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Identifying the ‘engines of change’ in the Middle East

Since the Arab Spring began in late 2010, rulers in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have been ousted while other uprisings have spread throughout the Arab world — captivating the globe’s attention and forcing world leaders to determine what, if any, intervention by the international community is necessary, particularly the use of force.

On Friday, a group of renowned international affairs experts discussed these issues and many others to kick off the 4th Global Lecture Series, held at Northeastern. The first group of panelists included Denis Sullivan, director of Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development and professor of political science and international affairs; Rolf Schwarz from NATO’s Political Affairs and Security Policy Division; and Hisham Fahmy, chief executive officer of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.

International involvement has been more prevalent in some countries than others; NATO led an international coalition last year in Libya, while the Gulf Cooperation Council brokered a deal for Yemen’s president to step down. At Friday’s panel discussion, Schwarz asserted the international community bears some level of responsibility but stressed that the “engine of change” should be first and foremost domestic.

“There must a domestic bargain between what citizens want and expect from their states in terms of security, the provision of welfare and political representation,” he said.

Denise Garcia, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern, organized the day’s events with support from Gerard Loporto, LA’73, and his family. Miguel de Corral — a third-year international affairs major who worked under Schwarz on co-op last year at the NATO Defense College in Rome initiated by Garcia — moderated the morning panel. De Corral said it remains unclear whether a political renaissance characterized by democracy is occurring in the region, or whether the tumultuous period is instead leading to nuanced forms of authoritarian rule.

“All these countries are on a very difficult path to rebuilding or reforming their economic and political systems. No country in the region has been unaffected by the events of the Arab Spring,” he said.

Sullivan said a key lesson learned from post-9/11 foreign policy is that the world community must take a measured approach in the Arab world to intervention and state-building. He noted that in Baghdad, where the Arab League recently hosted its first summit in two decades, unstable conditions remain — such as violence, corruption and distrust of leadership — that exist throughout the region.

For his part, Fahmy said that in Egypt, 18 million people voted in a constitutional referendum following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. “It was exhilarating seeing people really taking this seriously,” he said. However, much progress remains in Egypt, which must now elect a president and write its constitution. Fahmy cited the 27 presidential candidates as evidence of “a new face of Egypt that we haven’t seen.”

During a Q&A session, sophomore Tara Blumstein, an international affairs and political science combined major, asked whether international intervention — even when necessary — could hinder the process of nation-building. Schwarz answered by citing that how the nation’s military responds to civilian uprisings has been a key indicator of the success of this process.

Later, an afternoon panel moderated by Valentine Moghadam, professor and director of international affairs at Northeastern, addressed key questions and focused on the use of force in international relations in the 21st century.