Category Archives: Uprising geographies

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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Responding to Uprising: Urban Security Between Resilience and Resistance: workshop program

What follows is the program of the day of discussions I am hosting at Birmingham on the theme of how to manage cities in times of uprising. There will be a wide interdisciplinary range of speaker, including Geography, Engineering, Law and Politics. 

The workshop is sponsored by Birmingham’s Institute for Advanced Studies and sees the participation of internal speakers from both my academic homes: the Institute for Conflict Cooperation and Security and the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Details of the event can be found here


For registration:

For any other enquiries:


The day will unfold as follows:


Responding to Uprising: Urban Security between Resilience and Resistance 

Thursday 26 September 2013

 Edgbaston Room, Lucas House, University of Birmingham   


9:00 – 9:30 Registration and coffee

9:30 – 9.45 Welcome and introduction to workshop (Sara Fregonese)

09:45 – 10:45 Paper session 1: Spaces              Chair: Adam Ramadan

Abel Albet ’We are fed up’. Building (and repressing) a reasonable rebellion in Spanish streets

Sara Fregonese Outsourcing, hybridizing, reshaping sovereignty. Questions on researching political violence during uprising

Sappho Xenakis Which protestors and what grievances? Disaggregating urban security challenges in contemporary Greece

10:45 – 11:00 Session 1 Q&A

11.00 – 11.15 Coffee break  

11:15 – 12:15 Paper session 2: Subjects              Chair: Andrea Teti

Nelly Ali Street Children in Egypt and the Arab Spring: The Prevalence of Physical Violence Used by Old and New Regimes towards Children during times of Social Movements

Gennaro Gervasio Power and Resistance, and the Egyptian Revolution: a view from the margins.

Michelle Pace The Development of the ‘Public Sphere’ in the MENA since the “Arab uprisings”: the case of Egypt

12:15 – 12.30 Session 2 Q&A

12:30 – 13:30 Lunch

13:30 – 14:45 Paper session 3: Practices              Chair: Jon Coaffee

Antonia Layard Protest: The English Legal Landscape

Anna Feigenbaum and John Horne Mediating Tear Gas from Brazil to Bahrain

Nikolai Bobylev Informal public protests in Russia: the Power political engineering and social responses

Victoria Trimble A History of Censorship, Narrative and Propaganda in Counter-Terrorism; Implications for Prevent

14:45 – 15:05 Session 3 Q&A

15:05 – 16:00 Breakout groups: agendas for research and practice

Group 1. Changing powers, changing spaces: discourses and practices of (counter) protest between State and emerging actors

Group 2. From counterterrorism to counterprotest? Agendas, contexts, meanings, implementations.

16:00 – 16:15 Coffee break

16:15 – 16:45   De-briefing from break-our groups and possible workshop outcomes

16:45 – 17:00   Workshop close

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Bring in the thugs. Mediterranean sovereignty in times of uprising.

While the impact of popular uprisings on Mediterranean international relations is crucial, we must not overlook the important rearrangements in domestic sovereignty that are happening within different subnational contexts. The domestic use of political violence to manage civil dissent – last but not least across Turkish cities of Izmir and now Istanbul – is increasingly characterised by hybrid configurations of state and irregular non-state actors.

Renegotiating what constitutes legitimate or illegitimate violence is a common dynamic of state formation[1]. In post-civil war Lebanon, for example, the numerous disbanded militias (with the exception of Hezbollah) were re-absorbed into the newly reformed Lebanese army. In Italy, the Carabinieri went from being a royal police force during the Savoy kingdom, to anti-opposition force during Fascism; they were then disbanded once some of its ranks joined the irregular partisan resistance and were finally re-embedded in the armed forces of the Republic. Irregular armed forces and their role in politics and state formation, a volume edited by Diane Davis and Anthony Pereira, illustrates these dynamics through historical and contemporary examples spanning Greece, Colombia, France and Vietnam.

Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 22.09.25

The hybridisation between state-sanctioned and irregular violence in the contemporary Mediterranean is, however, distinctive for the crucial questions it poses about the state of democracy in the area. The appearance of government-sponsored thugs in Greece, Egypt, Syria and Turkey shows similarities in the management of internal dissent that are shrinking accepted perceptions of a politico-cultural distance between democratic (EU)rope and authoritarian Arab Mediterranean.

Hybrid sovereignty is a type of control of territory and of political violence in which the state has no monopoly over either. The state can still be present, but classic dichotomies between state and nonstate, official and unofficial, legitimate and irregular are blurred. Cairo and Athens are two cities where, during and in the aftermath of protest, hybrid sovereignty is particularly apparent as the state delegates its monopoly of legitimate political violence to metamorphic nonstate actors. These, depending on the situation on the ground, disguise themselves as plain- clothes police, protesters or other agent provocateurs paid either by the state itself or by legitimate political actors. In Greece – the boundary between state-sanctioned and irregular violence has become particularly blurred since the extremist right wing party Golden Dawn have been using violent squads across Athens since it raised in popularity in the last elections

In Cairo, Hosni Mubarak’s government has made use of baltaghiye squads to curb the revolutionary movement encamped at Tahrir Square in early 2011. Baltaghiye is not a new violent actor in Egypt. In Arabic it means “hatchet men” and indicates “thugs” or “gangs” hired by the regime to attack political targets or exercise coercion in Cairo’s popular quarters: collecting protection money, controlling access to neighbourhoods, confiscating property. Since the 1980s, the regime outsourced baltaghiye brutality against protesters and detainees. Paul Amar[2] notes how the regime used baltaghiye post 9-11 to suppress or wreak havoc during protests. This shifted perceptions of the protester to that a masculine, islamist radical, thus reinforcing post-9/11 Western geopolitical fears and repositioning the role of the Egyptian regime as the actor keeping religious extremists at bay.

During the 2011 uprising, the wide but still tacit links between baltaghiye and the state became blatant. From 28 February, at the start of Mubarak’s demise, the police officially retreated from the streets of Cairo leaving the army in charge of maintaining the status quo[3]. What we then saw in Cairo was a clear delegation of state-sanctioned coercion from the uniformed police to the armed militias, who acted either as plain clothes police or as pro-regime protestors – famously charging the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square riding camels and horses.

Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 22.19.37

Athens is showing a similar outsourcing of coercion from the Greek police to what in Greek is known generically as kukulofori (hooded thugs/hooligans). The sentence Kukulofori ke astinomiki, mia parea (hooded thugs and cops are as one) has become common in protests. Post-dictatorship Greece is knowingly characterised by a constellation of both far left and far right violent political movements. But the situation has radicalised in the light of Greece’s soaring social inequalities. The soaring presence of vigilantes became clear in late 2008, during the protests following the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropolous by the police in central Athens. While protests took place in the wide streets surrounding Syntagma square, in the side streets kukulofori holding sticks were filmed convening with the police after confronting protesters and before going back to confront them again[3]. As protest have spread in Athens and other Greek cities since 2008, often seeing police brutality against protesters, an ambiguous relationship has now clearly developed between police and various vigilantes or agents provocateurs generally drawn from the far-right. Delegation of coercion has resulted in the frequent victimisation of immigrant communities and protesters by thugs and the heavy securitisation of portions of the city associated with their presence by the police.

Screen shot 2013-06-16 at 22.08.04

With the uprisings we are witnessing an increasing number of renegotiations of the boundaries between state-sanctioned and irregular violence across the Mediterranean. While infiltrating protesters is not a new police tactic, the delegation of coercion to thugs is becoming increasingly widespread. States both within and without the EU are increasingly merging with the nonstate and outsourcing political violence and coercion for the management of internal dissent.

While the War on Terror has shaped domestic and urban security in the past decade, in the present decade uprising and protest – and the responses to these – is shaping the way domestic sovereignty is practiced on the ground.  We are seeing hybrid forms of state and non-state violence: baltaghiye, kukulufori, the Shabiha militia in Syria, the thugs that have recently appeared in the streets of Istanbul and Izmir and possibly other, less structured, groups seem to hint at a new form of state response to domestic dissent, one that is stirring the waters all across the Mediterranean.

Sara Fregonese

[1]Pereira, Anthony W. 2003. “Armed Forces, Coercive Monopolies, and Changing Patterns of State Formation and Violence.” In Irregular Armed Forces and Their Role in Politics and State Fomation, edited by Diane E Davis and Anthony W. Pereira, 387–407. Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Amar, Paul. 2011. “Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out?International Feminist Journal of Politics 13 (3) (September): 299–328. doi:10.1080/14616742.2011.587364.

[3] Trombetta, L. 2013. “More Than Just a Battleground: Cairo’s Urban Space During the 2011 Protests.” European Urban and Regional Studies 20 (1) (January 7): 139–144. doi:10.1177/0969776412463373.


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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New publication: Mediterranean Spaces of Protest

Slightly over a year ago, when I first became interested in geographies of uprising (see post on 25/10/2012), I convened the British-Academy funded workshop “City/State/Resistance: spaces of protest in the Middle East and Mediterranean” in London. Here, an interdisciplinary range of academics, journalists, and policy-related practitioners looked at uprising as a phenomenon with strong urban identities, but as one that also gathers momentum from transnational shared causes, grievances, relationships, solidarity, tactics, communications, and comparisons. The aim was to blur and expand those regional(ist) interpretation of uprising in the Arab world that would like to confine it to a ‘domino’ of state regimes falling in orderly fashion in some limited area of the globe. This attempt of disturbing the domino, and breaking beyond it by relating the Arab uprising to other spaces of protest in the Mediterranean, is now a publication in the latest issue of European Urban and Regional Studies. It is part of the Euro-commentaries series of shorter papers that “address key policy developments or political events that affect European urban and regional development” (quoting the EURS website). It includes a number of workshop participants – some with new co-authors – and two prestigious additional contributions by Kostas Douzinas and Carlos Taibo.

Below are the contents of the series, which you can read at

If you don’t have a subscription for this journal, please email me on


Euro-commentary special collection: Mediterranean Spaces of Protest

Sara Fregonese (Birmingham)

Mediterranean geographies of protest


Lynn Staeheli and Caroline R Nagel (South Carolina and Durham)

Whose awakening is it? Youth and the geopolitics of civic engagement in the ‘Arab Awakening’


Andrea Teti and Andrea Mura (Aberdeen and Aberdeen+Open)

Convergent (il)liberalism in the Mediterranean? Some notes on Egyptian (post-)authoritarianism and Italian (post-)democracy


Jeremy Anderson (International Transport Workers’ Federation, UK)

Intersecting arcs of mobilisation: The transnational trajectories of Egyptian dockers’ unions


Costas Douzinas (University of London, UK)

Athens rising


Lorenzo Trombetta (ANSA Italian News Agency, Beirut Middle East Bureau)

More than just a battleground: Cairo’s urban space during the 2011 protests


Adam Ramadan (Birmingham)

From Tahrir to the world: The camp as a political public space


Yair Wallach (SOAS)

The politics of non-iconic space: Sushi, shisha, and a civic promise in the 2011 summer protests in Israel


Carlos Taibo (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)

The Spanish indignados: A movement with two souls


we are everywhere

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