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The Unfinished Arab Spring

The Unfinished Arab Spring


Micro-Dynamics of Revolts between Change and Continuity

edited by Fatima El-Issawi and Francesco Cavatorta

Format: Hardback, Royal
Published: April 2020
Pages: 304

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The aim of this volume is to adopt an original analytical approach in explaining various dynamics at work behind the Arab Spring, through giving voice to local dynamics and legacies rather than concentrating on debates about paradigms. It highlights micro-perspectives of change and resistance as well as of contentious politics that are often marginalised and left unexplored in favour of macro-analyses. First, the stories of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Algeria are told through diverse and novel perspectives, looking at factors that have not yet been sufficiently underlined but carry explanatory power for what has occurred. Second, rather than focusing on macro-comparative regional trends – however useful they might be – the contributors to the book focus on the particularities of each country, highlighting distinctive micro-dynamics of change and continuity. The essays collected here are contributions from renowned writers and researchers from the Middle East, along with Western experts, thus allowing the formation of a sophisticated dialogic exchange.

Fatima El-Issawi is a Reader in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Essex. Francesco Cavatorta is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur l’Afrique et le Moyen Orient (CIRAM) at Laval University in Quebec, Canada.




1. Introduction. The Arab Uprisings: Micro-Dynamics of Activism
and Revolt between Change and Continuity
Fatima El-Issawi and Francesco Cavatorta

Part 1: Paths to Success, Paths to Failure: Democratic Transitions after the Arab Uprisings

  1. The Democratic Transition in Tunisia: Three Keys to Understanding a Success Story
    Nidhal Mekki
  2. Post-2013 Egypt: On Delegitimising Democratic Demands
    Amr Hamzawy
  3. Syria: Causes and Consequences of the Popular Uprising
    Salam Kawakibi 
  4. Libya: The Altered Resource Competition
    Amir Magdy Kamel
  5. The Moroccan Spring is Back: The Rif Hirak
    Maati Monjib
  6. Algeria; or, The Limits of the Democratic Facade
    Lahouari Addi

Part 2: Dynamics of Change and Dynamics of Continuity: Social Transformations after the Uprisings

8. Guardians of Change
George Joffé

  1. Politics: The Mainstream, the Marginal and the Alternative
    Sarah Yerkes 
  2. Youth Activism and the Politics of ‘Mediapreneurship’: The Effects
    of Political Efficacy and Empowerment on Mediated Norm Conveyance
    in Tunisia and Morocco
    Roxane Farmanfarmaian 
  3. Judicial Activism, Women’s Rights and Cultural Change in
    Post-Uprising Tunisia
    Amel Mili

12. The Secular–Islamist Divide in Tunisia: Myth or Reality?
Alessandra Bonci 



Introduction. The Arab Uprisings: Micro-Dynamics of Activism and Revolt between Change and Continuity

Fatima El-Issawi and Francesco Cavatorta

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have generated a significant amount of scholarship, as they represented a seemingly momentous shift in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa. Although the implications and future consequences of these uprisings have yet to be fully teased out, given the relatively short period of time that has since elapsed, the revolts and their immediate aftermath have been dissected and analysed from numerous perspectives and theoretical frameworks. Central to such debates on how to interpret the uprisings has been the theorised struggle between democratisation and authoritarian resilience. Flowing from that macro-debate, there have been numerous studies looking at specific aspects of the uprisings, ranging from the actors driving the protests to the responses of the military and security apparatuses, and from the rise of political parties and elections to the massive violence and instability that characterises the region, including renewed sectarian rivalries. In light of the absence of genuine democratisation across the region – with the exception of Tunisia – more recent studies have examined the ‘desire’ for democracy that Arabs might, or might not, have, and the meaning that they give to the term. These studies are usually based on survey research, which carries with it a number of potential pitfalls. Narratives of the uprisings and their developments usually focus, moreover, on national actors and institutions, marginalising micro-dynamics of struggle and dissent.

Following the uprisings, we have also witnessed diverging institutional trajectories between the different countries involved, and it has therefore become quite difficult to generalise about the region. With an intensive focus on main- stream politics and institutions, and on regional-level analyses, comes the risk of failing to explore what happens ‘below the radar’ of ruling elites and established opposition parties and movements, within countries that have experienced a revolt and those where seemingly no changes took place. In short, there is a danger of making the same mistake as was made in the 2000s, when the focus on authoritarian mechanisms of reproduction of power and elites made it impossible to gauge the level of change occurring in society, and that was to lead to the 2011 revolts. Little has been said thus far about the inner dynamics of protest movements – both peaceful and violent – and the impact that these have on the everyday life on citizens, with significant consequences for the regimes in place. Central to the preoccupations of this book is the notion that the consequences of the 2011 Arab revolts have still to be fully worked out, and that their shockwaves might be felt for much longer than one would have expected, as the anti-regime movements in Algeria and Sudan in 2019 demonstrated. What the 2019 protests in two seemingly stable authoritarian countries suggested is that there are various micro-dynamics operating at the local level that often go undetected, and that there is a need to pay greater attention to these. Among the factors that have permitted local and often marginal movements to impact broader politics has been the ability of non-elite agents to use social media platforms to challenge regime policies: an issue highlighted in this volume. From football fans chanting anti-regime slogans in stadiums to ordinary citizens using YouTube to express frustration at their poor living conditions, a number of previously marginal social and political actors managed to disrupt mainstream media and politics, giving more space and power to subaltern, as against dominant, publics;1 and the same patterns still characterise the politics of the Arab world, demonstrating that the effects of the 2011 revolts have not yet faded. The highlighting or downplaying of specific social and political contentions is connected to the role played by institutional media in shaping the trajectories and sometimes the outcomes of movements’ struggles and priorities, through the important processes of framing and agenda-setting, direct and indirect alliances between media and the institutions of power and the way in which these alliances contribute to the formation of both media narratives and political processes in complex, interdependent dynamics.

1 Mohamed Zayani, Networked Publics and Digital Contention, Oxford 2015.


‘All of the chapters have extensive footnotes and at the end of each there is a very useful bibliography. This is, after all, a serious collection of academic papers, though most of its authors have nonetheless managed to write in a style that is accessible to the informed general reader.’

– Jonathan Fryer, Freelance Writer, Lecturer and Broadcaster on International Affairs


‘This book makes a compelling critique of the common paradigms through which scholars see the region and the enduring tendency to overemphasize the role of elite politics and formal political institutions. The dynamics of protest and social movements at this moment of heightened contentious politics deserve our closer attention because they reveal the lasting effects of the erosion of trust in formal political institutions.’

– Rory McCarthy, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies