Muslim Middle Class Plays Role In Egypt Uprising

Steve Inskeep talks to author and Tufts University professor Vali Nasr for analysis of the situation in the Middle East. He addresses what role the Muslim middle class played in the uprisings and what influence they will have in Egypt and the rest of the region as it defines a "new normal."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's talk a little bit more about the economic and social factors behind the uprisings in the Arab world. We're talking with Vali Nasr. He's the author of a book called "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism," now out in paperback. It explores the Muslim middle class.

Welcome to the program.

Professor VALI NASR (Author): Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Remind us, when we talk about the Muslim middle class, who are we talking about here? What kind of people?

Prof. NASR: We're talking about the class that is emerging in the Muslim world. They constitute people who are better off, who want new opportunities, participate in the global economy, and also want the political freedoms that go with it. Those are the people who use the social media. Those are the people that are inspiring the new language of politics in the Middle East.

INSKEEP: How prominent were these capitalists or middle-class rising people in the demonstrations in Egypt?

Mr. NASR: They were very prominent. They were prominent in actually instigating it, in mobilizing it, and then defining the way in which it asked for its political demands.

INSKEEP: Wael Ghonim, the Google executive, this is the kind of person...

Mr. NASR: That's right. We see him as a youthful technological-savvy person that we can identify with. But Ghonim also represents the deep penetration of a major global multinational corporation in the form of Google into Egypt.

INSKEEP: And how widespread is this middle class in some of the other countries that have seen demonstrations in recent weeks?

Mr. NASR: It is quite an uneven scene. In other words, countries like Tunisia or Egypt have a very large middle class. In Egypt, during the last years of the Mubarak period, because of the economic reforms, it actually began to feel empowered. It is a big presence in Iran. But in countries like Bahrain and Yemen or Libya, it's not as large or as influential.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's a bitter irony here. If you're saying that Tunisia and Egypt are places where the middle class has grown very substantially -other places not so much - should we not expect too many more regimes to fall necessarily in the coming days and weeks?

Mr. NASR: No. We could expect regimes to fall. The question is what will follow regime falls. In other words, some countries are better endowed to actually make it to democracy; others have a much more difficult path ahead of them. Tunisia and Egypt were best placed for this thing to initially rear its head. But now there is a demonstration effect in place. People looking at Egypt and Tunisia are inspired.

INSKEEP: Is this new middle class friendly to the United States?

Mr. NASR: It is friendly to the global values that the United States and the West are also partaking in. In other words, it wants political freedoms, it wants economic prosperity, it wants to engage the world. So Egyptians look not to the United States or Europe necessarily as a model; they look to places like Brazil and South Korea. This class in Egypt would like to see an Egypt that is playing at that level in the global economy.

INSKEEP: Do we have to accept that if there is going to be, if in the end there's going to be democracy in Egypt and that this new middle class is among the leaders of that democracy, that things are going to happen democratically in Egypt that Americans will find uncomfortable, that women, for example, may not have the rights we would like, that religion might play a larger role in public life than we might like, that sort of thing?

Mr. NASR: Yes, absolutely. But there is ways in which to influence this. In other words, if we keep engagement with these countries, particularly economic engagement, we could keep empowering the most forward-leaning part of this society and make sure that they have a loud voice in how ultimately things shape up. I mean, we're very right now focused on the free flow of information - Twitter, Facebook, etc.

But ultimately free economics and integration of these parts of the world into the global economy are more important as to whether they end up being democracy or not than free flow of information.

INSKEEP: Are you more worried about other countries because this middle class that you're very positive about is not as large in other countries that are facing demonstrations this very week?

Mr. NASR: Absolutely. But ultimately Egypt matters most. Just as Egypt has set the tone now for the ongoing protests in the region, Egypt has set the tone for the manner in which the protestors are making their demands in a secular democracy-demanding way rather than a religious way. The outcome in Egypt will be also in the long run much more important. If Egypt succeeds to find the path to democracy, that would be huge in the Arab world.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is the author of "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism." He's also a professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. Thanks very much.

Mr. NASR: Thank you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: