Professors Face Off: Hot Topics Debate

David Conley/New University

Over a hundred students gathered in Engineering Hall to witness political science Professors Mark Petracca and William Schonfeld debate the prospect of democracy in the Middle East on April 20, at the second Hot Topics Debate this year. The event was hosted by the School of Social Sciences Dean’s Ambassadors Council.

Every year, the Council hosts academic events such as the Hot Topics debate to create a place for respectful and peaceful examination of some of the most heated and controversial issues affecting society. This is the ninth debate that has taken place since 2007.

Professors Schonfeld and Petracca debated whether the current protests in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Bahrain have potential to transform the current autocratic regimes of the Middle East into viable democratic governments.

With cautious optimism, Petracca presented five reasons as evidence for the potential of change in what has been called the “Arab Spring.” He began with the notion that democracy is a universal value and it enjoys broad popular support from people in the Middle East, pointing to the 2009 World’s Value Survey that illustrates between 80 to 90 percent of people in the Middle East that want their countries to be ruled by democratic means. In addition, Petracca refuted claims of Islam or Arab culture inhibiting the progress of democratization in the Middle East and pointed, rather, to the vulnerability of autocratic regimes.

“The principle factor responsible for the vulnerability of these regimes is the rapid growth of new communication technologies,” Petracca said, “without the Internet, the corruption [in Tunisia] would not have claimed public opinion the way it did leading to the sudden outrage following the death of Mohammad Bouazizi [the Tunisian vegetable salesman who set himself on fire after his cart was confiscated by the government on Dec. 17, 2010].”

Schonfeld’s approach toward the negation of democratization in the Middle East drew upon examples from history. He argued that after most revolutions and uprisings, countries end up with even more oppressive regimes, most notably the 18th century French Revolution, which lead to the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the rise of Stalin in Russia after the fall of the Czar in the Russian Revolution.

Though prospects of democracy in the Middle East are possible, argued Schonfeld, they are highly unlikely to occur because of the history of the region. He continued to give examples from the 1980s uprisings in Algeria and Tunisia that have lead to the takeover of militant Islamic parties and the civil war of 2000.

“Let us look at history for what actually happens,” Schonfeld said, “not for what we might wish would happen.”

In his rebuttal, Petracca conceded that democracy is a form of government that is fragile but was happy to defend the position that it is “likely” to occur in the Middle East. He stated counter examples to Schonfeld’s historical instances of failed revolutions, including Eastern European former Soviet Satellites, which became democratic without the use of violence.

In response, Schonfeld adopted a more philosophical approach, explaining that though people in the Middle East aspire to adopt democratic ideals, the likelihood of that happening in the near future is slim.

“I want to be 25 years old, better looking than Brad Pitt and smarter than Albert Einstein,” Schonfeld joked. “I genuinely want those things but that doesn’t get me anywhere. The aspirations for democracy are of the same order.”

The professor concluded his remarks with evidence from recent elections held in Egypt regarding a referendum of the constitution. Seventy-seven percent of the country has voted in favor of the referendum, supported by the two most established political parties, the National Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, neither of which are ideal foundations for the establishment of democracy in the country.

After the presentations, audience members were given the opportunity to question both stances. Many asked whether the presence of oil in the Middle East had delayed the progress of democracy in the region, and whether a U.S. military presence was needed in order for democracy to be enforced. Both sides conceded that oil definitely plays a major role in the region and that the U.S. should not intervene in the Middle East.

“American engagement increases the likelihood of animosity in a country,” Petracca said. “Cheerleading and news coverage is great but as far as boots on the ground, the U.S. should definitely stay out of it.”

Michael Merchant, a fourth-year informatics major who came to view the debate as part of an extra credit assignment for a class, asked what was lacking in the Middle East if these countries could not achieve some form of democracy.

“Typically a society with a large middle class and small elite is needed,” Schonfeld concluded, adding that a separation between religion and government is also a necessary component.

Though there was not a clear victor, Saba Basria, a third-year international studies major and academic programs chair on the Dean’s Ambassadors Council made it clear that having a winner is hardly the point of these debates.

“The purpose of these debates is to stimulate thought and discussion about some of the most important issues of our time,” said Professor Wayne Sandholtz of the political science department who also functioned as the moderator for the debate. “It is never about having a clear winner, rather, we hope people come out of the event with a better understanding and awareness of the issue at hand.”

Established in 2001 as a student lead initiative, the Dean’s Ambassadors Council’s mission is to address the issues of concern at the school, national and global levels and to promote networking between faculty and students at UCI.

The Dean’s Ambassadors Council has organized many services and projects including Global Connect and the Baghdad School Project.