Barcelona: The conflict of Can Vies and its political significance


Alison Carney and Maria Olivella Quintana

‘Politics is the art of resolving problems and here a problem has been created, instead of being resolved, at many levels: a security problem, the destruction of a meeting/cohesion/training space… With many people being thrown out of the system, Can Vies was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.’ (Gemma Galdon, Political Scientist, University of Barcelona, Interview with El Pais 29th May 2014)

One week ago the Catalan police entered and evicted the famous squat and community centre in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona, called Can Vies. This event, and the disproportionate brutality used by the police against demonstrators later that day, have sparked some of the biggest riots and public demonstrations in Barcelona since the Indignados in 2011. The social significance and strength of the movement that is loudly protesting the eviction of Can Vies is far greater than this one incident. Although the significance of these demonstrations and resistance is being discussed in Catalan and Spanish media, sadly the English speaking media around the world has limited their coverage of the event and continuing movement to some very short, page-three articles that fail to even address the complexities and potential of what is happening in Barcelona this past week[1].

The building that is now known as Can Vies[2] was constructed in the 19th century is located near the Barcelona Sants train station. It is owned by the TMB (metro) company in Barcelona and by the 1990s it was abandoned. In 1997 a group of young people occupied the building and organised it so that part of the building was used as a living space, and the other part as a social centre that has been used as a political organising space, and a community centre for dance, music and other activities[3].

In 1998 and again in 2007 the TMB company filed complaints against the squatters in Can Vies in an attempt to evict them. After both of these complaints were rejected by the courts, the TMB company filed complaint again in 2013 and the Can Vies Assembly[4] has been negotiating with the city council since. The negotiations continued until the day before the eviction.

Can Vies is one of a number of occupied buildings throughout Barcelona (and Spain) that serve as community centres and political gathering places that are completely unmediated by the state. These centres provide resources and alternative spaces to communities that the city council has failed to provide.

Image of Can Vies before the eviction

Can Vies before the eviction

The Eviction
In March 2014, the city council and the court made a joint decision that the TMB company could evict Can Vies. TMB had already stated that when they evicted Can Vies they would tear down the building and leave an empty lot. This eviction happened first thing in the morning on Monday, May 26, 2014. The police were extremely aggressive towards the neighbours and supporters of Can Vies who gathered outside the building in solidarity with the occupants. A large demonstration was organized for 8 pm Monday evening to denounce the eviction and protest the destruction of the building.

The demonstration had not made it more than 500 meters before the Catalan police cut off the march and dissipated the crowd by driving their fleets of vans into the middle of the demonstration, with armoured police officers jumping out of the vans and beating anyone near them. People were forced to run into the narrow streets in the neighbourhood, chased by the armoured police officers who were wielding weapons. Conflicts with the police broke out as a result.

Image of demonstration

Demonstration against Can Vies eviction on the 26 May 2014

On Tuesday morning, the TMB company brought a bulldozer to the Can Vies site and immediately began to tear down the building. In reaction, people gathered around the site, banging pots and pans to draw attention to the issue[5].  This resistance lasted most of the day and at 11 pm, half of the building had been torn down, the police had finally left, and protesters set fire to the bulldozer. This led to more police violence and riots in neighbourhoods throughout Barcelona. The police were incredibly aggressive in the neighbourhoods. Militarization in dealing with demonstrators and angry citizens has been a growing problem in Catalonia.  Armoured police who are armed and who do not hesitate to beat any person in their way is common at any public political gathering. This level of violence is what sparks riots and more violence, not the other way around[6].

During the week, as demonstrations continued to be organized throughout the city in different neighbourhoods and the numbers of supporters grew to over 20,000 at a demonstration on Saturday, police violence escalated. By Friday, over 60 people had been arrested, 1 of them in prison and more than 200 people injured.

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The Significance
The significance of this public fight and demonstrations goes far beyond simply wanting to protect a building. The city council and TMB have claimed their right by the legal argument of the ownership of the building, but it seems that this claim is only a façade for a deeper intention to discourage political organising that challenges the traditional government spaces. As we can see, the building has already been mostly destroyed, and yet the numbers of supporters of this movement continues to grow daily. We see this fight and the demonstrations as symbolic of support for alternative solutions to the current crisis in Spain (and elsewhere for that matter).

A well-known political scientist in Spain (Joan Subirats) has argued that the destruction of Can Vies is a destruction of a symbolic capital for a certain type of population. This type of social capital is extremely important. In the context of crisis (as in Spain), it is significant that citizens have not stopped self-organising.  There are centres like Can Vies all around Barcelona that demonstrate a resistance and coping with the crisis that is outside the market, the individual and the state. These spaces are a network that has found a way to exist and support a community precisely because they exist outside of the state rules. The growing solidarity and demonstrations since Monday is proof that people are perplexed by why the council is threatened by such a space as Can Vies (aside from the private property issue), and it is symbolic of the growing need and support for such spaces.

In addition the rise of alternative political parties in recent elections such the CUP[7] in Catalonia or Podemos[8] in Spain demonstrate that the politics of self-organisation is gaining traction and presenting alternative options to the traditional politics in Spain. We see that more and more people are drawn to self-organised politics, rather than party driven or state mediated politics.

The movement that has led to the growing support for self-organised politics in Spain has a long history, has taken enormous work and is far from being spontaneous. The creation of alternatives that strive to exist outside of the market and of traditional politics is not something that can happen overnight, or without a lot of building. Although the context and history of this type of organizing in Spain, and even specifically in Barcelona, is particular, there are lessons to be learned by communities in other countries who are equally fed-up with the same old political options that have driven many of our counties to this point of crisis and abhorrent social conservatism.

Maria Olivella Quintana and Alison Carney are both IDS alumni.
Alison is a sport and development consultant, social activist and researcher.  She has extensive experience working with sport for social change, as well as research on the role of sport for supporting the realisation of gender equality and sexual rights.
Maria  is a feminist activist currently carrying out PhD research in Anthropology in Spain, on the transition from ‘family planning interventions’ to ‘sexual and reproductive health’. She is part of Gap Work (, a European research project addressing gender based violence, homophobia and transphobia in educational spaces. She has a MA in Gender and Development from IDS and has been part of the Unruly Politics thinking since then. Feedback welcome at:


[1] The New York TimesThe Guardian:
[2] For more information about the community center you can check Can Vies website
[3] Almost all squats in Spain are social centers, providing a space for youth to meet and organize, which was something that was missing in the 1990s.
[4] The Can Vies Assembly is the name for the community group that orginizes and engages in politics.  They are based at Can Vies, this includes squatters who live there as well as other community members.
[5] The banging of pots and pans is a tradition in the region as a way for a community to show their solidarity during demonstrations – video
[6] Documentary filmed by the Guardian on the campaign “Ojo con tu ojo” that has denounced the use by Catalan police of rubber balls as an anti-riot weapon
[7] The Popular Unity Candidates (Catalan: Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) are left-wing Catalan independentist political party active in Catalonia. The CUP have traditionally concentrated on municipal politics, and are made up of a series of autonomous candidatures that run in local elections. More information here 
[8]Podemos (meaning ‘We can’ in Spanish) is a Spanish political party created on 11 March 2014 by Spanish leftist activists associated with the 15-M movement that emerged from the 2011–12 Spanish protests. More information here



Sex and the Citadel: Shereen El Feki on the evolution of sexual rights in the Arab World


Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

This week Sussex University’s Amnesty International society hosted a fascinating event on sexuality, the Middle East and North African regions where we were lucky enough to hear Shereen El Feki speak. Shereen was previously a journalist at the Economist. But she wears many hats, having been Vice-Chair of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, a presenter at Al Jazeera, and a board member of AFE, an NGO based in Beirut which empowers human rights activists across the Arab region. Most recently, her book Sex and the Citadel has been causing quite a stir – focussing as it does on two explosive topics, sex and the Arab World – and is currently being translated into a range of languages, including Arabic.

Shereen’s background
Shereen explained that it was her personal and professional roots that led her to write Sex and the Citadel. Half Egyptian and half Welsh, she grew up in Canada as a Muslim but felt quite disconnected from her roots in the Arab World until September the 11th 2001. Suddenly there was an outpouring of coverage in the West about the place her father heralded from, mostly from outsiders, and she felt it was time to ‘re-orient’ herself. Her professional training was in immunology and she then went on to become a journalist writing about health care, particularly HIV. Sex is the main route of transmission of HIV in the Arab World and that region has one of the fastest rates of new cases of HIV and AIDS-related deaths.

Shereen recounted how she had little trouble getting people to start talking about sex, in fact it was sometimes difficult to get them to stop! Poorer people were more free and frank, leading her to conclude that education doesn’t necessarily make you more open-minded. Perhaps it makes you more mindful of everything you have to lose. Because she looked Western, yet was a Muslim and spoke Arabic women were comfortable talking to her. Whilst people tend to avoid speaking to people outside their social circle for fear of being judged, the fact that Shereen was from the West – an area of the world where everything seemingly goes – meant people had little fear of shocking her.

‘What happens in the bedroom is reflective of what happens outside it’
Shereen’s study led her to believe that sexuality is a useful lens for viewing society as a whole. Whilst the Arab World is not homogenous, there are general themes and taboos that run across the region. How these came into being, how they are perpetuated and challenged provides useful insights into politics and the process of change,

‘The sexual and the political are intimate bedfellows. We can’t have freedom unless we think about our family, personal and intimate lives. Many women understood that immediately. That bodily autonomy is not my family’s business it is my own business.’

Her book uses the metaphor of ‘The Citadel’. The Citadel which is an impenetrable, imposing medieval fortress in Cairo which was constructed by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn to protect the city from Crusaders. It has played an important political and religious role in Egyptian life since that time. The Citadel in contemporary Arab life is marriage – recognised by family and the state. Marriage is the only acceptable place for sex to occur and it is an institution many are desperate to be part of, yet a growing number of people no longer fit into this institution, or find it difficult to access.

The process of change
For all the uprisings in the region, Shereen cautioned the audience to expect evolution rather than revolution when it comes to sexual rights. She provided an anecdote about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, an Egyptian woman who became infamous as the ‘Nude Photo Revolutionary’ for posting naked pictures of herself online. To some, her unveiling had a political spin that matched the spirit of the uprising. The response of religious conservatives was fire and brimstone. But many young liberals at the vanguard of the revolution disowned her actions, and some actually took her to court. Shereen cited this as evidence that even among the young and politically questioning sexual rights are seen as a Western invention, or imposition, which will lead to free love, prostitution, porn and homosexuality.

Other changes include a growing awareness of, and backlash against, harassment and violence against women, particularly in the light of attacks that happened in Tahir Square. Whilst a UN report, published in 2013 a found that 99.3% of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt, due to rising conservatism and insecurity, young women and men are protecting each other in new ways. The hostile environment has also prompted women to speak out in ways which they wouldn’t have previously.

Shereen explained how patriarchy, or more precisely the mix of power and sex in an authoritarian and patriarchal system is to blame for rising tides of violence. Patriarchy affects young men too. There is a great burden of expectation on men around marriage and providing for their family, and yet due to the worsening economic and employment situation the age of marriage is rising because many cannot afford this commitment. In these circumstances how do you realise your masculinity and attain manhood? Many young men are in a suspended state of adolescence, still living at home with their parents. To assert themselves they lash out at those weaker than themselves, in this case often women.

Meanwhile dogmatic Islam has created entrenched ideas about the proper place of women. The policing of women’s mobility (and activities such as sport, using tampons or riding a bike), female genital mutilation, virginity testing, and hymen repair operations are all related to the need to preserve women’s virginity so that they can enter the Citadel of marriage. And it is an institution that the majority of people want to break into, given there are few, if any, other ‘legitimate’ sites for sexual activity.

Why this analysis is timely and important for the rest of the world
In many settings the ‘sexual rights as human rights’ approach to sexuality has been met with resistance by who see it as a foreign or ‘Western’ imposition which lies at odds with ‘traditional culture’. Indeed this debate has risen again in Uganda this week with the signing of the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ and President Museveni’s warning,

‘I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue because if they make it an issue the more they will lose,” he said. “This is social imperialism. To impose social values of one group on our society. “I would advise Western countries, this is a no-go area,” he said. “I don’t mind being in a collision course with the West. I am prepared.’

Whilst sexual rights are a vital framing for these issues there are other ways of approaching sexuality which might be fruitful too. Shereen’s entry points for the discussion of sexuality were more medically focussed, as a way of opening a wider conversation. Of course, HIV has often been a starting point for discussions of sexuality and this approach is not without its critics. But its utility is worth noting in this case.

She also is clear that the Arab World is evolving its own vision of sexual freedom which is unlikely to look anything like a Western model. Understanding how different models of freedom are evolving by listening closely to people experiencing this flux, rather than advocating for a blue-print approach to change tied to the Western model, is clearly important.

In addition, this politics of sexuality does not only focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans identities (important as those are). Women’s desires, freedoms, challenges and triumphs are central to the analysis, which recognises that all people are effected by norms related to sexuality. I think this is enormously important for linking across social movements and interest groups and forging a wider coalition of people to press for change, which has been one of the underlying principles of the Sexuality and Development Programme at IDS since its inception. It is also important because a vision of a socially and sexually just world that doesn’t take account of gender inequality more broadly would fail to recognise and challenge law and policy that leads to women being married to the men who rape them; sterilised because they are HIV positive; arrested or harassed for wearing a mini skirt or trousers, left without a penny as widows, deprived of basic citizenship rights for selling sex. It is a world in which we would all be poorer.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins

Violence in the hungry season


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain

Tackling violence against women and girls is rightly riding high on the development agenda and so too is food insecurity. But it has only been in the last few days, travelling around Malawi at the start of a particularly hungry season, that the direct nature of the causal link between the two has crystallised for me. Tackling violence in poor families and communities must start with protecting people’s – all people’s – rights to food.

Malawi blog 1

A boy playing at the refugee camp near Lilongwe; parents prefer to keep girls this age at home, as young girls are said to be more vulnerable to abuse during the hungry season

How does food insecurity cause sexual- and gender-based violence? I can only tell you what we heard from staff in government and UN agency facilities, including a refugee camp near Lilongwe and from women we met there. The consistency and the clarity of the message were startling: cases of violence against women and girls tend to increase sharply with hunger, and they are currently seeing a rise. Simple as that. Other factors – cultural acceptance, patriarchal privilege, perpetrator impunity, women’s lack of economic power – all matter, but are ever-present background factors, not triggers for the current rise. And after a bad maize harvest, widely attributed to climate change, this looks sadly like being a bumper year for abuse.

It is not immediately obvious why food insecurity leads so directly to more violence, and of course it does not always do so. Nor is it just poor people in Malawi for whom this is true. But two things happen when a family or a community is threatened with (worse) hunger that breed conditions for aggression and abuse. First, facing constant pressure from their children’s suffering, women push their menfolk to do more to secure food. The strains this can put on relationships that are already fraught with the tensions of everyday poverty can be immense. As Alex Kelbert and I argue in a forthcoming paper in the IDS Bulletin on Undressing Patriarchy, food shocks force acknowledgement of men’s inability to provide for their families. Drawing on research from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, that paper notes that societies tend to share norms about the primary role of men as breadwinners and providers: the inability to perform what your family, community, government and you yourself think is your primary responsibility is a source of profound pain for many men. When the options for providing are so limited, as they are in Malawi as in so many places, the alternatives are to lash out at those nearest, to drown your sorrows, or to leave.

Malawi blog 2

Vegetable vending on the Blantyre road

The second thing that happens when people go hungry is the urgent hunt for alternatives, including using ‘assets’ they would prefer not to. In Nairobi, researchers in the Life in a Time project heard that when prices go up, young girls are told they ‘are sitting on a food source’ – i.e. they could sell sex if they want to eat. Both boys and girls are said to do so when prices are particularly high in that particular Kenyan community. In the refugee camp near Lilongwe we visited yesterday, people from DRC and Burundi told us they feared letting their 9 year old daughters out of their sight, because young girls were believed to accept sweets and food without understanding what they were giving in return. A camp official said child pregnancy rates had gone up with the worsening food situation there.

It seems pretty plain that if you want to tackle violence in poor families and communities, the starting point must be that people have secure rights to the most basic resources of life. Without that, all bets are off: no amount of awareness-raising and efforts to change men’s behaviour will do much when the very basis of life is threatened, when deeply-held cultural norms about what it means to be a man are dishonoured, and when parents face the constant clamour of hungry children. In such conditions, the miracle is that there is not more violence. This does not excuse violence, but recognises that structural conditions pattern the bad choices of individual men.

The real worry now is that the developed world increasingly treats gender inequality and violence as cultural problems of male behaviour, detached from the structural conditions of increasingly volatile food prices, unpredictable harvests and precarious livelihoods. There is increasing clamour for gender equality, but apparently less support for protecting rights to food, let alone other basic economic and social rights. These things must go together.

Many thanks to Leigh Hildyard for sharing her insights about gender and food security in Malawi.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

Relationship Anarchy – Cartoons


Maria Ellinor Persson

These cartoons are a project on Relationship Anarchy which was first on display in Buenos Aires at the IASSCS conference ‘Sex and the market place -what’s love got to do with it?’, August 2013. The images can also be viewed (and enlarged) on my Relationship Anarchy website.

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Relationship Anarchy as unruly political economy?

Graphic reflections on relationships as political statements by Maria Persson

The counter-culture of the 1970s was an era of free love characterized by non- monogomous relationships, or so the story goes. Free love probably never disappeared, but it has definitely reappeared with vigor. Today’s polys have adapted free love to form a concept of responsible non-monogamy which is fulfilling as a way of life and particularly of thought. At the radical end stands the Relationship Anarchist movement indicating a third wave of polyamory as unruly politics.

In times of economic meltdown this widening of the poly movement poses interesting questions: is it an expression of Western individualism or a form of resistance to Western capitalism, or perhaps both?

In this exhibition I will examine the issues that self-identified polys and RAs face, and how they advise each other. The focus group is made up of 94 people that has been connected through Facebook and now meet regularly in Malmö, Sweden, usually over coffee, and methodology for interaction has alternated between participatory observations and online discussions. Interest is directed towards their own reflections as well as the possibility of the life style as a conscious choice to engage with the political economy of the body, the household and to challenge the family as a fundamental economic unit.

Comic drawings are the tool for presentation, due mainly to the immediacy of comics across cultural borders, where social media has heightened our ability to read images. Through the mix of text and image that comic drawings provide, a fun, beautiful, and informative way to analytically and politically reflect on society is accessed.

Maria Ellinor Persson is a queerpositive artist and activists, even though s/he’s recently been more present in the board rooms rather than on the streets. At the moment Maria is doing an internship with the NGO Nijera Kori in Bangladesh on a women’s rights programme. Maria’s participation in the recent IASSCS conference was funded through the Gender, Power and Sexuality programme, hosted by the PPSC team  at IDS.

Read the previous blog post about the IASSCS conference:

Egypt: Growing anger with western opinion


Mariz TadrosMariz Tadros photo mini

This blog has previously been posted on Open Democracy.

Selective reporting by the western media, and expert opinion predicting Egypt’s future based on the familiar pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street, are producing strong anti-western sentiment.

Which ever camp you talk to in Egypt right now, the pro or anti 30th of June revolution, there is a very strong anti-western sentiment being expressed. The supporters of former President Morsi feel betrayed by the West, who did not insist on reinstating the ‘democratically elected’ leader, and for not sufficiently defending the idea of electoral legitimacy. On Sunday pro-Morsi protestors organized marches to the US, German and other Western embassies to denounce the ‘shameful role of their countries facing the military coup’.  The supporters of the uprising against Morsi believe that the reference to the uprisings that led to the ousting of President Morsi on the 3rd of July as a ‘coup’ is an insult to the Egyptian people who rose in their millions. There is now a campaign to press for the removal of Ann Patterson, the American ambassador to Egypt.

The initial response of policy-makers, the media and analysts, to the events in Egypt and their aftermath, has galvanized large sections of the population to take a strong stance against those who work in policy influencing spaces in the west. During the past two weeks, I have been receiving commiserations from people around me in the UK regarding the state of my country, Egypt. And no wonder, western policy makers have us believe that the country is on the brink of a civil war, the media tell us that there is a backlash against democracy, and academics insist that this is déjà vu: coups ousting democratically elected governments are bound to produce the most virulent strands of dictatorships.

That the initial American response to the ousting of President Morsi was to use all measures to try and reinstate the status quo is no secret. According to El Watan newspaper a meeting was held between Ann Patterson, the US ambassador in Cairo, and some Salafi groups, shortly after the uprisings of  30th June, 2013. According to the article, Anne Patterson asked the Salafis to obstruct the moves towards forming a new government until the Muslim Brotherhood were better positioned to negotiate, assuring them that in a matter of days Morsi would be reinstated. The Watan article also mentioned a conversation between Ann Patterson and Abdul Fattah el Sissi, Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, in which she asked him to hold negotiation talks with the Brothers. He objected and told her that she was just an ambassador, and neither she nor her country had any right to intervene in the internal affairs of the country. Patterson answered that ‘this puts us closer to the Syrian scenario’.

Egypt on the brink of a civil war has been one of the main messages conveyed by the western media.  The country is portrayed as divided into the pro and anti factions, as if they have roughly equal followers and are of the same political weight. However, this is a distortion of the situation on the ground. The fact that is that the spatial quarters in which the Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers protested (Rab’a el Adaweya and Midan el Nahda) can at best hold no more than a few hundred thousand people.

This cannot be compared to the millions who took to the streets on 30th June. This should not be a numbers game, because its outcome can only be a majoritarian mentality, and democracy should be inclusive of all political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood.  However, one must be cautious not to exaggerate the political weight or constituency of a political force in order to justify why a civil war is likely.

The signals from western policy makers have not only been threatening, but punitive as well. The EU has decided this week to cancel a number of grants and loans to Egypt of more than five billion euros because of its current political scene.

The selective reporting by the western media on human rights violations in Egypt amounts to a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth. There has been a popular backlash on some of the streets of Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood which has sometimes been quite violent. The murder of 51 protestors at the Presidential Guards has been condemned by human rights organizations as being a case of security use of excessive force. The shooting of three Muslim Brothers female protestors in Mansoura by so-called thugs is a horrendous crime that has received widespread condemnation. It is also true that the security clampdowns have been sometimes ruthless and this is categorically unacceptable.

However, what the media has chosen to leave out of the equation are the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers since the 30th of June. There have been frequent assaults by militant groups on army barricades in Sinai-which have left several soldiers dead. While some may argue that this has nothing to do with the Brothers, it may be too much of a coincidence that Mohamed el Beltagui is recorded on television as saying that ‘what is happening in Sinai is a response to the military coup and will stop the minute that the…President’s powers are reinstated’

Moreover, while the Western media regularly reports on the assaults on the Brothers, there has been minimal coverage of the reprisals by pro-Morsi constituencies against the youth revolutionaries and the Copts. While sectarian violence against religious minorities increased under Mubarak and had reached new levels under Morsi, part of the targeted violence after the 30th of June was a reprisal from Muslim Brotherhood sympathsizers. In Minya on the night of 3rd July after the military had declared the ousting of President Morsi, guns were fired in the city centre of Minya by members of radical groups chanting ‘Oh what shame, the Copts have become revolutionaries‘ (ya lel ‘ar, al aqbat ba’ou thouwar). This was in reference to the role that the Copts had played as Egyptian citizens in joining in the protests calling for President Morsi’s ousting. A few days later, their properties in downtown Minya were also marked with a special sign – and threats were made that any protests in favour of the new government would  be met with attacks on the Copts.

The skewed representation of what is going on is a political act of omission. Mohamed Salmawy, one of Egypt’s most prolific writers and renowned member of the country’s intelligentsia, recently wrote in his column that he was approached by a writer for the New York Times who suggested he contribute a story with a human face about the uprising. When she received his article, she turned it down: his story of the death of a member of Tamarod did not meet the newspaper’s criteria for objectivity – yet the stories of the Brothers’ fear of persecution met the criteria.

And in the UK, it is not much better. The Guardian published a stream of articles sympathetic to the argument that with the ousting of the Brothers, the country no longer has a future. In the first two weeks, there was but one single article written from the perspective of Egyptians who have endorsed the uprising.

The same bias has been reflected in Western academic and expert opinion analysis. The argument goes that ‘political scientists are familiar with a pattern: when elected institutions with some support on the ground are removed by force, the outcome is almost never friendly to democracy. Outright military dictatorship, military domination of politics, civil war or a mix of all are all possibilities.’

Certainly one cannot rule out the possibility of all kinds of non-democratic scenarios unfolding in Egypt, but to predict that there is only a doomsday scenario awaiting the country is to fall into the trap of teleological pathways of change that political scientists seem so often to get wrong. The construction of this thesis implicitly implies equating elections with democracy. Historically this has not consistently been so, and neither has the world’s response been consistently to adopt such a stance.

The insistence on the overthrow of a democracy in Egypt omits one small fact: the same features of authoritarianism characterizing the Mubarak regime were very much reproduced during the reign of Morsi. In November 2012, President Morsi issued a presidential decree which essentially monopolized executive, legislative, judiciary powers in his hands –  which even his predecessor Mubarak had not dared issue. Even President Morsi expressed his regrets for the impact this declaration had, in his interview with the Guardian on the 29th June, 2013.  It is true he later revoked some of its articles, but only after he had managed to force through a constitution that has the support of his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, but which was rejected by almost every single other political force in the country.

Morsi’s year in office does not exactly boast of a respect for the basic tenets of democratic rule: press and media freedoms were constrained, women’s rights severely restricted, the country’s religious minorities saw the worst assaults on them ever, and there were highly disturbing encroachments on the independence of the judiciary. The same precursors to the January 2011 revolution could be identified in the period up to June 2013.

Further, the ‘overthrow of the people’s will’ argument is also difficult to swallow if one does basic arithmetic. According to official estimates, 13.2 million voted for Morsi, representing 51.73% of the total number of voters (though there have been serious questioning of the extent to which the elections were free and fair). This hardly amounts to a sweeping majority vote. While there is no agreed figure regarding the number of people who went out on the streets on 30th June, the fact is that the squares were packed with people across the country and not only in Cairo, suggesting perhaps that the numbers may have surpassed those who voted for Morsi in the presidential elections of 2012.

Another problem with the experts’ prediction that Egypt is inevitably headed for a gloomy political predicament, has to do with the discipline of political science’s ability to make futuristic projections. Political scientists have not always got it right, in fact, many a time in history, they have got it categorically wrong. Let’s take the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Conventional political science told us for many years that the political culture in Egypt had become so depoliticized by the forces of authoritarian rule that there was no way for us to expect people to rise against the regime, and then the 25th January uprising happened. This should have been sufficient to humble the entire discipline into rethinking its methods of capturing the pulse of the citizens -yet instead we are back again to the same pattern of drawing blueprints that are disconnected from the pulse on the street.

The anger with the west’s media, policy-makers, and some scholars (in particular towards those associated with the US, the UK and other European countries and Turkey) may seem irrational to some, but ultimately, it raises alarm bells as to the deep rifts that are created when people practice democracy in a way incommensurate with a western transition blueprint, and are then told they are in the wrong. In this globalized world, they can hear you.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

Reading riots


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain
For researchers of popular politics, at least, it is no curse to live in interesting times. The past weeks have seen:

  • The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) recognition that popular discontent derailed Greek austerity;
  • The mishandling of protests in Turkey;
  • The shaming of Rousseff in Brazil; and
  • The ouster of Morsi in Egypt.

These events are dense with meaning and hard to read (see Mariz Tadros on Egypt). How are they read? And whose readings count? A group of us have been thinking about this as we get into fieldwork for the DFID-ESRC Food Riots and Food Rights project. Some stylized reflections:

  1. Clever politicians read riots closely

A politician worth her salt has an ear to the ground and an eye on the limits to popular tolerance. Governments know that energy subsidy cuts can provoke riots, and that food price spikes mean disaffected slum-dwellers or farmers. States plan for riots, bringing out the special units and sharpening their weapons and laws. Some dream up gifts for the masses, as did the Indonesian Government  when it cut the fuel subsidy in June. Politicians and governments tend to read riots closely, even if they lack the power or resources or even the desire to respond.

  1. International agencies can’t read riots

International bureaucracies don’t seem to read riots, or perhaps because they are unbothered by unpopularity, fail to interpret them correctly. This is despite the view that popular opinion can deter ‘good’ policies. The IMF acknowledged on 5 June that ‘bouts of political turmoil left doubts about domestic support for the programme’ of austerity in Greece; one wonders what standard of proof the IMF would require to be confident that its programmes lack domestic support.

  1. The media writes the riots – but with different scripts

International news media magnify riots, but without the backdrop of domestic politics, they often give a one-dimensional cartoon account (‘hunger’, ‘desperation’, etc). National reports are more politically up-close and complex (see Sneyd et al’s excellent new paper on this). The two often disagree on whether said event was a ‘riot’ in any meaningful sense.

  1. Researchers read for motivation, opportunity and response

Researchers like ourselves try to understand when and why riot-type events occur, and where and what they change. Our interest in this is much like everyone else’s: riots fascinate because they rupture the foundations of political life: they reject public authority, re-set limits reached or breached, dramatise discontent through direct action. But do they change anything? If not, why do protestors bother?

Frankly, we don’t yet know. But we will get back to you with some answers in June 2014, when our comparative research will be completed.

In the meantime, for some more blogs related to this project, see Alex Shankland’s thoughts on protests and democratic innovation in Brazil, Patta Scott-Villiers’ comments on recent threats to food rights in Kenya, or my post on the Oxfam blog about the politics of inflation. You can also follow our research on Twitter @FoodRiotsRights.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

Is this that time? (Será este aquele tempo?) – Images from Brazil, words for everywhere


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Poem by akshay khanna
photographs by Luan Citele and Renan Otto

Is this that time?

Será este aquele tempo?

Is this that time?
That time foretold
in our sweaty dreams
That time
When the earth trembles
Beneath our feet
The rhythm of
A billion
Trampling underfoot
The delicate glass
Of ‘That’s just how things are’

Is this that time
When we realise
That the door
which the guard stood
Guns and towers
And coca-cola signs
Was already
And we just needed to walk through?

Is this that time when
We feel the blood
No, Not pumping through our veins
But splashing
On faces bodies gritted teeth
Like so many colours
Of a riotous holi?

Is this that time
That we will look back upon
Hear a song
And cry
Tears of neither joy nor sadness
But tears of something
That cannot be named

Come clench my hand
And let me hold yours
In this time of
Tectonic shifts
flashes of
Smoke bombs
and the screeching sound of metal
Being crushed

For this is that time
When another world is not just
She is
Already here.
Listen. Carefully in the noise.
You can hear her laughing.

Será este aquele tempo?
Aquele tempo pressagiado
em nossos sonhos suados
Aquele tempo
Em que a terra treme
Sob nossos pés
O ritmo de
Um bilião
A esfera delicada
De vidro
De ‘É simplesmente assim que as coisas são’

Será este aquele tempo?
Em que nos apercebemos
Que a porta
a qual o guarda estacou
Armas e torres
E placards da Coca-Cola
Esteve quem sabe
E simplesmente precisávamos

Será este aquele tempo em que
Sentimos o sangue
Não, Não correndo em nossas veias
Mas salpicando
Em caras corpos dentes cerrados
Na profusão de cores
De um caótico carnaval?

Será este aquele tempo
Ao qual voltaremos
E ouvindo uma melodia
Lágrimas nem de alegria
nem tristeza
Mas lágrimas de algo

Venha apertar minha mão
E me deixe segurar na sua
Nesse tempo de
Mudanças tectônicas
lampejos de
e o som estridente de metal
Sendo esmagado

Pois é este aquele tempo
em que outro mundo é não apenas
Ela já
Está aqui.
Oiça. Cuidadosamente no ruído.
Pode ouvi-la dando risadas.

akshay khanna, tradução de Pedro Miguel Patraquim