Climbing to the Light

USC Dornsife undergraduates traveled to Egypt and Turkey in June to study religion, democracy and civil society for a Problems Without Passports course. They witnessed real-time democratic protests in both countries.
ByLaura Paisley

During a recent Problems Without Passports (PWP) course, eight international relations undergraduates saw firsthand a parliamentary democracy at work when an environmental demonstration meant to save Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey, escalated into an anti-government protest.

Led by Lyn Boyd-Judson, a former journalist who directs the USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics at USC Dornsife, the students had traveled to Egypt and Turkey for the course, “Religion, Democracy and Civil Society.”

“Once we left the U.S., the political situation in both countries changed rapidly,” Boyd-Judson said. “So it was a particularly fascinating time to be studying these topics.”

The Taksim Square protests began in June as an angry public response to Turkish government plans to raze Gezi Park, one of central Istanbul’s few green areas. This was announced right on the heels of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan limiting the sale of alcohol in the majority Muslim yet staunchly secular country. Many Turks were offended by what they see as increasingly heavy-handed, conservative governance on the part of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted party.

The group spent three weeks in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt, and Istanbul, Turkey. They compared the dynamics between religion and democracy in the two countries, which stand in compelling contrast to each other. Turkey has long been viewed as a paragon of successful secular democracy in a country that is 99 percent Muslim. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution, while secular in nature, ultimately brought political Islam into elected power in the form of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood organization.

Each day, students met with journalists, political leaders, professors, judges, economists, human rights workers and businessmen. During dinners and group meetings, students posed questions about political leadership and religion. Highlights included meeting Sahar Nasr, a senior financial economist from The World Bank Egypt, Editor-in-Chief Ferhat Boratav from CNN TURK, Egyptian journalist Wael Eskandar from Ahram Online, and Erol Adayilmaz, vice chair of Turkey’s ruling AK Party.

“Some of the best meetings we had were arranged by the students themselves, who then led the meetings, introducing their research and the other students,” Boyd-Judson said. “I was there to step in if it got stalled but I never had to. They did a beautiful job.”

Rebecca Braun, who graduated this May with a major in international relations and minor in French, secured the meeting with Adayilmaz.

“It was amazing to meet actual Turkish politicians and get their official word on the issues,” Braun said. “As an American, I always thought I was getting the whole picture because we have access to so many news outlets. But being there, especially in Egypt, I realized that we really don’t. People in those countries are eager to share their opinions and set the record straight.”

In Egypt, the group witnessed smaller protests leading up to the mass protest that erupted on June 30, calling for the resignation of Morsi, which came to fruition a few days later. In the preceding months, discontentment with Morsi’s less-than-democratic leadership was exacerbated by fuel shortages and frequent electrical outages, which the USC Dornsife students experienced during their stay. The group left for Turkey on June 12, avoiding the Egyptian protests at their peak.

Katelyn Masket, a junior this Fall double majoring in international relations and economics, considered the trip to be the most meaningful learning experience she’s ever had.

“There’s no better way to learn about what democracy really signifies than seeing it firsthand in a country struggling with what democratic principles mean in the context of their unique society,” Masket said. “I saw how passionate the Egyptian people are about attaining this elusive concept of democracy and how much they were willing to fight for it.”

Boyd-Judson, who has lectured at the USC School of International Relations and the USC Annenberg School for Journalism, observed the students as they processed the many different narratives in the course of their meetings and discussions of the issues.

“Students got to see how you really have to listen, trust and critically decide which narrative is closest to the truth,” Boyd-Judson said. “As one example, we were watching CNN International while in Istanbul and were all struck by how overblown the protests were in the media. Being there, the protests felt like a proper response from civil society to check an overbearing prime minister. So they also got a new understanding of how international press can shape perceptions.”

Amid their ambitious schedule, the students also had a chance to do some sightseeing and experience local culture. In Cairo, they visited the pyramids and sphinx of Giza.

“To stand in front of the sphinx was amazing, like being in a history book,” Braun said. “We also rode camels, which was a highlight. Though when you mount a camel, in the process of standing up from its knees you’re lurched to a 45 degree angle to the ground, which I wasn’t quite prepared for.”

Also in Cairo, the group spent a day visiting a Coptic Christian church, a Jewish temple and a mosque. They visited Future University, a private university in New Cairo, Egypt, and chatted with students during lunchtime. In Alexandria, they visited the grand new library, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as well as the beach.

“We had to go to a private beach though, because at public beaches women had to wear ‘burkakinis’ — everything had to be covered,” Braun said.

In Istanbul they visited the Hagia Sophia monument and did a boat tour of the Bosphorus, a 20-mile long strait which joins the Sea of Marmara to the south of Istanbul with the Black Sea to the north, though sightseeing was a bit limited due to the protests.

Students said the trip was a perfect blend of experiences.

“This PWP experience has given me a much better grasp on how dangerous ignorance can be,” said Masket. “So many misconceptions regarding the Muslim world are driven by a lack of education and cultural understanding. We must break down barriers on both sides so that we can all move forward.”