Saturday, February 12, 2011
Thursday by noon, American media was reporting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was about to step down, and what might seem far away was of immediate importance to a classroom of students at St. Mike's. Our faculty in political science draws on current issues to illustrate the key concepts and theories in the discipline; sometimes, if unusually, the world shouts so loudly in its immediacy that we have to respond to it during a class meeting. Last week, in a course on Transitions to Democracy, the world historic events unfolding in Egypt would not be ignored.
I designed this course 5 years ago to engage students in a discussion of US foreign policy and a new agenda of democracy-building in the Middle East. My approach was to present students with the primary theories about the process that unfolds when a authoritarian regimes collapses, and the necessary mechanisms and precursors to consolidate democratic institutions. These are compelling issues that provoke a variety of choices about how the US might foster democracy and what the limits of these efforts could be. The course concludes with a reading about the possibility of a democratic transition in China, and the Iraq War has always been on our minds even as we focus on specific case studies, where protest movements or political institutions fostered transitions, or where politicians and empowered elites succeeded in seizing power even when so many offered such profound hopes. In 2008, we were fortunate to welcome a delegation of local elected officials from Iraq to the classroom, sponsored by the Vermont Council on World Affairs. Clearly taken from the headlines, this course was nonetheless as deeply analytical and moral as it was timely.
Over the past two weeks, as Mubarak squared off against a movement of young democracy activists (most not much older than the students in my class), we dedicated time each session to review the events, see where the hopes of the activists stood, and talked about what to look for in the coming days to indicate if the regime might budge.
Then there was Thursday.
In real time, Egyptians waited in the streets of every city in the country, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square before large screens deployed by tech savvy activists. And in real time in Vermont, a computer terminal in class monitored Al Jazeera English, one of the few news networks with an internet simulcast of its broadcast service.
While we waited for the promised arrival of Mubarak before the television cameras, we decided to complete our section on the April 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. In a striking parallel, the events of 1974 in Lisbon were as dependent on the choices of the officer corps and the solidarity of the front line troops with the people as those in Cairo would be. In Lisbon, the revolution was named for the flowers given by civilians to the soldiers at the city's central market. This week, the young people organizing resistance on the streets of Cairo are a reminder of the brave young junior officers who confronted a calcified dictatorship in Lisbon. Though separated by decades and a wealth of technological advance, the generations in the Middle East and the Iberian Peninsula were equally frustrated about their individual lives and the stagnation of their countries, stifled by an authoritarian state. Matthew Miller's post on this blog earlier this week provides a striking firsthand account of Egypt today.
By the end of class Thursday, the government in Cairo seemed even more in chaos than it was at the start of the day, with Mubarak's television appearance and his message increasingly in doubt. Would he step aside? In class, we could use what we learned from the Carnation Revolution to assess the news as it promised to unfold in the coming days, and what this offered in terms of a democratic transition. Would the Supreme Council of the Military take power and oust Mubarak as the officer corps had done in Portugal? In the first hours of the Portuguese Revolution, we saw the immediate release of political prisoners, the abolition of the hated secret police, the suspension of state institutions, and the promise of democratic elections. Soon after, exiled leaders returned and parties on the left and right began to organize. Those are the things we need to look for in the days ahead, as the transitional government in Egypt fulfills its promise to end the state of emergency and move toward democratic elections.
The Portuguese transition was contentious, not always certain, and frequently threatened with collapse, much like the ongoing events in Tunisia. But it also provided the impulse for a dramatic end to the military regime in Greece and the more gradual transition in Spain, and the eventual admission of all three countries into the European Union as full democracies. As with each wave of democratic protest and transition, not every lesson from previous generations offers guidance or suggest the outcome of today's events. In class, we focus on what we might look for, and what the US role might be - what key precursors, processes, and mechanisms offer opportunities, insights, and challenges - to understand these movements and foster a new democratic wave.
(the embedded video includes English closed captioning. Just click on "cc" in the lower left of the Youtube window)
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
When Saint Michael’s students learn about issues that affect our community, we like to take action. That’s exactly what I did, along with a handful of other students, last semester through the Dear Hillary Campaign. The campaign began this summer targeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on behalf of the tens of thousands of women that are victims of sexual violence each year in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC has been plagued by civil war for over a decade and is known as the deadliest conflict since World War II. What is uniquely heartbreaking about the conflict is that rape is used as a weapon of war on a massive scale. Saint Michael’s students learned about the conflict through the Student Global AIDS Campaign’s efforts to better connect with our refugee community in the neighboring towns. We asked how we could help them adjust better to their new lives in Vermont, but they assured us that our best efforts could be used as a voice for their friends and family still at home in the DRC.
So we decided to send birthday postcards to Sec. Clinton on her birthday on October 26. We used Facebook, Twitter, and a website to get our message out. Our original goal was 10,000 postcards sent to the State Department, but we ended up exceeding our goal to 17,000! We originally wanted 50 chapters- one for each state- but had 56 chapters (four internationally) by October! With this great success, we called the State Department and asked for a meeting with Sec. Clinton. We aimed high, but were successful at getting a meeting with the Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues (and a personal friend of Hillary’s) Melanne Verveer. During finals week, we got together a car of six students, two Congolese- Americans, and Professor Laurie Gagne and drove to Washington, DC for the meeting. We were greeted there by about 30 other members of Dear Hillary chapters from around the country. Ambassador Verveer seemed to understand our message and we emphasized the sense of urgency we all felt to prioritize peace in the DRC. We brought a platform of proposals that basically stated that humanitarian aid alone will not stop the rapes and murder from the conflict; only diplomatic, political action will bring peace.We left the meeting even more fired up to advocate on behalf of the Congolese community that has become our friends. Students have a lot of political power and it is our responsibility to tell our politicians what matters to us. We are now in “phase two” of Dear Hillary and are so excited to have even more students involved. Check us out on Facebook and think about getting involved!
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Spending two weeks in any country does not automatically make you an expert on that country and I am by no means an expert on Egypt. There were many thing
s that I missed, not being able to speak the language fluently. This having been said, there were some things that jumped out at me and became apparent while I was in Egypt.
An uprising in Egypt at this time was a surprise, but the fact that there is anger at Mubarak is not surprising. After events in Tunisia I suspect there were a lot of Egyptians who thought “I am in that same situation as they”. One example was a cab driver I had. He was a college graduate with a degree in social service. Now I know that this type of skill could be put to good use in Cairo but here he was driving a cab. The level of unemployment is very high and especially for the younger 20s generation. I saw many of these unemployed walking around with their girlfriends or just hanging outside of shops. It was not uncommon for lines of them to be almost a block long in some cases. The massive unemployment, the skyrocketing cost of living, the disgusting state of life in Cairo, the crumbling infrastructure, the squatter settlements, were all things that people were grumbling about that affected their daily lives. Many people seemed content with keeping their heads down and going about their daily lives until their livelihood and standard of living decreased. Then Mubarak began to run into problems.
Add to this discontent the problems of corruption in politics, the construction industry, and the ministry of the interior, Mubarak's lack of a successor and you begin to see a country that had major problems looming on the horizon. When in country, I was expecting the problems of Egypt to come to a head during the lead up to elections later this year.
Tunisia changed this. It provided a spark for the current protest in Cairo. The problem was that the police are literally everywhere in Egypt. There are just too many police to allow any protest movement to gain momentum. Al-Jazeera had a statistic saying that there is one police officer for every 37 people in Egypt. As crazy as that ratio sounds, I am not too surprised by this. Literally there was a police officer on every street corner with an AK-47. The police are known to torture people and their brutality is a major deterrent for a movement. Look at how the protests in Syria have no momentum because the police are so brutal. This is how Facebook and social media were able to help this revolution, but the revolutions foundation was already laid. Facebook was only able to help carry the momentum in a faster manner. My analogy is that the snowball was able to be put together faster due to social media but the snow was already there ready to be packed.
I do not think that it is a certainty that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) will necessarily come to power in a democratic election, there is that possibility though. Over the past few years Egyptian society has gotten more conservative, you could easily see that the few women who were seen out in public were all wearing a headscarf or hijab (I only saw a few women without any head covering and I had a very strong suspicion that two of them were prostitutes due to the makeup and clothing that they were wearing). I would argue that Egypt has turned more religious and socially conservative because of the increased hopelessness of the Egyptian people. As life became more and more miserable religion became a way out for people. It is a phenomenon that happens all over the world, and Egypt is no different.
After graduation, Matt will be attending graduate school to study international relations.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Northern Vermont had been spared truly heavy snow cover until this week. Several storms have passed mostly south and east of us, hugging the New England coast and sparing the Champlain Valley. Not so for our most recent storm that covered the eastern half of the country. Much of Vermont received between 15 and 20 inches of new white stuff. Of course, were you only listening to the media, and not looking out of your window, it sounded like the end of the world as we know it: Snowpocalypse! You would think the entire North American continent must be tilting toward the east under the weight of all that snow. It the western states were slightly elevated as a result, would California break off and float away? Would the Great Lakes drain like a tipped fish tank? Would Cape Cod be submerged?
In reality, we’ve seen worse. Many local schools and some businesses did close, but Saint Michael's College held classes, as usual. All but a few of our undergraduates reside on campus anyway and so have only a short walk to class. Faculty commute and some come from a long way off. In such circumstances, we are left to our own best judgment, but most of us made it in. The College’s buildings and grounds staff do a terrific job of clearing snow and keeping us in good order. I arrive before seven each morning and find the parking lots fully cleared. Kudos must also be given to the road crews in towns across the state. Sometimes working through the night, they keep us moving safely with some caution on our part. Lower speed, prudence and four-wheel drive get us to our destinations.
A good snowfall can wreak havoc down south, but in Vermont we are prepared and know how to deal with snow.