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Jeannie Sowers, photo by Erin Gleason/UNH Photographic Services
Professor Jeannie Sowers

Assistant professor Jeannie Sowers has been teaching political science at UNH since 2006. She's come full circle to New Hampshire, growing up in Spofford and Keene, N.H., then on to college at Harvard and graduate school at Princeton, teaching in Iowa and now home again. She specializes in the Middle East and environmental politics and policy, and so her work takes her overseas. Next stop Dubai. She tries to get to Egypt, her primary research site, every few years.

Q: What's special about Egypt's environmental problems?

A: You really only have one source of water, the Nile. Most people live along the river and in the Nile delta.

Q: If the sea level rises . . .

A: It will flood densely populated areas. Last summer was one of the hottest on record. For the Middle East, climate change is not in the future, it's now. It's exacerbating problems they've dealt with for centuries. Like drought. We have entered a period of very low rainfall for Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Syria. It doesn't matter what's causing these changes. Climate change poses dire hazards that need to be addressed now.

Q: What would a 70-year-old Egyptian say has changed in his lifetime?

A: How the urban areas are more polluted and crowded. A myth about Egypt is that it doesn't change much. In fact, the pace of change is dramatic. A 70-year-old remembers colonial rule. He remembers Egypt under a monarchy and a parliamentary democratic system. He witnessed the birth of a state-controlled economy and an authoritarian regime when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in the mid-1950s.

Q: How should the United States proceed in the Middle East?

A: The expectation that the United States can actively intervene to change governments in its own image is less powerful than it was. I think the United States can constructively pressure regimes in the Middle East. But there was an arrogance to U.S. policy. Because many of us know only our system, we think other places have it wrong, that they don't understand the value of freedom or democracy or capitalism. People in these places can articulate very well what they need. But many times neither the United States nor their own government listens to them.

Q: We say, "Here's what you need to do."

A: As opposed to listening.

Q: So when you meet with Barack Obama . . . ?

A: I wish! I think the administration is doing a good job of trying to recast the tone. But to change perceptions of U.S. interests and how they relate to the Middle East within the United States itself, that's much harder. There may be irreconcilable differences

Q: There are irreconcilable differences in my town of Northwood. There are always irreconcilable differences.

A: In an Israeli-Palestinian community that I studied, their perspective was "living with the conflict." You don't have to convert people to your point of view. You simply have to hear them and learn to live with their perspective, even if you profoundly disagree with it. In teaching I encourage students to engage with people, events and experiences, without having to embrace them. Just allow them to be.

Q: What do you love about your work?

A: That I never fully understand it. The Middle East is always changing and so are its politics and environment. I also love the culture. Egyptians put up with extraordinary difficulties, from getting a job to educating their children to dealing with corrupt government officials. Yet most people are warm, hospitable and generous, and they have the best sense of humor. It's like having Jon Stewart around all the time. ~

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