Voices from Egypt: Panel Takes a Crash Course on a Presidential Election

Faculty and students exchange ideas about Egyptian politics. Photo by BJ Rudell
At the crash course on Egyptian politics: Mbaye Lo, Lela Ali, Giovanni Zanalda and Mohamed Kasem. Photo by BJ Rudell.

Nearly 40 students, faculty, and community members took a crash course on Egyptian politics on March 1 at the Sanford School of Public Policy, exploring Egypt’s complex history and how the growing power of the country’s president and his muzzling of civil society is affecting one of the most important countries in the Middle East.

Moderated by Giovanni Zanalda, director of Duke’s Center for International & Global Studies (DUCIGS), the panel included three members of the Duke community:

  • Mbaye Lo -- associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
  • Lela Ali – graduate student studying International Development Policy and Middle East Studies
  • Mohamed Kasem – visiting student at the School of Engineering

Ali and Kasem are Egyptian, reflecting this series’ aim to merge scholarship with experience through the amplification of pertinent voices.

The discussion came on the eve of the 2018 Egyptian presidential election. The incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former general, is expected to win easily as several potential opponents have either been arrested, gone into exile or withdrawn under pressure. Through conversation and personal stories, the three panelists explained how the election will impact regional politics and the Egyptian people.

Ali, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt as a child, commented on what Egyptians want from their government. “All the Egyptian people want is to get married, to get a house, to work,” she said. “For the last eight years, the government has not allowed people to lead a linear life.”

Mbaye discussed Egypt’s complex history from the 19th century’s Muhammad Ali -- widely regarded as the founder of modern Egypt -- to the period of rebuilding that has followed the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and ouster of long-time President Hosni Mubarak.  Mbaye used this historical context to explain how Egyptian civil society has become fragmented and why the country has undertaken an isolationist strategy. “People dismiss how hard transition is,” he said. “Democracy does not grow overnight.”

In a discussion about Islam and Egyptian politics, Kasem noted that the two are meant to be separate and that Islam focuses on building oneself and one’s family and one’s community, and not becoming an all-powerful leader.

Thomas DeGeorges, senior program coordinator for Middle East Studies Center, said since the Arab Spring in 2011, Egypt’s influence has imploded.  “There’s a sense of isolationism that’s had profound implications, including the rise of other regional powers such as Iran, Hezbollah, the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Duke diplomat in residence Ambassador Patrick Duddy asked whether Egyptians believe their government is responsible for the current economy.  Mbaye said, “Every taxi driver I talk to wishes they could go back to the time of Mubarak.”  Ali added that high unemployment and high poverty levels could empower Egyptians to demand democratic reforms.

Panelists also discussed the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political power seemingly dissolved following the 2013 overthrow of Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. “I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood has disappeared,” DeGeorges said.  “People adapt to these situations. The el-Sisi regime understands how many people are against some aspects of what they’ve done.”

The event was part of Duke’s “Global Political Perspectives” series -- a program conceived by POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service; and International House (iHouse).  POLIS and iHouse sponsored this event with DUCIGS and Duke’s Middle East Studies Center.  The next event in the series will take place in the fall.