Social Scientists Work Amid Rising Suspicion
Social scientists in the Arab world say that governments are increasingly treating their profession with suspicion. Requests for data and access to national archives are routinely blocked by government agencies on the grounds of protecting national security.
As has long been the case, academics in some Arab countries must seek permission before they even ask the public questions. Surveys and their content must be approved by the state. But researchers say requests to do polls or conduct archival research are increasingly being turned down.
“The number of rejections is staggeringly high. In fact they don’t reject you; they just don’t approve you,” says Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo and a visiting professor at Harvard University. “They never tell you why you weren’t accepted.”
This culture, social scientists say, means their research is fraught with difficulties, which make their findings less accurate and more speculative. Often government rejections can completely block a research project from getting started — which may well be the government’s intent.
The situation varies across region, with some governments such as Egypt’s sitting at the stricter end of the spectrum, while other countries such as Lebanon are a little less rigid if a researcher has the right connections. But in almost every Arab country researchers have an uphill battle to get governments to release data, says Sari Hanafi, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at the American University of Beirut, with governments leery of academics’ political intentions.
“They don’t want to empower researchers to interfere,” he explains.
Many researchers are circumventing the system, taking the risk of not bothering to seek state permission to carry out their research. But some academics that were interviewed for this story said they now fear for their lives if they do so. Other experts argue the real crux of the problem is not so much over-reaching governments, but rather a lack of clarity on the rules.
Fahmy, currently living in the United States, has just submitted a manuscript for a book he’s been working on for the last decade, a social history of Egypt over the last two hundred years.
More specifically, he’s been researching the intersections between Egypt’s legal system and its medical institutions, including occasions when members of the general public demand an autopsy of a deceased loved one because they suspect foul play by the authorities.
Fahmy says research such as his, which touches on politically and socially sensitive topics, often requires government permission.
But from the authorities’ point of view, the most worrisome kind of social research appears to be when academics to go into the field to survey the local population.
In Egypt, such work requires a scholar to procure a permit from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) beforehand — though many go around it and take the risk of conducting illegal surveys, says Fahmy.
“CAPMAS is a state organization founded in the mid-1960s, and as you can guess by its name, it has military connotations and is still headed by a military person,” he explains.
In addition to approving and refusing applications to do research, the agency gathers national statistics and conducts the census. “In that respect, it does good stuff,” says Fahmy, “but it also monitors research, because it’s founded on the principle that data is for the military.”
That premise leads to disconnected thinking between the government and academics.
The agency doesn’t think of data, says Fahmy, “as raw material that generates information for knowledge production. They think of data as a precious, finite material that has to be protected in how it’s collected and disseminated in case it undermines national stability.”
At the very center of government thinking lies a fear that any information, no matter how benign, in the public or academic domain has the potential to be used against Egypt by its enemies, says Reem Saad, a social anthropologist at the American University in Cairo.
In other words, the government sees social scientists and historians as having the potential to unwittingly engage in espionage.
Social scientists are not the only professionals who operate in what many academics call Egypt’s paranoid atmosphere. “They’re targeting just about anyone who may challenge the official narrative, photographers and journalists for example,” says Saad. “It’s a desire to monopolize information and the national narrative. It’s about depriving people of information that would enable them to hold the government accountable.”
In short, no one is really exempt. “When it comes to research, it’s hard to think of a topic that wouldn’t worry someone whether it’s environmental science, urban planning, refugees or whatever,” says Seteney Shami, director general of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. “Almost any issue in this fragile atmosphere can worry a government department.”
“There’s a special worry about the social sciences because they write in more accessible languages than scientists,” she added.
In Lebanon, the Central Bureau of Statistics “has good information about the result of its surveys but does not give researchers any access to data by locality,” says Hanafi.
Hanafi has spent five years studying the challenges that social scientists face across the Arab world, conducting interviews with academics from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. Reliable data is hard to come by, he says.
For example, he notes, “the Moroccan Interior Ministry prohibited in August 2016 any public opinion polls except for market research.”
In Lebanon, it’s not impossible to get hold of government statistics says Paul Tabar, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the Lebanese American University. But it is, he adds, “a hassle.”
“Personal acquaintances and contacts go a long way,” he says. With a careful word in the right ear, a researcher can eventually get the data they need.
Sometimes the data just doesn’t exist. For example, Lebanon hasn’t conducted a census since it was a French colony. “There are political reasons,” says Tabar. “If you do a census then you know the numbers of each religious sect, which will lead to a different reading in the share of power in parliament.”
Some academics in Egypt believe that the Egyptian authorities had a hand in the murder and torture of Italian scholar Giulio Regeni and say his death marked the beginning of a new era. Some Egyptian researchers now believe they may be risking their lives if they carry out their work without seeking government approval. Regeni was researching the role of trade unions in Egypt, a politically sensitive topic. The murder showed the government was prepared to go further than intimidation and jail sentences to suppress academic freedom, some academics argue.
Fahmy says the government casts an air of suspicion over researchers, treating them as one notch down from a spy.
Shami believes one of the most important issues to tackle is increasing the awareness and clarity of the rules regulating social-science research in the region. She doesn’t argue for researchers to be given carte blanche.
“I don’t think there is any state in the world that doesn’t try to control information,” she says. “They should do what they need to do. I think the problem is that there are no clear guidelines on what researchers can and can’t do.”
That was certainly the experience of Hanafi, the American University of Beirut researcher, with the Egyptian statistics agency. “I submitted for permission to conduct research about the Palestinian community in Egypt in 1995 and never got a reply,” he says.
Over the decades, such silence and many outright rejections have created a vacuum of data about those who live in the 22 Arab countries.
“It harms Egypt in many ways. It undermines the process of knowledge production,” says Fahmy. “Egypt is a poor country, but it’s rich in its society. When you kill the spirit of inquiry, you undermine the single most important asset that Egypt has.”
“It’s a huge loss, the region is less researched,” says Shami. “It means the research that is produced is not as solid as it could be.”