Who’s who: contested identities and conflicting alliances in the shadow of the Arab uprisings

by Engy Moussa

Kurdish ypg fighters

Kurdish YPG fighters. Image: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr

When Libya’s former president, Muammar al-Qaddafi, asked ‘Who are you?’ (min antoum?), addressing the Libyan protesters in 2011, his question was met with a mixture of anger and sarcasm. Yet as one observes the Arab region today one can’t but repeat the same question, addressed this time primarily to the leaders of different Arab states, but equally to the diverse social groups and factions living, interacting and frequently fighting across the region.

For politicians and scholars alike, the region is becoming increasingly complicated. Zooming in on questions of identity and alliances, the image becomes even more blurry and complex. For instance: Who is fighting in Syria today? Or rather, who is not fighting in Syria today and why? Who is ruling Libya at present, if anyone? Who is supporting them and why? What do terms like ‘enemies’ and ‘friends’ mean for different Arab states? Looking at some Gulf countries, for example, and how they fight each other or support opposing forces in ongoing wars in some Arab countries, while being part of the same coalition in others, confounds the notion of alliances.

In essence, the present-day Arab region necessitates serious reflection on what alliances and identities mean, and how they form, evolve and are sustained. Similarly, the region offers fertile ground to revisit the notion of small states and less visible actors, and to examine how they increasingly shape and direct the outcome of major regional developments. In the same vein, the role of religion, culture, soft power, nationalism, state-led reform and grassroots mobilisation, among other things, deserve much closer investigation in order to better grasp the dense reality of what is actually happening at the local, national and regional levels.

To this end, three PhD students at Cambridge University’s Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) – Engy Moussa, Karim El-Taki and Babak Mohammadzadeh –organised a conference, funded by the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, on 26 April 2018. The conference sought to offer scholars, experts and interested members of the public an opportunity to gather and reflect on these diverse questions. Capitalising on the growing interest in the Arab region, and the Middle East more broadly, in POLIS and other departments, the conveners’ aim was to set in motion a continuous process of knowledge exchange and collaboration among students and scholars across disciplines to enhance our understanding of the region today.

The conference featured four rich and diverse sessions. It began with a highly engaging panel on ‘Competing Discourses on Identity Politics’. The four papers focused on different geographical zones – Morocco, Turkey and Iraq, and Syria and Libya. The themes were equally diverse: Adélie Chevée from SOAS examined the role and stance of intellectuals amid the evolving Syrian crisis; Kaoutar Ghilani from Oxford University addressed the centrality of ‘justice’ within competing discourses on language in post-2010 Morocco; Nicola Degli Esposti from LSE outlined two competing Kurdistans – the nation-building vs the society-building; and Chiara Pagano from Roma Tre discussed the Amazigh issue in post-Qaddafi Libya. The papers were discussed by Glen Rangwala, Lecturer at POLIS.

Acknowledging the immense difficulties facing scholars, particularly PhD students, in studying contemporary developments in the Middle East, the conference hosted a roundtable entitled ‘Challenges and Opportunities in Studying the Middle East Today’, led by  Teije Hidde Donker, Lecturer in Sociology at Cambridge. As a political sociologist working on mobilised religion in Muslim-majority countries, Dr Donker drew on his experience and expertise to share with the audience valuable insights on how to overcome the challenges of researching the Arab and Middle East region today, especially in terms of conducting fieldwork. Addressing the subject of ethics, he stressed that researchers need to maintain their integrity, be honest and clear in their communication with their interviewees, refrain from aggravating any social tensions and never breach the confidentiality of their sources.

The panel on ‘Alliances Across the Domestic and the Regional’ featured three stimulating papers discussed by Ayşe Zarakol, Reader in International Relations at POLIS. Keith Nuttall from the University of East Anglia traced Dubai’s exceptionalism in implementing effective economic policies over recent decades. Victor Willi from the Graduate Institute in Geneva outlined the ongoing fragmentation within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, citing the Arab forces’ intervention in Yemen as an example of the group being divided between three stances. Lastly, Maria D’Aria from Edinburgh University used the Gramscian framework to examine the power struggle between different social and state forces in Egypt  after the 2011 uprisings.

The conference concluded with a publishing workshop led by four notable experts on writing, editing and publishing: Anthony Haynes, Director of Frontinus Ltd; Tyler Shores, writer, digital technology researcher and PhD student at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge; Abigail Walkington, Assistant Commissioning Editor for the Middle East Studies list at the Cambridge University Press; and  Ayşe Zarakol. The distinguished speakers provided valuable guidance and advice for junior scholars wanting to disseminate their research and growing expertise to a wider audience, using more effective and timely approaches.

About the author

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Engy Moussa is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the Middle East, critical security studies, the politics of authoritarianism and social mobilisation. Her current research looks at the privatisation and outsourcing of security in post-uprising Arab countries.
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