Activism and social development in the Middle East

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This article is about social activism and its relationship to social development in the Middle East. It examines the myriad strategies that the region's urban grass-roots pursue to defend their rights and improve their lives in this neo-liberal age. Prior to the advent of the political-economic restructuring of the 1980s, most Middle Eastern countries were largely dominated by either nationalist-populist regimes (such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Turkey) or pro-Western rentier states (Iran, Arab Gulf states). Financed by oil or remittances, these largely authoritarian states pursued state-led development strategies, attaining remarkable (21% average annual) growth rates. Income from oil offered the rentier states the possibility of providing social services to many of their citizens, and the ideologically driven populist states dispensed significant benefits in education, health, employment, housing, and the like. For these post-colonial regimes, such provision of social welfare was necessary to build popularity among the peasants, workers, and middle strata at a time that these states were struggling against both the colonial powers and old internal ruling classes. The state acted as the moving force of economic and social development on behalf of the populace. This article shows that grass-roots activism in the Middle East is much more complex, diverse, and dynamic. I discuss six types of activism expressed in urban mass protests, trade unionism, community activism, social Islamism, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and quiet encroachment. I argue that past collective or mass urban protests and labor unionism failed to improve the living conditions of a large number of people. Community activism has been feeble. And social Islam and NGOs address only some of the problems. Middle Eastern societies thus foster quiet encroachment as a viable strategy that gives the urban grass-roots some power over their own lives and influence over state policy. Quiet encroachment is characterized by direct actions of individuals and families to acquire the basic necessities of their lives (land for shelter, urban collective consumption, informal jobs, business opportunities) in a quiet and unassuming, illegal fashion. These prolonged and largely atomized struggles bring about significant social changes for the actors. I conclude by highlighting a number of tendencies in the form and location of grass-roots mobilization in the region. I point to notable shifts from class-based organizations (trade unions, peasant organizations, and cooperatives) to more fragmented activities positioned in the informal sector, NGOs, and social Islam; from campaigns for monetary entitlements to struggles for citizenship; and from the expression of demands in the workplace to their expression in communities. Because of rapid urbanization, cities increasingly have become sites of conflict and struggle, and national struggles are increasingly assuming urban expression. Therefore, whereas numerous movements-notably, those associated with human rights, democracy, women, and farmers-deal with some aspects of social development, this article focuses on the social activism of the urban grass-roots, an issue that is frequently overlooked. Although I have attempted, at the risk of overgeneralization, to survey many countries in the Middle East, much of the data comes from Iran and Egypt because of their rich and varied experiences of social mobilization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-28
Number of pages28
JournalInternational Journal of Middle East Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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