Arab Political Thought After 2011 (Lines of Inquiry for a Research Agenda)

A guest post – on the eve of the 5th anniversary of the Egyptian uprising – by Michaelle Browers. Michaelle is Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs and directs the Middle East and South Asia Studies Program at Wake Forest University. She is author of Democracy and Civil Society in Arab Political Thought: Transcultural Possibilities (Syracuse University Press, 2006) and Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and has edited and contributed to (with Charles Kurzman) An Islamic Reformation? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Her articles have appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Journal of Political Ideologies, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, Theory and Event, and Third World Quarterly. An earlier version of this memo was prepared and presented at working group on “Re-envisioning the Arab State,” hosted by the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar (January 17-18, 2016).


Browers - Cairo Graffiti

The past five years has been a series of ups and downs, trading moments of great elation and hope with periods of deep disappointment for those of us who study Arab political thought and practice. We have seen declarations of Arab springs and Arab winters, and claims about the resilience, the end and again the resilience of Arab authoritarianism. We have seen people in the streets and squares of many cities call for justice, dignity, democracy, rights, revolutions – ideas that many Arab intellectuals have written about at great length and mourned for their lack – and heard commentators claim Arab intellectuals were absent from the uprisings or, as Ramzy Baroud put it, “resting, not dead.” In general, we have seen much in the way of claims of a lack of intellectual work or a lack of alternative visions to the status quo. I contend that the real lack is a full investigation of whether, in fact, such claims have merit—that is, that there is a need for research into political thought that assumes its existence rather than its absence.

But in engaging post-2011 “Arab political thought” we may need to revise some of our assumptions about what it is we seek at the outset. This intervention puts forth four subsets of questions in need of further discussion as we broach that larger question (of how we should study Arab political thought after the 2011 uprisings): one which raises an old question worth reconsidering anew, a second which suggests a different approach to our study, a third which maintains the need to look for answers in a slightly different place or with a broader lens, and a fourth which proposes one substantive line of theorizing that strikes me as politically salient after 2011. Embedded in each of these four broad question-sets are myriad avenues of research, as well as, of course, indications of some of my own convictions and commitments.

1. What do we mean when we speak of “Arab political thought”? Has this area of inquiry become more or less salient over time? Has Arab political thought become more nationalized or more transnational? Has it become more Arab-centric or does it now transcend the Arab region and language? In many respects, what Paul Noble first asserted in 1991 was demonstrated in the 2011 Arab uprisings and continues to hold true in their aftermath: the Arab region constitutes “a vast sound chamber in which information, ideas, and opinions have resounded with little regard for state frontiers.” This was seen when “Tunis huwa al-hal” was chanted in the streets of Egypt and when “al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam” was reverberated throughout the region. The Arab public sphere remains robust at the level of new (and old) communication technologies and we have seen not only the movement of ideas, but of people (from refugees to exiled intellectuals and activists) throughout the region. Yet, we have also seen transnational trends, like Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism, further nationalize, localize and variegate as they seek to address their immediate contexts and situations and are subject to powerful domestic dynamics. We have also seen intellectuals and activists connect with transnational intellectual trends and inspire and be inspired by political movements (Occupy, anti-austerity, anti-globalization) beyond the Arab region. We tend to think of Arab political thought as political thought that is articulated in the Arabic language, yet we see Arab intellectuals and activists reflecting on and espousing political ideas aimed at elucidating their present and imaging a different future in multiple languages—certainly English and French, but also various colloquial forms of Arabic that are not so mutually intelligible across the region, at least not in the same way as modern standard Arabic. In what sense does the political thought we study still warrant characterization as “Arab”—and do we miss or even obscure any important dimensions of post-2011 thought by characterizing it as such?

2. How should we approach analysis of Arab political thought? We have seen many studies that focus on single intellectual or ideological traditions (studying, for example Arab nationalism in its “heyday” or in its “triumph and despair”; rethinking Islamist politics or proclaiming “post-Islamism”). Such studies aim at doing the important work of identifying distinctive aspects and, in the case of well contextualized work, accounting for the reception of these trends. Some studies move beyond a singular focus to think comparatively—comparing, for example, Islamism to other “fundamentalist” or “religious revivalist” movements, or radical Islamism to other radical or reactionary movements (fascism, Leninism). There is a need for both single-case and comparative studies. The former works against the problematic tendency to conflate (fundamentalisms, for example), the latter against the still all too prevalent tendency to treat intellectual trends or ideologies in the Arab region as something unique, exceptional or unprecedented. However, both approaches also tend to treat intellectual trends and ideologies in isolation or, even, as isolated phenomena. Greater attention could be paid to how one variant responds or adapts to, competes with, and appropriates from other intellectual and ideological trends. That is, what might we find if we study ideas, intellectuals and ideologies not just comparatively and in context, but in conversation with alternative discourses? Studying intellectual and ideological trends in dynamic relation to one another would seem to hold some promise (as Zakia Salime has shown) for transcending modernist (and orientalist) equations of Islamism as regressive and liberalism as progressive and secular and religious binaries. Such an approach might further contribute to a greater understanding of intellectuals as not just objects of prevailing discourses, but as embedded creators of political thought. For example, some attention has been paid to the prevalence of Ba‘th party members once loyal to Saddam Hussain among ISIS fighters; but one might more deeply consider the impact of Ba‘thism on ISIS (and vice versa) rather than assuming the conversion of Ba‘thists to the ISIS project or a simple marriage of convenience between two forces without ideological significance. One might more deeply engage wasatiyya intellectuals or secular liberal intellectuals by seeing them in not just in the context of Islamist electoral victories in 2012 or the emergence of ISIS, but in conversation with both Islamist and state discourses in particular contexts. To understand how Arab nationalism changes over time we might consider not just the different contexts its champions were addressing in the 1960s, 1990s and today, but also with what other ideological trends it is competing (locally and internationally).

3. What constitutes the “political thought” of Arab political thought? Written texts have traditionally been considered the primary material of analyzing both past and the present political thought, though many scholars further incorporate spoken texts (speeches and interviews) into their study. However, many of the Arab activists who serve as intellectuals—that is, who perform the social function of formulating and directing ideas of the Arab uprisings (or, constitute “organic intellectuals,” in Antonio Gramsci’s sense) are not publishing books, essays or articles, or even giving speeches in traditional formats or forums. To some extent, this a generational issue and there is much work that might be done to account for more recent generations of Arab political thinkers than has been undertaken until now. But accounting for recent political thought may require going beyond just considering the differences between the generations whose forums for dissemination consists of the journal al-Mawaqif or the publications that emanate from the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, on the one hand, and the social media generation, on the other hand. We may need to widen our purview to consider a broader range of intellectual-political expressions, by exploring the visual arts, music, film, graffiti, which each constituted an important part of the Arab uprisings and remains a realm of critical and creative reflection on such matters as the nature of citizenship, the relation between citizen and regime, and the values of freedom, justice and equality. In this regard, Michael Freeden’s work has gone a long way toward opening up a “third way” of political theory (with political philosophy and the history of political thought forming the first two) to what he deems “a generalized political thinking—namely, concrete and ubiquitous forms of discourse and debate that shape and reflect the political domain, for better or for worse.”

We might need to follow Freeden’s lead in expanding beyond textual and spoken political articulations, since the current generation is in many respects more visual in its communication and engaging a wider variety of cultural forms. They are also more performative in their politics. One often hears from the intellectual-activists of the Arab uprisings that politics was something they did. Much of the doing of politics involved performance (of protests, again, through a variety of means) and the occupation of spaces (such as streets and city squares). How can our understanding of political thought be broadened to consider the visual, performative and spatial iterations of such notions as citizenship, power, and resistance? Certainly much contemporary political thought (inspired by Foucault, among others) and a growing number of analysts of Arab politics (Salwa Ismail, for one) are increasingly attuned to how state power is experienced by citizens through the operation of spatial (and temporal) techniques of surveillance and discipline—and how individuals resist these techniques through new forms of contentious political practices. Can we capture the political thought of those who remain poorly represented in the traditional texts of political thought (such as youth and women), if we do not expand our purview beyond the traditional texts of political thought? Mariz Tadros claimed quite fervently in 2014 that we cannot understand the expressions of people power and citizen agency in the debate over Egypt’s constitutional referendum if we ignore the “women who took to the streets…ululating, clapping and challenging the red lines of female propriety by dancing in broad daylight in public.”

4. What is the substance–or what are the preoccupations–of post-2011 Arab political thought? Much analysis of the Arab region has been preoccupied with the question of the optimal strength or weakness of state versus society. This continues to be the case in the wake of the Arab uprisings, where the oft repeated slogans of “al-sha‘b yurid isqat al nizam” and “ihna al-sha‘b, al-khat al-ahmar” asserted that the people—not al-dawla or al-shari‘a–were the repository of legitimacy and that there was a need for a new pact between state and society. But what is the nature of that sha‘b? Is it a national, Arab or even broader transnational entity? Aly El-Raggal associated the idea with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of a “multitude,” a diverse and dynamic network of peoples that resist and provide an alternative to neoliberal globalization and empire. Others seemed to conceptualize al-sha‘b in a national context, as a form of social organization with the potential to transcend class, occupation and kin, and an alternative power opposed to the existing system of rule. What are we to make of the willingness, in some cases, of a sha‘b to transfer their authority to the military, proclaiming that “al-jaysh wa al-sha‘b yad wahid” and calling for the military to resolve the problem of political legitimacy? What are we to make of post-2011 states seek not legitimacy from the people they govern but lean on support from outside actors (in the form of arms deals, international agreements, foreign aid) or bolster themselves through the use of strategies that divide and conquer this sha‘b, by manipulating various social cleavages (such as sectarianism)?

Some political thought has focused on the significance of the notion of “al-nizam,” the order that the people sought to overthrow. The Syrian intellectual, Kheder Khaddour distinguishes “between the regime (a collection of informal family, community, religious, and other networks that operate within and outside the institutional framework of the state) and the Syrian state (the apparatus that administers the country and provides services)” – that is, between al-nizam and al-dawla – in calling for a removal of the regime without destroying state institutions and in order to avoid “the Iraqi scenario.” Fawwaz Traboulsi and Hamid Dabashi suggest that resistance to al-nizam reveals the people’s resistance to a wider political and social structures than the state (al-dawla): a call for the overturning of all hierarchies of powers, even (in Dabashi’s case) the production of knowledge and cultural forms that govern the lives of the Arab people, including globalized neoliberal discourses in their various forms (in Traboulsi’s formulation). As Sadek al-Azm has long noted and recently restated in commenting on the Arab uprisings, “the worst and most damaging form of the persistence of the ancient régime is when it persists in the very lives, behavior, habits, and decisions of the revolutionaries themselves.” Does contemporary Arab political thought (traditional and organic, elite and sha‘bi) reflect this worst form or critical awareness of it?

The fact is that those who bemoan the lack of constructive political thought on the part opposition activists tend not to be looking very hard. It behooves us to assume that such political thinking is present, rather than absent and to not hold Arab thinkers to a higher standard than the rest of the world. Really, what sort of alternative visions are there out there in the contemporary world? And which of those have Arab intellectuals and activists not engaged? One should not assume that if those in the midst of struggle are not circulating weighty tomes that there is not intellectual work being done from which their political articulations can and do draw and to which they respond. This is not to deny the need for more and more sustained critical and constructive political thought from those struggling against unjust political systems. But let’s find ways to engage it, not deny its existence.

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3 thoughts on “Arab Political Thought After 2011 (Lines of Inquiry for a Research Agenda)

  1. Pingback: POMEPS Conversation 55: Michaelle Browers

  2. Pingback: How do we contextualize Islamist organizations like Hezbollah

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