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Stanford historian aims to dispel Western misconceptions about The Arab Spring

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Stanford historian Joel Beinin interviewed Muhammad al-'Attar, a member of the elected strike committee of the Ghazl al-Mahalla textile complex, while conducting field research in Egypt.
Photo Credit: 
Hosam el-Hamalawy

The tumultuous events of the Arab Spring made headlines across the globe. Some Western media pundits saw an end of authoritarian regimes and a transition to democracy.  Others saw unproductive violence and were wary of the prominence of Islamic forces after the demise of so-called “secular” autocrats.

Many in both camps however, cited the influence of the young people who organized the popular uprisings through Twitter and Facebook.

In contrast to Western media’s focus on the so-called “Facebook youth,” Stanford history professor Joel Beinin asserts that there were important social movements in the region that contributed to the uprisings but were “not led by people who are just like us.” 

Beinin, whose research centers on labor history, says that while young social media users were active in the movements and often served as catalyzers of important demonstrations, they were far from the majority of the participants.

According to Beinin, blue-collar and white-collar workers have been “the largest actors in social movements in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa” – most notably, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, and, to a more limited extent, Jordan.

In all of those countries, local social networks, not NGOs or legal political parties, sparked the uprisings. Beinin has found that “social media did play an important mobilizing role, especially in Tunisia, but only after the uprising was begun by unemployed and underemployed inhabitants of the underdeveloped interior regions of the south and west.”

Beinin delves into the misconceptions about non-western social movements in his most recent book, Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa (2nd edition, 2013, co-edited with Frédéric Vairel). Their research and that of the contributors to the volume offers a historical and cultural analysis of how social movements under authoritarian regimes mobilize without the infrastructure of resources and social movement organizations that have typically supported social movements in modern Europe and North America.

Beinin has been researching and writing about Egyptian social movements and labor history since 1981 and has lived and taught in Egypt for significant periods of time. Most recently he did extensive ethnographic fieldwork for his 2010 publication Justice for All: Struggle for Workers Rights in Egypt.

Beinin spent time with workers in Mahalla El-Kubra, the central delta textile town where the largest industrial enterprise in Egypt is located, as well as several other smaller factories.

Because of his fluency in Arabic and the publication of his earlier research in Arabic, many Egyptian workers knew of his reputation. Beinin was therefore able to interact with the workers to an extent that is uncommon for many Westerners.  “I spent a lot of time with them, speaking with them about their experiences, and observing them,” he says. “Being there enabled me to understand the impact of the workers movement in a way that was not accessible to most Westerners.”

In turn, when working on Social Movements Beinin says, “I had an exceptional source of empirical information because of my fieldwork and a long historical vision due to earlier research which could put recent events in context.”

Challenging Western theories
In Social Movements Beinin and Vairel draw from and challenge Social Movement Theory (or SMT) approaches to the Middle East and North Africa.

SMT is a set of social science concepts that analyze the origins, infrastructures, and workings of social movements.  Until recently, it was mostly used by scholars to analyze movements in Europe or North America. 

As Beinin says, “Most of those who have applied SMT to events in the Middle East and North Africa simply seek to illustrate how its social movements conform to the classical concepts of SMT.”

One important strand of SMT grew out of Stanford Sociology Professor Doug McAdam’s work on the Civil Rights Movement in the American South and his discovery that African American churches provided the infrastructure of the movement and acted as a mobilizing force for protest.  McAdam collaborated with Sydney Tarrow, Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University, and the late Charles Tilley, most recently a social scientist/historian at Columbia University, in developing the most widely known version of SMT.  While researching Social Movements Beinin consulted with McAdam and Tarrow and found important differences between the social movements they analyze and those in the Middle East and North Africa.

According to SMT, workers movements in Western contexts are often “based on political parties, various cooperative associations, and trade unions.  But these are typically illegal, unrecognized, or of marginal political importance in much of the Middle East and North Africa.”

Workers in the Middle East and North Africa however “relied on informal and local networks, not social movement organizations, to organize strikes around economic issues.”  Further finds Beinin, the workers “rarely called for democratization as such, although their actions did constitute challenges to the economic policies of the regimes, especially in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco.”

Beinin (and Vairel) also critique the work of scholars who have applied SMT to Islamic movements. “While some have argued that mosques and their affiliated social service organizations provided comparable mobilizing structures for Islamic movements. Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, and similar nonviolent Islamic movements did not mobilize to demand democratic change,” says Beinin.  According to Beinin another group of scholars and policy makers, “imagined that NGOs (the most typical form of so-called “civil society” organizations) would lead a democratization process. This was a false hope.”

“Islamic organizations were rarely involved in workers mobilizations, while advocacy NGOs were run by and appealed primarily to the upper middle class intelligentsia, which had few ties to workers,” said Beinin.

Timely insight
With publication of the first edition at the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, Social Movements delivered timely insight into social uprisings in case studies of Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia as well as a survey of human rights advocacy in several countries.

The second edition of Social Movements, published in 2013 after the uprisings, illustrates how the events of the Arab Spring confirmed the book’s original propositions and also addresses the uprisings in Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.

As Beinin sees it, one of the main reasons that Tunisia is more likely to develop as a democracy in the near future rather than Egypt is that Tunisia’s trade union federation has a long history of relative autonomy from the state. The union is by far the largest civic organization in the country, with a membership of over half a million out of a population of about 10 million at the time of the uprising. 

Beinin’s next project is for Stanford Briefs, a new series of short and focused books by scholars on a wide array of contemporary issues. Beinin’s book will compare the role of the labor movements in Tunisia and Egypt in the popular uprisings and their aftermath.

“This book is centered on the mobilizations of workers around economic issues before, during, and since the uprisings.  It argues that an important underlying cause of the uprisings was the coercive effort to restructure the economies of the Middle East and North Africa in conformity with neoliberal “Washington Consensus” policies advocated by the IMF and World Bank,” he says.

Beinin’s fundamental argument is that democracy is an outcome of social struggles. According to him “the forces that have and will continue to participate most actively in those struggles in the Arab world are not necessarily the ones Western governments would prefer to see playing a dominant role.”

Alexis Charles is a doctoral student in the Modern Thought & Literature program at Stanford.

Media Contact
Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu