Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa

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The Middle East and North Africa have become places that almost everyone "knows" something about. Too frequently written off as culturally defined by Islam, strongly anti-Western, and uniquely susceptible to irrational political radicalism, authoritarianism, and terrorism—these regions are rarely considered as sites of social and political mobilization. However, this new volume reveals a rich array of mobilizations that neither lead inexorably toward democratization nor degenerate into violence.

These case studies of Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are inspired by social movement theory, but also critique and expand the horizons of the theory's classical concepts of political opportunity structures, collective action frames, mobilization structures, and repertoires of contention through intensive fieldwork. This strong empirical base allows for a nuanced understanding of contexts, culturally conditioned rationality, the strengths and weaknesses of local networks, and innovation in contentious action in a region where, with the exception of Turkey, there was little sign of broad-based movements for democratization until the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings of 2010-11.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It is a must-read for historians and social scientists interested in social movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and an important resource for understanding the region's recent political change, contemporary history, and, in spite of the modest disclaimers of the editors, the uprising of 2011."—John Chalcraft, Arab Studies Journal Reviews

"This is an excellent volume and a much needed addition to the scholarship on social movements, revolutions, and Middle Eastern studies. I recommend it to all those wishing to understand the tumultuous events of the Arab spring and collective action in the region more generally."—Atef Said, Mobilization

"An altogether welcome addition to both the social movement literature and the growing body of work on contention in the Middle East and North Africa. In the wake of 9/11, scholars rushed to fill the gaping void in scholarly knowledge of all manner of 'Islamacist' movements, but generally without tapping into the rich body of work on contentious politics that had been produced in recent years. And for their part, movement scholars were missing in action when it came to knowledge of events in this crucial region of the world. This exceptional collection has gone a long way towards remedying this problem and bringing these two important literatures into productive dialog with each other."—Doug McAdam, Stanford University

"Protest in the Middle East and North Africa is not just a monopoly of Islamists. This volume juxtaposes Islamist activism with movements by workers, intellectuals, feminists, human rights activists, and others that don't get much attention in the West, but which present a fuller picture of political and social upheavals in the region."—Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804775250
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/10/2011
  • Series: Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and I Series
  • Edition description: Older Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Joel Beinin is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University, and a past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. Frédéric Vairel is Assistant Professor of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.

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Table of Contents


Foreword Joel Beinin and Frédéric Vairel....................ix
Introduction: The Middle East and North Africa Beyond Classical Social Movement Theory Joel Beinin and Frédéric Vairel....................1
1 Protesting in Authoritarian Situations: Egypt and Morocco in Comparative Perspective Frédéric Vairel....................27
2 Leaving Islamic Activism Behind: Ambiguous Disengagement in Saudi Arabia Pascal Menoret....................43
3 Egyptian Leftist Intellectuals' Activism from the Margins: Overcoming the Mobilization/Demobilization Dichotomy Marie Duboc....................61
4 Three Decades of Human Rights Activism in the Middle East and North Africa: An Ambiguous Balance Sheet Joe Stor....................k83 5 Presence in Silence: Feminist and Democratic Implications of the Saturday Vigils in Turkey Zeynep Gülru Göker....................107
6 Mobilizations for Western Thrace and Cyprus in Contemporary Turkey: From the Far Right to the Lexicon of Human Rights Jeanne Hersant....................125
7 The Egyptian Jama'a al-Islamiyya as a Social Movement Roel Meijer....................143
8 Hizbullah's Women: Internal Transformation in a Social Movement and Militia Anne Marie Baylouny....................163
9 A Workers' Social Movement on the Margin of the Global Neoliberal Order, Egypt 2004–2009 Joel Beinin....................181
10 From Europe to Turkey: A Case of the Variable Value of Resources Emre Öngün....................202
11 Unemployed Moroccan University Graduates and Strategies for "Apolitical" Mobilization Montserrat Emperador Badimon....................217
Afterword: Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt Joel Beinin and Frédéric Vairel....................237
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First Chapter

Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7524-3

Chapter One

PROTESTING IN AUTHORITARIAN SITUATIONS Egypt and Morocco in Comparative Perspective

Frédéric Vairel

During the 1990s and especially since 2000, the forms and means of political participation increased in Morocco and Egypt. The emergence of collective actions whose objective is not to overthrow the regime but to obtain the implementation of new policies, or changes to make the system more democratic, has transformed the streets into a major arena of reform. This chapter will analyze the contentious spaces resulting from the competition between protesting actors and regime incumbents. In these spaces, increasing public and collective indignation takes different forms, expressed in familiar collective action repertoires: demonstrations, petitions, press releases, hunger strikes, coalitions and associative networks, and sit-ins. By "contentious space" I mean a part of the social world built at the same time against and in reference to the political field and its formal institutions. Actors in contentious spaces share the idea that changing politics by mobilizations and political activism is possible. They also have common practices and skills regarding modes of action—writing a statement, organizing a sit-in, building an NGO or a group, gathering people around a cause (Mathieu 2007). People active in contentious spaces also share political comradery and friendship. Despite their diverse or even opposing political stances or their concurrences, they share a history of repression and of time served in prison.

By analyzing spaces of political competition beyond the institutional sphere and taking into account the reciprocal determinations of contentious and institutional politics, I avoid the "polity-centered bias" characterizing most of the studies of Morocco and Egypt as well as the approaches of a number of social movement theorists—although Tarrow (1990, 1993), and more precisely Goldstone (2003), have challenged the rigid distinction between the politics of movements and institutional politics or public policing. To understand the logic of these contentious spaces, one has to keep in mind that they function under coercion. The contentious arenas constitute a "new discipline" adopted by regimes against activists' organizations and mobilizations; they are part of the way authoritarianism is reinventing itself. The study of the setbacks suffered by activists' associations and groups allows us to analyze precisely how the Moroccan and Egyptian authorities constrain their activities.

In Morocco different movements have evolved around a government plan to improve women's conditions (National Plan for the Integration of Women in Development); around the repression during the "Years of Lead" and the regime's history of violence; and around Arab causes like Palestine and Iraq. In Egypt the emergence of Kifaya ("Enough!" or the Egyptian Movement for Change) in December 2004 and its mobilizations against hereditary succession and President Mubarak's authoritarian rule have attracted attention from international observers and policy makers. In April and May 2006 different groups—from leftists to the Muslim Brothers (MB)—took to the streets in defense of the independence of the judiciary. They were supporting judges who were critical of the regime and who questioned the fairness of the 2005 legislative elections. In July 2006 mobilizations against the Israeli war in Lebanon revealed both the vitality and the limits of Egyptian oppositional movements.

In Egypt and Morocco the emergence of social movements is not a result of mere window-dressing measures to satisfy key international allies like the United States or the EU. The transformation of collective action, its goals and mottoes, has rendered protests tolerable if not legitimate. Nowadays militants no longer seek to overthrow regimes as in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead they intend to transform them from within, in either a democratic or Islamic way. On the incumbents' side, democracy has become the language of power. In Egypt and Morocco incumbents are modifying the style of their domination, with an increasing tolerance for public expression of discontent. But this situation, in which regimes and oppositions share the same reference to democracy without agreeing on its content—what David I. Kertzer describes as "solidarity without consensus" (1988, 67–75)—complicates contestation.

Egypt and Morocco are two demographic and political heavyweights in Arab politics. The two countries are broadly open to the international environment. For different historical and political reasons, both have strong links with the EU and the United States. They are members of the Barcelona process and have concluded free trade agreements with the EU and the United States in the case of Morocco, and a preferential trade agreement (the QIZ agreement, see below) with Israel and the United States in the case of Egypt.

During the 1990s, Morocco was often perceived as a welcoming land for transitology scholars. Their enthusiasm was based on the idea that any political changes are equivalent to democratic transformations, although Salamé (1994) expressed only measured optimism about the prospects for democracy. Economic liberalization, constitutionalism, elections, reference to the human rights lexicon, a broader range of freedom in public discourses, and the monarchical succession were thought to signal a democratic transition. A few years later, Egypt was often included in the category of "Arab springs" (International Crisis Group 2005). Here again, economic privatization, constitutional reforms in 2005, the so-called pluralistic presidential election, relatively more-transparent legislative elections, and a broader range of freedom in the press encouraged many to believe that a "transition to democracy" was underway.

The two countries are involved in long-term processes of opening markets. The Morocco/EU Association Agreement entered into force in March 2000, and the Egypt/EU Agreement in June 2004. Morocco has acquired an "advanced status" with the EU, including deeper trade and political ties. For the Union, this "advanced" status is a way to avoid full Moroccan membership. In January 2000 Morocco concluded a free trade agreement with the United States. In Egypt since December 2004, over twenty qualifying industrial zones (QIZs) constitute a partial free trade agreement with the United States. Originally, goods produced in these zones enjoyed a duty-free access to US markets if they had 11.7 percent Israeli content. The required Israeli input was lowered to 10.5 percent in October 2007. Morocco and Egypt, with Tunisia and Jordan, are also part of the Agadir agreement since March 2007 and are linked together by a bilateral free trade agreement since April 1999. However, there is confusion between these indices of economic change and the more or less profound changes in the architecture of the two countries' political regimes and their exercise of power and domination.

The Arab or Muslim exceptionalism thesis has seen a renewal with the so-called third wave of democratization (Huntington 1991) and the fading of prospects for democracy in the region since the authoritarian softening of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As for electoral politics, some scholars describe what could be "an Arab more than a Muslim gap" (Stepan and Robertson 2003). But the uses of the "menu of manipulation" in electoral politics (Schedler 2002) seem rather universal. Many studies of political participation have established a binary representation of Arab political scenes. They confine political participation to elections and riots, both "hot" political moments having opposing logics and legitimacy. Arab politics is either seen through the prism of "a culture of rioting" (Badie 1986) or "a culture of deference" (Hopkins 1995; Hammoudi 1997). Until recently, except for riots (Bennani-Chraïbi 1994) and revolutionary moments (Kurzman 1996), contentious politics raised little interest. The dynamics of the political field was the main object of study of political science; investigations were limited to institutions, political parties, and elections, all directly related to states and regimes. This trend has been reinforced by the fact that studies of social movements have been relegated to other disciplines (such as social history, urban sociology, social anthropology). These investigations have tended to minimize or obscure the very political meaning of those movements. Comparing political dynamics in Egypt and Morocco may function as a laboratory to examine research directions that can enrich more general debates about social movements. I will emphasize how the emergence of large-scale mobilizations and the long-awaited democratization are disconnected: in these situations, "civil society" is far from being the instrument of a gradual democratization so dear to democracy promoters. Rather, on the Moroccan and Egyptian political scenes "civil society" is shaped by reciprocal adaptations between reforming authoritarianisms and deradicalized activists. The huge coercion exerted against oppositional movements in Morocco and Egypt allows us to consider the broad and complex effects of repression, beyond the mere repression/radicalization binary. Finally, the multiple forms that political violence can assume also provide a way to examine the importance of threats in the process of mobilization.


Scholarship on the associational revival in the Middle East has too often fallen into the trap of considering the awakening of civil societies as a sign, a factor, and a condition for democratization (Al-Sayyid 1995; Hudson 1996). The issue at stake is not only satisfying a fashion fostered by the international expertise mechanisms—the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization—or by the UN Development Program; the democratic passion of researchers has prevailed over observable reality and has gone so far as to substitute for it. Works based on civil society have not always avoided the pitfalls of transitology, especially its teleological biases, and have linked the "awakening" of civil society with transition to democracy (Ben Nefissa et al. 2005). As noted by Schwedler (2006, 6),

One limitation of the focus on transitions to democracy is that political change is assessed almost exclusively in terms of progress along a continuum, with many processes characterized by stagnation (in the case of stalled transitions) or a return to autocratic practices (in aborted and failed transitions). This focus often obscures the complex ways in which political institutions and practices are restructured even in cases where political openings do not progress very far. That is, even limited openings may produce considerable dynamic change in the public political space—the practices and locales of political struggle—and these multidimensional restructurings demand systematic analysis. (italics in original)

In Morocco the institutionalization of a contentious space tells us a great deal about the political adjustment trajectory of authoritarianism. This institutionalization is mostly seen in the increase in the forms and means of political participation and public expressions of dissent. The tradition of demonstrating in the streets was renewed during the 1990s in large and peaceful demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinians and the Iraqis. They were followed by the huge mobilization around the National Plan for the Integration of Women in Development and by numerous sit-ins in front of the secret jails of the Years of Lead; against inflation; or against the poor quality of privatized public services, whose prices were increasing. These movements cannot be understood only as "a survival strategy of the regimes that did not go far beyond the introduction of a mechanism for venting popular political dissent" (Schlumberger 2000, 117). On this very point I differ from Oliver Schlumberger when he adds, "The conceptual differences about civil society notwithstanding, there is hardly any evidence for societal actors independent of the state and its elites who could be said to shape the political process to any significant degree" (118).

In Egypt the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 (intifadat al-aqsa) led to the grouping together of activists of various political orientations (mostly leftists and Muslim Brothers). The Egyptian People's Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (EPCSPI) wrote opinion columns, organized workshops, conferences, and meetings, petitioned for the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel, and questioned the United Nations about Palestinian political prisoners' fate. On September 10, 2001, the EPCSPI demonstrated in Tahrir Square in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. This gathering attracted the authorities' attention, and many of the committee's members were arrested, sometimes (especially MB) for long periods.

Between March 29 and April 2, 2002, in Cairo (in the districts of Giza, Helio polis, Ma'adi, Bulaq, Duqqi, and 6th of October City), and also outside the capital in Alexandria and many cities of the Delta and Upper Egypt, streets were the scene of intense political activity. Demonstrators denounced Israeli violence in the occupied territories, the Saudi peace plan, and Egyptian diplomatic relations with the Israeli occupier as well as US support for Israel. Students from the American University in Cairo, 6th of October University, and Cairo University were at the center of the movement.

The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, led to the occupation of Tahrir Square "from the very start of the bombing" as indicated in the watchword sent by text messages. The breadth and length of a movement such as this antiwar movement had been unseen since the 1972 student movement calling for "democracy" and "popular war" against Israel. For two days Cairo lived at the pace of protests and their repression, especially when al-Azhar worshippers sought to join the demonstration after the Friday prayer. Mobilizations facilitated relations between "comrades and brothers" (el-Hamalawy 2007) within the March 20th Popular Movement for Change. Above all, they allowed a relocalization of targets and the stakes of the protest, which was evident later in Kifaya's 2004 "Declaration to the Nation." On March 5, as the government was celebrating National Unity, 150 people demonstrated near the House of Parliament demanding an end to the state of emergency in force since 1981. In addition to US "imperialism," demonstrators denounced its "valets," an expression in vogue in the 1970s. It is not certain whether such slogans came from the most prominent leaders or rank-and-file activists. The mobilizations for "change" in Egypt seem to be linked to the forms (Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, continued support for Israel) and the terms of the renewed American hegemony in the Middle East (the Greater Middle East Initiative).

In these three moments of contention, protests shifted from foreign to domestic politics. This reminds us that it may be more fruitful to explain the launching of collective action, not from the point of view of opportunities but rather of threats perceived by the contentious actors. The occupation of Iraq, which created new conditions subordinating the Egyptian regime to its American ally and guardian, appears to have played a leading part in this situation. These demonstrations were foreshadowed by the earlier mobilizations prompted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The links between leftists and MB continued with the antiwar conferences in December 2002 and December 2003 (and also subsequently up to 2008).

One of the most meaningful lessons of these movements lies in the disconnect between the development of large mobilizations and the democratization of the regime: the awakening of "civil society" was not accompanied by a transition to democracy, in contrast to what transitologists believe. This clear disconnect reveals the failure of the project of importing civil society to Egypt in its Tocquevillean, Lockean, Marxian, or Habermasian form as promoted most prominently by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, professor emeritus of sociology at the American University in Cairo and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in that city, as well as the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Though not alone in this regard, Ibrahim was more successful in promoting civil society as a slogan, referring broadly to Egyptian associational life. In Morocco and in Egypt, civil society has become a cause for some, a field to increase the value of diplomas for others, or a practical notion and landmark for international donors, journalists, diplomats, and academics. In none of the countries should these "real civil societies" be understood as a first step toward democracy (Camau 2002). At the same time, although foreign funding might seem like a resource to an Arab activist, it functions as a real constraint. Foreign funds are more easily available in Morocco than in Egypt, where most contentious actors avoid any link with foreign actors for fear of being considered traitors to the nation. Accepting EU money to monitor the 2000 elections, and his report to Minority Rights Group International about the situation of Egyptian Copts, landed Saad Eddin Ibrahim in jail from 2000 to 2003.


Excerpted from Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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