Middle East

In the Crosshairs of an Academic Crackdown

Even when her colleagues at the American University in Cairo were getting arrested and sentenced to death, sociologist Amy Austin Holmes thought she had kept herself safely under the radar. She was wrong.

Holmes with members of the Syrian Democratic Forces

By Michelle Nicholasen

It was a straightforward proposal and seemingly benign research topic. In 2016, as a newly tenured professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Amy Austin Holmes was thrilled to receive a grant to analyze the impact of the new, restrictive NGO law on civil society across Egypt—whose government had become increasingly autocratic under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. At the time, she had no reason to believe her work was being tracked by state intelligence.

Each of her five associates would study a different group or region of the country, with her own focus being the Nubians in the southern part of the country. She was drawn to the culture and history of the Nubians of Upper Egypt because they reminded her of the Kurds, another group that was central to her scholarship.

Descendants from an ancient civilization in the Sudan, Nubians have lived in the border area between Egypt and Sudan for thousands of years. Dam construction along the Nile forced their relocation several times in the twentieth century. Holmes knew that as an African ethnic group, the Nubians had been “Arabized” or forced to relinquish their language and indigenous identity, like some of the Kurdish groups she had studied.

Two major political developments affecting the Nubians had occurred in recent years, and she wanted to study the impact these changes had on the community.

In 2013—after a military coup removed the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, and appointed an interim president—a new version of the constitution included an article promising Nubians the right to return to some of their traditional homeland in Egypt within ten years. It was a surprising and unprecedented gesture that hinted at a possible new period of liberalization.

And in 2016, under the presidency of military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a new law was drafted forbidding NGOs to accept foreign support, a move that would hamper civil organizations—including those that served the Nubians.

By the time Holmes embarked on her Nubian research, the climate was already fraught, since a protest law had been put into place even before the NGO law. “They made it illegal to protest…and all of these horrible things started happening. Disappearances, and the mass death sentences,” she says.... Read more about In the Crosshairs of an Academic Crackdown

Trump’s Impact on the World: Melani Cammett on the Middle East

Harvard Professor of International Affairs Melani Cammett reviews the range of US policy stances in the Middle East and asks us to examine the difference between concrete policy shifts and skillful rhetoric.

Image of Melani Cammett and Michele Lamont

This is the second blog post in a series of edited transcripts from a panel on Trump's presidency held during our orientation in August 28, 2018. Our three panelists were Christina L. Davis, Melani Cammett, and Timothy Colton

Since the panel took place, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. President Trump’s failure to condemn Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman or to hold Saudi Arabia responsible has been widely viewed as a moral failing and an extreme act of favoritism. Some believe the incident has upset the dynamics of US relations with its Gulf allies, underscoring US permissiveness and bias toward Saudi Arabia.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk delivered by Melani Cammett:

Trump's impact on the Middle East is both radical and minimal. There are elements of it that I would say could be interpreted as really radical and new, and a lot of it is really not that new, but just dressed up in a lot of rhetoric and incendiary language and so forth. 

I'll start with the radical side. And maybe radical is too strong of a word, but I'll just use it to be provocative. 

There are several pillars of American foreign policy toward this region that I'll address. And I think in each one, you could interpret some of his [Trump’s] moves as new and destabilizing and radical. So I'll focus on the relationship with Israel, the relationship with the conservative Gulf Arab monarchies, and the war on terrorism. And there's always oil percolating in there in one way or another.... Read more about Trump’s Impact on the World: Melani Cammett on the Middle East