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Social Movements and Popular Mobilisation in the MENA

LSE Middle East Centre Research Network

The Arab uprisings have caused a deluge of interest in social movements and contestation in the region from both inside and outside Middle East Studies, from the public, from policy-makers, and from students since this uniquely televised, tweeted and mediatised revolutionary process was launched.

The LSE Middle East Centre has established a network which aims at bringing together academics and students undertaking relevant research. The objective is to generate a platform which will drive forward intellectual development and cutting-edge research in the field.

This network hopes to serve as a key hub for news, academic discussion and collaboration on social movements and popular mobilisation in the MENA region. It is led by Dr John Chalcraft| (Government Department) and Professor Fawaz Gerges| (IR Department), in consultation with Dr Hakan Seckinelgin| (Department of Social Policy) and Professor John Sidel| (Government and IR Departments).

Topics, Themes and Problems

This over-arching theme connects with many important sub-topics – a few of which are indicated here:

1. Connecting Concepts after the Cultural Turn

The study of contentious politics has worked its way through an extended critique of structuralism, economism and determinism and made a turn towards culture and agency over the last two to three decades. The key intellectual challenge for the present is no longer simply to repeat this turn. The more urgent methodological task – especially in the wake of the financial crisis in the West and the power of geopolitical and other structural forces in the region – is to connect history and the present, structure and agency, objectivity with subjectivity, and political economy with culture.

2. Transnationalism and Translocality

The Arab uprisings inspired movements elsewhere: initially the Indignados and Occupy, latterly there are links to Gezi Park and even the protests in Brazil and Ukraine. Online networks linked activists in Agouza to others in Tunis. Demonstrations in London were linked to those in Bahrain. Connections, circulations, and relations have mattered in ways that defy the premises of methodological nationalism and challenge structural and material determinism. These themes are latecomers to Middle East Studies – but much could be made of them, especially in regard to the study of social movements in the region, past and present.

3. Deliberative Democracy, Horizontalism and the Multitude

Many youth activists in the region in 2011 had in mind something more radical than liberal, representative democracy. Tahrir, among other spaces, pointed the way to new possibilities in post-representational and post-hegemonic politics, and raised important issues related to deliberative democracy, horizontalism, and the power of the ‘network society’. These issues – in spite of the setbacks of the last two years – provoke interesting and forward-looking debates. 

4. Power

The study of social movements must not be abstracted from power, history and context: this abstraction can become a danger in accounts emphasising the socially constructed form of social movements. In the wake of the counter-revolution that followed the Arab uprisings, the MENA region shows once again the ways in which imperial, geopolitical, regional, state, military, mukhabarat, rentier, neoliberal, discursive, reproductive, spatial and other forms of power have operated in the region – often to the detriment of meaningful transformation.

5. This Time the Revolution was Televised

The extensive use of satellite TV, private press, social media, internet, and mobile phone technology by activists has re-started the debate in Middle East Studies about the role and meaning of these forms of communications technology in shaping activism. Media images have also become an important source for researchers – enabling new possibilities in the reconstruction of crowd actions and contention in ‘real time’.


Online Network

An email discussion list has been created where participants are invited to share research, updates, interesting events and findings as well as funding opportunities. The network will be restricted to its members, which will ensure a productive flow of discussion and exchange. The network is open to those undertaking relevant, serious research at the post-graduate and post-doctoral levels.

Seminar Series

Building on the online network, a seminar series will be organised inviting academics to present their work. Written papers will be submitted in advance, a discussant allocated, and the seminars will be discussion-based. We aim in the first instance to publish seminar papers in a special issue of a journal. Click here to view the past and forthcoming seminars in the series.