Introduction – Urban Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Mona Harb, Marc Lynch, and Jillian Schwedler


Urban politics has received growing attention in the anthropology, sociology, and political science of the MENA region.  In line with global trends, questions of scale, territory, flows and connectivities and materialities have come to the fore, with a wide range of creative and novel lines of inquiry connecting the global to the hyper-local and every scale in between.  In February 2023, POMEPS partnered with the Beirut Urban Lab at the American University of Beirut and The Policy Initiative think tank for a workshop in Beirut to bring together an interdisciplinary group of young scholars from across the region to explore questions of urban life, politics, and culture. The papers moved beyond more traditional political science topics such as municipal government, decentralization, clientelistic voting, protests, and clientelism.  While those themes certainly operated in the background, the authors assembled in Beirut pushed to shift the lens towards multi-scalar ethnographic modes of inquiry, highlighting the materialities and relationalities of the hyper-local, examining sites and places which concentrate power dynamics that Janine Clark, Sarah el-Kazaz, Mona Harb and Lana Salman called “as politically consequential as [global and] national-level practices and institutions, if not more so” (in Lynch, Schwedler and Yom’s The Political Science of the Middle East, p.258).

Beirut was a particularly opportune location for such discussions, with the disaster of the explosion at the Beirut port of August 2020 and the exigencies imposed by a collapsing economy bringing many of these questions into sharp, indeed urgent, focus.  The Beirut Urban Lab and The Policy Initiative had produced an impressive set of policy-relevant original data over the previous years, showing the potential for civil society and academic-policy engagement to fill the serious gaps in governance and knowledge production in those areas. In addition to its work documenting the changes across the neighborhoods affected by the blast, the Beirut Urban Lab and The Policy Initiative have investigated the governance of the post-blast recovery and the range of actors engaged in the provision of goods and services.

Several key themes emerged from the papers and discussions at the workshop.  One of those key themes was the importance of spatializing the study of politics in the MENA region through the lens of critical urban studies of/in the Global South (see Mammon and Yiftachel 2023 for a southeast Asian perspective). Without losing sight of the specificities of particular countries, cities, and cases, MENA cities and regions share much in common with similar localities in Africa, Latin America and Asia.  All have faced the challenges of post-colonialism, rapid urbanization and the unplanned, largely unregulated, growth of vast exurban spaces over the course of decades, in addition to protracted violence and conflict.  There are also more direct connections, with transnational flows of labor migration bringing vast numbers of professional, service and manual laborers into MENA cities – from the sub-Saharan African migrants working on the margins in Tunisia in Shreya Parikh’s essay and in Egypt in Gehad Abaza’s  to the South Asian domestic workers in Lebanon featured in Noura Nasser’s contribution. These approaches to the study of urban politics push us towards tracing these transnational and local connections, as well as searching for the appropriate global comparisons.

A second major theme running through the workshop and these papers is the materiality of space and the importance of fully theorizing infrastructure.  Studying urban politics pushes us from the abstract to the concrete, toward the lived experience and spatial practice of diverse groups and individuals navigating specific ingredients and elements that structure and produce neighborhoods, cities, localities and regions.  The researchers in this collection point towards understudied sites of politics and publics:  Carine Assaf’s study of buses, shared rides and other forms of public transportation in Beirut; Katherina Grueneisl’s examination of informal markets in Tunis; Noura Nasser’s ethnography of Sri Lankan food stalls in Beirut; Abbas Jong’s discussion of the quest of spaces of freedom for Iranian youth after hours; Serena Rabia’s accounts of women’s self-discovery and assertion within Algeria’s Hirak.   They also point towards the structuring effects of the creation of such infrastructures, such as the checkpoints which reshape life in Baghdad discussed by Omar Sirri; the violent destruction of infrastructure and cities in wartime Syria analyzed by Munqeth Agha; or the selective preservation of heritage sites in Turkey analyzed by Ronay BakanZak Tobias’s discussion of Jordan’s creation of digital infrastructure and the Saudi mega-city project Neom brings out both the generative and the harmful potentials of such investments.

Third, these papers push us to question notions of the informal economy and how such markets are connected to the “formal” economy and political institutions. Katherina Grueneisl’s close study of neighborhoods and informal markets reveals that what looks chaotic and unregulated in fact follows well-developed norms and is governed by invisible but well-understood modes of power.  Informal markets play a critical role in sustaining formal economies which consistently fail to generate sufficient jobs for burgeoning youth populations or to provide social safety nets for citizens falling into poverty.  But informality as a term appropriate by World Bank-style developmentalism fails to capture the nature of these social and economic relations, the dense and complex forms of internal order, norms and governance which evolve against the state.

Fourth, the contributions bring out different forms of agency and sociability associated to particular places in MENA cities that enable their formation, even if transient. Dalia Ibraheem’s exploration of a genre of Egyptian popular music traces the intersections between urban geography and cultural experience.  Abbas Jong presents a fascinating portrait of the appropriation of spaces at nightfall by Tehran’s youth, and the challenge this poses to a totalizing authoritarian state.  Alex Shams finds endless opportunity for new encounters, identities, and public performance in Shia pilgrimages in Iraq.

Taken together, this workshop both marks the maturity of urban politics studies across the MENA region and invites interdisciplinary and cross-regional comparisons to continue advancing these already rich debates.  That many of the contributors conducted original field research in recent years also brings valuable new empirical material for those long familiar with the region’s major urban spaces.