Erlick offers experience with Arab Spring coverage last Thurs.

By Tom Relihan

Renowned freelance journalist Reese Erlich offered his experience covering recent and ongoing Arab Spring revolts and discussed the ethics of U.S. intervention at a panel discussion in the Cape Cod Lounge at the University of Massachusetts last Thursday.

Sponsored by the political science and communications departments of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the panel,  “The Arab Spring: Year Two,” featured a series of 15-minute presentations by Erlich and professors Sayres Rudy and Omar Dahi of Hampshire College, Gregory White of Smith College and Vijay Prashad of Trinity College.

Erlich has been practicing investigative journalism for over four decades and regularly reports for various news organizations including National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Christian Science Monitor.

In 2003, he wrote a piece about the use of depleted uranium ammunition by the United States military that was later voted the eighth most censored article of the year by Sonoma State University’s Project Censored.

Just a week and a half ago, he was in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia – the city where a street vendor’s self-immolation served as a major catalyst for the series of popular uprisings that swept the region and overthrew a number of Middle Eastern governments last year.

There, he spoke with activists who were protesting against high unemployment rates and the relatively small amount of change they’d seen in their lives since the toppling of the Ben Ali regime.

Erlich also spent time in Syria last October, where he said the situation is dire because of an unrelenting government. He said the Assad regime does have a certain amount of popular support because they’ve managed to convince a portion of the population that terrorist Islamic extremists are trying to take over their country.

He warned against believing reports that the people of Syria are rising up to have a pro-U.S. regime.

“It’s not true. It isn’t true anywhere in the Middle East,” said Erlich. “I always make a point of talking to as many ordinary people as I can when it’s possible, and the overwhelming sentiment in Syria is against the government and against foreign intervention.”

He said while there is tremendous violence occurring in Syria today, the solution is not foreign intervention.

“U.S. military intervention always, and in all cases, makes it worse, and if we don’t want to see another Libya, another failed state, the best thing the U.S. can do is stay out of Syria, and let the people of that country resolve it for themselves,” said Erlich.

Erlich compared the uprisings in the Arab world to the Occupy movement in the U.S.

“The movements, while they’re not the same, have a certain similarity. It’s young people, in many cases college educated people, who can’t find jobs and who are protesting the injustice of the economic system,” said Erlich, “It’s really changed the political dialogue in this country, and in the Arab world it changed the regime.”

Dahi spoke about his time in Syria and interpreted the revolts through the various “slogans,” as he stated, he observed the protesters using.

The first such “slogan” was “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated,” which he said was a response to the repressive police state apparatus that many Syrians believed was robbing them of their dignity. It was first raised in Damascus, following the police beating of a taxi driver.

Other slogans attacked economic inequality and the perceived empty rhetoric of the government that it is anti-imperialist. These included phrases such as “Every day a new thief, these people have robbed my brothers and my cousins,” and “Down with he who sold the Golan.”

He said military intervention would be a disaster for Syria because there would be a physical cost to the country and such an act would severely disrupt the fabric of society.

White, said he has grown tired of the notion of the Arab Spring, stating it defies generalization and that the problems are global, not specific to the region.

White spoke on how Morocco has managed to avoid the discontent and uprisings that have occurred in the rest of the region.

“Morocco has somehow managed to dodge the revolutionary bullet,” said White. “It’s touted as a success and an exception.”

He said he considers that situation as more of a paradox than an exception.

“If any country is ripe for a rebellion, an upheaval, it would be Morocco. In terms of a wide array of economic and social indicators, the average Moroccan is far worse off than, say, a Tunisian. And yet, Morocco has managed to avoid this,” said White.

He attributed this to the fact that Morocco receives a large amount of support from the European Union and the U.S., and that the country has a close relationship with North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO].

Prashad focused on the situation in Libya, which is the topic of his most recent book, “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.”

He questioned the necessity of NATOs involvement in the conflict under the premise of an impending genocide and the exportability of what has become known as the ‘Libyan Model.’

“The ‘Libyan Model’ is a fantasy. It suggests that if you are a beleaguered opposition that can claim to be under grievous attack from a government, you can then call Brussels and NATO is going to send it’s planes to keep the air clear for you, and you are going to get arms from the French and they’re going to help you overthrow your tyrant.” said Prashad, “That is essentially the Libyan model.”

He said the problem with the ‘Libyan Model’ is that it was for Libya and is not necessarily exportable to places like Syria.

“It will be precisely the greatest hindrance to freedom for the Syrian people,” Prashad said. “And the price for that is going to be paid in Syrian blood while the check was written by us.”

Tom Relihan can be reached at [email protected].