The Arab Spring: an unfinished story

  • Date

    Thu 21 Jan 21

Dr Fatima El-Issawi

Ten years on from the start of the Arab Spring, which saw millions of people across north Africa and the Middle East rise up against oppressive governments, Essex researcher Dr Fatima El-Issawi has co-edited an in-depth analysis of what happened across the region.

The Unfinished Arab Spring: Micro-Dynamics of Revolts between Change and Continuity gives voice to those on the margins of the uprisings who haven’t previously been the focus of academic, political or media debates, and argues that the success of these transformational movements shouldn’t be measured by the survival or fall of the autocratic regimes.

Dr El-Issawi, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, co-edited the collection of essays, all written by leading academics and policymakers in their fields, with Professor Francesco Cavatorta, Director of the Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur l’Afrique et le Moyen Orient at Laval University in Quebec.

We spoke to her about the inspiration for the book, what sets it apart from other books about the Arab Spring, and what’s next for her research.

What was the inspiration for The Unfinished Arab Spring?

"The book’s publication coincides with the tenth anniversary of the Arab uprisings, a movement that is, to our understanding, still largely misunderstood. The extensive focus on structures, macro analyses and mainstream politics has overshadowed the formidable transformations that are ongoing at the micro-level and that managed, in many cases, to impose changes in structures or threatened autocratic practices."

What was the aim of the book?

"The aim was twofold: first we aimed to provide an original understanding of the Arab revolts, as continuous and complex movements, by better reflecting on the voices of change acting at the margins of structures, opting for a mixed approach bringing a country by country as well as topical analyses on issues such as the role of civil society, entrepreneurship in youth media, new forms of feminist activism, among others.

"Second, we wanted to provide a genuine understanding of national legacies and contexts by inviting contributions from local researchers who have not been published in English and whose expertise is crucial for a sophisticated understanding of these movements."

What makes the book stand out from other studies of the Arab spring?

"The book investigates an understudied field: it attempts to take the debate on the Arab uprisings away from the extensive focus on institutional change in mainstream politics and the macro dynamics of change at regional levels.

"Despite the importance of the institutional approach, we believe it fails to capture the complexities of these movements and their significance for people who were and still engaged in them.

"As opposed to a limited event with a start and an end, we consider these movements as a process that brought many changes in the making in Arab societies and modified how citizens relate to power, thus encouraging a more participatory citizenship.

"In short, while some analyses were talking about a failed revolutionary moment, the book argues that these movements, by their high level of uncertainty, cannot be judged by their immediate results, namely the change of regimes or their survival.

"These emancipatory movements have displayed a formidable array of creative dissent, challenging structures but also traditions and taboos. The book gives platform to the many voices for change that were always active and audible on the margins but did not receive much academic, political or media analysis. It unpacks the micro dynamics of this change as it takes place “below the radar”, on the margins, as a complex movement of struggle between structure and agency."

What has been achieved by the Arab spring movement?

"As stressed by the book’s title, the spring is an unfinished story. While we were working on the book, new waves of dissent erupted in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon with more radical demands and a strong resilience to the power. These movements remain highly unpredictable and it is too early to say it is the end.

"The struggle between change and continuity is ongoing, in the most repressive contexts but also in the democratic Tunisia. Despite recapture of old elites, renewed autocracy and violence, this agency for change remains active and contradicts assumptions of a passive Arab public sphere wherein civil society is co-opted or silenced."

How does it relate to your research interests?

"The book is one of main outputs of my research project ‘Media and transitions to democracy’ which is funded by the British Academy. The project aims to investigate the interfaces between news media and political change in difficult paths of transition to democracy taking the Arab uprisings in North Africa as case study."

What’s next for your research?

"I am working on a monograph that will examine the journalistic practice in uncertain times of change beyond the Western model of professional journalism. Based on data collected in this project and previous ones, since 2012, and covering five countries in north Africa, the book will propose an innovative explanatory framework of the journalistic practice in times of uncertain change in non-Western contexts."

The Unfinished Arab Spring: Micro-Dynamics of Revolts between Change and Continuity, published by Gingko, is an interdisciplinary study aimed at academics, policymakers and graduate students in media, Middle Eastern studies, political sciences, history, comparative politics and sociology among other disciplines.