Edinburgh Book Festival: The Middle East Now

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No subject could be more topical than looking at the Middle East today and all the problems that it faces. No surprise then that this event, which was supported by Baillie Gifford, was a sell-out.

Chairman Salim Tamari introduced the three panellists, Professor Khaled Fahmy, of the American University in Cairo; the author and Channel 4 broadcaster Ramita Navai who presented the award-winning series, 'Unreported World' from some thirty different countries and Dawn Chally from the Centre for Research on Displacement and Dispossession.

Salim Tamari asked each of the panellists to give a brief statement before opening the floor to general questions.

Khaled Fahmy started this by giving the focus of the 'Arab Spring' as it affected Egypt and Cairo in particular. He said that all the talk about Human Rights seems pointless when events, such as the uprising in central Cairo, which left some eight hundred dead was far worse than what we saw on Tiananmen Square. It was then that the 'Arab Spring' became the 'Arab Nightmare'.

Fahmy posed the question of how do we deal with this historically: was this the start, or were the seeds of unrest and dissatisfaction sown very much earlier?

He claimed that in reality the unrest that spilled on to the streets of Egypt actually started at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so what we saw last year was a demonstration by a massive number of Egyptians who were trying to curb the power of the state which has dictated life in Egypt for the past three hundred years. Now Egypt again has the problem of how it extracts itself from the control of the Army while trying to maintain a peaceful situation across the country.

Ramita Navai spoke of the resentment against Iran where the west has been forced into approaches to and talks with President Hassan Rouhani, the more moderate successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who ruled the country from his election in 2005 and then on to 2013, after the elections in 2009 where he claimed to have received over 62% of the votes.

Navai spoke of many people having been disillusioned and disengaged from politics during this period. This feeling had grown over the years of the previous administration, however, there was now a change of feeling with many becoming concerned about what information the west was receiving, however, any intervention by the west over the nuclear issue was seen as a non-starter.

Dawn Chally talked of the situation in Kurdistan where huge numbers of refugees had fled due to the violence. She spoke of some nine and a half million people being displaced. Huge difficulties have been created for the neighbouring states who have had to take on the care of all these refugees. Probably the most endangered group at the moment are the Christians who have been the subject of threats and violence. Also sorting out who are genuine refugees and who may be closet jihadists can be difficult.

In questions the panel were asked about the position of Jordan and the feeling was that Jordan would stand firm and resist the external pressures.

On Iran there was a question on how far the hard-liners had been pushed to one side. In this case it was felt that a strong group still remain, but for the present there has been a resurgence of 'Civil Society' and although not totally out of the picture the hard-liners currently do not have much power.

Turning to Syria, Dawn Chally was asked if she felt there was any evidence on the ground of sectarian cooperation? Her feeling was that the ongoing ISIS movement had run its course for the moment and she did not feel that an IS will be set up and be the outcome. She did not feel they would be allowed to take control of the states involved.

Lastly the panel was asked, what might encourage democracy? Fahmy said it was interesting to contrast how independent the west professed to be now when compared to the historical position. He felt that the best that could be done now was to lead by example.

Dawn Chally felt we needed to consider what we mean by 'democracy' as the west has not been good at supporting democracy in the past.

Salim Tamari as Chairman brought the session to a close by commenting that it was clear that the region was in a huge state of flux and nations had to watch and react with great care in these difficult circumstances.

It was a fascinating discussion with four experts on the area.