From Economic Policies to Public Perceptions: Theirs and Ours, and its Implications for the Discipline
Published on: Mar 26, 2004

I was in Morocco and Tunisia this past summer, conducting preliminary field work for a project on social protection policies in the wake of neo-liberal economic reforms.1 On Mayday, a month before my arrival, Morocco had what has been described as the region's largest Palestinian solidarity demonstration, with numbers estimated at a minimum of one million. On that day, and for some time thereafter, the government stationed armored troops outside of prominent American installations in the country. These had been removed by the time I arrived, and there were no further demonstrations of this type while I was there. I also did not see evidence of the boycott of American products that was reportedly finding broad support in Egypt and Jordan.

There were, however, a number of other demonstrations while I was there that are relevant to this panel's theme. In particular, every day that Parliament was in session, I saw a noisy protest of unemployed university graduates outside it. Demanding jobs, they carried signs and banners with slogans such as "jobs are a human right." This same group had erected a shantytown outside of the economics and finance ministry, dramatizing their idleness.

These demonstrations were significant for two reasons. First, they were manifestations of a deep, and economically rooted, domestic discontent that can shape the lens through which Moroccans view the post-9/11 world and their country's place within it. Second, they point to both dynamism and variation in the workings of authoritarian rule across the Arab world.

Morocco's unemployment problem is serious. Joblessness is officially estimated at 17%, though labor and human rights activists believe that it might be as high as double that number. Unemployed graduates began to organize politically in the late 1990s. Prior to that time, though less etatist than the "Arab socialist" regimes, Morocco had developed a considerable public sector that served as the major source of jobs for educated youth. But, and as happened in many other developing countries, government spending on job creation, social services, and infrastructural development exceeded its revenue intakes, spawning inflation and contributing to a debt overhang that sent Morocco to the international financial institutions seeking relief. An IMF- and World Bank-supported structural adjustment program beginning in the late 1980s led to curtailed government spending, trade liberalization, and divestment of numerous state-owned enterprises.

Hiring at those firms remaining in government hands was rationalized, frustrating the expectations of high school and college students who had anticipated absorption into the civil service or public sector.

Neo-liberal reforms reduced Morocco's debt burden and brought macroeconomic stability to the country, but did not produce the economic expansion its advocates promised, nor the poverty reduction presumed to come in tandem with such growth. And new job creation in the private sector has not kept up with demand. Thus, although the demonstrations I witnessed were not explicitly couched as such, they can be understood as bearing some affinity with the sentiments expressed by the "anti-globalization" movement. Several trade unionists and human rights activists with whom I spoke voiced fears that with Morocco's continued integration into the global economy, living standards for the country's poor would further erode.2

This situation has correlates in a number of other oil-poor Arab countries, such as Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt that, like Morocco, implemented structural adjustment programs during the 1990s and are facing mounting difficulties with unemployment today. A striking difference, however, is that manifestations of economic discontent in these other countries are routinely repressed. The fact that the protesters were not subject to arrests or police brutality points to a higher level of freedom of expression in Moroccan today than was true there in the past, or that exists presently among its neighbors. But this is a variability that is not well recognized outside of Middle East scholarly circles, a point to which I will return shortly.

I found the ordinary citizens in Morocco with whom I spoke, as well as those in Tunisia, surprised that an American was interested in issues of poverty, unemployment, and social protection. Their perception was that Americans are at best indifferent to these problems, if not supportive of policies that reflect the US dominance of the Bretton Woods organizations. Sadly, I believe these impressions to be largely accurate, at least to the degree that American's perceptions of the Middle East are shaped by our own news media. Coverage of the Middle East in this country tends to neglect North Africa generally, I suspect, both because it is francophone and because it is removed from the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the oil-rich Arabian peninsula. But beyond this, there was little media attention paid, especially before 9/11, to the dilemmas of economic development anywhere in the region. Since then, the problems of poverty and unemployment in the Arab world have been deemed somewhat more newsworthy, but typically (as in the occasional New York Times columns by Thomas Friedman) they are attributed to the resistance of Arab regimes to enacting neo-liberal policies more quickly and thoroughly. Thus, Americans are left ill-equipped to understand how some citizens in the oil-poor countries may blame us for the failure of the already-enacted reforms to ease their economic vulnerabilities.

Implications for the Discipline

The media, of course, has its own logic in what it covers and how. But as the overall theme of this conference--"Political Science and Public Life: Knowledge, Politics and Policy"--suggests, academics also play a large role in producing and disseminating knowledge, which in turn impacts on government policy. We reach tens of thousands of students (including tomorrow's journalists) in our classrooms and through our scholarly writings. Nevertheless, I would argue that our own discipline is not much further advanced than the news media when it comes to promoting a deeper understanding of the complexities of political and economic reform processes in the Middle East. That is because scholars of, and scholarly work on, the comparative politics of the region has been marginalized by the mainstream of the profession.

There is considerable evidence to support this claim. In a post 9/11 study of the status of Middle East specialists in leading political science departments, Larry Diamond found that of the top 17 ranked departments, six lacked a professor with even a partial specialty in the Middle East, and 12 lacked a tenured professor whose primary area of specialization is the Middle East. They offered an average of 1.7 courses in 2001-02 on the Middle East, with the median being one, and five of the departments having none.3

Earlier, Ian Lustick examined articles published in Comparative Politics and World Politics from the beginning of 1997 to the beginning of 2000. He found that there were only 3 articles authored by Middle East scholars compared to 4 by Africanists and 14 by Latin Americanists. It is worth noting here that according to Lustick's figures, the LASA at that time had almost twice as many members as MESA, so we can assume that a greater number of publications by Latin Americanists accounts for part of this phenomenon.4 But even if we halved the number of articles on Latin America to account for this, we would still find that political scientists working on Latin America had double the number of articles in prestigious comparative journals in that period as did their Middle East counterparts.

I found a similar trend in evidence at the 33 panels sponsored by the Comparative Politics of Developing Countries section of this convention. Only some, based on their titles, revolved around one or more specific regions or countries. Of these, nine were on Latin American, four on Asia, one on Africa, and none on the Middle East. (Two panels were Asia/Latin America combined, hence the total here of 14). Among the remaining panels, looking at papers whose titles specified a region or country, there were 21 on Latin America, 13 on Asia, 9 on Africa, and only 7 on the Middle East. Since papers presented on the organized section panels often go on to be published in prestigious journals, this suggests that the trend documented by Lustick will continue.

As with Lustick's findings, some qualification here is in order: there were many more Latin America submissions on Latin America than on other regions, and the rejection rate for these submissions was actually higher.5 But the paucity of Middle East submissions points to two disturbing trends: that some Middle East scholars, discouraged by past rejections, have stopped trying to get on the organized section panels6 and--far more ominously for the future--that fewer graduate students are choosing to specialize in the region. Indeed, faced with the lack of senior Middle East scholars at many of the top graduate programs, and witnessing the paucity of prominent articles on the region, concentrating on some other area is a rational choice for graduate students interested in Comparative Politics. Thus the situation highlighted here becomes self-perpetuating.

If academic political scientists are to make more of a contribution to public knowledge about, and public policy towards, the Middle East, then the sources of this marginalization must be identified and combated. Two distinct but interrelated factors appear to account for--but do not justify--this situation. The first is the "third wave of democratization" that began (among developing countries) in Latin America in the 1970s, and then spread to other Third World regions and, in the 1990s, to Eastern Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars increasingly moved to develop theories comparing the democratizing developing countries with their post-socialist counterparts. The Middle East was left out of this intellectual movement, as political liberalizations that had begun in a number of countries stalled. Similarly, and despite the implementation of IMF- and World Bank-inspired structural adjustment programs in numerous countries of the region, the reforms have not gone as far as elsewhere, and Middle East cases have been largely omitted from debates that have focused on the interplay between political and economic reform.

The second reason is the domination of the discipline, in recent decades, by practitioners of rational choice and large-n quantitative methodologies. These methodologies first gained prominence among Americanists and, to a lesser extent, western Europeanists; scholars of other areas, especially those whose languages are not normally taught in high schools and smaller undergraduate institutions, faced a trade-off in their graduate school years between learning the language(s) needed for their field work, or mastering mathematical methods.7 Moreover, even for those trained in such techniques, authoritarian governing practices themselves can limit the availability of the high quality data necessary for serious quantitative analysis. In addition, as noted by Geddes, such approaches have been employed especially fruitfully, in the American and European contexts, to study processes--such as popular voting behavior, electoral outcomes, and legislative decision-making--that may be only minimally relevant to politics in authoritarian countries.8 Scholars of developed democracies may thus fail both to be inspired by the research questions asked by those working on authoritarian countries, and to appreciate the methodologies employed to answer these puzzles.

This situation is detrimental not only to Middle East scholars and to the public knowledge to which we are expected to contribute, but also to the production of knowledge in the discipline as a whole. When studies about processes of democratic transition exclude at the outset those countries which have not democratized, theorization is necessarily impoverished. Similarly, theorization about the politics of economic reform, and its relation to political transitions, can only be enriched by the inclusion of cases where neo-liberal policies have not been enacted, or have been implemented only gradually. And, with some 40 percent of the world's population still living under authoritarian regimes, our discipline surely has an obligation to place as much value on the study of non-democratic systems as we do on democracies.

The good news is that the Perestroika movement, which arose two years ago, has been tackling these issues, and has already had some significant successes. With the new editorship of the American Political Science Review and the creation of the new journal Perspectives--both in response to Perestroika concerns--I believe it will become more possible for Middle East scholars to publish in APSA journals. The nomination (since confirmed) of Susanne Rudolph, a South Asianist, as APSA president should help to elevate the status of work on developing countries within the discipline, and to promote the methodological pluralism that is the banner of Perestroika.9 These are important achievements, but there remains more to be done. A particular goal for Middle East scholars should be to have one of our ranks chosen as head of the Comparative Politics of Developing Countries section for one of the upcoming APSA conferences. I have been an APSA member since the late 1980s, and to my knowledge this position has not been awarded to a Middle East scholar on a single occasion since that time.

A final point here is that if Middle East scholars are to continue their work in helping to educate the public about the region, our academic freedom must be vigorously protected. The events of 9/11, and since then the impending war against Iraq, have placed a huge burden on all of us in terms of responding to requests for media interviews, and speaking engagements both on and off campus. Virtually ever political scientist with a Middle East specialty I know of has been taking on some of these tasks, but a few have encountered hostility from some colleagues because of the opinions they expressed, and some graduate students reported a climate in which they feared that speaking out could jeopardize their job prospects.10 Nationally, there have been efforts to intimidate academic critics of US foreign policy towards the Middle East, as in the "Defending Civilization" report put out by Lynne Cheney's and Joe Lieberman's American Council of Trustees and Alumni.11 Organizations like APSA, and the SSRC, can play an important role in defending academic freedom by helping to expose, and forthrightly condemn, such initiatives.


1 I am grateful to the American Institute for Maghrebi Studies (AIMS) for funding this research.

2 According to World Bank statistics, the percentage of Moroccans living below the poverty line increased from 13.1% in 1990-91 to 19.0% in 1998-99. See Reducing Vulnerability and Increasing Opportunity: Social Protection in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC. The World Bank, 2002, p. 43.

3 Larry Diamond, "What Political Science Owes the World," PS Online, March 2002, p. 3.

4 Ian Lustick, "The Quality of Theory and the Comparative Disadvantage of Area Studies," Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2000):192. It would be useful to know if the percentage of members of the two organizations who are political scientists is equivalent.

5 This is based on information provided to me by the section chair, Frances Hagopian. I am grateful to her both for the hard work she put into this position, and for patiently sharing with me her insights into the paper and panel selection process. My comments here should not be taken as a criticism of Dr. Hagopian's efforts.

6 This was verified by an informal survey I conducted through a "Middle East Political Science" list-serve administered by the Middle East Studies Association.

7 This issue is part of the broader "social sciences versus area studies" debate. For elaboration, see Mark Tessler, ed., Area Studies and Social Science: Strategies for understanding Middle East Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. For general critiques of the hegemony of rational choice and large-n quantitative approaches to political science, see, inter alia, Ian Shapiro, "Problems, methods, and theories in the study of politics, or: What's wrong with Political Science and what to do about it" Political Theory, Vol. 30, No.4 (August 2002) pp. 588-611; David Collier, "Building a Disciplined, Rigorous Center in Comparative Politics ," APSA Comparative Politics Section Newsletter (Summer 1999); and Gregory J. Kasza, "Perestroika : For an Ecumenical Science of Politics," PS: Political Science and Politics, September 2001, 597-99.

8 See Barbara Geddes, "The Great Transformation in the Study of Politics in Developing Countries," in Ira Katznelson and Helen V. Milner, eds., Political Science: the State of the Discipline. New York: W. W. Norton and Company (for the American Political Science Association), 2002.

9 There have been numerous articles on the movement published since its inception in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times, and an edited volume on the movement is currently in preparation. Those interested in joining the Perestroika list-serve can write to the (anonymous) Mr./Ms. Perestroika at

10 Based on responses to the "MESA-political science" list-serve survey cited above.

11 This paragraph was written before the launching, by the Middle East Forum, of its "Campus Watch" website, which encourages students to report on professors who are critical of U.S. or Israeli policies, and maintains web-based dossiers on such professors, maliciously mislabeling them as apologists for terrorism. The existence of Campus Watch makes my message here even more urgent.