Democracy Rocks the Casbah

by Matt Buehler

From Tunis to Cairo, Tripoli to Damascus, the Middle East has undergone some of the most dramatic changes in its history over the last four months. As a Boren Graduate Fel- low funded by the International Institute for Education, I’ve had the opportunity to witness these events first-hand while conducting my doctoral field research in Morocco.

While the Arab chapter in the democratization story remains unfinished, few doubt that optimism has surged following these rapid, revolutionary changes. I have felt particularly close to the process, and I’m proud that my many friends across the Middle East have decided to assert themselves. They’ve organized into popular protest groups akin to Eastern Europe and Latin America’s ‘people power’ movements of the late 1980s.

Yet, from a fieldwork perspective, such circumstances pose complications for both established and aspiring scholars. How should a researcher conduct fieldwork in such a period of unrest? How should one collect information on popular movements, which have attracted public attention, without endangering his informants or himself ? While academic seminars taught me much about conducting research overseas, nothing could have prepared me for what I found upon my arrival in Morocco. I’d like to share three lessons I think I’ve learned about doing research in such unrest. I hope they benefit other members of the Texas community who may, someday, find themselves in a similar situation.

(1) Be there, but don’t be involved! While doing fieldwork in a revolutionary situation, it’s important to soak up as much information as possible by collecting media articles, passively observing events, and speaking with activists. Such information will enhance your research project and give you an insider-account of excit- ing political developments. Rather than interviewing activists on the spot, however, I’ve found it best to trade contact information with them, and arrange to meet another day in a more formal setting (such as their office or organization’s headquarters) to talk with them about their experiences. One doesn’t want to give the impression that you, as a foreigner, are participating in protests, which could endanger your safety and is prohibited by domestic law.

(2) Be sympathetic, but don’t be known as a sympathizer! Many scholars, especially those interested in democratization, admire activists in popular movements who often join them to advocate for fairer elections, less corruption, and greater political freedom. While you might naturally have such feelings, it’s better to keep them to yourself. In many research studies, you’ll also want to interview the regime’s supporters in order to balance your analysis. There’s no better way to shut off your own access to interviewees than by becoming known as a biased researcher.

(3) Get photographs, but don’t take any! In Morocco, as in many non-democracies, taking pictures of political protests is illegal for foreign nationals. It’s always preferable to get your contacts involved in the popular movement (and by now you’ve made a few) to share their favorite photos with you. Photos are always a great way to spice-up your personal website when you go on the academic job market.

These three lessons, though far from sufficient, have helped guide me while doing my fieldwork in North Africa. It’s been an amazing experience thus far, and I hope to continue learning about the important changes taking place in Morocco while also respecting its laws and protecting my interviewees.

Matt Buehler is a third year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government. He earned his M.A. in government in 2010 and is currently conducting fieldwork in Morocco. Next year, he hopes to continue his dissertation fieldwork on opposition political coalitions in Algeria or Tunisia.