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Science Diplomacy in the Arab Spring


Austin Dacey

June 14, 2011

Two years and one revolution on, the status of science diplomacy in a realigned Arab world

Presidents Obama and Mubarak in June 2009

It has been two years since President Obama announced in Cairo “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” As noted previously in this space, science was supposed to take part in this new beginning. The United States would “launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create jobs. We will open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new Science Envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, and grow new crops.”

Today, six months into the Arab Spring, we see a changed Egypt, North Africa, and Middle East. What, if anything, does this tell us about the nascent experiment in science diplomacy?

“A new beginning” again

The 2009 Cairo speech, “A New Beginning,” was played in the key of reconciliation. It was about overcoming tensions and conflict through partnerships in which “America and Islam” could “come together" and “find common ground.” Apart from a brief passage on young people with “the ability to re-imagine the world, to remake this world,” the rhetoric was of rapprochement more than revolution.

On May 19, 2011, after taking a bruising for the Administration's anemic reaction to the Egyptian revolution, the President presented a detailed address on Middle East policy. According to widespread reports in the press, this one received no standing ovations in Arab capitals. In contrast to 2009, the post-Spring talk was of a self-determined people throwing off “tyranny,” “fear,” and “repression” to reclaim their dignity. Then, the go-to text was the Qur’an; now, it was the Declaration of Independence.

Overlaid with the voices of Arab protest, the Administration’s “new beginning” sounded all the more conservative. “Most people have realized that what the U.S. does or does not do is no longer important because people took matters into their own hands and decided their own future,” a pollster in Qatar told the Washington Post. “So why should people care what he says? America is no longer an issue.”

One of the grating things about the Cairo speech was its conflation of the citizens of “Muslim-majority countries” with Islamic civilization. The author of the speech, a 33-year-old named Benjamin Rhodes with an MFA in creative writing from NYU, seemed to have a special interest in transcending the “clash of civilizations” and demonstrating that the better sort of Americans can tell a Salafist from a sufi. This would neatly reduce the geopolitics to a matter of cross-cultural understanding. But of course, for the proto-revolutionaries in Arab autocracies, the main complaint was not American bigotry towards Islam but American backing of the venal and illegitimate governments they were forced to live under. In Egypt, secular civil society activists were opposing a secular Pharaoh. What they hoped to hear from the United States was more solidarity with them, and less with him. Solidarity among the children of Abraham was really not the issue.

Is science diplomacy too big to succeed?

The conservatism of the Cairo agenda points out a difficulty inherent in the notion of science diplomacy. The conversation partners of diplomats are, by and large, other diplomats. The counterparts in the deals they are empowered to cut are typically state entities. Big Science needs big partners. In the case of Egypt, that meant the Mubarak regime and its corrupt patronage networks in the military and commercial sectors.

Among the Administration’s first science envoys was Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American Nobel laureate in chemistry and a professor at CALTECH. As part of his mission in January 2010, Zewail conferred with the (now former) Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, the Supreme Council for Science and Technology, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi to ascertain how the United States could do more to support science and technology initiatives in the country.

A diplomatic cable produced by the U.S. embassy and published by Wikileaks describes their January 26 meeting:

After thanking Zewail for his continued focus on assisting Egypt in building its science and education infrastructure, Nazif launched into a discussion concerning a recently announced GoE [government of Egypt] plan to build a center of excellence targeting entrepreneurship and innovation initiatives. . . . Nazif stated that he envisioned this center as a joint US-Egypt project. The GoE would provide the land and construction of the center's buildings, he said, and the [US] would “allocate funds to run the center.”

Nazif acknowledged that the center’s priorities were not yet defined, but said they would likely include “projects concerning agriculture (defined as food safety), health, water security, energy, and information technology.” Additionally, the center “would serve as a focal point to provide financial and technical assistance to ‘young entrepreneurs starting their own businesses.’”

The embassy’s report concludes with this frank assessment:

During his initial envoy visit, Zewail spoke repeatedly about his desire to build stronger collaborative relationships in education, science and technology and move away from building vaguely-defined and poorly staffed research organizations. The GoE, however, is clearly seeking to capitalize on a renewed US emphasis on science and technology issues by requesting funding for a new center of excellence. It is doubtful that a new physical center would advance any of the collaborative projects—in health, science, education—the US is already partnering with Egypt.

While it is far from clear that its goals have become any more precisely defined in the post-revolutionary period, something like the center will probably be built in Egypt. Last month, the new military government approved the creation of a “Zewail Science and Technology City.”

Can a culture of science be built?

Writing in his “House of Wisdom” blog, the editor of Nature Middle East, Mohammed Yahia, observed that the most promising idea outlined in the Cairo speech has seen the least fanfare and progress: individual academic exchanges. Writing last July, Yahia noted that there had been “no increase in visiting professors to major universities in the region, nor are there more opportunities for science students and graduates to pursue further education in the U.S.”

On the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the Cairo speech, the State Department reported that the annual budget for U.S.-Egypt collaboration had been upped from $3 to $9 million and that another roughly $2.5 million had been allocated for a series of conferences in cooperation with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a coalition of self-described Islamic states, and its dodgy spawn ISESCO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. Meanwhile, the State Department has said that it will “begin work on a Young Scientist Global Exchange program.”

Lecturing at the American University in Cairo this April, the science envoy and editor-in-chief of Science Bruce Alberts told his audience, “I'm a big believer in empowering young people to address their problems. The culture of science, such as honesty, tolerance and respect for logic, will be critical for Egypt's future." We can join Alberts in saying up with the culture of science. The question is whether the diplomacy of Big Science is nimble enough to build it in a region where government is so often part of the problem, or whether the culture will be better entrusted to the activities of lots of little scientists.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey's photo

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.