The University of Iowa

Before now, Egyptians never dreamed of anything like Iowa’s caucuses

February 3rd, 2011

By Adrien Wing

Wing is a professor of law and expert on the Middle East at The University of Iowa. She is affiliated with the UI Middle East and Muslim World Studies scholarly group.

This guest opinion appeared in The Des Moines Register.

I have been going to Egypt on a regular basis since 1985. I’m often accompanied by my students from the University of Iowa College of Law, and we’ve visited the courts, parliament and universities, meeting with lawyers, judges and law professors and learning about the legal and political system there. We have also met students, merchants, security men, university officials, and, especially, tourist guides, learning even more about the country and building relationships that endure to this day.

Many of these visits have come during presidential election years here in the United States and our contacts always seemed fascinated by our process of primaries and caucuses and political conventions, asking questions about all aspects of what to them seemed a strange and fascinating way to select a political leader. This was especially true in 2008, when they were particularly interested in the role that Iowa played in helping Americans take the candidacy of Barack Obama seriously.

They loved participating vicariously in our process with me that year, through visits and e-mails and Facebook conversations, following the whole campaign up to the triumphant end. They kept the buttons and posters I brought them and debated the various strengths of the Republican candidates versus the Democrats and what each might mean for their region of the world if he or she won.

After the election of an African-American president, something that many Americans thought would never happen, I asked my Egyptian friends how they felt while watching our process. Could they imagine an Egyptian election in which Hosni Mubarak might not win? Needless to say, for them, it was beyond imagining. Mubarak was pharaoh – president for life, or until his anointed successor took over. Yes, they were interested in our system, but only in a theoretical sense because they knew they might never have the opportunity to vote in a free election in Egypt. They listened out of curiosity, but never with the expectation that they would actually have the chance to use the information that I shared with them.

Then last month, the Jasmine Revolution toppled the government in Tunisia. If little Tunisia could overthrow its dictator of more than 20 years standing after only a month of protest, they thought, what could mighty Egypt do? After all, Egypt has been the center of the Arab world for several thousand years. So with the Tunisian events as their inspiration, the Egyptians took to the streets and appear to be on their way to making unlikely history of their own.

Until Friday, when the Internet got turned off, my friends told me that the pressure would not stop until Egypt was free. I have a feeling that very soon, my friends will be back in touch, and they will be asking me the details of the primary and caucus system again. This time it will not be for theoretical interest, but for real.