Review Essay: After the Arab Spring: Four Anthropologies of Political Space in the Middle East

After the Arab Spring: Four Anthropologies of Political Space in the Middle East

“Social movements are a messy affair” (p. 50), writes Amy Young Evrard about the role of women’s associations in Morocco. This, however, can be said of much of politics in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring. Few predicted the pro-democratic uprisings of 2011 and few could have predicted the various trajectories of these movements and the responses of governments in the years since. Each of these books under consideration here, Evrard’s study of Morocco, Cihan Tuğal’s comparative study of Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, Parin Dossa’s analysis of Afghan women, and Charles Glass’s historical essay on Syria, take a very different approach to the study of culture and politics, but each contributes to a re-assessment of some of the ways we think about political mobilization in the region and beyond. These pieces by two anthropologists, one each by a sociologist, and a journalist, together ask the reader to think more critically, particularly about the success and failures of political parties, associations, and other civic groups to define political space and political trajectories in the Middle East.

Moving past oversimplified studies that oppose tribe and state that dominated anthropology in the Middle East in recent decades, anthropology’s study of civil society in the region as a form of political mobilization has focused on the way that such political ties often times build on local cultural practices, taking shapes and modes that defy Western conventions about how civic groups work (Norton 1995). These studies rework western approaches defined by figures such as Alexis de Toqueville and Robert Putnam and demonstrate how forms of political organization in the region are often times shaped by Islam, but have also contributed to the reworking of how religion and politics are practiced (Mahmood 2005, Hefner 2005). Anthropologists have noted that particularly under more authoritarian regimes, informal networks may take the place of formal groups and, occasionally, allow women and other marginalized groups to find means of mobilizing (Singerman 1995, Wickham 2002). These approaches complicate the assumed triad between individual, civil society, and state, in part by insisting upon the inclusion of culture and local political context within their analysis.

During the Arab Spring protests of 2011 and their initial aftermath, however, many scholars and commentators forgot some of this nuance. Instead, there seemed to be the suggestion in much analysis that the battle between democracy and authoritarianism is somehow a zero sum game. These four books refute this, forcing the reader to refocus, particularly on the formation of political society in each of these instances, how external forces can disrupt these processes and how this, in term, shapes global discourses about Islam, race and gender (Delphy 2015). When taken together, they suggest that simple media explanations about the strength of authoritarian regimes or the weakness of civic groups to explain the failure of pro-democracy movements to make more meaningful political gains following the Arab Spring, are missing the key ways civic groups are embedded in local culture and deeply intertwined with other political structures.

Civil Society, Political Society and their Kin

In his detailed analysis, Tuğal argues that Turkey’s model of blending Islamism and political and economic liberalism was never likely to last in Turkey or to succeed more widely in neighboring countries. Part of the false hope that many had about such a process was mistaken understandings about how politics are organized in Turkey. His comparative study of political transformations in various Middle East countries in the past decades argues that relying on civil society as a primary unit of analysis misses several key points, including the fact that “[t]he lines between state, society, the elite, the people are redrawn continuously” (p. 23). Tuğal simultaneously argues against what he calls the ‘culturalization’ explanation for the rise of the authoritarianism in Turkey (and for political change in the Middle East more generally), suggesting instead that the contradictions within “the neoliberal-liberal democratic model….was the cause of Turkey’s crisis” (p. 19). To analyze recent political changes, he favors an approach that emphasizes political society over civil society, focusing on the ways various political fields are being defined. Such an approach seems particularly well-suited for Turkey, where Islamist parties have moved in and out of power on numerous occasions, their strength increasing more recently, creating an uncomfortable alliance between economic elites and more disadvantaged groups. This approach of focusing on political society in each of these contexts is helpful, however, as a frame for considering the roles of various actors more broadly in Middle Eastern politics.

Evrard takes a more traditional approach to civil society and argues that women’s associations played an important role in the reform of Morocco’s family code, the Mudawwana. This, she argues, was not an overthrow of patriarchal norms as much as it was a reworking of debates around the code. These groups, she concludes, were successful in taking frames that, in a large part, resonated with transnational feminist discourse, such as ‘women’s human rights,’ and integrating them into the local context surrounding debate about the code. Thus, with some reservations, she sees women’s groups, and other forms of civic groups, as key instruments for legal and social reform.

Glass, on the other hand, points to the ways the Syrian conflict has emerged out of the ability to organize politically without violence, a pattern that he points to throughout the past century of Syrian history. Fueled by outside weapons and funds, oppositional groups have had little choice other than to militarize and organize around sects in their opposition to the authoritarian governmental structures. Despite the fact that the current conflict was started by peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, he sees little hope of escape of this spiral of violence, in part it seems, because no one has any incentive to compromise.

Glass’s pessimism is balanced out to a certain extent by Dossa’s piece of activist anthropology that insists that even the weakest members of a society can still voice themselves politically. Dossa’s approach is to look at the memory of violence among women in Afghanistan and in Canada, which demonstrates how the act of remembering and sharing history can empower women and reshape and re-appropriate global narratives about conflict. Less a study of civic groups and more a reflection on the women who inhabit them, her text demonstrates some of the ways disenfranchised individuals can use everyday practices around things like food to resist the relentless oppression of the memory of violence. Through migration and memory, she argues, the transnational ties between women remembering “foster interconnections, within and beyond the nation state. It may be that the Afghan women – unrecognized and socially invisible – can suggest an alternative base for civic polity” (p. 81).

A Turkish Model?

Tuğal’s The Fall of the Turkish Model provides a structural argument to explain recent political trends in the region. By using political society and its changing nature as his point of departure, Tuğal builds on his previous work on passive revolutions, where oppositional groups are gradually brought into existing power structures. This, he argues, gave Islamist groups temporary popular success in Turkey, but also “paved the way for Islam’s later authoritarian and conservative incarnations” (p. 3). He spends the bulk of his book describing this process and then applying the concepts to other Middle Eastern countries to describe why liberalism has failed for the most part across the region. To do this, Tuğal relies on a comparative historical approach. The first chapter compares the movement of political organization from secular corporatism, to neoliberal authoritarianism, to increasing Islamism in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia, while contrasting this evolution with Iran’s trajectory. In these three cases, he argues, to varying degrees, secularist modernism, failing to deliver its promises of development and liberty, made Islamist politics increasingly appealing.

In the 2000s, the AKP’s professionalized and liberalized (relatively speaking) Islamist groups in Turkey, uniting more conservative Muslims now using a more liberal rhetoric, with former leftists, resulted in what Tuğal calls “the most hegemonic bloc in Turkish history” (p. 94). This was part of the divergence of the relationship between Islam and the states in the countries under consideration, which Tuğal attributes to the nature of their political society (in Turkey political society, he concludes, is unified and professionalized around a central party, in Egypt fragmented and semi-professionalized, and dispersed and less professional in Iran).

Turkey embraced an Islamic neoliberalism that is urban-based and appealed to a range of classes. In contrast with this, Egypt and Tunisia’s adoption of Islamic neoliberalism was more uneven and incoherent. Tuğal points out that the Islamic neoliberalism of the 2000s in Turkey did increase wealth in the country, but, as working conditions grew worse and the human development index failed to improve, the real effectiveness of the Islamic neoliberalism was in maintaining popular support for an economic agenda that primarily benefited the upper classes. The Arab spring uprising provided a political opening, which Tuğal argues, was ideal for the Turkish model. Despite this, however, Turkey’s hesitant foreign policy and tendency to align itself regionally along sectarian lines, actually delegitimized its involvement in the eyes of the pro-democracy activists, ending any chance for a wider regional movement.

The strength of Tuğal’s argument lies with the regional contextualization of movements he provides, which in other texts are often times treated within the vacuum of a single country case study. As he traces how political concepts cross borders — but also encounter different historical and cultural context — his analysis is simultaneously convincing on both the micro and more macro levels. As a result of this attempt to cover so many countries that evolved through various political transformations at different paces, the text is occasionally difficult to follow as he jumps back and forth in history to make his point. For the historically oriented student of the Middle East, however, the text provides a compelling starting point for analyzing political change and the role of political society in the Middle East today.

Women’s Associations and the Moroccan Family Code

Less polemic than an ethnographic exploration, Evrard looks primarily at the role of women’s associations in responding to and shaping the discourse around the Mudawwana, or the Moroccan family legal code, in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. Based on multi-sited fieldwork done primarily in the early 2000s, the text is largely ethnographic in nature, but organized thematically. Evrard embedded herself in a series of these associations, participated in their activities and interviewed those related to it, making this a primarily internal view of the movement. At the same time, most of her fieldwork was done as the Mudawwana was being reformed, making this a central concern of her material (though, she is clear that the book is about the movement more than the Mudawwana itself).

The introduction presents the history of women’s movements in Morocco largely to show the history of discourse around women’s rights that many of theses associations developed out of. She then goes on to explore both the structures of women’s association and looks at activism as a process that holds the various members of associations together. Evrard builds heavily on Sally Engle Merry’s multi-sited work as well as social movement theory to assess the effectiveness of these women’s associations, whose goals are largely to change “the structure under which women live – the legal and, secondarily, political structure – must change for all other goals to be achieved” (p. 25), contrasting this in particular with the goal of development for women.

While earlier texts focus on the class division among those working in such associations — and civil society more generally in the Middle East — and those they are attempting to help, Evrard’s description downplays this divide. Among members in the upper class, wealthy women come into the movement after being drawn to the cause, whereas lower class women often come to it through their own personal needs. Class divides and patriarchal structures continue to create tensions and fissures in the associations, but Evrard argues, the process of convincing women of the various aims of the movement socializes the women as activists and allows these associations to survive despite challenges such as class.

Evrard draws on Pierre Bourdieu to argue that the strength of the associations grows, in a large part, out of their wider positioning within Morocco’s political and social fields: in particular, the monarchy, political parties, civil society, and international funding agencies. In Morocco’s patriarchal political society, women “have great deal of informal power but not the authority that comes from a direct relationship with the monarchy and other structures of governance” (p. 107). As a result, associations emphasized King Mohammad VI’s commitment to their cause (especially in contrast with previous monarchs), even while the government generally opposed Mudawwana reform. Left leaning political parties and some civic groups offer the associations support, but in the face of “a privileged patriarchy in the public, private and domestic spheres – including civil society” (p. 124), such support has its limits. Even more fraught are the relations between international NGOs, other funders, and the women’s associations.

The ultimate success of these groups came from their ability to localize transnational norms often embodied by United Nations resolutions, which may lack enforceability, but they do create norms and markers in debates over women’s rights. Evrard focuses on three key frames, ‘equality,’ ‘women’s human rights,’ and ‘the harmonious family,’ which, she argues, are keys for mobilizing these associations. She traces how the first two are a vernacularization of transnational discourse, while the third, a local re-interpretation of many of these issues. For example, the frame of ‘equity’ is flexible enough that activists by applying it to the daily lives of women, can mobilize support for issues that effect them. At the same time, however, they struggle to apply it to more national political issues, such as gender quota representation in parliament.

In the aftermath of the Mudawwana reform (a period that takes a lesser role in the book), Evrard analyzes how women’s groups adapt a new frame of ‘the harmonious family,’ which attempts to promote the improvement of the lives of women within the context of the family. Interestingly, this approach has brought women’s associations into deeper contact and, often, tension, with Islamist women’s groups who often support very similar goals for women (e.g. education), but see their political orientation as deeply oppositional. Ultimately, however, the book’s limited focus on Islamist groups makes it difficult to assess how these groups may continue to develop.

One of the strengths of Evrard’s book is that it acknowledges the influence of European and American money and ideas, but demonstrates the ways they intermingle with local concerns and are reshaped by Moroccan activists who possess real agency. For example, the notion of ‘women’s human rights’ has been used to shift understandings of state responsibility towards women. As Evrard points out, rights are referred to both abstractly and materially. The end result, Evrard shows, is that the concept of women’s rights matters primarily in the way it is used to educate women and make them members of the ‘convinced.’ As she points out, the issue of polygamy “provides a rich discussion that draws on historical context, religious texts, and personal opinion” (p. 200); the same can be said of many of the issues in the text and Evrard blends these together convincingly. Clearly written and compelling, Evrard’s text has a large number of ethnographic pieces, which the reader may feel are not developed as fully as they could have been. At the same time, her quick pace and thematic organization provides a real sense of how these associations shape Morocco’s political society in the broadest sense.

Syria on Fire

Since the hopeful year of 2011, no country in the Middle East has fared as poorly as Syria. While the ongoing conflict means limited in-depth social science has emerged from the country, Glass, a journalist who has traveled through and reported on the region extensively for decades, provides a short, but timely account of the history of the conflict that fills in some of the key gaps from typical journalistic accounts. The text is a mixture of reportage, history, and analysis, that considers the conflict not chronologically, but primarily through a series of comparisons with earlier historical periods. Including material through 2015, the book suffers from some of the challenges about writing the history of a war that is still ongoing, but is still remarkably up-to-date.

Glass draws parallels between the ways the British armed Arab rebel groups during World War I, only to abandon their leaders following the end of the conflict, and the ways Western powers are currently quick to provide weapons to groups that appeared to be more aligned with the West, but are reluctant to engage in real diplomacy. In the intervening years, Glass argues, the international community, and the U.S. in particular, has alternatively ignored and undermined Syria. The war, which may have been sparked by local protests, has quickly become a proxy fight between Iran, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Russia, and others.

Glass describes how the Free Syrian Army, which displaced the pro-democratic protestors, failed to consolidate power, in part because the West never provided the air support that those attacking the state believed they would. The result was that political organization became increasingly sectarianized and militarized and now, Glass concludes, “The only forces fighting with success against the Assad regime are Sunni Muslim holy warriors who are destroying all that was best in Syria: its mosaic of different sects and ethnic communities” (p. 138).

Political and social divides have been further exacerbated by external influences, Glass argues. Oppressed by the Syrian regime, opposition groups looked for external sources of support, financial and, eventually, weapons. “Too many rebel leaders sold themselves…to external paymasters for any one of them to establish popular, unifying credentials. Hundreds of armed groups came into being, sponsored by the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey” (p. 166). With so many external sources of resources, rebel leaders competed rather than cooperating.

In contrast with the case in Morocco, the authoritarian regime of the Assads has effectively limited any hope of legitimate means of political organization outside of the government. (Also, with key minority groups dominating the military and other government institutions, there are still a sizable number of Syrians deeply invested in the maintenance of the government, if not in agreement with Assad’s tactics.) Furthermore, with minority refugees leaving previously heterogeneous areas, Glass argues, a demographic situation is emerging where it will be increasingly unlikely for any political organization to bring together these groups.

An accessible text, his description here of Aleppo during a recent visit, formerly cosmopolitan, now internally divided, is particularly poignant. Terror, his interviewees tell him, is now no longer just caused by the state: “Where Aleppins once feared the state’s many mukhabarat (intelligence agencies), they had now become wary of additional retribution from the Jaish al-Hurr, the Free Army, and its associated militias” (p. 118). As fellow journalist Patrick Cockburn concludes in the forward: “there are now so many divergent interests in Syria that the conflict is becoming impossible to end. Syrians have less and less influence over the fate of their country” (p. xi). Unfortunately, the rest of Glass’s text supports this conclusion in compelling fashion.

Resistance and Cooking

Dossa’s approach is very different than those in the three texts considered above, and, by drawing on interviews of women associated with an NGO in Kabul, presents an alternative approach to understanding how individuals create political worlds, interact with organizations, and mobilize to address their needs. Her work, based upon brief stints of ethnographic research in Kabul and longer periods in British Columbia, build primarily on approximately twenty interviews of women associated with a local NGO in Kabul, and an additional twenty interviews done among the Afghan diaspora in Canada.

Dossa’s central argument revolves around how the retelling of histories of violence reflects and remembers international occupation and imbalances in power. She builds particularly on work by Veena Das and Arthur Kleinman in her attempts to relocate “narrations of violence and anchoring them to ‘juridical-political discourses’” (p. 5). She traces the ways these women’s experience of war and violence is not isolated to a certain time or place, but crosses borders, particularly from Afghanistan to Canada. Social memories, she argues, “reveal the workings of violence that otherwise remain unknown…[and] there is a need for research accountability in an interconnected and unequal world” (p. 16).

Much of the rest of the text is devoted to exploring this accountability. By intertwining aspects of her own history as a Canadian immigrant, she makes the text equal parts academic study and activism. Dossa shows how the anthropologist and informant work to unleash “the potential of memory work to make knowable violence in the deeper recesses of life” (p. 21). The most innovative sections of the book use food to center narratives of violence. For Dossa, food is important, not just due to its cultural value, but how “in the light of the everyday struggles for survival…the disruptions of everyday life can become knowable” (p. 19). She argues that places such as garden patches are sites of feminine resourcefulness where they can enact many of the survivalist values from their tales. At the same time, food becomes a marker of conflict: war leads to food scarcity and hunger, while once living in Canada, extreme stress can lead to a lack of appetite.

In her analysis, she is most compelling when emphasizing the blurring of the boundaries between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ Canada and Afghanistan, in order to demonstrate how violence and trauma crosses borders and how the international community remains responsible for much of the continuing violence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, her analysis tends to downplay the various Afghan militias, commanders, and political leaders who wrecked widespread devastation, particularly on Kabul during the Civil War of the 1990s. This violence is described in her text by in the interviewees as the period when most of the incidents of violence in her text originated, but Dossa tends to only assess the past ten years of the thirty-five year conflict. In this sense, Dossa’s text succeeds in empowering her female informants, while, in comparison with the other books considered here, she gives less space to many of the details of the conflict and particularly the forces that are oppressing these women and limiting their own political agency. Her reflections on food as powerful sites of memory, but also as a place to bring women together, demonstrates the potential for individuals to find political agency in some of the most unlikely places.

What will the Arab Summer hold?

Taken together, particularly in the face of the political changes in the Middle East and North Africa over the past five years, these books demonstrate the diversity of ways that individual political agency manifests itself. The various ways this agency can be organized and expanded is deeply cultural, while at the same time, a history of colonial rule, authoritarian states, and violent non-state actors can subvert this power in a host of manners. In this sense, the Arab Spring was not just a moment of political importance, but a reflection of how political life has developed in various ways across the region in the decades proceeding it. These books demonstrate that it is up to political anthropology and those writers in similar fields to continue to investigate and interrogate these modes of political organization, avoiding simple assumptions about concepts like civil society, in order to appreciate both the political potential of each individual and the threats to that potential.

Noah Coburn, Bennington College

Reviewed in this Essay

Dossa, Parin. Afghanistan Remembers: Gendered Narrations of Violence and Culinary Practices. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

Glass, Charles. Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe. London: Verso, 2016.

Tuğal, Cihan. The Fall of the Turkish Model. London: Verso, 2016.

Young Evrard, Amy. The Moroccan Women’s Rights Movement. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

Works Cited

Delphy, Christine. Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror. London: Verso, 2015.

Hefner, Robert. Introduction: Modernity and the Remaking of Muslim Politics. In Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization. Robert Hefner, ed. Pp. 1-36. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Mahmood, Sabah. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Norton, Augustus Richard, ed. Civil Society in the Middle East. Lieden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Singerman, Diane. Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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