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Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring

[American University in Cairo downtown campus. Image Source:] [American University in Cairo downtown campus. Image Source:]

I would like to share with this short piece a concern that several of us in academia in Cairo have been facing with the impact of the Arab Spring, to point to some frustrations regarding the continuing unequal academic relationship between so-called “local” and Western experts of the Middle East, between broadly speaking the North and the South (although this classification is clearly clichéd), and the reshuffling of the international division of labour in the academic field whereby inequality is and will still be prevailing.

Without sounding xenophobic, which is a growing concern that personally worries me more than ever, there is much to say about the ongoing international academic division of labour whereby the divide between the so called “theoreticians” of the North and the “informants” who are also “objects of study” in the South continues to grow.

I am indeed speaking of frustrations because “we” as “locals” have been experiencing a situation, time and again, of being reduced to becoming at best “service providers” for visiting scholars, a term I borrowed from my colleague, political scientist Emad Shahin, at worst like the French would put it, as the “indigène de service”, for ironically the right cause of the revolution. To rather cater for the service of our Western expert colleagues who typically make out of no more than a week's stay in Cairo, a few shots and a tour around Tahrir, the ticket to tag themselves with the legitimacy and expertise of first hand knowledge.

It is no secret that the Arab revolutions have revived academic interest in the region in a clearly positive manner. This is to be certainly welcomed because it has marked a new phase that will possibly end the dreadful misdoings of the 9/11 effect. It is certainly a promising new phase that will hopefully be unmaking the evil damage of Bin Laden.

But for the local community of academics, in particular what concerns my colleagues at the American University in Cairo, many of us have come up recently with similar observations. Namely the bewilderment at the lavish grants and scholarships that many of our Western colleagues have recently benefited from to research our beloved revolution. Many of us have been bombarded by emails from Western colleagues for such service providing.

Now, I do not mean to express any sort of unjustified resentment towards our Western colleagues, who enjoy definitively far better conditions regarding teaching load, travel allowances and research grants. Never mind still, if in the academic international division of labour, we as “locals” are still struggling to scale up to buy time to undertake research and to write. Nevertheless, I think that there is a price to be paid for being on the spot of events and for not being at Princeton, Harvard or Oxford universities. Indeed, I think that AUC ought to be proud of its younger generation of politically and socially committed academics I personally know, and who made a conscious choice to return back and live in Cairo and work there.

This said, it is no coincidence that many belonging to our scientific community have recently felt somehow “misused” through being overwhelmed by Western tourist-revolutionary academics in search of “authentic” Tahrir revolutionaries, needing “service providers” for research assistants, for translating, and newspaper summaries, for first hand testimonies, and time and again as providers of experts and young representatives for forthcoming abounding conferences on the Arab Spring in the West. “Cherchez”, the authentic revolutionary in each corner of the city, is the fashionable mood of these times. In theory, there is nothing wrong with providing services, had the relationship been equal, which was unfortunately never the case.

Another point of concern was made clear to me through my ongoing dialogue with Emad Shahin who pointed to the following issues: the level of commitment of some Western academics to their subject matter, and the return the region gets on the provision of service. Many overnight Middle East experts show a remarkable tendency to pursue sensational and market-driven topics and readily switch interest as the market forces fluctuate. One day they are self-proclaimed experts on “political Islam” or “Islam and gender” and another, they are authority on “the Arab Spring” and “pro-democracy revolutions”. This superficial and business-oriented handling of crucial developments and changes in the area affects how the peoples of the region are perceived and how policies are shaped in the West.

Malaysian sociologist S Farid Alatas argued as he promoted the idea of the necessity of establishing an indigenous sociology through a modern reading of the work of Ibn Khaldun and state formation that such a move has to be undertaken parallel with the rethinking of curricula and syllabi in non-Western academic contexts. Furthermore, he argued that until today, textbooks specialising in sociological theory reveal a flagrant subject-object contradiction, which has been previously highlighted in the debate on Orientalism.

Namely, that European thinkers remain pervasively as the “knowing subjects” whereas non-Europeans continue to be the “objects of observations and analyses of European theorists”. Unless these issues are not brought up on the table of research agendas I am afraid that much will be said in the name of the revolution while perpetrating the same inequalities and Orientalist attitudes that are mostly felt in the job market, and in evaluating “whose knowledge counts more” in academe.

[This article first appeared in Ahram Online]

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10 comments for "Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring"


I have mixed feelings about this article, but am very glad you wrote it.

I'm one of the Egyptian-Americans who returned to Cairo to work here. Although I had spent 2009-10 in Egypt and Palestine I returned in May of this year because of the revolution.

Let's just say that after three weeks of the cruelest bullying and harassment I've ever seen much less imagined I decided to quit. I worked in very competitive environments in the US and never experienced anything like this. While I'm sure this type of thing happens anywhere, I'm told this is commonplace here.

Judith Orr, a British leftist academic said earlier this year that the Egy revolution is a monumental historic event that will be studied for generations. So whatever difficulties in the relationship with Western academics exist, they will need to be worked out somehow. Or maybe not.

Yasmine wrote on September 27, 2011 at 07:16 AM

Do forgive the broad labels I may use, but dare I make mention of the ones who walk the line between both categories, the new evolutionary brand of what I dub 'reverse-orientalists', originally 'locals' of the 'east' in their own right and with the immense historical and cultural credit that comes with that, but due to their ethno-cultural background reduced to 'objects of study' by their 'western' researchers (and realizing that is all they will be in this environment); so to be heard they decide to switch their audience altogether and culturally emigrate to a 'western' audience, and place themselves by conscious decision in 'object of curiosity' mode, and become 'experts' of the 'middle east', when all they have ever said is what is obvious to any other 'local' entailing no special expertise... this destructive reverse-orientalistic behavior thus reinforcing the divide between scholarly categories... It is when academic institutions like AUC stop reinforcing this status quo, branding themselves as a 'bridge of cultures' when they are really a 'promoter of orientalism', when a (sample) untalented and undedicated 'western' researcher no longer has a better chance than a peer of 'eastern' background of a higher academic caliber to be a 'professor of middle eastern studies', when AUC stops publishing a silly coffeetable book with titles of the type 'the secrets of the pyramids' and passes it for egyptology (when it actually insults the science) and feeds on fascination with the orient rather than the effort of honest scholars, when they stop branding themselves as 'witnesses at the forefront of the revolution' when ignoring the fact that the revolution penetrated very much inside the institution due to the injustices within its walls as it made use of the general conditions prevalent in the country, when this instutition actually starts behaving like a century-old EGYPTIAN institution that it is, (and it is no less Egyptian than it is American) instead of using it as a PR label... Then this status quo will never change, and we will always be the objects of curiosity... Yes we miss Edward Said...

Ahmed wrote on September 28, 2011 at 06:52 AM

I thank you for this article. As a white American conducting research in Morocco on neither the classic "zones of theory" (L. Abu Lughod 1989) or the more recent "market-driven" topics you mention, I'm frustrated with being constantly asked by other white Americans and Europeans (academic or not) about the progress of the movements in Morocco and the impact of the Arab Spring here. These are questions that need to be directed to my many expert Moroccan colleagues, both politically and academically engaged with a struggle that is rightfully theirs. Indeed, my topic of research is one that I decided on after conversations with my Moroccan colleagues, not using them as "service providers," but rather in order to make sure that I was following a trajectory that did not unnecessarily impose on their domains of work and expertise.

Nasraniya1980 wrote on September 28, 2011 at 10:21 AM

Having been mentioned in a comment I feel the need to explain that my interest in the Egyptian Revolution is not from the standpoint of an academic (which I am not) but from the stand point of being a revolutionary socialist and editor of Socialist Worker, a weekly left paper in Britain. I reported from Tahrir Square for the paper and we continue to cover the ongoing process of the revolution every week, whether it is the bus workers' and teachers' strikes or the struggle at AUC.

I do believe that what's happened in Egypt will be studied for generations to come. It is a world changing event and has become a beacon of hope for millions beyond its borders.

But it will be those at the heart of the struggle making the revolution who will have the most to say.

Judith Orr wrote on September 29, 2011 at 08:42 AM

It would be unrealistic to think that the money provided by "western" governments and interests to "western" academics who promise to unravel for the benefit of said interests the mysterious inner mechanisms of social and political developments in the "Islamic" "east" will become better, more justly distributed as the result of some sudden epiphany. This unbalance will continue as long as an economic unbalance persists and as long as it is ideologically profitable to promote a perception of these imagined separate domains. On the other hand, there seems to me to be a dearth of compelling theoretical substance in all this well-funded western research and academicizing, such that anyone, man, woman or child, regardless of religion or "ethnicity," whether in Tunis, Khartoum, Port Bou, Yerbent or Samarinda, who has a fresh perspective, analytic, theoretic, or poetic, ought not to feel disempowered in regard to articulating and circulating what they got. Even if it doesn't land an instant book deal at Routledge or Columbia University Press, ideas are contagious. I'm not saying your complaints are ill-founded, but intellectual processes are not fueled by money. It must be said of course there exist far greater opportunities for youngsters from Ann Arbor to receive funding to "study" the "on the ground" in Zarqa than for Zarqawis to "study" the "on the ground" in Detroit. That's a fact. But there is no shortage of opportunity to expose, correct, contest, challenge, revise and ignore outside interpretations, depictions and projections of the "Arab Spring." I do think though that in the "west," the emphasis on Said, Foucault, Spivak and certain other thinkers has been so monotonously consistent and to such meager ends that rather than further regurgitating these same mantras from "the other side," truly fresh approaches would do wonders.

George Murer wrote on September 29, 2011 at 09:47 AM

This might be of interest:

Sara Fregonese wrote on September 29, 2011 at 04:39 PM

Excellent article. Two comments: 1. If only money was as available to UK academics as you think it is. Actually, our funding enviornment is drying up in a very scary way, and there is a heavy bias in favour of research oriented to the UK itself and away from international concerns. The way in which that might be positive though, is that where there IS money, it is increasingly dependent on research projects showing genuine partnerships with what you might term "local" collaborators. Surely partnership is the answer here - partnership which enables both sides to contribute and to gain. I know all too often this ends up being something else altogether (and not very pleasant) but we can at least try to establish a formula which recognises equality. Admittedly, there are often practical difficulties. The UK research funding system is very heavy on bureaucracy, requires all sorts of information about local partners which might not always be available, requires financial transparency according to systems which are not always "portable" and which can seem patronising even though the acatual UK researchners have absolutely no control over this. Maybe the starting point is a dialogue in which each informs the other about the "reality" of the research environment on the ground so we can move beyond current difficulties. By the way, I have to admit to being an academic revolution tourist. I took my family to Tunisia in April because we were just so excited to see what had happened, wanted to spend our holiday money in a place that needed the support, and wanted the children to appreciate that revolutions happen to/by real people, not just on TV. We didn't do much of the academic side because we had the children with us, but as academics it was AMAZING and we really appreciated the time and energy which Tunisian friends gave in explaining it to us from their point of veiw.

Emma wrote on October 13, 2011 at 08:07 AM

Very truthful. I was just wondering if the day will ever come when someone stands out against the viscous ongoing academic inequality particularly with regard to Middle East studied where the locals are deemed as experiment rats and the western researcher is the one awarded and credited, whatever jargon he/she contributes with. Well written piece and fair thought Dr. Abaza.

Hend Eltaweel wrote on November 18, 2011 at 06:17 PM

i have written a response to this.

thanks for this provocative article.

gillian wrote on March 11, 2012 at 07:40 AM

Would it have been possible to decline requests for assistance?

anonymous wrote on May 01, 2012 at 10:01 AM

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