Academic tourists sight-seeing the Arab Spring

Mona Abaza , Monday 26 Sep 2011

While the Arab Spring has enhanced global interest in the Arab world, local academics have often been reduced to service providers for Western "experts" who jet in and jet out

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.

The writer is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.

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