Social sciences to make sense of the phasing out of authoritarianism in the Arab world


Financed by the European Research Council as of September 2013, the WAFAW project aims at mobilizing the methods and concepts of the social sciences, adapting them if necessary, to analyse the profound changes initiated by the “Arab Spring”. As project investigator and while at the Institut français du Proche-Orient (Ifpo), François Burgat selected a multidisciplinary team of researchers, all with command of Arabic and in direct contact with the field[1]. The programme is managed from the Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman (IREMAM), based in Aix-en-Provence, from which François Burgat started working in April 2013 after having spent five years in Damascus and Beirut at the head of Ifpo.Logotype WAFAW

In addition to the team of “Core-researchers”, the WAFAW project requires the recruitment of six “post-doctoral” researchers (who would have defended their thesis maximum two years before taking their position), the funding of three doctoral fellowships and the implementation of various other partnerships whether individual or collective.

Since December 2010, waves of protests stemming from Arab societies have opened the possibility to seriously envision the phasing out of the autocratic period that has characterized the region for so long. Protests have already affected domestic and international political dynamics (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain), and some other by anticipation (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Palestine) – and they continue to do so. In each country, the acceleration of history has generated new practices, given birth to new actors who operate in coalitions and dramatically reconfigured socio-political alliances. These changes in the national political arenas, unsurprisingly, contribute to the reshaping of the regional political equilibrium, which in turn has an impact on the relations between the European Union and the Arab world (added with Turkey and Iran) and would, among others, eventually modify the direction and quality of migration flows.

Events that have been unfolding in the past two years confirmed the significance of the various themes of investigation that the WAFAW project (selected by the ERC in October 2012) had set as its prime objectives in April 2011 when the project had been submitted for the first time. Events also confirm the relevance of the different hypotheses and problematics that the research team members have developed in their past work – namely the issues of structural changes affecting political scenes, the gradual shifts in Euro-Mediterranean relations, and especially the centrality of Islamist movements in the post-2011 configurations. The project is characterized by a desire to analyze current events in the light of ongoing discussions surrounding the interpretation of Islamism and its relationship to authoritarianism on the one hand and the different dynamics of political modernization on the other.

On the Arab political scene, the current dynamics favour the emergence of new actors. They prompt spectacular changes in strategies: while the profile of a possible “Twitter generation”, probably overstated, remains to be established, the former ruling parties are now engaged in counter-revolutionary practices and more pragmatic efforts to reform and the Salafis are increasingly involved in the political sphere. Now that they are in control of a state apparatus albeit still far from mastering it, Islamist movements are facing, for their part, the multiple requirements of the exercise of power for which they were generally unprepared. They must do so in particularly bad economic conditions, which give new salience to the social rhetoric of the left while at the same time giving new relevance to attempts to regain power by the former ruling parties who have retained for themselves many internal or international leverages.

At the international level, if Arab elected politicians start to genuinely take into account certain nationalist aspirations of their constituencies, they are likely to find themselves more often at odds with their Western partners. The rising regional role of the Turkish and Qatari diplomaties in the context of the Syrian crisis in particular on the one hand, and the fact that the fundamentals of Iran’s policy and of its Lebanese allies in the region are being shaken on the other constitute developments that herald a profound change in the international relations of the region and that, as such, will be scrutinized. Beyond inter-state relations, the evolution of the migratory system, the changes in the symbolic status of Europeans stemming from Arab backgrounds and investment logics are other important, if less visible, transformations that will be investigated by the international research team.

[1] Laurent Bonnefoy (CNRS research fellow at CERI, Paris, and deputy project investigator), Claire Beaugrand (ICG Gulf senior analyst and associate research at IFPO), Myriam Catusse (CNRS research fellow at IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence), Nicolas Dot-Pouillard (research at IFPO, Beirut), Vincent Geisser (researcher at IFPO, Beirut), Yves Gonzalez-Qijano (researcher at GREMMO, Lyon), Sari Hanafi (Professor at AUB, Beirut), Salwa Ismail (Professor at SOAS, London), Stephanie Latte-Abdallah (CNRS research fellow at IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence ).