Over the past two weeks, Egypt has erupted in mass protests. The Committee on Global Thought hosted a panel of academic all-stars to dissect the revolutionary frenzy. Daily Editor Sameea Butt recaps “Egypt Arising” below! And if you don’t feel like reading, you watch the full lecture online.

The last several weeks have been witness to a revolution in the making, starting from protests in Tunisia to Mubarak’s resignation from his thirty-year term Friday morning. While this is sure to be a case study in history and political science for years to come, a panel met Thursday night, on the eve of the Egyptian movement’s success, to try to make sense of the recent events in the Arab world.

The lecture totally overwhelmed by popular demand—even after the doors had closed, crowds struggled to make their way through the front doors. Moderator and Columbia Sociology prof, Saskia Sassen, apologetically acknowledged the stragglers in her opening remarks as “our own protesters,” only half-jokingly noting the pattern of breakdown in regimes like Mubarak’s: “Unarmed people can contest military power. It illuminates possibilities and tells us about the conditions for change.” Over the next two hours, panelists Juan Cole, Mona El Ghobasy, Jean-Pierre Filiu and Rashid Khalidi tackled Egypt’s thorny past and uncharted future. 

Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at University of Michigan, traced the origins of the conflict back to 2008 economic downturn. He tersely rejected the oft-repeated sound-byte that this is the beginning of an Islamic caliphate, with a dismissive “no.” The audience giggled. “This is a labor movement,” he reiterated at the end, “[and] it is not noticeably about Islam. The people aren’t saying ‘Islam is the answer.’ They seem to be saying ‘a living wage [and an] end to police state’ is the answer… Secular Egyptian nationalism is at the center of this, inflected by a demand for an equitable society for workers.”As for the claim that Twitter and Facebook made this possible, Cole was fairly dimissive, “they’re nice, but not necessary.”

Barnard political science professor and recent guest on the Rachel Maddow show, Mona El Ghobashy, offered a different explanation: the cause of the revolution was not economic discontent, it was wholly political. She emphasized that these protests were directed at “the most durable authoritarian regime in the world.” Under Mubarak, the “shrewd mixture of open and closed institutions” allowed the public some semblance of participation that, when taken away, spurred them into action. What we’re seeing today, she argued, has to do with ways in which the regime has systematically closed down channels that used to exist to absorb anger. Two incidences made this manifestly obvious: the killing of an innocent young man in Alexandria by police, and the elections of 2010.

Jean Pierre Filiu also looked beyond Wall Street for an answer. Comparing modern Tunisia to Spain in 1975 (the year Franco died), Filiu argued that “from a sociological point of view, we are witnessing the catch up process” with the rest of the world. He noted that Spain was far less advanced than Tunisia today, and therefore, “the idea of [revolution] needing to be later is nonsense.” He offered a few predictions for Egypt’s future: there will be no absolute impunity for power, lifelong presidencies in Egypt are over, and that the Egyptians may adopt the Turkish model of government because “you can always blame it on the army.”

Rashid Khalidi emphasized what has happened in Egypt is the result of a revitalized Arab sphere, consisting of 300 million people who watch the news non-stop. Addressing the effects of social media, he argued as Cole did that revolutionary contagion techniques had more than adequately filled this role before, though he acknowledged that technology did magnify the effect.

Khalidi concluded that the upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia together marks a seismic shift in the structure of power in the Arab world. The regimes were, he said, was “equally evil, equally awful, [and] equally horrible to its citizens, but in different ways.” Nevertheless, he believes that although the Arab political landscape has begun to change, the people aren’t necessarily going to win. Aside from the fall of regime, the people in Tahrir Square have yet to settle on a program for the future. Indeed, much is still undecided. “One in every four Arabs lives in Egypt. The impact is going to be big in one way or another, and everybody’s watching.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons