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.”)
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
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.”)