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Imagining New Worlds in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Two Waves of Arab Uprisings

Panel V-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
As the counterrevolutionary tide has taken over most countries of the Arab uprisings (2011 & 2019), this panel moves beyond the pessimism of the present moment to offer a forward-looking reflection on the revolutionary uprisings that have engulfed the Arab region for more than a decade. Building on in-depth ethnographic and archival research, and foregrounding voices of these uprisings’ protagonists, this panel attempts to advance our theorization of revolutionary processes by reflecting on four main aspects: (1) temporality; (2) spatiality; (3) materiality; and (4) potentiality. By asking: “What does it mean to have a revolution in the 21st century?”, this panel will discuss the importance of the “longue durée” in analyzing revolutionary temporalities, the centrality of grappling with the questions of spatiality and the urban life, the impossibility of understanding revolutions without focusing on materiality and questioning the structures of life under neoliberalism, and the importance of rethinking organization and leadership in new and more effective ways to fulfill the potential transformative power of revolution. Acknowledging that we are today in an age of counterrevolution, this panel will reflect on the revolutionary energy of 2011 and 2019 to shed new light on important aspects in the theorization of revolution today, and to offer some insights for future revolutionary movements based on the lessons of the Arab uprisings so far.
Political Science
  • Many scholars of the Arab spring uprisings have interrogated the modest harvest of these uprisings. Some of the attributes of their analyses included critiques that revolutionary actors in the region were: 1) action-oriented more than goal-oriented; 2) occupied with anti-hierarchical modes of mobilization more than focused on winning revolutionary organizing; 3) very naïve about the viciousness of counterrevolutions; and 4) immersed in the spectacle of action rather than focused on developing an effective strategy or plan for change, among other things. In short, Arab revolutionaries lacked the radical political imaginaries to make political and social change in the same fashion of classical social and successful democratic revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. While these attributes may be descriptively correct, I argue, much of the scholarship on the Arab Spring uprisings is shaped by key problems that deemed it incapable of explaining the complex trajectories of the uprisings. These problems include the fact that much of the canonical studies of revolutions: 1) started off as Eurocentric (and the dominant historiography of revolution has remained so); 2) poorly theorize the role of international politics in revolutions; 3) comprise a very thin understanding of counterrevolutions; and 4) under-theorize time, temporality, and the historical contextual difference between so-called classical/social revolution, democratic revolutions, and revolutions in the neoliberal/postmodern era. Rather than simply blaming Arab revolutionary actors or much Western scholarship on the Arab Spring, and bearing in mind insights from decolonial epistemologies, I propose that a better analytical alternative is: 1) to liberate canonical scholarship on revolutions from its Eurocentric references; and 2) to re-interrogate what we mean by revolutionary imaginary in the neoliberal/postmodern era. A new critical political imaginary of revolutions today should include a ticker analysis of: 1) the intersection of economic justice and democracy today; 2) the multiscale nature of counterrevolutions; 3) the contradictory role of technology in relation to mobilization; and 4) the complex nature of postcolonial states and their positions in the new imperial and neoliberal order. In doing so, we will have a better grasp of the role of revolutionary agencies, their imaginaries, and the contradictory structures of revolutions today.
  • Among the enduring tropes that have been associated with the 2011 Egyptian revolution is the notion that it was spontaneous and leaderless. But are these descriptors accurate? Or are they reductive? Do they in fact obscure more than they reveal about what was actually happening on the ground with the revolutionaries? This paper makes the case for the latter. It complicates the discussion on leadership and leaderlessness in the Egyptian revolution, through a study of the organized youth who were some of the revolution’s main protagonists. Specifically, it follows the trajectory of the movement from its inception through its defeat from the perspective of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition (I’tilaf Shabab al-Thawra/RYC), the first and arguably most significant front born of the nationwide revolt. Forged in Tahrir Square during the eighteen-day uprising, the RYC comprised the political youth groups who were most active before January 25 and whose collaboration had begun long before. Together, they strategized for January 25 and continued to help drive the revolutionary movement that ensued, especially as it unfolded in Tahrir Square and Cairo, the movement’s ground zero. Drawing on social movement theories related to leadership and the classical Marxist literature on revolutionary organizing to illuminate their experience, the paper examines the horizontal leadership and organizing processes they engaged in—first as an informal network, then formally as the RYC—as they tried to direct and sustain the movement, with special attention to the internal and external challenges they faced along the way. It argues that, as the closest thing the revolution had to a vanguard organization, the RYC deserves our attention for the lessons it offers in revolutionary leadership and the viability of participatory democratic practice as its praxis, for revolutionary movements in the Arab region and across the world. The presentation will reflect on the implications of these empirical insights for future theorization on leadership in movements and for imagining new modes of revolutionary organizing for the 21st century. This paper is based on in-depth interviews and extensive ethnographic fieldwork with activists in Cairo during the height of the uprising in 2011, as well as additional interviews with them during the years of revolutionary upheaval that followed.
  • Moving beyond the exceptionalism that is often deployed to study Lebanon, this research situates the Lebanon uprising of 2019 within a broader historical context of upheavals in the Arab region since 2010, and a more global dynamic of uprisings against neoliberal austerity and authoritarianism in the 21st century. It conceptualizes ‘sectarian neoliberalism’ as a broader form of right-wing populist political and economic system that is at the core of these revolutionary eruptions. This paper delves into Lebanon’s uprising of 2019 to reflect on the contradictory role of the neoliberal subject as both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary at once. It argues that revolutionary actors were very much shaped by a deeply ingrained neoliberal subjectivity that played an important role in facilitating counter-revolutionary developments. Through a study of how ordinary people created and experienced the biggest uprising in the contemporary history of the country; and how their experiences were shaped by deep structural transformations and predominant neoliberal subjectivities, this research focuses on their repertoire of actions, their subjectivities, and their political imaginaries to understand the contradictions that shape revolutionary moments in the 21st century. Building on a wealth of exclusive data gathered through archival methods, ethnography, a survey during the first week of the uprising, as well as in-depth interviews with protesters, this research project aims at understanding the revolutionary rupture of October 2019 in Lebanon through a focus on the contradictions of emancipatory politics from below.