Today, the world faces a staggering crisis of democracy and governance. 

It seems that no place is immune, including the United States, where the crisis reached a climax with the attempted putsch of January 6, 2021, which followed a season of nationwide demonstrations against police violence and a bitter contest for the American presidency. 

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was only the latest chapter in a wider challenge to liberal ideas that had been building across the globe. The cycles of authoritarian power grabs, waves of public protest, and governance failures can most clearly be traced back to the attacks of September 11 and their aftermath, and to the financial crisis of 2008. But in reality, the roots of this crisis go back decades, although only in recent years has the erosion of democracies become undeniable. In just a few of the most pointed examples of entrenched or revived authoritarianism, India’s elected head of state laid the groundwork to strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship;1 China withdrew fundamental political rights from Hong Kong; the elected president of the Philippines gained popularity after a deadly and indiscriminate campaign billed as a war on drugs; and a former paratrooper won Brazil’s presidency by campaigning on nostalgia for military dictatorship. 

Countless examples from every world region make clear that the very ideas of citizenship and universal rights face a concerted assault unprecedented in the post-World War II era. Democracies and dictatorships alike have failed to deliver livelihoods, services, or accountability. Corruption, police impunity, and unchecked violence from armed groups have become common facets of public life in every global region, with governments unable or unwilling to provide justice or genuine security. In the era after World War II, there was a vigorous international debate about which system of government was best, but there was widespread agreement about the obligations of a successful state—to keep all its citizens safe, healthy, and prosperous. In recent years, political leaders around the world have adopted a self-serving and defeatist credo that good governance is simply not viable. Many have even shrugged off the idea that states should be responsible for guaranteeing rights and basic services to the governed.

For some, the United States’ lurch toward authoritarianism may seem almost unthinkable—the country’s political class and much of its policy establishment have long promoted the idea that America is uniquely immune to antidemocratic forces. But the current historical moment should teach us a very different lesson: American and Western exceptionalism is a delusion. Neither the United States nor the West more generally is exempt—nor have they ever been—from the forces that shape political life for societies all over the world. 

Three core observations drove Century International’s two-year comparative study, Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance. One, the world is in a fundamental crisis that threatens to undermine all the governance gains of the postwar era. Two, this crisis is transnational, and the result of forces and trends that easily cross borders, and are sometimes more powerful than states. And three, just as the crisis is the result of transnational networks—and networked failures—it must be solved through transnational cooperation, learning, and action.

To strengthen and explore this analysis, Century International convened academics, policymakers, and journalists from two broadly defined regions: the Middle East–North Africa, and Western Europe–North America. We chose to focus on these regions because they are the areas of our deepest institutional expertise, where we conduct most of our policy research; and because the extensive and often problematic links between the two regions are emblematic of the connections that underlie the broader global crisis. 

In a series of roundtables, interviews, reports, and commentaries, Transnational Trends in Citizenship participants focused on some of the more obvious arenas of this global crisis: militias, gender and sexuality, police accountability, and protest. The initiative offered fresh perspectives on polarizing problems in both regions, from the international War on Terror’s acceleration of problems with domestic policing, to the historical connections between earlier moral panics over HIV/AIDS in the United States and more recent engineered culture wars over refugees and sexuality in Europe and the Levant. 

Just as the crisis is the result of transnational networks—and networked failures—it must be solved through transnational cooperation, learning, and action.

But Century International’s methods in this project, we believe, also have a larger importance: they can serve as a model for transcending exceptionalism, and for learning across borders and regions. The transnational approach that helped clarify trends and remedies for such problems as militia violence and unaccountable policing can serve for more complex and sprawling emergencies like global health and climate change.

Authoritarians and Dissidents Learn across Borders

When researchers in our project jointly considered the crises in the different regions they study, they found extensive networked ties across borders and world regions. Authoritarian systems interact with one another. They adapt tactics to thwart popular challenges. Their institutions swap tactics and develop ideologies, often through long-running professional exchanges and training programs. Such cross-pollination is most readily apparent in the security sector, with military and police training programs. It also manifests in the paramilitary sphere, where hybrid and nonstate armed groups often parrot the official systems they either buttress or oppose. Ideological movements that support authoritarianism, and undermine democratic norms, follow similar playbooks across regions. These similar strategies are especially evident in the use of culture wars—moral panics—to mobilize support for preexisting political agendas. 

But what’s true for regimes is also true for the forces that oppose them. Popular resistance embodies the same trans-regional modes of learning. Protest movements build on each other’s tactics, ideologies, and strategic messaging, both within regions and across them. Each local or national protest movement carries its own highly specific stamp, in style and specific political demands. At the same time, a clear progression of adaptation and learning connects the Arab uprisings of 2010–11; Occupy; the European anti-austerity movements; the later waves of protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, and elsewhere; and the Movement for Black Lives protests of 2020. Reformists and popular resistance to reactionary forces often draw on transnational solidarity as effectively as their authoritarian adversaries build on moral panics across regions. 

But even as a transnational approach is necessary to understand these transnational trends, care must be taken not to overgeneralize. Regions can be revealing units of analysis, even though their definition can shift. And the regional nature of systemic crises can be exaggerated. The Transnational Trends in Citizenship project sought a balance, seeking out genuine parallels between regions, and recognizing that many people see themselves as part of a regional community, but also keeping in mind that the very “borders” drawn around regions have artificial and imperial roots. As Jacob Mundy, a participant in the Transnational Trends in Citizenship working group on militias, has convincingly argued, the Middle East as a region was originally conceived and created by Western imperial powers, who primarily shaped the region through military action and other forms of violence.2 

A protester with a placard that reads “Rights of the Iraqi Citizen” takes part in an anti-government protest on May 25, 2021, in Baghdad. Protesters from across the country gathered in Baghdad demanding accountability after a rise in targeted assassinations. Source: Taha Hussein Ali/Getty Images

Matters of security, trade, and politics often play out on a very wide regional basis that is a function not only of geography but of state-to-state relations. A summary of practical regional affiliations, by no means comprehensive, shows that regional groupings, both formal and informal, shape events in the Middle East. Conflicts and economic ties connect events across a sprawling region that stretches from Turkey in the north to Sudan in the south, and from Morocco in the west to Iran in the East. On other matters, other groupings take precedence—“the Arab world,” referring to countries where Arabic is a dominant language, or the Arab Gulf monarchies, a small club of oil-rich kingdoms and emirates that drive a great deal of regional dynamics by dint of their financial power, their interventions, or their internal feuds. Various other political groupings wax and wane in influence (the Abraham Accords signatories, the Arab League).3 The Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in 2010 reverberate to this day, and almost every protest movement, while embracing its unique local agenda, asserts some connection to a wider regional trend of popular revolt against calcified rule. 

In much the same way, Western countries are coming to understand that, despite their unique particulars, they too are experiencing regional or even global trends. The crisis in democracy and governance that has befallen European and North American countries is clearly a long-term phenomenon with national, regional, and global dimensions. The United States, in particular, is used to thinking of its own experiences as the neutral reference point, while organizing the rest of the world into regions defined by their relationship to an American center. In previous eras, European countries with imperial reach were accustomed to doing the same. 

The United States is used to thinking of its own experiences as the neutral reference point, while organizing the rest of the world into regions defined by their relationship to an American center.

And yet, though we may define the West in clear geographic terms for the purpose of analysis, generalizations about the political, cultural, and social qualities of this region can quickly become problematic. In debates over matters as diverse as immigration, the role of religion in public life, and international security, policymakers invoke hazily defined or shifting constructs such as “Western culture” or “the international liberal order.” In security matters, Western states project power and define terms through NATO and through less institutionalized groupings like the “Five Eyes” Anglophone states. The United States and select partners dominated the post-World War II spheres of international trade, finance, and aid through nominally international organizations that were structurally dominated by the United States and close partners—institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

Interconnected Regions

The failures that have eroded trust in state power and corroded the quality of citizenship and rights are interconnected and global, and transcend cultures and political systems. The rise of the extreme right in Europe and the United States has helped put to rest smug and unjustified assumptions that the West was somehow immune to authoritarianism, antidemocratic revanchism, or militia violence. At the same time, popular mobilizations, such as Occupy and the Movement for Black Lives, demonstrated that potentially constructive global trends could manifest in the West’s mature, wealthy democracies, just as they had in the Middle East and other regions. This deepening global crisis also underscores the need for global, trans-regional, hybrid solutions. 

The West’s newfound awareness of a common struggle against anti-democratic forces, state violence, and poor governance benefits enormously from the knowledge and experience of counterparts from other regions. Considering Western Europe and North America alongside the Middle East is especially productive, since the two regions are so closely intertwined. 

The Global War on Terror subjected both regions to decades of conflict and militarization, and intensified the regions’ already deep connections. The United States harnessed its national resources for decades of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and dozens of smaller conflicts, while militarizing its approach to domestic security and building an unprecedented surveillance state. Military adventurism abroad created blowback at home, with increasingly militarized police forces and policymakers obsessed with zero-risk security. By 2020, core liberal ideas and ideals—democracy, suffrage, equality before the law for all groups—had begun to unravel in the United States. This unraveling was not a simple outcome of the Global War on Terror; much could also be attributed to inequality, the market failure of 2008, and other events (which we list in more detail below). But the consequences of Washington’s flawed foreign policy played a key role, accelerating state surveillance and exacerbating societal fissures over rights, citizenship, and due process. Similar effects occurred throughout the West.

The Middle East suffered related repercussions from the Global War on Terror. Authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships harnessed the rhetoric of the U.S. War on Terror to paint their own domestic challengers as “Islamists” or “terrorists,” often winning or expanding American security assistance as a result. Repression, conflict, and state failure all accelerated during the decades since 9/11. In the Middle East, regimes struggled to consolidate authority and control over poorly governed populations, while reformist forces (activists, researchers, politicians, and others) sought to redefine the compact of citizenship and rights. That struggle broke into the open with the Arab revolts of 2010–11, but long predated those uprisings. Palestinian and other Middle Eastern rights struggles had been articulating alternatives to violent authoritarianism, in its contemporary form, at least since the 1970s. 

An intentional effort to juxtapose the crises in the Middle East and in the West can bring clarity to the understanding of both regions. Regional experts, steeped in the particularities of the countries or regions on which they focus, often miss the extensive interaction, overlap, and commonality across and between regions. Events in one region frequently drive or intensify events in another. Political experiences in one region often feature learning from the experiences of another. The Middle East and the West have an especially deep network of ties, and joint analysis of the two regions offers a potent opportunity to break free of analytical limitations and silos.

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Toxic Exceptionalism

Combining study of the Middle East with the West reveals one overarching bad habit of thought: exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is almost an article of faith for analysts and policymakers across the Western political spectrum; it is both a crutch and a blind spot, completely unfounded and one of the biggest hindrances to progress in both regions.

Key touchstone events from the last two decades have, time and again, shown that neither the Middle East nor the West are exceptional. The 9/11 attacks reminded Americans that the United States was vulnerable to world disorder. The U.S. response to 9/11, especially the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq based on spurious intelligence and strained legal rationales, conclusively tarnished the case for American exceptionalism and idealism. The global financial crisis of 2008 deepened the belief, worldwide, that contemporary markets and neoliberal policies could not deliver sustainable or egalitarian livelihoods. The Arab uprisings that began in 2010 proved the Arab world was as eager for democracy, accountability, and social justice as any other region (just as in an earlier era, popular movements in Asia in the 1990s punctured the false and racist idea, common in the West at the time, that there was less appetite for democracy in Asia than in other regions).4 More recently, democratically elected authoritarians in the United States, Brazil, Hungary, India, and the Philippines have made clear that no society is immune to authoritarianism. Mass protests worldwide, often against the same types of unaccountable police violence, suggest that countries of vastly different wealth or political systems can suffer similar institutional problems. Some Western policymakers considered their home region safe from extremism and atrocities, only to be surprised by the outbreak of war in Ukraine—and further shocked by the depths of support for false and extremist narratives in some quarters of the Western public.

Despite bountiful evidence of the fallacies of exceptionalism, Western policymakers and researchers have continued to falsely attribute the Middle East’s problems to innate cultural or political traits.

Despite the bountiful evidence of the fallacies of exceptionalism, Western policymakers and researchers have subjected the Middle East to a particularly toxic form of analysis, falsely attributing its problems to innate cultural or political traits. In reality, Western interventions, from the colonial era to the War on Terror, have shaped the region’s politics and often drove its conflicts. Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978, remains one of the clearest articulations of this argument—that Western policy and ideas have exceptionalized the Middle East, throughout history, as if the region operates under different rules than human societies everywhere else in the world.5 Policymakers and analysts in the West built policy around these unfounded, often racist assertions, including tropes about Islam being incompatible with democracy, or about sectarian and ethnic violence being supposedly normal and routine. This Western exceptionalizing of the Middle East has driven pernicious policies by the United States and other Western governments, including support for violent regimes in the Middle East; renditions and U.S. outsourcing of torture to Middle Eastern partner governments; indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the War on Terror; mass and extrajudicial detentions; and the diminution of rights and due process for enemies labeled as terrorists. 

Policy, research, and academic institutions have made exceptionalism an all but permanent feature of their output by putting regional experts and expertise into silos. Some of this regionalization is an unavoidable feature of organizing research departments or policymaking institutions, which systematically and structurally promote analysis and knowledge production around either geographic, disciplinary, or functional categories. As a result of these organizational and structural factors, even experts who consciously seek to overcome exceptionalism or regional silos can unwittingly fall into blinkered and institutionalized professional habits.

In this project, Maya Mikdashi describes, in her dialogue with Karma R. Chávez, a compelling example of how such exceptionalism is reproduced in academic research:

It is rare for a book in queer, gender, or feminist studies (or a “theoretical” book more generally), which is anchored in research in the United States, to be encumbered with a title that ends with the hanging phrase “in the United States.” Instead, the title is location-less, and in some cases, so is the writing itself, as if research conducted in the United States should speak for the world. The United States is treated as an exemplary place from which to derive or produce narratives (or theories) that are universal or universalizing in reach.6

By the logic of exceptionalism, the Middle East can only teach us about itself. It cannot contribute to theory, nor have relevance beyond its location. 

The efforts in Transnational Trends in Citizenship build on those of an earlier Century International project, Citizenship and Its Discontents. Participants in this precursor project, which concluded in 2019, found considerable common ground in the quest for universal rights across borders and identity categories in the Middle East. Citizenship and Its Discontents sought ways to discuss the quest for meaningful citizenship and universal rights within the diversity of the Middle East.7 Transnational Trends in Citizenship extends the idea beyond the regional prism. 

If the question is untenable when applied to a familiar society, it should not be applied to another society, either.

Analyst and humorist Karl Sharro, one of the participants in Citizenship and Its Discontents, began in 2016 to jokingly refer to himself as a “WENA expert” (Western Europe and North America), poking fun at the reductive nature of much analysis of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.8 But Sharro’s joke contains a powerful insight, and a handy method to test regional generalizations for exceptionalism. Any analytical tool that serves MENA should do the same for WENA. By the same token, analysis that is reductive, bigoted, or essentialist doesn’t serve any case; a statement about WENA that is patently ridiculous will be equally silly for the MENA region. Comparison can help reveal poor methods in order to quickly discard them. For example, consider how quickly serious Western thinkers would dismiss, out of hand, an inquiry into whether Christianity is inherently violent or compatible with democracy, or whether “American culture” is mature enough to accept the compromises inherent to legislative democracy. If the question is untenable when applied to a familiar society, it should not be applied to another society, either.

Overcoming Exceptionalism

Acknowledging the harm that exceptionalism does to analysis and policy, and expunging it from the questions we ask and the writing we produce, are important steps toward overcoming it. But exceptionalism is deeply ingrained in inquiries about both the MENA region and Western Europe and North America. Going beyond area-based silos—and conquering exceptionalism—means creating new methodologies and new approaches to knowledge production. Transnational Trends in Citizenship attempts to advance such a methodology, by putting experts on the Middle East and the West and their parallel inquiries on equal footing.

Experts on both regions met over the course of more than a year to explore common features and causal links in four subjects that seemed especially ripe for cross-regional study: militias, gender and sexuality, police accountability, and protest. These subject areas were chosen because of evident interactions across regions (for instance, among protests, police reform initiatives, or armed groups), or clear parallels (for instance, similar dynamics, in different regions, in gender panics and constraints on academic freedom). By design, the project brought applied and academic experts into conversation. The entire undertaking was framed as a dialogue.

Researchers and activists found ample common ground but also room for disagreement. Time and again, they found themselves breaking down barriers that separate researchers and activists who work on similar issues in different regions. In some of the subject areas, the conversations revealed direct intentional relationships across regions, through funding, training, institutional collaboration, or government policy. The conversations also underlined the importance of looking for common trends without overgeneralizing, and being specific without exceptionalizing.

The “transnational” in the project title is less a description of the geographical scope of the project than a gesture toward its methodology: “transnational” refers to a commitment to approach an issue in its global context, not only the local context. And while an interest in the transnational might be assumed to bypass the state, the findings of this project repeatedly emphasized the importance of the state. Gender scholars and activists show how gender and sexuality thus shape and structure the state–citizen encounter in fundamental ways. Contestation around police–citizen encounters center on dynamics of citizenship, state power, and community. Debates around where the remit of the police should stop are essentially questions about the role of the state, how it delivers social order, what goods it is expected to deliver, and how. While the police and military are the state’s legitimate means of violence in Weberian terms, the increasing role of parastatal armed groups fundamentally and materially undermines this understanding. Participants in the project suggested that analyzing the nature of state power is key to understanding militia groups. Protests and movements usually make demands of the state (which are often demands for the renegotiation of citizenship), and they also call on other members of their respective polities to engage in different forms of citizenship. Finally, states remain the most likely power to crush movements.

Participants in the project did perform comparative and cross-regional analysis, but the methodology that emerged focuses on “scale” and links between regions. As Emma Spruce puts it in their dialogue on gender and sexuality with Sabiha Allouche, such a methodology “allows us to bring more localized sites and closer scales into the dialogue…to see what we can learn from sub-national, cross-border, and regional research.”

The Project’s Findings

Century International will publish the project’s findings by subject area over the next five weeks. In total, this stage of Transnational Trends in Citizenship produced nineteen written reports and a podcast season with eight episodes. By design, most of the work consists of dialogues that cross one type of border or another. The work was structured around four working groups: militias, gender and sexuality, police accountability, and protest.


The militias working group found that similar forces drive nonstate armed groups even in completely different environments. Identity and cultural affinities often push recruitment and loyalty to armed groups; and the power of armed groups turns out to depend as much on the viability of state power as it does on the armed group itself. The militias roundtable found commonalities across regions, including identity-based politics, zero-sum ideologies, and the readiness to use violence in power struggles. Armed groups deploy similar tactics to mobilize resistance to state power. Like-minded ideological militants, like white supremacists, collaborate across borders; more surprisingly, groups with extremist but dramatically different agendas, like the Islamic State and neo-Nazis, interact and share operational knowledge within and across regions. 

Opposition militia prepare for battle at a checkpoint on February 27, 2011, in Ajdabiya, Libya. At the time, Muammar Gaddafi remained in control of much of the west of the country. Source: John Moore/Getty Images

The January 6 insurrection showed that understanding armed groups is as essential for analyzing the crisis in the United States as it has long been for addressing the Middle East’s crisis in security and governance. In addition to the roundtable, several working group participants extend their transnational inquiry with individual contributions. Amanda Rogers writes about the double-standards that hamper research into Islamic extremism, while making it perhaps too easy for white supremacists to operate in the public square. On the Order from Ashes podcast, she discusses the social roots and gender dimensions of armed groups. Aron Lund and Sam Jackson explore the connection between violence online and offline or, to put it another way, the pathways from Internet mobilization to armed violence. Thanassis Cambanis discusses with Renad Mansour the frustrating limits of the concept of hybrid actors to explain contemporary armed group violence. And with Nadwa Al-Dawsari, Cambanis explores why the role of foreign sponsors of armed groups is so often exaggerated or misunderstood. Jacoby Mundy argues that the vogue of the term “militias” and the belief in a “new way of war” is misplaced—that the forms of violence that trouble the Middle East and the West today have been around for decades. And in conversation with Kurt Braddock, he explores the unexpected convergence in culture and symbolism, across regions, that drives armed group loyalty. On the podcast, Mundy discusses why he thinks contemporary warfare hasn’t fundamentally changed, despite a change in the way people talk about conflict.

Gender and Sexuality

Gender and sexuality emerged as critical axes to analyze militias, police accountability, and protest movements. The researchers in the working group identify commonalities across regions, not only in policy challenges but also in the ways knowledge is produced. Many of the working group members are already well-versed in making connections across silos, and are careful to show that issues of gender and sexuality are not only relevant to marginalized groups.

The gender and sexuality roundtable identifies moral panics as a central common phenomenon across regions. Powerful political actors in vastly different contexts resort to nearly identical tactics to mobilize support for a preexisting political project on the back of a social or cultural flareup, usually over a perceived threat to sexual propriety—for example, reports about sexual assaults by immigrants, or transgender use of public bathrooms. But moral panics can affect people of any sexuality, and can also target ideas. Around the world, reactionaries exploit moral panics to rapidly construct social coalitions that might not otherwise coalesce. Extending the working group’s discussions, Lobna Darwish and Kate Korycki discuss moral panics on the Order from Ashes podcast. Maya Mikdashi and Karma R. Chávez write about the self-imposed limits created by unfounded exceptionalism, and continue their conversation on the podcast. Their studies of Lebanon and the United States show some common methods that governments use to grant or limit citizenship based on sexuality. Emma Spruce and Sabiha Allouche discuss the challenges to critical gender research in the academy, from bad-faith right-wing attacks to institutional practices that make it hard to break out of rigid approaches to gender and sex. 

Police Accountability

The police accountability working group drew from some obvious trans-regional parallels. Police brutality directly triggered the Arab uprisings of 2010–11. One of the first and central demands of the popular revolts was an end to unaccountable police violence and torture. Nearly a decade later, a spate of killings of Black Americans by police—and a continuing lack of accountability and consequences—triggered nationwide protest in the United States. The working group explored less obvious comparisons and connections as well, including the web of drivers and blowback connecting security forces in the West and Middle East through official training programs and War on Terror approaches to security. The group also identifies a global network of community police training programs as a driver of unhealthy global trends. The working group found that most policymaker responses to police abuses focus on reform, premised on the idea that police behave badly because of poor training, weak relationships with communities, a lack of professionalism, and cultural factors. But some researchers argue that popular policing reform templates often create more problems than they solve, an issue exacerbated by a globalized police reform industry. The police working group focused less on the success or failure of reform, and more on its effects—intended and unintended.

Dylan Stevens, the leader of a pro-police militia who calls himself “the Angry Viking,” speaks with the media and followers in front of the Hall of Justice in downtown Louisville on September 5, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky. Protests demanding justice for Breonna Taylor were met by counterprotesters in support of the police during the Kentucky Derby. Source: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Alex Vitale, a sociologist who consults with both police and human rights groups, discusses with Naira Antoun the limits of representational diversity as a vehicle of police reform, exploring cases where women police chiefs have failed to address systemic problems with the police approach to violence against women. In a podcast, Vitale and Hayal Akarsu discuss the existence of an international police reform industry and whether there is a global crisis of police legitimacy. Nicole Nguyen, Akarsu, and Vitale discuss their deep ethnographic research into policing in Turkey and the United States, and the paths their research has taken, over decades, from immersion in police forces to a wider focus that also takes in policed communities.


Protests represent the most natural entry point for a transnational and trans-regional contemplation of the global crisis in citizenship. The wave of protests that swept the globe in 2010–11 was at once intensely localized and inherently international. Solidarity and similar demands connected demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, the United States, and elsewhere, with the chants of Occupy Wall Street at times echoing Egyptian calls for “bread, freedom, and social justice.” Over the decade since those movements, protests have continued in fits and surges, with innovations in tactics and strategy that clearly represent learning within and across regions. Protests have proven resilient, but so have the rigid, authoritarian, or unresponsive governing systems against which they agitate. 

The working group on protests investigated the conditions under which protest movements achieve lasting political power. One of the key challenges for activists is to harness the political energy of mass protests—to go from protesting to organizing. The decline of traditional organizations and the rise of new communications technologies and social media have changed the conditions under which protests evolve from mobilization into movements. These developments provide both regimes and protesters with new tools. Around the world, regimes use a similar range of measures to cripple movements, including the law, violence, and co-optation strategies. At the same time, protest movements increasingly learn from the experiences of counterparts in other countries, adapting techniques and strategies from one national or regional context to another.

Benjamin Press and Thomas Carothers identify some of common trends in their comprehensive commentary on the ongoing protests in every world region. Jean Kassir, a Lebanese activist and the founder of an independent media consortium, compares Lebanon’s protest experience to Iraq’s, in conversation with researcher Taif Alkhudary. Nicole Carty, an activist trainer with roots in Occupy, speaks with Kassir on the podcast about the path from protest to movements. Carty also writes about the global lessons from the Movement for Black Lives. Ivan Marovic, a leader of the movement that overthrew dictator Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and who has worked with movements around the world ever since, speaks to the podcast and writes a report on two decades of insight into what it takes to build a lasting movement out of a mass protest.

Transnational Solutions

Considerable study has sought to clarify the confusing interaction of state, nonstate, and hybrid actors. But states, popular movements, and all manner of social groups and institutions still struggle to understand who precisely holds power and makes policy. Even strong states do not wield absolute or centralized power over armed groups, official law enforcement agencies, or public education—to name just a few among many examples. In many cases, it is difficult, even after careful study, to determine which groups or forces steer the evident but poorly understood global trends in protest, police accountability, moral panics, and militia violence.

The current global crisis of democracy makes this inquiry all the more urgent. Transnational Trends in Citizenship attempts a new approach to answering such questions by focusing on two regions—the Middle East and North Africa, and Western Europe and North America—that have long been deeply intertwined. 

But the project’s methodology and findings have much broader implications. Around the world, there is a desperate need to focus on commonalities and act in concert to address common problems, from intangible crises like the surge in authoritarianism to all-too-tangible emergencies that know no borders or regional exceptions, like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. This project is an attempt to digest the complex and pressing lessons of the past two decades, in order to craft solutions and avoid repeating mistakes.

A crucial insight of the project is that policymakers stand a better chance of comprehending governance problems when they cast aside the false idea that the experience of each country or region is unique.

A crucial insight of the project, which Century International intends to take forward into the rest of its work, is that analysts and policymakers stand a better chance of comprehending the governance problems of the age when they cast aside the false idea that the experience of each country or region is unique. This exceptionalism, as we argue above and throughout the project publications, has crippled analysis of both the Middle East and the West. The West recognizes the Middle East’s authoritarianism (though fallaciously treats it as its natural state), yet fails to acknowledge its own authoritarianism or its vulnerability to authoritarian drift. To say that the United States must learn from the Middle East is to finally admit that the United States and Europe are not as different from the Middle East as is commonly supposed. From the outset, this Century International research project sought to reverse the implicit power dynamic in policy and research circles that prioritizes Western experiences and describes the rest of the world in reference to the United States or the West. 

Authoritarianism is increasingly driven by networked, transnational trends—forces that sometimes exceed the power of states, and are barely slowed by borders. This project suggests a new approach to the transnational problems we face today—problems that, left unaddressed, will lead to greater entropy and become harder to resolve with each passing year. When policymakers, activists, and researchers intentionally reach beyond their national and regional silos, they can more quickly recognize that the global crises of accountability, security, and governance require solutions that are as networked and transnational as the problems they so urgently seek to address.

header image: A young woman addresses a crowd that gathered ahead of the protests calling for an end to the military junta on April 27, 2019, in Khartoum, Sudan. Source: Fredrik Lerneryd/Getty Images


  1. Jeffrey Gettleman and Maria Abi-Habib, “As Protests Rage on Citizenship Bill, Is India Becoming a Hindu Nation?” New York Times, February 27, 2020,
  2. Jacob Mundy “The Middle East is Violence: On the Limits of Comparative Approaches to the Study of Armed Conflict,” Civil Wars, 21, no. 4 (2019): 539–68.
  3. Dahlia Scheindlin, “How to Salvage Progressive Policies from the Abraham Accords,” The Century Foundation, March 2, 2022,
  4. On the Arab uprisings, see Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna, eds., Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism (New York: The Century Foundation, 2017). For an overview of the democracy debate in Southeast Asia, see Dan Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  5. Edward Said, Orientalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).
  6. Maya Mikdashi and Karma R. Chávez, “Sexuality and Citizenship, in Lebanon and the United States,” forthcoming in this project.
  7. The project’s output was published as a book: Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna, eds., Citizenship and Its Discontents: The Struggle for Rights, Pluralism, and Inclusion in the Middle East (New York: The Century Foundation, 2019).
  8. See Karl Sharro (@KarlreMarks), Twitter status, April 19, 2016, “I will no longer use the term ‘the West.’ From now on it’s WENA for Western Europe and North America. Pun possibly intended.” April 19, 2016.