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The social sciences – their new role in the Middle East

Ever since the Arab Spring began fast-forwarding change in Arab societies, the humanities and social sciences are experiencing a resurgence of interest. Research in these disciplines is intended to support the democratic reform process in the Middle East.

Democracy – a word that is on everyone’s lips when one listens to what is being said in the Arab countries that have been transformed by revolution. But what exactly is democracy? An explanation requires time in a country like Egypt where more than one generation has not been allowed to ask questions, even in school, but has had to listen to and learn from the teacher. ‘Reflection, critical analysis, and discussion – we have been deprived of this democratic culture for far too long,’ says Sherry Basta, an Egyptian. Sherry Basta is an alumnus of the DAAD programme on Public Policy and Good Governance and is conducting research on the connection between defective democracies and growing poverty, using Egypt as a case study. ‘For the country to make a successful transition to a genuine democracy, mindsets need to start changing in school.’

How a society establishes a democratic culture is a classic research area in the field of political and social sciences. Hence the practitioners of these disciplines believe that they are being called upon, particularly now, to provide specific answers and to take their work forward. ‘The first step is for a social science curriculum, after 40 years, to include courses in democracy and to discuss everything,’ says Abdul-Monem Al-Mashat, a political scientist at Cairo University.

Courage for democracy in the Middle East

Practical education and knowledge transfer are crucial for Abdul-Monem Al-Mashat. The professor travels with his students to rural areas and gives them crash courses in democracy. What is the difference between a democratic system and an authoritarian one? What is transparency? What are universal human rights?

‘We talk with the people about public order, the media, transformation, civil society. We try to motivate them into setting up non-governmental organisations so that they can represent their interests,’ says Al-Mashat, who founded the Cairo Center for the Culture of Democracy (CCCD) in Egypt following the events of January 2011. The centre promotes the propagation of civil society values and human rights. But to what extent does the active transfer of knowledge ultimately facilitate a democratic culture?

Social sciences: Research for future policy

Reinforcing the social science curriculum cannot be the sole endeavour. Sociologists would immediately like to start compiling long overdue empirical data on youth sensibility, a sense of belonging, the legitimacy and social engagement of political institutions, and on the role of religion in the political order – scientifically-based information that is urgently needed for the framing of a future democratic policy.

Making oneself heard in the Middle East

The new task facing social science research based on the example of Egypt is to support societies in a state of flux and to offer concrete assistance. This was the consensus reached at a meeting on the role of the social sciences in the process of democratic reform that was organised by DAAD in Cairo. ‘We finally want to be heard,’ said Ahmed Zayed, Professor of Sociology at Cairo University. ‘What we have to say about justice, integration problems, transparency or identity must be heard.’

Yet how far can the freedom of research be oriented according to politically motivated needs, regardless of the politics in question? The social sciences also have many new questions to ask of themselves.

Your comment on the Arab Transformation?

The role of science, Good Governance, civil society, women's rights, economical development, ecological challenges ... the transformation processes in the Middle East have many facets. What is your experience and opinion on the Arab Transformation? Discuss with us and other alumni in the comments below.

August 2011

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