“2011”: Middle East (R)Evolutions

By Stephan Stetter, University of the Bundeswehr Munich

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

Theories of social evolution focus on continuity and change of communications and ensuing regimes of truth with which we make sense of the world around us. A social evolution perspective is well suited to generate understanding of continuity and changes in political communications in the post-2011 Middle East. I argue that the Arab uprisings that started in 2011 are, in social evolution terms, a revolutionary benchmark date: they deeply affect political communications and power relations by re-arranging communicative variations and selections through which people in the region and beyond make sense of what the Middle East “is.” Yet, as social evolution theories also highlight, the more difficult thing to attain in modern social orders is re-stabilization. The Middle East 2011 communication revolution is a case in point: communicative variations and selections led to the collapse of the pre-2011 post-colonial/post-Ottoman social contract that shaped regional politics since the mid-20th century. However, these new variations and selections seem to block the way for any straightforward re-stabilization of the post-2011 order.

When looking at “2011” from a social evolution perspective, it becomes immediately apparent that a geographically limited perspective cannot adequately account for politics in the new (and old) Middle East. Regimes of truth about the Middle East emerge in a fundamentally globalized setting: the Middle East is “whenever and wherever it is communicated” (Stetter 2008: 21) and in a globalized world this wherever transcends territorial and cultural borders. And at all levels—from the global to the regional, national and local—it seems that Middle East politics are characterized by antagonized political identities and intense conflicts between social groups. As I have argued elsewhere (ibid.), Middle East politics both in the colonial/Ottoman as well as in the post-colonial/post-Ottoman eras are shaped by what can be termed “frozen crossings” and “hot contestations” in political communications. That is, a fortification and vigorous defense of the status quo by those possessing power and a reluctance to engage in power-sharing arrangements with contenders. These “frozen crossings” are then mirrored by often-violent opposition and the resistance of those aiming to overthrow the status quo. Such “macro-securitization” (Buzan/Wæver 2009) of Middle East politics not only underpins the strong antagonization of political identities in the region. It also legitimizes rigorous group-based forms of inclusion and exclusion in politics and other social spheres. The dominant regime of truth about Middle East politics then is to not view these political communications as what they are—contingent and historically evolved patterns—but rather attribute something inherently conflictive to this region and its people. In other words, a deeply held belief both in the region and outside of it that the predominance of conflicts is unchangeable, almost like a natural law: that there is something in the nature of the Middle East and its people that renders a belief in less antagonistic politics naïve at best and dangerous at worst. To some extent, ‘2011’ shattered that belief.

So if we consider “2011” a benchmark date, the key question to ask is what change, if any, it left on political communications and regimes of truth about Middle East politics. For that purpose, evolution theory offers a useful analytical distinction between three main dimensions of evolution: variation, selection, and re-stabilization. In social evolution theory, variation refers to all forms of communicative negations. Social evolution is slow as long as the amount of negations in society is kept at a minimum, e.g. in traditional, pre-modern societies. In that sense, “2011” shares many credentials with previous forms of mass protest against entrenched political orders in the modern Middle East, e.g. against colonialism, occupation, Westernization or corruption. Yet the aforementioned macro-securitization of Middle East politics in both the colonial and post-colonial eras ensured that the likelihood of variations leading to change (selections) and new orders (re-stabilization) was structurally inhibited by the simultaneity of a fortification of the status quo, on the one hand, and equally antagonistic opposition to it, on the other. Challenges to the status quo and entrenched power distributions are, thus, omnipresent in the history of the modern Middle East. Yet, they often remained only a potential ‘threat’ that justified politics of fear and violent suppression of any form of meaningful opposition. Structurally speaking: negations were hard to be actualized, leading to an overthrow of entrenched orders or meaningful power-sharing arrangements between erstwhile opponents. Negations in Middle East politics mostly remained at the level of potential challenges to the societal status quo. The significance of “2011” then arguably is not that this benchmark date allows us to make more or less educated guesses about the future(s) of social and political structure at regional, global, and national levels. That would be a question about the (re-)stabilization of order, impossible to be answered from an evolution theoretical perspective that always has to expect the arrival of one or the other black swan (Taleb 2010).

An evolutionary perspective, however, does suggest that “2011” is a relevant benchmark date insofar as it made a change at the level of variation. The significance of “2011” and the struggles over re-arranging national and regional power relations that ensue since then are not mainly that legitimacy of power and order is negated by some, and defended by others, often violently. As already argued, this macro-securitization of the status quo has a long history in the Middle East. What is now added is the memory, trickling into discourse and regimes of truth, that the seemingly natural logic of strict inclusion/exclusion can actually and not just potentially be overcome, if only for a moment. Viewing “2011” from this perspective means to study it as a “communicative project” of negations (Brunkhorst n. d.: 97) that moves from the realm of potentiality to actuality. The inception of the idea (see Chris Noland’s movie, Inception) that a different Middle East is possible and that this idea can be actualized and can no longer be easily forgotten or ridiculed as “unrealistic.” In evolution theoretical terms, “2011” arguably figures as a punctuational burst ( Gould 2007). It is not about “sorting” (Vrba/Gould 1986), i.e. the selection and re-stabilization of new structures, but rather enriching the pool of variations, thereby changing, however subtly, the discursive logic of social struggles in Middle East politics.

In that sense, “2011” bears characteristic of a discursive revolution, i.e. a sudden burst in negations that occur ‘at a speed that nobody can adapt to’ (Brunkhorst n. d.: 72). This not only widens the pool of variations, but also generates new possibilities for what social evolution theory describes as positive and negative selections. As other key political revolutions in global modernity, “2011” also triggers a confusing multiplicity of such positive and negative selections that renders it difficult to distinguish between variation and re-stabilization, as visible in the lively debate in Middle East studies of whether “2011” was the beginning of the end of the authoritarian post-colonial/post-Ottoman social contract (i.e. the “Arab Spring”) or only a flash in the pan that quickly gave way to an “Arab winter” and regional chaos. In the case of “2011,” positive selections relate to cracks in the colonial/postcolonial discursive logic, to those selections that challenge the idea and practice of the Middle East being inherently conflictive and antagonistic. In other words, a “worlding” of Middle East politics in the form of a discursive “re-Orienting” of the region (Dabashi 2012: 250) that provides more room for polyarchic social contracts at national and regional levels, such as the nascent democratization in Tunisia or the equally nascent U.S.-Iranian détente, which nurture the idea of a broader Middle Eastern security community. In the absence of re-stabilization, such positive selections are, however, mainly a semantic change that might (or might not) precede future structural changes. In evolution theoretical terms, such selections, if successful, can be understood as pre-adaptive advances. Social evolution theory has shown that many evolutionary advances in human history tend to emerge first on the level of semantics and only then in structure. By enabling positive selections “2011” might operate as such a pre-adaptive advance for a more peaceful, democratic and socially inclusive future political order in the Middle East, both nationally and regionally/globally.

However, this is far from certain, because such positive selections still occur within the broader regime of truth of a deeply held belief in an almost natural “macro-securitization” of Middle East politics. That renders it likely that negative selections, which remain bound to the genealogical lineage of frozen crossings and hot contestations, maintain a high degree of legitimacy and factual validity. Negative selections are discursively compatible with this entrenched regime of truth, and therefore celebrate manifold comebacks, e.g. the revival of paternalistic authoritarianism in Egypt, the intensification of offensive nationalism in Israel and Turkey, the persistence of Orientalism in the West and post-colonial anxieties in the region, or the belief in a fundamental Shia-Sunni divide at the regional level. As long as such negative selections endure, the widened pool of variations associated with ‘2011’ might as well dry out. In that scenario, Middle East politics remain a deeply antagonistic discursive area of world politics, co-evolving with a global political system that governs the Middle East as one if its conflict regions through containment and alliance-building, trying to avoid spill-overs into other world regions. A world that manages Middle East conflicts but has no belief in the possibility of resolving them.

For the time being, both types of selections shape the post-“2011” order and thereby mark a difference to the underlying discursive dynamics of political communications in and on that region prior to “2011.” In that sense, “2011” is a benchmark date. It triggered a communicative variation that can lead to both positive and negative selections, but it is a date that cannot, for the time being, be easily ignored in societal communications in and on the Middle East. As long as this is the case, “2011” ignites a permanent revolution—al-thawrah al-mustamarrah (Dabashi 2012: 253)—that nervously oscillates between positive and negative selections and renders any smooth re-stabilization of order in the post-2011 Middle East, either in the form of a breakthrough of polyarchy or a rejuvenation of the ancien régime, unlikely. In evolution theoretical terms, “2011” functions as a “constraint” (McKitrick 1993) to the re-stabilization of either type of selection. And this comes in addition to a general difficulty in our globalized world, which cherishes a neo-liberal ethos—or fetish—of speed, flexibility and adaptability, to distinguish between variation and re-stabilization (Luhmann 2012), a dynamic that not only in the Middle East leads to “ever more daring non-adaptations” (ibid.).

Stephan Stetter is a professor of international politics and conflict studies at the University of the Bundeswehr Munich.



Brunkhorst, Hauke (n. d.): “Rechtsevolutionen: Die soziale Evolution der Weltgesellschaft”

Buzan, Barry/ Wæver, Ole (2009): “Macrosecuritisation and security constellations: reconsidering scale in securitisation theory.” Review of International Studies 35 (02), 253–276.

Dabashi, Hamid (2012): The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. London ; New York : New York: Zed Books.

Gould, Stephen Jay (2007): Punctuated Equilibrium. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Luhmann, Niklas (2012): Theory of Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

McKitrick, M C (1993): “Phylogenetic Constraint in Evolutionary Theory: Has It Any Explanatory Power?” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 24 (1), 307–330.

Stetter, Stephan (2008): World Society and the Middle East: Reconstructions in Regional Politics. Auflage: Revised, Update. Basingstoke England ; New York: Palgrave.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2010): The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.

Vrba, Elisabeth S./ Gould, Stephen Jay (1986): “The hierarchical expansion of sorting and selection; sorting and selection cannot be equated.” Paleobiology 12 (2), 217–228.





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