Middle East conflict prompts overcrowded panel assembly

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The current upheaval in the Middle East — whether it be the move toward democracy in Tunisia or the ongoing revolution in Egypt — has sparked a discussion in the UT community. A group of about 150 UT community members met Thursday at the LBJ School of Public Affairs to explain what twhe revolt could mean to the future of the region. Four panelists representing different nations and ideologies shared perspectives on what many are already calling one of the most significant political events of the century. Tunisian national Ikram Toumi, a radio-television-film doctoral candidate, offered humor and hope as she shared her experiences as a young Tunisian. “Please don’t mistake my shivering for nervousness,” Toumi said at the beginning of her speech. “I’m just cold. I’m used to speaking in front of big crowds, and I’m used to revolution.” Other panelists included government professor Clement Henry, an expert on Middle Eastern and North African politics; Nahed AbdelRahman, a public affairs master’s student and Egyptian national; and Kamran Hooshman, a media studies graduate student. As Egypt’s political climate continues to shift, interested parties must engage in productive dialogue, said UT alumna Anna Melvin. “It was great for the crowd to get a recount of what has been brewing for some time now,” Melvin said. “The truth is, nobody knows how it will unfold.” AbdelRahman’s speech echoed this as she spoke about the violence that has erupted in the past two days in what started as a largely peaceful protest to demand democracy in Egypt. “I think the picture is really clear for people all over the world,” she said. “Democracy for all nations is important — it is a human right that everyone in the world should have. The Egyptians deserve for the world to know that they are working for reform and justice in all fields.” Rebecca Hopkins, a public affairs and Middle Eastern studies graduate student, moderated the panel. She and Farrah Farley, a global policy studies graduate student, said they wanted to put together a forum on the protests in Egypt as soon as they heard about them. “We were frantically searching Facebook and Twitter, reading our friends’ and families’ updates regarding the uprising on Jan. 25,” Farley said. “That’s when Rebecca turned to me and said, ‘We have to do something about this. Will you help?’ She was like the voice of reason, and all I could say was ‘Oh my god, yes.’” The two set out to organize what they thought would be an intimate discussion of 40 LBJ students. But when they gained sponsorship from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, LaamBaaJim, the Graduate Public Affairs Council and the LBJ Arabic Club, the event grew. Even after the upgrade from a classroom to the Bass Lecture Hall, people spilled into the aisles. “The call for a forum where people could get a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the region was huge,” Hopkins said.