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Feb. 2, 2011
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab

Egypt crisis provides ‘teachable moments’

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Slippery Rock University students enrolled in international political science and Middle East history classes are getting a front row seat to what their professors are calling “a monumental event in world politics.”

Both Donald Kerchis, assistant professor of political science, and Eric Tuten, assistant professor of history, say they are devoting class time to examining and schooling students about current events unfolding in Egypt and the entire Middle East.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest the government headed by President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, 82 and ruler of the country since 1981, has ceded to some demands, and at mid-week announced he would remain in power, but would not seek re-election in the planned September elections. President Barack Obama has remained neutral but has called for any change to come peacefully. Mubarak has thus far refused to step down.

Mubarak appointed a vice president, Omar Suleiman, in hopes that would calm some of the unrest. And, late in the week pro-Mubarak supporters have taken to the streets to refute those seeking the president’s ouster.

Most of the protesters, who are calling for expanded freedoms and democracy, including free elections, have been centered in Cairo, but protests have spread to other Egyptian cities. The country’s strong military, which is working to maintain peace, has been called on by those in Egypt and the U.S. to refrain from lethal fire on protesters.

Throughout the week violence, and addition threats of violence, were being reported.

SRU officials have canceled a spring break seminar in Egypt planned for March 3-11 because of the turmoil. Srinivas Mani, professor of professional studies, had planned to take a group of 24 students to Egypt to study anthropology and archeology as part of the University’s extensive spring seminar program.

“Events, of course, are in a very high state of flux,” Kerchis said. “I am trying to link recent history with current events unfolding with the overthrow of other dictators and to show my students how U.S. policy in promoting economic growth may be partially responsible for current events.”

Both SRU professors say Egypt was part of their course agenda for the semester, but breaking events forced a reorganization of the syllabus putting Egypt at the forefront in recent days.

Both are also explaining in class how today’s technology, including Twitter, the Internet, cell phones and even the recent WikiLeaks postings, are helping shape the drama in Egypt and around the world.

“Look at how fast the government shut down such technology, but at the same time look at how quickly protesters found ways around the shutdowns. I read one article where protesters turned to still posting voice protests for others to listen to or add to, with just a simple telephone system,” Kerchis said. By week’s end many of the services had been fully restored.

“I am having my students read some of the U.S. Embassy cables available on WikiLeaks so they have a better understanding of breaking events,” said Tuten, who spent time in Egypt in 2007. Kerchis said that if the protests result in a new government for Egypt the move would be the “biggest revolt in history, on par with the sea change brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination and the World Trade Center attack.”

Seth Sykora-Bodie, an SRU political science, geography and French major from Slippery Rock, while not enrolled in either course this semester, spent time in Tunisia and Egypt last summer and is following developments closely.

“The U.S. media has been behind on this story from the outset,” he said. “I did not see any demonstrations or protests while I was in the Middle East, but there were the same type of rumblings that you would expect to hear in any country where the people aren’t free to express themselves” he said. “You could hear people’s unease with their governments and their economic situations. Then came the economic crisis, which hit many of these countries harder than others. In Tunisia, they have a good standard of living; They are well educated and have great healthcare, but with the economic crisis they just could not compete with the U.S. – I think the region was already on edge and events in Tunisia were just the straw that broke the camel’s back and sent them into the streets.”

“Some in the news media were reporting that Mubarak would hang on, possible by bringing in the military and firing on the people. In the past, the people would protest, the military would show up, and the people would disperse, but not this time. Things were already to the point that no one was going to head home without getting something so unless he [Mubarak] would open fire on his own people, no one was leaving, and that he could not do, because the U.S. is so heavily involved with the Egyptian military,” Sykora-Bodie said.

He questioned why the U.S. had not exerted more pressure on Mubarak sooner, knowing that political unrest in the Middle East would spill over eventually. In his words, “this would be the perfect time to change our Middle East policy.”

Sykora-Bodie, an honor student, spent part of June and July in Tunisia as part of a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship Program. While there he studied Arabic. He has a strong interest in North African and Islamic culture. In May, he spent time in Egypt as part of the Summer Honors Program, “Digital Mapping of Place and Space in Islamic Cairo” offered through the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

“The U.S. is on a tightrope and finding our previous support of Mubarak now part of the problem. We can’t stand strong with Mubarak against the protesters while simultaneously promoting individual freedom of expression and human rights. And because Mubarak has been such a good friend to the U.S. in terms of oil supplies, peace in the Middle East and other issues, we don’t want to seem to be abandoning some of the guiding principles that have shaped U.S. foreign policy in the region,” Kerchis said.

“I want students to understand the current issues and history involved. At that same time, I want them to see how U.S. policy of supporting democracy and freedom for all can sometimes lead to somewhat contradictory policy objectives,” he said.

Kerchis’s course, “International Relations,” covers the entire Middle East.

“Just a week or so ago we were talking about issues in Tunisia, and you see how quickly things have changed there. As people in other nearby nations saw the change, they joined in for their own country. There is certainly a domino effect. The economic progress of Tunisia and Egypt has been strong; Tunisia has undergone a steady 5 percent economic growth; Egypt 7 percent. This is resulting in a growing middle class, growing economic class and with economic gains come increasing expectations from citizens regarding the role of their government and for their daily lives,” Kerchis said.

“People do not revolt when they are starving; and as in the old quote ‘You can’t fight a war on an empty stomach,’” he said.

“Expectations are rising, but the government there was apparently unwilling to meet the wishes – demands – of the people. You see the classic problem that often produces social unrest. When people have had a taste of freedom, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Kerchis said.

“When things started, I was having students in my ‘Contemporary Middle East History’ course read cables from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, but I quickly bumped them to reading cables from Tunisia and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, so they would gain a unique understanding of what is happening in recent U.S. diplomatic meetings. I have also given them short articles on Jordan and Egypt to provide additional context. Today’s class [Tuesday] will be used for a series of questions and answers. I have an international student from Syria in the class and he will certainly provide some insight for his classmates, especially in the impact, if any, these events will have on his own country,” Tuten said.

Tuten said Mubarak has been grooming his son to take the reins of power, setting up the possibility of a dynasty that Egypt has not had since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 that deposed King Farouk.

He pointed to the 1936-1952 reign of King Farouk, followed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule from 1952 until his death in 1970. Nasser was followed by then-Egyptian Vice President Anwar Sadat who ruled until his assassination in 1981 when Mubarak came to power.

“The U.S. has long supported these rulers,” Kerchis said. “The U.S. enjoyed the stability and leadership Mubarak brought to the region, including Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and to some extent Lebanon. It was beneficial to have relative calm when talking about oil supplies, the Suez Canal and Mid-East peace in terms of Israel, which shares a long border with Egypt. Egypt is only one of two countries in the Middle East that has relations with Israel.”

“While we promoted liberty, democracy and freedom, we did not do so in a way that would oust such dictators as Mubarak. You might note that President Obama said very little on international issues in his recent State of the Union address. A few weeks ago, none of this was on the radar. Now, Egypt, the 15th most populated country in the world, and the largest country in the Middle East with 80 million citizens, is center stage. Keep in mind, Egypt is regarded as the cradle of Arabic civilization,” he said.

“Much of the Egyptian Army is made up of 19 and 20 year olds, I don’t think they are going to fire on their brothers and sisters, the mothers and fathers, or other relatives,” Kerchis said. “The military is not going to go away, it, and its leaders, will want to be part of the country’s future. Mubarak is not something that is in the long-term interest of the military. They know that the U.S. contributes more than $1.5 billion in aid – mostly in military assistance.”

Kerchis said Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian native and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an sister agency of the United Nations, has been out of the spotlight for some time since leaving the IAEA, but has now returned to his home country and is becoming a leading spokesman in support of the protesters.

“While he may not be well-known to many in his homeland because of his time away with the IAEA, he is respected by leaders of a number of countries for that work, and he could certainly rise to power. And, of course, there are others, including those in the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The brotherhood is formally known as the Society of the Muslim Brothers.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist movement, with a history of being politically active and of opposing the secular governments that have ruled in Egypt. Sayyid Qutb, one of its leaders, was killed in 1966 for leading the anti-government movement. Important leaders of the organization in recent years have promoted moderation and have worked within the political system, but you never know what will lead down the road,” Tuten said.

Tuten said if Mubarak steps down before September Suleiman may come to power and could call for new and free elections “or maybe even a revamping of the country’s parliamentary system. Who knows what he will do, and he may not do anything quickly.”

“No matter which way things turn, events are putting Obama in a tight space. We have a long relationship with Egypt. Obama is treading lightly, both showing support for Mubarak and urging him not to use military or police force to retain power through this crisis,” he said.

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