Program allows students to witness political change in Egypt

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Laila Familiar is the director of the Arabic Summer Institute for the Arabic Oversees Flagship Program.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

When Laura Chen goes to class in Alexandria, Egypt, she sees firsthand the aftermath of the Arab Spring, a two-year citizen-led revolution and battle for change in Egypt’s political leadership. Chen is one of the first UT students allowed to study abroad in Egypt since the revolution and the election of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

For the past two years, UT students have been somewhat restricted from studying abroad in Egypt because of the violence and changing political structure within the nation. Chen is a member of the Arabic Overseas Flagship Program, a national program led by UT and four other universities. The program aims to bring together students from across the nation to participate in an intensive year-long Arabic language and culture study program at Alexandria University. Fifty-four students in the program are currently studying there, 23 of whom go to UT.

The U.S. Embassy in Egypt urges U.S. citizens to monitor local news and plan activities accordingly, it said in a July 6 statement.

Chen said while studying in Egypt she has seen many major political events unfold, including the election of President Mohammed Morsi, which she said has brought hope to the people of Egypt.

“There was support for his win, but I would say it’s mostly responsive relief that the other candidate did not win,” Chen said, referring to former prime minister Ahmed Shafik. “I can’t say if it’s getting better or worse, but at least now, people feel it’s getting better.”

Since the Arab Spring began in 2010, UT students have faced restrictions on their studies in Egypt through increased safety measures, including a partial government ban which forced four UT students to return from Egypt in January 2011. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Egypt Saturday to meet with Morsi in an effort to strengthen U.S. and Egyptians relations, BBC News reported.

Laila Familiar, director of the Arabic Summer Institute for the Arabic Overseas Flagship Program, said she sees the recent election as the most important current event in Egyptian politics for multiple reasons.

“The result of the election, of course,” she said. “And the fact that Egypt has, for the first time in modern history, a president that has been elected by the people.”

Familiar said she is not sure how exactly the new president will affect Egyptian politics in the future, as there is currently tension between Morsi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the governing body that took control of Egypt in 2011 when former dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.

“There is a lot of political tension, as everyone wants to do things their own way,” she said. “I think ultimately the SCAF has the real power, epecially since they dissolved the parliament. Egypt doesn’t have a parliament right now and without it, the president can’t really do anything.”

Jason Brownlee, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies, has written two books and more than a dozen articles on topics related to Egyptian politics. Brownlee has also been taking research-related trips to Egypt since 1995. Brownlee said no one is sure how long the new president will remain in power and what the effects of his rule will be.

“People should visit,” he said. “It’s safe.”

Muna Rehman, an Arabic language and literature senior who has been studying in Alexandria since September, said while the revolution has made her stay difficult at times, she is happy to have had the experience.

“It’s been great, and I’m actually sad to be leaving in a month,” she said.

Rehman said by keeping up with news from the U.S. Embassy, students in the program are able to avoid most public dangers, and no members have been injured.