Weeks before Egypt’s landmark presidential election, the State Department invited Grammy-nominated singer Maiysha to mentor aspiring female vocalists in a very tense Cairo.
The pop-soul artist from New York swatted away her friends’ security concerns, enlisted her mother as a traveling companion and, out of respect for the conservative Egyptian society, packed long-sleeve shirts and ankle-length skirts.
“Of course, I get there and there’s eyeliner, leggings and tank tops,” Maiysha recounted this week with a laugh. “It’s easy to sit on this side of the world, so-called Western civilization, and have ideas about women in a predominantly Muslim country.”
Fostering that kind of eye-opening cultural exchange was the point of the State Department’s initial push of artists, academics and business leaders into nations undergoing transformations after the wave of Arab Spring uprisings. And it’s also what’s at stake as the Obama administration issues travel warnings and yanks personnel from its besieged diplomatic missions across the Muslim world.
The State Department on Monday issued a travel warning for Lebanon, the latest Middle Eastern country the U.S. government has deemed unsafe for American travelers because of the recent spasm of violence, capped by the death of the popular American ambassador to Libya, that’s partly in response to a crude video disparaging Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
All but essential diplomatic personnel have been pulled from Sudan, while U.S. citizens are urged to avoid or use extreme caution in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and other places where protesters have targeted American facilities.
The State Department calls the moves warranted precautionary measures for a volatile region; critics counter that the department is overcompensating for being caught off guard in the vicious attack on its lightly guarded consulate in Benghazi, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died last week.
Maiysha said the unrest wouldn’t have prevented her from returning to Egypt, where she gave pep talks to young women who weren’t sure what kind of future they’d have as musicians in the new Egypt. They bonded, she said, over shared influences such as Whitney Houston and Broadway show tunes.
“There wasn’t a new regime in place yet, and it was important to hear from women who didn’t even know if they were going to be allowed to sing on stage,” Maiysha said. “That was the most gripping part.”
The State Department’s latest travel alert for Lebanon said that the Fulbright and English Language Fellow programs, which send Americans to work or study abroad, had been suspended “because of the deteriorating security situation and the increased possibility of attacks against U.S. citizens in Lebanon.” Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the powerful Hezbollah militant organization, has called for anti-American protests in response to the offensive video clip.
A letter that went out to Fulbright scholars announcing the abrupt end of their studies in Lebanon said that the State Department program suspensions would be in effect “until the situation stabilizes in Lebanon.”
“Well, that could be forever,” said an exasperated Pamela Nice, a filmmaker and teacher who was only halfway through her Fulbright grant to implement a critical-thinking program for a university just outside of Beirut.
“The door is just opening, and I don’t want this door to close,” she added.
Apart from losing valuable on-the-ground perspective of the new political realities of the Middle East, the stringent new security precautions will hamper the government’s ability to use American soft power, the quiet infusing of U.S. values into societies struggling to find new identities – and new relationships with the United States – after decades of autocracy.
Meanwhile, the restive nations are losing not only tourist dollars as nervous Americans heed the travel warnings, but also a battle against extremist forces that are at odds with the young revolutionaries who sought Western-style civil liberties and legitimacy among the international community.
“At a time when the United States seems very much in need of public diplomacy in the Middle East, in cases such as these, scholars, the host countries and the American public are all losers,” said Maurice Pomerantz, a Fulbright scholar who’d planned to spend the year teaching comparative literature in Lebanon but was relocated to Jordan because of the State Department’s security concerns.
“Programs of academic and cultural exchange are often the first things to be eliminated, whether in cases of political unrest or domestic budget cuts,” he said. “Yet it is in these areas that the most valuable and lasting connections are actually forged.”
Pomerantz was given a week to leave Lebanon; he’d only been in country a month. While he was grateful for the help in finding an alternative location in neighboring Jordan, Pomerantz said, he was disappointed over the lost opportunities.
“I had hoped that program officials would have been willing to wait longer to see how these political events would develop, or at least have given me the option to return, were the situation to improve,” he said.
Nice, the other Fulbright scholar who was barred from returning to Lebanon, echoed the disappointment over missed chances. Her project was designed to help a Lebanese university overhaul its teaching model from a lecture-based system, a staple of authoritarian regimes, to a more collaborative model in which students participate.
Nice already had laid the groundwork with the Lebanese faculty – she said she was “amazed” at their commitment to the plan – and was scheduled to return this month to follow up with implementation. If she isn’t able to return before May, she said, she’s at risk of losing her entire Fulbright grant. Her project would be doomed.
“There’s big upheaval in their societies and it may be risky, but this is the time to get in there and support people working for democratic change,” she said. “It’s not like people are going and they’re naive. Part of the commitment to working abroad is recognizing that there’s a certain amount of risk involved.”