Tunisia to Egypt & Beyond: Freedom & Democracy?

Students consider a song, a video interview, and readings in exploring the events unfolding in the Middle East & North Africa.


Students will:

  • explore the ideas of freedom and democracy
  • watch and discuss a CNN clip about the young Egyptians who produced The Voice of Freedom (the popular anthem of the Egyptian uprising)
  • consider so-called Western and Islamic values
  • consider whether Islam and Liberalism are compatible ideas

Social and Emotional Skills:

  • explore feelings that come up when watching images of protesters in the streets of the Middle East and North Africa
  • explore stereotypes of Islam and examine information that counters these stereotypes
  • humanize Egyptian youth

Materials needed:

* Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
* Amir Eid and friends Sout Al Hourya CNN interview: https://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/world/meast/egypt-revolutionary-rock-band-wont-keep-quiet/index.html



Gathering: "Freedom web" (10 minutes)

Write the word "freedom" on the chalkboard or in the middle of a piece of chart paper.  Ask the students to "free associate" with the word, sharing words or ideas that come to mind when they hear the word "freedom. Continue for a few minutes while interest remains high.  When you have a good number of words that students associate with "freedom," draw lines from "freedom" to the words, creating a web.

Ask students some or all of the following questions:

  • what do you notice about the words in the web?
  • how would you define freedom?
  • how does freedom connect to democracy?
  • how does this exercise connect to recent events in the Middle East?

Definition of FREEDOM:

1a: the quality or state of being free: as  a : the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action b: liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another : independence c: the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous <freedom from care> d: ease, facility freedom> e: the quality of being frank, open, or outspoken freedom> f: improper familiarity g: boldness of conception or execution h : unrestricted use freedom of their home.>

Definition of DEMOCRACY:

1a: a government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
2: a political unit that has a democratic government
3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States
4: the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority
5: the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges


Introduction and Background (5 minutes)

In a recent TeachableMoment lesson about the idea of power in numbers in Egypt's recent street protests (EGYPTIAN UPRISING: Power in Numbers, 2/3/11) we mention Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouzizi, who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010.  He was protesting humiliation and oppression at the hands of local government officials.

His act became the catalyst for an uprising in the North African nation of Tunisia, which  ultimately led to the ouster of President Zine El Abindine Ben Ali, an unpopular leader considered to be out of touch with the people. A mere 28 days after the start of protests, the Tunisian president officially resigned and fled to Saudi Arabia, ending his 23 years in power.

The events in Tunisia inspired similar actions across the Arab world.  Decades of smoldering grievances against the various corrupt and oppressive regimes brought populations across the Middle East and North Africa into the street.

Ask your students to watch the following clip of the street protests in Egypt.  The clip has become the popular anthem for Egypt's revolution.


Amir Eid and friends Sout Al Hourya CNN interview (20 minutes)

Ask students to watch the following CNN interview with the four Egyptian young men who produced the music clip Voice of Freedom, which became the anthem for Egypt's popular uprising against the regime: https://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/world/meast/egypt-revolutionary-rock-band-wont-keep-quiet/index.html

(If you are not able to access the CNN clip in your classroom, consider using the song lyrics themselves to talk about the youth movement in the Middle East.  Song lyrics for Sout Al Hourya/Voice of Freedom can be found at the bottom of this lesson plan, as are some debrief questions to stimulate a class discussion.)

After students have watched the CNN interview, ask them to break into microlabs (small groups of three or four) for about 10 minutes. In their small groups ask students to discuss some or all of the following:

  • What do they think about the title of the song "The Voice of Freedom"?
  • Why did these young men take the risks they did to produce the clip?
  • How did the clip/lyrics affect students?  What feelings did it bring up?
  • What feelings do students think the young men went through as they produced the clip?
  • How do you think their life might be different from yours?  How might it be similar?

Back in the large group ask a few volunteers to share what they discussed in their microlabs.  If the students don't touch on it, you might raise for discussion some of the comments the young men made in the CNN interview, including:

  • their description of their weapons of "voice and guitar"
  • their comment that they "missed the curfew but ... didn't care," they "took the risk." 
  • their comment that "all the people all over the world, we want them to be inspired of what we did and do something, without blood ..."
  • How do your student think this clip might affect other young people in the Arab world and beyond?


Islam and Liberalism? (15 minutes)

In closing this lesson, read out two segments from Indonesian writer and East-West Center Fellow Endy Bayuni's op-ed "Liberalism Is Alive in the Arab World," for Now in The Jakarta Post (02/26/11) (online at http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2011/02/26/liberalism-alive-arab-world-now.html). 

First have students consider this definition of "liberalism" (from Merriam-Webster):

LIBERALISM (c): a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class)

After each segment of Bayuni's op-ed, ask your students some or all of the questions listed below it:

"One common theme in the uprisings that is rapidly changing the Middle East/North Africa map is the desire of the people to have freedom, justice, democracy, governance and prosperity. These are values academicians normally associate with classical liberalism [in the West]. Although conventional thinking makes the "L" word anathema to the Islam world, the message coming from these revolutions is that this is exactly what they want. Those taking to the streets or occupying the public squares in the major cities are telling their despot leaders that they can take it no more after decades of leading suppressed lives. They want a change, and for most, this means that the dictators and their regime must go before any meaningful transformation toward freedom and democracy can take place.

At the start of 2011, no one would have thought this possible in predominantly Muslim societies. The events seen in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tehran and other capital cities defy the widely held notion that Muslims, because of their religion, do not embrace the kind of values and principles that have been seen as exclusively Western."

Ask your students some or all of the following questions:

  • According to Bayuni what values are often associated with liberalism in the West?
  • What kind of values and principles are often ascribed to Islam and Muslim societies in the US?
  • What kinds of values does the popular media often attribute to Islam?
  • Have students heard about Samual Huntington's "clash of civilizations"?  We often hear that Islam is at odds with Western values like freedom and democracy, advocating instead values like totalitarianism, a lack of gender equality, a confluence between church and state and sharia (religious) law.
  • According to Bayuni, how do the recent uprisings in predominantly Muslim societies across the Middle East and North Africa defy these widely held notions about Muslims and their religion of Islam? 

Endy M. Bayuni continues his op-ed: 

"Those watching the changes in the Middle East and North Africa are now wondering whether democracy could take root among people who had no such tradition and whose religion, Islam, is widely considered to be incompatible with the values and principles of liberalism. The region's recent history of what happened after the downfall of authoritarian regimes is discouraging: in Iran, it led to the takeover by Islamists that turned the country into a strict Islamic state.

Democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq has only led to worst chaos and anarchy. Some conventional thinking even suggests that democracy in Arab countries would mean ‘one man, one vote, one time' and Islamists will override others in the first election and will quickly put these countries back in control of a new and worse form of authoritarian government.

But Egypt, Tunisia and other countries that follow suit arrive at their revolution through a completely different path. Theirs is a path inspired by the principles and values of liberalism, from freedom of expression, human rights and constitutions to free and fair elections. They have destroyed the myth that these values are contradictory to Islam. Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square held mass Friday prayers during the "Day of Rage" and "the Day of Departure."

... protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and other countries are united by their common desire for freedom, democracy and justice. There is nothing contradictory in what they desire with what Islam teaches them, but it is interesting to see that no one had tried to cloak their revolution with Islamic slogans the way the Iranians did when they launched their Islamic Revolution in 1979.

... Rather than looking at Iran, Afghanistan or Iraq, the experience of Indonesia and Turkey, two predominantly Muslim countries on the fringes of the Islamic world, provide some encouraging signs that democracy and Islam can coexist, and that while the Islamists have a role to play, they have to share the field with others, including groups founded upon liberalism, though not necessarily in name.

Those who espoused liberal values in Egypt and Tunisia - and they were the ones who braved the bullets and batons - have time to organize themselves into new political parties."

Ask students some or all of the following questions:

  • Bayuni points to the downfall of authoritarian regimes in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and calls it discouraging.  Why?
  • He then points to the recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Algeria.  What is his hope for these countries?
  • What countries does he point to as encouraging examples of democracy and Islam coexisting?


Closing & Homework

Share the following quotes on means and ends by Mohandas Gandhi.  (You might remind students that Gandhi helped India achieve independence from British colonial rule in 1947 through mass civil disobedience.)

"The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree: and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.

...They say ‘Means are after all means.'  I would say, ‘means are after all  everything.'  As the means so the ends.  There is no wall of separation between means and ends.

....If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself."

For homework, ask students how Gandhi's quotes relate to the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq versus to what has been happening across the Middle East and North Africa in recent months. 


The Voice of Freedom (20 min)


Sout Al Horeya/The Voice of Freedom

I went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.
Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.
In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling
We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.
If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, "I."
In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.
Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.
Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.
They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: "Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green."
I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed)

Ask students to read the lyrics through, twice if needed.  Instruct them to pick their favorite stanza and ask them to discuss it in pairs. 

Back in the big group ask students some or all of the following questions:

  • How does the stanza you picked relate to what you know about the events in the Middle East in recent months?
  • In what ways are you able to relate to it personally?
  • What are the dreams the young people refer to?
  • Do you think their dreams are the same or different from young people's dreams in the US?  Why do you think that is?
  • What do you think the young people behind this song were feeling? 
  • Do you think this feeling is conveyed in their lyrics?  How?  What words indicate these feelings?



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment by Marieke van Woerkom, a trainer and global facilitator who works as a staff developer for Morningside Center.

We welcome your comments. Please email them to Marieke at: marieke@vanwoerkomprojects.com,or to Morningside Center at: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.