Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Arab spring and its conceptual challenges

I haven’t been posting lately. This is partly because I have been focused on writing the first drafts of some papers that I intend to spend the summer revising before submission. But it’s also to do with the fact that I took an extended trip, to Jordan and Egypt. In Cairo I attended a conference on the Egyptian revolution at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the transitions currently underway there. Since getting back I’ve also attended a conference at Birzeit on the Arab spring as well.

I’ve taken away a few interesting points from both. I was especially struck by the limitations we face as scholars to explain what has happened and is happening here in the region. This point was explicitly mentioned by several of the participants at the Birzeit conference, including Saleh Abdel Jawal and Abaher Saka, who noted the focus on old concepts which contributed to a failure to predict the uprisings since Tunisia last December. This was despite all the structural factors being in place according to Laurent Jeanpierre, from rising unemployment among the young, closed political systems and rising opposition outside of the conventional norms. Indeed, this was one of Saka’s main points: that opposition was taking place in new and emerging public spaces that had been overlooked previously.

At AUC similar points were made about the Egyptian case from Rabab El Mahdi and Dina Shehata, who noted the rise of growing wildcat and independent labour opposition alongside increasing youth mobilisation and activism over the past decade. Shehata in particular noted that the Mubarak regime offered no space for opposition, so much of the activism emerged from late 2000 around the solidarity groups that formed in support of the Palestinian second intifada – thereby providing space for discussion that didn’t directly challenge the government.

But these limitations are also overlooked as well. At both the AUC and Birzeit conferences I noted the determination of scholars to try and fit what is happening in the Arab spring into their conceptual boxes. For some of those present, that’s only to be expected: if you’ve invested your entire academic career in a particular field of research and drawn out certain theoretical assumptions, I can imagine it’s quite hard to assume that things might be different. So we were subjected to a number of presentations in which the expectation is that Egypt (and Tunisia), as the most advanced down the road to follow a path previously taken by the ‘third wave’ of democratisation: through ‘transition’ involving the construction of new political institutions and rules of the game and the integration of ‘outside’ (i.e. excluded and marginalised) civil society groups into the new system – which will result in ‘consolidation’.

The problem with these assumptions is that it doesn’t take into account the reality on the ground – and especially the fact that not only are many of these civil society groups leaderless, but have no active wish to integrate into the political system (through the building of political parties and participation in the electoral system). For at least one of the big name participants at AUC, this was problematic: he said to me afterwards that the ‘hostility’ of some of the youth groups to the political process and their suspicion of institutionalised political activity might threatens the prospect of a future Egyptian democracy. But does it? Rather than expect them to follow the course adopted by previous democratisation experiences (South Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe), why can’t we visualise an alternative in which leaderless movements which actively seek to sit outside the representative political institutions is here to stay? Why must they conform?

I can well understand their scepticism regarding conventional notions of democracy. Indeed, this seemed to be on prominent display at the AUC conference, where much of the discussion centred on where to go from here. In particular this concerned the process of transition away from the current military regime towards a democracy based on political parties, elections and rule of law. Yet the fact that these features are treated with suspicion is not an isolated phenomenon in the Arab world; it’s also present in the so-called established democracies too. The protests in Madrid, Athens and London all point towards a general feeling that the system is broke and that the current tools we have are insufficient to resolve these problems. And it’s not just the left that is suspicious of ‘conventional representative democracy’; there is a strong anti-government streak in the US which has always been present but has crystallised in recent years to include the Tea Party movement.

What these groups have in common is a feeling that representative institutions will only get us so far. And it’s probably no surprise that these concerns were originally manifested in the anti-globalisation movement at the end of the 1990s and 2000s. I was saying to a colleague during the lunch break at the Birzeit conference that it may well be that after years of struggling against the rise of economic liberalisation and privatisation, the movement may have finally found something to mobilise around in the form of the linked financial crisis-public spending cuts of 2008-09 in the North.

(I am also of the opinion that the legitimacy of our current democracies is likely to be tested further as the cuts take hold, especially as governments have to pay for the bank bailouts they borrowed against and so won’t be reducing taxation at the same time. This may well prompt voters to start asking why they are experiencing a growing tax burden at a time when spending on their local hospital, school and other services are being cut.)

But it’s not just a North issue. Reflecting on the AUC and Birzeit conferences, I was concerned that given the important role for the economy, that there appeared to be a virtual lack of discussion about an alternative economic vision for Egypt as well. That doesn’t mean that such discussions aren’t taking place elsewhere, but at the conference it was overlooked. Which leads me to assume that it will remain business as usual, whereby Egypt (and other Arab countries) will continue to see their economies liberalise and opened up to increasing inequality. That we didn’t discuss the economic dimension at AUC and only partially in the post-presentation discussions at Birzeit was troubling since it disregards a significant section of the movements that have been rising against the region’s regimes (yes, they’re against the political restrictions and constraints, but they’re also frustrated by the lack of jobs and underemployment, particularly among the young).

In sum then, I think there’s a lot more thinking to be done about how best we understand the political phenomena that is taking place. While the focus is here in the Middle East, it has inspired others outside the region. But as I’ve pointed out, in some respects we haven’t yet got the concepts or the language to be able to talk about what’s happening. We are in a state of flux in some respects – especially with regard to the nature of social movements and mobilisations (I believe that leaderless movements that cannot be aggregated simply along economic or class lines are here to stay). But how we deal with them – and not only if but also should they be integrated into previous forms of political representation need to be addressed. Personally, I think we shouldn’t try and shoehorn these issues – either concepts or movements – but rather take them as they are and make sense of them on their own terms.

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