Background and Scope of the Project

Political scientists in their attempts to understand ongoing political behavior and processes in the Middle East have traditionally focused on formal state institutions. Informal associations, systems, and practices that operate outside recognized political processes, and that are based on social, familial, or professional relations, have frequently been neglected in the Middle East politics literature. Partially this neglect has been a result of previous research that has highlighted the relative absence of and weakness of authentic, functioning civil society across much of the region. Although informal networks and participatory associations have existed for a long time in the Middle East, their relevance was reignited during the large-scale popular movements seen across the Arab world beginning in 2011. The 2011 Arab uprisings provided that moment of sudden rupture from the authoritarian status quo that revealed the potential robustness of informal actors and their networks. Since that moment there has been increasing interest in examining how in some ways and in certain moments informal actors can rise to the authoritarian challenge and amplify the concerns of the masses.

The multiple sites of public protest and resistance seen during the Arab uprisings were a result of the coalescing of different social forces and the spontaneous display of citizens’ activism not seen for decades. The mobilization of those different sets of informal actors that has been rooted in previous activism within the informal sector of society revitalized the significance of looking beyond the state in order to understand social and political forces and dynamics. Since the Arab uprisings there has been an increasing academic and policy interest in studying the role and influence of informal spaces where networks of activism and resistance might develop and grow. CIRS launched this new research project on “Informal Politics in the Middle East” to, among other things, expand our understanding of the historical roots of informal networks in the Middle East, their capacity to engage as an alternate setting for political engagement, and to study the continuities and discontinuities in the state-informal actors relationship in the region.

Avenues for formal political participation are limited across the region, and mostly inaccessible to large parts of the population. Across much of the Middle East the states maintain a restrictive level of control over formal civil society organizations, and NGO activism is curtailed through strict laws of governance which regulate the development of such organizations. In many states we see the almost complete capture of the NGO sector by the existence of multiple government-led NGOs as opposed to genuine citizen operated NGOs. As a result, the public tends to search for alternate spaces for participation and expression, spaces that elude the states’ reach or escape its attention. States may have limited capacity to control these informal spaces, but may still seek to infiltrate them not to capture them, but just to keep an eye on them so as to ensure they do not pose a direct challenge or threat to the state. Relations between the state and informal networks raise a number of questions on how informality might undermine, substitute, or even strengthen the state.

Both in Middle Eastern states that tried to weaken tribal and kinship assabiyya and in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf that rely primarily on such relationships for their rule, clan and patronage networks seem to be entrenched in Middle Eastern politics. Although such networks operate beyond formal channels, their voices are ostensibly heard in the corridors of formal institutions. This is evident in the role such networks play in parliamentary elections through supporting candidates, or states’ appointments of members of these networks in official positions to buy their allegiance.

The Diwaniyya or majlis in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is another example of such spaces of informal politics. They serve as a physical space for locals to socialize and exchange ideas and concerns about various issues, among which issues related to politics. Although such conversations take place in an informal setting, states tend to take such conversations into consideration to have a sense of the street, and definitely such conversations influence the decision-making processes. Other spaces can be organized based on profession, gender, or issues. Professional syndicates, labor unions, student associations, and women networks are all examples of informal networks that may not have a political agenda on papers, but serve as a space to voice political concerns.

Another aspect of informal politics that CIRS aims to explore is the return of the so-called “street politics.” The Arab uprisings of 2011 showed how space not only in the urban cities of the Middle East but also in rural towns have served as venues for organization, discussions, protests, and even violent expressions of political demands.

Addressing these and other similar issues and aspects of informal politics will go some way toward filling gaps in the burgeoning literature on state-society dynamics in the Middle East. The ongoing political and social changes in the region since 2011 have only revealed the importance of informal networks in the Middle East and their relationships with the state. This research initiative addresses an increasingly important but largely understudied topic in Middle Eastern studies. 

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS