AS TOLD TO U-T REPORTER Matthew T. Hall
Avi Spiegel, a sharp student of the Middle East, found himself in a new position in January: teaching a class on its history and politics as uprisings utterly changed both in one country after another.
Spiegel, 35, is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego.
He welcomed his first-ever class one week after Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled that nation, ending 23 years of authoritarian rule and giving protesters in nearby countries something new: hope.
I arrived in San Diego the month the Arab Spring arrived.
Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia lit himself on fire in December, and I wasn’t here, but then when President Ben Ali stepped down on Jan. 14, I was here, and it was at that point that the Arab Spring really began.
It became clear that these young people were more than just protesters. They were literally marching themselves free of authoritarianism. So it was at that point when Ben Ali fell that I threw the syllabus up in the air and said we’ve got to remake this thing.
It would be as if you’re teaching a Politics in Germany class in the fall of 1989. And I would say this to my students over and over and over again — that we’re watching history unfold before our eyes.
I wanted to try to guide the students, help them understand why authoritarianism was so durable in the Middle East and why democracy was so elusive, what was happening and how could they better understand what was happening.
What was amazing is that the events in the Middle East tended to follow the syllabus and the syllabus tended to follow events in the Middle East, so that became a joke in the class.
For example, the week that Lara Logan, the CBS News reporter, was assaulted in Cairo, we were scheduled to read about women’s rights in the class and looking at research in political science linking political stagnation in the Middle East to lapses in women’s rights.
So that was, you know, unbelievable.
And then the week that instability really started to come to Libya and oil prices were rising — this was March — we were scheduled to read about the resource curse and the theory of the rentier state, the idea that oil revenue hinders democratization.
Two months later, on the night before I was scheduled to lecture about al-Qaeda in class, the president called a news conference. I emailed my students at 6 p.m. May 1 and said turn on your TVs.
Bin Laden was dead. This was literally the week we were talking about al-Qaeda.
Students were engaged. They were able to see the news in a way that I hope other people weren’t, and really understand it not just as current events but really critically engage it the way academics are supposed to.
It was serendipitous. I mean, really. Not only that but the students were the same age as the people making the news.
History sometimes seems distant, and sometimes political science can seem distant also as you’re studying about governments and institutions and elites. But in this case we weren’t.
We were studying about young people just like them using the same technologies that
they were using. So a lot of my students would get on Facebook and check out the same sites that the protesters were using to mobilize, follow the protesters and the protest movements on Twitter.
So that was the goal: to try to bring that world home to them.
And I remember these two students leaving class and they were talking about (how) they were at a party and they met these friends and they were talking about the Middle East with them and trying to predict with them: Which leader do you think is going to fall next?
And these guys had no idea what the students were talking about. I remember they were just so dismayed that people weren’t following it as closely as they were. So for me, the idea that they were at a party thinking about this stuff, nothing better for a professor.
Initially, I had planned a textbook introduction to Middle East politics, looking at the variety of political systems and institutions and influences. Still a fascinating class, I think, because the region is fascinating. But certainly not as geared around that single overarching question that became so crucial.
This is the question that historians will be grappling with for many years to come. The question is why, at that moment, with this one man?
In my time in the Middle East, I’ve known hundreds of Mohamed Bouazizi’s, hundreds of young people, unemployed, overeducated, aggravated, feeling as if they have no future, just disgusted by the corruption, by the overarching power of the internal security forces.
I mean, this is in every country I’ve visited. I’ve known so many of these people. So why is it that this single, unlikely fruit seller in this tiny town in tiny Tunisia, why is it that he was able at that moment to spark a revolution?
In 2011, the first two months we were averaging one deposed authoritarian leader a month. We had Ben Ali in January and (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak in February.
And then who knew what was going to happen?
The whole semester was a teachable moment.
At the end of the class, I was saying to my students that building a democracy is a lot like marriage. Starting a new marriage is difficult. Repairing a broken one is sometimes even more difficult, but it’s worth it.
It didn’t end when the semester ended and it won’t end on Dec. 31, 2011. It will continue for many years.
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For more on Avi Spiegel's syllabi, see his teaching site. Homepage here