Mobilization and Contentious Politics Scholarship on the Middle East

BY Helen Mary Rizzo

It is an honor to be asked to reflect on Celebrating 25 Years of Mobilization. As a scholar of gender and social movements in the Middle East, I appreciate that Mobilization is not only one of the top journals for publishing in this field but that its goal “…is to provide a forum for global, scholarly dialogue”. In particular, Mobilization has been instrumental in bringing scholarship on social movements and uprisings in the Middle East to the attention of the global social science community. I am grateful to Mobilization for not only publishing our co-authored article on anti-harassment activism in Egypt (Rizzo, Price, and Meyer 2012) but for adding our article to the 2012 special issue on “Understanding The Middle East Uprisings” with Charles Kurzman as guest editor.  Mobilization was one of the first to have a special issue focusing on the uprisings in the Middle East.  It included several articles on Egypt looking at the interplay of structure and agency through the Tahrir protests (Holmes 2012), the Ultra soccer fans (Dorsey 2012), and our article on the anti-sexual harassment campaign (Rizzo et al. 2012) as well as an article on the onset of Syria’s popular uprising (Leenders 2012) and Iran’s 2009 Green Movement (Harris 2012).

When I reflect on my own scholarship and the larger field, I find that the Mobilization article by Valentine M. Moghadam and Elham Gheytanchi (2010) is highly influential. I base this assessment on a chapter I wrote reviewing the literature on the political sociology of the Middle East entitled, “The Middle East”, for The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology (2018). My criteria (2018: 1156-7) for the best work in the field is influenced by Asef Bayat’s 2001 article. To quote him:

…not only do we need to produce nuanced, detailed, empirical knowledge about our region, but by doing so we should also contribute to social theory in general. This means that through studying aspects of Middle Eastern societies, we should also attempt to generate analytical tools and perspectives that go beyond the immediacy of the place and time of our case study. (152)

Research on social movements in the region right before the 2010–2011 Arab Spring uprisings began to move away from the problems of earlier work where scholars had used only their cases as data to validate social movement theories developed in the US and Europe instead of critically engaging with theoretical concepts in order to generalize beyond their specific cases and push these theories into new directions (Beinin and Vairel 2013).  Instead this recent work has pushed the two of the main theoretical approaches—the political process model (PPM) and new social movement (NSM) theory—towards theory building and generalizability. Using the PPM and a comparative approach, Moghadam and Gheytanchi’s (2010) piece on Morocco and Iran exemplifies this.  Their research compared two feminist campaigns during the mid-2000s to examine how the interaction of political opportunities with strategic choices shape social movement success or failure. In particular for women’s movements, the determining factors of a campaign’s success or failure were how the global environment intersected with the domestic political and cultural opportunity structures to influence available strategies and the campaign’s choices regarding cultural frames for its goals and objectives. Moreover, their work pushed the PPM, developed in democratic countries, by adapting it to repressive and authoritarian environments in order to understand under what conditions can social movement campaigns for gender justice be successful in high risk contexts. Their approach has heavily influenced my work on anti-harassment activism in Egypt as well as other feminist scholars working on social movements in the Middle East.

Finally, I would argue that Charles Kurzman’s (2012) introduction to his special issue on “Middle East Uprisings”, entitled “The Arab Spring Uncoiled”, has been influential on how scholars of the region think about the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings and has the potential to influence scholars working on the global wave of protests and uprisings in other parts of the world. For myself, it helped me to reflect in 2015 on the Egyptian uprisings for a special issue of International Journal of Sociology where I was the guest editor entitled, “The Intersection of Culture and Politics in post January 2011 Egypt”, featuring five promising young scholars. Given the directions Egypt has been taking, in my introduction to this special issue (2015: 171–175): I ask “How then are we to understand the uprisings and unrest that have swept across Egypt and the broader Middle East (2015: 172)?” Charles Kurzman points out that while observers and scholars have rushed to find explanations for the mass uprisings and revolts, he suggests an alternative approach:

…one that looks past causation in an attempt tounderstand the lived experience of the uprisings. The goal is to examine how actors changed as they perceived the possibility of protest, how they made meaning of their lives through the act of protesting, or not protesting, during moments of exceptional confusion and stress. (2012: 377)

As part of understanding the lived experiences of those who experienced the uprisings, Kurzman (2012) notes the importance of bravery which emerged during the uprisings across the region. Again Kurzman (2012) is not advocating bravery as an explanation or ‘independent variable’ for the uprisings because it is impossible to measure and is a disposition that changes under pressure. But rather, he defines bravery as a “…potentially useful desire to engage in risky protest … that may appear or disappear with the vagaries of the moment, altering the micro flow of events and making a noticeable, if tiny, difference in the course of mass protests” (377).  Even if some of the worldwide protests for economic, political, and social justice are not immediately successful, regimes will have “…to govern a citizenry that has been significantly transformed” (Bayat 2015) by their lived experiences and bravery. My hope is that scholarly insights from the Middle East uprisings will influence the future direction of research in contentious politics globally and will find their way to Mobilization.



Bayat, Asef. 2001. “Studying Middle Eastern Societies: Imperatives and Modalities of Thinking Comparatively.” Middle East Studies Bulletin 35 (2): 151–158.

_________. 2015. “Revolution and despair.” Mada Masr January 25, 2015. Retrieved June 20, 2015 (

Beinin, Joel and Frederic Vairel. 2013. “Introduction: The Middle East and North Africa Beyond Classical Social Movement Theory.”  Pp. 1–29 in Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, Second Edition, editedby Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel. Stanford,CA: Stanford University Press.

Dorsey, James M. 2012. “Pitched Battles: The Role of the Ultra Soccer Fans in the Arab Spring.”Mobilization 17 (4): 411–418.

Harris, Kevan. 2012. “The Brokered Exuberance of the Middle Class: An Ethnographic Analysis of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement.”Mobilization 17 (4): 435–455.

Holmes, Amy Austin. 2012. “There Are Weeks When Decades Happen: Structure and Strategy in the Egyptian Revolution”. Mobilization17 (4): 391–410.

Kurzman, Charles. 2012. “The Arab Spring Uncoiled.” Mobilization 17 (4): 377–390.

Leenders, Reinoud. 2012. “Collective Action and Mobilization in Dar’a: An Anatomy of the Onset of Syria’s Popular Uprising.”Mobilization 17 (4): 419–434.

Moghadam, Valentine, and Elham Gheytanchi. 2010. “Political Opportunities and Strategic Choices: Comparing Feminist Campaigns in Morocco and Iran.” Mobilization 15 (3): 267-88.

Rizzo, Helen Mary. 2015. “How Culture and Politics Intersect in Post-January 2011 Egypt.” International Journal of Sociology 45 (3): 171-175.

______________. 2018. “The Middle East.” Pp. 1154-1172. The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology,edited by William Outhwaite and Stephen Turner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Rizzo, Helen, Anne M. Price and Katherine Meyer. 2012. “Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign in Egypt.” Mobilization 17 (4): 457-475


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