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Social Movements in the Arab and African World: Factures and Features

Wednesday 17 April 2019, by Bashir Ali

The landscape of the position of social movements in Sudan, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region indicates that a fundamental change in the structure of collective action is occurring in the region, a change that is reflected in the great increase in new faces and practices observed in the social and political arenas. This increase is an expression of the deep changes occurring in the nature of the societies in the region, such as the growing tension between the state and civil society on the one hand and the increased urbanization on the other. Our assessment of the future of the social uprisings is cautiously optimistic. We see them as promising forces that might bring about more meaningful political participation and representation. Most importantly is that this “new faces movement” is experiencing a significant convergence with gender issues, particularly the voice of women in the social movements context.

One of the key elements associated with the new movements, in the minds of many of their proponents, is the emphasis on their autonomy vis-à-vis conventional political parties and state.

Another important feature of these movements is the role of culture, including communication and information technology, in their constitution and actions. Sometimes this factor is overlooked, partly because of the dominance of the economic and social forms of analysis.

The development of grass-roots movements in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan is often taken as evidence that such movements result from the stifling effect of authoritarian rule. From these cases, it would seem that movements spring up in settings marked by very imperfect democratic institutionalization or limited opportunities for open political expression. New movements are thought to appear in order to fill the vacuum created by the repression of other legitimate forms of popular organization and representation.

If we just look back in history and make a quick comparison between social movements in Latin America, particularly Chile, Brazil or Mexico, and social movements in Western Europe, Italy, France and Germany, we find out in Latin America social movements arise where the Left has been suppressed. Social movements in Western Europe expanded most rapidly during a period when the formal organized parties and unions of the Left were growing in strength, electoral support, and political influence.

Over the course of these years, since 2011, uprisings among people longing for better living conditions and systemic transformation have seemed unstoppable. Yet despite the simultaneity, continuity, and frequency of these events around the world, each one has its own particular history and context that have to be taken into account.

Who Are They?

The new movements in Sudan and MENA represent a development that is parallel but does not substitute for traditional political participation. What the movements do is extend the political space available to citizens, bringing into the public realm the concerns of everyday life and of the personal. Sudan has been going through a huge gap between the legal rights, as stated in the Constitution of 2005 and the daily realities. Since June 1989, The Islamic movement used the institutions of the state to structure and legitimize its hegemony. Ruling party policies, strategies and ideology are propagated using the state apparatus, which also provides the governing party with the means for coercion, while also giving it the material resources to divide society. The accumulation of systematic oppression, and extreme tension between the state and citizens, created a silent revolt that exploded many times over the lengthy dictatorship. The recent uprising has started in December 2018 and shows that the struggle of the revolutionaries, namely the youth, is not only to create a space in the world they live, but to change the world. Some of these social movement groups started as digital with online audience and also direct speech with people at public transport parks such as Girifna, Others have broader audience and mandate like Sudan Change Now, Sharara (spark) and Abena and a few using Twitter like Sudan Revolt. We can further classify these movements as independent and non-violent, with age-limited membership between 18 and 40 years old. Majority of the Sudanese social movements are youth without any political affiliation. They come together as a result of social injustice, marginalization and repression of the regime. A few are members of opposition political parties and women organizations such as Sudanese Women Union and No to Women’s Oppression, an initiative against women’s violence.

The Guardian Article (March 2019) describes that: “Many of the Sudanese protesters demanding an end to Omar al-Bashir’s regime have known no other rule. They were not yet born when he seized power in a coup three decades ago – their country’s median age is just below 20. But they are certain they want something better.”

In other words, we can say that in advanced industrial countries, movement participants struggle to overcome feelings of personal powerlessness generated by the satisfaction of material needs without a corresponding sense of full self-realization. In contrast in MENA participants may well come to enjoy some greater sense of personal fulfillment as a consequence of their involvement in new social movements. But their struggle is principally organized around the satisfaction of basic needs.

Social movements represent a new trend and way of thinking. They are seen to be engaged in a significant political act in terms of access to the mechanisms of power but also a cultural struggle in the search of different identities. We are dealing with new actors and new social practices. It is evident that these new actors are searching for their own cultural identities and spaces for social expression and political change.

The initiation and dynamics of social movements in the MENA region are similar to what Escobar (1992, 77) writes about in a study conducted by Jelin of Latin America women’s mobilization that these movements seem to arise naturally out of daily life does not imply that their action is less important or restricted. She concluded that:” the type of action in which women engage does not restrict itself to the traditional rules of politics but attempts to give a new meaning to politics.” In other words, social movement extends its focus beyond, for example gender and women rights. Those rights can’t be achieved in isolation, nor can their achievement be enjoyed across race, class, and culture, without engagement in broader social and economic justice. As clearly noted, because of opportunities made possible by the social movement, activists have no time for social movement.

Other factors to bear in consideration when we make any comparison are the degree of state penetration of civil society, differences in the welfare functions of the state, the degree of centralization of state power and the erosion of state legitimacy. What actually happened in the region is that the tension between state and civil society has finally crystalized. The state’s response to social demands was exclusion.

The other important element that can’t be excluded is the role of the West, particularly the post 9/11 Global War On Terror (GWOT). The ruling regimes and their security systems in all Arab countries, without exception used the GWOT to become more repressive against their own societies. The West supported these regimes in the GWOT by accepting the torture and other abuses of human rights, providing security and military equipment and training and providing disinformation and encouraged these regimes in their repression of minorities. Recently the European Commission jointly with countries has targeted criminal smuggling migrant networks. BBC Report (2018) on “How Libya holds the key to solving Europe’s migration crisis” describes that “Sudan- led by Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal courts for war crimes in Darfur-has also cooperated with the EU”.

Movements and Autonomy

The question of autonomy is fundamental to new social movements wherever they arise.

The most striking is the heavy representation of women in the leadership of these new movements. Most of the groups are democratic organizations and therefore less hierarchical. In the MENA region women have been initiators of their own organizations and also strongly engaged in different civil movements (human rights, children’s protection and care, health and education, and other social dynamics).

It has been observed that these social movements are a mix of political and nonpolitical. What are the possible future outcomes of the social movements in the region?

The first outcome is a creation of non-governmental organizations in the same or different names. Such outcome will maintain the autonomy of the movement and will introduce different civil society members with specific demands.

A second possibility is the incorporation of an urban or rural movement into the personal following of public figure or populist figure, who is in the event of his or her election, promises to deliver services or mandate sought by the group.

A third outcome is the incorporation of social movement that is highly specific in its demands into a broader-based political struggle led by a party or coalition of parties that presents a program that goes well beyond the narrow specific demands of the social movement.

It is important to make meaningful distinctions among these outcomes and recognize the fundamental differences between institutionalization of the movement, demobilization through cooptation, adherence to a charismatic, populist figure and the kind of political learning and growth that may occur when a movement advocating specific goals is drawn into a boarder struggle.

Social Movements and Traditional Forces

It is clear that new social movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Sudan and Algeria do share at least one characteristic. This is their lack of trust of the traditional parties and governments. Some movement participants often see parties as interested in the success of the new social movements only insofar as they can manipulate these movements for their own interests.

For example, Giuseppe Caruso in his article: Glimpsing the Tunisian Revolution, shows the frustration of young male and females in Sidi Bouzid where it all started: ”In Kasserine, a group of young unemployed with whom a few of us had stopped to discuss their demands and dreams, told us that they had no trust in those who wanted to use the dead girls and boys for their own political advantage. A few steps away from us, in the square of Sidi Bouzid, some of them were on hunger strike. They demanded jobs and were determined not to play the ‘politics games’”.

A civil society activist said; what we reject are the attempts by parties to manipulate us. They want to take advantage of our strength, something we will never allow.

In our attempt to understand the dynamics of social movements in the region, we have to refer to the present and its social actors as something real and actual. As Achille Mbembe described the notion of post-colony “refers to a time-scape which is simultaneously in the process of being formed and of being dissolved through a movement that brings both the being formed and the being dissolved into collision”. The MENA region is evolving in multiple and overlapping directions simultaneously. The dictators of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are over. This does not mean the past is over. The new waves of change always carry with them fragments of the past. In this kind of transformation, pieces of the past are recycled, erased and recreated. It is this power of reconciliation and tolerance, that reshapes and reconstructs the scope of culture and political landscape.

Citizens Of Their Own Country

The Economist’s article (February 5th 2011. p 31): An end or a beginning?: describe how for the first time Egyptians establish themselves as citizens of their own country: “in the posh district of Zamalek, one volunteering manning a citizens’ roadblock at night gleefully displaced a photo he had taken with his mobile phone, showing his patrol demanding to see the driving license of a police officer whose car they had stopped.

In Tunisia a member of the student union told us they were struggling to ignite a deep social transition aimed at ushering in a world devoid of capitalism and classism. He added that we revolted against an economic pattern because we want Tunisia for all Tunisians.

The students’ protests have managed to awaken the consciousness of vast sectors of the population about the need for a profound change in the country. What even a few months ago was considered impossible is now firmly on the agenda.

However, despite its strength, the success of this movement is far from assured. Today’s demands in education, health, social and political rights, have no solution under the current constitution so the path to success lies in moving towards a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution via a referendum, a route successfully followed by progressive governments backed by social movements in Latin America.

Towards Successful Collective Actions: What Social Movements Can Do?

The participation of citizen in the policy making democratic process constitutes significance in development and therefore the dialogue is developed to enable the citizens to engage in the formulation of the national policies that affect their life. Until recently the national policies have been monopolized by the elites (government officials, technocrats, and experts) with less emphasis on the public involvement. The changes and the challenges start with the comprehensive understanding of democracy and good governance. The policy making process has created a space and momentum in the literature and concentrates on the comprehensive participation of citizen and all partners and stakeholders including non-governmental organizations, networks and alliances with their diverse sources of knowledge and legitimacy.

Political Opportunities

“Chances favor the prepared mind” French Chemist Louis Pasteur

The relationship between collective action and social movements (networks, networking, coalition and alliances, etc.) confirms that the political opportunities or the political space, both the objective and subjective conditions crystalize as a framework for opportunities and as a changing political environment that mobilized through the work of social networks, movements and all this shapes the collective action. In other words, the political opportunities are not rootless, they are created in the context they exist in, affected by three main factors: i, Relative available freedom (organization, expression, meetings etc.), ii, Presence of governmental institutions that are capable to function to give meaning and importance for the reforms and change. As examples, India is a country dominated by bureaucracy and the experience of South Africa after the apartheid; iii, Long history of civil society and collective action, for example the experience of Brazil, South Africa, Philippine and Chile contributed to the notion that work under suppression creates strong, successful and mature civil society through its tactics, networks and capacities. Based on these lessons, there are a few assumptions:

* First assumption: The political opening and the objective political conditions create opportunities for collective action to influence policies. This is an accumulation of moblized work. Other additional factors that might assist in the influence and the change of policies are, for example 1) changes in the political leadership and arrival of reformists who have connection with civil society or at least they assist in creating job opportunities.
* Second assumption: The engagement of civil society in policy processes is insufficient for making the necessary changes in policies. It is rather the competition in the political authority.
* Third assumption: Despite the fact that alliances, international solidarity and conventions strengthen the local space for reforms, they bring many challenges and internal opposition. The success for the campaigns relies on the cautious effort that links the international pressure with the local changes and context.
* Fourth assumption: The success in changing policies and systems is not achieved by professionals alone. It contains structures of complex mobilization nature that link the work of agents for change and reformists with the community organizations and media activists. This establishment shapes as time goes and has strong grass roots.
* Fifth assumption: The alliance between government concerned officials and civil society is key for any success to influence policies. The social mobilization of networks and coalitions create opportunity for government reformists to make the necessary internal changes.

Conscious strategic effort is one of the main elements for any successful collective action and change. Through common understanding for themselves and the world, group of people and organizations can establish legitimate work and encourage collective action. An example for good campaigning and collective action is South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) of HIV/AIDS. The campaign is part of the struggle of the South African people against racism and apartheid, including government and pharmaceutical companies. The campaign started in 1998 and ended in 2009. The objective of the campaign was twofold; i) to save the life of patients through advocacy and pressure against the companies to ensure low and affordable cost of treatment and; 2) to protect patients of the violent victimization and stigma. Reforms of the family law in Morocco in 2004, for example is another success for a campaign initiated by women and human rights organizations, led by Moroccan Women’s Democratic Association. Together with other women groups in 1990s and 2000s, they advocate for equality based on good understanding of the social and cultural context of Morocco and therefore the solutions and reforms were driven from their lengthy learning, dialogue and collective action.

Social movement can narrow the huge gap, as a result of the under-representation of women in the political life. Challenges and constrains can be summarized here: women know that the election environment is highly competitive and not in favor for women; women are less confident, less competitive and less risky; women are not encouraged to occupy senior positions; women have family responsibilities that don’t allow sufficient time for political functions. Ironically, women with kids are problematic, but without kids and husband are also “not normal”.

Referring back to the factors contributing to the success of social movements in general and in Sudan in particular, the absence of credible government institutions, and the complete failure of the regime to provide any support to services, and living conditions, accompanied by severe violation of human rights including rights for organizations, meeting and free expression, all these contributed to current upraising led by Sudanese Professional Association and other social actors since December 2018.


Achille Mbembe, Provisional Notes on the Postcolony, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 62,No.1 (1992) pp. 3-37, published by: Cambridge University Press.

Ali, Bashir(2010) ’Repression of Sudanese civil society under the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party’, Review of African Political Economy, 37: 126, 437 — 450.
BBC Report (2018): How Libya holds the key to solving Europe’s migration crisis. Accessible at:

Economist: An end or a beginning? February 5, 2011, p. 31

Escobar Arturo, Imaging a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements. Social Text, No. 31/32, Third World and Post Colonial Issues (1992)

Giuseppe Caruso (2011), Glimpsing the Tunisian Revolution, accessible at

John Gaventa & Rosemary McGee edit. (2010), Citizen Action and National Policy Reform. Zed Books.

The Guardian (March 6th, 2019): The Guardian view on Sudan’s protests: demanding and deserving better. Editorial.

Bashir Ali is an independent development consultant. His doctoral research was on NGOs and Development in Sudan: relations with the state and institutional strengthening. He is the author of “Repression of Sudanese civil society under the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party, published by Review of African Political Economy, in December 2010.