Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Informal Politics in the Middle East Working Group II

Informal Politics in the Middle East WGII

On October 28–29, 2018, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held the second working group under its research initiative on “Informal Politics in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, a number of scholars were convened to discuss issues including: the tribe in Yemen, the Dīwãniyya in Kuwait, ‘ashwa’iy cities in the Middle East, social activism in Egypt, vote mobilization in Turkey, women in Iran, and agricultural associations in Saharan Algeria.  

Charles Schmitz initiated the working group discussions by presenting his article on “Weighing the Tribal Factor in Yemeni Politics”. Schmitz argues than many consider the tribe to lie at the heart of Yemeni politics and society, and that existing scholarship tends to overemphasize the tribe while not giving enough attention to other institutions or dynamics which are core to understanding Yemen. Schmitz suggests that political parties, the military, various other state institutions, and civil society are all key actors that need to be studied alongside the tribe and tribal dynamics. Entirely ignoring the role of the tribe in Yemen is of course not possible, but what needs to be closely examined is how important or influential tribes are in the contemporary Yemeni political landscape. Assessing the tribal factor is a challenge because of two main realities: the diverse conceptual approaches to understanding Yemeni tribes, and the transformation of Yemeni society and tribes. Schmitz argues that not only is there a great deal of debate about the nature of a tribe, but the last half century also produced new hybrid forms of politics such as the rise of tribal shaykhs in Yemen’s national political institutions, state officials’ use of tribal custom to resolve disputes, and the use of clan identity to secure loyalty in the national security apparatus of Yemen.

Clemens Chay shifted the discussion to “Dissecting the Spatial Relevance of the Dīwãniyya in Kuwait: An Inquiry into its ‘Publicness.’” In his article, Chay argues that as an integral component of Kuwaiti culture, dīwāniyyas have also become spaces where informal politics and formal political negotiations are enacted. In its most basic form, the dīwāniyya has historically served as a social space where people gather. Surviving the transition from its traditional relevance in pre-oil Kuwaiti society towards current forms of urbanized society, the dīwāniyya continues to be relevant as a space for social exchange. This article explains how the dīwāniyya’s spatial relevance is attributed to its “publicness,” and its quality of enabling face-to-face communication that technology has failed to provide. Departing from an understanding of public space, this article shows how the dīwāniyyastraddles the public-private divide. The space’s malleability has ensured its persistence; its capacity for socialization has led to its use by different societal groups, including foreign diplomats. Crucially, this article shows how an informal and indigenous mode of grassroots diplomacy provides an expression of public sentiment.

Building on the Chay’s discussion, Deen Sharp discussed another form of informal spaces in his article: “In the Age of ‘ashwa’iy Cities.” Sharp argues that urban studies, since the start of the new millennium, has stressed the importance of studying the urban fringes and moving away from the rather myopic study of metropolitan cores that have traditionally dominated urban theory, and assumed to stand in for broader urban processes. However, there has been a significant rise of urban perspectives from the global south, in the context of the continued urbanization that has accelerated in more recent years. The contemporary processes of urbanization in the Middle East and the debate on formal and informal urbanism in the region have contributed significantly to the rise of such perspectives. Hence, Sharp argues that the way we study and think about urbanization in the Middle East, and its political importance, is undergoing a rapid change. Finally, he suggests that we are not living in an urban age of “global” or “ordinary” cities, but rather ‘ashwa’iy (haphazard) cities.

Islam Hassan presented Amr Hamzawi’s article on “Egypt’s Resilient Social Activism.” Hamzawi argues that in light of Egypt’s ruling generals’ crack down on civil society, secular opposition parties, and Islamist movements since 2013, four forms of anti-authoritarian platforms have shaped social activism in Egypt: single-cause initiatives that are opposing human rights abuses and advocating for the rights and freedoms of the victims; professional associations that are defending freedoms of expression and association; student groups that are challenging the systematic interference of the security services in their affairs and the permanent presence of security forces on campuses; and the labor movement that is galvanized by deteriorating economic and social conditions and by the government’s repression of labor activists. In addition, spontaneous eruptions of popular anger in response to human rights abuses have become politically significant.

Michelangelo Guida shifted the discussion to Turkey with his paper on “Çay Politics: Informal Politics in Turkey and the Example of Vote Mobilization in Istanbul and Şanlıurfa.” Guida argues interpersonal relations, face-to-face, and person-to-person relationships dominate Turkish public life. Or example in Istanbul, besides conventional political meeting, parties prefer door-to-door political campaigning, visiting families, businesses, and associations of immigrants for a sohbet, intimate conversation, over a glass of tea. AK Party has succeeded in using this form of informal politics as a tool to mobilize votes. Guida also argues that Turks prefer to use existing tribal, family, hemşehri, or community networks to have access to public life. This article examines the interactions between formal and informal political structures, particularly during elections, in modern day Turkey.

Shahla Haeri discussed “Perilous Adventures: Women and Civil Society Participation in Iran.” In her article, Haeri argues that from the early days of the establishment of Islamic Republic, educated urban Iranian women have been actively engaged with the state and civil society in all spheres and domains, despite the many legal and political hurdles thrown on their paths by the state’s medieval gender policies. Their activism, however, was not initiated by the drastic structure sociopolitical changes. Women engaged with the civil society well before the establishment of the Islamic Republic, though perhaps not in such wide scale. Haeri examines women’s success in demanding and partially achieving political authority and representation in governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the evolution of the relationship between women and the Islamic Republic since 1979. 

Finally, Jackie Starbird presented Nejm Benessaiah’s article on “Micro-movements and the Politics of Change in Saharan Algeria.” Benessaiah argues that rather than a linear progression from traditional, hierarchical forms of governance to modern, democratic ones, the present governance composition in Saharan Algeria reveals the continued existence of several, mixed forms of political behavior. Among these forms of political behavior: authoritarian (still to some degree the family, the ashīra, the cazzāba and the state); liberal market-driven, competitive behavior (the labor market, mercantile selling of goods, consumption of goods and services); and consensus-based egalitarian decision-making (associations). The existence of these mixed modes of governance could be seen as evidence for a society in transition, as newer forms gradually replace the old. Instead of the eclipse of the “traditional” by a monolithic modernity, Benessaiah argues that this hybrid composition of governance in Saharan Algeria in fact constitutes a locally negotiated form of modernity itself. The Mozabite associations are able to challenge the hierarchy of the local elites, not by violence or even direct conflict, but by simply doing things differently, by organizing in inclusive, voluntary ways, and actually achieving results. 



Participants and Discussants: 

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Chaïmaa Benkermi, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Misba Bhatti, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Clemens Chay, Durham University, UK
  • Paulino Rafael Robles-Gil Cozzi, Qatar University
  • Michelangelo Guida, Istanbul 29 Mayis University, Turkey
  • Shahla Haeri, Boston University
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Riham Mansour, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Charles Schmitz, Towson University, Baltimore
  • Deen Sharp, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS