How should we understand the near-absence of liberal political projects in the Arab world, and the failure of protest and social movements to achieve change? What can one learn from this failure? Where should one look today to find the energies and aspirations that drove the 2011 uprisings? What traces have they left, what spaces do they perhaps still struggle to occupy?
Those are some of the questions the book “Arab Politics Beyond the Uprisings” attempts to answer. The book was published by the Century Foundation, a think tank based in New York, and is part of a project supported by the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation. I contributed a chapter to the book, on cultural activism in Morocco – something I’ve also written about before for Al-Fanar Media.
The book’s premise is that sweeping narratives of revolution, unravelling, and repression—which have been quite common in recent years—are less useful than detailed accounts of particular experiments, and that one can learn much from studying particular shards of the fragmented landscape of Arab politics. The book also assumes that the current dire situation of the region and rout of liberal, reformist, and revolutionary movements does not necessarily mean that those forces will not express themselves again, in new forms.
“There is no evidence-based reason to believe the progress is inevitable in the Arab world, any more than there is evidence that it is doomed to an eternity of sclerotic despotism,” writes editor Thanassis Cambanis in the introduction. “The region is still rife with extensive and abiding aspirations for a new order: there are efforts at creation, and a backlash against them; the erosion of state institutions and local initiatives to replace them; and fragmented challenges to fragmenting ideologies of legitimacy. These efforts and trends are too frequently glossed over in simplistic judgements of the uprisings’ failures and successes. The Arab world remains in dramatic flux, and contains a multitude of possibilities.”
The book offers detailed, textured descriptions of particular institutional battles, social movements, activist cultural and media projects, grassroots organizing campaigns, unnoticed but powerful constituencies, and attempts at local governance. It covers topics such as Tunisia’s transitional justice process, which is being undermined by the country’s new government; Lebanon’s Beirut Madinati group, which campaigned in municipal elections (and sprang out of a garbage crisis that drags on today); or the club of football supporters, Ultras Ahlawy, in Egypt, that played a somewhat legendary role in protests there.
Many of the phenomena and dynamics the book studies are still going on. Others have taken new turns—usually, to be honest, for the worse.
The tensions between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries over how to intervene in the region, for example, are the focus of a chapter by Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a United Kingdom-based think tank. Stephens describes how in recent years the GCC has become “an aggressive, hawkish group that has actively engineered social and political change (or prevented it) across a number of Middle Eastern nations.” Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have pursued “diametrically opposed agendas,” and the impact of this has been “hugely damaging for Arab democracy movements across the region.”
These tensions have broken out into the open more dramatically than ever in the past week, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have organized a boycott of Qatar, accusing it of meddling in other countries’ affairs and of supporting terrorism.
In another chapter, a human-rights specialist, Khaled Mansour, writes about the travails of Egypt’s human-rights organizations. The onslaught against civil society has only intensified since the chapter was written, with the Egyptian authorities issuing a new law that puts unprecedented restrictions on the work of all NGOs in the country.
Journalist Laura Dean contributes a history of the emergence of Mada Masr, one of the country’s premier independent news sites. Again, this story has taken a downward turn after the book’s publication: Access to Mada Masr was blocked in Egypt in late May, although the site has continued to publish on social media. The Egyptian government has blocked more than fifty other news sites and online platforms in the last few weeks.
In fact, as Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center on Law and Security at New York University’s law school argues, Egypt has become the “quintessential encapsulation of regional trends towards authoritarianism and Islamist militancy…something of a negative indicator for a region has often relied on it for intellectual, political and cultural regeneration.”
At the discussion of the book at its launch in New York on June 5, a recurring theme was the lack of political parties or platforms that can effectively relay or channel the demands of social movements. In most Arab countries, there is a vacuum where politics should be, a huge volatile gap between street protests and grassroots activism on the one hand and repressive, unaccountable regimes on the other.
Another question that came up was the “Trump effect” – the new U.S. president’s penchant for strongmen and dictators and dismissal of human rights and democracy in favor of pure business and security considerations. Monica Marks, a Tunisia specialist, noted only half-jokingly that it is to Tunisia’s advantage to be a small country with few resources, as it has escaped the deleterious attention of the American leader.
Several chapters in “Arab Politics” also give accounts of experiments in local governance in Syria by the local revolutionary councils that sprang up in territories that had driven out Bashar El Assad’s army and police. Unfortunately, all those experiments succumbed due to the lack of revenue to make them sustainable; divisions driven by disagreements between activists, militias and local elites; the inability to protect the civilian population from the violence of war; and campaigns of intimidation and terror by Islamist extremists.
Yasser Munif, an assistant professor of sociology at Emerson College, tells the story of the rebel-held town of Manbij, in which a revolutionary council was active and influential for close to two years, and was only slowly sidelined as the conflict dragged on.
Munif argues that scholars and pundits have been blinded to “the possibility of the uprising’s piecemeal but significant achievements.” A similar point is made by Asya El-Meehy, even as she describes local councils’ significant shortcomings, including their lack of real inclusiveness for women and the poor. Yet, she concludes, the emergence of these councils in Egypt and Syria was a “promising sign of grassroots, local organizing.” The articulation of “alternative ideas of bottom-up organizing that are framed in democratic secular terms of citizenship…are likely to alter the exercise of power by centralized authorities in the long run.”