What’s going on in Egypt?

Many schools are starting this week — imagine being a middle or high school student and seeing this front page story in the New York Times:


Now imagine that your teachers don’t discuss this event at all, because they are too busy getting the year started.

How are you supposed to make sense of the fact that more than 500 people are dead and more than 3,000 were injured in Egypt? Since that article came out, the numbers, according to the New York Times, have risen to 638 dead and more than 4,000 injured (as of Thursday night), and as more reports come in from hospitals, those numbers will likely continue to rise.

There were so many dead bodies that a mosque is being used as a morgue. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like in Egypt right now, but at the same time, I think it’s important to get students in the U.S. to slow down and try to imagine what it would feel like to be in Egypt. That will make them ask why this is happening, and that’s when things get interesting.

To start with, let’s read the text that’s visible in the screen shot of the New York Times article above.


Apparently, people who belong to a group in Egypt called the “Muslim Brotherhood” were protesting in support of the elected president, Mohamed Morsi. President Morsi was forcibly taken out of office (deposed) by the military on July 3. On Wednesday, August 14, the Egyptian military cleared several protest sites by using extreme violence, resulting in the death of hundreds and the injury of thousands.

If you look at the picture, you can see signs strewn on the ground that were held by the protesters:


Those signs have pictures of President Morsi on them. If you look around online, you can find more graphic images of the violence.

To start to understand this story, we need some context — what’s the “Muslim Brotherhood”? Who is Morsi? What caused the military to remove him from power? Teachers need to take time to help students who are interested gain some context and ask questions.

As a starting point, here’s a quick video I just made that uses a timeline from the New York Times to show what’s been happening for the past two and a half years in Egypt, since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power in February of 2011 —

(Note: videos are hard to make well — for some reason, in the video, I say “2001” instead of “2011” — twice — when I refer to the end date of when Hosni Mubarak was in power in Egypt. To be clear, Mubarak was in power 30 years, from 1981 to 2011 — sorry for the confusion; I also say that I’m summarizing “the past year and a half,” when I mean the past two and a half years. Those mistakes aside, the point of the video is to give an overview of the timeline, which is a quality resource that I hope students will explore in some depth as a result of watching this 3-minute video).

A good assignment might be to have groups of students collaborate to make a similar video that explains various aspects of what’s going on in Egypt — I made that video using a great free online tool called Screencast-o-Matic.

In order to get a handle on what’s going on in Egypt, the timeline is a good start. Also, if students have not yet studied Islam, this would be a good time for a quick primer. And it would also be helpful for students to have some sense of the overall context of the Middle East, including the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel. You can’t cover everything, and you know your students, but the more context they can get, the better.

I blogged about Egypt just before Mubarak stepped down from power, back in late January 2011 — parts of this blog post may provide useful background.

My hope is that once their interest is piqued, students will want to explore what’s going on in Egypt and will start to ask questions. It’s a horrible situation, but it’s also one that can serve as a springboard to get students in the U.S. to start paying attention to world events.

I’m going to end this post with an example of how to unpack a complicated paragraph with students. I’m using the opening paragraph from an article in The Guardian, a newspaper out of Great Britain. It’s from earlier in the day, so the casualty numbers are lower, but just read the first paragraph and we will discuss three aspects of it:

Egypt’s military-installed government crossed a Rubicon on Wednesday by sending in the security forces to clear the camps of demonstrators demanding the reinstatement of President Mohamed Morsi. Within hours, the contours of the landscape the country had entered became brutally clear: 235 confirmed deaths and the possibility of many more; running battles breaking out in cities around the country; a state of emergency; night-time curfews imposed on 10 provinces. The bloodshed caused by interior ministry troops opening fire with shotguns, machine guns and rooftop snipers on largely peaceful sit-ins took its first major political casualty on Wednesday evening. The leading liberal who had supported the military coup, Mohamed ElBaradei, resigned as acting vice-president. The streets around Rabaah al-Adawiya became Egypt’s Tiananmen Square.

First, I like this paragraph because it says that Egypt’s military-installed government “crossed a Rubicon,” and many students won’t get that reference — this is a perfect time to help them learn that the phrase “to cross a Rubicon” means to make a decision that has major consequences and that you can’t turn back from. It’s a reference to Julius Caesar, who crossed the Rubicon River with his troops and attacked Rome, at a time when it was illegal for generals to come that close to Rome with their troops. For students who have not studied Rome yet, it’s a preview; for students who have studied Rome, it’s a review.

You know your students — meet them where they are.

A “curfew” is a term many students who drive will be familiar with, but just to be safe, a curfew means that you can’t be outside on the street after a certain hour — say 6 p.m. If you are caught outside after that time, the authorities will arrest you. A connection that might work for students who followed the Boston Marathon Bombing story is that the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown (where the second bombing suspect was found hiding under a boat) were under a curfew for a day — and shortly after the curfew was lifted, the suspect was apprehended by the Boston police.

The last reference in the paragraph from The Guardian is to “Tiananmen Square,” an event that happened in 1989 — well before any middle or high school students were born. It would be good to find out what, if anything, students know about Tiananmen Square, and fill in any blanks. There are, unfortunately, several similarities involving a powerful military using excessive force against a group of largely peaceful protesters. That’s why the last line in the paragraph says that “The streets around Rabaah al-Adawiya became Egypt’s Tiananmen Square.”

Okay, so what is Rabaah al-Adawiya? It’s a mosque in Cairo, and protesters had gathered in the square outside the Mosque before they were attacked on Wednesday. Here’s a graphic from a Wall Street Journal article that shows the location of the mosque, as well as other protest sites in Cairo:


And here’s a great set of pictures I just found from the BBC that shows what the square outside the mosque looked like when it was full of protesters.

It will take several weeks of following this story before students will truly start to “get” what’s happening in Egypt. But it’s important, I think, to make sure that students know some of our more recent world history. That will allow them — for instance — to draw a comparison between Tiananmen Square in China and the square outside the Rabaah al-Adawiyah mosque. And if, on their way to get more informed about Egypt, they read high-level articles that introduce them to terms like “cross a Rubicon” or that make them want to research the Muslim Brotherhood or the history of the modern Middle East, or even the “Arab Spring,” that’s a good thing.

We should not carry on with “business as usual” when an event such as the recent attacks in Egypt take place — we owe it to students to take time to help them understand the world in which they live, and how it can be that hundreds died and thousands were injured in Egypt on Wednesday, August 14, 2013.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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