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Ben Wedeman On The Great Arab Revolt: Tales From the Trenches

March 18, 2012

Ben Wedeman, Egypt, Arab Revolt, Miami University

I am a terrible photographer. I spend two days with Ben Wedeman, and this is the only picture I got.

Ben Wedeman, CNN’s senior international correspondent based in Cairo, Egypt, presented “The Great Arab Revolt: Tales from the Trenches”  March 14 at Miami University. He also visited classes and had lunch, dinner and a nightcap with International Studies and Journalism students.

Wedeman’s lecture focused on three key points:

First, the Arab revolts–he doesn’t like the term “Arab Spring”–had been building for a long time. Everyone who had lived and worked in the Middle East knew revolt was building but the exact form and shape these revolts took was not predictable by anyone, not even those who carried them out.

Second, the Arab revolts have taken on very different characters in different countries because the nature of the regimes was quite different in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Syria was the most disturbing in Wedeman’s account. It is a state-sponsored bloodbath now, but with strong sectarian elements; when and if the regime falls, there will be a sectarian bloodbath.

I have often complained that students who understand Spain, France and Germany to be very different places even though they are all in Europe somehow seem to imagine that all the Middle Eastern countries are the same. Talking with students who came to the talk as a course requirement, or with a friend, I was pleased to find that all had taken this point, even if some were quite surprised to learn it.

Third, what is happening in the Middle East is only the beginning of a long process, and we should be careful not to either romanticize it or be too ready to assert that it is leading to ruination.

He ended on a positive not, arguing that although there was much uncertainty and fear about what was going to happen next, there was also a hope and empowerment that was not there before. “And that’s a good thing,” he said.

Wedeman illustrated his talk at Miami University with political cartoons by Mahjoob, like this one.

In response to a student question about SCAF, he pointed out that the “army” embraced by the people during the protests was the conscript army of common soldiers and non-com officers. The SCAF is quite another matter.

The Egyptian military is primarily a business enterprise, and that the generals want to hold onto the profits they make on everything from road tolls to olive oil sales to hotels. If a compromise can be reached whereby these enterprises are left alone, they will almost certainly turn control over to a civilian government. But many civilians feel that the unaccountability and tax-free status of these enterprises must be changed, and that makes many of the generals unwilling to hand over power.

Wedeman illustrated his lecture with anecdotes from his own reporting in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and visually with political cartoons by Emad Hajjaj.

Wedeman has been following the Arab revolts almost since they began (he was in the Sudan when the Tunisia uprisings started). Wedeman led CNN’s coverage of the uprising against Egyptian President Mubarak and the unrest in the Middle East. He was the first western journalist to enter eastern Libya after the start of the revolution.

When Ben Wedeman was suggested as a Grayson-Kirk lecturer by our former ITS director Jeanne Hey, I told her “I know Ben Wedeman, and I think he’d rather face gunfire on the Libyan rebel frontier than give an address to an auditorium full of college students.” But I contacted him and was delighted that he accepted.

I was right however; he e-mailed me as he was leaving Cairo that he had butterflies in his stomach thinking about giving the talk. I told him I’d probably get butterflies trying to sneak across the Syrian border in the company of enemies of the regime–it’s just a matter of different strengths.

People always assume that I know Ben through my work on media and globalization, but that’s not true. I know Ben because our daughters took the same Suzuki violin class in Cairo, and our wives became fast friends.

I was always deeply impressed by the breadth and depth of Ben’s knowledge of the Middle East, so I was fascinated to learn as he spoke to students during his two days at Miami that he actually has been in and out of the region since he was fourteen and in a boarding school in Lebanon. His college degrees (BA and MA) are in Arabic, not journalism.

Wedeman has been a journalist in the Middle East since the early 1990s; since 1995, he’s reported for CNN from scenes of conflict and tension across the Middle East and northern Africa including Israel, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Balkans and Iraq.

Wedeman’s lecture was free and open to the public, sponsored by the International Studies program’s Grayson Kirk Distinguished Lecture Series and by the Middle East and Islamic Studies program.

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