Category Archives: Comment

Workshop report: Responding to uprising. Urban security between resilience and resistance. Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Birmingham.

While terrorism has shaped urban security in the last decade, since 2011 several cities worldwide have been at the centre of protest, riot, and even uprising. If terrorism was the key for understanding urban security in the past decade, is uprising is a crucial key for understanding urban security in the current one?

On 26 September, 14 international and interdisciplinary speakers gathered for the IAS-sponsored workshop Responding to Uprising: Urban Security between Resilience and Resistance and debated the impact that protest and uprising have on urban security. The workshop considered the changing life in cities experiencing crisis and transition, both from the everyday perspective of communities and their spaces, and from the official perspective of the state and its security agendas. The speakers held presentations to an audience from across the University of Birmingham and conducted two briefing sessions in order to identify possible trends and agendas for research and policy. Disciplines and fields represented at the event included Geography, Law, International Sciences, Civil Engineering, and Resilience Studies. The workshop was international in nature and aimed to produce comparisons about urban responses to crisis across accepted regional divides like the MENA and the EU.

Discussions were guided by the following questions:

•Which security discourses, tactics and policies do states adopt to respond to protest and uprising?
•Which strategies do communities employ to respond, resist and adapt to crisis and transition?
•Do state and community responses trust, reflect and respect each other’s objectives?
•How are resilience and resistance understood, related and applied contextually?

This extremely content-rich day of discussions spanned the themes of spatial configurations of security and resilience devised by the state and by other actors of coercion, the relationship of urban communities with constituent power (especially the police) and their coping mechanisms during uprising and transition. While context is important in thinking about uprising and protest and we should stay clear of overarching statements, it is also important to trace possible links between cities that are usually considered as part of different global regions, such as the EU and the MENA.

Notice board outside Paternoster Square in the City of London.  Access to the square was limited after Occupy London attempted to occupy it on 15 October 2011. The square is a public space but has no public right of way, so it can be closed by its owners at any time.  Photograph: ©Sara Fregonese 2011

Notice board outside Paternoster Square in the City of London. Access to the square was limited after Occupy London attempted to occupy it on 15 October 2011. The square is a public space but has no public right of way, so it can be closed by its owners at any time.
Photograph: ©Sara Fregonese 2011

Configurations of security: states, non states, parastates and the market

Managing and rearranging urban space is a crucial part of state policing, for disciplining dissent and ‘disorderly’ environments. The case of the Arab uprisings and protests in Europe is not different, however what distinguishes it is an increasingly clear combined action by police (or army), law, irregular groups, and the private market – in different ways depending on the context – in rearranging urban space to exercise coercion and limit the possibility of protest. The languages and technologies mobilised for this purpose often used to be the realm of counter-terrorism, as suggested by Dr. Victoria Trimble.  Blockades, checkpoints, and even separation walls, for example, are common practices used by the authorities in post-revolutionary Cairo. In London, corporate privatisation and legal mechanisms have also been employed to ‘map out’ the Occupy movement from Paternoster Square and the Saint Pauls’ cathedral precinct, as Prof. Antonia Layard demonstrated. The former was sealed off to the public, tightening its (flexible) status of quasi-private space; the latter was mapped as a highway using transport law, which established a corridor where encampment was illegal.

The delegation of coercion during protest and uprising is another configuration of security that combines state, irregular forces and the private sector. Practices like the police hiring thugs and vigilantes, infilitrating protests, and the facilitation by the market of transnational police and military training, is posing serious questions about the State’s control of sovereignty in several countries like Egypt, Greece and Turkey. This opens questions about the state’s more or less strategic hybridisation with a range of irregular actors as highlighted by Dr. Sara Fregonese. Some of these contaminations, like the phenomenon of the ‘parastate’ in Greece, have longer historical genealogies, explained by Dr. Sappho Xenakis. However, their impact on urban spaces and communities deserves more research.

The state of urban communities/The state and urban communities

One aspect linking the study of urban conflict and the study of protest is the tendency by many researchers to adopt state-centred, official- and media-based accounts of events. According to Dr. Gennaro Gervasio, this tendency shadows the everyday strategies of resistance of ‘marginal’, emerging subjectivities and spaces, often in peripheral localities, which are important to understand how protests and strategies of resistance are shaped.

Urban space is crucial for resistance: by taking, occupying, reclaiming and reconfiguring spaces within cities, established power arrangements are subverted and resistance is made tangible. Reconfiguration happens also in notoriously destructive ways, such as the burning of historic buildings in Athens in December 2008. However, taking space is not a unique or novel feature of the present protests and the longer histories of occupation and reclaiming space need to be unpacked, argued Dr. Albet, in  order to grasp the rationale of current protests. Importantly, it is the periphery of the megalopolis, as specified by Dr. Gervasio, where the urban communities of resistance develop, before the centre becomes the iconic and performative site of game-changing protests, like those of Tahrir Square.

In times of austerity and transition, argues Dr. Xenakis, it becomes clear that urban security is for citizens rather than for other of the city’s dwellers – such as immigrants and slum dwellers. A striking case in question is that of street children – a particularly understudied subject, according to Nelly Ali’s poignant presentation – who despite their often conscious activism, have been the object of systematic violence by old, transitional, and new regimes. The youth is another crucial component of communities of resistance and the question of which role youth, and especially the post-Mubarak Egyptian youth, has to play in the changing public spheres of the MENA region remains an open question, says Prof. Michelle Pace.

The technologies of repression used by the state or its associates are being counteracted by growing solidarity and organisation in resistance. This is particularly the case with the increasingly commercialised and widespread use of ‘non-lethal’ weapons such as teargas. Witnessing, collecting and archiving evidence of tear gas use for controlling dissent are becoming crucial to activists and urban communities caught up in gas, and various organisations – such as Bahrain Watch – are mobilising, explain Dr. Anna Feigenbaum and John Horne. Such forensic of teargas could and should be accompanied by a ‘zooming in’ into the presence and actions of state-delegated, irregular, or corporate coercion against protesters, argued Dr. Fregonese, through witness reports, collection of visual evidence and recognition of specific practices (clothing, signalling, use of specific technologies) adopted by irregulars.

Concluding remarks

The workshop questioned the relationship between local urban communities and emerging national security practices and agendas for controlling (often violently) domestic civil dissent. It identified some outstanding and pressing issues about security and uprising in cities across different regions, revealing closer connections between them than commonly thought.


Many thanks to the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) for supporting this event and especially to Sarah Myring for the practical organisation; to the speakers and chairs; and to Simon Copeland for note-taking during the event.

You can review the workshop Twitter feed using the hash tag  #uprisingIAS


Sara Fregonese

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“Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop

Back in March I participated in the “Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop organized by Melanie Lombard of the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester.  It was a good occasion to reflect on urban conflict in the frame of urban informality and I am now preparing an article on the new informal boundaries in Beirut  post-2008 clashes.

Melanie wrote a brief thematic summary outlining avenues for future research. You can read it here:

Sara Fregonese

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Geopolitical Passport

On Christmas Eve, I become the 100th contributor to the Geopolitical Passport interview series on the website Exploring Geopolitics, hosted by geographer Leonhardt van Efferink.

Quoting from Exploring Geopolitics:
“The ‘Geopolitical Passport’ Series offers visitors to ExploringGeopolitics a unique opportunity to find out more about the enormous variety of views within the geopolitical traditions. The floor has been given to scholars from several countries and various disciplines, giving the Series an intense and rich intellectual flavour. […] The questions address issues all people with an interest in geopolitics grapple with. How should we define it? What are the most fascinating geopolitical ideas? And how will the geopolitical future look like?”

Personally, it was a nice opportunity to reflect and clarify my thoughts on my geopolitical training just before starting my new job.

Here is the text of the interview. I hope you enjoy reading it as I enjoyed preparing it.

Sara Fregonese: Urban Geopolitics, Hybrid Sovereignty, international diplomacy.



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Keep Calm and Carry On Applying

Last month, I was offered one of 25 Birmingham Fellowships at the University of Birmingham. From 1 January, I will be based in the School of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences and in the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security.

Differently from my previous academic posts, this is a permanent one. It consists of a 5-year Research Fellowship, leading to a full-time Lectureship, in which I will have the opportunity to become a “future academic leader”. I’ll be working on geographies of protest and urban resilience, looking particularly at the impacts of uprising on urban everyday life.

Having spent more than a year applying for all kinds of permanent and temporary academic jobs in the UK and abroad, it’s a fantastic outcome. Before 2012 finishes, I’d like to reflect on this particular moment before – with pleasure – relegating it to the past.

The process was lengthy and competitive, with more than 800 initial applications for roughly 25 posts. I went through 3 stages of increasingly detailed research proposal preparation across 3 months, followed by one rather intense interview, and a two-week wait for a decision.

Looking for a job and finding the mental space to finish my current research post as British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow hasn’t been an easy combination. In 20 months, I applied for jobs at the Universities of:

Liverpool, Royal Holloway, King’s College London, Queen Mary London, Cambridge, SOAS, Sheffield, Cardiff, Lund, Bristol, UCL, Edinburgh, Loughborough, Royal Holloway again, Birmingham, Oxford, Newcastle, Manchester,  Birmingham again, Open University, oh…and Royal Holloway again!

That is 22 applications in 20 months – Adam made 15 in a year around the same time. In addition to this, factor in constant CV updating, cover letter tweaking, contact making, reference requesting, form filling, interview preparation, travel, being interviewed, and overcoming post-rejection blues.

With the Research Excellence Framework (REF) looming, and the crucial publication record to complete, the last year and a bit took a toll also on my physical health. I’m on the mend, but from what I hear among my generation of academics, Iʼm not alone.

All too often, and increasingly in the UK, young academics battle for a succession of temporary posts. Teaching Fellows, Research Associates, Post-Doctoral Fellows, Temporary teaching Fellows, before (if at all) they move on to a permanent Lectureship/Tenure. These can last 3 years for the luckiest, 1 year to 18 months on average, sometimes a few months, and in the most exploitative of cases paid only in term-time. The times where you’d go from a PhD to a permanent Lectureship, perhaps via a year of Postdoc, seem to have gone.

Temporary posts are not bad per se: they give a gradual introduction into a highly competitive academic environment. I have advised other people to take up RA positions right after their PhD, working on someone elseʼs project, in order to get a break from their original topic, gather perspective and develop new networks. This is what happened to me 5 years ago, when I worked in Manchester as RA for Ralf Brand’s ESRC project on The Built Environment: Mirror and Mediator of Radicalisation. I learned a huge amount in that post.

After three years as a British Academy Post-Doc Fellow, Royal Holloway were unable to make me or another colleague permanent, even though there is an assumption in favour of retention on the part of the BA. I eventually managed to get myself an 18 months post at a top UK university. The first lines of my contract were not terribly welcoming, warning of the temporary nature of the post, and its non negotiable basis. This was one of several hundred such posts created to bring in promising researchers ahead of the REF, then spit them out again afterwards.

The Birmingham Fellowships – and other schemes like Sheffield’s  Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowships – seem to take the opposite approach: long term investment in people and this reassuring statement (from Birmingham):

“Our goal with the Birmingham Fellowships is to cultivate the next generation of Birmingham academics, rather than to work with outstanding post-docs for a few years and then lose them from our community.”

I have received several emails recently from early-career academics on the job market, sometimes slightly younger than me. It is unrealistic to warn them off temporary or REF-orientated posts when these are often the only options available. I found it more useful to share a few pragmatic steps on how to survive until the permanent job comes around:

  • Treat temporary positions the way they treat you: selfishly. Accumulate enough teaching hours to look good on your CV, and no more than you have to.
  • No taxation without representation. The level of inclusion of temporary staff members is often not the same as permanent members of a department. Don’t take it personally, because this can be a blessing: it means that you are free to say “no” to what you consider unreasonable workloads. It also exonerates you from long-term obligations to attend teaching administration meetings. Ultimately, it leaves you the mental space to get on with your own research – which is ultimately what will get you your next job.
  • Even if you are not religious, believe in afterlife. In temporary jobs, the ‘after’ is all that matters. So treat them merely as a transient moment for preparing the next step. Keep your eyes and ears open for jobs and useful contacts.
  • Be loyal while it lasts, but don’t buy the ring just yet. This job is most probably not ‘the one’. Give what is necessary to department duties, and your give best to your conference papers, your writing, and networking.
  • It’s not you, it’s them. Don’t get cross if your contract doesn’t get renewed. The object of the contract transaction is probably not you, it’s the REF. No offence.
  • You need a friend. Get a mentor (or even two), to turn to for different aspects of your job. This can be a brilliant senior member of staff in your department who can advise about the next steps, and also pick you up when you feel hopeless. It can be your former PhD supervisor, who knows you and has seen you grow up professionally; it can even be someone outside academia who is sensitive to this environment, to give you a reality check of your abilities, potential, and expectations.
  • Most people don’t get it. Be careful about people’s opinions – especially coming from non-academics who have no idea. Don’t listen relatives or friends when they say: “you are trying too hard”, “this job wasn’t meant to be”, “why don’t you find a normal job”, “you can do research in your spare time”, “it won’t make you any money”, and “what is it you do, anyway?”. You should show them the finance statement when you get a big research grant, and list the great places you get paid to go on fieldwork or conferences.
  • Finally, and most importantly, you need to get out more. Put your academic and personal relationships, private life, physical health and psychological well being first.

Good luck!

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Contested Mediterranean Spaces. Book review.

After presenting my thoughts at its launch event at SOAS one year ago, I reviewed this very interesting collection of essays for Environment and Planning D. The volume is inspired Charles Tilly’s work on contentious politics in the Mediterranean, whose cities are at the centre of today’s security concerns amidst uprising, regime transition, protests, and conflict. This book sets the tone for the discussions that geopolitics scholars should have – and we should have more – on this region, its urban communities and environments.

You can read the review here:

Kousis M, Selwyn T and Clark D (2011) Contested Mediterranean spaces ethnographic essays in honour of Charles Tilly. Oxford and New York, Berghahn Books

Sara Fregonese

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We need to talk about fieldwork. And hotels.

During my latest fieldwork trip in Beirut last September, I was interviewed by The National, an UAE-based newspaper in English. This article on the significance of Beirut’s war-torn buildings appeared yesterday.

Parallel to my British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship on sovereignty and urban infrastructure in Beirut which has kept me busy in the last 3 years, I have been working on another, smaller British Academy-sponsored research on the role of international hotels in pre-war Beirut as sites of geopolitical experiences and significance in the everyday life of cities. The theme is inspired by a session that Klaus Dodds and I organised at the 2010 RGS-IBG on hotels and geopolitics.

The overarching question here is: Why and how do cities go from coexistence to communitarian violence in such a little time as it happened in Beirut?

I worked on this during the last couple of trips to Beirut (June 2011 in archives and September 2012 with interviews). The case of Beirut’s former hotels area, and especially the Holiday Inn hotel, can provide answers.

Roughly 1 square km near the north-western waterfront of Beirut’s reconstructed city centre, included between the neighborhoods of Ayn el Mreisset, Minet el Hosn and Kantari, nowadays lies in ruins. In 1976, this area went from being a diverse international mobility hub – comprising hotels, embassies, bars, banks, and located besides a highway connected to the airport – to one of the roughest battleground of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991). But Between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, as I got to know the urban history in detail, this area was full of life. According to a 1974 tourist guide, the area used to host 18 international hotels 10 restaurants (Lebanese and international), at least 5 night clubs (plus dozens more less reputable ones), 6 cabarets and 1 theatre. But in the early 1970s, the quality of the place started to decline when the price of the land soared and independent owners started to struggle to keep up with rents and maintain the quality of the local entertainment. Part of the area became a low-end night entertainment hub, as magazines of the time show, and the area was defined as a place where one could go if “they wanted women”, as an interviewee put it.

Advertisement for Beirut’s Holiday Inn, ca 1974.

“Around the world and now in Lebanon”: advertisement for Beirut’s Holiday Inn, Al Hawadess magazine, 31 August 1973

While the first fieldwork was mainly digging into local archives, this September I focused on interviews. Apart from a series of more formal conversations with architects, political analysts, and academics, there was all a part of the fieldwork which involved casual conversations with locals of the neighbourhood. Every early morning my RA and I went to the former hotel area, recorded our conversations with people still residing in the neighborhood – among whom some of the older ones who could remember the events. Some conversations were short: 2 or 3 minutes. Others were much longer, and one ended with a shopkeeper making us coffee and telling us about his global connections in the 1960s with the local diplomatic personnel – including a vatican embassy employee who used to bring him classic trousers from Italy. We also used 1960s urban planning maps to understand the changes that happened the area, in a process of urban archaeology that gave way to some interesting discoveries.I had the luck of being assisted by two bright researchers: Imad Aoun of RHUL who translated meticulously the archive material in Arabic and pilot interviews that I collected during the first trip; and Simona Loi from Lebanese International University, who walked with me wherever the research took us, from dead-end alleyways, churches, former cemeteries, primary schools, or abandoned hotel lobbies.

This shopkeeper told me that his shop used to be on the fire line of snipers hidden in the Holiday Inn hotel. The hotel, actually, towers over from the end of the street. Photo: Sara Fregonese.

The Holiday Inn hotel nowadays. Photo: Sara Fregonese

Now it’s data analysis time and I am about to hire an artist to design an artefact that is unique to the history of this site. For me, one important issue is to understand whether and how the presence of a certain ‘temporary’ built environment constructed around mobility and flows – hotels, embassies, and temporarily inhabited architectures for open, mobile social groups like tourists, diplomats, and business people – influenced the demise and takeover of the area by militias.

Sara Fregonese

Related publications:

Fregonese, S. (2012) Between a refuge and a battleground. Beirut’s discrepant cosmopolitanisms. In: Geographical Review, Vol. 102, 2012, p. 316–336.

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The Lion in the Room. Or, how to cope during tough times in Beirut.

Beirut is certainly one of the cities where geopolitical processes are most entwined in its everyday life.

A video has just been released, showing the Chase Restaurant in Sassine Square in Beirut, at the moment of the explosion of the car bomb which on Friday 19 October killed General Wissam al Hassan, Head of the intelligence branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces.

Video of the moment of the explosion at Sassine Square.

Last Friday, the delicate relationship between Lebanon and neighboring Syria, the attempts to expand the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, and the renewed polarisation of the Lebanese political and sectarian scene since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005, all materialised in this powerful blast. It came from a car bomb parked in a narrow street between a bank and some residential buildings, adjacent to the lively Sassine Square, the heart of traditional Christian Beirut, but now becoming more and more populated with Shi’a middle class residents.

After the bomb, came the funeral, and after the funeral, came the protest for the government to resign, and for the first time since the Lebanese civil war, the Ottoman-epoch Government building, the Serail, came under violent attack by demonstrators.

There are clear leads connecting this bomb with Syria and the regime of Bashar al-Assad (Assad in Arabic means ‘Lion’). Last Summer, General Al-Hasan ordered the arrest of former minister of information Michel Samaha. Wiretapping and intelligence agents had caught Samaha plotting with the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau Ali al-Mamlouk  to bring explosives into Lebanon and blow up Sunni political exponents.

Yesterday the French foreign minister declared that a Syrian involvement is ‘probable’.

While the geopolitical balance of the region is once more in question after Friday, the everyday geopolitics of Beirut and other polarised cities like Tripoli in the north of the country develop with street protests, burning barricades, shooting, and the resurgence of the lines of contention that remain latent in those areas where the population is politically polarized and more susceptible to being radicalised.

Part of living in Beirut consists of such tough times, when moving around and feeling safe in the city is a continuous negotiation and adaptation of one’s routines and habits.

Among the many coping mechanisms is a user-generated mobile application called Ma2too3a (in arabic: ‘cut’). Created by the CEO of Larochesoft, Mohammad Taha, Ma2too3a works by posting notifications about roads that are cut (ma2too3a) not only because of traffic jams, but above all because of checkpoints, demonstrations, burning tires, shooting and so on. In August 2012, Taha was in talks with the Interior Ministry and fire department in Beirut to have it officially launched and plans were for it to reach the Android market. It is nicely designed and when an event terminates, a red rose appears indicating that the road is free.

The app is the twenty-first century version of the 1970s radio announcers who in Beirut updated the population about the situation in the streets and the position of snipers.

Living through (often very negative) change is part of the everyday life of a city like Beirut. Ma2too3a is the example of dual-use technologies that truly can help cities and communities be resilient in times of conflict.

In the face of the lion in the room.

Sara Fregonese

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