Getting deeper into Egypt

As the protests (and violence and killings) continue in Egypt, students who start following this event will start to see that things are reasonably complex, and that events in Egypt are connected to those in the region and around the world.

My good friend, the Honorable Ken Okoth, a member of Kenya’s Parliament, recently tweeted this venn diagram that shows the complexity of the situation:


I love this diagram for a few reasons — for middle school students, it’s an opportunity to learn about and/or review venn diagrams. Who knew they were named for John Venn?

The point of the diagram is that things are far more complicated in Egypt than just pro-Morsi people and pro-Military people (for a quick summary of who Morsi is, see my prior post, What’s going on in Egypt?)

For starters, I can imagine students looking at the diagram on the right and wondering “what’s SCAF?”

That’s easy to figure out, and I want to make sure students have the mindset that when they encounter a term they don’t know, they think: “I can look that up, and I will ask for help if I get stuck” rather than “teacher, can you tell me what x is?” It’s all about taking ownership of your learning.

In this case, it’s pretty easy to find out what SCAF means:


So there are a bunch of groups in Egypt, which makes sense, because Egypt is one of the most populous countries in Africa, with more than 80 million people.


For a long time, Egypt has been seen as one of the more stable countries in the Middle East.


I’ve circled Egypt on this map, as well as the two largest countries in Africa by population — Nigeria and Ethiopia. I also circled Tunisia, which is where this whole “Arab Spring” started.

I’m guessing that most middle and high school students won’t have much of an idea of what the “Arab Spring” refers to. The events in Egypt are part of the Arab Spring, and provide a great opportunity to follow up when students ask “what’s the Arab Spring?”

This map from the Wikipedia article about the Arab Spring will give students an idea of what’s been going on:


The Wikipedia article also mentions that Time Magazine named “the protester” as its “person of the year” for 2011:


Now we’re off an running — we have a compelling story going on right now (pro-Morsi protesters dying in the streets of Egypt) and that story is part of a larger story called the “Arab Spring,” which students really should know something about.

How far to go into the Arab Spring depends on who your students are and where their interests lie.  If you have a student with family in Tunisia, that might be worth exploring in more depth.

The idea is to help students engage with the world in a thoughtful and meaningful way, using a compelling event, such as Egypt’s current chaos, as the “hook.”

Once you start getting into the subject, all sorts of questions present themselves:

For instance, I was wondering last night how long Morsi’s term as president was supposed to last — I mean, I can see how his supporters feel cheated — he was elected for four or five years, and the military took him out of power after just one year.

I found out that his term was supposed to last four years — but what’s interesting (to me, anyway) is that the place where I found that statistic was in a thoughtful article written on the last day Morsi was in power, titled Where is Egypt Heading?

That article makes the point that yes, Morsi was elected by a majority — but Egypt is looking to make a radical change from the way it has been governed for the past 30 years (all under the 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak), and, to quote from the article:

winning 51 percent of the popular vote does not provide a sufficient mandate to change a country’s identity. Important decisions on a country’s constitution and its national identity require a broad national consensus.

Now we have new vocabulary words to look up — mandate and consensus.

And the recursive process of trying to understand compelling news events by reading quality sources continues.

A great culminating project for students might be to make a short video or white a short opinion piece that takes a stand on some aspect of what’s going on in Egypt — the idea is to have students engage and start to think about the world — in this case Egypt and the Middle East — and how it got to be the way it is right now.

We also want to slow down so that we can empathize with the horror that is gripping Egypt right now — the official death toll from Wednesday is up to 638, and at least 91 more people died during Friday’s protests, according to this article from the Daily Mail in London (headline pictured below).

It’s important, once you start following a story such as this with students, to make time to keep following the story and to keep encouraging students to ask questions.



I just read this editorial in the New York Times, titled Democracy in Egypt Can Wait — it’s a good piece to break down and discuss with students.  I’ll paste in just one paragraph from the editorial:

Rather than cajoling Cairo to hold elections and threatening to suspend aid if it does not, Washington should press the current leadership to adhere to clear standards of responsible governance, including ending the violence and political repression, restoring the basic functions of the state, facilitating economic recovery, countering militant extremists and keeping the peace with Israel. At this fragile moment in Egypt’s political awakening, the performance of its government will be a more important determinant of its legitimacy and durability than whether it won an election.

There’s a lot in that paragraph that would need to be unpacked with students — what does “responsible governance” look like, for example?  That could be a fascinating discussion. And we also have to make sure students know all the vocabulary, starting with words like


Again, the point here is to use the compelling events in Egypt as a catalyst to get students to start thinking about and learning about the world — in the process they will learn math (venn diagrams), vocabulary, geography, history, and communication skills, as they eventually work to take a position of their own about what should happen in Egypt.

The author of that editorial says “Democracy can wait,” but here are the two most recent comments on the article:


Students will likely be surprised to learn that the US gives $1.8 billion in aid to Egypt, and it would be good to put that number in perspective — who are other US aid recipients, and why does Nicholas Griffin say that $1.8 billion does not buy as much influence as it used to?  What other countries fund Egypt’s government?

And does Micah Robbins have a point when he says that the people in Egypt can’t afford to wait. Have students read Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail?  If not, now would be a great time to do so — it fits well with the question of when it makes sense to protest and break an unjust law. Are the laws in Egypt unjust, and are the protesters justified in protesting? Are they dramatizing an injustice? All of these could be fascinating questions to pursue.

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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