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“Guests and Aliens”: Re-Configuring New Mobilities in the Eastern Mediterranean After 2011 - with a special focus on Syrian refugees

Session 1: Mapping Key Issues post 2011

The Role of Diasporas, Migrants, and Exiles in the Arab Revolutions and Political Transitions

Claire Beaugrand et Vincent Geisser

Note de l’auteur

The paper develops general features on the basis of results drawn from the first WAFAW international conference on “The role of Diasporas, migrants and exiles in the Arab revolutions and transitions” held on 16-17 October 2014 at the National Library in Tunis, organised by the IRMC (Institut de recherche sur le Maghreb contemporain) and the IREMAM (Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman).

Texte intégral

1If the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of 2010-2011 vividly rekindled the interest of Western social scientists for Arab national politics that were hitherto little known and mostly closed (Camau and Vairel 2014), this scholarly attention generally overlooked the role of migrants and descendants of exiles in these political upheavals. This role was at least threefold. First, protest movements and mobilisations were organised from a distance. Second, politically engaged people have been circulating in and out of their countries of residence: when regimes resisted or resorted to violent repression (like in Bahrain, Egypt or Syria), new waves of emigration took place, while cases of return occurred towards countries where the old regimes fell (as was the case in Tunisia or Libya). Third, everywhere, political changes and people’s mobility triggered public debates, controversies, and new legal texts defining the rights and limits of the returnees, of overseas citizens, and of the political participation of binationals.

2This paper offers preliminary reflections on the shifts in the social attitudes of Diasporas and migrants that were triggered by the so-called “Arab Spring”. It first goes back to the reason why the politicisation of Diasporas or migrants stemming from Arab authoritarian regimes has been somehow under-studied. Redressing this lack of historical depth by placing the 2011 protest movements into the context of former political struggles, the paper then assesses the novelty of the 2011 mass entry into “distance politics.” Finally, it analyses the terms of the debate that surrounded the opening of new transnational spaces, after decades when political affiliation was seen in an exclusive and binary way.

I. The Arab revolution’s rupture? Rethinking Arab migrations and integration

3Until recently, the literature on Arab migrants has mainly highlighted the “fundamental rupture” that existed between migrants and politics in their home countries. On the one hand, most of the so-called “host societies” pursued policies of integration, assimilation or multiculturalism, while the countries of origin held the view that political allegiance ought to be exclusive, and thus they equated dual political affiliation with dubious loyalty. As a result, the ties and relations that the descendants of migration and exile retained with their country of origin were reduced to either touristic, exotic and familial dimensions, or thought of in economic terms, and measured in remittances or the involvement of absentees in local development (De Haas 2006). In a nutshell, the “sending” countries were seen as a “product of summer consumption” or a sheer imaginary production with little sociological substance (Oriol 1983). Moreover, confronted with the negative “reception context” of Arab and Muslim migrants in Europe (Portes and Rumbaut 2006), the scientific silence on the political involvement of second-generation migrants and refugees in the “home country” sprung from a moral and ethical imperative: it aimed at proving to holders of xenophobic positions that the “children from a migrant background” were good citizens, thereby deconstructing prejudices regarding supposed forms of hidden allegiance to foreign states.

4The protest movements that erupted in the Arab world, and spread to the second and later generations of migrants abroad, thus prompted intellectuals to carry out their own “mental revolution”: they shifted their focus onto the “shared public spaces” between home and host countries, starting and ending points of the migration, as well as onto the past and new forms of activist connections, and the capacity demonstrated by actors themselves to belie, through their concrete social practices, the categories and classifications that tend more often than not to underscore the exclusive character of national affiliations. Migrants, without rejecting national belonging, tend to reformulate their own national tie(s) in a way that fits their positions at a given time, be it by distancing themselves or critically (re)appropriating loosened ties in a contesting or dissenting way. How then, can we assess the effect that “Arab revolutions” have had on the modes of engagement or re-engagement of migrants? Has there been a qualitative change in the way migrants and their descendants identify with their countries of origin?

II. Activist Legacies and Revolutionary Ruptures

5The 2011 distance protest movements and rekindled political engagement were far from spontaneous phenomena coming out from nowhere. The socio-political mobilisations observed in the host societies during the Arab revolutions, were less protest “innovations” than heirs of long activist struggles, as in the case of Tunisians, Moroccans or Bahrainis abroad; repertoires and modes of action had been tested before albeit in different ways. The revolutionary rupture lied in three different novelties.

6First, we witnessed a phenomenon of accelerated entry into political engagement or activism on the part of new Arab generations in Europe, North and South America during the Arab Spring. Second, through a process of reconversion, actors who had been politically engaged in their host societies before shifted the focus of their struggles and mobilisations towards their societies of origin. This sometimes took the form of a re-entry into political activism with the aim to share long-acquired experience with newer generations. Third, the diversity of individual paths towards political engagement in the suddenly open Arab political stage converged and created new improbable spaces of distance mobilisation. By which it is meant that mobilisations first cut across classes, generations, sometimes even political affiliations, although they did not last in the face of revolutionary setbacks and authoritarian resilience that broke unitary actions and unanimist discourses.

7These spaces of mobilisation proved to be very fluid and ambivalent, so that the lines between “before/after” the dictatorship or revolutionaries/counter-revolutionaries became blurred. As a result of the transnational surveillance exerted by repressive regimes abroad, migrants themselves had sometimes interiorised authoritarian reflexes and wished for a prompt return to the secure order – like certain Coptic communities in the US for instance – while at the same time espousing revolutionary dynamics.

III. The Uneasy Opening of new Transnational Spaces

8The Arab revolutions generated crucial questions regarding the definition and criteria for nationality, national language, cultural and religious identities, as well as the status of bi-nationals. Everywhere, revolutionary dynamics went hand in hand with an overplaying of the nationalist card by government and opposition groups alike. As a result, bi-nationals and nationals that were children of migrants were seen as “illegitimate children” of the revolutions and political transitions, to borrow a term from Abdelmalek Sayad (2006). More specifically, when they returned to assume parliamentarian and governmental positions or top-level business jobs (as was the case in Tunisia), they were asked to outdo their local compatriots in terms of credentials and national belonging. Certainly, this reaction can be seen as an ideological legacy of the nationalist propaganda of former authoritarian regimes, which considered any dual affiliation with suspicion. These public controversies also reveal the deep anxiety that surrounds the challenging of existing social hierarchies in this region. More broadly, it is clear that the involvement of the descendants of migrants in Arab revolutions and transitions triggered class struggles and competition over social distinction.

9Finally, the arrival of Arab migrants and refugees who fled their country in turmoil also forced new Arab and Turkish host societies to think about their own “national identity”. If at first, Egypt and Tunisia resorted to a rhetoric of “revolutionary solidarity” by opening their doors wide to fellow brothers or fellow fighters against authoritarianism, over time, security and nationalist concerns prevailed: the official migration policy was made more stringent among deep social tensions, while social practices, more complex, continued to include a mix of rejection and solidarity.


10This paper has sought to question the historical and sociological preconceived ideas regarding the role of bi-nationals, refugees and exiles in the politics of the country where they are initially coming from: it deconstructed complex phenomena such as the engineering of national allegiances, the public demonstration of dual belonging, the underpinnings of ordinary and ideological definitions of exclusive national identity as well as the public policies of welcoming and facilitating return. Moreover, it tried to shed light on the social practices of individuals that belie the normative and rigid vision of the (re)construction and fragilisation of the nation-state in the aftermath of the revolutions.


Camau Michel and Vairel, Frédéric (eds) (2014) Soulèvements et recompositions politiques dans le monde arabe, Montréal, Canada : Presses de l’université de Montréal.

De Haas, Hein (2006) “Migration, remittances and regional development in Southern Morocco,” Geoforum 37 (4), 565-580. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2005.11.007.

Oriol, Michel (1983) « L’effet antée ou les paradoxes de l’identité périodique », Peuples Méditerranéens, 24, juillet-septembre, 45-59.

Portes, Alejandro, and Rumbaut, Rubén G. (2006) Immigrant America: A Portrait, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, USA: University of California Press.

Sayad, Abdelmalek (2006), « Exister, c’est exister politiquement », in Abdelmalek Sayad (ed), L’immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité. 2 – Les enfants illégitimes, Paris, Éd. Raisons d’Agir, 13-44.

© Institut français d’études anatoliennes, 2016

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