Insight with Jeremy Bowen: The Arab uprisings

November 15, 2012

By Anna Reitman

Jeremy Bowen

Coming straight from a day of reporting on the latest unrest between Israel and Gaza, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen was at the Frontline Club on 14 November to discuss the historic events that have reshaped the Middle East. He reflected on their political context, history and the evolving landscape as documented in his new book, The Arab uprisings: The people want the fall of the regime.

Joined by Samir Farah of BBC Arabic, Bowen noted that, in retrospect, even people who had intimate knowledge of the region were naïve as the events unfolded. When leaving for Egypt as things began, Bowen thought he would be back in three days and packed as many shirts. As it turned out, he would be gone for over a month and spent much of the past two years documenting the aftermath.

“The thing which actually makes me feel OK about the fact that I didn’t see it coming is that Mubarak did not see it coming, Assad didn’t see it coming, MI6, and CIA didn’t and actually looking back on it, we should have seen it coming. People knew that some change was pending,” he said.

Both Farah and Bowen also dispelled some of the myths arising from the desperate act of suicide on December 17 2010 in Tunisia, when Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself after being prevented from selling vegetables on the street. The tragedy is widely regarded as a catalyst, along with food inflation, drought, shifting demographics and other macro and socioeconomic realities, not just for the removal of the country’s president but also for the spread of unrest.

“Early on in Tunisia, there were reports saying that [Bouazizi] was a university graduate who had to sell vegetables because he couldn’t get a job and university graduates identified with that. Actually he wasn’t, he hadn’t even finished high school …[but] he was supporting his family from a young age and he just became an archetype which people could identify with and that was the thing in the end that made it happen,” he said.

Bowen also cautioned against oversimplification, not only of the diverse cultures and regions in the present day, but also in drawing parallels to other historic events. As it developed, the situation at first seemed reminiscent of Eastern Europe. Describing it as the “Arab Spring” references the Prague Spring and by extension the dominoes falling in the former Soviet Union in 1989. There was an expectation that by the summer of 2011 there would be a whole new Middle East. Not so, Bowen pointed out:

“It is going to be a generation-long process of change as we are seeing in Syria and we would have seen in Libya had there not been foreign intervention,”

Meanwhile, democracy in Egypt is still in its infancy:

“I have [heard] pious Muslims … say that [what the] Muslim Brotherhood [needs to do is not teach them] how to pray … they need to provide jobs, better healthcare, end corruption, make things efficient otherwise [they] might have to vote for somebody else,” he said, adding also that since the revolution, the amount of anti-Western feeling is increasing exponentially.

Audience questions leaned towards predicting what would happen next, particularly about the continuing devastation of the civil war in Syria and as Israel and Gaza began heating up in a dramatically altered Middle East.

“I think Syria is headed for a deepening war … some kind of sectarian fragmentation and going through the sort of horrendous experience that Lebanon went through in its 15-year civil war with the capacity too, to destabilise other parts of the region, you are already seeing it in Beirut … Turkey, in Iraq,” he said, adding that Israel is conducting an operation in Gaza now in a different world than that of Cast Lead.

Also looking to the future, Farah noted that amid the uncertainty one thing is for sure; Big change is coming.

“The Middle East will never be the same,” he said.

Watch the full discussion here: