Hybrid sovereignties and the urban geopolitics of uprising.

As part of the Tabula Rasa seminar series coordinated by Adam Ramadan, this week I talked for the first time to my new Geography and Political Science colleagues at Birmingham about my work on  hybrid sovereignties, political violence and urban space in Lebanon and traced some links with my current reflections on geographies of uprising (see posts from 25 October 2012 and 15 January 2013).

In a recent EPD article, I call hybrid sovereignties those mergers, collaborations, and coordinations taking place between official state actors (army, police…) and armed unofficial groups in the perpetration of political violence and in the exercise of territorial and infrastructural control. I derived this idea while I was researching the ground dynamics of urban conflict in Beirut during the violent clashes of May 2008. In that occasion, it was clear that the control of Beirut, rather than being managed by a ‘straightforward’ sovereign state (a notion that does not apply easily to Lebanon) was fought out by rival militias, with the state stepping back officially, but mobilising militias unofficially.

One of the most compelling implications of the uprisings that have been taking place in several Middle Eastern and North African countries, and the state management of civil dissent, is the increasing number of instances where state authorities resort to collaboration and outsourcing of  violence to irregular armed actors like thugs, militias and vigilantes. I have referred mainly to examples taken from Mediterranean countries: the Baltagiya thugs during the Egyptian revolution, the Shabiha squads during the ongoing conflict in Syria, and the resort to vigilantes in Greece to target anti-austerity protesters. In these instances, the state steps back officially and mobilizes its own militias unofficially. It outsources public coercion and political violence to hybrid actors whose powers dwell between the legitimacy of the state and the irregularity of the non-state.

The overarching idea shaping my future research at Birmingham is that while terrorism was the primary key to understand urban security in the past decade, uprising is an increasingly important key to understand urban security in the current one. Hybrid sovereignty is a useful approach to understand how urban living and security are changing.

Sara Fregonese


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