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Education in Real Time

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    Political Science Professor Bob Snyder discusses the current situation in the Middle East with students in his Middle East Politics class.

For students taking Middle East Politics this semester, the material couldn’t be more relevant

Political Science Professor Bob Snyder says he’s hardly had time to cover any of the material he usually covers in his Middle East Politics class this semester.

That’s because he has found himself devoting almost all of the class to discussing current events in the area.

“I usually spend the whole semester exploring the theme of why there are so many authoritarian governments in the Middle East,” Snyder says. “Now it is all falling apart.”

As a recent class started, Snyder and his students discussed current unrest in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Snyder then launched into an hour-long lecture explaining the political, social and economic causes for the overthrow of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Snyder tells students Mubarak came into power 30 years ago wanting to change the tone of his country’s presidency and be a “man of the people.”

“People were becoming annoyed with (former president Anwar) Sadat’s presidency,” Snyder explains. “He seemed to like to flaunt his wealth and the fact he knew so many rich and famous people.”

If fact, Snyder says that during the first decade of his presidency, Mubarak did indeed seem to represent the people and loosen up against repression. Snyder says he liked to characterize Mubarak’s leadership as “soft authoritarianism.”

“Mubarak looked relatively benign compared to other Middle East leaders such as Saddam Hussein,” Snyder says. “In Iraq you couldn’t criticize the government at all or you risked your life. In Egypt, you could criticize certain aspects of the government, you just couldn’t go too far. If you went too far, you would be arrested, held for a few days and released. You got the message you had gone too far.”

Snyder explains how Egypt’s role in the first Gulf War cemented the relationship between the Egyptian military and the Pentagon. “Egypt led the coalition forces into Kuwait,” Snyder says. To thank them for their help, the U.S. forgave $6 billion to $7 billion of debt from Egypt.”

Things began to change for Mubarak in the 1990s when Egypt experienced a rise of Islamic terrorism. In fact, Islamic terrorists tried to assassinate Mubarak in 1995. “He was lucky to escape,” Snyder says. A few other government leaders were killed and in all, Snyder says 1,000 Egyptians lost their lived in the 1990s due to terrorism.

Snyder says Mubarak became more repressive in the 1990s as a result of these terrorist campaigns. “He justified repression by saying that without it the militants would re-emerge,” Snyder says.

In 2000, Mubarek began to liberalize the economy for the first time and sold off many of the companies that had been government-run. The Egyptian economy did pick up as a result of this, but it also led to a growing economic disparity between the haves and have-nots. “The money was not trickling down to the middle class,” Snyder says. “Mubarak was perceived as favoring the rich but not the masses.”

While many other Third World countries such as China, India and Latin America did better in the past few decades, Snyder says Egyptians felt left behind. “Forty percent of their population still lives on $2 a day or less,” he tells the students.

Under pressure from the Bush administration, Mubarak tried to liberalize the Egyptian political system in 2005 by allowing opposition candidates (although he continued to harass them). A rival presidential candidate received 9 percent of the vote and 20 percent of the seats in Parliament went to representatives from other parties. However, Mubarak backtracked in 2010 and did not allow opposition parties.

“This was a huge factor in understanding the uprising,” Snyder tells the class. “The people thought after 2005 he would allow freer and fairer elections, but he went backward.”

At the same time, Egyptians were seeing that democracy could work in other Muslim countries without leading to the rise of extremist groups. Turkey was a particularly good example of this.

“This undercut Mubarak’s claim that he needed to keep a tight reign on power,” Snyder says.

A final blow, Snyder says, came when Mubarek indicated that he wanted his son, Gamal, to succeed him. “The military didn’t support this,” Snyder says. “They didn’t want a monarchy.”

Ironically, the book Snyder selected for students to use in his class this spring is called Egypt After Mubarek. It was picked long before current events began to unfold. “I look like a prophet,” Snyder says.

In his 20 years of teaching Middle East politics, Snyder says this has without a doubt been the most interesting semester to teach it.

“If we knew what was going to happen, I bet we would have had more students in the class,” he says.