Tunisia: "The transformation process is still ongoing - and takes time"

AcademiaNet interview with Dr. Rahel Schomaker, political scientist, economist and Islam expert

24. 2. 2016 | Rahel Schomaker is an expert for the Middle East and North Africa, and the Arab Spring is one of her topics. She teaches at the German Research Institute for Public Administration in Speyer and has a professorship for economics at the private Cologne Business School.
AcademiaNet: Tunisia is often quoted as a positive example: former president Ben Ali was chased away more than five years ago, and the Nobel Peace Prize 2015 for the National Dialogue Quartet for "building of a pluralistic democracy" was certainly a highlight. But recently, there have been strong protests against mass unemployment, and also against the current Tunisian government. How has the situation changed for young Tunisians, compared to five years ago? And how has the situation for young women changed?

Dr. Rahel Schomaker
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Dr. Rahel Schomaker
Dr. Rahel Schomaker: Many hopes and expectations haven't been fulfilled – yet. And I also think that the striving for a different political system, and for a more efficient bureaucracy with less corrupution, is often more eager than the real-time pace of change. A very important part of these hopes are more and better jobs for young people, to give their future a more optimistic perspetive, and most social systems still leave much to be desired.

For young women, there is the additional problem of an increased pressure to dress according to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that seems to spread. This means for instance that a woman without a headscarf might be attacked in the street, but it also implies an increased social control of everybody's behaviour, not just of young women. I'm certain this was not what the young revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt had in mind.

But these developments don't make me completely pessimistic: the transformation process is still ongoing, and everybody knows that processes like these take time. It's more a question of what the Middle Eastern and North African countries can do to stabilise and intensify the necessary changes. On the one hand, this would mean additional financial resources – but on the other, these changing states also need to offer their young more political participation opportunities.

For the regions you're studying, you've also worked on 'demography and migration'. What's your opinion: Was the Arab Spring inevitable? And was the subsequent migration to Northern Europe inevitable as well?

Many studies have shown for years that the situation in the Middle East leads to an explosive situation, especially with high youth unemployment, lack of prospects, widespread corruption and a general absence of 'good governance'. How this explosion finally occurs, in revolutions or terrorist attacks, is accidental to a certain degree. And then there's always the exit strategy of migration, especially if political and economic participation at home is very limited.

So I'm not surprised about the the current migration movement – I'm only surprised it happened so late! And it's not only about the current situations in Syria or Iraq, although they are terrible, but also about disappointed hopes. I was in Egypt five years ago, and the athmosphere reminded me very much of the time in Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall: a surge of optimism. Now the lack of perspectives in Egypt is almost more difficult to bear than the precarious security situation, and a dangerous migration route often seems like the only option. I think that this lack of prospects should be addressed by the EU's Mediterranean policy, for instance.

In Cologne you teach at a private business university, in Speyer at a public administration university. How does your work differ in these different institutions?

Both universities have a lot in common, like providing first-degree education as well as postgraduate training. Also the challenges are similar: The accreditation processes of our education programmes can lead to very strict requirements, and the growing internationalisation of both our research projects and our students can provide an extra challenge.

But naturally, there are differences, like perceiving each student as a 'customer', as a private university does, is something quite normal in other countries – but for German public universities, this is still a novelty. The general attitude is more 'civil service': the interests of the professors usually set the agenda, or research or even political agendas are being followed. But I also see both sides changing, the public and the private education sector. I would say that both sides offer the same educational quality, but the implementations differ. By the way, not only the two universites where I teach differ greatly – the two cities of Cologne and Speyer are also very different. And I like these differences, I see them as an asset.

Where does your interest in the Middle East and Islam come from?

Do you believe in love at first sight? I've visited this region for the first time as a child, and I've been fascinated ever since: by the people, the language, and by the beauty of the cities and landscapes. As I got older, I became more interested in religious and political institutions, as well as in economic and social developments that are sometimes very similar to the ones in Europe, and sometimes very different. But Muslim countries also differ very much from one another.

Currently I'm concerned how the transformation that we're seeing right now can be achieved without damaging or destroying the rich cultural heritage of these countries. Whenever I land in Cairo or Algier, I feel right at home. And by now I've accpeted that my Arabic will always remain incomplete. But in order to feel really alive, I can recommend nothing better than spending an entire day in an Arab city!
Rahel Schomaker
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(© private)

Rahel Schomaker | looking down on Cairo from a park in 2014 during a business trip, with a German colleague.

How do you motivate yourself after a long day's work?

I have wonderful students. And I'm quite happy to receive a WhatsApp message in the evening, saying "we're sitting here and wondering whether we can really explain the graph on page x..." To educate young people is a very important part of our work. Whether they train as national economist, as managers or administrators: teaching them is our job. I find this very motivating.

And I'm thrilled if a colleague and friend calls and proposes a new project. Sometimes I'm so enthusiastic, I want to start right away and cancel all other projects. It's great to develop ideas as a team, even if some of them never go further than this first day-dreaming stage. It motivates me to introduce ideas into research so that they can bear fruit and might even trigger further research. To sum it up: the people and topics that I'm working with motivate me infinitely. And finally there's the prospect of business trips to remote corners of the globe where tourists usually don't venture.

Dear Dr. Schomaker, thank you very much for this very interesting interview!

German Interview and English version by Susanne Dambeck
  (© AcademiaNet)

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