Spaces of Participation: Dynamics of Social and Political Change in the Arab World

By Randa Aboubakr, Ulrike Freitag, and Sarah Jurkiewicz

The uprisings in the Arab region in late 2010 and early 2011 took many observers of the political scene by surprise, given the authoritarian nature of most regimes in the area. However, the roots and reflections of these uprisings can be found in the social, cultural, and artistic spheres of these locations, as we argue in our book, Spaces of Participation: Dynamics of Social and Political Change in the Arab World (Cairo, AUC Press 2021).

Rather than searching for political programs and hidden organizations, the authors of the book consider grassroots initiatives in spaces and by actors ranging from sports clubs to urban activists, artists to heritage practitioners and online satire in Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, and Kuwait. The common inquiry of all the case studies is how particular spaces are appropriated and used by individuals and groups in order to pursue their initiatives and express particular concerns. Who became active and why, and how were groups or individuals included or excluded on the basis of class, gender, or citizenship? The Arab uprisings form the background to most of the case studies in this book. They have, however, a much wider reach, as many such initiatives continue where uprisings and revolutions were subdued.

The book is organized around a number of leading concepts, at the center of which is a broad understanding of “change” as a notion addressing authoritarian structures and regimes, be they cultural, economic, or political. “Space” here is taken to be constituted through human interactions, time, and events. While the physical space and hence conceptions of the public sphere feature prominently in a variety of chapters, Lefebvrian ideas of mental and social space as well as the concept of the commons as developed by geographer David Harvey also figure prominently.[1] This broad understanding of space also involves the digital realm as a venue extending the territoriality of participants by compensating for the cutting up, confiscation, and heavy policing of physical space. Finally, and following suggestions by, for example, Diane Singerman and Asef Bayat, we adopted a broad understanding of participation that goes beyond the classical institutional level. We thus include prominently community-based, informal networks.[2] This also takes account of unaffiliated individuals, who largely operate without institutional backing, and the space-based, political, social, cultural, and artistic practices adopted by actors aiming at reclaiming both public space and representation.[3]

The book reflects on upheavals not only in the political scene but also in the social, cultural, and artistic realms. Activism here acquires a larger meaning: It encompasses cultural and artistic activism or what is now referred to as “artivism”.[4] This neologism points to instances when art, in particular popular art, is used to reclaim the means of representation and to respond to dominant discourses. It thereby reclaims spaces, and can be used to understand political and social change.

In order to research the diverse spaces of participation, we formed an interdisciplinary and international team of urban planners, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, cultural studies and translation specialists, and architects. This cooperation was an experiment on many levels, as the researchers from Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Poland, and Germany only came together as a group in the context of the project. Moreover, a number of chapters in the volume were written by young scholars still working on their theses. Furthermore, and in many of the cases presented in the book, the researchers were, to varying degrees, involved in the local context. The research was partly an extension of their personal and societal involvement in the events around them. This can be due to the fact that the spaces and the forms of agency depicted in the book are strongly connected to major upheavals occurring in the region during the first two decades of the 21st century. This focus on the reciprocity between various forms of activism has also demonstrated that the representation of the “intellectual”, which took hold in the region in the 1940s, has been vigorously shaken during the past few decades. The current generation of emerging intellectuals is often engaged head-on in the everyday of its environments and with people and causes, using a variety of modes of which “writing” is only one possibility. This emerging strand of intellectual engagement already blurs the lines between academia and the various manifestations of activism we see in the region.

The digital realm helped in shaping this emerging mode of engagement. This can be seen in many of the cases outlined in the book. Whereas public spaces still offer opportunities for activism in the more direct sense of lobbying and mobilization, activism is also operative in discursive and visual terms. In many authoritarian contexts, the digital realm enjoys more “relative” freedom from censorship than physical space – even if authoritarian regimes are quickly expanding their surveillance capacities. This freedom allows for the creation of affective solidarities[5] that can spread beyond local boundaries, and therefore cross-feed. Many younger academics partake in such networks and find creative and effective ways of engaging with and impacting their environment.

The book is divided into four sections. “Rethinking Participation in Formal and Informal Spaces” focuses on the mechanisms of participation in spaces where varying degrees of state regulation and more fluid structures coexist. Examples of this are the street in front of the Moroccan parliament, Mohamed V Avenue in Rabat, which has become a regular venue for officially sanctioned demonstrations and protests. Collaboration between formal and informal modes of governance can also be observed in the so-called “informal” quarters of Cairo, Palestinian refugee camps, and in state-run but youth-appropriated spaces such as a Moroccan youth center.

In “Reconfiguring Space through Contestation”, we investigate how conflictual contestations shape or create space. We return to Mohamed V Avenue, but also investigate the 2013 Muslim Brother’s sit-in in the Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya intersection in Cairo. This section also examines discursive spaces and practices generated by these active confrontations, thereby highlighting the construction of not only space but also the discourse of resistance. This features the use of digital media as supportive of, and still often marginal to, action on the ground. These media uses point in the direction of an investigation of online-offline strategies of protest, which have become a topic in the scholarship on the region.[6]

“Alternative Spaces of Cultural Production” examines visual art and street performances in Morocco, as well as digital humor through consciously wrong (mock-)translations in Egypt. Particularly poignant is the analysis of how censorship has forced a citizen media initiative to move into digital space. Both the physical and virtual spaces investigated in this section are not institutionalized. The case studies can be seen to contribute to the emerging discussion of the role of “citizen media”, a debated concept used to provide a more coherent framework for the study of the mobilization of ordinary citizens around the world, as well as between that terrain and more stable cultural concepts such as that of “popular culture”.[7] The chapters also shed light on the censorship of this kind of cultural production.

The final section, “Space Reclamation and Cultural Activism”, focuses on spatial participatory practices in conflictual settings. It illuminates how cultural activism can intervene in the management of public space, which can be directed at challenging neoliberal urban planning, or at preventing the erasure of historical memory. Such spaces provide insights into debates around the role of entrepreneurship in activism.[8] Cultural initiatives in urban centers like Ramallah or Kuwait City represent a reclamation and re-appropriation of public spaces governed by neoliberal politics, and introduce new shapes of NGO and business-based interventions. The section also investigates the role played by a communal initiative in a Palestinian village in reclaiming the memory of place and in rehabilitating the relationship between the inhabitants and nature.


[1] Henri Lefebvre, “La production de l’espace”, L’Homme et la société 31–32 (1974), 15–32; and David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London, New York 2012, 67–88.

[2] Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring, Stanford 2017; and Diane Singerman, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters in Cairo, Cairo 1997.

[3] Mona Baker, Bolette B. Blaagaard (eds.), Citizen Media and Public Spaces: Diverse Expressions of Citizenship and dissent, New York 2016.

[4] See for example: Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre, “Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color,” in Ana Everett (ed.), Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media, Cambridge, MA 2008, 81–108 (doi:10.1162/dmal.9780262550673.081).

[5] Zizi Papacharissi, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. Oxford 2014.

[6] Hanan Badr, “Battleground Facebook: Contestation mechanisms in Egypt’s 2011 Revolution”, in Ralph D. Berenger (ed.), Social Media Go to War: Rage, Rebellion, and Revolution in the Age of Twitter, Washington 2013, 399–422.

[7] Randa Aboubakr, “Popular Culture and Citizen Media”, in Luis Pérez-Conzález, Bolette B. Blaagaard, and Mona Baker (eds.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Citizen Media, New York, London (forthcoming).

[8] Sarah Banet-Weiser and Roopali Mukherjee, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, New York 2012.


Randa Aboubakr is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University, and founder and principal coordinator of the Forum for the Study of Popular Culture (FSPC). She is the author of The Conflict of Voices in the Poetry of Dennis Brutus and Mahmud Darwish (2004), “The Egyptian Colloquial Poet as Popular Intellectual: A Differentiated Manifestation of Commitment”, in Commitment and Beyond: Reflections on/of the Political in Arabic Literature Since the 1940s (2015; available open access here), and “Translation and the Struggle for Urban Symbolic Capital in Cairo”, in The Routledge Handbook of Translation and the City (2021). Aboubakr has been a visiting researcher at the University of Texas, in Austin, USA, the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, the University of Florence, in Italy, a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, in Berlin, Germany. She has also held visiting professorships at the Free University of Berlin and the Jagiellonian University of Krakow. She has received the German Alexander von Humboldt Prize for Innovative Network Initiatives in 2013, and the joint “Research on the Arts” award from the Arab Council for the Social Sciences and the Arab Fund for Art and Culture (with Mounira Soliman and Magda Hasabelnaby).

Ulrike Freitag is a historian of the modern Middle East and, since 2002, director of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in conjunction with a professorship at the Free University of Berlin. She is also a member of the EUME Collegium. She obtained her PhD in 1990 from Freiburg University with a thesis on Syrian historiography (published in Hamburg in 1991) and has lectured at the Open University, in Hagen (1991), and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (1993–2002). Among her monographs are Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut (Leiden 2003) and A History of Jeddah: The Gate to Mecca in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge, New York 2020). She recently co-edited (with Jeanine Elif Daǧyeli and Claudia Ghrawi) Claiming and Making Muslim Worlds (Berlin, de Gruyter 2021), and Spaces of Participation: Dynamics of Social and Political Change in the Arab World (with Randa Aboubakr, Hicham Ait Mansour, and Sarah Jurkiewicz, Cairo 2021).

Sarah Jurkiewicz is a postdoctoral researcher and the research coordinator of the “Spaces of Participation” (2014–2017) and the “Liminal Spaces” (2018–2021) projects at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. She obtained an MA in European Ethnology, Islamic Studies, and Theatre Studies in Berlin. In 2012, she completed her PhD at Oslo University, where she wrote a dissertation on the practices of production and the modes of publicness of young bloggers in Beirut. Jurkiewicz’s publications include Blogging in Beirut: An Ethnography of a Digital Media Practice (2018), “Of Islands and Windows—Publicness in the Lebanese Blogosphere” (2011), and Al-Jazeera vor Ort: Journalismus als ethische Praxis (2009). Her research interests lie in media as well urban anthropology, translocal entanglements, and migration. Her current research is an ethnographic study of young Syrian mothers and the modalities of homemaking in Berlin.


Citation: Randa Aboubakr, Ulrike Freitag, and Sarah Jurkiewicz, Spaces of Participation: Dynamics of Social and Political Change in the Arab World, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.08.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30685.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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