Teaching About Events in the Middle East: Lesson Plan

01/30/2011 09:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Alan Singer Social studies educator, Hofstra University,my opinions, of course, are my own

Teaching About Events in the Middle East: Lesson Plan

We may be looking at a major seismic shift in global politics because of recent events in North Africa and Southwest Asia (the Middle East). I look at current events in Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, and Egypt in the light of Iran in 1979. The revolutionary movement there was strongly antagonistic to the U.S. because of U.S. support for the old regime. People on the left thought the changes in Iran would provide an open secular society, but religious groups dominated and created a repressive regime of a different sort. I am concerned that movements in the Middle East without leaders, an organizational structure, and a clear ideology are likely to burn out after spasmodic uprisings or else succumb to more ideologically directed conservative religious forces. As events in the Middle East rapidly unfold, teachers have asked me for ideas to help them teach about what is taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. This is a suggested lesson plan. Please cut, paste, and edit to suit your classes and time constraints.

AIM QUESTION: What is happening in the Middle East?

DO NOW: Locate Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen on a map of North Africa and Southwest Asia. Based on the map, why are these countries in a geographically important region of the world? (You might refer to the change in name for the region. Middle East was the term used by European colonizing powers.)

Motivation: View and discuss a recent CNN news clip on events in Egypt.
Egypt protests spread nationwide (2:21), On the frontlines of Egypt protest (3:35)
Questions: According to this film clip, what is happening in Egypt?
Based on this video, why are people protesting?
In your opinion, are people justified in engaging in violent protests such as these? Explain.

Activity 1. Revolutionary situations such as the ones developing in Tunisia where the government resigned and the president went into exile, the one we witnessed taking place in Egypt, and the one currently going on in Yemen can happen very suddenly and bring major social change to a society. Make a list of some of the major revolutions and the dates in which they occurred of the 18th, 19th 20th, and 21st centuries. Possibilities include American (1775-1783), French (1789-1799), Haitian (1791-1804), Latin American (1810-1821), Russian (1917), Chinese (1927-1949), Cuban (1956-1959), Iranian (1979), and the Solidarity Revolution in Poland (1980-1981), but they are not limited to these. What makes these events revolutions? What do revolutions have in common? How would you define revolution? Possible definitions include:
Wikipedia: A revolution (from the Latin revolutio, "a turn around") is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time. An overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.

Activity 2. You can't have a revolution without good poetry. Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi, who died in 1934, is being called the poet of today's Tunisian Revolution. Below are English translations of two of his poems. Read the poems and answer the questions following each poem.

A. The Will of Life
If the people will to live
Providence is destined to favorably respond
And night is destined to fold
And the chains are certain to be broken
And he who has not embraced the love of life
Will evaporate in its atmosphere and disappear.

1. According to the poet, what is necessary for change to take place?
2. What will happen to the enemies of the people and of the revolution?
3. In your opinion, why did Shadi title this poem "The Will of Life"?

B. To the Tyrants of the World
Hey you, the unfair tyrants...
You the lovers of the darkness...
You the enemies of life...
You've made fun of innocent people's wounds; and your palm covered with their blood
You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land
Wait, don't let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you...
Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from the horizon
Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash
Who grows thorns will reap wounds
You've taken off heads of people and the flowers of hope; and watered the cure of the sand with blood and tears until it was drunk
The blood's river will sweep you away and you will be burned by the fiery storm.

1. Why are "thunder" and the "fire underneath the ash" important symbols in this poem?
2. What will happen to the enemies of the people and of the revolution?
3. In your opinion, why did Shadi address his poem to the tyrants of the world?

Activity 3. Read the excerpts from the New York Times article and answer questions 1-4.

New York Times News Analysis (January 30, 2011, p. A10)
Yearning for Respect, Arabs Find a Voice by Anthony Shadid

1. In Yemen, the chants invoked Tunisia, a continent away. A Lebanese newspaper declared that all of the Middle East was watching Egypt. A long-dead North African poet's most famous poem has become the anthem of a moment the most enthusiastic call revolutionary. Since Sept. 11, 2001, conflict has pitted the West against the Arab world, as war in Iraq and Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Bush administration's policies forged grander narratives of "them against us." Last week, as more protests erupted in Yemen, Jordan and Egypt and as the United States remained largely on the sidelines, the struggle in the Middle East became firmly about "us."

2. Unlike Eastern Europe, whose old order dissolved with breathtaking speed in 1989, Arab countries are distinct in their ideologies and governments, though they often share the same complaints of their citizens and some degree of support by the United States. But rarely has there been a moment when the Middle East felt so interconnected, governments so unpopular and Arabs so overwhelmingly agreed on the demand for change, even as some worry about the aftermath in a place where alternatives to dictatorship have been relentlessly crushed. The Middle East is being drawn together by economic woes and a shared resentment that people have been denied dignity and respect. From Saudi Arabia to Egypt and beyond, many say, there is a broad sense of failure and frustration.

3. The changes may have deep repercussions for the United States. Mouin Rabbani, an analyst in Jordan, said economic frustrations mirrored resentment at governments perceived as agents of the United States and its allies. In fact, a more democratic Arab world, given recent polling, is likely to be much more hostile to American policy.

1. What is the underlying cause of popular protest in the Middle East today?
2. Why does the author believe anger with the United States plays a key role in current Middle Eastern protests?
3. According to the author, how is the Middle East different from Eastern Europe where similar movements led to the overthrow of communist governments in the 1980s and 1990s?
4. Why does the author believe a more democratic Arab world will be more hostile to U.S. foreign policy?

Activity 4. Working in teams, student will discuss and be prepared to explain which revolutions in the past events in Egypt most resemble? [Egypt could well end up like Iran where a well-organized religious fundamentalist movement came to dominate the revolution. However, I think Egypt will be more like 18th century revolutionary France were successive groups seized power, sought to root out and execute opponents, and the country plunged into a prolonged period marked by chaotic violence until a new quasi-monarchical government emerged under Napoleon.

Summary: In your opinion, can a revolutionary movement such as the one in Egypt bring positive change to the people of the country? Explain.

Application: What do you think will be the impact of events in North Africa and Southwest Asia on the United States? Why?