Talking Egypt, President Trump, travel warnings and Arabic in Boston

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I spent last week in the great city of Boston attending two Arabic-related events. One was the Middle East Studies Association annual conference. The second was a forum on Teaching Arabic sponsored by the Qatar Foundation.

I was there as a consultant with International Language Institute, an Arabic school in Cairo. I had studied Arabic there many years ago. Last July I did an interview with the school’s Directors on the situation facing Arabic schools like in the post-2011 era. Since October I’ve been working with ILI to help them increase their presence in the US market.

Like any school in Egypt catering to foreign ASL students, the last 5 years have been very difficult. Enrollment everywhere has tanked. Many a good teacher has lost their livelihood. Several schools been forced to shut their doors. They are working hard to make a comeback. But you can’t avoid:

The elephant in the room – the Security Issue

Anyone familiar with the study of Arabic knows the merits of Egypt. Cairo is by far the best place in the Middle East for learning Arabic.

But the security issues along is preventing a comeback for Egypt as a study abroad destination. A major element of that are formal US government warnings against travel to Egypt.

The main effect of the travel warnings occurs at the institutional level. In other words, the domain of formal arrangements between US universities and institutions in Egypt (such as AUC or ILI).

Before attending Boston I conducted a market research survey and spoke with people at about 30 universities. Nearly all Most were sympathetic to the idea that the travel warnings “hype” up the security issue more than is merited.  Most US academics I spoke with are open to the idea of having students from their school return to Cairo. Yet they also pointed out that it’s a mute point, given the legal liability their schools face as long as the USG warnings are in place.

The bottom line is that if something happens, the school might be vulnerable. “Why did you let a student go to a country with a formal travel warning?” For that reason, there are almost no formal study abroad programs in Egypt, whereas pre-2011 it was by far the top destination in the Middle East.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that there wasn’t good reasons to impose warnings in the first place. But from the perspective of many in Egypt, and especially those whose business and livelihood depends upon travel by foreigners to Egypt, the restrictions are believed to be unfairly targeting Egypt. There is also a belief that the process for declaring one place unsafe but not another is too arbitrary and subjective.

It’s a tricky situation with no easy answer.

In Boston, I tried to generate better insights into the process, given that there were many people “in the know” in attendance. I was looking for answers to these types of questions:

  • Is the security situation in Egypt today different from what it was in 2012-2013? And if it’s “better” wouldn’t that merit a 2nd look at travel warnings?
  • What would have to happen in the future to have these warnings removed?
  • What exactly is the process for deterrmining a country to be unsafe?


The Trump Card?

As you may imagine, the US elections were a major topic of conversation at MESA. It’s also safe to say that Donald J. Trump did not get a majority of the votes of members of MESA.

What’s also true, however, is that many in Egypt are excited about the results.

Certainly that is the case with the Egyptian Government. President Sisi even met with Trump for 45 minutes several weeks before the elections and they appear to have good chemistry. One tendency amongst some DC voices and many in the MESA sphere is to dismiss this as two “dictators” or “authoritarians” somehow “loving each other.”

When in reality Egyptian enthusiasm for a Trump Presidency is more nuanced and rational. A huge segment of the country’s economy depends upon foreign travel to the country. This group awaits a fresh start in US-Egypt relations and are generally optimistic. They may be less vocal about expressing their views on social media. Their views are underrepresented in DC think-tank debates, but this is a very “main-stream” view. It’s just as valid as any other view.

And this group, probably through President Sisi,  are definitely lobbying or will be to have have these restrictions removed.

But I have to admit that I was surprised to read this news just three days ago. Egypt appears to have been taken off the list:

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My surprise isn’t that Egypt was taken off the list.  That was the case that I was making to people at MESA. I was surprised because I didn’t expect any change to happen this fast.

Nobody at MESA “in the know” seemed to think it would immediately change either. So I am somewhat skeptical this new development means as much as the article suggests.

On the other hand, on a pure factual basis, the article says what it says. I’d appreciate hearing from any readers with deeper insights into what this means…

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