Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Power and the people

A new book by Middle East commentator Charles Tripp has drawn attention to the history and variety of resistance movements in the region, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

Written during and after the Arab Spring revolutions that tore across North Africa and the Middle East two years ago, Charles Tripp’s latest book, The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East, consists of a set of reflections on the historical exercise of power in the region and the ways that have been used to contest and resist it. “Writing about resistance, its many forms and its historical as well as contemporary manifestations, is one thing,” Tripp comments, “watching it daily in action as people rise up against long-established systems of repression that have become complacent in their contempt and cruelty has been something very different.”
Tripp, however, professor of politics with special reference to the Middle East at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, is among those best qualified to write about the forms of resistance that have been seen in the modern Middle East, and he is a particularly sharp and experienced observer. The author of a standard work on the history of Iraq — reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in January 2001 — he is a respected commentator on Iraqi affairs, and long-term readers of the Weekly will recall the interview he accorded to the paper on the situation in Iraq in April 2010.
More recently, Tripp has widened his focus away from the political history of Iraq and the Middle East and towards the region’s political economy, notably towards what he has called its “moral economy” and the changing contribution made to this by the religion of Islam. It was on the occasion of a presentation of his work on Islam and the moral economy of the Middle East, a historical investigation into the development of Islamic economics, that Tripp spoke to the Weekly in Paris about his new book on popular resistance movements in the Middle East and his views on the Egyptian revolution.
In his new book, Tripp observes that the exercise of power in the Middle East often hides behind what is perceived as being the natural order of things, as it does elsewhere, such that politics as usual, and a fortiori appeals for stability, are often ways of perpetuating established hierarchies and exclusions. Resistance under ordinary circumstances can take the form of non-cooperation, turning a blind eye to the demands of authority, or possibly even satire and ridicule, eating away at the pretensions of power by puncturing its charisma and disengaging from its authority.
However, in order really to break the spell of power, upping the ante such that ordinary circumstances give way to extraordinary or even revolutionary ones, more radical and often more spectacular tactics are required. Tripp describes some of these, showing how breaks in the smooth continuum of the apparently natural order of things can force issues onto the agenda, encourage individuals to see their situations in different or collective terms, and eventually even rattle the security of those benefiting from the status quo.
“Spectacular and highly visible acts of resistance — demonstrations, protests, riots, insurrections — draw attention to an unbearable situation, as they are intended to do,” he writes. Very often, they take place as a result of “some catalytic event [that] brings to the fore long-simmering resentments”, such as, for example, the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid that was widely credited with sparking the uprisings of the Arab Spring, or the children’s graffiti on the walls of a school in the city of Deraa that led to the uprising against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. While such catalytic events do not come out of the blue, their mobilising power depending on the background situation against which they are superimposed, they can break the silence on which power depends, encouraging people to believe they can take action to protest against their situations, and, it is to be hoped, change them.
“Such behaviour cumulatively makes people look at themselves and their relations with those in power in a different light,” Tripp writes. “This in turn causes flashes of recognition elsewhere, making people realise that they are experiencing a similar kind of domination.” These “flashes of recognition” were particularly important in the events of the Arab Spring, the uprisings spreading across the region with extraordinary speed following the demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo. When the former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali was forced to flee his country in January 2011, people across the region saw that popular protest could be successful in bringing down apparently invincibly entrenched regimes.
Tripp covers a great deal of ground in his book, looking at examples of resistance movements taken from across the Arab world and from various historical periods. There are sections on resistance to the Syrian and Iraqi national security states, for example, as well as on resistance to the historical encroachments of free-market capitalism. Separate chapters consider the issues of women’s resistance movements, considering both the roles that Arab women have played in political resistance movements and in resisting the depredations of patriarchy, and the ways in which hegemonic forms of historiography, forms of writing the past to benefit those in power, have been challenged in different contexts, from the struggle for Berber rights in Algeria to the work of the “new historians” in Israel.
However, from the perspective of the current struggles perhaps Tripp’s discussion of the reclamation of public space for the purposes of resistance and the role played in the resistance movements by symbolic forms, notably art, are the most immediately rewarding. The use of public space to press revolutionary demands has been particularly important in the Egyptian revolution, with Cairo’s Tahrir Square gaining international recognition as a result, as has the explosion in Egypt of street art and graffiti. Popular needs for expression, dammed up by censorship and the strict policing of public space, have found relief when that censorship has been substantially lifted and public space appropriated as a kind of vast canvas for revolutionary expression.
Two aspects of power are commonly involved in the control of public space, Tripp writes, the first being the contest between the authorities and the resistance movements over its use and occupation, and the second being the “resistance of presence”, in other words the lie that is given to the desire of the authorities to project the image of an orderly society that respects power and the institutions of the state when they are unable publicly to project and reinforce their own credibility.
One example Tripp gives of the importance of the control of public space for Middle Eastern resistance movements comes from pre-revolutionary Iran in the late 1970s, when the former shah’s regime was fatally weakened, among other things, by its failure to control the vast demonstrations filling the streets of the country’s cities. Another example is the 25 January Revolution in Egypt in 2011, when, Tripp writes, “the peaceful occupation of public space... the relentless focus on the departure of the autocrat and the need to shake the confidence of the Armed Forces in his ability to manage escalating unrest — all of these elements had been brought together successfully in Tunisia and appeared to set an example for Egyptians.”
Aside from the powerful demonstration effect of the Tunisian example, the success of the protests in Tunisia suggesting strategies that could be pursued elsewhere, there was also its continuity with older and more established forms of claiming control over public space. The Palestinian Intifada in the 1980s, for example, followed by the Al-Aqsa Intifada over a decade later, were both concerned to escalate small matters of defiance, often not more than throwing stones, into ways of involving large numbers of people in more wide-ranging acts of resistance, as well as of reaching a larger national and international audience.
“Part of the strategy was to organise street demonstrations to reclaim public space and draw international attention to the plight of the Palestinians,” Tripp writes. Another part was to give confidence and cohesion to the resistance movement itself, with the presence of the protesters on the streets being itself a way of “reconfiguring the Palestinian people as a political actor that demanded recognition”.
Certain symbolic forms, notably art, can assist in this reconfiguration, and in the final chapter of his book Tripp writes on the power of art, notably street art, “to disturb, disrupt and to mobilise”. The status quo, he writes, depends upon the suppression of alternatives, whereas art can suggest not only other ways of looking at the world, asking people to look again at their situations, but also “a way of representing half-remembered things”, including quiescent, but not abandoned, aspirations. While the chapter takes in art produced in a wide variety of different situations and by artists working in different media and addressing different audiences, what comes through most strongly is Tripp’s view that art in the Middle East has in many cases contributed to the region’s resistance movements.
He has particularly strong things to say, for example, about the Lebanese-American artist John Jurayi, whose work Untitled Men (We Could Be Heroes), photographic negatives of various Middle Eastern politicians, is “an indictment of an entire political class — an art of resistance against the very hierarchies that have used and profited from the violence in which so many were killed”. He also discusses Palestinian poster-making and graffiti, expressing the view that this, a way of “thinking out loud”, can engage the Palestinian public as well as irritate the Israeli occupying authorities, helping Palestinians to understand the full meanings of their struggle.

Charles Tripp, The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp385.

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