During World War II, the British ambassador in Cairo, Lord Killearn, complained about the sudden influx of American experts into the country under the auspices of US Lend-Lease assistance. Inquiries into the exact size of railroad track gauge in the Egyptian countryside, he was convinced, were a thinly disguised effort to seize economic control of Egypt (from Great Britain) after the war. Egyptian nationalists launched similar attacks on American research and assistance projects in the 1950s, compelling Gamal Abdel Nasser, at an early point in his 18-year rule, to insist that Egyptians get over their “complexes” about foreign aid.
By 1960, Nasser himself had come to view Western research foundations as part of “the new imperialism.” This at least according to current Egyptian critics who assert that foreign funds are today subsidizing privileged sectors of Egyptian intellectual production (“Spying…It’s Called Scientific Research,” al-‘Arabi, July 18, 1994). Egyptian academics spent much of the past summer rehearsing the various positions in this long-running debate. The tempest began when Nasser’s old sidekick, Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, attacked sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who runs the private and relatively plush Ibn Khaldun Center. For Heikal, the fact that the Center’s May 1994 conference on minorities in the Middle East would include a discussion of Copts, who apparently are not a “minority” in Heikal’s we-are-all-Egyptians world, was proof of a foreign political agenda undermining the national interest under the guise of intellectual inquiry.
The Ibn Khaldun Center is an easy target. Back in 1982, Ibrahim published a widely read polemic blasting foreign foundations and funders for functioning as a “shadow government.” Al-‘Arabi made sure to note that the Center depends on a steady stream of dinars from a liberal quarter of the Sabah clan. The conference, which was co-sponsored by the London-based Minority Rights Group, eventually moved to Cyprus.
Other Egyptian intellectuals took up the general critique, the gist of which is that having failed to beat back the tide of Western hegemony, too many colleagues now are eager to join the ranks of academic entrepreneurs competing for conferences, seminars, study centers and consulting projects sponsored by Western foundation, political parties and government agencies.
Certainly dollars and other convertible currencies are being waved at that segment of the Egyptian academy with good foreign language skills and an amenable research agenda (the nature of opposition movements, the search for “civil society” and other au courant themes). But the Al-‘Arabi piece is woefully short on analysis — miserable salaries make academic moonlighting a necessity — and depressingly long on legends of unnamed scholars who routinely plunder the national archives allegedly to advance Israeli foreign policy goals. Some surprisingly unsophisticated views of US private and public institutions are trotted out as well.
US government agencies do not depend on academic research and scholars-for-hire for knowledge about Egyptian politics and society. Washington has little trouble gathering the vital information it requires more directly. Egypt’s various political currents are, for their part, only too keen to be courted by its representatives. Heikal himself, and no doubt other notables, have made careers off of trading information, not to mention the occasional document. Ahmed Abdalla provides a far more interesting and valuable discussion of foreign funders and Egyptian research institutions in al-Ahram Weekly (“Research: The Last Frontier,” July 13, 1994). He argues, in response to Heikal, that the real factor behind the proliferation of university-based research centers in the 1970s and 1980s, many of which relied on USAID funds at least in part, was the failure of Egyptian national institutions to sustain advanced intellectual life. “Universities themselves have become little more than secondary schools,” wrote Abdalla, “reduced to dictating information rather than developing creative abilities for innovation and research.” He proposes that his colleagues spend less time denouncing each other as traitors and hacks and more time framing policies and principles to guide Egypt’s research community. Foreign institutions and funders mayor may not pursue objectives that Egyptians view as politically desirable, but the national scholarly community is not thereby robbed of its agency. Foundations, even American ones, are not omnipotent, as Nasser argued in 1953 when students at Alexandria University protested the flow of the then relatively paltry sums of US Point IV dollars.