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Frontiers in the Studies of Middle East Contentious Politics

Panel IX-16, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
The outbreak of intense protest episodes and revolutionary uprisings has been increasingly an integral part of the political landscape in the Middle East over the last decade. While most of these uprisings failed to achieve their goals of total regime overhauls, they have still emerged as turning points in the political trajectories of their countries. They have altered relations between governments and oppositions, affected factional disputes within governments, and reshaped fault-lines and coalitions within opposition camps. While uprisings are not new to the region, scholars have been relying on new methodologies to study these episodes. Specifically, Middle East scholars have increasingly relied on the analysis of original protest event catalogues at the subnational level. These catalogues, sourced from local Arabic- or Persian-language news and social media sources, provide a vivid picture of contention dynamics, and allow for fine-grained analysis of the determinants, forms, and outcomes of mass protests. The papers on this panel all draw on these forms of data and methodology to examine recent uprisings and protest episodes in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, and Syria. They investigate how the political context, processes of oil extraction, and the spatial structure of cities shaped the dynamics of contention these cases. In doing so, they connect these protest episodes to important configurations and transformations in the region, such as the heavy reliance on oil rents, the role of electoral institutions in competitive autocracies and weak democracies, the changing nature of urban space, and the centrality of state employment. The first paper of the panel examines how parliamentary responsiveness in Algeria dampens protest intensity at the district level. The second paper draws on the 2019 uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq to argue that revolutionary uprisings in weak democracies face unique challenges to achieving success. In an analysis of the 2011 uprising in Syria, the third paper shows that the differential layouts of urban spaces in Homs and Damascus patterned the outbreak of violence during the uprising. The fourth paper demonstrates how the processes of oil production in Iran shaped the subnational distribution of antiregime protests during 2019, an episode of contention that was triggered by a sudden hike in gas prices. Finally, the fifth paper looks into the mobilization of publicly employed teachers in Jordan, and investigates how workplace networks can assist contenders to mobilize against the government despite state surveillance and repression.
Political Science
  • The rentier state literature maintains that oil revenues are a source of stability for authoritarian regimes. In contrast, we argue that oil extraction may generate grievances in oil-producing regions that are conducive to protest through three mechanisms: (a) oil extraction causes environmental degradation; (b) locals in oil cities feel that even though their area is a source of revenue for the state or oil companies directly, they do not observe benefits from such revenues; (c) the segregationist and segmentationist practices of employment by the oil sector generate a strong perception of inequality between the locals and the oil personnel in oil cities. In this article, we focus on the case of a fuel subsidy cuts in Iran in 2019, which triggered the most geographically widespread wave of protest in the country since the 1979 revolution to that date. Through a mixed method design, first, we present a repeated event history analysis of the protests in Iran in 2019 with original data on protest locations and sites of oil extraction that confirms a positive and statistically meaningful association between oil and protest. Second, we present a case study of the city of Mahshahr to illustrate the mechanisms identified in our argument.
  • When and why do workers who draw paychecks from the government protest that same government, especially when they face repression and violence for doing so? Even as state work can materially tie individuals to autocrats, working for the state can also shape individual’s attitudes about government performance and provide them with powerful occupational social networks useful in the organization of contentious action. These factors underpin social movements like one from public school teachers in Jordan, who over the past decade have organized sustained contentious action despite nationally salient ethnic and ideological divides. I build on evidence from ninety interviews to show that activist teachers’ ability to mobilize their immediate colleagues differentiates their movement from otherwise similarly-positioned public sector workers. I then match signatures on a teachers’ movement petition with the co-location of government-sanctioned activists in the nation’s 3,600 public schools to show that workplace social ties are strong predictors of expressed movement support, even when accounting for alternative explanations like the local strength of Islamist parties and observable ethnicity. The findings underscore the limits of coercive distribution and highlight how the relationships we develop at work can serve as a crucial political resource.
  • Co-Authors: Chantal Berman
    Scholarship on revolution all but presupposes a consolidated authoritarian regime as the target of popular mobilization. Yet the last two decades have seen a rising number of revolutionary uprisings target more plural regimes, including weak democracies and competitive autocracies. In the fall of 2019, citizens of Iraq and Lebanon took to the streets, using the language of thawra (revolution) to demand wholesale replacement of corrupt elite political classes, alongside other social justice and rights-oriented goals. Both uprisings faced significant violence from state-affiliated forces, and both movements gained limited concessions in the form of governmental resignations. Yet neither succeeded in bringing down or fundamentally transforming the regimes they targeted. How do dynamics of revolutionary mobilization and state response differ in weak democracies versus consolidated autocracies? We address this question using two original, locally-sourced protest event catalogs from Lebanon (n = 3,295) and Iraq (n = 2,641). We argue that the fragmentation of power in weak democracies paradoxically renders them more resilient to mass mobilization than their brittle, authoritarian peers. First, the lack of a single point of authority in the form of a personalist dictator makes it difficult for revolutionary movements to formulate demands that can hold together broad and diverse coalitions. Second, the decentralized nature of these regimes allows them to make concessions – such as the resignation of a Prime Minister – that do not ultimately disrupt power structures or herald a regime transition. Third, because these regimes are based on collusion between various political actors, many of whom have their own militias or coercive organs, they have more options for repressing protesters. These include not only state actors like the police and military, but also these non-state militias and thugs, who are less likely to defect or disobey orders.
  • Co-Authors: Marwa Shalaby
    Authoritarian legislatures perform a variety of core functions that define how autocrats, and their regimes, wield and hold on to power in the 21st century. Most of the literature on authoritarian institutions tends to assume that parliaments are either neutral or net positives for regime stability. However, one emerging debate explores how, whether, and under what conditions authoritarian legislatures might mitigate or exacerbate social protest during moments of mass mobilization. Using the case of Algeria, this study analyzes protest event data and parliamentary data to assess how legislative responsiveness from late 2012 to late 2018 maps onto subnational variation in protests during the Hirak uprising. Our analysis points toward a negative relationship between responsiveness and relative levels of protest at the subnational level. However, the tests also reveal several counterintuitive trends regarding the temporal scope of these potential effects. Leveraging qualitative data to analyze paired comparisons between several key provinces, we test alternative explanations and sketch out plausible mechanisms to provide possible explanations for these trends. We suggest that our findings hold broader implications for the study of authoritarian persistence and how to conceptualize interactions between various authoritarian institutions in moments of crisis.
  • Why does contentious political challenge start in central public squares then move to residential neighborhoods in different parts of the city? Does the built environment play a role in facilitating (or inhibiting) challenge, or channeling it towards (or away from) violence? A role for the built environment in challenge and conflict has been established in urban studies and sociology, but it has been largely neglected in political science. Moreover, the modalities by which physical space structures conflict remain underexplored. This paper unpacks these mechanisms, focusing on two-time scales: (1) in the long run, some built environments facilitate the reproduction of social networks through patterns of migration, and (2) in the short run, built environments shape perceptions of efficacy among protesters/combatants regarding the prospect of social networks to sustain contention and protect challengers. In this sense, residents of some neighborhoods participate in high risk activism not simply to defend people in their social circles but also their physical living spaces. We test these hypotheses empirically by examining variation in patterns of violence in neighborhoods with varying spatial layouts in Damascus and Homs during the early months of the Syrian uprising of 2011. We employ a mixed-methods approach. First, we quantitatively evaluate the determinants of violence with a range of fine-grained data, including a novel measure of the built environment (using the Space Syntax analysis technique developed at the UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment) and original data on protest events, violence, and the location of security agency bases. We complement this analysis with qualitative evidence gathered in interviews with members of the social networks under examination and a detailed reading of local press sources and social media. Ultimately, the paper reconceptualizes the power of the built environment and introduces new indicators to capture the various ways in which it can channel the progression of violence in the city.