International Debate

Surviving as Activist Academics in an Authoritarian State

May 23, 2014 1243
Egyptian police

What sorts of academics engage in struggles for academic freedom? How do their inclination and ability to do so relate to their own social trajectories? I decided to start exploring this question by studying a group of university professors who have engaged in such a struggle for 10 years in Egypt, under an authoritarian regime. Why, I wondered, did they take up this cause, which did not interest most of their colleagues? How could they get away with this campaign for so long, without being arrested or persecuted by the regime, and even win some victories? And why did their movement collapse just after a revolutionary mass uprising enabled them to achieve some of their main demands? Here are some highlights of this study, which has been published in the open-access European Journal of Turkish Studies, as part of a special issue on demobilization at universities in Turkey and in other countries.

In a Nutshell

The March 9 Group for University Autonomy is a small group of Egyptian university professors who have campaigned, since 2003, against the regime’s interference in academic affairs and campus life. The group takes its name from an incident that occurred in 1932, when the president of Cairo University resigned in protest of the government’s attempt to bring a rebellious dean to heel. While the issue of university autonomy has been contested in Egypt on several occasions since then, the March 9 Group is by far the most sustained and successful movement that has focused on this issue. Building on a strand of social movement theory that uses Bourdieusian sociology to rethink the concerns of classical social movement theory, I suggested, first of all, that the founding members shared an unusual leftist, anti-authoritarian habitus that was out of step with mainstream activism in Egypt in the 1970s and 80s, and that predisposed them to be interested in mobilizing against authoritarianism within the universities where they worked.

Benjamin Geer
This piece by Benjamin Geer expands on a post that appeared at his blog SocioResources

The group’s activism aimed mainly to increase on the institutional autonomy of universities (i.e., the ability of administrators and faculty to manage the university’s affairs without external interference). However, I think the engagement of its leading members is partly an effect of their scientific autonomy (i.e., their reliance on career strategies based on scientific competence): they are disproportionately located in more autonomous fields, such as mathematics, and in more autonomous positions within those fields. They have an interest in institutional autonomy because it is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for increasing the scientific autonomy of their university departments. While mobilizing for academic freedom involves particular challenges in an authoritarian context, I would not be surprised to find that, even in states where political freedoms are better protected, academics who engage in such struggles tend to have a relatively high degree of scientific autonomy.

To explain the group’s survival for such a long time in an authoritarian context, and its limited successes, I focused on what I see as its key assets. Some of the leading members of the group had a great deal of symbolic capital, including academic peer recognition as well as the esteem of a broader public of laypeople. This gave them, as one leading member put it, a degree of ‘immunity’ from persecution by the state. Moreover, in a field such as mathematics, in which demand for the requisite specific competence (cultural capital) far exceeds supply, it is relatively difficult for a university to exclude professors because of their political stances, and this gives them an unusual degree of freedom to mobilize.

However, since activists with high volumes of symbolic capital are in high demand among social movement organizations competing for resources, they are especially likely to have opportunities to move from one organization to another. In this case, the uprising of 2011 produced vastly expanded opportunities for creating political groups. This seems to have enabled such activists to graduate, so to speak, from the March 9 Group and turn to more ambitious forms of mobilization, such as the founding of political parties. Faced with competition from new groups focusing on the working conditions of university instructors, the March 9 Group has also lost many of its less prominent members, and has not mobilized many of the young people who have gravitated towards activism since then; it now seems to be in a near-dormant state.

Why I Did It

In August 2012, when I was a post-doc at the National University of Singapore, I started to plan a long-term research project on the autonomy of Arab academics and on their ability to reach non-specialist audiences as intellectuals or activists. I wanted this project to include something on the March 9 Group. Jordi Tejel, the editor of this issue of EJTS, then invited me to contribute an article to the issue. In order to meet the publication deadlines, I suggested a small-scale study focusing on March 9. This would allow me to start working on the issues I was interested in, while producing an article in the time available.

What I Like About It

Social movement theory hasn’t paid much attention to activists’ prestige, but during my own experience as an activist (in London, long ago), it seemed to me that social movements were keen to involve prestigious activists. So I’m glad I finally had a chance to do a study that deals with this aspect of activists’ careers. I’m also glad to have written about events that I see as historically important and that might otherwise have been forgotten. And since my PhD was about intellectual projects that I see as basically misguided, it was a pleasant change to study a group whose work I respect.

What I Wish I Could Have Done

Some of the activists I interviewed belong to families that have produced generations of well-known activists, and I wish I had had the time and space to explore that phenomenon further, since this would undoubtedly shed light on the formation of these academics’ activist habitus. Some academics in the Muslim Brotherhood (the main Islamist group) were also involved in these events, and I would have liked to include their perspectives, as well as the views of non-activist academics.

What Next?

Since I had to do this study in a limited amount of time, I did it using methods I was very familiar with. I think the need to publish quickly tends to limit the autonomy of research, because it discourages the researcher from taking the time to learn new techniques, and favours the reproduction of well-known, low-risk methods. Next I’d like to a research project involving techniques, especially quantitative ones, that I’m less familiar with.

Benjamin Geer develops software at the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel. He earned a PhD in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He conducts sociological and historical research and is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. In recent years he’s taught Arabic at the University of Tübingen and served as visiting assistant professor and associate director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo.

View all posts by Benjamin Geer

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