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New Texts Out Now: Mark LeVine, The Arab Uprisings of 2011 (Special Issue of Middle East Critique)

[Cover of [Cover of "Middle East Critique," Volume 22, Issue 3 (2013).]

Mark LeVine, editor, The Arab Uprisings of 2011, special issue of Middle East Critique 22.3 (December 2013).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this special issue?       

Mark LeVine (ML): The issue emerged out of a conference we organized around the first anniversary of the Arab uprisings, held at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. The conference was titled “The Arab Uprisings: Contesting Narratives, Locating Power,” and was co-sponsored by the CMES at Lund, Jadaliyya, and the journal Middle East Critique. Many of us on the organizing committee had spent significant time in the Arab world during the first year of the uprisings, from the start in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain onwards. We felt that despite all the writings and conferences, academic and otherwise, which had already taken place, there were significant lacunae in the kinds of issues that were being explored or otherwise addressed.

As the title of the conference suggests, we determined that there were two broad areas that needed to be interrogated: first, how to assess the numerous contested narratives that had already emerged around the uprisings; second, and perhaps more important (and certainly key to achieving the first goal), what metrics, frames and lenses needed to be utilized to locate where power was being re-dispersed and re-coagulated, how its forms and shapes were being recast, and whether the new configurations would ultimately succeed in producing the “freedom, dignity, bread, and social justice” that were core demands of all the uprisings.

Together, we imagined these broad angles would allow us better to account for the dynamics underlying the new political subjectivities that were emerging during the first year of the protests, uprisings, revolutions, and civil wars. To the extent that such emergent identities were being sidelined, or at least constricted by the reassertions of various forms of state and elite economic networks, we hoped these two areas would provide us more useful angles for analysis.

The role of Jadaliyya was central to our imagination here. I think the very unique “feel” of Jadaliyya, which had already crystalized into a specific identity by later 2011, was crucial to the special nature of the conference and, subsequently, to this special issue. Bassam Haddad and Hesham Sallam were both on the organizing committee for the conference, and it was live-blogged by them and others for the website. Essentially, rather than have experts—or so-called experts—come and present or pronounce their take on events as pre-formed remarks, we wanted this to be both improvisational and inspiring of future research. The goal was to achieve the kind of “tight but loose” (to borrow a phrase coined by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to describe his band's style of performance) feel that has made Jadaliyya so special since its inception, and which we hoped would produce a relaxed atmosphere yet one where real and unique discussions and insights could be fostered. I think that foundation carried over to the special issue of Critique, although with the obvious change of the more direct rigors of a peer-review and editing process.

We also didn't want to invite just scholars, whether international “experts” or local academics, as did most gatherings. We felt that it was crucial to bring activists, scholars, and artists together from the start and to facilitate conversations that otherwise wouldn't necessarily take place, even among compatriots who might see each other regularly back home. For us, it was not enough to study the cultural output and products of the uprisings; we needed to use cultural production as a guide to explore all their facets—political and economic as well as cultural—performatively.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the issue address?

ML: The issue is not drawn only from the conference. There are contributions by people who were not there, although they are very much part of the larger network of scholars doing the most critical and innovative research on the issues we were exploring. Moreover, the articles were intentionally connected to previous issues of Critique, some of which featured Bassam Haddad, Jillian Schwedler, and other conference organizers, so there was good continuity between them. What unites all of the articles in this and surrounding issues of the journal is the attempt to provide a rigorous yet methodologically unique set of analyses of movements of resistance against governments of, by, and for entrenched economic and political elites, and to ensure we didn't leave out how these interests and groups are tied to similar elites in the major EU countries, the US and Canada, and the advanced (financially at least) countries globally.

As we put the special issue together, one of the central objectives became analyzing the complicated dynamics of the actual uprisings and their immediate consequences, taking into account how much they had already evolved in ways that were unpredictable in 2011 or even 2012. Yet we did know some things from the start, or rather, from before the start of the uprisings—namely, that neoliberal policies inflicted upon the region by local and international elites had delivered little on their promises and much in the way of greater inequality and loss of a sense of possibility for the future. Neoliberalism, of course, has so many elements—spatial, sonic, visual, aesthetic, cultural, economic, political, and so forth. So in one sense, the Arab uprisings could be read as so many tales of really-existing neoliberalism, as has been so well analyzed by Gilbert Achar's new book The People Want.

But while neoliberalism clearly needs to be central to any narrative of the last three years, we did not want to make it the only, or even most prominent, narrative in the issue or at the conference, if only because it was clear that scholars with great expertise on such issues were already doing much-needed work on them. That being said, the first article after my introduction, by Koenraad Bogaert, titled “Contextualizing the Arab Revolts: The Politics Behind Three Decades of Neoliberalism in the Arab World,” does provide a grounding for the remainder of the issue by laying out the parameters and some crucial particulars underlying the experience of neoliberalism across the region.

In my introduction to the issue, I try to offer several new areas for theorizing revolutionary practice. My main goal was to consider what the uprisings show us about the nature of state power. Building on Timothy Mitchell's analysis of the state as an effect of power, which itself owes much to Foucault’s pioneering lectures at the College de France lectures on pastoral, sovereign, and disciplinary power during the 1970s, I seek to analyze how the protests produce a disaggregation of state power that opened new spaces for coagulations of different kinds of networks, and through them, different kinds of states. I explored the actors, institutions, processes, and practices that together quadrangulate (to coin a term), or perhaps enframe, what most people experience as the state, or at least apparatuses and mechanisms of governance.

At the same time, however, I asked: What if we take what might appear to be an aside by Foucault—that the original, astronomical meaning of the word “revolution” saw change as the norm and the stasis necessary to coagulations and discourses of governmental power to take hold—seriously? Then all of a sudden, the question becomes not what unique events and processes are necessary to produce revolutionary moments, but rather how much force and energy are necessary to keep them as infrequent as they normally are. This leads to a much broader discussion of the state than most theories would have it, giving the “people” much more agency and location inside the state, while at the same time exploring how the structures of governmental power laid bare by the uprisings reveal all states at their core to be more or less both “police states” and (as Charles Tilly already pointed out a generation ago) mafias. The state—and the people who revolt against it—thus considered, I argued that the role of cultural expression becomes more important, as do the innumerable local and international networks that enabled the early uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain.

Following my introduction and Bogaert's economic history, the remainder of the issue was able to delve into some of the most important yet still under-theorized aspects of the revolutionary outbursts. Derek Gregory started us off with a wonderful analysis of the intersection of digital public spheres and physical public spaces with a powerful and unique reading of Tahrir. Using Judith Butler's argument regarding the importance of crowds, in all their multiplicities, as “collecting space” as a core moment in their constitution, he demonstrates how the animation of a diverse public was inseparable from its ability to (re)appropriate physical public space.

If Gregory provides a discursive spatialization of the very physical prominence of Tahrir, Laila Sakr, founder of the internet analytics community R-Sheif, provides a powerful argument for why those in the humanities, and other qualitatively grounded analysts of the uprisings, need to become more familiar with the possibilities of utilizing quantitative analyses of large scale data sets as sources for their research. Using an analysis of the hash-tag #Tahrir compiled through the digital Arabic knowledge management system she developed for R-Sheif, Sakr shows just how much there is to be gained by incorporating analyses of digital media, and especially analyses of verbal and written speech acts (through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media) into broader analyses of the mediation of expressions of protests via information technologies.

Coming full circle back to the concepts Gregory first engages, architect and critic Amal Khalaf explores the manner in which the ill-fated Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain’s capital of Manama has been represented, appropriated, and otherwise utilized by the pro-democracy movement, tracing its history from its building through its after-life. Her fascinating account, and particularly the images she includes, remind us that even as physical public space is a key prize in the contest over state power in these uprisings, the memorialization of conquered and/or destroyed space can continue to serve as a key symbol of the delegitimation of state power long after protesters have been dispersed. Her analysis is an important counterpoint and filling out of the analyses of Gregory and Sakr.

Finally, Kerim Bouzouita and Leyla Dakhli's analyses of music in the Tunisian revolution, and the differences between the experiences of Tunisia and Syria, round out the special issue. Bouzouita was a central activist figure in the Tunisian revolution through his “hacktivist” activities on behalf of the revolutionary forces during the uprising, and he also has worked with many of the most important revolutionary artists of the last three years. He provides the backstory of the music of the revolution through his own experiences and, most important, through a discussion that demonstrates that the clues pointing to the explosion were visible for years if one knew where to look—namely, in the music of the generation that led it. Dakhli explores the tragic connection, or perhaps inspiration, of Tunisia's revolutionary protests on the uprising that took hold in Syria before cycling down into the horrible civil war in which Syria is still embroiled. What Dakhli crucially shows is how juxtaposing the two revolutions reveals our ignorance about the numerous influences and causes that could lead one dictatorship to fall so quickly, and another to rebound so murderously and succeed in stamping out so much of the revolutionary fervor that animated the first half year of the uprising. As Dakhli rightly argues, in a closing statement of the issue that well sums up the conclusions of the conference on which it is based, we can only hope that the “discoveries” provided by scholars “will lead more researchers to take an interest in the societies and cultures in the region in order to understand, from the ground level, what geopolitics cannot tell us.”

J: How does the special issue connect to and/or depart from your previous issues?

ML: What perhaps distinguishes this issue not only from previous Critique issues, but from most other academic journals more generally, is the breadth of complex analysis of an event of such global significance that is still very much in process. What we tried to do, and I believe succeeded in achieving, was to capture the immediate yet deep nature of Jadaliyya's coverage of the uprisings with deeply engaged theory and empirical research that normally takes years to be produced. To the extent this assessment is correct, it owes to the dedication of the participants in the conference, and the writers and editors of the contributions to this issue. I think the collaboration between Jadaliyya and Critique on the conference, and subsequently on the special issue, is a good model for how academics, activists, journalists, and artists can collaborate “in real time” on these fast changing events to produce first rate scholarship that is both immediately relevant and also stands up to the test of passing events.

J: Who do you hope will read this issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ML: My goal is encourage more detailed research on our areas of focus—in particular, on the various ways new political subjectivities emerge, are contested, and mature. At the same time, I believe that the manner in which culture is researched and written about can be strengthened by greater attention to the role—conscious or not—played by artists as burgeoning public intellectuals and even as praxic theorists. That is, as activists self-reflexively engaged in performative cultural acts that aim critically to feedback the deepest desire of the publics to whom they belong back on their listeners/viewers/readers. We hope to encourage this not only with more senior scholars and professional researchers, but also with students working on their dissertations, journalists and activists who increasingly wind up producing crucial knowledge about the uprisings in process.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ML: A book I co-edited with Ambassador (ret.) Mathias Mossberg of Sweden on the concept of parallel states as a potential solution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict is presently in press with the University of California. Titled One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, it features leading scholars from both communities as well as international experts on sovereignty and related issues exploring how establishing a regime of shared or overlapping sovereignties in the entirety of Mandate Palestine can help satisfy core desires of both communities for access to the totality of the land, full citizenship rights and sustainable and even robust economic development in a way in which the traditional territorially grounded Oslo model inevitably failed to achieve in any measure. I am also co-editing a book with Karin van Nieuwkerk and Martin Stokes, currently under review, titled Islam and Popular Culture, which features some of the best scholars—senior as well as just starting their careers—writing about various forms of cultural production, circulation and consumption across the Muslim world. Third, I'm helping prepare the documentary of my book Heavy Metal Islam, titled Before the Spring After the Fall, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jed Rothstein and which chronicled the lives of a group of young Egyptian musicians-turned-activists from 2008 through the January 25 revolution until 2013, for its airing on PBS's Global Voices series.

Finally and most definitely not least, I'm working on another book for UC Press on the Arab revolutions' first three years that focuses on many of the aspects most writings to date have left only scantly explored, including the longer historical antecedents of the present moment returning to the late 18th and 19th centuries Mediterranean world, the role of culture, and the often contradictory impulses of various local and foreign/international actors who've been direct or indirect participants in this drama. As part of the writing of the book, I'm working with many of the leading revolutionary artists from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Palestine on several interwoven collaborations

Excerpts from The Arab Uprisings of 2011

From Mark LeVine, “Theorizing Revolutionary Practice: Agendas for Research on the Arab Uprisings”

Political Subjectivities: Agency and Mobilization

It approaches a cliché to argue that political subjectivities are in flux across the region. Yet, the extent of change can vary widely. As Jacob Skovgaard-Pedersen argues, the adoption of new practices of worship, social, and political interaction, for some communities, can feel like “changing their skin.”[1] At the same time, the old categories that defined “leftists,” “secularists,” or “religious” groups confuse more than they clarify, as members of such groups are behaving in ways that are seemingly the opposite of how their identities heretofore have been understood. Indeed, even the idea of leadership can change dramatically, as exemplified by the role of political elites in the independence and first “revolutionary” generations (e.g., Sa'd Zaghlul, Nasser, Abd El Qassem, or Hefez al-Assad) compared with the “leaderless” revolutions of today. Thus, here we can define political subjectivity as the manner in which people recognize themselves in relationship to one or more political contexts. The term is favored over “identity” because, as Paul Amar explains, identity too easily is compartmentalized, “forcing people into [precisely] the kind of boxes”[2] out of which the uprisings were meant to break. Specifically, political subjectivities lie precisely at the intersection of personal identities and political conflict and/or collaboration. They are thus much broader and more open to multiple foci: from ethical subjectivities that involve notions of piety, through more overtly political subjectivities, to embodied subjectivities, such as gender and sexuality.

In a revolutionary context, the re-imagination of personal subjectivity, particularly in proto-, sub- or counter-cultural and/or revolutionary periods, is deeply connected to the sometimes still subtle changes in the flows and networks of power between individuals and various social and political institutions (both existing and newly emergent). In the period leading up to revolutionary outbursts, these changes foster greater individual and group agency and through it mobilization against formerly dominant (if not hegemonic) structures and groups.[3] At the same time, various identities can coalesce, overlap, and conflict, with regimes constantly using the effectiveness of “state” networks and processes simultaneously to produce, co-opt, and repress them.

The identification of the central power nodes, interrelationship between actors, institutional networks and fields, and practices that are in play in the production of new subjectivities enables a deeper understanding of how agency is experienced and various social forces mobilized in the context of forming new political subjectivities. These emergent—or better, emurgent,[4] considering the urgency with which they emerged since the 2011 uprisings—subjectivities differ from previously dominant forms in one very important way. They reflect the return of narrative agency to the region's peoples after decades in which they have been depicted (by their own leaders as well as Western policymakers and commentators) as passive spectators on history's stage. Such agency has produced severe epistemological-cum-political fissures surrounding how the Arab world is thought, talked, and written about, within the region as well as among external observers and actors.

Students, women, youth, minorities, workers, activists and scholars are among the subjectivities experiencing such changes. What still needs to be explored is precisely how the people embodying each of these potentially multiple subjectivities understands themselves in relation to other groups and society more broadly; what factors have facilitated or inhibited various configurations, alliances, and cooperation, or instead frustrated the same; and to what extent the uprisings “merely” changed peoples individual identities rather than facilitating—or necessitating—the production of new subjectivities. At the same time, the contingency and rapid changeability of political subjectivities must be recognized.[5]

Even as we recognize the problematic nature of the religious/secular divide, we must be careful to avoid assuming, as scholars did in the immediate wake of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists more broadly had adopted fundamentally new and post-religious or secular subjectivities.[6] Finally, and perhaps most important, the manner in which regimes across the region increasingly mirrored the behavior of Israeli occupation forces toward their populations—thus the frequently heard claim by activists from Algiers to Cairo to Manama that they are “occupied”—has profound implications for the nature of emurgent political subjectivities, while also reminding us of the inherently colonial dynamics of most post-colonial states.[7]


From Social Death to Revolutionary Life

If the Arab uprisings rightly can be described as revolutions against fear, the final element involved in the emergence of new political identities involves the process of rejecting what Giorgio Agamben, building on the work of Carl Schmitt, famously has described as the “state of exception” and reduction to “bare life” that characterizes the treatment of the most politically and/or economically marginalized members of society. From this perspective, the moment of revolutionary transformation—the famous “breaking the wall of fear”[8]—begins precisely when citizens break free of the condition of exclusion, or “social death,”[9] and assert direct, or potentially direct, political agency. 

Here we need to recall Foucault's discussion of the role of policing and even the coup d'état in the execution of the broader raison d'état at the heart of modern practices of government: Any government’s primary goal is its own self-preservation. The violence inherent in these processes, in which the desired political subjectivity (from the vantage point of the power elite) of society as a whole depends on the existence of a state of exception for certain of its members, point to the fact that the moment of revolutionary initiation is located precisely at the point when a critical mass of citizens actively and publicly challenges the violence of this system.

In this sense, the deaths that precipitated revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt—Mohamed Bouazizi and Khaled Said—reflect precisely how deep states create states of exception that control and when necessary kill, those who threaten the order they are meant to serve. The question this analysis opens is what sets of dynamics lead a critical mass of people no longer to accept such a state of affairs and risk not merely social death but physical death in order to challenge a system which until then seemed hopelessly impregnable. 

Of course, “bread,” “freedom,” “social justice,” and above all, “karamah,” or dignity, have motivated revolutionaries for centuries. In the neoliberal era, the Zapatistas were among the first communities both to self-organize (autogestion), declare themselves to be “the forever dead” (los muertos de siempre)—that is, in a state of exception, of social death and bare life—and thus ready to die physically to achieve “dignidad.”[10]

The routes through which such positive agency (as opposed to the nihilistic agency of the jihadi or suicide bomber, for whom death is itself the political end or goal) is asserted are many, and those traveling through the Arab uprisings warrant comparison with other struggles against neoliberal authoritarianism. In our case, such expressions include communities as diverse as extreme heavy metal scenes,[11] activist networks whose members are willing to put themselves directly into the firing line of the state (as epitomized by the famous video made by April 6 activist Asma Mahfouz),[12] and seemingly ordinary citizens such as Khaled Said or Muhammed Bouazizi, who directly challenge the power with their very bodies and ultimately lives. In so doing, they reveal to society at large the broader state of exception into which all so easily can fall. 

As GYBO founder Abu Yazan points out, “Sometimes we need to die. We discussed this and some said we are ready to die because there are generations coming and we will inspire them.”[13] In contrast, others, such as Leila Dakhli argues that “martyrdom is important, but as the activists say, 'We want to live not to die.' Dying is what happens every day. The purpose of revolution is to live.”[14]

The idea of martyrdom raises an important issue, namely that the forms of political engagement described here can be understood as mirroring, epistemologically and phenomenologically, religious praxis, and in particular the kinds of practices associated with transitional life states (birth, puberty/adulthood, marriage, death). The primary and crucial difference, however, is in “normal” times such liminal states, and the communitas they engender, resolve through a return to normal communal, social and political existence.[15] Revolutionary liminality does not merely revolve back to every-day life. Those undergoing such transformations are not reintegrated into the fabric of community in their changed state; rather, their changed state becomes the impetus and vehicle for the initiation of the broader transformation of society.

Tunisian cyber activist Kerim Bouzouita explains regarding this dynamic, “If you look at the videos from Tunisia you will not see a single religious slogan. Freedom, equity, dignity, work—that’s what it is about. [And yet Mohamed] Bouazizi was a zawali—guy from the ground, a poor guy.”[16] But as Bouzouita points out, these slogans were so powerful precisely because they were grounded in longstanding religious discourses, which became far more public after the revolution with the rise of An-Nahda (and similarly, in Egypt, of the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party).


[1] Remarks at CMES Conference, 27 April 2012.

[2] Remarks at CMES Conference, 26 April 2012.

[3] Mark LeVine, “Culture Jamming and the Arab Uprisings,” in Marilyn DeLaure, Culture Jamming Reader (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming).

[4] For a discussion of the notion of emurgency, see Mark LeVine and Bryan Reynolds, “Theatre of Immediacy: Dissident Culture, Revolutionary Performance, and Transversal Movements in the Arab World,” paper presented to the Islam and Popular Culture conference, Amsterdam, March 8-9, 2013.

[5] To cite one example, the incredible solidarity among normally different groups of people with competing worldviews and politics was a defining characteristic of the eighteen days of demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during January and February 2011. Yet that feeling disappeared literally within twenty-four hours of Mubarak's departure, and on the festival-like gathering the evening of 12 February 2011, rifts between groups were already readily apparent. 

[6] Cf. Charles Hirschkind, “Beyond Secular and Religious: An Intellectual Genealogy of Tahrir Square,” American Ethnologist, 29, 1 (2012), pp. 49-53.

[7] These words were said to me many times by Egyptian as well as Algerian activists during 2011 and 2012.

[8] For an analysis of the role of breaking the wall of fear in the revolutions, see "Egypt: The Revolution that Shame Built," al-Jazeera (25 January 2012).

[9] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); also see G. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998; and on social death, see Lisa Marie Cacho, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (New York: NYU Press, 2012).

[10] As Subcomandante Marcos explained it, “We were already dead and we were called upon to become warriors, according to our legend. And as we were dead, we became what we are: shadows. And in a strict sense we are that: “shadow’s warriors or warriors of the shadows.” See “The Other Mexico” (26 October 2006).

[11] For metalheads, “a music about death can affirm life” far more meaningfully than existing political and religious ideologies. For the role of heavy metal in the emergence of new political subjectivities, see Mark LeVine, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Random House), 2008.

[12] For the vlog that was so crucial to bringing activists out on 25 January 2011, see here.

[13] Abu Yazan, CMES Conference, 27 April 2012.

[14] Leila Dakhli, CMES Conference, 26 April 2012.

[15] Cf. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishers, 1969).

[16] Kerim Bouzouita, CMES Conference, 27 April 2012.

[Excerpted from Mark LeVine, “Theorizing Revolutionary Practice: Agendas for Research on the Arab Uprisings,” from Middle East Critique 22.3 (2013), by permission of the author. © 2013 Informa UK Limited. For more information, or to purchase the complete issue, click here.]

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