This event is cosponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
2:00 pm – 3:30 pm
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC

After the major uprisings of 2011 in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, many assumed that the movements emerged spontaneously directed by tech-savvy, young revolutionaries. However, citizen activism in the Arab world was already adapting to changing internal political and social dynamics in the preceding years. What role have social media, civil society, and political institutions played in shaping each country’s activism scene? And how has activism evolved since 2011 in response to the region’s political transitions?

To mark the launch of their book Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), Carnegie Middle East Center Director Lina Khatib and Yale University professor and POMED Nonresident Senior Fellow Ellen Lust will be joined by Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi and Carnegie Endowment Vice President Marwan Muasher to discuss the dynamics of activism in the Arab world and the interplay between the domestic and regional contexts.

Ahmed Benchemsi
Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Free Arabs
Founder and Editor-in-Chief, TelQuel

Lina Khatib
Director, Carnegie Middle East Center

Ellen Lust
Associate Professor, Yale University
Nonresident Senior Fellow, POMED

Moderator: Marwan Muasher
Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

For full event notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.

Marwan Muasher opened the discussion by commenting on the panelists’ new book Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism and introducing the panelists.

Ellen Lust then talked about the internal dynamics of activism under different regime types. She first raised the point that activism has always existed but was often overlooked saying, “We are falling back into a notion that if people are not gathering in Tahrir Square, nothing is happening.” She stated that political activism come in different forms, raising examples of soccer movements in Tunisia and a map of nonviolent opposition in Syria. She then noted that activism is shaped by contexts and it changes over time and space, stressing the significant role the institutional structure played on activism in the Arab world. She then added that economy and politics are closely linked, suggesting that the tendency to discount economic activism as not political might be wrong. She further suggested that international and domestic situations constrain the developments of activism in different localities, and it is a mistake to view the variety as diminishing. She finally discussed the response to the regional dynamics, noting that high uncertainty inherently leads to internal debates and divisions. Inclusive engagement and safety nets are needed.

Next, Ahmed Benchemsi discussed youth activism by discussing the developments of youth movements after the Arab uprising. He first raised the debates about social media’s role in the Arab Spring, framing the perception of developments on the ground into that “media hype followed by just as much media disappointment.” He noted that young activists who led uprisings were already political figures familiar with political terminologies before the revolution; social media simply shaped the narrative and provided slogans for protests as the “soundtrack of the Arab revolts.” He then discussed the problems within youth movements. He said that momentum and enthusiasm seem the only assets; structure, democracy, and material supports are absent. Therefore, after the momentum is gone, these grassroots movements could not accompany the transitional period with well-structured activities to exert political influence. However, he believes that liberal activists still control the narratives on social media and the public audience will grow as the ongoing demographic changes continue. He predicted that the internet penetration rate would continue to grow, the fertility rate would drop, and the sense of individual empowerment would grow as the middle class expands in the region. He further distinguished public audience from constituency and influence from political leverage to stress the importance of the organizational structure. Then, he concluded, “There is a lack of imagination in how to address US policy in MENA.”

Lina Khatib tackled the impact of the broad international context on activism saying, “We tend to focus on micro politics and forget about global activism.” She started by discussing Saudi Arabia’s influence on the ground and commenting that the country is the most influential state in “stalling democracy” in MENA. She mentioned that Saudi Arabia contributed to the crackdowns on Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt, and is contributing to the crackdowns on secular and liberal activists such as those of the April 6 youth movement. Khatib argued that the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest political challenger in the region for Saudi Arabia. In addition, Saudi Arabia also quelled the protest movements in Bahrain, and a GCC initiative led by Saudi Arabia is seen by many as having killed the uprising in Yemen. On this dimension, she further argued that the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry plays a significant role on Saudi’s reactions to the events on the ground. She said that Riyadh does not want to see Iran’s influence to spread in MENA, and it does not tolerate revolutions in countries close home. She raised other examples, noting that Syria is a manifestation of Saudi-Qatari rivalry. Both countries contributed to the divisions of opposition groups, and their funding supported Islamist and jihadist groups to go after secular activists, diminishing secular activists’ influence in opposition forces. She believes that several countries’ perception of conflicts as opportunities to exert influence changed activism to “warlordism.” Then, she suggested that as catastrophic conflict in Syria emerged, activists elsewhere changed their calculations with more of them allied with the state, and political activism in Syria is replaced by demand for basic needs. Lastly, she stated that activism also has an influence on changing the regional political landscape, raising the example of rising tension among Gulf countries as a result of the Arab uprising.

During the Q&A, moderator Marwan Muasher concluded the discussion, saying that the stagnation of activist development in the region has recently come to light. An audience member asked questions about the division between Islamists and secularists. Ahmed Benchemsi and Lina Khatib had a debate regarding this issue. Benchemsi believes that in the MENA region, “left and right do not mean much,” the real pertinent divide is between Secularism and Islamism. Khatib, on the other hand, argued that entities are not fixed by time or space as groups resort to compromises for self-preservation. Another audience member asked why the monarchy system in MENA is more stable. Ellen Lust first suggested that monarchy countries in MENA should not be lumped together as oil rich states and others have different strategies. She then explained that there is more space for debates in monarchy states with monarchs being the arbitrators on a different level, adding that claims of moving to constitutional monarchy can be made as progresses in monarchy states. Ahmed answered a question on which actors can help youth movements gain capacity, and how, responding that the U.S. needs to examine the movements on the ground and propose specific ways to influence organizational strategy and information communication strategy within these movements.