NPR assigned correspondent Kelly McEvers to Iraq in 2010 with instructions not to miss a day ahead of the expected troop withdrawal by the end of 2011.
“Then in late 2010, a young man in Tunisia set himself on fire, and literally changed everything,” McEvers says. “At first I was watching it on TV in Baghdad, sitting there thinking, ‘Do we really have to stay in Baghdad? C’mon, you know? Put me in coach!’ asking to be sent out on the stories.”
McEvers spent the next three years based in Beirut, Lebanon, and extensively covered the uprisings across the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring.
“It’s hard to impart how absolutely momentous this was,” McEvers says. “We, even then, could see what a huge, enormous moment in history this was going to be.”
She traveled undercover to follow Arab uprisings in places where brutal crackdowns quickly followed the early euphoria of protests -- Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Earlier this year she produced a documentary about her experiences called Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma.
McEvers was joined in Oklahoma on October 2 for a panel discussion led by the host of KGOU’s World Views Suzette Grillot, the Dean of the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma. OU professors Joshua Landis, an expert on Syrian history and politics and the author of the widely-read blog Syria Comment, and Samer Shehata, a noted scholar on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, joined McEvers for the conversation.
Shehata described the Middle East still very characterized by authoritarianism that largely declined in the rest of the world in the decade following the end of the Cold War. But he says even with the continued brutality in Syria, and uncertainty over the future of Egypt, there still deserves to be hope over what the uprisings can accomplish.
“We have seen an end of an era of presidents and dictators for life, and the end of an era where people felt that authoritarianism was their fate,” Shehata says. “In Syria, what is remarkable from a social science perspective is that people are still going out into the streets and protesting, knowing that the outcome might be death.
Landis called the conventional narrative in Syria of a growth in demand for reform, a brutish government that killed people, and turned the opposition even more radical is accurate, but glosses over 30 years of intense brutality by the ruling minority Alawite government.
“The stakes are very high, because it’s become extremely sectarian, and extremely class-oriented,” Landis says. “Should they lose, there’s going to be hell to pay. It’s not just about reform. It’s about who’s going to win.
Landis says if the U.S. intervenes militarily in Syria and changes the balance of power in favor of the opposition, Alawites and many Christian minorities could become targets.
“If you don’t think there’s going to be ethnic cleansing, I think you’re foolish,” Landis says. “It’s irresponsible. If you think you’re just going to bomb it, you’re going to get a Libya, which is in total disrepair.”
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