WorkShop 05 - Riots: Protest from the Margins or the Margins of Protest? Reconsidering Riots in the Mediterranean and Beyond
Riots: Protest from the Margins or the Margins of Protest? Reconsidering Riots in the Mediterranean and Beyond
The working languages of the workshop are French and English
Riots have long been approached as a disorganised, spontaneous reaction to injustices. They were characterized either as a social or an economic reaction to social inequality, but hardly as a mode of political expression. While, in these last three decades, the emergence of new social movements in Southern Mediterranean countries has helped to deepen our knowledge of their political fabric, there remains a blind spot since riots were not included within the general research agenda. In this workshop, we will try to understand this very repetitive mode of popular protest and to problematize its articulations with other forms of social and political claims.
Introduction: Why riots?
Riots are generally described as the expression of a “popular” discontent not carried out by organized groups (such as associations and trade unions) or institutions that would be in a position to turn this discontent into political protest. Although unrest is common in the Mediterranean region (one might cite recent events all over the region), it remains a largely overlooked phenomenon because it is considered a mere “sub-movement” of short duration that is difficult to slot into any political discussion or academic debate. Unlike social movements, which have been studied both empirically and theoretically, riots have rarely been the subject of large-scale or significant studies capable of giving an overall picture. The reason is not so much that they constitute a rare public expression but because other forms of protest have taken the foreground for several reasons.
A rich literature has documented new forms of protests, in Southern Mediterranean countries. For example, Frédéric Vairel’s (2005) study about Sit-in in Morocco suggests that the latter has replaced older forms of public contestation such as the 1970s working classes strikes. Karam Karam (2006), for his part, documented the ways in which what now is being called civil associations in Lebanon have elaborated new avenues privileging peaceful and non-confessional claims aiming at promoting human as well as public and individual rights.
While these researches help to assess the emergence of novel social forces, such as the kefaya (enough) movement in Egypt, our contention is that to fully understand these forces and to adequately assess the social and political landscape, we need to pay attention to the phenomenon of riots, an enduring popular form of protest in the region: Gafsa, Tunisia in 2008; Greece in 2007 and 2009; Ifni, Morocco in 2008, the Second Intifadh in the West Bank; Diar el Chams in Algeria 2009, Suburban riots in France 2005, to cite only the most spectacular and recent ones. We suggest that riots constitute the blind spots that need our full attention.
Since Edward P. Thompson (1971, 1991) wrote about urban unrest in eighteenth-century England, we have been faced with the question of the political status of riots. For one thing, it is difficult to delimit its analytical field, and for another, the form and content of the research remain determined by dominant manifestations of protest, as we mentioned above. Thompson claims that the political dimension of riots remains largely unrecognized because pre-French Revolution historians refused to consider workers as political actors. What he calls “the spasmodic view of popular history” (1971 :76) ignored the aspect of moral economy in rioting. In other words, certain groups’ economic difficulties were over-emphasized to the detriment to their moral component: solidarity, community, shared good – all the elements at the core of the definition of “good society.” Social reactions to injustice or anything intolerable situations are not just instantaneous eruptions of violence, but possess a momentum and logic that require explanation.
Thompson’s pioneering research gave rise to a considerable body of work on popular resistance, which until then had not been included in records of the claims of organized movements. James Scott (1979), to take only one eminent example, has shone new light on non-organized popular resistance in non-Western contexts such as Malaysia. His key finding concerns the types of action (hidden or invisible) taken by the subordinate and the excluded, that have had a transformative impact on the actors’ lives. This body of work has had a large impact in the apprehension of non–organized social entities, contributed to the emergence of a local and a contextualized knowledge, and last but not least, legitimized the very existence of the people behind these actions.
Closer to home, but in a different vein, Asaf Bayat (2008) considers everyday practices and tries to rethink the types of action taken by what he calls the “non-movement” groups in Cairo and Tehran, i.e. the “ordinary people.” He seeks to give societal and political status to these people – a status denied them not only by their governments but also by researchers, who prefer to examine the institutional forms of the state.
Research questions and objectives
In this workshop on riots, we shall draw on these and other works to see how we can rethink the new forms of politicization and negotiation, as well as the new political frontiers that have sprung up as a result of “popular” protests and of “spontaneous” actions (Le Saout 1999). To fully understand the emergence and existence of riots, we need to develop very strong empirical research agenda, examining the rioters’ actions in detail and building theoretical and analytical frameworks to match the complex and diverse backgrounds of the Mediterranean countries. To do justice to this complexity, participants will concentrate on the following themes:
–The spatial configuration of riots. There is an increasing trend for this to be urban or suburban, but it can also be remote regions (e.g. more and more riots in North Africa are taking place in semi-urban areas, hence the lack of information about them or their causes). Thus, the location where the riots take place becomes one the variables to be explained.
– The human and social background. Studies show the rioters to be essentially youth (young men), but this can vary across societies. For example, in the riots of Diar El Shams (region of Algiers), the “youth” were heads of family, while in the Intifadas, especially the first, young women played a considerable role. So the visible part (the “young men”) conceals another, namely the women – and other family members–, to whom field researchers themselves often do not have access. To include them is to shed new light on the question of “extra-ordinary” forms of solidarity, particularly those based on social connections. What form does this exceptionality take and how would it manifest itself outside the periods of unrest? How to highlight the sociological layers into play in riots, and how gender participation can be articulated to them? . Studies show the rioters to be essentially youth (young men), but this can vary across societies. For example, in the riots of Diar El Shams (region of Algiers), the “youth” were heads of family, while in the Intifadas, especially the first, young women played a considerable role. So the visible part (the “young men”) conceals another, namely the women – and other family members–, to whom field researchers themselves often do not have access. To include them is to shed new light on the question of “extra-ordinary” forms of solidarity, particularly those based on social connections. What form does this exceptionality take and how would it manifest itself outside the periods of unrest? How to highlight the sociological layers into play in riots, and how gender participation can be articulated to them?
Drawing on his various contributions to the study of social movements in Algeria and in the Maghreb, we wish to contribute to the discussion by focusing on the criteria which define recent riots in the Maghreb. Should we insist, as suggested by some authors, in their positive impact? Are riots “globalizing” and multifarious claims that are political by nature or do they perform politics in a novel way?
–Communication. Rioters must “be heard.” How do the media handle riots and how do rioters communicate with each other and portray themselves? In first place, why do rioters need media for their actions? There is need to problematize and to document rioters’ methods and means of communication, and to assess the degree of convergence of the media used to reach the general public.
–Comparative study. Comparative analyses, whether of locations, methods, protagonists or national backgrounds, are vital for a theoretical and methodological conceptualization of the notion of riot as social protest and as an innovative shaper of politics. In this workshop, for more relevant comparative purposes, a few papers dealing with non-Mediterranean countries will be considered.
– State, security and welfare. We will examine the critical role of the State –but without taking it to be the entity that is always “pulling the strings.” The key is to perceive what riots do to the institutions of the State. . We will examine the critical role of the State –but without taking it to be the entity that is always “pulling the strings.” The key is to perceive what riots the institutions of the State.
We hope that chosen participants will be able to contribute to our knowledge of this still meaningful form of protest in Mediterranean countries.
The working languages of the workshop are French and English
Bayat, A. 2008. Life as Politics. How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Chatterjee, P. 2009. La politique des gouvernés. Réflexion sur la politique populaire dans majeure partie du monde. (trad. Christophe Jacquet ), Paris, La Fabrique [eng.2004] .
Karam, K. 2006. Le mouvement civil au Liban. Revendications et mobilisations associatives. Paris : Karthala.
Le Saout, D. 1999. “Les émeutes, entre exclusion et sentimet d’injustice. Une approche comparée Maghreb- Europe.” 46-66. D. Le Saout and M. Rollinde (Eds). Émeutes et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb. Perspective comparée. Paris Karthala_Insitut Maghreb- Europe.
Orlove, B. 1997. “The Moral Economy of a Chilian Food Riot”. Cultural Anthropology, 12, 2: 234-268.
Thompson, E.P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” Past & Present, 50 : 76-136.
Thompson, E.P. 1991. “The Moral Economy Reviewed”. In Customs in Common, London, The Merlin Press:259-351.
Scott, J. 1979. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, 1979.
Vairel, F. 2005. “L’ordre dispute du Sit in au Maroc”, Genèses, 59: 47-70.
Page last updated on 04 September 2018