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Arab Political Scientists Find New Support

Political science, perhaps even more than other social sciences, is the ugly duckling of the academic disciplines in the Arab World. It is reviled and mistrusted by governments unwilling to be critically examined, starved of research funds and often lacking the skills and resources of the discipline in the West, and faced with dilemmas about where and in what language to publish.

In the face of these challenges, the Arab Political Science Network was created earlier this year. The network, known as APSN, describes itself as “a scholarly collaborative initiative that seeks to support, enhance and increase scholars’ research and teaching outputs … with special emphasis on scholars based in Arab countries.”

The core of the new network has been recruited from among the young political scientists and doctoral students who participated in workshops organized in the region over the past half-dozen years by the American Political Science Association.

Several senior American scholars have helped guide the new group.

Sultan Alamer, a Saudi Arabian doctoral student at George Washington University and one of the network’s main organizers, says the group aims to build up the professional capacity of political scientists working in the Middle East and North Africa by mobilizing foundation grants to support workshops and research, and to fund travel for scholars to work on collaborative projects and attend academic conferences.

In a region where political science is underfunded, under-skilled, and constrained by the constant threat of repression, the aim is to help “Arab political scientists to improve their research and publications output, and to bypass the antagonisms between Arab countries and collaborate in a nonpartisan way,” says Alamer.

Events in Beirut and Washington

The network’s first event was a research development workshop held in Beirut in April to provide critical feedback on research manuscripts by six early-career Arab scholars from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. Research topics included authoritarianism, protests and collective action, regional dynamics, and cities and urban politics in the Arab world.

This past weekend, the network held a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., that brought together several dozen political science graduate students and faculty members from Arab countries and the United States to discuss the state of the discipline in the Arab region. The event was held on the sidelines of the massive annual meeting of American Political Science Association.

Scholars spoke about the twin scourges of a severe lack of funding for research, and “red lines”—taboo subjects in each country on which research is not tolerated. Faculty members often have heavy teaching loads and are still forced to do consulting to supplement their meager university salaries. This leaves them with little time, energy, or resources to carry out research projects, said Lisa Anderson, a professor emerita of international relations at Columbia University and a former president of the American University in Cairo.

“So, governments don’t have to prevent research from being carried out,” she said, “they just don’t fund it.”

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said that even as the upheavals sparked by the 2011 Arab Spring have given the discipline exciting new subject matter, conditions for scholars have gotten harder. Research permits are more difficult to obtain and the consequences for angering authorities with embarrassing research results have gotten more serious.

“It is hard to find a country in the region where conditions have not gotten worse for doing research in the last five or six years,” he said. (See a related article, “The Door for Many Middle East Scholars Is Slamming Shut.”)

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Repression of Scholars

While local academics are the most vulnerable, in a few prominent cases Western scholars have fallen victim. Late last year, Italian prosecutors named several members of Egypt’s national security agency as suspects in the torture and killing of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Italian doctoral student at the University of Cambridge whose battered body was found in Egypt in February 2016.

The murder has still not been solved but the chief prosecutor in Rome said last year that he believed Regeni was killed because of his research into trade unions in Egypt. (See a related article, “The Price of Egypt’s Anti-Cosmopolitanism.”)

The region's turbulent politics offer rich material for political scientists, but they struggle with repression and a lack of funding (Photo: APSNTwitter).
The region’s turbulent politics offer rich material for political scientists, but they struggle with repression and a lack of funding (Photo: APSNTwitter).

In another case, last November, Matthew Hedges, a doctoral student at Durham University in the United Kingdom, was pardoned after spending six months in prison in the United Arab Emirates, where he had been convicted of spying for the British government. Hedges had been researching the U.A.E.’s security policy and denied the spying charge. (See a related article, “Spy Conviction May Chill U.A.E. Research.”)

In a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, what little social science research is done is supported by outside organizations. In Morocco, for example, the European Commission and several U.N. agencies provide some funding. “It is mostly in such areas as migration, security, and terrorism,” said Saloua Zerhouni, an associate professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco.

“Research is largely defined by the international community,” Zerhouni said. “If I think other problems are important, I cannot find funding.”

To promote locally determined research, Zerhouni and some colleagues in 2011 founded an independent think tank, Rabat Social Studies Institute, which is supported by several Western funders.

Publishing, but Not for a Local Audience

Where to publish is also a thorny issue. Zerhouni publishes much of her work in journals in the United States and Europe, in English and French. Due to the near absence of peer-reviewed academic journals in political science in Arabic, scholars from the region say publishing in the West, especially in English, is essential to gain an international reputation.

But this presents a quandary for Zerhouni and others. “When you publish in English, you won’t have an impact on public opinion in Morocco. And our students who don’t speak English don’t have access to the latest research and analysis. For researchers, it’s a dilemma.”

The way to be relevant and influence policy debates in their own countries, says Hamad Albloshi, an assistant professor at Kuwait University who has published widely on Kuwaiti politics and on Iranian domestic and foreign policies, is to appear on television, write newspaper columns or social media blogs, or give public lectures.

Then there are the “red lines.” In almost every Arab country, there are certain subjects that are off-limits. Scholars may try to walk up to those lines in their research, or go a little further if they publish in another language. But they know that crossing the lines can lead to punishments ranging from dismissal from their university job to imprisonment or worse.

In Morocco, for example, the taboos include public opinion about the monarchy, the conflict over control of the Western Sahara, religion, the unequal inheritance rights of men and women, and LGBT issues. (See a related article, “Arab Researchers Face Challenges in Studying Sexual Orientation.”)

One of the key goals of the new network, say a number of its supporters, is to promote collaboration within the region. “I have more collaboration with my colleagues in the West than in my region,” said Zerhouni. “We need to develop networks of researchers in the region so they can collaborate with each other.”


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