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The Politics of Unruly Ruptures

5 Dec 2011

Mariz Tadros is a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, specializing in the politics and human development of the Middle East. In 2010 she wrote a paper on faith-based organizations for the Institute. Today, UNRISD is reconnecting with her to get her take on the uprisings taking place around the world.

People are in revolt everywhere: Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Greece, the United Kingdom, the New York Occupy movement in the United States—and the list of countries keeps getting longer. Despite being motivated by different causes and instigated by different groups, the revolts are rupturing the status quo. The rupture delegitimizes the mainstream narrative of the state of the world today. What is emerging around the globe is not another strain of new social movements, nor the return of conventional Leftist politics, nor large-scale “advocacy campaigns” embarked upon by civil society organizations. What we are witnessing around the globe is unruly politics1: the masses engaging through spaces outside state and civil society and through a different form of agency.

Unruly politics does not represent a new theoretical construct or a new paradigm; rather, it typifies a different political inquiry that shifts the site of analysis from dynamics, mechanisms and trajectories of contestation (see the work of McAdam et al. on the dynamics of contention2) to the spaces through which people revolt. This is not to say that contentious politics is not relevant; no doubt all of the protests in the countries mentioned above have elements of contentious performances. Rather, what is suggested here is that the nature of the polity is changing, and this is radically challenging the pathways of how social and political change unfold. First, from the point of view of agency, the people who have risen up in Cairo, Athens, Sanaa and London are not the angriest poorest of the poor. These are not the revolts of the hungry.3 The protesters come from across all classes, including a bulk from the middle class driven by incensed indignation that the absolute minimum conditions for securing economic and political justice are being violated. Yet what brings them together in a crowd is far more diffuse than being bound together by the ideas or causes of a social movement. The leadership is far looser and more scattered than in conventional social movements.

Moreover, the spaces in which people are assuming a political agency are no longer the conventional forums, platforms and channels through which politics is exercised. Unruly politics exposes the fact that people are finding alternative spaces to engage politically because political and civil societies no longer provide the means to express citizens’ voices. Unruliness is expressed not only in relation to the state, but also in relation to non-state actors and their institutional politics.

Looking at the pathways of eliciting change and how the status quo was ruptured in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, what becomes particularly conspicuous is not only that political parties were absent from the process of mobilization that sparked the uprisings, but also that when these very political parties sought to arrive at a political settlement on behalf of the masses, the people rejected them. This was very clear in the first days of protest in Tunisia; it was the case in Egypt in late November when the political parties tried to arrive at an agreement with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in Egypt (SCAF) and which was rejected by the protestors; and it was the case in Yemen where protestors continued their uprising even as political forces were signing the terms of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exit from power. This is not to suggest that political parties are no longer participating in the uprisings, as many have taken part in those that were sparked in Europe and the Arab world. However, political parties have proved to be as disconnected from the masses as the governments at times, and consequently, were not effectual pathways for political mobilization against regimes. Second, parties have lost their capacity to assume political representation. They cannot claim sole legitimacy to speak on behalf of the masses.

Nor were civil society organizations, long the favoured actors of social and political contestation and change among proponents of democratization and development, been the channels through which people organized or mobilized. Again, this is not to suggest that citizens who belonged to civil society organizations did not take part in the uprisings. They did—but only not under the auspices of their organizational identity, and not as part of their organization’s agenda. And while in Yemen, civil society organizations are sparse, this is not so in Tunisia and especially not so in Egypt.

The question, then, is why political and civil society organizations and institutions have become marginal to the ways through which people engage politically. In some contexts, for example, in Egypt and Tunisia, heavy infiltration by authoritarian regimes has rendered opposition parties moot—as UNRISD research analyst Kristine Goulding’s article shows. They no longer served as platforms of political agency, but were co-opted into political performances. Perhaps they have become too orderly and ruly for creating the spaces for unconventional forms of contestation. Perhaps they have become too elitist and have lost touch with the pulse of the street. Perhaps the reason why we have failed to engage fully with the nature of the ruptures across the globe is that our methods of inquiry have focused for too long on sites where political mobilization was assumed to happen (political parties, social movements, civil society organizations), at the expense of adopting an alternative lens that would enable us to “see like citizens” and hence capture how people were engaging politically: in other words, a method of inquiry that allows us to capture the pulse of the street.

Yet let us not be deceived—the people who occupy, who encroach upon symbolic political or economic spaces (squares, the spaces near the New York Stock Exchange and the London Stock Exchange) and who develop their own terms of engagement with state and non-state actors in making their demands do not necessarily produce a moral economy that represents the wider citizenry. Occupy XSL in London developed its own moral economy of decision making4 which is very different from that of the rest of England. The moral economy of Tahrir Square that enjoys a high level of inclusiveness across religion, class and gender does not reflect the moral economy prevalent in the rest of Egypt.

While unruly politics has the power to threaten, challenge and rupture the status quo, it does not necessarily always express the quest for a progressive or inclusive political community (sometimes it is led by highly reactionary movements), and it is not necessarily always part and parcel of a democratic package. In Tahrir Square, the youth coalitions in favour of structural change to oust a military regime simply do not have the political constituency that would allow them to outmanoeuvre the Islamist forces (Salafis and Brotherhood) in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. It is the latter that have the numbers that would enable them to “invade” the ballot boxes in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This is perhaps because the conditions of choice under which elections are being run in Egypt are highly discriminatory (in the light of the pact between SCAF and the Islamist forces). Here unruly politics represents a parallel form of political expression, the engagement and rules of which are very different from the politics of representation enacted through liberal democratic procedures such as elections. In other words, they are very different spaces or sites for political contestation.

The forms of unruly politics that we have witnessed across the globe suggest that citizens are no longer voicing opposition only against domestic actors, but are calling into question the very structural dynamics that influence power hierarchies on the ground (see Shankland 2011). This may increase international actors’ demands for greater accountability from the citizenry. Already the movements have exposed the policy disconnects of conventional development paradigms in dealing with social and political inequalities. Shahra Razavi’s critique of the World Bank’s latest report on gender equality shows that there are serious disconnects from policy that suggest an inclination to go with the conventional staple of development interventions. The tendency to engage through compartmentalized social policy will backfire, she argued, as is the case in relation to broaching complex gendered power hierarchies where “the unfortunate reduction of social policy to a narrow focus on CCTs [conditional cash transfers] and the shading out of controversial issues (such as the rise of fundamentalist religious forces) will also reduce the report’s usefulness to the ‘policy maker’, as well as its staying power for other constituencies who care about the subject.”

As call for justice leads to the entanglement of international actors in citizens’ demands for accountability, disconnects from development policy will become increasingly exposed as sites for political contestation. It is time we take unruly politics seriously.

1 Shankland, Alex, Mariz Tadros, Naomi Hossain, Patta Scott Villers, Akshay Khanna and Danny Burns. 2011. Institute of Development Studies, Brighton. Mimeo.
2 McAdam, D., C. Tilly, and S. Tarrow. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
3 See Hossain, N. 2011. On Bangladesh, “Unruly Politics Presentation”. Institute of Development Studies, Brighton. 9 March.
4 Shankland, A. 2011. Occupy LSX. Background paper for Unruly Politics Programme, Brighton, November. Mimeo.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.