MENA Academy Weekly Roundup #7 (9.18.23)
Plus a sad goodbye to Twitter and an invitation to join us in the Good Place
Like most decent people, I’ve been watching the steady decline of Twitter under Elon Musk with horror and sorrow. For all of its flaws and pathologies, Twitter has been an extremely important part of the public sphere ecosystem for both Middle East academics and for the MENA region itself. It enabled all kinds of direct connections with activists, journalists and ordinary people in the region, and allowed us to follow their news and debates from afar. It may not have “caused” the Arab uprisings but it played a pretty darned important role for activists in spreading information and disseminating narrative frames. By 2013 it had turned largely toxic and helped to polarize publics in really nasty ways; over the following years became more of a battlefield for the trolls, bots and champions of various regional powers — as well as an arena of digital surveillance and other forms of rewired authoritarianism. But there was still nothing else quite like it for those of us studying the region.
When Elon Musk took over Twitter, it wasn’t obvious that it would be disaster; personally, I reserved judgement. But each move he made accelerated its decline: getting rid of authentification, amplifying paying users in the comments, abandoning trust and safety measures, going to war with Substack and throttling its links, cutting off the API for researchers, changing the name, and so on and on. His personal amplification of the worst of the worst made it feel less and less tenable to continue with the site; his open encouragement of antisemitism has been the last straw (though it’s morbidly amusing that before he decided to go after the ADL, my timeline used to be flooded with paid ads from the ADL). So earlier this week, I decided to mostly stop tweeting. I am keeping the account because there’s still very little Arabic content on the alternative social media platforms and I need to be able to continue seeing that stuff as long as possible. It was a hard decision, since I have almost 50,000 followers and the platform has been very good to me and to POMEPS in terms of promoting and disseminating our publications. But I can’t in good conscience continue providing content to an increasingly right wing and toxic platform and, just maybe, being the reason why people don’t want to leave it.
Most of the alternatives have proven disappointments. I don’t know what’s going on with Threads, Post was incredibly boring, and Mastodon just looks complicated and alienating. Bluesky has emerged as clearly the best alternative to Twitter, and that’s where I’m mostly posting now (@abuaardvark.bsky.social). It’s getting better and better as a rising flood of academics and journalists have migrated over. There’s a really useful list of political scientists (polisky) assembled by Paul Musgrave. I’ve seen far fewer of the annoying accounts over there and a lot less of the abuse and nastiness which have dominated Twitter for so long; those patterns will likely emerged on Bluesky as more people migrate there, sure, but for now it feels like the Good Place. I highly encourage my readers to join up over there — I have a handful of invite codes to share, for now — and especially hope more journalists on the ground and voices from the Arab world start posting regularly there.
And now, on to this week’s MENA Academy roundup of new journal articles! We’ve got a really fascinating article by Sarah Phillips and Nadwa al-Dasawri on the pitfalls of counterterrorism narratives and approaches in Yemen, multiple articles on political polarization and authoritarianism in Turkey, and two articles from the fantastic journal Middle East Law and Governance on power-sharing and coalition governments.
Sarah Phillips and Nadwa al-Dasawri, “Trivializing Terrorists: How Counterterrorism Knowledge Undermines Local Resistance to Terrorism,” Security Studies (September 2023). ABSTRACT: This article explores how counterterrorism knowledge practices affect the groups they study. We argue that these practices typically construct terrorist groups as ontologically stable and organizationally rational, which makes them appear familiar to, and so governable by, counterterrorism organizations. We show that by excluding prevalent local knowledge, Western counterterrorism policy discourses assign the power to construct the category of “terrorist” to those without daily lived experience of the “terrorists” in question. This undermines different ways of knowing what sustains these groups, what might eradicate them and, more importantly, what might make their ability to pose a serious threat seem unlikely, or even absurd, to those whose support they purportedly need to survive as terrorists. Using evidence from Yemen, we show that groups labelled as “terrorists” do not fit into the stable categories that counterterrorism organizations require to produce actionable targets. We argue that while imposing such categories helps counterterrorists find targets that reflect their assumptions, it also generates pathways for violent actors to evolve and reproduce. ** OPEN ACCESS **
Ethem Ilbiz and Christian Kaunert, “Securitization, fear politics, and the formation of an opposition alliance in competitive authoritarian regimes,” Democratization (September 2023). ABSTRACT: This article examines how opposition parties with diverse ideologies can form alliances in competitive authoritarian regimes despite the securitization strategy used by authoritarian incumbents. Using Turkey as a case study, the article demonstrates that an authoritarian leader may associate terrorism with opposition parties and may disseminate this fear to manipulate moderate voters and prevent coalition formation between niche parties. By analysing public speeches of political actors in Turkey, the study argues that if opposition parties recognize the vulnerabilities of the regime and believe that forming an alliance would gain support from the masses and encourage cross-party voting, then the securitization strategy would not deter them from forming a pre-electoral alliance. However, the failure of the securitization strategy to prevent opposition parties from forming an alliance does not guarantee opposition victory in elections. The securitization strategy employed by the authoritarian regime can still be utilized to effectively empower the authoritarian leader, enabling them to win elections by capitalizing on fear and depicting the opposition alliance as a security threat and a potential source of instability if they were to come into power.
H. Bahadir Türk, “Populist Nationalism and Anti-refugee Sentiment in Turkey: The Case of the Victory Party,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics (September 2023). ABSTRACT: Throughout the last decade, the refugee issue has profoundly impacted global politics. Accordingly, this study seeks to provide insight into a new political phenomenon in Turkey, namely, the Victory Party (Zafer Partisi, ZP) by analyzing the characteristics of the party’s political discourse. Using content analysis and the discourse-historical approach as an extension of critical discourse analysis, this study argues that the ZP’s political discourse, which is based on the combination of nationalism and populism, is massively shaped by anti-refugee sentiment.
Vincent Durac and Tamirace Fakhoury, “Adversarial Power-Sharing and “Forced Marriages”: Governing Coalitions in Lebanon and Yemen,” Middle East Law and Governance (September 2023). ABSTRACT: How do power-sharing governing coalitions work in the context of politicized identities and external pressures? And how do they emerge, develop, and disintegrate when governing parties share power in the context of colliding agendas? Working on the premise that coalition governments may be messy constellations of power, rather than rational avenues for deliberation, this article explores the politics of coalitions in the Middle East as a case of adversarial power-sharing, or what we frame as ‘forced marriages.’ We focus on Yemen and Lebanon, two polities that have developed power-sharing arrangements in conflict-laden environments, albeit under different circumstances and logics of state-building. We argue that while both countries are different on a wide range of variables, they have broader lessons to convey on the ways coalition governments perform and the policy consequences they yield. Throughout both countries’ political history, coalition governance patterns have led to political fragmentation and policy gridlock. However, the puzzle is that notwithstanding antagonistic policy agendas and despite popular disaffection with ruling arrangements, coalition governments have kept re-emerging. This requires an incisive look into the relational and complex dynamics that sustain their logic.
Valeria Resta and Mohamed Daadaoui, “Multiparty Coalition Governments, Portfolio Allocation and Ministerial Turnover in Morocco and Algeria,” Middle East Law and Governance (September 2023). ABSTRACT: The article analyzes multiparty coalition governments under authoritarian tutelage in Morocco and Algeria. While in Morocco multiparty coalition governments are just a means for the King to dress their windows, in Algeria they represent a new arena of power bargaining. In both cases, portfolio allocation follows the Gamson’s law but cases of advantage for the formateur are also given. Nonetheless, the parties included in multiparty coalition governments are almost always regime-controlled ones, as is the case in Algeria, or encounter reserved domains constitutionally defined, as is the case in Morocco. Moreover, in both cases the democratic potential intrinsic to multiparty coalition governments is defused by preventing grassroots parties to access top-weighted ministerial portfolios and by envisaging a relevant role for non-party ministries. This renders cabinet positions hardly contestable and adds up to the durability of multiparty coalition governments while making them barely apt at channeling grassroots demands for political change.
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