Saad Eddin Ibrahim and students return from political tour of regional hot-spots

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CAIRO: A delegation of students led by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a once-imprisoned democracy activist and current professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), has returned this week from a field trip of a most unusual kind.

The much-publicized trip, alternatively described by Ibrahim as a “fact-finding mission and “a study tour, brought 20 Egyptian and foreign students to cities and hot-spots across the Levant for meetings and panels with decision makers, activists and other students. It has been covered widely in the Arabic language media.

This trip comes less than a year after Ibrahim’s last student delegation, which brought over 40 AUC students to Israel and Palestine to meet with members of Hamas and Kadima in the wake of last year’s Palestinian elections.

“Political scientists and political sociologists always say that when radical movements come to power, they become more moderate, Ibrahim said of last year’s trip. “My students wanted to know if Hamas and Kadima would do the same. I said ‘I have no idea, let’s go find out.’ This year we wanted to take a trip again.

This year the trip was expanded to include Lebanon and Jordan. The group wanted to learn about the health of civil society in the region, and to determine the capacity for democracy-building and conflict resolution.

“There was a great curiosity about both the situation within Lebanon, and the tension between Lebanon and Israel, says Ibrahim, “Since they are just next door, I thought ‘let’s go find out, let’s be pioneers.’

“These two groups, Hezbollah and Israel, they are taboos in Egypt, they are toxic. So we went to find out what the situation was.

The delegation began its trip in Beirut. There students met political leaders such as President Emile Lahoud and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. On day trips they climbed through the craters of bombed-out south Beirut, and in the afternoons met with infamous figures including Christian warlord-turned-politician Samir Geagea and the southern regional commander of Hezbollah.

Ibrahim also had a private meeting with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

“At the end of the showdown last summer between Israel and Hezbollah, we at the Ibn Khaldun Center did a survey of the 30 most popular Arab public figures in the news, said Ibrahim, after his meeting with the Nasrallah.

He continued: “At the time Nasrallah came out at the top and Mubarak came in number 12. As you can imagine, my methodology was questioned and my results were called nonsense. Mubarak can never come in number 12 in anything.

From Beirut the group traveled to Amman, where they met with advisors to King Abdullah II as well as the leader of the Islamic Action Front. In Israel and Palestine the students met with a wide range of figures including Israeli students and peace activists, Palestinian political analysts, leaders of the Fatah young guard and Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Eddin Al-Shaa.

For many, this was the highlight of the trip.

“Israel and Palestine stands out for me, says Francesca Ricciardone, a second year MA student at AUC. “Everyone that we met, in every place that we went, emphasized the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I have spent a lot of time studying the conflict in school. But to be there, and to go through the checkpoints and see the way that Palestinian mobility is controlled really shows you how Israel is not only stopping the Palestinians from forming a state but also how it is keeping them from maintaining their national ties to each other.

Akhaya Kumar, an undergraduate from George Washington University who is studying abroad at AUC, agreed.

“What really sticks in my mind is seeing the reality of the Israeli Wall in the West Bank, and the check-points, and the way that policies are actually implemented. She said, “When you read about them its one thing, when you see them it’s another. You can feel the tension between the communities. There is so much hatred and anger and inability to see people as people.

According to Ibrahim, putting a human face on regional conflict is one of the main goals of these study tours.

“No matter how much brainwashing and animosity there is, human beings can always relate to one another as human beings.

He says: “That is why I traveled to Israel, Palestine and Lebanon with my students this year with this second generation of researchers. Because we can’t make assumptions about anyone – Israelis, Palestinians, Hamas, Hizbullah – anyone.

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