Regimes and Movements: Thoughts on Contentious Politics and the Arab Spring

In this essay, I aim to reflect on two ongoing discussions concerning the so-called Arab Spring. The first discussion is taking place among several academics who study the politics of the Middle East. This discussion started after the start of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and concerns a presumed conflict over whether to prioritize the study of regimes or movements. The second discussion is taking place among scholars of social movements in the U.S. about the benefits of movement-centered vs. institutional-centered analysis of movements. Both discussions are taking place for different reasons and perhaps in different academic spheres. The first was motivated by the need to question the politics and the priorities of the scholarship concerning the study of Middle East politics during and after the Arab Spring. But the main drive of the second discussion was the question of how and why movements matter. Although the parallelism in the two discussions is interesting, my aim in this essay is not to compare or analyze these differences (which is an important research question in itself). I realized that one common theme in the two discussions is worth commenting on  here: the relationship between regimes and movements.

My aim in this essay is very humble and entails three objectives. The first is to highlight the fact that we have important contributions in the field of social movement scholarship, which bring regimes and movements into the same conceptual framework. These contributions, I claim, have not received adequate attention or proper theoretical and analytical use or advancement. I am referring here to specific works by Sideny Tarrow and Charles Tilly, as I will discuss below. The discussions I opened with do not give proper attention to these contributions. The second objective is to show how I used these theoretical frameworks in my own work on the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring. The third is to make the argument that we can use these frameworks in a dynamic way that can accommodate the very rich and complex realities of the Arab Spring. I will do so with a special focus on the uprising in Egypt in 2011.

Before proceeding, a background about these discussions is needed. Recently, Egyptian political scientist and expert on contentious politics in Egypt, Dina El-Khawaga was attending the annual meeting of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of 2014 last November. In a comment in social media, she expressed her surprise about how quick many scholars of middle eastern politics have switched their focus from contentious politics to one of their favorite topics: authoritarianism. After the quick interest in the Arab Spring movements, “those scholars quickly returned to their comfort zone: studying only the few people in power and analyzing authoritarianism.[1]  When I read this, I could not help but comment on the discussions that emerged right after the Arab spring among many experts of Middle Eastern politics where many prominent scholars asserted that they were wrong to focus only on regimes and authoritarianism. This specific focus was a mistake, and this was the main reason a senior scholar in Middle Eastern politics was wondering “Why Middle Eastern Studies missed the Arab Spring?”[2] In other words, focusing on regimes and not giving enough attention to social movements made it difficult to   understand the uprisings when they started to escalate. Despite the fact that predicting uprisings and revolutions is one of the main challenges in the social sciences and humanities, and that many scholars raised the question about why we failed to see the Arab spring, as some of them admitted: they would have better understood these uprisings if they had given more attention to movements and contentious politics in the region.

In fact, a dynamic was at play whereby some scholars were too quick to change their focus: from authoritarianism then to contentious politics/uprisings and now back to authoritarianism. One of the explanations for the focus on regimes and authoritarianism –as a comfort zone for analyzing the region — is perhaps the presence of a degree of orientalist thinking: the region is doomed with “oriental despotism” and agency is lacking. The re-direction in analytical focus also reflects a larger problem about the production of knowledge about the Middle East which is geared towards studying the powerful and the hyper-visible social and political actors or exceptional events in contentious politics without situating these within the larger historical or political context or trajectory. Yet these problems are not the focus of this essay and require a separate discussion. Also, there have indeed been scholars who have been “faithfully” focusing on either the regimes or the movements consistently without switching the gears. But there is an irony that scholars who acknowledged that focusing on regimes prevented them from grasping the upcoming changes have now turned back to a focus on regimes and authoritarianism.  It is also odd that those scholars who have suggested that political change was imminent in the region a few years ago are now analyzing stability and regimes as if stability and change exist in separate, mutually exclusive spheres.[3] But it is not my aim in this essay to study why these quick shifts in research focus happen. Rather, I would like to move the discussion in a different direction.

Now a background on the second discussion I opened with is needed. Recently this discussion was launched by Edwin Amneta, within Critical Mass Bulletin the newsletter of the Section on Collective Behavior and Social Movements of the American Sociological Association, on the tensions between and the pros and cons of  movement-centered approaches on the one hand and institutional (or the more historical/political context) approaches of movements on the other. I read the latter as putting movements in their context in a given state (Amneta 2013 and 2014). [4] The discussion initiated by Amneta and what followed it in ASA is ultimately on the question of how and why movements matter (not the priority of research as in the previous discussion).[5] Undoubtedly, this important conversation is not new in the field. Let us recall here an important volume edited by Marco Giugni, Doug McAdam and Charles Tilly, titled How Social Movements matter (1999). The overall spirit of the volume covers the impact and consequences of social movements rather than simply framing this as success or failure. In the same vein, David Mayer discusses movements (2003) in the sense of their influence rather than simply analyzing their success or failure.

My quick engagement with the first discussion I opened with is the following. Instead of focusing only on regimes or movements, why not study them within the same conceptual framework. Definitely, I am not the first to do this, as I will discuss. My aim here is not to conduct a hypothetical or pure theoretical discussion on incommensurability in social movement theories or the fruitfulness of either regime-focused analysis or movements-centered analysis vs. what I will call for shorthand “movements with regimes analysis.” Nor am I arguing that the latter would help us in solving the ongoing problem of the inability to predict uprisings– something that many prominent scholars in the fields of revolutions and contentious politics suggest is impossible.[6] I only propose that studying movements in relation to regimes will provide us with a rich and dynamic analytic frame to understand the complexities of the Arab Spring; we do have such frameworks but we do not give them proper attention, as I will show.

My quick engagement with the second discussion is the following. It is one thing to discuss the advantages and the limitations of movement-centered or state-centered or institutional analysis of movements, as opposing dichotomies and it is another to argue that we need to give more attention to the complex relation between states and movements. Surely, the debate about movement centered vs. institutional or political context analysis is important and useful. As Edwin Amneta suggested in his essay in 2013, each approach has its own advantages and limitations. Walder (2009) also warned us that social movement scholarship recently tends to be movement-centered without giving enough attention to political context of the movements themselves. However, the framing of the discussion in dichotomous terms overlooks the fact that we have very important theoretical frameworks within the literature of contentious politics that attempts to bridge the gap between movements-centered approaches and the exclusive focus on political context/regimes. [7] Perhaps we need to invest more time in working with these other ways in the field, which aim to go beyond these dichotomies. Now, I will move to my discussion of two approaches that bring regimes and movements into the same conceptual framework, especially from the works of Tarrow and Tilly, and how I used these in my own work.

Tarrow and Tilly, on regimes and movements:

As mentioned earlier, we have some significant landmarks in the scholarship of social movements and revolutions conducted by leading scholars in these fields. We can recall the classical work of Skocpol (1979) on revolutions and also Goodwin (2001). But both Sckocpol and Goodwin have studied revolutions based on a state-centered analysis, which has its own advantages and disadvantages per Goodwin himself. [8] And there have been few important works on studying social movements in relation to their respective states (see for example Goldstone 2003; Jenkins 1995; Johnston 2103). And I see that the Dynamics of Contention in general as a tradition is crucial in cutting through regimes and movements. I have chosen two specific analytical angles below, building on the work of Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, which are very crucial in this direction. I am focusing here on these two theoretical angles because they were very useful in my work, and I see them as complex and dynamic angles that take into consideration the complex relation between movement and regime.

I will start with Tarrow. In an important piece, that did not receive enough attention, Sidney Tarrow called for studying political opportunity structure with a special focus on the state (1996). In his piece titled, “States and Opportunities: The Political Structuring of Social Movements” (1996), Tarrow advocates looking at deeper structural factors that make specific movement opportunities vary. Let us describe this a critical or a thicker understanding of the political opportunity-structure approach. In this approach, Tarrow defines political opportunity structures as “ consistent—but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national—signals to social or political actors which either encourage or discourage them to use internal resources to form social movements” (1996: 54). According to Tarrow, political opportunities have three components: the “opening up of political access,” “stability or instability of alignments,” especially between government and opposition in our context, and the presence or absence of “influential allies” (1996: 54–55). Similar to this, Jillian Schwedler (2004), an expert on Middle East politics, once argued, we ought to think of coalition building and political opportunities within the same framework. This perspective was useful to analyze what happened in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. According to this perspective, one can argue that being in Tahrir offered the main visible window or political access for the revolution’s voice. Because the legitimacy of the regime was already in question, thanks to the plans for Gamal Mubarak’s succession and the rigged elections in 2010, there was an important opportunity for temporary alignment in which most, if not all, opposition groups were united against Mubarak. This included the very important and influential ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, though initially hesitant to join the protests, did join as events escalated on the ground. In other words, while the state contributed to the conditions of making weak oppositions, the weak oppositions themselves and the need for coalition were the very basis of making a revolutionary coalition. It is useful to remember here that studying coalitions is becoming an important part of social movement literature now (Meyer and Corrigall-Brown 2005: 342; Van Dyke and McCammon 2010: xii). But not all these works discuss coalitions specifically with a focus on how coalitions are working in relation to the state.

In a similar vein as Tarrow’s framework, prominent scholars of revolutions have been analyzing the significance of coalitions to revolutions and their trajectory (see for example Goldstone 2009 and also Foran and Goodwin 1993). These approaches are dynamic as they allow for examining coalitions in the context of revolutions; within the context of the revolution’s initial success or its future trajectory. While coalition building under dictatorship is crucial in the making of revolution, as a crucial factor among many other factors, the fate of the coalition determine the outcome of the revolution after the initial stage of success (Goodwin and Foran 1993). Here it useful to examine how a specific “revolutionary” coalition is built as a process, how they emerge and then die. Tarrow states: “Mobilization into social movements varies as opportunities for collective action open and close, allies appear and disappear, political alignments shift, and elites divide and cohere” (Tarrow 1996: 54). And the Egyptian revolution has shown, while the revolutionary coalition was important at the time of the revolution, it was also fragile because it was based on temporary consensus. Of course, scholars of social movements have studied the phenomenon of building coalitions in movements. But my earlier point is that this process should be studied in relation to the state–that is, how coalitions are weakened or strengthened, or the very choice of making coalitions, are shaped by and occur in response to state actions or control in the political sphere.

Now let us move to Tilly. Charles Tilly’s theory on the relation between regimes and repertoires is the one specific theory that I am referring to here. Against the simplistic discussions of protest repertoires, which see them as simple protest tactics, Tilly provides us with a rich theoretical approach to study repertoires in relation to the regimes they operate within and against. According to Tilly, the repertoire-regime relation can generally be classified in three ways: as prescribed, tolerated, or forbidden (Tilly 2006: 75). Tilly develops a crude typology of regimes, which is based on two criteria: degree of democracy and degree of capacity. According to Tilly, regimes can be roughly understood in terms of four types, combining these elements. These four types are: High Capacity and Nondemocratic, High Capacity and Democratic, Low-Capacity Nondemocratic and Low Capacity and Democratic (see figure below). Tilly’s brilliant formula here cuts across the simplistic dichotomy of democratic vs. authoritarian, to include the more complex aspect of capacity of states as well. Tilly did not mean that regimes are only four types, but his analytical frame meant that the regimes’ classification is a matter of scale. But what matters here is how repertoires reflect these regimes types. For example, Tilly argues prescribed repertoires are very few and most contentious repertoires are forbidden and levels of violence are high in low capacity nondemocratic regimes. Prescribed repertoires are also very few, repertoires of protest are mostly tolerated and violence occurs but in low levels in contentious interactions (Tilly 2006:81).

Said table updated

Crude Regime Types, per Tilly (2006: 27)


I read Tilly’s analysis not as a mechanical and rigid analysis in which repertoires simply reflect the regimes they operate within. In this analysis, as much as regimes shape and affect repertoires, protestors in terms of their claims and efforts to negotiate the degree of government tolerance or lack thereof make their own repertoires. The general rule then is that repertoires exist in dialectical relationship with the regimes. Second, we should not see Tilly’s diagram of regime types as rigid, but it is a matter of degree. Regimes do change all the time, hence, this will make an impact on repertoires as well. Third, according to Tilly, multiple repertoires that can be contradictory in terms of degree of tolerance by the state can co-exist. In the Arab spring, we saw protests that are banned by the regimes and also protest that are prescribed by regimes (regime supporters) both of which have contradictory claims and compete over spaces. In other words, repertoires are in flux and they do reflect constant contestation. Drawing on Tilly’s regime types, I would argue that Mubarak’s Egypt was a low-capacity non-democratic regime. Protests were generally forbidden. No permits were ever granted for protests in the few decades before the revolution. This meant a battle over space and repertoires, specifically because the regime was a low-capacity regime. The battle over space (before and in and around Tahrir Square during the revolution) and about repertoires is also useful in my analysis. Also in the years before the revolution, for example, repertoires reflected the battle on public space between the regime and protestors. For example, in 2005 onward, protestors tended to organize sit-ins, not marching rallies in downtown Cairo and near Tahrir. The reason for this is that sit-ins can be organized in a very small place, and these repertoires were often cordoned by heavy police presence, and protestors were not allowed to move and walk. Marching rallies on the other hand require more space and may lead to more mobilization whereby more interaction between protestors and the public can occur. This was a red-line in Egypt’s Mubarak. It is also useful to problematize Tilly’s model further. Capacity here, for example, refers to the high functioning of the state for example. One can ask for example: what if the state has a strong police apparatus (seemingly functioning) but is malfunctioning in other sectors? Egypt under the current regime for example may still be low capacity and nondemocratic. But the state became more repressive and the regime is more militarized. Protests are still banned, and especially in light of the enactment of new protest law. Most Egyptian and international human rights groups describe this law as draconian law, due to the excessive punishments for any violations by protestors of the law.[9] The regime now is changed to become more repressive. This fact shapes the way street politics is working. In sum, through this thicker approach to repertoire, according to Tilly, we can gain a critical sense of the movements, but while also understanding the developments and changes in the regime.


As I suggested earlier, my aim from this essay was not to compare two discussions that have been taking place in different spheres. But my aim is to emphasize how two specific theoretical angles are worth receiving more attention. Applying these theoretical angles is very useful to grapple the complexities of the Arab Spring. Even when it comes to the question of the unpredictability of uprisings, it is one thing to argue that predictability of mass uprising is impossible, and another to suggest that we can be better prepared if we give more attention to studying movements, despite authoritarianism, and especially under authoritarianism. Applying rigorous analyses of movements in their relationship with regimes in general and with their ups and downs is critical in such a constantly shifting context. Authoritarianism does not mean a stagnant society. And indeed the assumption that the Arab Spring has ended is not accurate. It is one thing to assume that there are no stronger movements or the powerful elites and old regimes are fighting back now in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and it is another to assume that there are no movements worthy of study in the region. And one of the main advantages of studying regimes in relations to movements is to give attention to any movements, even if they are not sturdy or durable. It was one lesson from studying closely many events of the Arab Spring  that movements in the last decade were very crucial in mobilization and creating the culture of coalition during the uprisings. Some of these movements can be seen as “failures” at the time because they did not succeed in achieving their goal of stopping the re-election of Mubarak in 2005 for example, such as Kefayya, which is a broad pro-democracy coalition that came to birth in December 2004 in Egypt. Despite this presumed failure, Kefayya was the training ground for many young activists who were crucial to the events of the revolution in 2011. Kefayya’s relation to street politics changed from time to time since it started in 2004 until the revolution. These shifts were in response to the regime’s threats and maneuvers. The movement also has used multiple methods of organizing and repertoires that shifted with time, and the accumulation of these became handy during the uprising. It is absolutely analytically flawed to study the revolution without studying the decade of mobilizing that preceded the revolution in Egypt. And studying the regime in relation to the movements throughout this period is the best way to do so.


Amneta, Edwin. Message from the Chair. Fall 2013. Critical Mass Bulletin. Available in this link:

Last accessed November 10, 2014

—————-. Message from the Chair. Spring 2014. Critical Mass Bulletin. Available in this link

Bayat, Asef. 1997. Street politics: poor people’s movements in Iran. Columbia University Press.

————–. 1998. “Revolution without movement, movement without revolution: Comparing Islamic activism in Iran and Egypt.” Comparative studies in society and history 40, no. 01: 136-169.

————–. 2013. Life as politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East. Stanford University Press

Beinin, Joel and Frédéric Vairel, eds. 2011. “Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa.” Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Foran, John, and Jeff Goodwin. 1993. “Revolutionary outcomes in Iran and Nicaragua: Coalition fragmentation, war, and the limits of social transformation.” Theory and Society 22, no. 2: 209-247.

Gause III, F. Gregory. 2011. “Why Middle East Studies Missed the Arab Spring.” Foreign Affairs. July 1. Accessed January 2, 2014.

Giugni, Marco G., Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly, eds. 1999. How social movements matter. Vol. 10. University of Minnesota Press.

Goldstone, Jack A. 2000. “Predicting Revolutions: Why We Could (and Should) have Forseen the Revolutions of 1989-1991 in the USSR and Eastern Europe.” Revolution: Critical Concepts in Political Science 4 : 395.

—————–., ed. 2003. States, parties, and social movements. Cambridge University Press.

——————. 2008. “Using Quantitative and Qualitative Models to Forecast Instability.” US Institute of Peace Special Report 204 (March), 16 pp.

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—————. 2001. No other way out: states and revolutionary movements, 1945-1991. Cambridge University Press.

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Johnston, Hank. 2013. States and social movements. John Wiley & Sons,

Kirkpatrick, David. New Law in Egypt Effectively Bans Street Protest. The New York Times. November 25, 2013. Available in this link:

Kuran, Timur. 1995. “The inevitability of future revolutionary surprises.” American Journal of Sociology: Vol 100, No 6, 1528-1551.

Kurzman, Charles. 1996. “Structural opportunity and perceived opportunity in social-movement theory: the Iranian revolution of 1979.” American Sociological Review: 153-170.

——————. 2009. The unthinkable revolution in Iran. Harvard University Press

Meyer, David S. 2003. “How social movements matter.” contexts 2, no. 4: 30-35.

Meyer, David, and Catherine Corrigall-Brown. 2005. “Coalition and Political Context: U.S. Movements Against Wars in Iraq.” Mobilization: An International Journal 10, no. 3: 327–46.

Schwedler, Jillian. 2004. “The Islah Party in Yemen: Political Opportunities and Coalition Building in a Transitional Polity.” In Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach, ed. Q. Wiktorowicz, 205–30. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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[1] Quoted here with her permission.

[2] See Gause III (2011).

[3] I am not at all here suggesting that all scholars of Middle East politics have been neglecting social movements. Indeed, there were many scholars who have studied movements while acknowledging the special features of movements working under authoritarianism. Asef Bayat is one of the prominent sociologists who studied movements in Egypt and Iran (1997, 1998, 2013). Also the volume “Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa,” edited by Joel Beinin and Frédéric Vairel (2011) is very important, which focuses in movements prior to the Arab Spring. Also notable exception is the work of Charles Kurzman (1996 and 2009) on revolutions and social movements in Iran. But yet, the mainstream scholarship the Middle East political sociology was centered around the authoritarianism paradigm, i.e., focusing only on regimes.

[4] The discussion started with an essay by Amneta, came as a message from the chair of the SBSM section in Critical Mass issue in the fall of 2013. Some panels in the ASA meeting in 2014 followed the discussion. Then there was a follow up comment from Amneta in the Critical Mass issue in the fall of 2014. I was fortunate to attend the ASA panel that carried this conversation in 2014, which was partially informing and inspiring for writing this essay.


[5] As mentioned earlier, it is indeed interesting to compare the debate that existed among scholars of Middle East politics and the ongoing debate among scholars in social movements in the U.S. about the analytical advantages (or the political and historical reasons in the case of the former at least) of regimes-centered vs. movements-centered analyses. This comparison goes beyond the aim of this essay. By mentioning the two ongoing parallel discussions, I do not aim at all to conflate the objectives, the context and the narrative of each discussion. I only aim to highlight the usefulness of recalling the prominent works in our scholarship that aimed to bridge the gap between regimes and movements.

[6] The maximum thing some scholars have argued for is to develop a framework or indicators about political instability. See for example Jack Goldstone’s work on forecasting instability (Goldstone 2008). And see Goldstone (2000), Goodwin (2012) and Kuran (1995).


And compare this to Goldstone’s bold argument that scholars of revolutions could have predicted the 1989 uprisings in Eastern Europe (Goldstone 2000)

Goldstone, Jack A. “Predicting Revolutions: Why We Could (and Should) have Forseen the Revolutions of 1989-1991 in the USSR and Eastern Europe.” Revolution: Critical Concepts in Political Science 4 (2000): 395.

[7] Of course studying movements in their contexts is not only limited to the context of their respective regimes or states. Movements work do shape and are shaped by non-state actors and those actors can be within or outside the boundary of a given nation-state, or even a mix of the two. In this context, there is an emerging discussion within the field about studying transnational movements, whereby the field of these movements is cutting across different scales: nation-state, regional and global (see for example Smith 1997; Tarrow 2001 and Tarrow 2005). And hence, it is difficult to specify one single regime these movements operate against or in relation to.


[8] See Goodwin (1997) on the advantages and the limitations of state-centered perspective to understand revolutions.


[9] This law was used against activists in Egypt since that time, where many of the youth leaders of the January revolution are now serving jail, for periods that range from 3-15 years, only due to violating the requirements of protesting without permit. See (Kirkpatrick 2013 and Human Rights Watch 2014).


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Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Regimes and Movements: Thoughts on Contentious Politics and the Arab Spring

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