The Arab uprisings have spilled much ink since January 2011. Although they elicited contradictory responses, they are considered as a ground-breaking opportunity to rethink our lines of inquiry.
On the one hand, the revolts are expected to reshape – in the international and regional policy-making arenas – policy perceptions, and policy formulation processes with regards to the emerging Arab order. Of centrality to this issue is the revamping of the transatlantic dialogue on democracy assistance in the Middle East and the renegotiation of cooperative policy frameworks such as the bilateral action plans of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). On the other hand, the theme of the uprising incited scholars to rethink their analytical frameworks vis-à-vis the political sociology of the Arab Middle East.
Policy discourses have displayed the intention to develop new responses to the changing Arab world. This readiness notwithstanding, international divergences have so far obstructed effective collective responses to crises arising from the Arab governments’ crackdown on their uprising. While the Syrian crisis is a case in a point, international intervention in Libya against a backdrop of contention has been fraught with difficulties and has set a rather controversial precedent.
International actors and regional actors have further been criticised for waiting instead of engaging. Of concern was for example the EU’s slow and uncoordinated response to the migration crisis spurred by the Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian revolts. Now that the latter have inaugurated a post-authoritarian era, the international community awaits with much vigilance and suspicion – what political actors and new social contracts post-dictatorial politics will bring about. In this context of uncertainty arising questions are whether actors such as the European Union will this time develop a coherent and unequivocal agenda vis-à-vis the interface between Arab democracy and political Islam.
The Arab League’s revival has initially spurred much enthusiasm as to the possibility of a new wave of regionalism and regional cohesiveness in the Arab world. Yet, the enthusiastic wave seems to have abated as the League is once again paralyzed by the hegemons’ agendas and interests in a reconfigured Arab world.
Against this backdrop, academia is more than ever called to play a crucial role in informing policy debates on the new emerging realities.
The unexpected trajectories of democratization from below prompted scholars to rethink prevailing analytical tools and interpretive frameworks used to portray the Arab world, such as the excessive focus on authoritarian robustness, and the inapplicability of the democratic transition model to this area. Yet, will this shift in perspective help inform policy debates or will the chasm between Middle East studies and policy-making widen?
For decades, democratisation was thought to be alien to the region, usually relegated to the zone of exceptionalism or regarded as sui generis. Recent events spurred major debates on why and how Middle Eastern and democracy studies have elaborated faulty analyses and prognoses whilst tackling political change in the Middle East. Two overarching critiques are noteworthy:
- Focus was placed on analysing the strategies that authoritarian regimes uphold so as to safeguard their reign. Actors and societal processes that have proven to be pivotal in unleashing the uprisings were dismissed in previous analyses as too unimportant or too likely to breed transitions;
- Focus was placed on problematising why democracy was not there or why civil society was weak and fragmented – that is detecting what is absent instead of grappling with what is there
Recent scholarly approaches call for reconstructing the historiography of the Arab street, factoring in earlier Arab revolts. The aim is to study previous and present patterns of contentious politics with a view to understanding today’s protest waves and repertories. Attention is equally riveted not only on the role of social movement organizations but also on fluid and disorganized movements, i.e. ordinary people.
Moreover, caution is advocated when it comes to analysing today’s region – despite the burgeoning signs of democratisation – through the prism of western-centred paradigms and typologies. A pressing question is whether this entails inventing new conceptual tools and to grapple with patterns of Arab democratization or adapting the existing democracy studies to the latter. Another pressing question is whether literature on Islam is to take the lead in understanding post-authoritarian politics in today’s Arab landscape or whether integrating Arab politics in the broader framework of comparative politics is more judicious.
While it is still too early to engage into theory building with regards to democratic change in the Middle East, a few suggestions can be made here.
Humanising and de-essentialising the Arab Middle East are challenges that academia will have to grapple with and inform policy-making debates about.
This means studying arising political movements’ and ordinary peoples’ grievances, hopes, discourses and narratives. This also means utilizing other analytical tools than those that gravitate around analysing dichotomies such as the compatibility or incompatibility of democracy with the Arab political culture or with Islam.
To leave the comfort zone of orientalist misconceptions, binary thinking, and teleological approaches means accepting descriptive-driven analyses, at least for a while, which focus on offering insights rather than formulating typologies and predictions.
As protest waves abate, their contraction will bring about manifold scenarios, a multiplicity of colliding discourses, and blurred outcomes. Arab politics has never seemed to be more polycentric and heterogeneous. This is a perspective and a pathway that academia and policy-making will have to prepare for.
Tamirace Fakhoury is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the Lebanese American University and this summer will be a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.