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Arab Uprisings Echo in the Social Sciences

CAIRO—The uprisings that swept the Arab world starting in Tunisia almost four years ago have created momentous political shifts, propelled social change and led to a surge in Islamic militancy across the region.

They also ignited changes in the social sciences and uncovered the breadth of challenges facing research and development of academic disciplines in the Arab world.

The most evident shift is in the topics being discussed, academics indicate. “If you open academic journals you will find the impact of the Arab Spring is very strong—the issues, the articles, the titles, the information, talking about Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia,” said Adnan El Amine, founder of the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies, which is working on a research project that emerged because of the uprisings. (The project is looking at the extent to which Arab universities teach knowledge and skills related to public life, including issues of political participation and citizenship.)

The best publications are by professors teaching at the university level, he said. “So we can assume the impact was huge on producing knowledge.”

Florian Kohstall, head of Freie Universität Berlin’s office in Cairo, said the Arab uprisings provided social scientists both inside and outside the Middle East broad opportunities to reconsider paradigms and conceptual frameworks. For example, scholars working on the Middle East had for a long time concentrated their efforts on explaining the stability of authoritarian regimes, Kohstall said at a September roundtable discussion in central Cairo. “Middle Eastern studies was branded, somehow, as a status of exceptionality because most of the countries have been ruled by kings and presidents for decades,” he said. But the Arab uprisings questioned that status.

They also allowed scholars to focus on previously neglected subjects such as the role of the new media, powerful social mobilization—such as protest movements—and the negative effects of some economic reforms, Kohstall said. They provided an opportunity for fieldwork, generated a lot of interest from different institutions that finance research and created more chances for cooperation among researchers from the countries concerned and among researchers working on the Middle East, he said.

Yet Kohstall says it is still unclear how knowledge acquired from research over the last three years will flow back into disciplines. Others agree with that assessment. “Scholarship cannot change very, very quickly,” said Seteney Shami, founding director of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, a regional nonprofit organization headquartered in Beirut. “It can respond to particular events but it’s always dependent on the capacity that exists, on researchers who are working on a particular area and their expertise.”

Still, it is clear that topics of focus have shifted with particular interest in four main subjects: mobilization (such as protests and political movements), state response to that mobilization, Islamic militancy and the impact of uprisings on societies, economies and other factors, Shami said. Among other changes, there are also more venues and outlets for circulating analysis, opinions and ideas. And people lacking expertise are now talking about the relevant issues, which can have drawbacks but is not necessarily negative, Shami said.

In the short term, the shifts showed the need for people who can comment on sociopolitical scenarios, which could increase support for the social sciences, Shami said. In the long-term, whether global interest in the region will translate into strengthening social science is an open question, she said, as social science can’t suddenly be produced when universities or institutions in the region are not producing the experts. Arab universities, with a few exceptions, have not been particularly strong in the social sciences and the best students have not sought the social sciences out, often being steered into engineering or medicine.

Those aren’t the only challenges facing prospects of long-term change.

In Egypt, the social sciences have continued to struggle with new challenges and with the legacy of ones that existed prior to the country’s 2011 uprising, said Judy Barsalou, president of the El-Hibri Foundation in Washington, D.C. and a social scientist herself. “Prior to the uprising you had serious problems of available resources with Egyptian universities, overcrowded classrooms, poor libraries, huge student-professor ratios and a problem of quality control in general and standards of teaching and research,” she said.

During and after the uprising, universities became sites of demonstrations by students and faculty, she said, and reforms that supported university autonomy either didn’t succeed or didn’t stick. The Egyptian president now appoints university presidents and deans, police have been allowed back on campuses and politically affiliated student groups have been banned from universities as part of state-led effort to crush Islamists. In that atmosphere of political violence and polarization, it’s questionable which subjects political scientists can discuss in the classroom, Kohstall says.

“From a general point of view, as long as university autonomy is not established, social science research is very difficult to pursue,” he said. “If you want real research you need university autonomy and you also need the security to pursue it.”

Those issues are pertinent in Libya, where access to education has been threatened by rising conservative ideologies and violence between rivaling factions in the wake of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 ouster. At the University of Benghazi, “we have students who are coming and are just hit by a rocket or a gun,” said Amal Obeidi, an associate professor in the political science department at the university.

Speaking at the recent roundtable discussion in Cairo, she said women are particularly at risk. Not only is it growing increasingly difficult for them to attend university, but some conservatives now seek to bar women’s participation in politics, Obeidi said. “Imagine how we are going to talk about the situation of the social sciences if women are excluded from the whole process of building a country.”

Libya’s uprising, however, made way for collaborative projects, including one between the University of Benghazi and the Netherlands’ Leiden University called Access to Justice and Institutional Development in Libya. “Cooperation is one of the main aspects of which we are very proud,” Obeidi said.

New collaborations are also taking place elsewhere. In 2011, the German government launched the German-Arab Transformation Partnership, which will be extended next year to include university partners across Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco, Libya and Yemen. It aims to support the development of curricula, help establish international student exchanges and improve teaching in partner countries, among other objectives.

In Egypt, the program has involved an exchange between German, Libyan and Egyptian students as well as a conference, a summer school and curriculum development, said Ola El Khawaga, academic supervisor of the EuroMed Studies program at Cairo University, a partner in the program. It led to the birth of a course called “Europe and Transformations in the Arab Region,” expected to be offered at Cairo University in the spring semester of 2015.

Currently, however, no single course at the university is dedicated mainly to the Arab Spring, said El Khawaga, who suggests social scientists from across the region meet to discuss how curricula can change in light of political shifts. “The issue of transformation of social sciences is a huge project,” she said. “We should tackle this matter deeply.”


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