Middle Eastern and North African societies have often portrayed as traditional and static, silently suffering under strong authoritarian states. Arab Spring of 2011, however has shaken the established assumptions of developmentalist, modernist, cultural essentialist and/or (neo)-orientalist accounts, as the demonstrations that erupted first in Tunisia and then in Egypt created a wave of square protests in many different regions, including the Global North. Those waves of protests not only displayed the dynamism of non-state actors, but also transformed the political structures and social formations of many countries in the MENA region, for better or worse.
“Social Movements, Protest and Contention in the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa” lecture series aims to contribute in the discussion on the changing states and societies of post-Arab Spring era in the MENA region, by focusing on the social movements and dynamics of contention from 2011 onwards. There is no doubt that MENA region provides a fascinating laboratory for social movement studies (STS), but we aim to go beyond the structuralist tendencies of STS to give adequate attention to ideas and ideologies, emotions and affects, various modes and forms of agency, networks, spatio-temporal contexts and material practices that influence social mobilizations.
On December 2017, in the Revolution Street of Tehran, back then an unknown feminist activist, stood on the utility box, tied her headscarf to a stick, and waved it to the crowd. In less than a month, in other streets and cities, women and men did the same anti-compulsory hijāb performance. Coincided with the uprising against the government, the images of the unveiled woman went viral. Consequently, the "Daughters of the Revolution," as a non-movement was born and became the symbol of the anti-government uprising, while they had apparent distinguished roots and demands. This momentum not only opened new directions for political activism but also drastically affected the discourse of feminist movement in Iran. What does make a simple (un)veiling performance such a strong and effective implications for the feminist movement and political protests? In this presentation I delve further into this question through re-tracing and unveiling the less visible narratives of women protests in Iran For more than a century, women in Iran have struggled to raise their voices in public, to resist patriarchy, religious fanaticism, and domestic violence. Confronting discriminatory policies of the Iranian state, women have demanded their rights, albeit with various strategies, due to their differences in the perspectives, political projects, and approaches in addressing gender inequality and women's conditions. This very encapsulated and inevitably uncomprehensive narrative aims to contribute to a subjective history of contemporary women struggles by putting the female body and its performance at the heart of the political contestations.
In September 2019, after a long period of awfully quiet streets, small anti-government protests rocked Cairo and other Egyptian cities that demanded an end to government corruption and adopted several of the infamous slogans of the 2011 uprising that lead to the ouster of Husni Mubarak. Albeit small and scattered, these protests were highly mediatized and not only took observers but also the Egyptian government by surprise. After all, in the previous years public shows of dissent against strongman President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi effectively became a rare phenomenon in a country where all shows of opposition are brutally repressed by a vicious security state. The protests were, however, reminiscent of a previous episode of contention: In early 2016 the transfer of the archipelago of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia became a catalyst for oppositional subject formation and the emergence of an unlikely protest coalition between leftists, liberals and nationalists, and thus enabled the articulation of broader socio-political demands in an otherwise closed context. Both cases illustrate how dissonance between the discourse and practices of seemingly stable repressive regimes can trigger spontaneous mobilisation and create opportunities for change. In the aftermath of the 2013 coup, Al-Sisi seemed to have struck a “winning formula” by deriving his legitimacy from a nationalist discourse. However, as the most recent episodes of contention in Egypt show. such a strategy may: When certain events make it apparent that authorities do not walk their talk, social movements are provided with an opportunity for resistance.
Since February 2019, Algeria is witnessing an unprecedent popular upheaval across the whole country that started with the opposition to a fifth mandate of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and rapidly evolved into demands for a radical change of the postcolonial political system. Although this came as a surprise for several observers, not least because no mass protest took place in Algeria during the Arab revolutions of 2011, this lecture will deconstruct the idea of spontaneity and challenge assumptions of the rentier-state approach. It will highlight how this upheaval, claiming freedom, social justice and popular sovereignty, reconnects with a radical political imaginary nurtured not least by the war of Independence and practices of popular resistance and contentious politics performed by ordinary citizens and marginalized actors in the last decades that contributed to renegotiate and transform state-society relations.
The theme and semantic field of failure is increasingly present in any conversation, analysis or report on protest movements in the Arab region and often elsewhere. The ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, the growing waves of repression, and the violence raging across the region have been instrumental to the growing perception and presence of failure and disappointment. This presentation challenges the teleological narratives that look at protest movements through the dichotomy of failure and success, or beginnings and ends by proposing a reconfiguration of failure not as an ending but as a process intrinsic to politics. Rather than assessing outcomes, this approach sheds light on the relations that exist between different moments, spaces, and power structures by exploring the importance of non-spectacular forms of dissent or oppression, in media, space and society. These disruptive practices while they might not always lead to structural change are crucial to the endurance of any politics of dissent.
With the wake of the Arab uprisings, primarily young men and women rose up to demand 'bread, freedom, and social justice'. Though it does not come as a surprise that it is foremost the young who would take to the streets, the wave of Arab uprisings suggests the rise of a new youth politics departing drastically from previous revolutionary practices and thought. Generally speaking the Tahrir occupation of 2011 in Egypt was characteristic for its leaderful and cross-ideological mobilization techniques, thus suggesting a different practice of revolutionary politics today. What constitutes the political imaginaries of Egyptian revolutionary activists as reflected in their political practices? This talk will discuss and debate the meaning of the horizontal character of revolt in light of the Egyptian uprising of 2011. It will argue that horizontal social movements suggest a new politics revolved around questions of sharing power instead of seizing it as was the case in previous revolutionary struggles opening new discussions in relation to leadership models, mobilization strategies, and forms of organization.
From Morocco to Egypt, youth movements have been challenging political parties and the regimes in which they operate. What is at the source of the political generational conflict, and how did it emerge? This lecture aims to clarify the apparent tensions between youth activism and established politics. Mapping youth mobilizations and their transformative potential from national independence to the Arab uprisings, it depicts how changes in the socio-political context have affected forms and consequences of youth political participation. It shows that the relationship between youth activism and institutionalized politics, as well as its impact on national political developments, has varied geographically and over time. The lecture concludes by discussing why the most recent youth movements failed to establish themselves as a political force in the aftermath of the region-wide uprisings.