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Political identities and thinking about ‘Springs’ differently

February 17, 2016 at 10:05 am

Some five years on from the advent of the “Arab Spring”, the balance sheet of progress vs. setbacks is quite something to behold. With the qualified exception of Tunisia, it appears that in most cases the revolutionary processes did not achieve the kind of societal and government change that was hoped for.

According to many analyses, the “Arab Spring” is best interpreted as a threshold event demarking the end of the old order of stability and opening up a dark chasm between ancient hatreds. As I’ve discussed in an earlier article for MEMO, this hypothesis is not only flawed but is also deliberately misleading. Yet what are the alternatives to looking at the region through this lens? This is one of the essential questions explored in the forthcoming book Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (which I have co-edited with Dr Shabnam Holliday).

In this volume we put the discussion of the “Arab Spring” in the context of popular uprisings and unrest in the wider – including non-Arab – Middle East over a slightly broader period. What this means is that, in addition to chapters looking specifically at popular unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Palestine, we examine protests in Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Green Movement in Iran, which preceded the “Arab Spring” by a year and a half.

Why the wider Middle East?

Approaching the issue of popular uprisings in both majority Arab and majority non-Arab states might, prima facie, seem to conflate very different phenomena; after all, in popular discourse majority Arab states are often grouped together (as the term “Arab Spring” demonstrates) and juxtaposed to non-Arab majority countries such as Iran and Israel. However, we contend that a different approach is not only possible; it can also be far more reasonable.

In short, we suggest that rather than starting with the conceit that a singular “Spring” occurred – spreading across the Arab world from one state to the next – it makes more sense to approach each uprising in its own distinct political and historical context. This also involves, of course, the thoroughgoing investigation of the important commonalities that were evident among the various protests.

These included some of the language utilised by protestors; the use of digital technologies as a method of organisation; the widespread participation of young people and marginalised groups (including different Islamist groups); and the overall demands for change to the political and economic status quo. Yet while these themes were clearly evident in many of the protests in Arab majority states, examples can also be seen in Iran, Iraqi-Kurdistan and Israel (among others). Thus, we argue that it makes more sense to expand the frame of reference to include some non-Arab majority states in order to understand the phenomena of popular protests in the Middle East over recent years. We hope that our collection of contributions makes a step towards this.

Political identities

The key focus for our analysis is obviously the concept of political identity as manifest variously in the different case studies. Though this term might seem nebulous at first, what we mean by it is simple. A political identity is understood as the ways in which individuals, or groups of people, identify themselves and their interests in relation to established structures of power at a national level. Moreover, these power structures might include institutions – such as “the state” – or ideas and doctrines, for example “Islamism” and/or “secularism”.

The Arab Spring:
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This definition of political identities builds on the work of the prominent scholar Charles Tilly, who argued that, “identities are political… insofar as they involve relations to governments.” Our main, most important point in this respect, though, is to challenge the various rather shallow, reductive, interpretations of identities that have become commonplace in discussions about conflict in the Middle East (even at the highest level).

Instead, we argue that political identities are complex and fluid phenomena, which cannot be easily or justifiably reduced down to simplistic debates that pit “Islamism against secularism” or “Sunnism against Shi’ism”. In other words, “our task is to explore how and/or why various identities have become meaningful, retained their significance and/or intersect with each other in the highly dynamic contexts of the contemporary Middle East.”

A new frame of reference

What is the purpose of establishing a new frame of reference? After all, there are myriad accounts of unrest in the Middle East. Yet we believe that there is a crucial need to shake up dominant understandings of politics and identity in the region, particularly at a time when we look back on the uprisings and consider their consequences.

The Middle East, today, is a political order integral to which is an encounter with colonialism, whether indirect or direct, and that that legacy of direct and/or indirect colonialism continues to influence the politics of many in the region.

This is not the time to simply paper over the cracks, or adhere doctrinally to the over-simplified mythologies that we might find comforting. This is not a “civil war” within Islam, nor a simple battle between the religious vs. the secular.

The goal that should be central to our approach to understanding these events in the region, both then and now, is to accept fully the complexity of political identities at play in the countless interactions between peoples and the institutions that enact power over them.

Or, in the words of the late, great Edward Said, our goal is to “think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about ‘us’. But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies.”

Dr. Philip Leech is a Senior Fellow for the Centre on Government at the University of Ottawa. He is the co-editor (with Shabnam Holliday) of Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (Forthcoming, Rowman and Littlefield International) and the author of The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis (Forthcoming, Routledge). His full profile is online at and is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.