With Flexibility, a Sense of Responsibility, and Patience

Cooperative research on developments in the Arab world is a challenge for all concerned

The transformation processes in the Arab world triggered by the ‘Arab Spring’ 2010/2011 are also an important topic for research. The Volkswagen Foundation soon offered scholars from Germany and the Arab region opportunities to engage in cooperative research on special aspects of these processes. How does a project function under the difficult circumstances that prevail in the region? Is it at all possible for science to accompany processes developing at such a pace that it’s difficult to keep up with events? Journalist Mareike Knoke spoke with the Middle East historian Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag. 

Professor Freitag, many scholars say the fast-moving events of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 took them completely by surprise. Did you think it would develop so rapidly?

Ulrike Freitag (photo: Rolf Schulten for Volkswagen Foundation)

Ulrike Freitag (photo: Rolf Schulten for Volkswagen Foundation)

I had no idea that the uprisings would spread so quickly from one country to another, and that they would give rise to the bloody civil wars now raging in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Of course, everyone knew that something was afoot, that there were discussions and widespread discontent. The enormous escalation, though, caught us all by surprise.

What effect do such surprise turns of event have on your work as a researcher? 

Changes like these are part and parcel of my daily work as I research precisely those areas where certain social or political movements are likely to originate: Schools, youth clubs, and youth magazines. Moreover, the transformation project I’m part of here at ZMO is investigating public and private spaces of participation and resistance in Morocco, Egypt, and Palestine. You can never tell exactly when the critical undercurrents in society there are likely to change suddenly into something qualitatively different; namely, movements of open protest.

The objective pursued by the Foundation’s funding initiative is to research these processes in cooperation with Arab partners, to monitor events, and perhaps even provide support in the form of knowledge gain. To what extent can that succeed, do you think?

We are working together with Arab partners in several different countries. We want to function as a catalyst, helping young academics to network among themselves: Especially when it comes to drawing comparisons between the processes in the countries concerned. Most of the young researchers we are in contact with are already strongly committed individuals. The projects are intended to provide further food for thought. We hope to complement this input via our project meetings in the partner countries. Besides discussing our research work, we will also invite local artists and intellectuals to attend a public event. The idea is to initiate a communication process that will outlive the actual projects. Whether this functions or not, we will just have to wait and see.

Do you come across any hurdles during your work?

In our case there were some difficulties concluding the required cooperation agreements with the partner universities. As we already knew from other colleagues, we often have to be extremely flexible. For instance, immediately following the revolution, our Egyptian colleague tried to formalize the research cooperation with Cairo University. The university management was very taken with the idea. And then – it was shortly after President Mursi’s ouster – she was informed by her university that it was no longer opportune for local academics to work with researchers in other countries. In any case, she was told, it would take several years before an agreement could be signed. In Morocco, on the other hand, not only would tax have had to be paid on the project funds, depleting them significantly, but also the university wanted to keep part of it as institutional overhead. This would have meant nothing would be left over for the local Ph.D. students. We did finally manage in both cases to conclude agreements, but had to find another solution for the young research associates via stipend contracts.

Does the fast pace of developments in these countries sometimes frustrate project proceedings?

Here, we have to be flexible, too. For instance, during the kick-off meeting for our project in Berlin we had to confront the question whether, after the overthrow of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, it would still be possible to investigate the protest camp on Cairo’s Rābiʿa-al-ʿAdawiyya Square and carry out interviews. Was such a field study still possible, or would it endanger the young research associates in Cairo and, of course, their interlocutors? They could easily be identified as such from the interviews and subsequently put under arrest. For the same reason, we refrained from setting up a Facebook page for the project because data security – details of the participating persons – couldn’t be ensured.

That means you feel a sense of responsibility for your partners? 

But of course. We must never lose sight of the safety of the people we cooperate with. We have to take the threat of possible reprisals very seriously indeed. In many cases, the very fact that funding is received from abroad can be enough to raise suspicion. For this reason, for a long time we have made a point of discussing with our partners whether granting a German stipend might be a danger for research associates in their countries.

Ulrike Freitag (photo: Rolf Schulten for Volkswagen Foundation)

Ulrike Freitag (photo: Rolf Schulten for Volkswagen Foundation)

Do you always know the reason why your and other researchers’ efforts are sometimes thwarted?

At least sometimes official reasons are given. I can relate an experience made in a project initiated by German and French colleagues in Saudi Arabia: An architect wanted to research traditional stone architecture in Saudi Arabian villages in cooperation with a local women’s university. The local governor of the region, however, banned a planned meeting in one of the villages because he considered the presence of young female students to be indecent – supposedly because it couldn’t be ensured that the genders would be separated during the event. Whether the ban was really due to moral considerations or whether the governor was bothered by the idea that a free exchange might take place between the artists, village inhabitants, urban intellectuals, and foreign researchers expected to be present, we never found out.

Are problems like that negotiable?

The mood can change at any time and at very short notice; we have to live with that. Sometimes such issues can be negotiated with local authorities, sometimes one just has to act at the spur of the moment.

What about support here in Germany: Is there sufficient funding for research on the Arab world?

The funding that comes from the Volkswagen Foundation is something of a windfall: It takes into account the need for flexibility l was talking about and which is so important for researchers working in the region. Of course we would like to see more initiatives of this type. It is most unlikely that state institutions would be prepared to fund a project like ours because of the frequently unstable research conditions.

In conclusion, a question about the role you play: How far do you see yourself in an advisory position?

For my part – I’m sure I can also talk for my German project colleagues at ZMO in this respect – I do not see myself as an advisor in the countries we are researching in. We cannot, and we don’t want to intervene in local politics. The only exception might, at times, be an academic advisory function. However, I do perceive an important task in reaching as wide a public as possible. In Germany we can do this by means of scientific and other publications and lectures that challenge stereotypes and provide a differentiated picture of Arab countries and the conditions that prevail there. We of course also want to address the politicians. For it appears they often have no idea of how diverse positions and discussions are within different Arab countries. There are many facets quite surprising to outsiders, such as the existence of many well trained critical artists and intellectuals in a country such as Saudi Arabia.

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag is director of the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin (ZMO) since 2002. A historian of the Middle East, one of her special interests is Saudi Arabia. The ZMO is an internationally recognized and leading research institute devoted to interdisciplinary study of the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, South and South East Asia with a strong historical perspective. Within the context of the first call of the funding initiative “Transformation Processes in the Arab World”, the Volkswagen Foundation is funding a project called “Spaces of Participation: Topographies of Political and Social Change in Morocco, Egypt and Palestine”, which is run by Ulrike Freitag and Dr. Sarah Jurkiewicz together with local partners.


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