Essential Readings: Uprisings, Resistance, and Popular Mobilization in the Middle East and North Africa

Essential Readings: Uprisings, Resistance, and Popular Mobilization in the Middle East and North Africa

[This Essential Readings belongs to ASI and MESPI’s year-long effort to mark, interrogate, and reflect on the Arab uprisings by producing resources for educators, researchers, students, and journalists to understand the last decade of political upheaval historically and in the lived present. To check out other publications and events from the Ten Years On project visit The Arab Uprisings Project and MESPI.

This text is an updated version of an Essential Readings contribution from John Chalcraft in 2018, also published on Jadaliyya and MESPI. The Essential Readings series works to regularly update its catalogue of publications to keep them current.]

There is a growing literature on uprisings, resistance, and popular mobilization in the Middle East and North Africa. While much of the conventional wisdom on the region is top-down, researchers are slowing building up a more developed and diverse understanding of how oppressed and excluded groups of all kinds have struggled to change their conditions. One noteworthy development is a renewed interest in Gramscian approaches.

This short annotated list of Essential Readings in English offers some highlights from this multi- and inter-disciplinary literature, sorting contributions into various categories: (1) overviews and introductions, (2) major cases and episodes, (3) particular states, (4) interpretive frameworks and approaches, and (5) major themes. The categories inevitably overlap, and certain works can be placed in more than one of them. The major issues of both ‘labour’ and ‘revolution’ have been left out as these themes are covered in other Jadaliyya Essential Readings.

In regards to overviews and introductions, a history of popular protest across the region going back to the eighteenth century is:

John Chalcraft, Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

This book is distinctive for breadth and the number of concrete cases covered, for an unconventional Gramscian framework, for a rejection of modernist teleology and determinism, and for an emphasis on political, ideological, intellectual, normative, strategic, and trans-local factors.

Another introductory work, and a wide-ranging exploration of resistance against systems of exclusion in the region, especially since national independence is:

Charles Tripp, The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

This book is distinctive for breadth and range, for a subtle exploration of how power and protest are intertwined, and for an in-depth thematic study of different dimensions of resistance politics – the state, the economy, women, history, and art.

In regards to major cases and episodes, an important work on the Arab uprisings of 2011, is:

Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).

This book is a wide-ranging critical study of the Arab uprisings of 2011. It is distinctive as a study of revolution, for its broadly Gramscian framework, for its attention to subaltern social groups, to questions of vision and strategy, and for its critical argument that 2011 involved revolution without revolutionaries.

Two further important books on the Arab uprisings of 2011 are: 

Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (London: Saqi Books, 2013).

This is an important analysis and overview of the Arab uprisings. It is distinctive for rooting the uprisings in a broadly Marxian framework of fettered development, for its analysis of state power, its study of strategy, and for a critical view of Islamist politics.

Walter Armbrust, Martyrs and Tricksters: An Ethnography of the Egyptian Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

This important work delves deeply into the cultural politics of both revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, drawing on theories of liminality.

For the Iranian revolution of 1978–79, a classic study is: 

Ervand Abrahamian, Iran between Two Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).  

This book is distinctive for its erudition, its historical sociological framework, its range and depth of coverage, and for its distinctive argument that sees the Iranian revolution in terms of uneven development.

Another important work is:

Charles Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

This book is distinctive for its systematic coverage and de-construction of classical, structural explanations for the Iranian revolution, its striking rejection of standard forms of social scientific explanation for protest in general, and its search for an anti-explanation of the revolution through a reconstruction of the unpredictable lived experience of the moment.

A major work on the Iranian revolution of 1906–11 is:

Janet Afary, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911: Grassroots Democracy, Social Democracy, and the Origins of Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

This book is distinctive for its bottom-up approach to the constitutional revolution, its study of peasant associations, and its coverage of early feminism in Iran.

In regards to histories of particular states, some key books are: 

Edmund Burke III, Prelude to Protectorate in Morocco: Precolonial Protest and Resistance, 1860-1912 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976).

This is one of the pioneering studies of popular protest in Middle East studies. It is also an important history of nineteenth and early twentieth century Morocco. It is distinctive for a framework in historical sociology, its rich archival research, and its attention to politics and ideology.

Juan Cole, Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).

This is a major work on the social origins of the ‘Urabi movement in Egypt. It is distinctive for its pioneering use of archival sources, an interpretive framework drawing on the study of modernization and social mobilization, and its wide-ranging view of the social forces at work in the making of the ‘Urabi movement.

Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).

This is the most important work on the anti-colonial Syrian revolt of 1925–27 and an important contribution to Syrian and inter-war history. It is distinctive for its bottom-up approach, for the light it sheds on the social bases of the movement, for its coverage of a major, nationalist armed struggle, and for its argument displacing the centrality of the urban liberal-nationalist ‘leadership’ in the uprising.

Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

This classic work offers unsurpassed coverage of a wide variety of movements and uprisings in Iraq during the period leading up to 1958, drawing on historical sociology, and weaving these forms of protest and mobilisation into the history of the country.

As for interpretive frameworks and approaches, I have already cited a number of works drawing on the broad historical sociology tradition. Another of these is Fred Halliday’s Arabia Without Sultans (London: Penguin, 1974).

Second, there is an important body of work that looks at protest through the optics of cultural history. These academics have found new ways to return to the study of meaning outwith previously dominant Orientalist approaches.

Julia Clancy-Smith, Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800-1904) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

This important study offers an entirely new, acculturated view of complex patterns of anti-colonial religious resistance, negotiation and accommodation in nineteenth century Algeria. Religious notables, Sufi orders, women, and to some extent commoners are crucial actors.

Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

This vital book contains the most thorough exposition of the cultural dimensions of Tanyus Shahin’s popular, republican uprising on Mt. Lebanon 1858–60. It offers a remarkable and richly-researched reinterpretation of the movement which had previously been understood almost wholly in terms of either Orientalism or political economy.

James L. Gelvin, Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

This is an important revisionist work in the study of Arab and regional nationalism, and it is also a sustained study of different forms of protest in Syria after the First World War, looking at different kinds of nationalist discourse, popular committees, and the July insurrection of 1920, writing in a cultural dimension which had previously been sorely under-stated.

Third, a growing body of work on protest, rooted more in social science than in history, draws on social movement studies and theories of contentious politics. Some highlights are:

Edmund Burke III and Ira Lapidus, eds., Islam, Politics and Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

This is a pioneering edited volume rooted in historical sociology, but considers how to approach social movements in the Middle East and North Africa outwith the optics of Orientalism. It has a fine introduction and several chapters that are still important studies in their own right.

Quintan Wiktorowicz, ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

This is a key edited volume bringing conventional social movement theory to bear on Islamic activism since the 1970s. Against Collective Behaviour approaches that see protest in terms of irrationalism, breakdown and dysfunction, this book makes the case that rationalist concepts such as political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framing can be usefully brought to bear in understanding Islamic activism in the region.

Three key monographs that develop this line of argument with regards to Egypt, Algeria and Yemen respectively are: Carrie Rosefsky-Wickham’s Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)Muhammad Hafez’s Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003); and Janine Clark’s Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004). A thorough application of conventional social movement theory to the Egyptian uprising is Jeroen Gunning and Ilan Zvi Baron’s Why Occupy a Square? People, Protests and Movements in the Egyptian Revolution (London: Hurst & Co, 2013). Dynamic and socially-constructionist approaches to protest have also been used to make sense of protest in the region, an important example is Neil Ketchley’s Egypt in a Time of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Fourth, a growing body of work has taken up the challenge of the optics developed by South Asian Subaltern studies and Gramscian perspectives.

Stephanie Cronin, ed., Subalterns and Social Protest: History from Below in the Middle East and North Africa (London: Routledge, 2008).

This important volume broaches the question of Subaltern Studies in research on the Middle East and North Africa and includes some important contributions.

Jann Boeddeling, “From Resistance to Revolutionary Praxis: Subaltern Politics in the Tunisian Revolution” (PhD Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2020).

John Chalcraft, “Egypt’s 2011 Uprising, Subaltern Cultural Politics, and Revolutionary Weakness” Social Movement Studies, (2020). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2020.1837101

The recent PhD above and my own article focus on subaltern self-activity in Tunisia and subaltern cultural politics in Egypt, respectively, in order to make sense of the strengths and weaknesses of revolutionary activity. Two recent Special Issues are also must reads in regards to the growing interest in Gramscian approaches. These are: Gennaro Gervasio and Patrizia Manduchi, “Introduction: Reading the revolutionary process in North Africa with Gramsci.” The Journal of North African Studies (2020): 16, DOI: https://doi-org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/10.1080/13629387.2020.1801264 and John Chalcraft & Alessandra Marchi, “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Gramsci in the Arab World,” Middle East Critique 30, no. 1 (2021): 18, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19436149.2021.1872855 Another important article is Hazim Kandil’s  “Islamizing Egypt? Testing the limits of Gramscian counterhegemonic strategies,” Theory and Society 40, no. 1 (2011): 3762.

Finally, in this category, a number of important works have placed ethnography front and centre, engaging debates in anthropology and oral history.

Ted Swedenburg, Memories of Revolt (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003).

This is an outstanding work drawing on oral histories of the 1936-39 uprising in Mandate Palestine to excavate the popular and high culture and discourse of Zionism, Arab and Palestinian nationalism, and resistance from below.

Fuad Musallam, “Failure and the politically possible: space, time and emotion among independent activists in Beirut, Lebanon” (PhD Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2016).

This accomplished thesis is a developed ethnography of activism exploring through the lenses of space, temporality, emotion and affect how political activists in Lebanon since 2011 maintained their engagement amid disappointment and frustration.

Salwa Ismail, Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

Salwa Ismail, “The Egyptian Revolution against the Police” Social Research 79, no. 2 (2012): 435-462.

These two important contributions can be read together. The first is an ethnography of the encounters of mostly young men from a popular quarter in Cairo with the police, and the second makes the link between this past and the popular uprising of 2011.

The final section mentions a number of works distinguished by their important contributions to the study of particular themes.

For gender, women and sexuality, important works include:

Parvin Paidar, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

The first is wide-ranging and synthetic history of women’s position in the political process in Iran. The second is a thorough history, carefully attuned to questions of colonialism, class, and nationalism, of women’s activism in Egypt during 1919.

Two important works challenging Western feminism, Western categories of gay identity, and Orientalism alike, are:

Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

Joseph Massad, “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World” Public Culture 14, no. 2 (2002): 361-386.

For the theme of Third Worldism and anti-colonial nationalism a number of contributions are outstanding:

Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

This important book is distinctive for its ethnographic approach, its tracking of transnational mobilising discourse, and compelling arguments about changing forms of nationalist commemoration.

Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

This fine book is distinctive for its thorough archival research, its pioneering status in regards to the study of Oman and Dhofar, and its attention to transnationalism and revolution.

For the study of resistance and negotiated autonomy among minorities and oppressed nationalities, three important books on Amazigh/Berbers, Kurds, and Israeli-Palestinians are:

Hugh Roberts, Berber Government: The Kabyle Polity in Pre-Colonial Algeria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014).

This is an extraordinarily rich and accomplished detective hunt through the Kabylie history of collective self-government in pre-colonial Algeria, situating such forms of autonomy and confrontation in the larger Islamic-Ottoman polity.

Michael Knapp et al., Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation (London: Pluto, 2016).

Sharri Plonski, Palestinian Citizens of Israel: Power, Resistance and the Struggle for Space (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017).

This is a rich and important book that studies several key struggles over housing, land, and settlement among Palestinians in Israel. It is distinctive for its use of concepts of space and hegemony, and tracks the extended efforts by Palestinians to carve out space against the many physical and abstract boundaries.

Finally, for works exploring different forms of protest (everyday modes of resistance, armed struggle, and non-violence), important works include:

Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

This is a major work on everyday forms of resistance, notable for its attention to rural-urban migrants in Iran, their struggles for work, housing, and services in discontinuous confrontation with police and authorities, and for the concept of the ‘quiet encroachment of the ordinary.’

J. Martínez, J,  “Site of Resistance or Apparatus of Acquiescence? Tactics at the Bakery,” Middle East Law and Governance 10, no. 2 (2018): 160-184, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/18763375-01002002

Based on extended fieldwork in two bakeries in Amman, an important exploration of everyday ‘tactics’ by bakers regarding subsidized flour.

Yazid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: the Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

This book is unsurpassed as an in-depth account of the Palestinian armed struggle, and notable for advancing an argument about the meaning and function of armed struggle in building up the institutions of a Palestinian state-in-waiting.

Also important on the question of armed struggle and ‘terrorism’ is:

Joel Beinin, “Is Terrorism a Useful Term in Understanding the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict?” Radical History Review 85 (Winter 2003): 12-23.

Finally, an important exploration of non-violent resistance in the history of the Palestinians is:

Mazin Qumsiyeh, Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment (London: Pluto, 2011).

Conclusion

To my way of thinking, a number of core characteristics distinguish some of the most impressive and significant research in the field. The first of these is a belief in the importance of historical specificity. Frederic Jameson’s imperative to ‘always historicize’ is not lost on quality work in the field. Political, economic, cultural and social contexts, power relations, forms of domination and oppression, issues of memory, path-dependency, core questions about change and transformation over time, and about temporality and eventfulness mark a strength in the contemporary study of resistance. The core point is that resistance and popular, subaltern, and minority struggles can only be properly interpreted in the light of the historical context in which they play out, and in terms of an understanding of the concrete situations of oppression in which subaltern social groups are situated. A sense of history, and a sensitivity to contingency also puts a salutary brake on the excesses of totalizing explanatory theory, on Orientalist and racist essentialism, and on the dissolution of space and place attendant on triumphalist narratives of globalization. This ‘good sense’ returns us to the importance of studying the Middle East and North Africa not as a case in a petri dish but as an unfolding historical drama laden with stakes.

A second characteristic of good work is arguably its sensitivity to the importance of what Gramsci referred to as ‘active subjectivity’ and a concomitant refusal of what he also criticized as ‘mechanical determinism.’ Protestors, organizers, and revolutionaries are active subjects; they take initiatives, generate new ideas, seek out and discover new ways to organize and build alliances, and come up with new forms of action, strategies, and tactics. They can also not do these things, or do these things badly, or oppressively, like any other social actor. Protestors are neither angels nor devils, as Emma Goldman, once said of women, but human beings, with all their flaws and qualities. Movements are also engaged in interactions and conflicts with other movements and forces. Much of the best in the study of protest seeks to make sense of these projects, interactions, and forms of initiative, without explaining them away in terms of a series of mechanical determinations or triggering mechanisms erroneously thought to be exhaustively present in static pre-existing conditions.

Finally, the best research, in my view, is critical, engaged, and interpretive, rather than detached, technical, and natural science-oriented. A critical approach implies an attentiveness to what Zachary Lockman among others calls the ‘politics of knowledge.’ Knowledge is embedded and for some purpose beyond professional academia. Knowledge is not just an addition to understanding the world – but seeks to change it and does, in fact, change it, for better or for worse. The best work attends to the politics of its own instantiation, including the ways in which the educator is educated. We are not detached clinicians staring down objectively into a petri-dish full of objects subject to laws. To research interpretively is to refuse this framework, and to grasp how academics who research, no less than those they study, are situated, subjective beings, with purposes, politics, and projects.

Against the snares and seductions of positivism, objectivism, mechanical determinism, and de-contextualization, my own view is that the most exciting work in the field is rooted in critical, non-positivist approaches to protest that do justice to historical specificity and active subjectivity. In this regard, the recent, renewed interest in Gramscian perspectives is particularly promising.

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