Dana M. Moss, The Arab Spring Abroad: Diaspora Activism Against Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Dana M. Moss (DM): When I began researching social movements and protest events in the Middle East and North Africa, I was absolutely awed to learn about the extraordinary risks that activists were taking to advocate for democracy, human rights, and basic social provisions. In an effort to pursue this subject as a sociologist, I went to Yemen in 2009 to study Arabic, and I fell in love with the country. It was only later the following year that I watched the “Arab Spring” revolutions unfold in real time, including in Yemen. These movements not only reshaped the social and political terrain of the region—they also went global by mobilizing diasporas for change in their homelands. I could not return to Yemen for long-term fieldwork after the uprisings because of the insecurity that followed, so I decided to turn the question of how anti-regime diaspora communities mobilized to support democratic change in Yemen, as well as in Syria and Libya. The book that came out of this research, The Arab Spring Abroad: Diaspora Activism Against Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge University Press, 2022), explains when these diaspora activists mobilized to support anti-authoritarian causes in their home countries and why their interventions varied by diaspora and host country.

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

DM: By investigating when, how, and to what extent diaspora activists from Yemen, Syria, and Libya mobilized for the Arab Spring, the book speaks to three main literatures. The first stems from studies of of globalization and transnational advocacy, which largely show that globalization is good for activists because it helps privileged people in the Global North channel resources to disadvantaged movements in the Global South. The second literature investigates diaspora politics and “ethnic lobbies” to show how they influence foreign policy in the places they live. This literature shows that diaspora actors can be powerful meddlers in home country affairs by lobbying and advocating for peace, war, or reconstruction—and we have seen this play out in the United States vis-à-vis Cuban and Iraqi advocacy groups, to name just two examples. The third literature concerns studies of the Arab Spring, which focus on the uprisings as country-specific or regional phenomena. My work takes up the transnational dimension, showing how the revolutions went global.

My book speaks to these studies by demonstrating that globalization and diaspora mobilization may help activists achieve their goals in certain times and places, but that the emergence and successful mobilization of diaspora groups from the Global North are actually quite fleeting and fragile. This is because up to four major impediments can get in the way: (1) the repression of diaspora groups by home country regimes, which seek to deter them from speaking out and causing trouble for regimes from abroad; (2) the transmission of home country conflicts to diaspora groups through their home country ties, which keep diaspora members divided and mistrustful; (3) a shortage of resources to channel homeward to home country allies; and (4) a lack of geopolitical support from outside powerholders, like the United States and Great Britain, who sometimes act to block diaspora activism when they associate it with the so-called “War on Terror.” Accordingly, diaspora activists can—in certain times and places—provide life-saving support to social movements battling dictatorships. However, not all anti-regime diaspora communities are equally well-advantaged to influence and stoke mobilization in their homelands.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

DM: This book is the culmination of many years of research on diaspora activism, as well as previous work I have written on the subject of transnational repression. Transnational repression refers to the ways in which home country regimes seek to deter, suppress, and punish criticism from diaspora communities and exiles. They do so in a number of ways, including through surveillance, issuing threats, cancelling passports and student scholarships, issuing ‘Red Notices’ through Interpol, and even through assassinations. The latter occurred just a few years ago in Istanbul by the Saudi regime, which sent a hit squad to murder Saudi exile and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Regimes also engage in what I call “proxy punishment,” which refers to the punishment of non-activist family and friends in their home country. Imagine having your mother or father interrogated and imprisoned simply because you spoke out at a rally, or condemned a regime on social media! These tactics are widely used by authoritarian governments across the world today, and not just by the Gaddafi and Assad regimes.

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

DM: I did my best to write the book for activists, academics, and anyone interested in the Arab Spring. It is currently available as an open access book here, courtesy of Cambridge’s new “Flip It Open” program. It was truly an honor to have so many activists tell me their stories, and it is my greatest hope that activists recognize themselves and their experiences in the work. I also hope that we can use the book as a foundation to think about the transnational dimensions of revolutions and social change. Of course, it was the activists and civilians working on the ground who made the biggest gains and sacrifices for the revolutions in 2011 and beyond. At the same time, they also often depended on their friends, relatives, and contacts in the diaspora to send life-saving support to communities and places under siege. It was my intention to increase our understanding of how and when these cross-border connections and relationships matter, particularly during moments of contention and crisis in authoritarian states, when the stakes are extraordinarily high.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

DM: To follow up on research on transnational repression, I am currently co-editing and writing for a volume on this topic with political scientist Saipira Furstenburg, PhD. The book, which is tentatively titled Transnational Repression in the Age of Globalization, will bring more comparative attention to this topic, which impacts communities both inside and outside of the Middle Eastern region. It is under contract with Edinburgh University Press’ Studies on Diasporas and Transnationalism series, and we hope it will hit the shelves late next year. It brings together a number of key experts on the subject, and we hope that the volume will be useful to a range of academic researchers, legal professionals, students, and policymakers as well.

J: What did diaspora activists actually do to help the Arab Spring revolutions?

DM: During the political and humanitarian crises that unfolded during the Arab Spring, I found that diaspora activists in the United States and Britain did important and even life-saving work to help their compatriots at home. For instance, they “broadcasted” information from areas in their homelands that were isolated from independent media and Internet access. Teams of youths, for instance, worked around the clock to update the world about the Libyan revolutionary uprising in Benghazi before outside journalists were on-site to report from the ground. Second, they “represented” revolutionary groups, either formally or informally, to policymakers and the media abroad. Some Syrian Americans and Syrian Britons, for instance, were deputized by Local Coordination Council resistance groups inside of Syria to speak on their behalf and lobby for support. Third, they “brokered” between their home country compatriots and external supporters as interpreters, translators, and bridges between people fighting for their lives on the ground and outsiders who wanted to help, but who lacked the language skills and connections. Fourth, diaspora members “remitted,” i.e., donated millions of dollars’ worth of humanitarian supplies and other resources to the conflict—often funding initiatives that international donors would not or could not fund themselves. This was critical for keeping field hospitals running, vehicles fueled, and babies in diapers, literally. Fifth, they volunteered on the ground in many cases, staffing hospitals and trauma centers, working as journalists or as interpreters, volunteering to help internally displaced and outside refugees, writing grant proposals for donor aid, and more. Some even fought in these conflicts, and particularly in Libya, where the anti-Gaddafi war had external support.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-6) 

See here to view the text in open access.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has long fascinated Western observers, more often than not out of a sense of misguided curiosity. Owing to imperialism, Orientalism, and enduring stereotypes, commentary has revolved around a central query: Why is the region and its people so “backward”? The social sciences have remained focused on this question, albeit in a modified form, since the fall of the Soviet Union […]. As researchers looked optimistically to a post-1989 future that appeared to be liberalizing, they asked why the wave of democracy sweeping the formerly colonized world had bypassed the MENA region. The answer provided, in one form or another, was that regimes led by autocrats, kings, and presidents-for-life were too powerful and the people too weak – too loyal, apathetic, divided, and tribal – to mount a credible challenge to authoritarian rule.

Such a view errs, of course, by overlooking how countries across the MENA region have given rise to social movements for liberation, equality, and human rights throughout modern history. Whether emerging from the gilded elite or the grassroots, its people have always fought against foreign rule and domestic tyranny. Even so, mass mobilization against enduring dictatorships seemed unlikely after the “Global War on Terror,” launched by the United States and its allies after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, made friends out of former enemies. Foreign powers fed dictatorships in places such as Egypt, Libya, and Yemen billions of dollars’ worth of aid and weapons. They also cooperated with so-called enemies, such as the Assad regime in Syria, to render and torture suspects of terrorism. By 2010, autocrats augmented by oil wealth had Western nations so cozily in their pockets that their confidence in perpetual rule was sky high.

With so much attention focused on authoritarian durability, it is little wonder that the revolutions to follow caught scholars and governments by surprise. This new era of revolt began in Tunisia in December 2010; within weeks, demonstrations against corruption and repression had spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. These uprisings, which have become known as the “Arab Spring,” spanned from the sapphire blue waters of the Mediterranean coast to the green highlands of the Arabian Peninsula. As tens of thousands of ordinary people demanded their dignity by marching in the streets against corruption and abuse, popular movements and insurgencies destabilized regimes thought to be unshakable. The conflicts that ensued produced both improbable triumphs through selfless heroism and devastating losses through abject slaughter. But well before this wave gave rise to resurgent dictatorships and civil wars, the masses shook the earth with rage and made dictators quake with fear.

Revolutions are rarely neatly confined to their places of origin, however. They also galvanize anti-regime activists in the diaspora around the globe, and the Arab Spring was no exception. Diaspora mobilization for the Arab Spring was no trivial matter. Long before foreign governments and international organizations jumped in to support revolutionaries, ordinary emigrants, refugees, and their children protested in Washington, DC, London, and New York City against their home-country regimes; channeled millions of dollars’ worth of aid to poorly equipped insurgencies and beleaguered refugees; and traveled homeward to join the revolutions as rescue workers, interpreters, and fighters. Diaspora activists’ efforts to help their compatriots under siege not only heralded a new wave of transnational activism, but exposed regimes’ crimes against humanity and saved lives on the ground. Their mobilization against authoritarianism also signified a new phase in community empowerment and collective action, particularly among those who had grown up in places where speaking out against ruling dictatorships could get a person imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

Although the Arab Spring uprisings are well-known, the role that diaspora movements played in this revolutionary wave is not. This is not surprising, given the guiding assumption among social scientists that protesters must be present – proximate, in person, and ready to storm the gates – to challenge authoritarians. […]

Yet, as the case of the Arab Spring abroad demonstrates, dissidents who travel abroad have the potential to induce change from without. In fact, those who remain loyal to the people and places left behind can use voice after exit to demand change at home. Members of diasporas – a term used here to refer to the exiles, émigrés, expatriates, refugees, and emigrants of different generations who attribute their origins to a common place – do so for many reasons. Memories of their lives before displacement, connections to grandparents and friends from home, summertime visits to their hometowns, annual picnics and flag-flying parades, religious gatherings and diaspora associations, grief and nostalgia over childhoods spent in the homeland, and foreign business dealings all serve to bind members of national and ethnic groups to a home-country. So too do experiences of marginalization in the host-country make them feel more at home in their places of origin. Consequently, diaspora members’ “ways of being and ways of belonging” can bind them to the homeland and become transnational in character (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004: 1002), rather than bound within their place of settlement.

History shows that exile has long served as an incubator for diaspora voice. While traumatic for its victims, banishment enables dissidents to survive abroad during periods of repressive crackdown at home. Many nation-states have been founded by exiles, including China’s Sun Yat-sen, Poland’s Tadeusz Kościuszko, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh. Others have captured revolutions already underway, as when Vladimir Lenin returned by German train to lead the Bolshevik coup d’état in Russia and Ruhollah Khomeini arrived by plane from France to forge the Islamic Republic of Iran. Diaspora members from the Balkans, Ireland, Sri Lanka, and Eritrea have bankrolled wars and funded nation-building projects from afar by channeling cash and matériel to their homelands. In a world where having a nation-state grants ethnic groups protection, minority movements […] have demanded sovereignty and ethno-religious rights in their homelands. Expatriates with axes to grind, such as anti-communist Cubans and Iraqis opposing Saddam Hussein, have also forged powerful lobbies to challenge home-country governments and shape host-country foreign policy. In these cases and many others, exiles and diaspora movements have become what Yossi Shain (2005[1989]: xv) describes as “some of the most prominent harbingers of regime change” in the world.

As authoritarianism resurges across the globe today and in the foreseeable future (Repucci 2020), diaspora movements will undoubtedly continue to play a central role in an increasingly urgent fight against dictatorships. But although they have played a notable role in fomenting change in their homelands for centuries, surprisingly little attention has been paid to explaining their interventions. To fill this gap, I address two central questions: When do diaspora movements emerge to contest authoritarianism in their places of origin? How, and under what conditions, do activists fuel rebellions therein? By systematically investigating how revolutions ricocheted from Libya, Syria, and Yemen to the United States and Great Britain, this book provides interesting new answers.

The central contribution of The Arab Spring Abroad is the provision of a set of conditions explaining when, how, and the extent to which diasporas wield voice after exit against authoritarian regimes. In so doing, the book demonstrates that exit neither undermines voice, as Hirschman (1970) suggests, nor does it necessarily foster voice, as historical examples of exile mobilization illustrate. Instead, I argue that while some exiles use exit as an opportunity for voice, diaspora members’ ties to an authoritarian home-country are more likely to suppress voice after exit within the wider anti-regime community for at least one of two reasons. The first is that home-country regimes may actively repress voice in the diaspora using violence and threats. When they do, non-exiles are likely to remain silent in order to protect themselves and their relatives in the homecountry. The second reason is that home-country ties can entangle diaspora members in divisive, partisan conflicts rooted in the home-country. When these home-country rifts travel abroad through members’ transnational ties, they can factionalize regime opponents and make anti-regime solidarity practically impossible. I find that these two transnational forces – what I term transnational repression and conflict transmission, respectively – largely deterred anti-regime diaspora members from Libya, Syria, and Yemen from coming out and coming together against authoritarianism before the revolutions in 2011.

This book then demonstrates how and why this situation can change. Specifically, I show how major disruptions to politics-as-usual in the homecountry can give rise to voice abroad. As regimes massacred demonstrators, prompted the formation of revolutionary coalitions, and led to major humanitarian crises during the Arab Spring, they induced what sociologist David Snow et al. (1998) call quotidian disruptions to everyday life and regime control. The revolutions therefore not only produced civil insurgencies and wars at home, but also traveled through diaspora members’ ties to produce quotidian disruptions abroad. As I detail further below, as the Arab Spring undermined the efficacy of regimes’ long-distance threats and united previously fragmented groups, outspoken exiles and silent regime opponents decided to come out and come together to wield voice to an unprecedented degree.

At the same time, the final chapters of the book argue that even after diaspora members take up voice in unprecedented ways, they only come to make impactful interventions in anti-authoritarian rebellions if two additive factors come into play. Drawing from the comparative analysis, I show that they must (1) gain the capacity to convert resources to a shared cause, and (2) gain geopolitical support from states and other powerholders in order to become auxiliary forces for anti-authoritarianism. When they do, they can channel cash to their allies, mobilize policymakers, and facilitate humanitarian aid delivery on the front lines. Otherwise, activists may voice their demands on the street, but they will not become empowered to fuel rebellion and relief when their help is needed most. Taken together, by bringing attention to the important, but dynamic and highly contingent, roles that diaspora movements play in contentious politics, this study demonstrates when voice after exit emerges, how it matters, and the conditions giving rise to diaspora movement interventions for rebellion and relief.