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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

The Arab Uprisings and Their External Dimensions: Bringing Migration In

Growing Prevalence and Influence of Arab Migration Trends

In recent years, Arab emigration has been growing. Arab expatriates constitute approximately 6 percent of the local population in the countries across North Africa and the Levant, a percentage that is twice as high as the world average.[i] Notwithstanding such significant patterns of out-migration, the impact of Arab emigration on domestic political systems has not been operationalized. Since the 19th century, nationals from the Arab world have migrated — for predominantly economic and political reasons — to various destination regions, namely to the Gulf, Europe, North America, and Latin America. To date, we know little about their orientations and activities.[ii] For instance, we do not know much at all about the profile of migrant categories that have sought to strengthen pro-regime networks and those that have sought to expose the cracks in their origin countries’ regimes.

Contemporary scholarship has established interrelationships between migration and politics.[iii] Immigrant communities affect transformations “back home” through external voting, the funding of political agendas, or return migration. They also circulate either pro-democratic or pro-authoritarian norms.[iv]

Still, for all the debate on the relationship between migration and politics, scholars, and policy-makers often pay little attention to the linkages between Arab migration and the politics of democratization or authoritarianism.

Though the picture remains blurred, both political dissenters and regime supporters in exile have historically sought to forge a politics of claims-making: dissenters in exile have promoted anti-regime activities through lobbying, protests, publications, etc.[v] Regime supporters have sought to reinforce pro-regime loyalties through cooperative channels with their homeland’s incumbents or with other transnational loyalist groups.

Arab regimes have themselves drawn on the “migration card” to reinforce their power base. Governmental institutions in Egypt or Morocco have sought to retain power over their diasporas by externalizing a state-defined form of Islam, through financing mosques and Muslim associations abroad.[vi] Countries such as Syria, Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia have forced opposition actors to leave or have kept dissenters in the diasporic pool at bay.

Diverse Forms of Influential Arab Diasporic Activisms

The 2011 Arab wave of contention and its aftermath have had marked diasporic features and ramifications whose significance ought to be assessed.[vii] Here, I sketch tentative observations arising from my field research since 2011.

My research shows that those communities engaged in a wide repertoire of online and offline activism. Libyans in the United States and in England have sought to provide alternative media accounts of events in Libya. They have carried out teach-ins and presentations on the history of “Libya under Ghaddafi.” They have further provided “contact points” for locals in case of internet breakdown. Some have returned to Libya to provide humanitarian assistance or assist refugees along the Tunisian-Libyan border. Many have established diaspora-based civil society associations (CSOs) that have engaged in activities such as gauging expatriates’ perceptions on constitution writing.

Egyptian activists helped in various ways to sustain the momentum of contention in Tahrir Square. For instance, as Egyptian authorities disabled the Internet for five days beginning on January 28, 2011, activists in the United States contributed to circumventing the crackdown on social media by maintaining contact with locals through landlines and diffusing information through other means. In 2012, Egyptian expatriates were actively engaged in orchestrating the global campaign for external voting rights. Since then, a myriad of epistemic and artistic communities in America and Germany have collaborated with Egyptian locals in co-designing projects geared towards safeguarding “the 2011 legacy.”

Although Yemeni diasporic communities had been relatively un-mobilized in the last decades, they experienced a temporary upsurge of activism in the United Kingdom and the United States when the Arab Spring began. For instance, activists based in the United Kingdom orchestrated aid campaigns to support local opposition actors during the 2011 uprising, engaged with policy makers, and deliberated on avenues to participate in the 2013-2014 Yemeni National Dialogue conference. In the United States, for instance, Yemeni youth activists staged information campaigns on ways to participate in domestic affairs through education, civil activism and political leadership. According to some of my respondents, it is hoped that empowering communities living outside of Yemen may serve as a catalyst for longer term political transformations.

Despite Syria’s complex conflict dynamics, Syrian communities in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States have set up initiatives to count the dead and report human rights violations to international organizations. Many have lobbied in capitals such as Washington and London for more articulate foreign policy stances vis-à-vis the war-ravaged country. Though diasporic momentum has subsided since 2013, Syrian activists in cities such as Berlin and Hamburg seek to reinvigorate what they qualify as a “waning diasporic activism.” They stage pilot projects and workshops with a view to debating which forms of cultural and political participation may yield results for their embattled homeland.

Still, assuming that diasporas have engaged only in forms of political resistance provides a reductionist picture. The nature and scope of diasporic interaction with domestic politics remains very diverse, and a systematic appraisal of its various forms is needed.

My research shows that both local and diasporic political factions have established contact with sympathizers in the diaspora during the 2011 uprisings and their aftermath. Actors — be they secular, Islamist or supporters of the ancien régime — have sought to shift the scale of contention to regional and transnational avenues. Still, we know little about the “transnational migrant circuits”[viii] through which such contacts are woven and about which host governments have been receptive to their politics of claims making.   The extent to which transnational Islam has cross-border roots has been well documented.[ix] Yet, the literature is scarce in findings on whether — and if so, how — secular Arab migrant groups have crafted their politics of dissent prior to the 2011 uprisings. Also, while many articles have documented how contenders in diaspora have cheered the 2011 revolutions, the activities of pro-regime and Islamist expatriate actors received less media attention during the same time period.

It is worth adding that diaspora politics shapes Arab political regimes in various convoluted – albeit underresearched — ways. For instance, as the Tunisian case reveals, political trends within diaspora communities have had bearing through external voting on the local balance of power between secular and Islamist groups.[x] Economic remittances that diasporas send to locals may strengthen resistance but also provoke reprisals. My conversations show that when Egyptian expatriates fund local projects of political resistance, this spurs the regime to crack down on dissidents.

The Country of Reception and the Impact of New and Longstanding Refugees

Notwithstanding forms of Arab activism in exilic spheres, the 2011 uprisings have generated new waves of refugees and impacted the international governance of migration. The country of reception has become a key agent shaping the terrain of Arab politics through its own policies.

The politics of hospitality (or lack thereof) that receiving contexts adopt vis-à-vis categories of refugees and political exiles indirectly impacts the political landscape back home. It may signal legitimation or contempt for transition Arab governments and for key political actors in the region. For instance, political refugees escaping the ongoing turmoil in Syria, Iraq or Egypt have been welcomed, marginalized, or tracked in accordance to their sect and political orientations and in accordance with the extent to which the country of reception sympathizes or shuns the new regimes that have replaced old autocracies. In an effort to mend ties with the Sisi regime in Egypt, Qatar exiled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders in 2014 that sought refuge in Qatar following the fall of the Morsi government. In the wake of a deepening “post-spring” cleavage between Shiites and Sunnis, the expulsion of Lebanese Shiites from the United Arab Emirates in March 2015 sends an ominous message to Hezbollah regarding its military role in Syria. It further highlights that securitizing migration has become a central feature of governance.

The policies of the host society may further dampen or exacerbate the perceptions of marginality that exiled actors harbor over time, impacting the way these actors draw on their receiving context as a platform for “long-distance nationalism.” The selection procedures and forms of hospitality that host societies practice vis-à-vis post-Arab Spring refugees may be expected to shape their political consciousness and forms of mobilization. For example, refugee inflows to Germany from Syria and Iraq have lately caused contentious debates on their integration into the urban social fabric. This has coincided with the rise of the right wing Pegida movement in Dresden, making the issue a hotbed public item.

Ambivalent and ad hoc practices of host societies may also add another layer of complexity to the protracted nature of post-2011 conflicts and their spillovers. In Lebanon, where society is divided along pro-Asad or anti-Asad sympathies, the incorporation of Syrian refugees in different communities has been conditioned by their background and political allegiances.

Spillovers of Post-Uprisings Political Crises through the Migration Lens

In yet another perspective, countries of reception have lately become the theater for some post-Uprisings political crises. Migrant groups have replicated domestic conflicts through the prism of protests and clashes in cityscapes such as Hamburg, Celle, and Hannover. [xi] In the context of the Syrian conflict and the ascent of ISIS, immigrant forms of protest have refracted the various ways through which politicized forms of religion (e.g. Sunni Islam versus Alevism in post-2011 Syria) acquire new political salience in diaspora. Confrontations pitting Islamist groups against Yazedis and Kurds in Hamburg in light of ISIS attacks on Mosul and Kobane are a case in point.   In October 2014, for example, the Kurdish community organized a demonstration in the vicinity of a Sunni mosque in Hamburg, denouncing ISIS offensive in the Northern parts of Iraq and Syria. It was reported back then that Kurdish demonstrators ended up clashing with so-called “radical Islamists,” conjuring fears that the conflict “back home” had spread to Hamburg.

Policy Implications of Arab Migration

The Arab state remains the primary terrain for the reenactment of political and conflict dynamics between contenders for power. Yet, fully delimiting the theatrical stage of Arab uprisings requires looking beyond “bounded communities” and state-confined concepts of the political. For instance, gaining insights into the way Tunisian social movements drove change in 2011 requires reconstructing their alliances with Tunisia’s diasporic spheres. Further, it is unrealistic to study the terrain of Islamist politics in today’s Syria without accounting for their cross-border and diasporic roots.

We are called upon to account for the myriad ways through which migration concomitantly interacts with Arab state structures and with global politics. Arab world diasporas often reproduce the same cleavages along which local Arab communities are organized. They affect inter- and intra-state conflicts through sending remittances and transmitting political norms back home. They project overseas forms of political consciousness bound to affect their host society’s social landscape, foreign policy, and international relations.

However, it would be simplistic to dismiss diasporic spheres as platforms for conflict exacerbation. They are rather interlocutors for gauging the interdependencies between the local and global. Also, the various ways through which diasporas such as Tunisian communities have promoted democratization should not be discounted.[xii]

Any policy discussion related to “post-spring” transformations cannot but develop a   migration-related agenda. Questions with which experts are called to grapple are manifold: How have different Arab emigration waves affected the local balance of power between regime and opposition actors? Has outmigration benefited or backfired on local authoritarianism? Has it drained the reservoir of pro-democratic resources from the Arab state? To what extent have migrants re-articulated forms of political sectarianism? What are the circumstances under which migration flows and their governance affect the “post-spring” geopolitical field, making it impossible to separate local from transboundary drivers of change?

Such are some of the questions that ought to guide the international debate on Arab migration, one that considers the importance of migrant communities beyond security and labor prisms.


[i] Philippe Fargues, “International Migration and the Nation State in Arab Countries,” Middle East Law and Governance 5 (2013), 5–35, 12-13. (

[ii] Louise Cainkar, “New Texts out Now: Louise Cainkar, Global Arab World Migrations and Diasporas,” Jadaliyya, 22 May 2013. (

[iii] Jonathon W. Moses, “Emigration and Political Development: Exploring the National and International Nexus,” Migration and Development 1, no.1 (2012), 123–37. (

[iv] Stephan Rother, “Changed in Migration? Philippine Return Migrants and (un)democratic Remittances”, European Journal of East Asian Studies, 8 no. 2 (2009), 245–74. (

[v] Christoph Schumann, “Political “Articulation” in the Diaspora: Media, Language, and “Dialogue” in the Case of Arab-Americans.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 13 (2/3) 2004, 307- 330. (

[vi]Jonathan Laurence, “The 21st-Century Impact of European Muslim Minorities on ‘Official Islam’ in the

Muslim-Majority World,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 40, no. 4-5 (2014), 449–58. (

[vii] Teresa Graziano, “The Tunisian Diaspora: Between ‘Digital Riots’ and Web Activism,” Social Science Information 51 (2012), 534-50 ( ; Anja Wollenberg and Jason Pack, “Rebels with a Pen: Observations on the newly Emerging Media Landscape in Libya,” The Journal of North African Studies, 18 no. 2, (2013), 191-210. (

[viii] Roger Rouse, “Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism,” Diaspora, no. 1 (1991) 8.

23, 14. (

[ix] Dale F. Eickelman, “Trans-state Islam and security,” in Transnational Religion and Fading States, eds.

Susanne H. Rudolph and James Piscatori, (Boulder: Westview press, 1991), 27-46. (

[x] Thibaut Jaulin, “Mapping External Voting: the 2011 Tunisian Election Abroad,” Conference Paper, Workshop on Arab Expatriates and Revolt in their Homeland, June 2013, Harvard. (

[xi] “Reactions to Riots in Hamburg, Celle,” Deutsche Welle, 8 October 2014. (

[xii] Sari, Hanafi, ‘The Arab Revolutions: Who are the Actors,” Global Dialogue, 7 May 2011. (