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Pyramids and politics

Drake students and faculty experience Egypt in transition

The typical tour of Egypt takes visitors to the desert, pyramids and the Sphinx — landmarks that have stood for thousands of years. This summer, a Drake University group went beyond the typical tourist sites and saw a contemporary Egypt as a nation in flux.

Drake students saw contemporary Egpyt, but also experienced historic landmarks.

Mahmoud Hamad, assistant professor of politics, took a group of 28 students and two other faculty members on a travel seminar in Egypt from May 15 to June 6. They were one of the first groups from a U.S. institute of higher education to visit the country since revolution shook the nation earlier this year.

“In a time when many institutions of higher learning were canceling similar trips, administrators at Drake rigorously examined the situation and decided it was safe to capitalize on this opportunity for global citizenship,” says Sentwali Bakari, dean of students.

Understanding the politics

The visit afforded a rare insight into the reformation of the Egyptian government and included meetings with politicians from three major parties vying for political power.

Students spoke with the vice president of the Justice and Freedom Party, an Islamist party; the president and executive committee of the Al Wafd Party, which held power prior to 1952 and re-formed in 1983; and officials from the Egyptian Socialist Party, an emerging leftist party.

The students also met Egypt’s chief administrative prosecutor, who leads prosecution of court cases that involve the government, as well as academics from Egyptian colleges and universities. Discussions centered on the future of a government dismantled by revolution.

Students met with politicians from three major parties vying for political power in Egypt.

“I believe no one else will ever have the opportunity and experiences that we had while in Egypt, due to the current political situation,” says Mandi Plagman, a senior accounting and information systems double major. “Egypt is in a transition toward democracy. Everyone is extremely passionate about the Revolution and what the future will bring. I learned a great deal about the Egyptian culture through the revolutionists’ stories. In America, I am given democracy as a birth right, but there are people all around the world who do not have this luxury. I now have a greater interest in global affairs.”

Understanding Islam

Trip organizer Hamad, a native of Egypt, also wanted students to learn Islam’s major tenets and experience the religion first hand. At the airport, they saw security guards drop to their knees in prayer. Students toured the centuries-old Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, where they watched a demonstration of ablution — the act of washing oneself for ritual purification.

Nickey Jafari, a sophomore political science and biochemistry, cell and molecular biology double major, spoke with a Coptic Christian revolutionary on the trip.

“He had no problem with Sharia Law (Islamic Law) because it was about justice and equality,” Jafari says. “What he feared were the radicals who might impose only the parts that benefit them. Religion is not what you believe but how you behave, and people are responsible for their actions. We should not blame the religion.”

Experiencing the sights

Throughout the trip, students were immersed in history and culture. They slept in a white sand desert in western Egypt, where the sky is so clear that a person can photograph the Milky Way galaxy.

Student Anna Prier and Rachel Paine Caufield explore Egypt on a trip with Drake.

They ate goat cooked in a traditional Bedouin underground oven, saw priceless historic items in homes and churches as well as museums and took a nighttime cruise on the Red Sea.

And yes, they saw the pyramids of Giza.

“Students not only had the opportunity to see history,” says Rachel Caufield, assistant professor of politics, “but they also watched history unfold.”

To learn about next year’s faculty-led study seminars to Egypt, Uganda and elsewhere, contact Annique Kiel in Drake’s Study Abroad Office.

— Aaron Jaco, AS’07, JO’07