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Global Academy Workshop: Constraints on Politics, Education, and the Economy: Dispatches from the Region

Session VII-04, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

Special Session Description
The MESA Global Academy is an interdisciplinary initiative sustaining essential research collaborations and knowledge production among MENA-focused scholars from the Middle East and North Africa and their counterparts outside the region. By awarding competitive scholarships to displaced scholars from the MENA region currently located in North America to attend meetings, workshops, and conferences, the project harnesses the strengths of MESA’s institutional and individual members to support the careers of individual researchers who study the Middle East and North Africa, but whose academic trajectory has been adversely affected by developments in their home countries. In this workshop, 2022-2023 Global Academy scholars present their research.
  • Yemen is witnessing a heinous war and continual conflict that devastates its fragile infrastructure. The country’s development indicators have devolved significantly, and, among other sectors, higher education and its quality have been imperiled. This paper explores the effects of war on the quality of higher education in Yemen from the standpoint of Yemeni scholars. This qualitative study is based on grounded theory design and used semi-structured in-depth interview methods to collect data from Yemeni scholars within and outside of Yemen. The core questions focus on the impact of war, the actions taken by scholars, and the prospects of higher education quality. Seventeen diverse scholars were included in the study. The analysis of data yielded six war-related factors that affect the quality of higher education: attacks on scholars, financial constraints, corruption, human capacity shortage, poor research performance, and lack of physical capacity. Realities are reconstructed through descriptions of the trajectory of the war and its negative consequences for scholars and their endeavors. Quality as a sign of higher education institutions’ effective functioning is not an exclusively sectorial issue. Educational actions and prospects need to accompany matters of national reconciliation, regional peace, and frameworks of international cooperation. Further research tackling other dimensions of quality work that includes other stakeholders is needed. Rethinking and reforming Yemen’s higher education system in its different aspects and challenges are paths to peacebuilding and the recovery of the country. A roadmap prioritizing this reform is urgently needed.
  • It is not news that right-wing populist parties and the governments they establish target academics as “the elites”. Turkey, ruled by the populist AKP for the last 20 years, has recently been one of the countries with the fastest declining democracy, as well as one producing the most displaced scholars. As a result, academic freedom in the country is now somewhere close to where it was during the post-1980 coup junta regime. This paper argues that the most recent – and sharpest – decline of academic freedom in Turkey cannot be thought of separately from the country’s broader democracy and rule of law backsliding. Policies regarding higher education follow two strategies: control and co-optation. The impact of the democratic backsliding on knowledge production can be discussed at the macro and micro levels, corresponding respectively to the general situation in universities in Turkey and to individual scholars, especially those who have been subject to overt or covert repression. In addition to this control via repression strategy, the AKP government also strategically massified higher education in the country as part of its goal of cultural hegemony, and significantly increased the number of higher education institutions, students, and faculty. Despite this dual strategy and its dire impacts on higher education and knowledge production in Turkey, the examples of Solidarity Academies and the Boğaziçi protests remind us that alternatives can be created. Indeed, with these efforts academics began to reemerge as critics in Turkey very recently, albeit nowhere near the desired levels in a democratic society. Academia, not only in particular regions but around the world, currently faces neoliberal and authoritarian challenges. In these times of illiberal turn, rising authoritarianism, commercialization and corporatization, and transnational repression, academics around the world should organize, unite in solidarity, and remember and/or keep in mind that solidarity is much more than just sympathy.
  • The post-Revolutionary Iranian political system of the past 43 years could be termed hybrid authoritarian. Elections in Iran have persistently been far from free, fair, and competitive, as required by democratic prerequisites. Nonetheless, the Iranian political system, particularly over the past three decades, has provided citizens with some degree of freedom of choice in elections by allowing candidates from a variety of political factions and ideologies to run for office. However, the Guardian Council vets all candidates to ensure they are loyal to the Islamic Republic system. This distinguishes the Iranian electoral system, i.e., elections with limited choices, from those found in some other Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt under Mubarak, that have elections without choices. The main criticism of elections in Iran focuses on the disqualification of reformist candidates both in parliamentary and presidential races. Many believe that the Guardian Council has overstepped in its supervision of elections. According to election law, the Council must supervise the Executive Electoral Boards, which are charged with examining candidates’ qualifications. Certain characteristics under review, such as to believe in Islam, to be faithful to the tutelage of jurisprudence, and to be committed to the Islamic Republic system, are vague and unquantifiable. In the past two years, the Guardian Council has interpreted these in such a way to disqualify candidates who could challenge the conservative political faction. The term elections engineering is in fact openly used in Iran to describe the 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections, in which the process of disqualification ensured that the reformists could not run candidates for most of the seats in parliament or for the presidency. This has transformed the Iranian political system into an electoral authoritarian one with severe consequences for the legitimacy of the government.
  • After 40 years of autocratic rule imposed by its former leader, Muammar Qaddafi, Libya joined the Arab Spring in 2011 along with Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. By eliminating its populist totalitarian regime, Libyans started an ambitious road map to rebuild their devastated state and society. However, shortly after, Libya was caught in many political, security, and social dilemmas that ignited a nationwide civil war that is still ongoing. The war has been draining all domestic, regional, and international efforts to build a new democratic social contract that many Libyans have been dreaming of. It has also led to a surge in crime, terrorism, and intra-tribal conflicts, which has disabled central governance mechanisms. Though other Arab countries, i.e., Syria and Yemen, have also fallen apart, given its long history of megalomaniacal chaotic rule under Qaddafi, Libya is far from enforcing the rule of law. Against this background, illicit economic activities have been the alternative in an absence of an agreed-upon social contract. Moreover, these activities have helped Libyans connect their local communities and have secured them conditioned access to state resources while providing a fragile security equation – all helping Libyans survive without much support from a central government. In this context this research aims to answer the following question: How can illicit economic activities act as an alternative mechanism in the absence of social contracts in fragile, war-torn states? This research is supported by the German Development Institute.