Monday, October 15, 2012

Studying the Middle East

Posted by Professor Vicki Hesli

How about a career devoted to studying the Middle East? Among the many routes that one could take to achieve this goal, one path starts with earning a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Iowa.  Remember to also take courses in the Arabic language – as this will give you a skill that puts you far ahead of your competitors. Check out these links to the International Relations Major and to the Arabic Minor.  In setting up my own research focus on the Middle East, I earned a doctorate degree after my undergraduate work in order to become a professor, but this is only one of many possible career paths to working in the Middle East.

 I made my third trip to Egypt this past summer (July 2012) to continue my ongoing investigation of the growing power and strength of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim Brotherhood first came to my attention when I noticed that the organization won 20% of seats in the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary election. This was actually a strong showing given that it was illegal for Brotherhood candidates to participate under the banner of a religiously-oriented political party.  I then decided to study the question of how could an organization, officially banned from election campaigning by the Mubarak dictatorship, win such a large proportion of seats?  

Having previously studied the demise of the Soviet Union and having written extensively about democratization processes, I wondered whether the Muslim Brotherhood would provide the organizational foundation for the overthrow of the authoritarian regime in Egypt.  Indeed, my thoughts were prophetic.  During the Arab Spring of 2011, Mubarak was forced to resign and today the Muslim Brotherhood controls both Egypt’s presidency and parliament.

Early on I discovered that surprisingly little was known about the Muslim Brotherhood. Though it is one of the most politically astute and enduring Islamist organizations in the Middle East, it had escaped the attention of most scholars. Thus, in January and February 2008, I traveled to Egypt to organize a team of researchers for the purpose of studying the Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics and strategies. I met with scholars from Cairo University, the American University in Cairo, the Al-ahram Foundation, and the Centre d'├ętudes et de Documentation Economiques, Juridiques et Sociales. I also negotiated an agreement of cooperation between the University of Iowa and Cairo University – the largest university in Egypt.  I returned again to Egypt in May 2009 with University of Iowa Associate Provost Downing Thomas for the signing of the agreement. 

During the period from 2008 thru 2010, my team of researchers catalogued the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood as it solidified its support among Egyptian voters while continuing to challenge the Mubarak regime. The tipping point occurred when Mubarak announced that his political party had won the December 2010 parliamentary elections by an overwhelming margin. The results were simply not credible.  As the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups alleged fraud, demonstrators flowed into the streets, and after a series of violent confrontations one of the world’s longest serving dictators, President Mubarak, was forced to leave power and new elections were held.

Needless to say, my research project changed when the Muslim Brotherhood won the free and fair elections held after Mubarak’s departure.  The Muslim Brotherhood was no longer the main oppositional organization operating in Egypt – it now held the reins of power. I returned to Egypt in July 2012 to organize surveys with professors at Cairo University that will allow researchers to trace public opinion in the aftermath of the 2011 and 2012 foundational elections. The question now is: What will the Muslim Brotherhood need to accomplish to secure the support of the people and the legitimacy of their new regime?

If you would like to explore the answers to such questions, consider the International Relations major at the University of Iowa.  If you have any questions about the research described above, please feel free to contact me at

Two Pictures:

The view of Tahrir Square from my hotel:

Hesli visiting one of the original seven wonders of the world:

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