During the last months, we witnessed massive protests around the globe against authoritarian rule, social injustice and climate change. Looking more closely at the ongoing wave of contention, we find two regional hotbeds for socioeconomic protests, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Latin America. In countries as different as Lebanon and Iraq, Chile and Ecuador, public contention was primarily driven by socioeconomic grievances. In a project concluded earlier this year, we compared socioeconomic protests in both regions and found striking similarities in spite of very different contexts. Studying the evolution of socioeconomic contention in Egypt and Tunisia since the 2011 revolutions against the background of Latin American experiences, these similarities include the patterns of contentious politics which can be explained when we consider them as an expression of a fundamental crisis of popular-sector incorporation.
What unites the otherwise very different protests and contexts in the above-mentioned countries is that significant parts of the population take to the streets because they see political regimes in their respective country failing in two related ways: On the one hand, “their” governments are perceived as not fulfilling even basic socioeconomic entitlements. On the other, the political regimes are not seen as offering other promising venues for addressing these demands than waging mass protests questioning basically the entire political elite. Here are our results in a nutshell and what they tell us for the current wave of protests.
Contentious Politics in Times of Incorporation Crises
In the study, which was conducted in cooperation with the Arab Forum for Alternatives (AFA) and the University of Sfax and recently published as an edited volume with Palgrave Macmillan, we conclude that Egypt and Tunisia are currently confronting a crisis of popular-sector incorporation that is fairly similar to the one Latin America has been facing since the 1980s. Large parts of the population – namely those representing the lower strata of society – do not have access to effective mechanisms that would link them with the political arena, giving them an institutional voice in the political process and/or making policymakers responsive to their interests and values. With the popular uprisings of 2010–2011, this lack of incorporation, which reflects the breakdown of the previous scheme of incorporation (the so-called “authoritarian social contract”), turned into a full-fledged crisis. In both post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, governments have been unwilling and/or incapable of establishing new mechanisms for incorporating organizations representing the popular sectors, while the latter have mostly been unable to apply pressure from below for their incorporation. This dynamic is remarkably similar in Egypt and Tunisia, despite the different political regimes that have taken shape in the two countries. The notion of a crisis of popular-sector incorporation, we argue in our concluding chapter, helps to understand these surprising similarities, as it draws attention to the underlying social (sociopolitical and politico-economic) dynamics that shape contentious politics and are relatively independent of changes at the level of the political system.
Episodes and Crisis of Incorporation, Then and Now
In a landmark study first published in 1991, Ruth and David Collier analyzed the historical processes through which the labor movement was initially incorporated into the political system during the first half of the twentieth century. Studying and comparing the cases of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, they identified different strategies and types of labor incorporation, which led to varying patterns of conflict and accommodation and produced long-lasting legacies in terms of party system development and political regime dynamics. Recently, scholars such as Federico Rossi and Eduardo Silva have revived the concept of incorporation arguing that, since the 1990s, Latin America has been experiencing a new incorporation crisis that, with the so-called leftist turn in the region since the early 2000s, gave way to a second wave of contention. In contrast to the first period of incorporation, the new period of incorporation involves a much more heterogeneous set of social groups that, in the Latin American debate, is usually called “the popular sectors”. Generally speaking, their incorporation consists of two elements: First, there is a political dimension that concerns the inclusion of popular-sector claims and interests into the political agenda as well as “the concrete mechanisms that link popular sector organizations to the political arena and policymaking”. The second, socioeconomic dimension refers to the substantive efforts at socioeconomic inclusion through the strengthening of socioeconomic rights and/or corresponding social and economic policies. What is clear from the Latin American experience is that the establishment of a democratic regime in and of itself does not guarantee incorporation in this twofold sense. The most dramatic confirmation of this is the contemporary crisis shaking Chile’s much-praised model of liberal democracy.
From this perspective, we can better understand why protests erupted in Egypt in September this year in spite of the extremely high levels of repression. Socioeconomic hardships for the majority of Egyptians have been worsening for years but they are also accompanied by an ever growing political exclusion of almost all critical voices, including the lower and middle strata of society. We also witnessed a strong feeling of political exclusion in Tunisia for years, most notable among unemployed people. Understanding the dual nature of this crisis as an incorporation crisis can help us explain why all established political actors lost in Tunisia’s latest presidential election and instead brought to power the non-partisan law professor Kais Said: Besides condemning corruption among elites and promises to help the poor and unemployed, he also demanded a radical decentralization of the country, empowering local councils to elect regional councils and the national parliament. In Tunisia, socioeconomic marginalization is most notably a problem for the interior regions which have seen growing waves of protests since the 2011 revolution. No matter how unclear Said’s reform ideas were, he promised a greater say in political decision-making to marginalized localities and addressed one important part of the incorporation crisis.
We cannot know where any of the countries are going: towards a new wave of incorporation? What we do know, however, is that decision-makers, nationally and internationally, should be aware that the ongoing protests witnessed worldwide are not only about specific socioeconomic grievances or some general discontent, but reflect a fundamental problem that currently haunts not only authoritarian but also quite democratic regimes around the world: the lack of functioning mechanisms of incorporation that provide the popular sectors meaningful access to the political arena and make political regimes responsive to their interests and values.
This post is part of a project on Socioeconomic Protests and Political Transformation. The latest publication is “Socioeconomic Protests in MENA and Latin America. Egypt and Tunisia in Interregional Comparison” published as part of the Middle East Today book series (MIET) at Springer. The concluding chapter “From North Africa to Latin America and Back: Comparative Findings and Theoretical Reflections” is available via open access (full text | PDF).