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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Middle East expert sees turbulent times ahead

The Middle East is in for a bumpy ride.

This is the conclusion of Middle East statesman and scholar Dr. Josef Olmert, who spoke at UNC Pembroke on April 16. The brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Dr. Olmert is a resident scholar at the University of South Carolina.

Josef OlmertHis speech, titled “Religion, Sect and State in the Arab Middle East,” was attended by more than 100. He put “Arab Spring” in historical context.

“There is a fundamental lack of democratic tradition in the Arab world,” Dr. Olmert said. “At best, there was a consultative form of democracy.”

The Arab world, post-Ottoman empire, has swung to nationalism, “pan-Arabism,” dictatorship and sectarianism. The recent revolutions in the Middle East came as the result of old regimes crumbling while minority and majority groups fight for survival and control.

“The rise of dictators, like Saddam Hussein, kept the borders intact and enforced communality from above,” Dr. Olmert said. “American preferred this stability.”

Arab Spring, which was fueled by a “nothing-to-lose” mentality of impoverished and subjugated people, has unlocked a Pandora’s box of the region’s many sects. Traditional nationalities are fracturing.

“There are two Libyas. There is no Iraq anymore; there are three Iraqs - the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites,” he said.

The notion that solving the Arab-Israeli question and Palestinian statehood will fix the Middle East was made obsolete by the Arab Spring.

“The failure to establish legitimate political communities has led to a situation that has returned the nations to where they were 70 years ago,” Dr. Olmert said.

Josef OlmertDr. Olmert does not fear the rise of religious states with strict Islamic law. He believes Egypt, with its 5,000-year-old tradition of statehood and homogenous population, will overcome its political turmoil first.

“It’s a very unstable period with more to come,” Dr. Olmert said. “The best we can hope for is governments that rely on community-based consensus with the rights of minorities protected.”

On global terrorism and the threat of Iran, Dr. Olmert is more optimistic.

“I believe the sanctions the U.S. and others have seek to be working,” he said. “Their expansionist era may be losing steam.”

“Think about this,” Dr. Olmert said of terrorism. “Not one person in Israel was killed in a terrorist attack last year. Is it safer to be in Tel Aviv or Virginia Tech?”

Dr. Olmert’s visit to UNCP was coordinated by Dr. Motti Inbari, a Middle East scholar in UNCP’s Department of Philosophy and Religion.

“This lecture was a significant contribution to our programs here at UNCP, especially the Minor in Jewish and Middle Eastern Studies,” concluded Dr. Inbari.

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