynamics of young Islamist movements throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

“I’ve been listening to — and focusing on the mobilizing potential of — young people on the ground in the Middle East for a long time,” Spiegel says. “A lot of the signs and rhetoric coming from the protestors were very familiar to me. Still, I think all of us are still trying to make sense of why it happened, why so quickly, why now and what it means for the future.”

Spiegel is in a unique position to provide answers with his up-coming book, The Next Islamist Generation: Religion, Politics and the Future of the Middle East. And as this chapter in Middle East history continues to unfold—with particular uncertainty surrounding Libya, Syria and the repercussions of Osama bin Laden’s demise — there is an opportunity for academics like Spiegel and Tschirgi to provide intellectual context going forward.

“This is really the moment for academics and scholars to contribute to ongoing policy debates,” Spiegel says. “The endings of these revolutions have not yet been written.”