Liveblogging Jane's political salon: Charlie Kurzman on Arab spring

Charlie Kurzman is our guest tonight. Got questions? Drop off here or email them to me.

Five main points

All of this is my personal interpretation of what Charlie is saying. Typing fast.

This Arab spring business is a giant surprise. This kind of movement is inherently unpredictable. Revolutions are inherently unpredictable. Suddenly the thing that is unthinkable become thinkable. An unknown person in an unknown town in Tunisia self-immolated. And then it began.

There is, however, precedent. This is not the first time we have had anti-authoritarian resistance in the Middle East. One hundred years ago it happened, including in Egypt (1909).

Liberal Islam is a major movement. This movement has gotten stronger in recent years, and has attracted grass roots support in many countries. This is a pro-democracy movement, though there are some fundamental differences as it relates to rights (women, sexuality, etc., socially conservative and politically liberal). Sort of like here in North Carolina with our own Tarheel Taliban (my editorial comment).

There is a fear of the rise of terrorism, a fear that is wildly exaggerated compared to the number of people actually killed by terrorism. If you take out three countries having civil wars, you discover that the level of terrorism today is less than it was in 2001. Terrorism is not and has never been a leading cause of death. The specter of a 9/11 aftermath never materialized. Support for terrorism in the Middle East goes down after a terrorist act.

This is not about the United States. We are not the center of the universe. Arab spring is populist, triggered by local and regional cues. Our only possible strategy is to try to keep up. We have no idea what is really going to happen next. More to the point, there is no way we could know.


Now talking about Egypt

There are more than 100 political parties in Egypt.

The judiciary seems to have popular trust, but may not be large enough to stay on top of things. Charlie is hopeful, but worried that the judiciary is underdeveloped as an institution, regardless of what it says on paper.

We and lots of European countries are involved in training the judiciary in other countries.

Talking now about rights versus democracy

Egypt is by no means the most liberal of the Arab countries. They are central and the have a cosmopolitan core, but Tunisia is far more liberal.

Paradox: Egypt wants Sharia law (common law), and democracy too. People have big misunderstanding of this crazy network of laws. Think common law.

We obsess over women's clothes here in the west.


In the monarchies, nobody's vote matters. In the emerging democracies, women and men have the same standing.

(I think I got this right.)

2000 deaths by violence every day

Of all those death, the dozen called "terrorism" are disproportionately amplified. Terrorists know this and a lot of their activities are designed to attract media attention.

Thanks mainstream media!

His policy advice

Listen to the people who you want to help.

Tunisia vs Egypt

I think the lack of a strong (central) government in Tunisia has allowed society more flexibility over the years, but it's often led to some pretty wild extremes.

When I was there (1983), I witnessed Europeans sunbathing topless (or totally nude), but I also witnessed a beheading in Bourguiba Square, and the talk on the street said it was for adultery.

US policy change

Whoever gets elected president, nothing will change. It didn't change from Bush to Obama. Won't change from Obama to whomever.

Re: Iran. Obama is doing what Bush did. Ratcheting up economic pressure, shutting down academic exchanges, on counter-terrorism (Guantanamo). Would a Republican be any different?

It's a wrap. Fascinating discussion.

It's really exciting to hear directly from someone who really understands this complex issue.

Thank you, Charlie.