This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya

 

The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

John McDonnell & Joseph Stiglitz Event

Last week Birkbeck Politics hosted Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz for a lecture jointly organised with Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and chaired by Birkbeck alumus John McDonnell MP, the Shadow Chancellor.
John McDonnell & Joseph Stiglitz Event
Professor Stiglitz tackled a host of issues in his talk, looking at how the enormous growth in inequality over the last thirty years, especially in the USA and UK, has shaped our world. His lecture ranged from charting inequality to Brexit and TTIP as well as the need for targetted programmes to help the needy-you can see press coverage of his speech here and here.
John McDonnell & Joseph Stiglitz Event
To find out more, you can see Professor Stiglitz’s papers, books and articles here and  read more of his ideas in his Guardian columns.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts during the Annual Conservative Party Conference, at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.

By Eric Kaufmann

Former Labour MP and Birkbeck Politics Professorial Fellow Tony Wright hosted a memorable evening with former Tory MP David Willetts on 11 February in the cozy confines of the Keynes Library. Willetts, known as ‘two brains’ for his intellectualism and (current) tally of ten authored books, served as Universities Minister in the Cameron government until 2015. He also served under Margaret Thatcher at her Policy Unit. Among his more influential works is his recent book on problems of intergenerational equity entitled The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back.

There were few empty chairs as Wright and the audience questioned Willetts about the ideas that have animated his career: the meaning of Conservatism, the role of government, and policy issues from housing and apprenticeships to industrial policy and the living wage.

Wright set the tone by revisiting one of Willetts’ first books, Modern Conservatism, penned in 1992. A classic statement of 1980s Thatcherism, it extolled the virtues of the unfettered market and suggested the state had little role to play in a modern society. Pressed on this by Wright, Willetts admitted the book was a creature of its time, and that he had subsequently altered his views on inequality. Willetts related that his political consciousness was forged in the battles against the trade unions and nationalisation in the 1970s when governments felt they should be in the business of running everything including travel agencies and airlines while restricting individuals’ right to purchase foreign currency. We now accept a more liberalised world, but are confronted by new challenges, including excess and inequality. In the 1990s, he therefore took the neoclassical economists’ view that so long as the lot of the poor improved in absolute terms, relative inequality between top and bottom was a non-issue.

Since then, remarked Willetts, the work of Michael Marmot, and of evolutionary psychology, had brought home to him the damaging psychological effects of positional inequality, hence he agreed this needed to be curbed. Willetts, however, spoke for a Burkean, community-oriented check on the market rather than statism. Accordingly, he argued for a focus on inter-generational equity rather than radical redistribution. This meant improving access to higher education, housing and pensions for young people while removing the barriers to housing construction erected by NIMBYist Baby Boomers. Willetts was encouraged by the growing shift in public opinion in favour of housebuilding as well as governments’ increasing willingness to use the machinery of state to release land and build homes. He accepted the need for governments to tax the wealthy, and corporations, but stopped short of endorsing a hike in inheritance tax, suggesting that peoples’ desire to provide for the children’s future was a laudable aim. For him, the welfare state was important, but more as a collective insurance policy for the poor and infirm in which rights are balanced by obligations – a pool into which all who can are expected to contribute.

Questioned about the challenge of diversity to a solidaristic model of society, Willetts replied that his book, The Pinch, envisions a fragmented society renewing its obligations to future generations, thereby providing a common bond which an unite Britons across faultlines of ethnicity and religion. He also greatly championed university education, suggesting that apprenticeships were often tied to seasonal or sunset industries and hence the government would be hard-pressed to meet its 3 million target. He claimed that the view that universities taught impractical skills, or were a luxury good, were wrongheaded. A great deal of vocational training takes place at universities, so children should be encouraged to attend: he wanted to see an increasing share go to university. He added that his government’s tuition fee hike was progressive in this regard since there were no upfront fees and those who failed to earn above the threshold were not obligated to repay their loans.

Reflecting on how decisions are made in government, Willetts said that evidence, especially academic evidence, doesn’t easily filter down to decision makers. For instance, Willetts related that when he asked for 30 minutes of George Osborne’s time, he was told that he could catch him on the way to the lift. Willetts had to talk at Osborne as he went in, and received a response he used to make policy as the doors were closing.

For Willetts, the expenses scandal, while offering greater transparency, has led to a situation where allowable expenses have become so restricted that only the wealthy or those without normal family lives can afford not to take expenses. Serving coffee to constituents at a constituency surgery, for example, adds up, yet cannot be charged.

The enjoyable evening thus ended on a rare note of agreement between Wright and Willetts: that most politicians enter politics to serve and should be accorded more credit for this by the media and the public.

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In the past year British politics has got (even more) interesting, uncertain and unpredictable. On Wednesday 17th February staff from the Birkbeck Politics Department Joni Lovenduski, Tony Wright, Rosie Campbell and Jason Edwards joined together to discuss the state and health of British democracy in 2016. Should we congratulate ourselves or be concerned?

The talk ranged from where Britain stood in the world league table of democracy (good but could do better) to the growth of inequality and the rise of populism, both good and bad. The audience questions then ranged across celebrity politics, the EU referendum, local government and the quality of the UK’s political debate and discussion.

If you want to hear more about all these issue, and find out what gardening tells us about politics and how John Redwood can change your life, listen to the podcast below.