food / travel

Meet The First European Union Exchange Student In Iran

Italian Valentina Simeone's eyes were opened by her six months at Tehran University, yet another breakthrough in relations between Iran and the West.

Valentina Simeone and one of her teachers at Tehran University
Valentina Simeone and one of her teachers at Tehran University
Federico Taddia

TEHRAN â€" Valentina Simeone hails from the city of Cagliari on the Italian island of Sardinia, but has spent the past six months a world away â€" in Iran.

The 21-year-old became the first ever European Union exchange student to the Middle Eastern country, studying Farsi at Tehran University under the Erasmus Program, a EU student exchange program established in 1987. Though Erasmus had partnerships with other non-EU countries, such opportunities were unavailable in Iran until the recent warming of relations with the West that led up to the successful negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.

Simeone has bright eyes and unruly long brown hair held back by a colorful hijab, the Muslim veil common in Iran. “At first it was a bit traumatic, since I spoke only a few words of Farsi and it was hard to find any English speakers,” she says. “Thankfully the mother of one my old university professors lives in Tehran, and she helped me find a place in the female dorm and work through the university bureaucracy.”

Along with her hijab, Simeone kept with the modest dress often expected of women in the country: Her coat reached her knees, and she never exposed her elbows. “I thought my behavior and style of dress would alienate me from other students, but that faded quickly and then everything went well,” she says. “Sometimes while walking on the street women would scold me for not completely covering my hair or for wearing a cropped shirt, but when they found out I was a foreigner they would apologize.”

When she had free time outside of studying for her exams, Simeone came face-to-face with other unfamiliar aspects of Iranian culture. “Iranian female students almost never speak to male classmates, but I chatted with them and never had any problems,” she says.

She didn't go out drinking in nightclubs, which is legally prohibited in Iran though increasingly common in underground locales. Instead, she whiled away the time in the many local tea and coffee shops, but with Facebook blocked, Simeone had to find new ways to stay in touch with her friends and family. She maintained her ties to home alive by cooking pasta for her Iranian roommates, just as she sampled Iranian kebabs.

Simeone was in Tehran when the nuclear deal was approved and global sanctions were lifted, an invaluable look at a unique time in Iranian history. “Young people were very energized, and the first immediate effect you could see was a surge in tourist arriving,” she says. “They want to get to know the West and drive Iran’s future development.”

In addition to improving her grasp of Farsi, Simeone's stay allowed her to decide on the topic of her dissertation: Iranian-Italian relations. “My experience helped me reflect on many things, especially the unwavering faith of the students I met in Tehran,” she says. “It’s not a burden, it’s a gift that shines through in all their actions, and this led me to reexamine my faith and deepen my understanding of my own identity.”

After she graduates, Simeone plans on entering the Italian foreign service. “When I told locals I was Italian, they were fascinated. They know a lot more about Italy than we know about their country,” she says. Perhaps she will take her singular experience as Iran’s first European exchange student to the front lines of Iranian-European diplomacy, and aid the ancient country’s burgeoning reintegration with the wider world.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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