When uprisings began steamrolling through Arab countries about one year ago, revolutionaries saw the opportunity to transform the region’s politics and society.
But the excitement from Tahrir Square has reverberated halfway around the world to create another kind of opportunity for policy experts and scholars studying the region: to re-engage students and the public in Middle Eastern affairs.
“If you go back a couple years [before the Arab Spring], there was a certain sense of repetition – boredom – the same issues being discussed again and again and again,” Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs and director of GW’s Institute for Middle East Studies, said. “Now there is a wider range of issues that people care about. They actually care about Tunisian domestic politics.”
Since the first spark of reform hit Tunisia in December 2010 and surged into Egypt last January, Lynch said he noticed a mobilization of related programs like the Project on Middle East Political Science – housed at GW and funded by a recent $2 million Carnegie Corporation grant – and his popular blog on ForeignPolicy.com.
His website traffic skyrocketed, media requests flurried, event crowds overflowed and the White House called him for policy advice.
All of the attention, Lynch said, gave him and his colleagues a platform to educate, and was a springboard for true experts to have a voice.
“Too often the public debate about the Middle East has been poorly served,” he said. “For a lot of the war on terror after 9/11, people who know nothing about Islam or about the region – have never lived there, don’t speak the language – were treated as experts. I think that had a really distorting effect about how Americans and American policy understood what’s going on.”
Policy experts were caught off guard by the rapid toppling of revolutionary dominoes, but they quickly looked to academics to track down trends in communication and culture that stirred the uprisings. Now, those academics are putting more pieces together – from the cause of continued bloodshed in Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood-backed party’s recent victories in Egyptian parliamentary elections.
Lynch’s book “The Arab Uprising,” set to be released March 27, will also try to add a unique stamp to the Middle East buzz, which has yet to spawn comprehensive books on the topic. The book will focus on the interconnectedness of the region and what consequences the last year of unrest will hold.
“The questions that non-specialists and specialists are asking are, for once, not that different: ‘Why is this happening now?,’ ‘What are likely outcomes?,’” international affairs and political science professor Nathan Brown, who also works in the Institute for Middle East Studies, said.
Brown said he has been surprised by the support American students have demonstrated since the Arab Spring, as revolutionary images captivated the classroom and the country. A survey by Hart Associates last April showed that 73 percent of college students in the U.S. were following the Arab uprisings.
“This is the first time in my lifetime that a group of Middle Easterners demonstrating are seen to be the good guys in many Americans’ eyes,” Brown said.
The Arab Spring has also emphasized the Elliott School of International Affairs’ strength in Middle East studies, Lynch said. The school was listed as the ninth-best undergraduate international relations program in the country by researchers at the College of William and Mary Jan. 3, which cited the school’s number of experts in the region.
Sophomore international affairs major Marielle Velander is taking Lynch’s Middle East survey class this semester – the first undergraduate course he has taught since the Arab Spring began.
“You get a sense that all eyes are turned on the Middle East and, by focusing on the Middle East, you’re able to understand what is going on in the news. I’ll feel like I understand it on a deeper level,” she said.
As questions linger, Lynch hopes to use the uncertainty as a learning tool, leaving his syllabus open for the potential of breaking news in the region.
“People can tell that they’re living through world historical times,” Lynch said. “It’s nice that you don’t know how it ends.”