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The Door for Many Middle East Scholars is Slamming Shut

Many academics who study the Middle East say they are working in a climate of increased repression and paranoia.

Scholars have never found it easy to research the many topics deemed “sensitive” by authoritarian Arab regimes. The Arab uprisings four years ago briefly promised a new era of greater openness. But now foreign scholars in particular say they fear being denied access to the countries they study if they focus on taboo topics or are publicly critical of government policies.

Fanny is a young French political sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. In July, as part of her research, she travelled to the Egyptian town of Damietta to meet members of April 6, a pro-democracy student movement that opposes the country’s military regime and was banned in 2014. At 4 a.m. on July 2, she says about ten policemen and intelligence officers came to her hotel room, detained her, and searched her belongings. They then drove her to the airport in Cairo and forced her to buy a ticket out of the country. She said in a blog post that she was never given an official reason for her expulsion. “I heard there were similar cases,” she wrote. “I believe the regime had been watching me before they arrested me, probably since I entered Egyptian national territory. This I can’t be sure of. But they may have an eye on every researcher/journalist entering the country.”

The Egyptian military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, following mass protests, in the summer of 2013. The new regime, headed by retired general Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, has cracked down on terrorists but also on peaceful opponents across the political spectrum.

“I don’t think anybody [today] is trying to do a research project that went through official channels that has the words ‘military’ or ‘security’ or ‘Muslim Brotherhood,’” says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University and president of the Middle East Studies Association.

Some scholars are putting off conducting field work in Egypt, and won’t send graduate students there. “Part of the nervousness comes from the fact that almost anything you do in Egypt is potentially illegal. The entire society operates in a legal grey zone,” says Brown.

Michelle Dunne is a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In December 2014, she was invited to a conference organized by a think tank connected to Egypt’s foreign ministry. But she was turned back upon arrival at the Cairo airport. Dunne has been an outspoken critic of the human rights abuses and authoritarianism of the current government. “I think they wanted to make an example out of me in order to inspire self-censorship in other people,” she says. “It’s very likely to be successful in making people hesitate to put pen to paper or, if they do, being really indirect in what they say.”

The small oil-rich Persian Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates has also used expulsions and black lists against several scholars. In March of this year, a New York University professor, Andrew Ross, was prevented from boarding a plane to the United Arab Emirates. Ross has been a vocal critic of the UAE’s labor practices and human rights record, and of NYU’s establishment of a branch campus there. In May, Walid Raad, an artist, associate professor at Cooper Union, and advocate for migrant laborers, was also banned from entering the country. Like Egypt, the UAE has shut down or banned international NGOs and curtailed freedom of expression.

“It’s incredible when I see the difference between what people were saying on Twitter and Facebook in 2011 and now,” says Matt Duffy, a journalism professor who taught at Zayed University, in Abu Dhabi, until his contract and visa were suddenly revoked in 2012. “Everyone understands that no one should say anything critical about the UAE, and certainly not expat professors.”

“It’s very important to have physical access to the country you’re researching. Otherwise you can’t claim to have expertise on it,” says Christopher Davidson, a reader in Middle East politics at Durham University who has written several critical studies of Gulf countries and whose latest book is called After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. Davidson says he has not been banned from the UAE, but he is persona non grata in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Young academics with little job insecurity are unlikely to take the kind of critical stances that could lose them access, argues Davidson.

“A lot of the insecurity that people have about conducting research in the Gulf is driven by incidents,” notes Andrew Gardner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Puget Sound in the United States. “We never have a clear criteria of what we can and can’t do. There is a veil of tribal authoritarianism we can’t see through.”

But he believes foreign scholars yield too easily to self-censorship. Gardner has written studies of migrant laborers in Bahrain and Qatar that are clear on the injustices and indignities they suffer. But he says he believes in collaborating with local scholars and avoiding what he calls “the politics of humiliation.” Shaming local regimes too vociferously is counterproductive, he argues.

“Who knows, next time I’m over there for a project maybe I’ll be the one deported or refused entry. But until that happens, I’ll continue to be open, optimistic, collaborative, constructive, trying to make the situation better for everyone involved,” he says.

While Gardner has opted for engagement, others have burned their bridges. Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, has condemned the actions of Egypt’s military government. He has also decided not to visit the country anymore. Partly this is a symbolic stand, he says. “If this is the kind of place Egypt is going to be,” he says, “they should pay the price. Treating it as a normal place when it’s not I think is wrong.”

Lynch says he knows many scholars working “under the radar” and respects their decision to do so. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths. A European Ph.D. student who requested anonymity has been working in Egypt since 2010, researching labor relations. In 2012 he was questioned by the security services and told to “choose another country.”

The young researcher went on visiting a factory town, hiding in the back seat of a rented car when it passed police roadblocks on the way there. But “It’s been tricky to make new contacts,” he says. “People are extremely afraid of talking.” He also suffers from “the mental part of all this—the stress and anxiety and the feeling you’re a criminal when you’re not.”

“I’ve wondered every day if it was worth it,” he says. But “you don’t want to risk being excluded from the one place where you’ve invested so much time and effort, the geographical focus of all your academic endeavors.”

It’s hard to measure the extent to which Middle East specialists face intimidation because many prefer not to draw attention to any difficulties they have. “When a scholar gets into trouble, he or she thinks: if I can cast it differently, if I do it in a different country etc,” says Brown.

Local academics can face much more dire consequences if they run afoul of the authorities. In May, Emad Shahin, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, was tried in absentia alongside former president Morsi on charges of espionage, and sentenced to death.

Arab scholars almost always carry out research in their own countries, says Seteney Shami, director-general of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences in Beirut, so the challenges they face aren’t usually about getting across borders. In counties devastated by conflict, such as Syria, Iraq or Libya, there is very little academic work of any kind going on. In others, Shami, whose organization gives research grants to scholars across the region, says she has noted “a lot of nervousness…from our grantees. They don’t know what’s going to be seen as controversial, as political.”

It has always been difficult to get permission to carry out certain kinds of research, says Shami, but it may be that “governments are more aware and more interested in controlling work by researchers” since the upheavals of the Arab Spring. Social media threatens long-standing official monopolies on information, stoking authorities’ “fear of the wrong information in the wrong hands—even if they’re not sure what the information might be.”

Foreign scholars and local researchers alike, then, must pursue their scholarship in the region in the face of restrictions, suspicions and the chilling effect they all face.


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