Historian Reflects on Arab Uprisings
“Lockman was one of several top historians nominated for the Pflaum honor by faculty members in the department,” explained History Department Chair Matthew Pinsker. The History Majors Committee selected Lockman for the 2011-2012 Pflaum Lecture. “We were thrilled to have Zachary Lockman on campus,” Pinsker commented, a former student of Lockman’s.
Lockman’s lecture, entitled “The Arab Uprisings: Burdens of the Past, Hopes for the Future,” opened by discussing Middle East exceptionalism. This notion was the preexisting idea that before the Arab Uprisings the world largely saw the Middle East as immune to democracy and as a region characterized by hereditary regimes.
Lockman went on to explain his choice of using “Arab Uprisings” as opposed to “Arab Spring.” “In the Arab world, people don’t generally use that term,” Lockman said, referring to “Spring.” Instead he stated, they use “revolution,” undermining the notion of the region’s exceptionalism. “Their main slogan would soon echo throughout the world,” said Lockman, referring to the widespread revolutionary phrase, “the people want the fall of the regime.”
After providing some of the history of regimes in the Middle East leading up to the Arab Uprisings, Lockman transitioned to the beginning of the movement, starting with Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi.
History Major Becca Solnit ’12 commented that she was impressed with Lockman’s account of the evolution of the Arab Uprisings and lead-in with Bouazizi. “According to Lockman, Bouazizi’s single act of self-immolation was the spark that set first Tunisia and then other Middle Easter countries ablaze with revolution,” Solnit said. “As a history major, these are the moments and individuals I want to give a voice to, and Professor Lockman did just that.”
Professor David Commins who specializes in Middle Eastern history, commented on the strengths of looking at the Arab Uprisings from a historical perspective. “I thought the lecture excelled at putting the protests in Tunisia and Egypt in a deeper historical context,” Commins said. “Such a perspective is important for understanding the uprisings of 2010-11 are not merely the upshot of new communications technologies and media but part of a long history of political struggles between authoritarian governments and citizens,” Commins added. Lockman concluded the lecture, before going into a question and answer section, by explaining that what happens in the Middle East will not stay insulated. “What happens beyond our borders doesn’t stay beyond our borders,” he said.
In an interview, Lockman expressed concern and skepticism over what will happen in the region in the future. Speaking on Egypt, Lockman noted, “how it will unfold, remains to be seen.” The constitution, Lockman said, will have to be written in just a couple of weeks. Additionally, Islamists have campaigned on the slogan, “Islam is the solution,” but Lockman thinks they will no longer be able to rely on this. Lockman said the Islamists need to communicate what Islam has to say about economic policy and other crucial decisions for the state of Egypt.
On the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Lockman said he had been hopeful, but that he has not seen any drastic breaks with tradition. “Obama started out talking a good game,” with his 2009 speech in Cairo. As far as Syria is concerned, Lockman said, “I think outside intervention would make it worse.” However, Lockman cited American involvement in Libya as a reason the U.S. might not be able to keep out of Syria. He believes though that it is “likely to grind on until something cracks.”
On the whole, Lockman’s grounding in history came through from his visit at Dickinson. “As a historian, though, I try to take a long term view. These countries are in a process that will be long, drawn out, and messy.” While Lockman was careful to mention throughout his lecture key distinctions between the revolutions occurring in different countries, referring to the region in general, he said, “I think there’s still room for perhaps and maybe cautious optimism.”