Taking Time Seriously: Temporality and the Arab Uprisings

By Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” held on May 3-4, 2016.

Questions of temporality lurk behind every analytic framework, and studies of the Arab uprisings are no exception. As scholars, we always make choices about where to begin and end our analyses, sometimes adhering to common frameworks for periods and epochs, and sometimes suggesting innovations. More than a technical and practical consideration for research design, choice of temporal register plays a powerful role in our scholarship, but one that is often acknowledged only in passing or left entirely recognized. In my current book project on political protests in Jordan—a project that addresses the uprisings but is not about them—I examine in one chapter the ways in which multiple temporal registers shape our understanding of what is happening in the course of a protest or series of protests, and how we fit those understandings into a “big picture” (including our choices about precisely what that big thing is). Choosing a temporal register can have profound political implications for the analyses we produce, in that it operates to recognize, authorize, or critique some practices, actors, events, and power relations, while obscuring or ignoring others.

But the politics of time is not merely analytic: the groups, individuals, and agencies involved in protests embrace and generate their own understandings about what is happening, and those choices impact their actions on a practical level. That is, when a protest event happens,[1] actors create, adopt, and adapt different narrative understandings about the event, the intentions of others, the level of threat, and the target of the challenge, to give just a few examples. Actors are diverse, some present at the event and other constituting near and distance audiences: they may include, for example, the police, the army, the cabinet, the head of state, the media, political parties, activists, participants, bystanders, foreign governments, international aid agencies, foreign corporations seeking to investment opportunities, makers and marketers of security technology and hardware, and so on. Actors often do not even agree on what is happening, [2] and those disagreements are exacerbated when actors hold different temporal registers.

Many narratives, discourses, analytic frameworks, best practices, and so on, are anchored in specific temporal registers. They shape, and are shaped by, what actors do and what they understand to be happening. They create some possibilities and foreclose others. They mark the stakes of conflicts. Was Trevon Martin’s death about the few minutes in which two individuals encountered each other one evening? Was it about the racial politics of policing? About communities struggling to provide security where state agencies are seen to have failed? About neoliberal exclusions that create new hierarchies and exclusions? About centuries of racism deeply embedded in the fabric of American society? These arguments compete not only analytically but also by locating an “event” in very temporal registers. More importantly, the contradictory interpretations of the same events call for radically divergent political responses.

Temporal registers are particularly central to understandings of contentious politics: riots, revolutions, revolts, protests, uprisings, marches, sit-ins, strikes, and so on. In 2001, Doug McAdam and William H. Sewell, Jr. urged scholars of contentious politics to pay more attention to time. Their primary concern was that “[c]ertain temporal rhythms have been emphasized at the expense of others.”[3] They identify four temporal registers at work in much scholarship, corresponding to long-term, medium-term, short-term, and shifts in “cultural epochs,” what Charles Tilly termed “repertoires of contention.” Their typology is suggestive rather than exhaustive, but their brief discussion underlines the need to consider temporal registers as a core dimension of both methodology and epistemology.

Scholarly Temporalities

I have argued elsewhere that scholarship on the Arab uprisings has predominantly adopted analytic frameworks that emphasize the life-cycle of the uprisings: that is, when each of the uprisings began, how it evolved, whether or not it turned violent, whether there was regime change, and so on.[4] The uprisings are widely acknowledged to be part of a larger phenomenon—what the media insists on calling the “Arab Spring” but scholars more commonly refer to as “the uprisings”—but many analyses examine them as separate cases, taking each uprising as discrete and treating them as comparable units suitable for comparative analysis. Each uprising is contained within a single state unit, and the focus is on the arc or trajectory of the cycle of protest. Leaving aside the strengths and weaknesses of the life-cycle approach that I have discussed elsewhere, here I want to draw attention to the fact that for this approach in which the uprisings are the unit of analysis, the temporal register is medium-term: the uprisings are part of discrete protest cycles, whose beginnings, middles, and ends can be identified (even if scholars disagree on what those are). A single cycle can last days, months, or years, but it constitutes a clear “unit” of analysis, the object of scholarly inquiry and the framework within which analytic questions emerge. Asking the question, “Why did some states experience uprisings while others did not?” implicitly adopts just such a life-cycle temporal register.

Exemplary of this approach is The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform, by Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds. They adopt two comparative frameworks. The first examines each state as a discrete entity with its own uprising, and the second compares the collection of the Arab uprisings with other collections of uprisings, notably those of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They seek to explain why the uprisings resulted in “failed transitions” to democracy, their temporal register structured by the widely discussed teleology of the transitology literature. The comparisons are built across two different arcs (between individual uprisings, and between regional waves of uprisings), but both are life-cycle frameworks that embrace the middle-range temporal register. This approach is also adopted in most media analyses, where comparing the uprisings is taken as matter-of-fact, as common sense. My aim is not to disparage this temporal register so much as to bring it into the light and to explore its implications.

A smaller collection of scholars (and some journalists) have situated the uprisings in long-term temporalities, those that bring into view processes of change that span decades or even centuries: colonialism, industrialization, capitalism, state formation, urbanization, neoliberalism, and so on. From a long-term temporal register, the uprisings are episodes or segments of other stories of historical change or political processes. Two examples of this approach are John Chalcraft’s Popular Politics: The Making of the Modern Middle East, and Adam Hanieh’s Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East. The former situates the uprisings in a framework of a century of revolt and rebellion in the region, set against state-building, colonialism, and evolving imperial interventions. The latter situates the uprisings in a framework of capitalist and neoliberal projects that led to a major shift in the region’s political economy and growing inequality, the effects of which are managed through repression. For long-term temporal registers, a core question might be, “What explains the outbreak and timing of the Arab uprisings?” The answer is to be found outside of the lifecycle of the uprisings themselves, in a larger context of changing power relations and political change.

Short-term temporalities are even less common in the scholarly literature on the uprisings, although works on the micro-dynamics of Egypt’s 18 days, for example, take us in for a close view. Adopting McAdam and Sewell’s category of transformative events, I would argue that the initial acts of the uprisings—within as well as across cases—were akin to such acts of protest as the taking of the Bastille and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For those who participated in or witnessed them, those acts become transformative events in that they are “interpreted as significantly disrupting, altering, or violating the taken-for-granted assumptions governing routine political and social relations. [5] In so doing, they serve to dramatically ratchet up (or down in the case of demobilizing events—for example, the Tiananmen Square massacre) the shared sense of uncertainty (with its partisan variants, “threat” and “opportunity”) on which all broad episodes of contention depend” (McAdam and Sewell: 2001: 110).[6] The temporal register is minutes, hours, days.

Youssef El-Chazli’s extraordinary micro-examination of what transpired on January 25 in Alexandria—not Cairo—gives us just such a view, taking us inside a single day and allowing us to witness the very transformation of what Alexandrians understood to be happening. He follows them as the move across space and through time, giving voice to the moments when they began to recognize and then believe that their mobilization—along with the ones happening elsewhere in Egypt, which they followed through news via mobile phone—was fundamentally transformative of the Egyptian political scene; they had agency, they made it happen.[7] The taking of the Bastille, as Sewell notes, “created hitherto unimagined categories of political action” (106). Today revolutionary action in the sense of citizens rising and mobilizing against a state is imaginable because of the French Revolution; popular revolution has become part of an existing repertoire of contention, one that regimes as well as citizens know. But the awareness of historical precedents does not mean that peoples everywhere feel that such an opportunity is there for the taking. Just as taking the Bastille helped transform the self-understandings of French subjects into citizen, the early days of the Arab uprisings were necessary to make imaginable actually thinkable, even possible—even if those who “started” that mobilization could not have hoped for the result (although they may have). In this way a short-term temporal register may be connected to a re-articulation if not radical reimagining of a medium-term temporal register—the shift in cultural epoch posited by Charles Tilly. A single event can fundamentally transform the horizon of what people believe is possible.

New Horizons for a New Middle East

Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that parts of the region are experiencing their “Terror,” but it seems inadequate to suggest there is, in any way, a “going back” to what was before, try as regimes may to turn back the clock. Repressive regimes may again thrive and endure, but the uprisings cannot un-happen (and the regimes are not now in any way stable). The uprisings ushered in a new temporality for many people, one that resulted in a rupture in their understanding of what is possible, how processes change, and their role—an active one—in that history.

The idea of a transformative event as a short-term temporality that opens a new temporal register—a new future becomes possible, a new founding—underlines the extent to which questions about time and temporalities are central not only to scholarly analyses but to political actors. Scholars and political actors alike all ask themselves and others, “What is happening?” but the answers are contingent on what time horizon the actor considers.

I am not arguing that we should uncritically adopt the analytic frames, temporal registers, or narratives of those engaged in the uprisings. To the contrary, we need to recognize those sometimes-contradictory frames in order to fully grasp what the uprisings mean. We may well want to identify the ways in which other actors—for example, regimes—are refusing those new horizons, or at least struggling to extinguish them. Here I would like to draw attention to the scholarly work that has adopted the middle-range temporal register—that of the life-cycle—and argued that the uprisings have failed or are otherwise over. Not all scholars adopting a life-cycle approach reach that conclusion; many stress that the uprisings are ongoing or that their full impact will not be known for many years. But a significant number do declare that the uprisings have failed. We may agree (or not) that the transformative-event phase of the uprisings have passed, but the scholarship that concludes “failure” does not acknowledge or even consider the extent to which the new horizons are still embraced by many. If the numbers of those holding on to such new temporal registers are diminishing with time, as they may well be, that change in itself would be a worthy topic of scholarly inquiry.

But declaring the failure or end of the uprisings is doing political work. “Failed transitions” arguments align with the same temporal registers that repressive regimes are peddling. It is a temporality that silences, obscures, erases, and even denies those who continue to struggle, those who refuse to accept that the time of the uprisings is over. And it is not merely that people in the Arab world continue to embrace the revolutionary temporal register, the new horizon: people across the region continue to take to the streets, in large and small numbers, despite declarations by regimes and scholars that their uprisings have failed, that they are over. They struggle through their words and actions to extend the time of the uprising, to hold on to a temporal register fundamentally at odds with the one that the regime aims to force them to accept.

The leaders of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) have been peddling their own temporal register, one that anchors their struggle not as a consequence of the turmoil of the Arab uprisings, or even of the Iraq war, but of colonialism. The references to the unmaking of the Sykes-Picot Agreement may invoke eye-rolling among western politicians, but that temporal frame resonates: it calls for an end to a century-long period of western and foreign intervention into (and domination of) much of the political, social, cultural, and economic life of the Middle East. The Islamic State also operates within an even longer temporal register, that of the return of the Caliphate. It might not be a stretch to argue that the core dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State was one of temporality: al-Qaeda rejects the Islamic State’s claim that the “time” of Caliphate’s return is now. For those who find the Islamic State’s mission so compelling that they leave their families and communities to join the group in Syria (or elsewhere), part of the appeal seems connected to a temporal register: being part of an historic processes for the Islamic world, and one that immediately refuses the temporality of the post-industrial, neoliberal, capitalist, consumerist world. If one believes that the Islamic State truly marks the return of the Caliphate, what Muslim would not want to be a part of it? Explanations that “recruits” are motivated by the prospects of the Islamic State providing material goods such as a job, a wife (or husband), and so on, fail to recognize that the pull is not what one gets now, but one’s participation in what they believe is a profound historical transformation and religious obligation.

So where does this leave us? Do we agree that the uprisings were what McAdam and Sewell call transformative events? I think so. But “what the uprisings mean” is not a simple matter of getting the story right, or of developing better, more parsimonious, or more robust explanations. Whatever one’s methodological or epistemological commitments, we could all improve our analyses by systematically incorporating questions of time or temporality into our analyses.

[1] Here I refer to protest events that are readily recognized, like those of the Arab uprisings. However, an extensive literature explores other kinds of protest actions that are barely visible, extremely small, or entirely private. Temporalities matter no less to analyses of these smaller acts. But I advance the discussion and concepts that follows with specific reference to visible public acts of protest that take the form of some sort of collective assembly or action.

[2] Two seminal illustrations are the 1950 film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, and Christian Davenport’s Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression: The Black Panther Party (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), which invokes the notion of a Rashomon effect: contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. Neither explicitly explore temporality, however.

[3] Doug McAdam and William H. Sewell, Jr., “It’s About Time: Temporality in the Study of Social Movements and Revolutions,” in Ronald R. Aminzade et al, eds., Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 89-125.

[4] Jillian Schwedler, “Comparative Politics and the Arab Uprisings,” Middle East Law and Governance 7 (April 2015): 141–152.

[5] For example, see Wendy Pearlman, “Emotions and the Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 2 (June 2013): 387-409.

[6] Italics original.

[7] Much of this will appear in El-Chazli’s dissertation, which he has not yet defended. But a preview of this excellent work is his piece, “A Geography of Revolt in Alexandria, Egypt’s Second Capital,” on the role of urban space in the uprising, available here: http://www.metropolitiques.eu/A-Geography-of-Revolt-in.html.

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