While others might have used their winter break to relax and take time off, students and faculty from the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, were busy engaging with scholars, activists, and diplomats in Cairo, Egypt. The trip was a part of a study abroad course, Issues in Modern Egyptian Politics, which focused on the politics and history of modern Egypt and was taught by Dr. Erin Snider, assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the Bush School.
“Being granted the opportunity to travel to Egypt with the Bush School to examine Egyptian politics on the ground was invaluable,” said Rainie Spiva, a second-year student in the Department of International Affairs who participated in the trip. “We were granted opportunities to candidly interact with Egyptian scholars, activists, civil society groups, and others about the many nuances of the Egyptian government and other aspects of politics that impact many facets of Egyptian lives. Experiencing Egypt from this perspective made this experience unforgettable and reshaped my approach to international affairs in the Middle East.”
During the eleven-day trip, participants were able to interact with a diverse range of speakers, including former diplomats with the Egyptian government and American diplomats at the US embassy. The group also visited the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, one of the leading centers for gender issues in Egypt, and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the leading rights organizations in the country. In addition to meetings with diplomats and scholars, students and faculty also had the privilege of meeting with Mahmoud Salem, one of the most influential bloggers in the Middle East, who is well known for his activism on social media before, during, and after the Arab Spring.
While in Egypt, students were also able to take part in cultural immersion experiences such as trips to the pyramids at Giza and Sakkara. Trips in Cairo included an excursion to Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo, the sites of two of the most revered mosques in Egypt.
“When studying a country, there is nothing like actually being there,” said Brittany Hardin Tanguay, a second-year student in the Department of International Affairs. “Prior to embarking on our trip, I had grown particularly concerned with employment issues in Egypt and the lack of opportunity for Egyptian youth. During my time in Cairo, I was struck by the strict segmentation of society and the narrow window of opportunity within each sector. The challenges facing future generations of Egyptians, which I already knew to be quite complicated, are far more textured than I initially understood.”
Egypt has made headlines in recent months due to ongoing instability in the region and increasing restrictions on free speech and human rights. When interacting with Egyptian civil servants and diplomats, Snider said that listening to what people were saying—and not saying—was illuminating. Interacting with activists and independent journalists also helped students gain a broader perspective on the current state of the region.
“There are significant tensions in Egypt right now,” said Snider. “The government is trying to deal with a difficult economic situation, and there is a militant insurgency in the Sinai, so there are security issues. At the same time, the government is constricting the rights of many organizations. It’s incredibly valuable to be in a place where you’re getting to hear from people who are daily trying to negotiate the difficulties of dealing with a constricting political space while continuing to do their work and share news about what’s going on in their country. There’s no other program that’s been able to do something like this.”
While traveling, the group always took several safety precautions, including having a security detail travel with the group’s bus through Cairo. The group also had security arrangements while staying at American University in Cairo to ensure their safety. While other universities cancelled their planned trips to the region, Snider says the unwavering support of Dean Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador to several countries in the Middle East, helped the trip continue as planned.
“What made this trip successful was the enormous support of our dean, who strongly believes that students should do hard things and go to hard places and never once faltered on whether we should go or not because he recognized inherently the importance of a trip like this,” said Snider.
Every student participating in the trip was able to receive a travel scholarship that helped reduce the expense of the trip. The scholarships were made possible through a generous donation by the Levant Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that seeks to further knowledge about Middle Eastern culture and history.
After the success of the first trip to Egypt, Snider says she hopes to expand the program in the coming year. Rather than an eleven-day trip, she said she would like to see a trip that lasted three weeks to a month, allowing students to more fully immerse themselves in the culture. Snider says she also would like to see the trip expand beyond just Cairo and include exploration of other surrounding areas. Still in its early stages, the Bush School is developing a reciprocal exchange that would allow Bush students to study at the American University in Cairo and Egyptian students from the AUC to study at the Bush School.
Overall, Snider says she feels the trip had a deep impact on the students—one she hopes they will take with them into their future careers.
“One of the most rewarding things for me was hearing our students and one of my colleagues on the trip say what an enormously rewarding experience it had been to listen to lectures with different folks at the American University of Cairo and meet with Egyptians working in civil society,” said Snider. “These interactions completely opened their eyes and challenged ideas they had of the region, the people, and politics in general. As a professor, that’s extremely rewarding to hear. But it was also great to hear they all wanted to go back.”