Perhaps the most interesting course I’m enrolled in is a undergraduate and graduate political science seminar about Authoritanarism and Mobilization in the Middle East. The course investigates the different thories explaining enduring authoritarianism — that is, the resistance the democracy and change — in the Middle East along with the various forms of mobilization that seek to challenge authoritarian regimes (from the title, I thought the course would address military mobilization by authoritarian leaders — what we’re doing is actually far more interesting). We will study and get to meet with activists supporting political Islam (I will be very interested in hearing comments from Muslim Brotherhood leaders), women’s rights, democracy, and labor/the poor.
Seven undergraduate and 4 graduate students are enrolled in the course. Yet, in a upper-lever seminar about democracy in the Middle East, not a single student is from Egypt or another Arab country. All of the undergraduate students are studying abroad and all of the graduate students did their undergraduate work at an American or British University. I can think of a couple of explanations for this phenomenon:
#1. The pragmatic justification — this course meet on Thursdays from 5:30-8 p.m. Since Egypt and AUC operate on a Sunday-Thursday week (with Friday being the Muslim holy day), this would be equivalent to a course in the West meeting on Friday from 5:30-8 p.m. The full-time Egyptian students might have the good sense not to take a course meeting at such hours.
#2. The ideological justification — If one has grown up under an authoritarian regime in Egypt or another Arab country, he or she would probably not see much reason to learn more about the conditions they have always lived under. Indeed, seeing as the prospects for democracy/meaningful change in the Middle East (and especially Egypt) look slim, taking a course on the topic could be quite irrelevant or disheartening. As critic of Egypt’s conservative culture note: Egypt revolts about once every 50 years (though if this was actually the case, Egypt is overdue, since the country’s last revolution was in 1954).
#3. The cynical justification – By and large, the Egyptian/Arab students attending the American University in Cairo are the ones who have benefitted from the current (authoritarian) system. Therefore, they do not wish to see the societal order changed. Moreover, they do not wish to take a course that takes a favorable position on reforms that could threaten their wealth or prestidge. These upper-crust students do not care about those who are poor/oppressed under the current system since neither they nor anybody they know is poor.
I think all three explanations are at least partially valid and, in varying combinations, served as rationale for Egyptian/Arab students not to take the course. Regardless, I wish I could hear the comments of Egyptian/Arab students on topics so vital to their region and find it disheartening yet telling that not a single person who could change society from within chose to enroll in the course.