Arabists address students before big move to Middle East: Expert opinion on the Arab Spring from Sumita Pahwa and Steve Negus

Posted by Brendan James

On Sept. 27 in Davis Auditorium, former Skidmore professor Sumita Pahwa and her husband, journalist Steve Negus, delivered a special lecture on the recent revolutions in the Arab world.

The couple shares an expertise in Arab politics, Pahwa through her academic research and Negus through his field reporting. Both are preparing to move to Egypt this year in order to follow the Arab Spring, the moniker for the wave of political changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

Negus, a reporter who has spent 13 years in the region, focused much of his talk on the unlikely realization of the Libyan revolution that began this February. Having covered the events in Libya on the ground for different publications including "The Economist" Negus offered students both analysis and personal testimony on the delicate success of the revolution.

"Libya defied a lot of expectations," Negus said. He reminded the audience that many experts argued only soft dictatorships like Mubarak's Egypt could undergo such an upheaval, not a more repressive regime such as Col. Qaddafi's. Negus also stressed the anticipation for a country as large as Libya to quickly descend into tribal conflict, an outcome that it has still, if tentatively, avoided.

But Negus is still as cautious as anyone when it comes to the permanent stability of the new regime. "Right now the main danger would be if enough people with enough guns did not recognize the new centralized government," he said.

Next Pahwa took to the podium and shifted focus to the heart of the Arab world, Egypt. With her background in studying the country's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, she addressed the Islamists' status following the revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in February.

After providing a background of Egypt's religious and political history and the Brotherhood's place within it, Pahwa addressed the question of the group's involvement in the Revolution. According to Pahwa, generational and political divides within the group itself caused it to lag behind most of the secular protestors despite the Brotherhood's long reputation as Egypt's only political opposition.

During the question-and-answer session, topics included the new media climate in Egypt, the timing of NATO's intervention in Libya, and new approaches toward Islamism in the Arab world – some of which borrow from trends quite familiar to those attending Skidmore.

"You have these new sorts of Salafi [traditionalist] preachers, young ones, who are called ‘Salafi hipsters.' They hang out in coffee shops and try to connect to youth through that kind of fashion and lifestyle."

The thing to watch for now, Pahwa says, is what the Islamists try to do during Egypt's transition to democracy.

"Whenever someone is writing a new set of rules for a country after a revolution, everyone stands to gain a lot and lose a lot," she said. Liberal and secular groups are just as wary of the Brotherhood as they are of the army that has currently taken the reins of the nation. Completing her thesis at Johns Hopkins University on the Brotherhood, Pahwa has more than enough to research in Egypt's new political climate.

In a time of great change, uncertainty and potential chaos, Pahwa and Negus will be settling in to their new home in Cairo, ready for it all. "We will hopefully be there to catch some of the fun," Pahwa said.

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