Workshop Announcement “Social (Non-)Movements, Contentious Politics, and Everyday Forms of Resistance. Concepts & Case Studies from Morocco & Tunisia after 2011”

Urban space in Morocco and Tunisia has for so long been part of the ‘material goods’ owned, controlled and exploited by the state. The 2011 uprisings, for some commentators, have given a great portion of the urban space, however symbolically, back to the people. On the one hand, the power of protest transferability—similar to Turner’s liminality, lies in its production of enabling forms of social performance that bring change in the learned behavior, most of the time unwritten, that dictates how people should act in urban arenas. Street events (from the musical gatherings of youngsters in the main concourses of Tunis to the sit-ins, demonstrations and acts of self-immolation in Morocco and back) allow social agents to use urban sites as theatres for rhythms of rebellion, inspired by social plights and the need to expose them. On the other hand, social revolutions happening translocally have taken the mechanisms of protest and profane behavior beyond its edge, giving rise to unlimited transgressions that want to put everything into question, including the relevance and benevolence of state promises for change and reform.

The MENA uprisings have promoted the birth of alternative city movements, all directed against syndrome of stay (the pattern of autocratic figures wanting to forever stay in power). This workshop touches down on the capacity of ordinary social agents—either purposeful or involuntary—in provoking, through ḥaraka and hirāk (movement and mobility) novel formations beside/above/along, etc., existing urban systems, directed by an urban populism that seeks to bring the power to a state of lā-ḥaraka (non-movement), in the unbridled struggle-laden realms, many times terrifying and grotesque, of the street. In this workshop we are also eager to discuss how the post-uprising situation has given birth to social texts of resistance that get ensnared in a whirlpool of replication, copying and echoing, which allows for a possible discussion of a case of intertexuality of protest. That’s to say, it is important to tap on how urban populism in this context is intertextually present across the Arab world and beyond in different textual forms and how this urban intertextuality surfaces in daily skirmishes with power.

It is interesting to study how trans-Arab world revolutions (Amazigh movement in mind), both social and political, have caused the re-arrangement not only of the politics of the urban space, but of the forms of social consciousness, which had originally caused adjustments in the learned behaviour surrounding power. Far from having a situation of the centre legitimizing the behaviour and therefore regulating the actions of the margin, it would be worthwhile to shed light on post-2011 instances of political bricolage, where centre and margin indulge in a war for re-interpreting existing power relations.

Margin and centre exploit existing meanings. They re-unite them in novel ways for their own sake to institute new scopes of understanding. These produce new conditions of power marked by traditions of reverse, and travesty, which otherwise capsize the mainstream order. Uprisings of this kind, it should be emphasized, are provoked, no matter how contentious, by the aspiration to ‘share’ not ‘dominate’. They help recognize the dialectic of revolution/restoration, to use Gramsci, which seeks equilibrium, in a particular historical point, between ‘fundamental forces’ (Gramsci, 1971, p. 206). The lookout for equilibrium in this context in the urban space indicates the courses of action within which practices of people move to change social reality, operating between resistance and application (otherwise exploitation) of a remarkable historical opening (uprising opportunity) caused by urban uproar and instant trans-local urban populism. A populist is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as ‘a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.’ Populism for Edward A. Shils exists ‘wherever there is an ideology of popular resentment against the order imposed upon society of a long- established, differentiated ruling class, which is believed to have a monopoly of power, property, breeding and culture’ (Shils, 1956, p. 100-1, 102 as cited in Hayward, 1996, p. 20). Populism is defined by Paul Taggart as ‘[coming] about when a larger process of transition gives rise to a sense of crisis, at least among one social group’ (Taggart, 2000, p. 4). It is therefore necessary to study the ambivalent principles of populism, which can be explained by its potential of [constructing] narratives, myths and symbols that, because they must resonate with the heartland, draw on the surroundings to a fundamental degree’ (Taggart, 2000, p. 4).

In the context of the MENA region, populism can be traced not only to the ‘pronounced relation between material inequality and cultural inequality in the most basic sense of financial capacity to consume’ (McGuigan, 1992, p. 159), but also to a broad and complex critical political awareness of the past history and future of these inequalities. We are inclined to believe that the emergence of ‘the people’ within the revolutionary episode as a more or less united mass actor was only possible through an interpenetration of past and present political and economic struggles of various subaltern classes (Zemni, De Smet & Bogaert, 2013, p. 2).

Deliberation of the origin of the urban problematic in the MENA region leads to a cluster of social, political and economic relations, that are burdened with forces of power that impose hierarchical orders; if traced back to their origin, these hierarchical orders would arrive at a moment of zero power; that’s to say, at a point of equality. Theory and actual experience demonstrate that power is wobbly, an unstable non-fixed entity because ‘there are always also movements in the opposite direction, whereby strategies which co-ordinate relations of power produce new effects and advance into hitherto unaffected domains’ (Foucault, 1980, p. 199-200). These movements might not be strong enough to change the course of mainstream orders, but the presence of conflicting ideologies makes social sceneries fascinating as power and power-in-reverse lead to interesting moments of contradiction, struggle, and ambivalence.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Translated by Geoffrey N. Smith und Quintin Hoare. New York: Harbour Pub Co Ltd.
McGuigan, Jim. 1992. Cultural Populism. Routledge.
Taggart, Paul A. 2000. Populism. Open University Press.
Zemni, Sami, Brecht De Smet, und Koenraad Bogaert. 2013. „Luxemburg on Tahrir Square: Reading the Arab Revolutions with Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike“. Antipode 45 (4): 888–907. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2012.01014.x.