The Arab Spring and Securitization Theory

by on 2013-02-13 in Duck- 4 Comments

Arab Spring

This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes.  Jarrod is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. He received his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2009. His research broadly focuses on the social construction of foreign and security policy. He is currently trying to determine what should be on the cover of his forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press while trying to reconcile that with the maxim that books should not be judged by their covers.

One of the important areas of debate in securitization theory is the applicability of the approach outside the West.  It is pretty clear that Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan wrote from a Western European perspective.  Their view of normal or ideal politics is Arentian at its core, and really only fits well with modern Western or Western-style democracies.  Lene Hansen and Cai Wilkenson have, among others, written trenchantly on this, but my thinking in this post is more directly driven by Monika Barthwal-Datta’s thought provoking piece in a 2009 issue of Review of International Studies.

In that article, Barthwal-Datta argues that the basic state-centrist nature of securitization theory means that it cannot account for securitizing moves made by non-state actors and—perhaps more problematically—does not provide any basis for understanding the exceptional measures that comprise security when securitizing moves are mounted by non-state actors.  This is especially the case in weak or mismanaged states, where the state is either unable or unwilling (because it is the source of threat) to undertake the extraordinary measures that accompany securitization.

I cannot pretend to answer these points decisively here, but it occurs to me that the Arab Spring provides a nice referent for understanding the extraordinary measures issue.  If we set up the nation-state as a political duality—the state and the society—then when non-state actors are making security claims, they are actually doing so as part of the socio-political governance system, just on the society end rather than on the government end.  For normal politics to function, both sides must participate.  Thus, if we are to look for extraordinary measures in situations where non-state actors are the primary securitizing actors, we could (should?) look for them in the behavior of society rather than the state.

Here is where the Arab Spring—and indeed other social uprisings—are instructive.  I suggest that the Arab Spring might be understood as the result of a successful securitizing move, executed by non-state actors, in which the extraordinary measures are undertaken by large elements of society against the state.  In the activities of revolution—occupying public spaces, mass protests, civil disobedience—society breaks free of the rules that govern normal politics within weak or poor states.  To be sure, these same activities might be par for the course in other types of governance systems, and thus would not represent extraordinary measures.  But if we relax our perspective on where extraordinary measures arise, some of the problems of extending securitization theory beyond the West might not be so problematic after all.

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  • Eric

    Small quibble, I think you meant ‘Claire’ Wilkinson instead of ‘Cai’.

    Also, I think I am in the minority, but I’m not convinced the framework has that much trouble outside of the west. I mean, look at the military coup d’etat as a classic case of securitization. Add to this the number of case studies focused outside the west, especially on disease oriented securitizing moves (i.e. HIV/AIDS, avian flu) and there is a great deal of traction.

    I think your real concern is securitizing moves mounted by non-state actors, whether in the west or beyond (these two issues are not coterminous). In the empirical research these are few and far between and always have problematic consequences because it is the traditional provider of security, the state, that becomes the threat. It’s been a while since I’ve read Barthwal-Datta, but doesn’t she argue that it was the local media who co-opted the discourse of ‘misgovernance’ from the state and turned it against them?

  • Matt Evans

    Your post interests me and makes me want to hear more. I understand, from reading Waever and Buzan a while ago, that speech acts can help produce a discourse of existential threats but also that the other effect was a closure of access of the debate itself. I skimmed over the 2009 piece by Bartwhal-Datta and I didn’t necessarily get the sense of this foreclosure of participation in a strong form. As in your post and Bartwhal-Datta, my sense is that particular actors get excluded through de-legitimation, but the overall effect is not a foreclosure of participation in producing, defining, and arguing over these threats for the broader public. In Egypt, conventional politicians and the elite of the army are being pushed out of their elite role of securitization by public protests and broad-based politics. For me, this does not seem to be a narrowing of politics that securitization points to, but a widening of it. Egypt does not point to some process of NGOization (as Choudhry describes the colonization of mass movements by doxas of imaginaries and tactics from NGOs) or a thinning out of the ranks of the nationalist project (as Chatterjee describes the development of nationalism in India). Perhaps both of these things are happening in Egypt, but not in the way that you conceive of securitization.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    Thanks Eric. On the point Cai’s name. I meant Cai. She changed her name a couple years ago ( I agree, I don’t think it is as problematic as some suggest. You have it correct re: her argument. Those empirics though are based on a lot of argumentation in the first half of the article about the difficulties securitization theory has with securitization in weak states (where non-state actors are significant securitizing actors). The broader issue of non-state securitizing actors obviously spans the West-to-NotWest divide (as does my argument above), but Barthwal-Datta is pretty explicit in claiming this primarily an issue in weak or mid governed states outside the West, so I thought I would respond on that ground.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    Thanks Matt. You are right, when the state (or a state-based actor) is the securitizing actor, we do expect politics to become more limited in the event of securitization. It is interesting to think about how this might change when securitization takes place in the society side of the sytem. My initial reaction is that it has the potential to wide politics. Great point, and gives me something to think about.