POMED Notes: Protest and Rebellion in the Middle East
The Elliott School of International Affairs hosted an event Thursday (11/15) entitled “Protest and Rebellion in the Middle East,” to discuss opportunities, resources, and emotions in regional social protest movements. The panel included David Patel, Assistant Professor at Cornell University; Jillian Schwedler, Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Wendy Pearlman, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University; and was moderated by Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
David Patel began the discussion saying that revolutionary research is too ambitious to provide accurate predictions for future rebellions. “Scholars should ask very specific questions and break their research into smaller chunks,” he said. Patel put forward a spatial thesis for explaining why revolutions occur some places, but not other. His “Tahrir Square Model” showed that revolutions spread to countries with a single central square, whereas countries like Jordan don’t experience the same effect.
Jillian Schwedler attempted to explain the functions of routine protests in authoritarian countries, particularly Jordan. She said that we must understand what protests are doing. For example, some are meant to attract international attention, while others have different meanings vis-à-vis their intended audience. Schwedler said that protest size doesn’t really matter, as she found that Jordan had hundreds of large demonstrations every year. Furthermore, not all of the participants in a protest are politically active. She said authorities allow protests to go forward if they behave in a certain way, or “follow the script.” Protesters adhere to the script so as not to violate this unspoken agreement. She pointed out that Jordan is starting to see different groups emerge who challenge the status quo. Calling for the removal of the king and marches on the Interior Ministry are seen as very contentious moves.
Wendy Pearlman focused on the individual aspect of protesting, exploring why people participate. In a recent trip to Jordan, she interviewed Syrian refugees in order to find out how they were convinced to rebel. She found that youth are increasingly becoming the “first movers” and seem to be less afraid of possible government backlash. They just don’t seem to possess the same fear that older generations do. Many of the refugees indicated that they felt strength in numbers; once the cascade of protesting began there was less of a risk in being part of the larger movement. She noted that many didn’t think the revolution would last very long, and thus were motivated by the power of miscalculation. They saw the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, assuming that Syria would follow a similar path. Pearlman said many refugees “misunderstood the wrath of Assad himself.” Other rebels were motivated by the sheer oppression of the regime. They wanted to get revenge or had a sense of “upholding communal honor.” Finally, others were convinced that there was “no going back.” Pearlman related the story of an individual had undergone a personal transformation after feeling a sense of freedom that they never wanted to lose.
During the Q&A session, Schwedler said we shouldn’t expect to see Jordan expand into an Egyptian-style revolution. Different protest groups want many different things; however the king cannot continue to play the “rotating prime minister” game. Schwedler also added that protests become rebellions when they abandon the acceptable scripts that uphold the status quo. In her mind, the Arab Spring “moment” ended because it was a spectacle. “A spectacle by definition cannot go on forever,” she said. Pearlman said each country has a baseline that influences when protests turn into rebellions. She also explored the notion of violent versus nonviolent rebellions. Pearlman said nonviolent movements require cohesion and a deep commitment to the craft. She suggested that different funding sources for movements may lead to a higher level of violence. Patel said the Arab Spring moment was very exciting, but scholars have become more realistic in their expectations for reform in the region. He pointed out that the “youth bulge” is incredibly large, a fact which means that Middle Eastern politics will be up in the air for the foreseeable future. Patel felt that a negotiated settlement in Syria remains a slim chance. He concluded saying “the Alawites are scared for their lives, and quite frankly if I was an Alawite, I would be a dead-ender too.”