Concept Caching: Cairo, Egypt

From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography.  Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region.  Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all Geography classes.

"Central Cairo is full of the multi-story buildings, transportation arteries, and commercial signs that characterize most contemporary big cities. ..." Alexander B. Murphy

The cities of Egypt, and the larger Southwest Asia/Middle East and North Africa region, are seen as oases surrounded by a harsh environment, as bustling hubs of economic activity, as seats of political and cultural power, and as magnets for populations seeking anything from opportunity to refuge.  Of course, this is not unique to the region and the same can be said for cities the world over.  However, in the region, the urban context provides the stage by which other trends play out.  As discussed in the post, Investigating the Geographies of the Arab Spring, students are able to identify the interaction of climate, water, settlement, urbanization, population density, political-economic trends, cultural conventions, and global flows as they together contribute to the Arab uprisings in the spring of 2011.  Viewing the skyline of Cairo, Egypt would be a powerful visual of what was described by an Atlantic Monthly article as making “cities veritable cauldrons, in which political energy and activism are pressurized and brought to a boil.”  Further, that visual would be able to spark discussion over Egypt’s susceptibility to revolution and, perhaps, evaluations of its future.

Investigating the geographies of the Arab Spring

The Arab uprisings in Southwest Asia/Middle East and North Africa offer an excellent example in lower division undergraduate Geography courses for modeling the investigation of geographic context and processes.  There have been many exceptional sources covering the so-called, “Arab Spring” that provide relatively simple and direct explanations of various background geographies.  Reviewing these sources along with the textbook is an exemplary exercise for ‘doing’ geography.

An introductory exercise can be completed by analyzing an outstanding graphic from Slate Magazine.  The flash media graphic marries time and space by chronicling events in various countries of the region as a timeline in the format of a choropleth map with labeled boxes.  By either navigating by clicking day-by-day or as an automatic animation, each country that had a major event is highlighted and labeled with a brief explanation of the event.  By moving from December to April (and perhaps beyond, as the map is occasionally updated), we “relived” the events.  It became an exercise when the students were asked to identify context themes by using simple investigation questions, like Who, Where and Why.  They collected context information about who was protesting (youth, women, etc.), who was being protested against (dictators, presidents, kings/princes, etc.).  They collected context information about where protests were located (i.e. urban, universities, public squares).  They collected context information about why people were protesting (i.e. unemployment, rising food prices, political oppression, etc.).  This information can be used in a variety of ways: as content for exams or papers; as information to connect to other news sources; or as discussion points that can take the class to a variety of ‘places’.

Another exercise combined assigned current event articles with a World Regional textbook to fill out some of the geographies behind the events.  Students used their textbooks to investigate the human-environment background by connecting the geographies of climate/aridity, water resources, and resulting human settlement.  By understanding the patterns of settlement as an overlapping of climate and hydro- geographies, students can then further discuss resulting patterns of urban geographies.  Students can review the terms and statistics for the region of urbanization, urbanized population, and population density.  These urban dynamics are described in an article titled, “How Cities Stir Revolution” in the Atlantic Monthly.  The article does begin to speak broadly about cities as the historical site of revolution, but it offers specific statistics, maps and graphics about the urban character of the region; tying in nicely to population and urban geography concepts from World Regional textbooks.  Another topic that students investigate is the population geographies that have contributed to the Arab Spring.  NPR’s All Things Considered provides an audio interview and transcript that describes the “youth bulge” that exists in many Arab countries.  This “youth bulge” concept can then be connected to the tenants of the demographic transition model and further evaluated using demographic indicators.  A Guardian graphic is also helpful in the investigation of the demographic background of the region’s countries, as it provides visual comparisons of the total population, percent under 30 years of age (effectively, the “youth bulge”), and the total unemployment.  The role of unemployment is also discussed in a Guardian article, titled “Young Arabs who can’t wait to throw off shackles of tradition.” The article provides some powerful anecdotes for the political economy geographies in the region as the major catalysts for protest, namely the intersection of un- and under- employment, political oppression and ‘traditional’ political-economic cultures.  Further, this article creates a moment of reflexivity for students in the United States (and other similar societies) as it narrates more accounts of Arab Youth and Facebook, rap music, and managing idleness.

These events not only illustrate the fairly simple, introductory-level application of key terms, but it also provides students with an opportunity to think critically about contemporary, “21st century” politics.  They are able to internalize and reflect on the concerns that these youth from thousands of miles away have and to connect them to their own.  They are able to evaluate the current state of affairs in the United States (and, again, in other developed/affluent societies) by using the Arab Spring as a lens from which to compare and contrast.  Reflecting on the event by this way left my students feeling empowered and activated.

Geography Directions: Brave New World for Egypt

From our Geography Directions site reviewing Wiley-Blackwell’s Geography Compass review journal covering the entire discipline.  Keep up with cutting edge academic geography.  These articles may be useful for introducing students to the discipline or may be appropriate for upper division Geography classes.

As the dust begins to settle in Cairo the people of Egypt are jubilant at the success of their 18 day revolution in effecting regime change and toppling the government led by Hosni Mubarak for 3 decades.   Now, as they prepare to play the long game waiting for free elections in September, the people, the revolutionary council and the ruling military must walk the tightrope of civic peace. Throughout the peaceful protests, distinctly multicultural and bursting with references to gender equality, poverty, religion, state-led violence and political freedom the activists displayed visual representations of the state through the lens of the working classes.  Why do I mention this? Amidst the macro-scale geopolitik at play and the roar of the oppressed and unheard there is also subtle resistance at work here. The use of imagery on banners and placards and voices on facebook became the ‘weapons of the weak’ (Hammett 2010:6) , weapons that became available in the face of unequal access to public resources, corrupted state-owned t.v./radio/newspapers. The script and symbolism in the banners, facebook pages and tweets began the process of self-assertion of nation and in the interim, this meant a disconnect with the previous regime. It is a media that can reach beyond borders and through societal strata, one that the ageing clunky oppressor was ill-equipped to outrun. Increasingly there is a call for a more critical reading of the role of visual metaphors in the construction of ‘nation’ and the sentiment behind national identities (Dittmer 2005:628). In the image below, the use of comic book imagery is clearly anything but innocent or child-like, indeed it is a powerful and effective political tool in it’s cause of freedom from tyranny.

Throughout the protests, the activists have repeatedly expressed their unity, Christians protecting Muslims as they prayed from pro-Mubarak forces and clearly chanting ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’.  There are many accounts of people watching events unfold around the world on T.V.’s, computers and listening to radios choked by the solidarity of this multicultural society overcoming everyday, that which so often divides and disables cohesion in the western world.

Indeed there is no doubt that these events have been an outstanding victory for the people of Egypt, for human dignity in the Arab world and for freedom of expression more widely. However, in time the ousting of the autocratic leader may prove to have been the easy part. The vision of Egypt as portrayed by the government was one of submission and secularism, there was no room for dissent or protest and public displays of religiosity were banned, all under the state of emergency since 1981 (but periodically dating back to 1967). With two thirds of the nation under the age of 30 for many this is the only Egypt in living memory, an Egypt ruled by a military government whose hand reaches into every area of governance, commerce (from petroleum to bakeries), media and education. It is difficult therefore to imagine the magnitude of the economic and political loss in status to the military if it is replaced by a civic democratic system of governance based on merit and a public mandate. Whilst these concerns are bound to dominate in future months, we will remember for some time, the courage of the Egyptian people, oppressed and thwarted for too long, circling in squares and squaring the circle.

By Michelle Brooks

To view the original article please visit the Geography Directions Blog.

Concept Caching: Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography.  Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region.  Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all Geography classes.

"The three great pyramids of Giza were elaborate tombs for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, but many smaller pyramids entombed lesser royals. The location of the pyramids is on the outskirts of Cairo, making it an accessible and busy site to visit." Matt Ebiner

Egypt.  Images such as this are what make up many in the world’s geographic imagination of the Egyptian landscape.  However, a new set of images from the last few weeks have entered into modern imaginations.  As referred to in the post Geography Directions: Brave New World for Egypt, there has been much effort to overturn the political conventions that had defined the ‘modern’ Egyptian state.  The post mentions the scales behind the protests, of where resistance was directed versus where resistance was communicated.   It also discusses a future for Egypt, and how democracy will interact with military in the interim.  What will play out in the coming months beneath the shadows of the pyramids and Egypt’s authoritarian history?

Yemeni Geographies and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Yemen has emerged as a significant node in global terrorist networks since its connection to the 2009 “underwear bomber” and the 2010 printer bomb plots.  However, it has long been a terrorist hotbed, as the bombing of a U.S. warship in 2000 and subsequent attacks would attest.  Yemen is the center for the group known as “al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.” This offshoot group has a surprising level of cunning shown in the printer bomb plot and organizational sophistication and egregiousness, as evidence in their newsletter Inspire and the.  Understanding why this little known country has become such a focal point in world security discourse is to the task of Geography.  Yemen has all the unfortunate qualities of a terrorist breeding ground.  A Time Magazine video report reveals some of geographic context for this during a road trip from North to South Yemen.  The Time video, along with BBC and Reuters articles, provide some evidence for Yemen’s historical and present-day social, economic and political geographies as necessary background for analyzing this Southwest Asian country’s long propensity for terrorist activity.

As the poorest country in the Arab world, just about 45% of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day.  Not only does that widespread poverty sow discontent, but Yemenis are also nearly equally divided among Shi’ites and Sunnis; itself a troublesome rift that is seen elsewhere in the region.  As a result, the country has been struggling for political stability.  Yemen was once two separate countries, the Yemen Arab Republic or North Yemen and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen or South Yemen.  Both were united into the present state of Yemen in 1990.  The current government is widely seen to be ineffective by many Yemenis.  Some see it as corrupt and useless; unable to provide basic services for its citizens or support its flailing economy.  Some even see it as an illegitimate Western sell out, taking money and orders from outside interests.  The governments’ authority is also weakened by the continuing centrifugal forces that act within the country: the Shi’ite rebellion being waged in the North; the secessionist movement in the South; and the ongoing arms market and terrorism activities among fundamentalist and disaffected Yemenis.  In this context, political instability begets economic stagnation and collapse of authority.  Northern Yemenis have little to nothing in the way of development or an actual economy to provide jobs or services.  Southern Yemenis have some promise that comes from oil fields, tourism, and global shipping networks; however, this limited prosperity is what fuels their calls for secession.  In addition to all this is Yemen’s location as a well positioned country for terrorist activity.  It is located on the edge of Saudi Arabia – al Qaeda’s Arab enemy.  It controls half of one of the world’s most important geographic choke points, the Bab-el-Mandeb connecting the Red and Arabian Seas.  And, it is adjacent to another terrorist haven and failed state, Somalia.

A confluence of site and situation, Yemen has now captured the world’s attention as the latest terrorist stronghold.  What has magnified this further is the release of US diplomatic cables, or communications, on the site Wikileaks.  Without getting into the Wikileaks story on its own, the release of these relatively secret documents has revealed a surprisingly detailed underside of global diplomacy.  Not many places in the world were left unaffected by this event.  For Yemen, the Wikileaks cables revealed the strategies, alliances and troubles of the “war” against al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.  Available for all to see are the connections between the Yemeni government and the United States and the role of the Saudis in fighting al Qaeda at the expense of the Yemeni government.  What is more is the unfortunate side effect of also exposing these connections for al Qaeda operatives, themselves, who may take the information as a propaganda opportunity to further delegitimize the government and enlist more recruits, in Yemen and beyond.

Yemen’s designation as a source of terrorism can certainly be explained by its regional geographic context.  However, it is merely one spoke in a global network of terrorism groups.  Like the other terrorism hotbeds in the world, globalization itself provides the tools and the targets for such extremist activities.  Terrorist groups rely on the same networks of global communications and transportation that they seek to disrupt with bomb plots.  And now, courtesy of Julian Assange, the globalization of political transparency in Wikileaks provides another tool for terrorists to potentially exploit.