Heat–it comes in many forms and quite honestly I am perpetually cold so I am always pleased when I find some. Well, not all the time now that I think about it. At this very moment the people in Egypt are in a completely different form of heat–not the Sahara Desert kind, but the heat that comes from being fighting mad. You know the feeling: Some guy slams you into a locker and steals your lunch money. Your face gets red, you can hear your heartbeat pounding in your ears, and the blood starts boiling. What you wouldn’t give to put that fellow in his place. Now imagine that guy was an even bigger bully, like say, a repressive authoritarian leader. And imagine that it was not just you demanding your lunch money be returned, but an entire country wanting its taxes back and saying “NO MORE, LET’S RUMBLE”. Welcome to Egypt since January 25, 2011.
Egypt is known for having some very well-known tourist attractions, so I bet you are picturing something along the lines of the Pyramids at Giza and the Great Sphinx. But let’s dig a bit deeper into the geography: Modern Egypt is a nation located in Northeast Africa along the Mediterranean Sea, where it shares borders with Libya, Sudan and Israel. Most of the country is desert except the Nile Valley and Delta. Within this country that is about three times the size of the state of New Mexico, there are about 80 million people–primarily ethnic Egyptians, with Nubian and Bedouin Arab ethnic minorities.
The country has several natural resources including petroleum, natural gas, and iron ore, but the cold-hard fact is that Egypt’s economy is struggling. Most economic activity occurs in the Nile Valley, where over half of the work force is employed in service occupations, and about 30% is involved in agricultural pursuits. The country’s unemployment rate is about 10%, with higher rates for some key segments of the population, including young people under the age of 30. Dependence on the Nile, coupled with a rapidly expanding population, has contributed to a stressed and overtaxed economic system. Reforms put in place by current President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak have lessened the burden a little, but the global economic crisis has slowed what progress was made previously, and the country’s GDP growth is still below its pre-recession levels.
Egypt has a long and rich history dating back to the pharaohs that I will let you research for yourself. For now we will stick to the basics of its modern history. The country was officially declared sovereign and recognized as an independent republic in 1953 after being subject to British rule dating back to 1882.
The current autocratic leader, Mubarak, became the 4th President of Egypt after former President Anwar El-Sadat was assassinated in 1981, following his signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Mubarak has continued his predecessor’s peace-keeping efforts between Israeli and Palestinian parties.
What does this have to do with us?
The Egypt-United States relationship has remained strong over the last few decades. The United States has provided support to Egypt’s economy and bolstered its military forces, which has no doubt helped Egypt remain as a dominant moderating force in the region. The strength of Egypt’s position has helped the U.S. assert its influence in the Middle East, particularly among Muslim-dominated countries, and has helped Israel, a key U.S. ally, maintain a degree of relative stability. Without this strong relationship, the Middle East might be in an even more aggravated state than it is now. You can see how the stability in this area hinges–at least in part–on the U.S. relationship with Egypt. Geopolitics at work!
How and why
So as we all have heard on the news, there has been rioting in Egypt for the past several days. Ostensibly, it all started with the overthrow of the leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the nearby North African country of Tunisia. The successful protest and exile of Ben Ali has spurred uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria. Egyptians are calling for Mubarak to step down and be replaced by a democratically-elected government.
Why are they angry? Egypt’s economy is stagnant. The cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years and unemployment has increased. Mubarak’s initiatives for economic reform are not working as far as the average Egyptian is concerned, and they have had enough. Egyptians also suffer under restrictions on constitutional freedoms and widespread corruption. Among the most urgent grievances are calls to raise the minimum wage and institute democracy The majority of Egypt’s population is under the age of 30, and do you know where they are right now? They are clamoring in Tahrir Square, protesting their president because that is the first step to getting a job and putting food on the table for their families.
For further exploration:
Read some recent news articles about the events in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria. Use the CIA World Factbook, the National Geographic Countries Index, and other reputable sources to do a bit of additional background research about each of the countries. This special collection of resources from our partner Verizon Thinkfinity can also help expand students’ understanding of the country of Egypt and it’s context within the global community.
What are the major groups of people that live there (ethnicities, religions, etc.)? What political circumstances have the countries experienced in recent years? Then brainstorm: Why might citizens in each country be calling for political reform? What factors are similar among the countries? What factors are different? Remember, it’s important that we consider countries with similar geographic locations and historical influences as regionally connected, but distinct.
Becky for My Wonderful World
Photos courtesy of:
Rehab Saad El Din, National Geographic My Shot
Joe Enenbach, National Geographic My Shot
T Jeffery Clarke, National Geographic My Shot