Bringing Egypt Close to Home

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

Image provided via Twitter: http://twitter.com/abo_mazen

The world has been spellbound by the protests in Egypt that have led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Currently, the Egyptian military is in control of the government and this leaves many in the US wondering what the future holds for Egyptians hungry for democracy. Because of how quickly Mubarak’s rule was toppled, there is a palpable sense of euphoria surrounding the events in Egypt. Many observers are wondering if this euphoria is premature, though. What do these events mean for the stability of the Middle East? Will this bring a wave of democracy to Egypt that will spread to the rest of the Middle East?  Or will the military in Egypt maintain the autocratic status quo or establish a theocratic regime?

Many political analysts are conjecturing that it was the recent overthrow of the ruler in Tunisia that inspired Egyptians to join together in mass protest against Mubarak’s rule. As if we need more proof of how globalized and interconnected the world is, here we have events in one country affecting the political landscape of another country. Of course this is nothing new, but what is intriguing to me is how quickly these events transpired. On January 14th, the president of Tunisia was forced to flee the country. On January 25th, citizens began protesting in Egypt. And on February 11th, Mubarak relinquished power to the military. The government in Egypt was overthrown in eighteen days.

It is believed by many Egypt watchers that the speed of the regime change was aided by the use of social networking tools by protesters. Wired Magazine reported that Facebook was used by citizens to organize the protests and Twitter was used to broadcast the protests to the rest of the world. The Twitter hashtag #Jan25 was used by many – including the State Department – to track the events in Egypt. Recently, Tyler Thompson, an ADP student at FHSU, wrote an opinion piece for the ADP Blog and made the case that social networking tools were instrumental in increasing the scale and impact of the protests. This opinion can easily be challenged. Would the revolution have happened if it weren’t for Twitter and Facebook? Probably. Would it have happened as quickly? Maybe not. There is no way to know, of course, because we cannot isolate these events and understand them separate from our very networked world. However, it does beg important questions about the role of technology and social networking tools in fostering democratic societies.

This all leads me to the point of this blog post. Many students nationwide have been inspired by the revolution in Egypt and are talking about and following it. I would guess that they aren’t as clear about what this change in power means for US foreign policy given the political and strategic significance of Egypt’s former government to the US. And many more likely don’t know that Egypt is the fourth largest recipient of US foreign aid (after Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel). Egypt receives roughly $1.5 billion dollars in aid from the US. The reasons for this aid allotment are complex, and should be talked about nationwide.

Although ADP is focused nationally and on local issues concerning American democracy, events like the revolution in Egypt provide us with an opportunity to educate students about US foreign policy, our increasingly networked and interdependent world, and the ways in which international events affect local politics. Because of this, I challenge the leaders in the ADP network to engage their campus communities in discussions about the events in Egypt. Given all of the implications for US foreign policy and international politics, we cannot afford to ignore this and other world events in our efforts to educate citizens for our democracy.

Below are a list of suggested activities and resources that you might find useful as you encourage discussions about the events in Egypt as they relate to American democracy. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I hope that many in the ADP network will add to it.

Potential Activities

7 Revolutions

The 7 Revolutions initiative is focused on developing the global understanding and competency of undergraduate students. 7 Revolutions (7 Revs) studies the seven major global trends that will impact the world by 2025 – governance, conflict, economic integration, population, information, technology, and resource management. If your campus currently uses the 7 Revolutions framework to educate globally competent citizens, think about how the events in Egypt can be explained by each of the 7 Revs. For example, one commentator noted that the leaders in Egypt are in their sixties and seventies and do not use social networking tools and thus underestimated how powerful these tools could be for protesters. In this one example, we see the revolutions of governance, population and technology reflected. What other connections can you make to the 7 Revs framework? And how do each of these revolutions being enacted in Egypt compare to issues around population, technology and governance in your own community? To learn more about 7 Revs, please visit this website.

Campus Conversations

Campus dialogues and conversations are a great way to educate and engage students in current events. Below are a list of potential discussion topics.

Should the US promote democracy abroad?

One topic of conversation could be whether or not the US should involve itself in democracy building around the world. A recent Pew study found that Americans give low priority to promoting democracy around the world. Yet much of US foreign policy claims to promote democracy. What is and should be the role for the US in worldwide democracy promotion in general and in Egypt specifically?

Should the US give aid to autocratic governments if this aid will help maintain stability in contentious places such as the Middle East?

As was mentioned above, Egypt is the recipient of $1.5 billion in US aid. The Obama administration was slow to condemn Mubarak’s refusal to relinquish power. According to the US State Department, Egypt is an important strategic ally. Engage your students in a discussion about the complexities of US foreign aid to countries like Egypt. Is it always black and white? Should we only give aid to countries that are free and democratic, or should we take a larger view of global stability and help countries that will help stabilize volatile regions like the Middle East? For an analysis of US aid to Egypt, please read this article.

What lessons and insights do people think the Egyptian movement holds for the civic revitalization of the US?

Another topic of conversation could explore how the civic agency of the Egyptian protesters compares to American citizens’ sense of their own agency. This New York Times article explores the Egyptians sense of civic agency.

What was the role of eCitizenship in the Egyptian Revolution?

An interesting conversation to have with your students would explore the importance and role of social networking tools in ushering in the Revolution in Egypt. How important is the internet to democracy? How much can we truly involve ourselves in foreign events when we are using social networking tools? This New York Times article discusses the importance of people not directly affected by revolutions bearing witness to the plight of the people involved. Social networking tools make this much easier. But is this enough to encourage and support democracy building worldwide?

Alternatively, theorists such as Malcolm Gladwell believe that the “Revolution will not be Tweeted.” Wired Magazine published an article conjecturing that the use of social networking tools allowed for the protests to quickly topple Mubarak’s regime. In response to Malcolm’s commentary on social networking tools, The New York Times hosted a “Room for Debate” feature about their use in promoting democracy.

What are (and should be) women’s roles in political protests?

Egyptian women were heavily involved in the protests. According to media reports, Egyptians saw women’s participation as a sign of the unified nature of the dissent. Engage your students in a conversation about women’s roles in political protests. This article provides more information about women’s participation in the Egyptian protests.

Education Week

Education Week is primarily a resource for K-12 educators, however this article offers some great ideas for educating students about Egypt. Some of these ideas include hosting an Egypt Day during which students learn more about the history, culture and political environment of Egypt. This article also gives suggestions for classroom discussions that will help develop students’ knowledge and understanding of the events in Egypt.

Analysis and coverage of events in Egypt:

  • The New York Times offers an excellent analysis of the differing perspectives on Egypt in the Room for Debate series. This series covering Egypt explores the question of what the Egyptian military will do now that Mubarak is out.
  • This article by Nicholas Kristof in the Times offers a sobering perspective of the potential future for Egypt.
  • This Mother Jones article offers an excellent timeline of the events in Egypt  with links for more information.
  • Al Jazeera also provides live coverage of the events in Egypt.
  • You can also follow the revolution on Twitter by using this hashtag: #Jan25
  • Finally, the WashingtonPost also offers a detailed analysis of the events in Egypt in this article.

Giving credit where credit is due. I am grateful to Niko Sommaripa for giving me the idea to write this blog post and to Kate Dixon, Shiva Prasad, Tyler Thompson, and Crystal Rosario for contributing resources and ideas.

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