The Arab world continues its intense, long reckoning with new political forces even as authoritarian systems reassert control and some states devolve into violent conflict. The Middle East and North Africa are in the middle of an era of epochal contestation and conflict. Tectonic processes burst to the surface with the popular uprisings of 2010–2011, and continue today, albeit often in less visible forms. The region’s political energies run the gamut from radical and revolutionary to reactionary and repressive, and are engaged in serious efforts to rearrange the map of hard power and governance. At stake is control, legitimacy, and competition between established and emerging ideologies.

Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings,” a multi-year TCF effort supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, studies and charts some of the considerable ongoing political energy that continues to shape the Arab world. Political thought and organization persist even in quiescent or violent times. The regional restoration of authoritarianism has not resolved the pivotal struggle underway, although for the time being it has shifted momentum in favor of the reactionary constituency.

Keeping an Eye on Political Ferment

The reports in this series seek to identify the ideas and mechanics at play in a region where the very essence of governance, state control, and legitimacy, are being contested—by established forces as well as new constituencies empowered since the peak of the uprisings. No longer is Arab politics a slow-moving competition dominated by dictators, monarchs, and organized Islamist parties. Political space is being contested by a host of actors, including empowered bureaucracies and institutional players, wealthy individuals, militants, populist political movements, civil society organizations, journalists, artists, protesters, and others. Generations of repression failed to erase political life, which has sprouted in marginal and at times unexpected spaces. And from some of these other quarters, new thinkers and activists have proceeded to challenge the power of the state, lay their own claims to hard power, and articulate different visions of political life and governance. These energies and movements are by no means always benign or idealistic. Their ideology and goals vary, and they include many actors whose primary focus is the construction of a more resilient authoritarian order. Quite clearly, political energy and aspiration have survived the political uprisings and their short-term defeat; it is less clear in what direction that energy will push the Arab states and whether the reversal of the popular revolts will become permanent.

Nearly six years have passed since much of the Arab world erupted in revolt against an epoch of corrupt authoritarian misrule. Today, the region’s story is largely one of authoritarianism restored or fiercely defending itself in civil wars that are reducing some states to ruin. The optimism of 2011 can feel like a historical artifact, an idealistic, perhaps naïve aspiration built on hope without any firm analytical foundations.

However, the underlying causes of the uprisings for the most part remain unresolved. And political life throughout the region has irreducibly changed, even in places like Syria or Egypt that have suffered pronounced backlash and repression since the peak revolutionary moments of 2011. These changes are not always for the better, and in some cases have quite clearly been for the worse. Yet there are considerable forces at play in the Middle East and North Africa region today, engaged directly in the political sphere as never before. Existing communities and institutions, such as the independent media, have engaged in political discourse and idea creation with renewed vigor. Plutocrats and wealthy individuals, always a key adjunct to ruling regimes, have expanded their political agency. As resurgent authoritarians increase pressure on civil society, political efforts have continued in the human rights and reform communities. In some cases, authoritarian pressure has spawned new, sometimes radical political challenges from political organizers determined to throw off old ideological and sectarian labels. Spaces with traditionally tangential relationships to politics, like fine arts, have become more intensely political as official pressure has silenced politics in traditional venues such as labor unions and television talk shows. Weakened states at war, a sadly prominent feature of the current period of Arab crisis, have also opened new ungoverned spaces. In them, experiments at self-rule and new politics have flared; some are malignant, like the exertions of the Islamic State group, some carry on the inclusive reform rhetoric of the early uprisings, and some fall in between.

This extensive energy—efforts at creation, and the backlash against them; the erosion of state institutions and local initiatives to replace them; fragmented challenges to fragmenting ideologies of legitimacy—characterize a region still in dramatic flux. There is no evidence-based reason to believe that progress is inevitable in the Arab world, any more than there is evidence that it is doomed to an eternity of sclerotic despotism. It is clear, however, that a wide array of experiments are underway that contain a vast quantity of political energy and aspirations.

Better Techniques for Understanding Arab Politics

TCF conceived this project with two primary aims. First, to document with clarity and precision the forces at play in the region, with special attention to under-studied regional interactions, ideological shifts, and political spaces not traditionally associated with the pursuit of hard power or political change. Second, to showcase an approach steeped in granular detail and historical context, so as to record some of the region’s contemporary political history before it fades from living memory. This approach, we hope, will enrich the understanding of policy makers, analysts, and scholars who are rooted outside the region, bring them in closer contact with those from and based in the Arab world, and foster a spirit of communal inquiry and cooperation.

During the last wave of popular uprisings, many close observers of Arab political life, including some of its central participants, were shocked by the widespread popular anger that coalesced in 2010–2011, and by the unexpected potential of people power to bring recalcitrant governments to heel. In fact, much of the thinking and organizing that bubbled into public view during the revolts had long been coalescing, at least in plain enough sight for a few activists and researchers who were interested and receptive.

Many factors contributed to the failure to fully appreciate Arab political dynamics prior to 2010, especially the growing energy and courage of the constituencies willing to oppose government policies. It is easy in hindsight to pinpoint crises or movements that later proved important. One lesson of the uprisings is that it pays for researchers and policy analysts to invest attention in a wide array of political and social actors. Traditional power centers and institutions remained important throughout the peak period of popular revolt, but were joined by a host of suddenly important new entrants to the political arena. Effective research and analysis required quickly adapting to an expanded range of actors. Looking ahead to the coming period of political ferment and contestation in the Arab world, observers, analysts, and policymakers should position themselves to best understand the forces at play and the drivers of instability, transition, and restoration.

Prior to 2010, many observers of Arab politics tracked popular movements and smaller activist efforts, although few expected them to play an important or influential role. Analysts looking for drivers of political instability often discounted activity in marginal or secondary spaces such as the arts, among students and the wealthy, and in civil society. Soft politics and culture were often considered separate and unrelated to the pursuit of hard power, which supposedly only took place in political parties, labor unions, and other spaces traditionally considered the battleground for power. It is not possible to predict which social phenomena will play future roles as drivers of instability or change. These studies should encourage a broad and agnostic analysis of a wide range of political spaces. These contemporary histories and ethnographic reports improve the analytical tools at our disposal and contribute important qualitative data. This is not to suggest that a deeper and more nuanced understanding of political, social, and cultural dynamics will allow for more accurate predictions of coming instability. Instead, as a result of this type of research, analysts might be in a better position to understand the next unexpected political events that occur in the Arab world.

Historical Perspective

The popular uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia sparked a wave of engagement across the Middle East and North Africa, the reverberations of which continue to this day. Throughout 2011, the region was enthralled by bold aspirations for a new dawn of accountable governance, transparency, and rights. It was considered inevitable that an old generation of dictators would be swept away, and it was widely believed that massive change, driven by inchoate people power, would manage to implement revolutionary change without violence or civil strife.

Tunisia alone seems to have charted a relatively positive course. Elsewhere, the best scenarios are where the status quo survived without widespread violence, as in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Morocco. Elsewhere, uprisings were quashed, as in Bahrain; dictatorships returned, as in Egypt; or war decimated the state, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

One of the distortions of authoritarianism is that it neuters representative and mobilizing hard-power institutions—labor unions, political parties, and so on—that normally act to check and balance the government.

Human rights monitoring, advocacy, direct action, and documentary journalism all have critical roles to play in holding state power accountable. But none function by design as a pathway to power, or even to reform or change. They are adjuncts, not levers—and certainly not direct sources of hard power. One of the distortions of authoritarianism is that it neuters representative and mobilizing hard-power institutions—labor unions, political parties, and so on—that normally act to check and balance the government. As a result, ill-equipped soft spaces often take up the role of balancing and challenging the state. In authoritarian states, journalists, human rights monitors, and other entities conceived as referees or watchdogs, end up substituting for the opposition, since the state has eliminated all formal rivals. For decades, this set-up neutralized challenges to the state. But the endemic, generational failures of states to deliver on promises of services, security, and citizenship has exposed them to challenges from multiple directions.

We at TCF hope that these studies encourage detail-rich studies that are overtly engaged in policy analysis and addressing the needs of policy makers. Better information about political forces and actors will help shape more effective policy analysis and decision-making. The method and cases chosen are as important as the policy goal. If the community of analysts, academics, policy makers, journalists and others concerned with the political condition of the Arab states is to better understand it, there needs to be an accurate map of the political landscape and the forces at play. Traditional power centers remain pivotal and are often the only elements of the political equation subjected to thorough study and analysis. But as the last few decades have showed, Arab political efforts are underway beyond known spaces such as the military, ruling party, official opposition and labor unions.

This project emphasizes the basic tools of qualitative research, with detailed descriptions, interviews, and contemporary histories that enable comparative analysis. A firmly grounded understanding of what has happened and what is happening today makes the best starting point for any policy analysis about what is to be done and what might happen next. The approach employed in this case can and should be fruitfully extended to other cases, including but not limited to economic actors, burgeoning institutions like the civil defense corps in rebel Syria (known as the White Helmets), initiatives to document history and culture across the region, sports fan clubs, informal groupings of rich individuals, militias, and prisons as incubators of political ideation. This project puts forward analyses based on illustrations that should be useful even to readers unpersuaded by the arguments, and the case studies of enduring use to those who study and observe the Arab region.

Publication of Research

TCF will release research reports produced by the Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings project on our website. The collected project, Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism (edited by Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna), is expected to be published in book form in June 2017 by TCF Press.

Political experimentation and invention survive in unlikely places half a decade after the Arab region erupted in revolt. Attempts to build institutions and ideologies have continued during a period of resurgent authoritarianism and at times amidst violent conflict and state collapse. In this volume, established researchers, new scholars, and active participants in the region’s politics explore some of the spaces where change is still emerging, as well as the dynamic forces arrayed against it.

With rich ethnographic detail, these studies pay special attention to efforts in culture, media, provincial and municipal governance, civil society organizations, and even in social movements whose revolutionary moment might seem to have passed. They explore regional dynamics and the local intellectual history of ideas central to the uprisings, such as secularism, liberalism, and human rights, and the reaction against them. They reveal an Arab region experiencing unprecedented cross-border learning and an unresolved struggle between resilient authoritarian structures and an array of alternative nodes of political power.

Significant political phenomena, whether progressive or reactionary, can be easy to miss in their early stages. These instructive studies can inform policy making that is aware of the varied attempts at social and political change in the Arab world and the forces competing to affect that change, many of which remain overlooked or under examined.

Contributors include Samer Abboud, Khaled Mansour, Nathan J. Brown, Benjamin J. Helfand, Yasser Munif, Asya El-Meehy, Aron Lund, Sam Heller, Cilja Harders, Dina Wahba, Monica Marks, Michael Stephens, Ursula Lindsey, Marc Lynch, Jonathan Guyer, Laura C. Dean, Sima Ghaddar, and Sultan al-Qassemi.

Cover photo: Gigi Ibrahim, No SCAF, April 29, 2012.