Rupturing the status quo through unruly politics. Mariz Tadros

by Mariz Tadros. 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 politics: 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 contention) 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. 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.

Yet let us not be deceived—the people who occupy, who encroach upon symbolic political or economic spaces and who develop their own terms of engagement with state and non-state actors in making their demands are not necessarily always able to diffuse their ideas within the wider society. Nor do they necessarily do particularly well at the ballot boxes- as the failure of the youth revolutionaries to convince the Egyptian people not to vote for the military or Islamist candidate has shown. Nor are they necessarily always in tune with the pulse of citizens. They too can become disconnected from the wider polity. But they speak to a different kind of legitimacy that cannot be overlooked. The systems are becoming punctuated by acts of revolts that are sometimes sporadic, sometimes systematic, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Yet Unruly politics is going to increasingly shape how politics is being played out- and it won’t allow itself to go unnoticed. 

* This is a follow up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change, produced in partnership with Hivos

** The article is an abridged version of 'The Politics of Unruly Ruptures', originally published in UNRISD e-bulletin 5th December 2011.  For more on unruly politics and rethinking pathways of social and political change in the Middle East, in particular Egypt, see 'The Pulse of Egypt’s Revolt', IDS Bulletin 43.1, 2012. Free access online. 


Mariz Tadros is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK and author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy redefined or confined? (Routledge 2012).  



Photo: Denis Bocquet/flickr 'Cairo, Graffiti, November 2011'