Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer, and Ziad Abu-Rish, editors. The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order? London: Pluto Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer, and Ziad Abu-Rish (BRZ): This volume is primarily comprised of articles that were originally published on Jadaliyya during the first six to nine months of the Arab uprisings. As the initial phase of the uprisings subsided, counter-revolution set in, and grand narratives crystallized, we thought it was important to reflect, remember, and share—in a sense, to archive—the imaginative possibilities that were opened up during the first few months of the uprisings. We appreciated the fact that deep structural transformation in any Arab state had the potential to be blocked by the dilemmas of sustained mass-based collective action and/or hijacked by the nefarious intentions of regional and international actors. However, we felt that the violence, bloodshed, and counter-revolution that were dominating the later phases of the uprisings were rendering the initial euphoria less meaningful, which betrayed the emergence of new tangible realities.
This volume captures the feelings of disbelief, hope, relief, and solidarity that emerged, however unevenly, among scholars, activists, and everyday people within the context of a whole series of practices and events that made up what we have come to understand in totality as “the Arab uprisings.” Beyond the problematic question of whether the uprisings were worth it, or the crude enumeration of how much of the current conjecture of forces represents change versus continuity, is the undeniable fact that regimes across the Arab world can no longer take the masses for granted. A threshold has been passed: whether mass protests emerge(d) or not, whether they succeed or not, is beyond the point. There has been a transformation at the level of political subjectivity, at the level of politicization and mobilization of the individual citizen. This fact has fundamentally altered the calculus of incumbent regimes, frontline activists, and both real and potential oppositions.
The volume goes beyond capturing the daily events and micro-practices that engendered and reflected this new political subjectivity. It addresses the ways in which the particular history of state formation, as well as the institutional and strategic legacies it engendered in each country, shapes the possibilities and realities of replacing authoritarian political orders and elitist economic systems with accountable, transparent, distributive, and sustainable political economies. While the volume focuses on those states that have been most affected by the uprisings, namely Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, it also covers the impact on Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. In effect, history did not start in 2011 and many of the chapters in the volume connect the particular dynamics of each of the mobilizations, or lack thereof, to historical contexts within each country. Primarily, four factors shape these contexts: (1) the level and nature of regime cohesion; (2) the socio-cultural diversity at the societal level; (3) the particular relationships between the regime and specific segments of society; and (4) the strategic position of regimes and the states they control within regional and international alliances and power relations.
Finally, we also wanted to complicate the ways in which the Arab uprisings were addressed as a singular unit of analysis. On the one hand, we do so by grouping the chapters into sections on individual countries, selecting those chapters that highlight the differentiating factors listed above for inclusion, and providing original introductions to each section. However, the ability to produce narratives about each state, as well as the region as a whole, is limited by the unevenness of empirical data and field research. This limitation is itself the product of the existence or lack thereof of long-term scholarly and activist engagement with the different peoples and countries that make up the Arab world. If the uprisings have challenged anything beyond the Eurocentric perspectives within which the region is viewed in mainstream academic, media, and policy circles, it is that each country merits its own sustained tradition of theoretically informed, methodologically sound, and empirically based research and analysis. In selecting the articles, we have sought to highlight both the strengths and weakness of our collective knowledge about each of the states, rather than cover them up with articles specifically solicited to address those gaps now that they are painfully obvious. It is the hope that such an endeavor will encourage future generations of scholars and activists to build the types of knowledge and solidarity-based communities that will better address the gaps and holes in our understanding of the histories, movements, and regimes of the entire region.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
BRZ: While the three of us share an interest in both state formation and various forms of social mobilization, we each approach these topics from different disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological vantage points, basing our research and analysis on different case studies and different issues related to these two topics.
For Bassam Haddad, the uprisings are the flip-side of his focus on authoritarian rule. Contrary to the facile critiques by some of his colleagues, the uprisings do not debunk the theories and claims about the resilience of authoritarian rule . If anything, we learned that much of the power relations and structures of the supposedly gone-by regimes have been retained, even if the veneer is less repressive. The volume and the uprisings themselves reinforce the claims of many of us that the people of the region are ready to mobilize under the right circumstances: the seeming passivity, generally speaking, was a function of their rationality vis-à-vis a logic of consequences. Under the right circumstances, the latent impetus for revolt comes to the fore in an impressive manner. The developments henceforth, however, are a different story, and depend on a constellation of circumstances that differ from one case to another.
This work directly connects to research that Rosie Bsheer has conducted in Saudi Arabia over the last two years on the relationship between the politics of historical representation and the popular struggles of the mid-twentieth century. Disciplining the 1950s anti-imperialist movements, namely, oil laborers who went on strike along with their nationalist and leftist supporters, was central to appropriating and consolidating both the Saudi state and the oil economy in the mid-twentieth century. Then, as now, domestic demands for social justice and political participation threatened the interests of the ruling family, the oil company, and by extension, the world economy. And the Saudi regime was then, as it is today, spearheading a regional counter-revolution in order to foreclose progressive political possibilities, later ensuring these central historical episodes are rendered invisible from the historical archive.
Ziad Abu-Rish’s research explores the dynamics of state formation in Lebanon, and centers on the ways in which the early independence period was characterized by struggles over the organization of the domestic political economy. These struggles featured the participation of various elite and popular groups, and the stakes were nothing short of (re)defining the roles and relationships between the various socio-political groups. This was the case not just in Lebanon, but also in all post-colonial states across the region. In effect, there was widespread politicization and mobilization that eventually gave way to the dilemmas of long-term collective mobilization, the shifting of the tide in favor of particular groups over others, and the consolidation of the political economies that came to define these states for decades to come. Thus, the uprisings represent the second instance in the post-colonial history of states across the Middle East and North Africa whereby fundamental change in the status quo became imaginable, and mass-level politicization and mobilization a reality. Paralleling Ziad’s research on early independence Lebanon, this project seeks to narrate and analyze the contours of a particular moment of politicization and mobilization, the specific struggles they involved, and the competing visions they engendered, irrespective of the eventual “success” or “failure” of such dynamics in bringing about a more accountable, transparent, redistributive, and sustainable political economy.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
BRZ: We produced the volume with three distinct readerships in mind: laypeople, activists, and ordinary observers; teachers and students at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate level; and experts, analysts, and policymakers.
The primary readership for this volume is the universe of readers interested in the Middle East. Its uniqueness, as contrasted with some academic publications or journalistic accounts, is that it straddles both worlds: that of academics, and that of general observers. Furthermore, the chapters therein delve sufficiently into historical and political contexts so as to make it relevant to a broad audience. Finally, the variety of countries and topics, as well as the consequent organization of the book, makes it easy for readers to hone in on their individual preferences and areas of interest.
The volume is also of immense value to classroom students who are interested in or already studying the Middle East. It is pertinent to an introductory course where students will need to make sense of the 2011 Arab uprisings and popular movements, or a graduate course seeking sharp knowledge on any number of related topics. Peer-reviewed articles and books will be in short supply for some time, making this volume an indispensible source in the medium run and an un-substitutable record/archive in the long run. Moreover, courses not dealing with the Middle East directly can benefit from the breadth of the material by assigning selected sections. These include courses dealing with comparative politics, culture and politics, Third World politics, revolution, and social movements. Finally, introductory and graduate courses requiring in-depth research on the phenomenon underway will find it a remarkable source of information, data, and analysis.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
BRZ: At the institutional and collective level, the Arab Studies Institute (ASI) currently has four book projects underway through its Tadween Publishing: Palestinian Statehood: Liberation, Representation, and Strategies for Moving Forward (co-edited by Noura Erakat and Mouin Rabbani); Sex and the Citizen in the Middle East (co-edited by Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly); The Maghreb Region: In and Out of the Uprisings (edited by Samia Errazzouki); and Interrogating Intervention: Motives, Forms, and Effects Across the Uprisings (edited by Ziad Abu-Rish). We are also continuing to develop the breadth and depth of countries and topics covered in Jadaliyya.
On an individual level, we are each moving forward in our respective research agendas. Bassam Haddad is currently working on his second book, prompted by the Syrian uprising, but based on his research since the mid-1990s. The manuscript addresses the underlying social transformations Syria has undergone since the Ba`th came to power in 1963, as well as its political consequences, a topic that underlies the mass mobilization we have been witnessing there. However, the manuscript will also examine the sociopolitical context of this transformation prior to the coming of the Ba`th party.
Rosie Bsheer is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the institutional and infrastructural practices of a project of history-making and political legitimization in Saudi Arabia. Her project examines the ways in which the political economy of oil came to structure the production of Saudi Arabian history, built urban environment, and concepts of nationhood in the last century. Rosie’s research takes up the peculiar convergence of oil, theocracy, and history that stands at the origin of the Saudi Arabian state through a study of the institutionalization of the “official” narrative of the Saudi past via textbooks and archives as well as by analyzing spatial transformations characteristic of Saudi Arabia’s oil modernity.
Ziad Abu-Rish is currently completing his doctoral dissertation on the struggles to organize the political economy of early independence Lebanon and the concomitant consolidation of the open, laissez-faire, service-based economy that has come to be understood as the Lebanese model. The project explores the mobilizations of various elite and popular groups around specific institutional arrangements, including public utilities, trade regulation, rural property and credit regimes, and the Litani River Project. Ziad’s project is thus simultaneously a social history of the shifting patterns of alliances and conflicts that animated such mobilizations, an institutional history of the norms, repertoires, and legacies that informed them, and a cultural history of the (re)production of “the Lebanese state” through specific representational practices that were intrinsic to these struggles.
J: In what ways does this book diverge from other recent scholarship on the Arab uprisings?
BRZ: We view this book as part of a small number of commendable recent commentaries on the Arab uprisings. However, there are important aspects of the book that make it stand out. First, the chapters of the book represent intimate engagements with events on the ground by writers who have deep and meaningful relationships with the Middle East in general, and the respective countries and communities they are writing about in particular. Second, the observations and analyses span the first six to nine months of the uprisings and thus allow us to appreciate the dynamism and fluidity of what was a transformative moment in history, one with newly emerging solidarities, hopes, fears, disappointments, and legacies. Finally, the organization of the book offers important details and in-depth explorations of events and dynamics that are largely lost in the structure of comparative grand narratives on the uprisings as a whole.
Excerpts from The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order?
From "Archiving the Revolution"
Let me start with a simple proposition: archives such as that of the Jadaliyya project, must be conceived of, first and foremost, as constituting a vast data bank, many of the uses of which cannot be known in advance. Indeed, it might even be argued that there should not be too much conscious anticipation of what such uses might be, on the grounds that this might place limits on fruitful future possibilities.
From "Preliminary Historical Observations"
These have so far mainly been revolutions fashioned by ordinary people peacefully demanding freedom, dignity, democracy, social justice, accountability, transparency, and the rule of law. Arab youth at the end of the day have been shown to have hopes and ideals no different from the young people who helped bring about democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America and South, South-East and East Asia. These voices have been a revelation only to those deluded by the propaganda of the Arab regimes themselves, or by the Western media’s obsessive focus on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism whenever it deals with the Middle East. This is thus a supremely important moment not only in the Arab world, but also for how Arabs are perceived by others. A people that has been systematically maligned in the West for decades is for the first time being shown in a positive light.
From "The Tunisian Revolution: Initial Reflections"
But what makes any resourceless revolution into a relentless machine is not its name, nor its ideology. It is the persistence of the very old, basic expectation of citizenship and participation, an expectation whose intuitive nature and pure form is discovered again after having been mystified in the idiom of one discourse or another. Thus when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself and subsequently the whole country on fire, he certainly did not realize what he was about to symbolize, which was the grievances coming back to earth and expressed in the most earthly manner possible: not as mystification, not as re-enacting an ancient struggle between good and evil, not as an expression of a party ideology. He gave a human expression to suffering and protest that negated all need to engage in controversies about ideas, ideologies, political systems, proper course of action and so on.
Let’s Talk About Sect
Continuing the discriminatory tradition set by imperial Britain during Bahrain’s time as a British protectorate (when police were recruited from British-colonized India), the Bahraini regime today relies on defense from imported mercenaries, while the Bahraini Shi‘a are denied the right to serve in their own armed forces. The Bahraini Defense Force remains the domain of the royal family and the descendants of its tribal allies, as well as the foreign mercenaries. Contention over discrimination has now developed into a row over illegal political naturalization of these personnel as well as others.
From "How it Started in Yemen: From Tahrir to Taghyir"
Obama’s silence on Saleh’s escalating attacks on demonstrators and its tacit support for his tactics makes it likely that when Saleh falls the government that succeeds him will be less friendly to the United States. President Saleh has offered reforms but as in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya, once the dictator declares war on his own people his days are numbered. The recent Arab revolts have also shown that once a dictator concedes to the demands of the people he is transferring legitimacy to them, and their victory is inevitable. The chants in Yemen are now, “After Qadhafi, oh Ali!”
From "Why Syria is Not Next…So Far"
At the same time, despite the existence within both the Libyan and Syrian regimes of a will and rationale to fight for survival, state–society relationships in Syria are much thicker than those of Libya, where detachment at the top has reached delusional levels.
For instance, the Syrian regime has promoted a new cross-sectarian business class often with considerable roots in traditional city quarters. If something is afoot in Syria, however, it is likely to come from the northern cities.
From Section VIII: Regional Reverberations of the Arab Uprisings
Early revolutionary hope and optimism were largely contagious, crossed national boundaries, and produced a sense of popular solidarity not felt since Nasserist Arab nationalism united the majority of Arab masses. For the first time in decades, the future did not seem as foreclosed as it had long been, and new political imaginaries were suddenly possible. This hope and sense of empowerment even reached the heart of the current counter-revolution on the Arabian Peninsula, with different forms of protestation marking the Saudi Arabian, Emirati, and Kuwaiti oppositional, anti-status quo horizon.
From "Parting Thoughts"
The diversity of the so-called Arab Spring is as important as the common threads that led to the region becoming the focus of local and international attention as its population struggled to free itself from decades of authoritarian rule. While protests and activism were visible everywhere, the demands that protestors voiced differed across the region. People demanding “the downfall of the regimes” may have become the prism through which the protests could be understood in some countries but this demand was not voiced everywhere. If people in Arab republics strove to overthrow their oppressive regimes altogether, it seems that people in wealthy Gulf countries, together with those in heavily subsidized monarchies (Jordan and Morocco), tried to improve the conditions of servitude and authoritarianism.
[Excerpted from The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order? edited by Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer, and Ziad Abu-Rish, by permission of the Arab Studies Institute. © 2012 by Pluto Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]