Charles Tripp, The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Charles Tripp (CT): The origins of the book lay initially in my feeling that a great deal of space had been devoted to the analysis of elites, the resilience of regimes, and the dominance of the state in the Middle East. This is perfectly understandable and has produced some outstanding studies. However, there did seem to be room for a book that tried to examine the other side of the coin: the ways in which people across the region had tried to resist or to protect themselves from dominant forms of power, whether local or international. The intention, therefore, was to re-assess agency amongst those who were not mere subjects of hegemonic forms of power, but who thought against the grain and acted against incumbent power in a variety of ways. My concerns led me to develop a Masters course at SOAS in 2008 on the Politics of Resistance in the Middle East. The response of the students, their enthusiasm, and the ways in which our conversations challenged some common assumptions led me to believe that there was material here for a book. It is for this reason that the members of the class of 2008 are named in the acknowledgements in the book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CT: Taking its cue from Foucault’s problematic but nevertheless suggestive assertion that “where there is power, there is resistance,” the book examines the forms and understanding of resistance in a wide variety of settings. Some of these play themselves out in the framework of the state. Others, however, are more relevant to the effects of a global division of labor on peoples in the Middle East; on contestation within a sphere shaped by constructions of, and exclusions related to, gender; on the narration of histories and the reworking of collective memory; and on the transgression of aesthetic boundaries in the visual arts. All of these have been, and are still, sites of unequal power and, by the same token, constitute the sites of resistance, calling forth different strategies and producing a range of different effects.
The book is therefore organized thematically, using the various strategies of resistance—armed, nonviolent, economic, labor-focused, gender-based, historiographical, and aesthetic—to mark out the chapters and thereby to convey the range of resistances called into being in the recent political history of the Middle East. In doing so, it engages with literature that has examined these forms of resistance as they have played out in a number of countries, as well as with the theoretical literature that has attempted to clarify the understanding of resistance as a form of contentious politics.
J: How does your work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
CT: In some respects, this book grows out of my previous work. My work on Iraq has led me to try to understand the drivers of the many resistance movements that emerged in the country after the US-led invasion of 2003, and the seductions, but also the pitfalls, of a strategy of violent resistance. My work on Islamic political and economic thought led me to examine the ways in which Muslim intellectuals have sought imaginatively, but also, when the opportunities presented themselves, in practical terms, to resist the power of global capitalism. In both cases, it was clear that distinctive forms of power had provoked hostile responses, but had also shaped the very ways in which those responses were articulated—often with unforeseen results.
I hope, however, to go beyond the work I have done in those fields, using social theory and comparative politics to develop approaches to power and to resistance that apply not simply to the Middle East, but to political conflict more generally. At the same time, this work has allowed me to develop my thinking about the political in relation to labor, gender, historiography, and art, which represent new departures for me.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CT: Like most authors, I wish for the widest possible readership for the book. Realistically, however, I hope that it will be of particular interest to those who are interested in politics—in the politics and recent history of the Middle East especially, but also in the potential that exists for people to organize their own resistance, even under the most unpromising conditions. The general reader, as much as the reader within academia, will I hope find something of value here.
I had the curious experience, in writing this book, of having written the first draft of it before the drama of the uprisings across the Middle East began to unfold at the beginning of 2011. It was then that I was meant to be submitting the revised draft to the press. I had the extraordinary privilege of watching, therefore, as people across the region began to act out in distinctive ways and on an unparalleled scale many of the patterns of resistance that I was trying to capture in the book. Needless to say, I was no more prescient than anyone else about the timing, the spread, the scale, or the outcome of the uprisings that began that year. However, in trying to accommodate them within the analytical framework of the book, it was possible to see processes at work that had manifested themselves at various times in the preceding decades. More than that, it was possible to understand the power of the repertoires on which many of those who were resisting so bravely in 2011 and 2012 were able to draw, as had so many others who had preceded them in standing up to entrenched power. Perhaps, therefore, one impact that this book may have is in convincing people that resistance never dies—it is an on-going struggle against unequal power, engendered by that power and by the determination of those who refuse to tolerate that inequality.
Although this is not a book primarily about the uprisings of 2011-2012, it may be that this is something that should give heart to many in the aftermath of those uprisings, despondent about their outcomes. By the same token, it should cause those in power to recognize the conditional nature of their rule.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CT: I am currently working on two projects that have opened out partly as a result of the work I have done on this book, and partly as a result of the events of the past couple of years in the Middle East. The first project is to explore the significance of the reclamation of public space in the Middle East, through art, through performance, and through the challenges of institutionalizing the power of the emerging public—and thus their rights, access, and voice—by transforming state structures. The second project is to develop new directions in the emerging field of comparative political thought. It examines not simply textual translation and transmission, and goes beyond the idea of discrete political “traditions” of thought, to take seriously the ways in which ideas and concepts are enacted, representing thought as part of the constitution of the everyday, made comparable by people’s lived experiences. I shall be investigating this in different sites across the Middle East, but it is part of a larger project involving colleagues at SOAS who are focusing on sites in Africa and South and East Asia.
J: How does your book contribute to or diverge from recent discussions and scholarship on the politics of resistance in the Middle East?
CT: In many respects, this book takes up themes that have been examined by others in trying to understand the politics of resistance in the Middle East, but also elsewhere. Many of these have been inspirational, even where I have may have differed with particular interpretations. It is a book that has emerged, therefore, out of a critical engagement with those who have theorized resistance, and with those who have written about resistance in particular places and at particular times in the Middle East. It is distinctive in that it uses comparative material from across the region, as well as from different periods in the modern history of the Middle East, to explore the logic of the processes or paths of resistance followed by various people in their struggles with dominant power. In doing so, it tries to bring out underlying patterns within the relationship of power-resistance, as well as the conditions that may shape the imagination and the courses of action pursued at a particular place and time.
Excerpts from The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East
From The Introduction
It should be fairly clear by now how “resistance” is to be understood in this book and thus the kinds of politics that will be examined under this heading. It will look at activities aimed at contesting and resisting systems of power that people in different places have found increasingly intolerable for a wide variety of reasons. In some settings, this may bring out very public forms of protest and resistance, intended to make those in power to reconsider and to change specific policies, or indeed the way they exercise power. Whether from the outset, as in Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003 or in Egypt in 2011, or gradually, as in Bahrain and Syria in the same year, organized resistance may also aim at the complete overthrow of the political regime that has brought the resistance into being through its behavior.
The methods chosen to make resistance effective, both within a particular country and beyond, will also vary. Spectacular violence, armed uprisings, as well as mass popular demonstrations and the deliberate choice of nonviolent methods have all been much in evidence in the recent political history of the Middle East. They have constituted the fabric and texture of the politics of resistance, reflecting the responses of the particular regime they are challenging. Thus, what began as a popular demonstration demanding redress within the framework of the law in Libya in February 2011, became in a matter of days an armed insurrection that tore the country in two and invited foreign military intervention. Conversely, the determination of the assembled protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square chanting “Silmiya! Silmiya!” [peaceful, peaceful] to be neither moved nor provoked into responding violently to the attack launched upon them by thousands of riot police and enlisted “supporters” of President Mubarak, confronted the Egyptian armed forces with a very public choice that sealed the fate of the president.
Spectacular violence has also been part of the repertoire of resistance. It has been used to convey messages aimed at recognition of the determination that had led people to desperate acts. In Iraq since 2003 the massacres of Shi`i pilgrims, the destruction of sacred sites, the killings of villagers and members of the security forces and the much publicized videos of beheadings have sent repeated gruesome signals of an intention to resist the new order that the US-led invasion brought into being. In other places, such as Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, spectacular violence has been turned against the self through public acts of self-immolation, as signals of defiance and despair on the part of those made powerless by the system under which they live. And within branches of the Palestinian and Iraqi resistance movements, these two features have been combined by the suicide bombers who have killed and wounded hundreds, and in doing so have spectacularly annihilated themselves.
Whether the forms of resistance are violent, nonviolent or can be classified as acts of “rightful resistance,” and whether the intention is to reform existing structures of power or radically to reshape them, the qualities shared by much of the varied politics of resistance in this study are both intentional and demanding of public recognition. In that sense they follow the contours of domination itself. They are also in most instances acts of collective political organization in the sense that they express resistance to subordination by people who find themselves categorized in the same way. At one level, this can mean that citizens are treated as subjects, excluded from the privileges and power of those enjoyed by the governing elites. The attempt to win recognition of their dignity and thus their rights as citizens has been a central part of widespread resistance politics. This can also apply to those who find themselves disadvantaged and discriminated against as a special category, be they women in Morocco or Iran, Shi`a in Bahrain, Palestinians under Israeli military occupation, or Berbers in Algerian society. This in itself can help to give a collective identity to a politics of resistance where no strong sense of cohesion existed before.
Collective action to redress sensed wrongs and to assert meaningful rights have been integral to the politics of resistance. Uprisings, demonstrations and protests aimed at the removal of the categorical exclusions and the social closure that denies such rights have been a visible, sometimes spectacular aspect of these politics. But this has often been preceded and underpinned by less visible forms of behavior that may involve resistance to the implications of the wider ordering of power for the individual. Individually or collusively people devise strategies to ensure that the impact of the exclusions are lessened where possible. Closer to the idea of “everyday resistance” these forms of subversion create a counterculture of the subaltern. Here the imposed categories, with their association of contempt, are hollowed out and their material effects lessened. Whether this happens in the sphere of property (through pilfering, quiet encroachment and alternative economies), or of education (through alternative forms that escape the dictation of the state) or of culture, broadly defined (through reaffirmation of values that resist the mainstream), all these activities can feed into a politics of resistance. They may not in themselves either lead to, or be intended to lead to the more public and spectacular forms of resistance that demand public recognition and aim to overturn the order of power. However, they may prepare the ground for such actions, and feed into the larger stream once other circumstances combine to define a more general and public politics of contention.
From The Conclusion
The course of resistance, therefore, whatever its origins, is shaped by the decisions of those who commit themselves to it. At its heart, there lies the conviction that the existing order is oppressive and unjust in a fundamental way. Springing from a source that may have led to actions provoked by the dominant power, it is by no means beholden to that power. On the contrary, it draws upon a repertoire of normative and narrative possibility that owes nothing to the imaginative hegemony of the established order and stands in opposition to it. It is this that helps to make it so potent as an inspiration for others to re-evaluate their situation, to begin to see power in a new and unflattering light, stripped of its customary authority. In these circumstances, power and the fight to preserve it can be reduced to the crudest of coercive means. Resistance, having got under the skin of power, symbolically and organizationally, can oblige it to show itself for what it is.
Of course, this is far from being a guarantee of success. On the contrary, violence can be relentlessly persuasive even in the absence of acknowledged authority. It can also be sustained over decades in a way that convinces people of the prudence of compliance and conformity. In doing so, it is capable of generating rationales to justify collaboration. This is where any number of contingent aspects in the experience of the politics of resistance come into play: the ingenuity and ruthlessness of those in power; the morale and competence of those who would resist; the nature of the resources, both material and symbolic, at the disposal of both parties; the calculations of human suffering; and the effects of demonstrative cruelty—all of these can shape the outcome in any given struggle at a particular moment in history and in a specific place.
Nevertheless, uncertain as the outcomes may be, the fact of resistance underlines the enduring nature of a politics of contention. Some might argue that this is at the heart of politics everywhere, whatever the system of power or the place and epoch concerned. In the Middle East, as the case studies have shown, the relentless imposition and maintenance of forms of government on the peoples of the region both by outside powers and by local elites has devalued consent and stigmatized dissent. In fact, one might argue that the very definition of the region itself has been a task unilaterally carried out, privileging the strategic preoccupations of others, rarely of those who inhabit the various countries that have been labeled in this way. It is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and to the subversive possibilities of resistance that those who have been categorized as “Middle Eastern” have used the label to assert their identities as actors in the shaping of their own fates. Across the region, not only outside powers but also collaborative elites have been confronted by defiant citizens who have demanded that they be held to account.
Mobilized citizens of countries from Morocco to the Gulf have demonstrated their skepticism about authority’s claims and their anger at the denial of their rights. In doing so, they are linked inextricably, in terms of aims and tactics, with movements of social and political protest across the world. These have shown in their own countries the resolve and defiance that has been part of a pattern of global resistance. The comforting and complacent stories that established power and vested interests had told themselves about the “exceptional” passivity and occasional “fanatical” outbursts of the peoples of the region have been blown apart. Instead, we have seen how the organization of power itself, through the exclusive and often oppressive practices of the nation state, through a globalized economy that brings unequal benefits and class appropriation of public resources, has bred a resistance that shares much in common with similar movements in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Of course, the specifics differ, as do the trajectories, but the basic impulse to assert an autonomous way of being has been at the root of much of the resistance in the Middle East, as it has elsewhere, varied and often conflicting as many of these movements may be. It is a plurality of politics and a spirit of defiance that has resonated across the region, forcing strategic recalculations by local regimes and by outside powers. The 2011 song “Ezzay” [How?] by Mohammad Munir addressing his beloved Egypt, captured this spirit: “And [I swear] on your life I’ll keep changing you until you’re satisfied with me” [wa-hayatik li-fadl aghayyir fiki li-hadd ma tarda `alayi].
 Kevin J. O’Brien, “Rightful Resistance,” World Politics 49/1 (October 1996), 31–55.
 Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010), 51–65.
 Elizabeth Blair, "Music of the Egyptian Revolution," 9 August 2011 [accessed 30 August 2011].
[Excerpted from The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East, by Charles Tripp, by permission of the author. © 2013 Charles Tripp. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]