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Liberty and the Arab Spring

Michael Ignatieff, Ramin Jahanbegloo share their insights

Massey College's Michael Ignatieff (left) and Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo of political science (right) discuss the Arab Spring with moderator Mark Kingwell. (Photo by Matthew D.H. Gray)

What would Isaiah Berlin have said about the Arab Spring?

This question was the springboard for Liberty and the Arab Spring, an event held Sept. 22 and co-sponsored by U of T’s Department of Political Science and PEN Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue series.

The event featured Ramin Jahanbegloo, a professor of political science, and Michael Ignatieff, the former Liberal leader who is now a senior resident at Massey College, discussing recent events in the Middle East from the perspective of political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, a man both scholars have written about and knew personally.

However, the sold-out crowd at the George Ignatieff theatre was treated to a much broader discussion.

Overall, the discussion – moderated by Professor Mark Kingwell of philosophy -- brought to the fore the complexity of the Arab Spring - details that get lost in a world of sound bites.  The participants drew on topics such as the western assumption that the Middle East is a homogeneous society; social media’s role in the revolution; what happens next and what the Arab Spring can teach the west about its own democracy.

The evening started with a brief introduction to Berlin and a reminder about what started the revolution: that moment last December when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian, set himself on fire after being denied the ability to eke out a living selling vegetables from his street stall.

“Shame and humiliation are historical drivers of this event,” said Ignatieff. “A person in a forgotten place has no possibility of changing his life.”

Although Ignatieff credits social media with accelerating the Arab Spring, he warned the audience that ‘likes’ on Facebook don’t amount to political organization.

“You have to defeat [these old elites] with political organization in elections,” he said. “I think the concern everybody has is that the progressive, youthful voices won’t be able to consolidate the revolution.”

For the revolution to take hold in the Middle East, the civic actors involved will have to become politically engaged, organizing their democracy and defining their future. This future, the discussants believe, is one where the west will play only a supporting role.

Although this fragile period in the Middle East highlights the uncertainty of that region’s future, it also highlights the uncertainty of our own.

Kingwell noted that while democracy is “breaking out all over, democracy closer to home seems increasingly pathological and dysfunctional and one of the ways in which that is obviously true is the dominance of democracy by the moneyed interests.”

Considering the tenuous nature of the economy, is it possible western democracies are experiencing their own shame and humiliation, albeit a less violent one? Is the decline of political engagement in the west a sign of helplessness?

“Economic progress is dependent on equality of opportunity, and Berlin was a very strong egalitarian in that sense,” said Ignatieff.

Jahanbegloo added that Berlin would see the lack of civic engagement as a betrayal of freedom.

“The betrayal of freedom is not only through authoritarian regimes,” he said.

“What the Arab Spring teaches us is, although we have democracies in the west, we need to democratize those democracies. And the only way to do that is through civic intervention. The financial crisis that is still going on, pushing people toward poverty,  it’s mainly because we are talking about the failure of liberal states that somehow betrayed their own principles,” said Jahanbegloo.