Arab uprisings, Politics and Economy

Translation from the French version : «Les soulèvements arabes, l’économie et le politique»

From the first public outcries in Tunisia in 2011 to Egypt’s mass protest in 2013, the issue of the social and economic crisis was closely connected to the demands of political freedom during the “Arab revolutions”. Even though the region is not among the world’s poorest, these mobilisations demonstrated not only a legitimacy crisis of the aging regimes but also a climate of social insecurity and economic vulnerability that characterises the daily lives of many people in the region. Especially the economic crises of 2008 seem to have further deteriorated the living conditions of these countries’ citizens, migrant workers and large refugee populations.

On the surface these protests appear to be much more indicative of the “social issues” or even an “economic crisis” than the regime changes in Southern Europe and Latin America during the seventies or those in Central Europe and Sub-saharan Africa during the nineties. The comparison with the French revolution of 1789 as well as with the “Spring of Nations” in 1848-1849 that was frequently made in 2011 underlines the role that agrarian or industrial crises can play and the way that social issues are politicised.

A demonstration in Mahalla, Egypt on 7 April 2008, the day after a strike was shut down by government forces sparking a series of uprisings. - James Buck / PBS. Licence : CC By-SA 3.0

A demonstration in Mahalla, Egypt on 7 April 2008, the day after a strike was shut down by government forces sparking a series of uprisings. – James Buck / PBS. Licence : CC By-SA 3.0

After three years, these societies continue to be the scene of major conflicts concerning the exercise of political power but also social and economic issues: labour movements, strikes of employees and public servants, grievances about high living costs and about the declining quality of public services, to only name a few. The “social upheaval” and the “economic dead end” that could be noticed in different forms long before 2011 seem to be more topical than ever. They represent as much a challenge for public authorities as they can be a driving force for stifled resentment. Even though certain countries profited from high oil prices, popular demands of this type grow stronger, whereas the new governments are at least in the short term hardly able to offer alternatives regarding development policy.

While the topic of a social and economic crisis pervades those recent movements, the articulation between the socio-economic realities of those societies and the motifs and forms of dissent and protest is far from being univocal. In response to purely economic analyses that see the upheavals of 2011 as the expression of a crisis of capitalism, other works reject any kind of determinism. They rather concentrate on the internal functionality of social movements and the trajectories of their protagonists. Picking up on this debate the Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo) in cooperation with the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales (CERI) de Sciences Po Paris organised a two-day conference in Beirut. Held on 25 and 26 September 2014 at the Institut français du Liban, the event was supported by the Fonds d’Alembert, the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and the ERC research program “When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World” (WAFAW, ).

An exploratory conference

In addition to bringing together experts in the field of social sciences, the conference was attended by the Ambassador of France Patrice Paoli, representatives of the civil society and the Lebanese labour movement, as well as journalists and diplomats. The primary objective of the meeting was to provide a platform for an exchange of ideas based on the latest research. The participants compared and analysed the interactions between politics and economics, taking into consideration the different forms of resistance that are nested in the political and economic order. For this reason, the reflection was focused on the possible contributions of a neo-institutionalist approach: In which way do the protests challenge the different forms of dependence, protection and exchange? How should we understand the sometimes overt, sometimes discreet role of interest groups, business associations and trade unions in regime changes? What kind of alliances and social contracts emerge or are reinvented? Or on the contrary: which contracts remain in place? Where do new protagonists, new social issues, new political and economic cleavages appear and how? In what respect do those new social movements contribute to new forms of economies, circulation and enrichment?

The interdisciplinary and international panel consisted of economists, historians, sociologists and political scientists. The comparative perspective transcended the Middle East thanks to the participation of Jérôme Sgard (Science po/CERI), whose work on economic reform in Eastern Europe and financial crises in emerging economies has gained international reputation.

How do institutions transform?

In his introductory remarks about the interaction between regime change and economic processes, in particular regarding the effects of path dependency, Eberhard Kienle (Ifpo) invited the participants to go beyond certain conventional interpretations of the region’s upheaval, that consider the economic “crisis” as the principal catalyst for the protests. Especially the models of the rentier state (focusing on the political use of revenue acquired on foreign markets)  and crony capitalism (presuming stable forms of exchange and interdependence) – to cite only two categories that are typically adopted in the field of Middle Eastern political economy – turned out to be hardly useful when it comes to understanding social changes. For instance, the Gulf monarchies have not only seen a shift in their social policies (expansion of social protection to promote private sector employment of nationals) but also the emergence of labour organisations in recent years as the system of social regulations through public employment is in crisis. For Laurence Louer (Sciences Po/CERI), an investigation of the Gulf States’ welfare systems that goes beyond the “rentier” character of their economies facilitates understanding the formation of their manner of redistribution through the privatisation of employment. Several participants insisted on the limits of the rentier state paradigm (as well as an assumed consequent depoliticisation of social issues) when it comes to explaining the numerous current dynamics. Fawwaz Traboulsi (American University of Beirut) argued for a holistic approach that incorporates the contradictory ideological and geopolitical ramifications into the analysis of mobilisation (or the absence of protest): for him the uprisings were  to a large extent a reaction to neoliberal social policies – a point of view that was debated during this round table.

To hence achieve a necessary renewal of the study of economic dynamics in the Middle East, field research can re-orientate methodology. Several contributions have thus focused on the diffident but intriguing emergence of labour movements that challenge the established trade unions. Other than the case discussed by Laurence Louer, the Comité de coordination syndicale in Lebanon is a good example. It presents itself as an alternative to the ineffective established trade unions with an emphasis on internal democracy, suffering however from a sectionalisation of its demands and leadership problems (Marie-Noëlle Abi Yaghi, Lebanon Support). In the southern regions of Tunisia around Gafsa on the other hand, the expression of social grievances (most importantly the right to employment) has increased since the revolution. Even though the General Union of Tunisian Workers was associated with the regime’s ousting, the labour movement is surpassed by new forms of protest in this mining region, where the memory of the avant-garde role of the protest movement of 2008 is still strong. This raises questions about political transaction related to employment (Amin Allal, CNRS/CERAPS).

The resilience of the regimes in place depends not least on how they react to civil unrest. Social movements targeting material goals may not simply be a destabilising factor, but a potential regulatory instrument for authorities to control social agitation; a hypothesis developed by Montserrat Emperador Badimon (Université Lumière – Lyon 2) in her research on the “Mouvement des diplomés-chomeurs” and the phosphate miners of Khouribga (Morocco). An established institution such as patronage, widely considered an obstruction to social change, can on the other hand also escalate conflict as shown by Michele Scala (Aix-Marseille Université/IREMAM) using the example of a wage conflict.

Putting historical regime changes in a socio-economic perspective

While political economy was mostly developed through a dialog between economists and political scientists, this conference was enriched by the contributions of historians, to explore the idea of “path dependency”: in the context of regime changes, one must consider the impact of past decisions and institutions in a broader sense on contemporary decisions and trajectories.

The current communitarisation in Syria and Iraq for instance is not only a religious phenomenon but can be explained by the interrelations of ethnic solidarity and economic relations since the 19th century: the interactions between the formation of  “modern” states and the alterations of communitarian “survival units” are manifold. During economic or political crises when confidence in state institutions deteriorates individuals will turn to the communitarian solidarity for support (Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck University). The great political transformations in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as the reign of Abdul Hamid II, the establishment of the mandates and independence have deeply affected the local economies. However, pre-existing economic structures have continued to play a role in matters of exchange and production. Peter Sluglett (Middle East Institute – National University of Singapore) cites as an example merchants from Aleppo, whose nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire he explains with their commercial orientation towards Anatolia. This interaction was further explored by Matthieu Rey (Middle East Institute – National University of Singapore), who focused on how the agrarian crises in the fifties and sixties, the peasant movement as well as the rise of the rural youth in the military and bureaucracy shaped the political landscape of Syria. In the same sense, historical phenomena like the exceptional stability of the Hashemite monarchy cannot only be explained through theories of rent-driven state formation (e.g. international aid that helps to “buy” social peace). Tareq Tell  (American University of Beirut) highlighted institutional factors like the land reforms, the role of the military or social struggles.

Rethinking Middle Eastern political economy?

The conference also raised the question of continuity in social policy across the thresholds of regime changes. Does the transition from an authoritarian system of governance to a more inclusive and democratic one lead to more egalitarian social policies? The example of Tunisia shows that – due to the financial crisis among other things – the revolution did not result in a transformation of the economic policies towards a more redistributive system (Asya El-Meehy, ESCWA, University of California – Berkeley). After having made a similar observation, Eberhard Kienle (Ifpo) explained the absence of major changes in economic policy through the similarities within the institutions  (successive regimes recruited their leadership from the same social classes). The civil war in Syria on the other hand has led to more diverse effects, creating both rapid overall increase of the poverty rate and the continuation or even growth of investment in certain regions (Jihad Yazigi, Syria Report, European Council on Foreign Relations).

The conference has allowed to explore different lines of inquiry, breaking free from the rentier economy paradigm and probing the region’s implication in a globalised economy. In his final remarks, Jérôme Sgard (Science po/CERI) suggested paying particular attention to the modes of production and continuing reflection on the fundamental categories of economics such as labour and wage, property and debt.


  • Heydemann S. (dir.), Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Revisited, Palgrave Press, 2004.
  • Kienle E. et Louer L. (dir.), L’économie politique des soulèvements arabes, numéro thématique de Critique internationale, 61, 2013/4. [En ligne]
  • Moisseron J. et Mouhoud E. (dir.), Dynamiques institutionnelles dans le monde arabe, numéro thématique de Revue Tiers Monde, 212, 2012/4. [En ligne]
  • Owen R. et Pamuk S., A History of Middle Eastern Economies in the Twentieth Century, Harvard University Press, 1999.

To quote this article: Matthias Dalig and Myriam Catusse, « Arab uprisings, Politics and Economy », Les Carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient (, January 13th, 2015. [En ligne]


Matthias Dalig studies political science at the University of Freiburg and the Institut d’études politiques at Aix-en-Provence. He works as an intern at the Ifpo’s Department for Contemporary Studies.

All articles from Matthias Dalig



Myriam Catusse is a political scientist. She is the director of the Department for Contemporary Studies at the Ifpo. A core researcher of the programmes When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World (ERC) and Power2Youth (7th PCRD), she authored Le Temps des entrepreneurs. Politique et transformations du capitalisme au Maroc, Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 2008, as well as L’État face aux débordements du social. Formation, travail et protection sociale, with B. Destremau and E. Verdier (dir.) Paris, Iremam-Karthala, 2010.

Personal page and bibliography:

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