Regions in Transition

Mazen Maarouf
Tuesday saw the primary focus of the day’s lectures on the pertinent issues of the Arab Spring and regional conflicts with a particular focus on Afghanistan. The opening lecture was delivered by Palestinian poet and writer Mazen Maarouf on the topical subject of the Arab Spring. Opening his lecture by addressing the origins of the Arab revolutions he began with the story of Mohamed Bouazizi the person who essentially sparked the uprisings of the Arab Spring. This story while sad demonstrated that the origins of the protest were not politically motivated and the sad case of Mr. Bouazizi was a case of local social customs. Moving on from this sad story, he outlined that the Tunisian leadership had failed to comprehend the different dynamics that existed across the country and this lack of understanding contributed to the protests. He used the lecture not to explore the actual protest too much but instead offered historical analysis of the problems leading to these protests and where the Arab world is today.
Mr. Maarouf used the example of Syria on many occasions and not only citing the problems currently engulfing the region today. He highlighted the brutal massacre of Hama in 1980 when over 30,000 people were murdered as evidence that violence has been systematic of these regimes across the Arab world for decades. He explained how Syria is an extremely delicate case due to its strategic location and military power. Moving on from this area he also outlined how Palestine was an excuse used by several of these dictatorships to gain a stranglehold on power. Their supports for the Palestinian cause allowed them retain support in spite of their brutal and corrupt ways. Using emotive and powerful examples throughout, an image of a world that needed transformation was provided. The audience struggling to comprehend some of the hideous acts that were committed by these regimes listened attentively to his every word.
Refocusing the lecture to the Gulf region, he outlined how countries such as Bahrain have formed strategic alliances with Western powers and in turn their stranglehold on power remains. Explaining how the current ruler of Bahrain has been in power positions since he was fifteen, it was outlined that he lacks the necessary knowledge to deal properly with the current problems of the country today. The personal wealth of these leaders was also explored and the statistics were as revealing as they were shocking. Each leader amassed personal fortunes, when if they had redistributed some of this wealth then as might be the case in Egypt or Tunisia they may still be in power. Concluding this fascinating lecture by claiming that the Arab world has long struggled to find a collective identity, Mr. Maarouf expressed his wish that the Arab Spring may finally being about proper change within the region and maybe stability can exist across all parts of the Arab world in the near future.
Michael DaxnerThe second lecture of the day was delivered by Michael Daxner on the fascinating subject of Afghanistan and regional conflicts. Opening the lecture by giving a historical background to Afghanistan, Mr. Daxner proceeded to provide the audience with an informed and stimulating account of Afghanistan’s long and at times complex historical situation. Explaining the how since 2003 the population of the country has risen by over 8 million and that today 50% of the population of Afghanistan is under twenty, Mr. Daxner set the scene for a country that is truly in transition. Outlining how Afghanistan is no normal case of regional conflict, he highlighted the numerous religious factions that have evolved recently. With a country of 85% Sunni and 15% Shiite, it was carefully explained to the audience that within these groups are numerous minor groups that conspire to create tensions and problems within the region today.
Moving on from these issues, Mr. Daxner addressed the neighbours to Afghanistan and the role they play in this conflict. Both Iran and Pakistan border the country and therefore, Afghanistan is not just important in terms of location but it is a key location in terms of the divide between U.S. interests and those of it enemies. Within Afghanistan local customs and traditions dominate large facets of everyday life and the recovery of the country has been stifled by these values which to an extent are not shared by the government in Kabul. Mr. Daxner who has invested large portions of his own time in various projects in the country explained that the advent of communication changed many things within the country not least the divides within society. Going through the U.S. invasion, he lamented the lack of a clear vision for this intervention and the results are clear for al to se today. Citing the lack of state building as the primary mistake made by the Bush administration, he argued passionately that if state building had occurred then the current situation may not be as it is today.
Nearing the end of what was undoubtedly one of the best lectures of the two week event; Mr. Daxner outlined both external and internal scenarios for the future of Afghanistan. The majority of these scenarios painted a predominately bleak picture of the future prospects of the region and left the audience captivated as to how conflicts such as Afghanistan can truly be tackled. The term failed state was mentioned on a couple of occasions and it was discussed by both Mr. Daxner and the audience whether this was Afghanistan’s fate. Answering such a question would be difficult at any period but judging the situation within the country today, many within the crowd felt strongly that Afghanistan now resembled a failed state. Concluding his lecture by opening the floor to questions, Mr. Daxner observed that cases such as this will soon be forgotten by the majority of the world’s population. He used the pertinent example of Somalia as a case of where Afghanistan may be headed, he emphasised his wish that this would not be the case but judging on past examples this may ultimately be the fate that befalls Afghanistan. Earning what was undoubtedly the best reception of any expert at this year’s VSS; Mr. Daxner thanked all for their time and promised to return to the school again.