Social Movements in the Arab and African World: Factures and Features (2 – 2)

Bashir Ali (PhD)

Citizens Of Their Own Country:

The Economist’s article (February 5th 2011. p 31): An end or a beginning?: describe how for the first time Egyptians establish themselves as citizens of their own country: “in the posh district of Zamalek, one volunteering manning a citizens’ roadblock at night gleefully displaced a photo he had taken with his mobile phone, showing his patrol demanding to see the driving license of a police officer whose car they had stopped.

In Tunisia a member of the student union told us they were struggling to ignite a deep social transition aimed at ushering in a world devoid of capitalism and classism. He added that we revolted against an economic pattern because we want Tunisia for all Tunisians.

The students’ protests have managed to awaken the consciousness of vast sectors of the population about the need for a profound change in the country. What even a few months ago was considered impossible is now firmly on the agenda.

However, despite its strength, the success of this movement is far from assured. Today’s demands in education, health, social and political rights, have no solution under the current constitution so the path to success lies in moving towards a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution via a referendum, a route successfully followed by progressive governments backed by social movements in Latin America.

Towards Successful Collective Actions: What Social Movements Can Do?

The participation of citizen in the policy making democratic process constitutes significance in development and therefore the dialogue is developed to enable the citizens to engage in the formulation of the national policies that affect their life. Until recently the national policies have been monopolized by the elites (government officials, technocrats, and experts) with less emphasis on the public involvement. The changes and the challenges start with the comprehensive understanding of democracy and good governance. The policy making process has created a space and momentum in the literature and concentrates on the comprehensive participation of citizen and all partners and stakeholders including non-governmental organizations, networks and alliances with their diverse sources of knowledge and legitimacy.

Political Opportunities:
“Chances favor the prepared mind” French Chemist Louis Pasteur
The relationship between collective action and social movements (networks, networking, coalition and alliances, etc.) confirms that the political opportunities or the political space, both the objective and subjective conditions crystalize as a framework for opportunities and as a changing political environment that mobilized through the work of social networks, movements and all this shapes the collective action. In other words, the political opportunities are not rootless, they are created in the context they exist in, affected by three main factors: i, Relative available freedom (organization, expression, meetings etc.), ii, Presence of governmental institutions that are capable to function to give meaning and importance for the reforms and change. As examples, India is a country dominated by bureaucracy and the experience of South Africa after the apartheid; iii, Long history of civil society and collective action, for example the experience of Brazil, South Africa, Philippine and Chile contributed to the notion that work under suppression creates strong, successful and mature civil society through its tactics, networks and capacities. Based on these lessons, there are a few assumptions:
First assumption: The political opening and the objective political conditions create opportunities for collective action to influence policies. This is an accumulation of moblized work. Other additional factors that might assist in the influence and the change of policies are, for example 1) changes in the political leadership and arrival of reformists who have connection with civil society or at least they assist in creating job opportunities.
Second assumption: The engagement of civil society in policy processes is insufficient for making the necessary changes in policies. It is rather the competition in the political authority.
Third assumption: Despite the fact that alliances, international solidarity and conventions strengthen the local space for reforms, they bring many challenges and internal opposition. The success for the campaigns relies on the cautious effort that links the international pressure with the local changes and context.
Fourth assumption: The success in changing policies and systems is not achieved by professionals alone. It contains structures of complex mobilization nature that link the work of agents for change and reformists with the community organizations and media activists. This establishment shapes as time goes and has strong grass roots.
Fifth assumption: The alliance between government concerned officials and civil society is key for any success to influence policies. The social mobilization of networks and coalitions create opportunity for government reformists to make the necessary internal changes.
Conscious strategic effort is one of the main elements for any successful collective action and change. Through common understanding for themselves and the world, group of people and organizations can establish legitimate work and encourage collective action. An example for good campaigning and collective action is South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) of HIV/AIDS. The campaign is part of the struggle of the South African people against racism and apartheid, including government and pharmaceutical companies. The campaign started in 1998 and ended in 2009. The objective of the campaign was twofold; i) to save the life of patients through advocacy and pressure against the companies to ensure low and affordable cost of treatment and; 2) to protect patients of the violent victimization and stigma. Reforms of the family law in Morocco in 2004, for example is another success for a campaign initiated by women and human rights organizations, led by Moroccan Women’s Democratic Association. Together with other women groups in 1990s and 2000s, they advocate for equality based on good understanding of the social and cultural context of Morocco and therefore the solutions and reforms were driven from their lengthy learning, dialogue and collective action.

Social movement can narrow the huge gap, as a result of the under-representation of women in the political life. Challenges and constrains can be summarized here: women know that the election environment is highly competitive and not in favor for women; women are less confident, less competitive and less risky; women are not encouraged to occupy senior positions; women have family responsibilities that don’t allow sufficient time for political functions. Ironically, women with kids are problematic, but without kids and husband are also “not normal”.

Referring back to the factors contributing to the success of social movements in general and in Sudan in particular, the absence of credible government institutions, and the complete failure of the regime to provide any support to services, and living conditions, accompanied by severe violation of human rights including rights for organizations, meeting and free expression, all these contributed to current upraising led by Sudanese Professional Association and other social actors since December 2018.

Achille Mbembe, Provisional Notes on the Postcolony, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 62,No.1 (1992) pp. 3-37, published by: Cambridge University Press.

Ali, Bashir (2010) ‘Repression of Sudanese civil society under the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party’, Review of African Political Economy, 37: 126, 437 — 450.
BBC Report (2018): How Libya holds the key to solving Europe’s migration crisis. Accessible at:

Economist: An end or a beginning? February 5, 2011, p. 31

Escobar Arturo, Imaging a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements. Social Text, No. 31/32, Third World and Post Colonial Issues (1992)

Giuseppe Caruso (2011), Glimpsing the Tunisian Revolution, accessible at

John Gaventa & Rosemary McGee edit. (2010), Citizen Action and National Policy Reform. Zed Books.

The Guardian (March 6th, 2019): The Guardian view on Sudan’s protests: demanding and deserving better. Editorial.

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