New book out

The Radicals’ City is now available from Ashgate.

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Safe bombs and refusing pilots

In his blog, Derek Gregory reflects on his experience of Beirut in 2006, bombing from the air, acts of refusal to bomb, and the connections of one particular refusal with the artwork of Akram Zaatari.

geographical imaginations

lebanon_map_jul12-Aug06My first attempt to think through the histories and geographies of bombing from the air was, appropriately enough, a plenary address to the Arab World Geographerconference in Beirut in 2006 – a meeting which had had to be postponed until December as a result of Israel’s summer-long attack on Lebanon.  Registrations fell away, especially from the United States and the U.K., but we had a wonderfully lively meeting.

I eventually turned my presentation – which, under the title “The death of the civilian”, developed the twin genealogies of the target and the civilian to address Israel’s bombing of southern Lebanon and Beirut – into an essay for the journal: “In another time zone, the bombs fall unsafely: Targets, civilians and late modern war”(published in 2007: see DOWNLOADS tab).

I began like this:

My title comes from a poem by Blake Morrison, ‘Stop’, which was reprinted in…

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Book podcast: The Radicals’ City

On 26/03/2013 I posted about the new book “The Radicals’ City: Built Environment Polarisation, Cohesion” that I co-authored with Ralf Brand. Ashgate is about to publish it this Summer, but you can preview the table of contents and the introduction on their website.

While waiting for the book release, I have recorded a podcast about with The University of Birmingham’s Ideas Lab. It lasts about 10 minutes and contains some empirical cases encountered during the fieldwork at the basis of the volume.



Sara Fregonese


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


“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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AAG 2013 and Uprising Geographies

Over the past week, we both attended the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in Los Angeles, where we hosted a double session on uprising geographies (see previous post).

The main conference venue was the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, famously discussed by Fredric Jameson as a ‘postmodern hyperspace’. Although its labyrinthine and fragmented space was conducive more to disorientation than to encounter, we did manage to catch up with several geography friends and colleagues.

Between us, we attended many excellent sessions (and missed many more) particularly on the themes of urban space and protest, migration and borders. These included the session on Animating Geopolitics, two sessions on Global Urbanization and Local Politics in an Age of Austerity (IV and V), two sessions on Political Activism (I and II), the second session on The Urban at a Time of Crisis (it was good to hear papers from Sara’s special issue on Mediterranean Geographies of Protest being mentioned and cited), a triple session on the Geopolitics of Mobility and Immobility, one each of the session series on (Re)imagining Borders in an Era of Migration and Deportation (III), Violence and Space (IV), Geographies of Peace (II), and From Palestine to Mexico (II), and finally two authors-meet-critics sessions for Alex Jeffrey’s new book on Bosnia, The Improvised State, and John Agnew and Luca Muscara’s second edition of Making Political Geography.

Our double session (I and II) on Thursday afternoon almost filled the room, with an audience of about 45 at its peak.

The opening speaker was Jared van Ramshorst, a masters student at San Diego State University. He presented on the emotional and affective workings of urban social movements in a variety of contexts, focusing particularly on student protests in California.

Sam Halvorsen then spoke on Occupy London, and the movement’s territorial practices and subversions of space. He discussed the capture and occupation of Finsbury Square as an example of ‘taking space’.

Anna Feigenbaum and Fabian Frenzel continued with the example of Occupy London, and offered some brilliant insights into the methodological challenges on conducting research on affect in protest camps. We’d really like some of their protest camp cards!

The fourth speaker was Nelly Ali, who spoke movingly on her work with street children in Cairo during and since the 2011 uprising. It was fascinating to hear how the children’s knowledge of life on the streets and the inner workings of the city were invaluable to protesters with whom they allied. Sadly, violence against street children – from police, from fast-tracked court proceedings and in prison – has not improved post-revolution. We are grateful to Nelly for agreeing to present at short notice, after Irene Bono was unable to attend the conference.

The second session was opened by Adam, who discussed a historical example, in the Palestinian ‘Revolution’ in Lebanon between 1970 and 1982.

Jonathan Rokem followed, outlining two lacunae in conventional urban theory. He argued that the ‘Arab Spring’ should be seen as an invitation for comparative urban studies, challenging the classic literature on the ‘Islamic city’ and the conventional focus of urban studies on cities like New York, LA and London.

Elisa Pascucci discussed the refugee protest camp in 2005 outside UNHCR offices in Mustapha Mahmoud Square, Cairo, and the brutal assault on it by Egyptian police. The relocation of UNHCR outside the city centre better allowed the state to contain protests.

The final presentation was by Sara, who compared state responses to uprisings and protests in Cairo and Athens. Both cases illustrated hybrid sovereignty practices, with the close and ambiguous relationships between police and thugs (baltagiya in Egypt, Koukouloforoi in Greece) blurring the line between state and non-state, legitimate and illegitimate violence and coercion.

Both sessions were closed by Prof John Agnew, who offered ‘instant wisdom’ as discussant. In particular, he drew parallels between the cases discussed and those of the late 1960s in Italy, France and elsewhere. He noted differences in the shift from a focus on ‘interest’ politics to the recent focus on affect, emotion and identity. In conclusion, he argued that coercion is the ultimate basis of political order, and uprisings – whether student protesters, Occupy activists, refugees or street children – must always challenge this coercion.

Both sessions were followed by discussion, and particularly the first session sparked a really useful debate about nature of uprising and the cases presented. A very thorough twitter feed of the second session is available here (scroll down to 11 April 2013).

All in all it was a really productive conference, and as we try to shrug off the jet lag, we have lots to think about!

Sara Fregonese
Adam Ramadan

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Forthcoming book: The radicals’ city

After submission in Autumn 2012 (see post on 11/10/2012), the proofs are complete and the new book co-authored with Ralf Brand on radicalisation, social cohesion and the urban built environment is now in print and forthcoming in July (28 July for

Ashgate has a page with the book description and contents: and endorsements by Caroline Moser and Stuart Croft.

The regular price of the hardback is £ 55, but it’s £49 through the publisher’s website. It is also available in e-book and pdf. The price is quite good for both academics and practitioners, especially considering that the book contains 115 (yes, 115) colour images.

The activities of the ESRC-funded research project that inspired the book can be viewed at


Sara Fregonese

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Back to Cambridge

I am writing this piece on the train back from Cambridge. It’s a bit of a painful train experience – up with a 5:30am alarm to spend 2 hours and 45 minutes inside a trundling, vibrating diesel-powered metal tube that stops at 12 of the lesser known corners of England – South Wigston? Narborough? – along the way. Then back again.

Still, I am doing so out of choice. When I resigned my post at Cambridge last year for my current job at Birmingham, I had the option of withdrawing from my lecturing commitments. I decided to honour those commitments for a number of reasons. Firstly it was feasible – I arrived at Birmingham after the major teaching responsibilities had been divided up, and I have had a relatively light load in my first year. Secondly, I was teaching on two really good final year Geography courses in Cambridge – four lectures for a paper on changing cultures of risk, coordinated by Ash Amin, and four for a paper on the political geography of post-colonialism, coordinated by Sarah Radcliffe. I had taught on the former course the first time it ran, in 2011/12, and had given my very first lectures on the latter course in 2010/11, and I was happy to work with Ash and Sarah for one more year.

[As I type, by the way, we are crossing the Fens, with bright sunshine out of the right window and snow out of the left.]

Thirdly, and of course the main reason, this was a chance to write some new lectures that I will be offering at Birmingham in 2013/14. Next year, I will be giving a final year option paper on war and peace in the Middle East. I now have most of my lecture material written for it.

The ‘hazardous’ Middle East
1. Geographies of terror/Geopolitics of security (6 February)
2. Israel’s occupation: from colonisation to separation (6 February)
3. Obama’s ‘new beginning’: contingent sovereignty and drone warfare (20 February)
4. The ‘Arab Spring’: risk or opportunity? (20 February)

These four lectures looked at the imaginative geographies of risk and insecurity that have characterised Western relations with the Middle East in the first decade of the 21st Century. The focus shifts from a Bush era, post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ geopolitics in the first lecture, to Obama’s ‘new beginning’ of silent wars, drones and contingent sovereignty, in the third. The lecture on Israel’s occupation draws on the work of Neve Gordon and Eyal Weizman in particular, looking at the power practices involved in the occupation. The final lecture, set up by Obama’s new beginning, looks at the uprisings, successes, failures and conflicts of the ‘Arab Spring’. Three main theoretical approaches frame the lectures – the notion of imaginative geographies, developed by Gregory and others from Said’s work; Giorgio Agamben’s work on homo sacer and the state of exception; and the work on contingent sovereignty, articulated by Stuart Elden.

Section V: Israel and Lebanon: colonial legacies, national imaginaries
13. ‘Israel/Palestine’: the search for the nation-state (6 March)
14. Lebanon: French mandate, the civil war, sectarian politics (6 March)
15. Palestinian refugees: searching for home and identity (13 March)
16. Destroying the camp: from Shatila to Nahr el-Bared (13 March)

This series of four lectures was both about Israel and Lebanon, and the ideas of Israel and Lebanon. The first pair of lecture contained quite a bit of historical detail, tracing the making and evolution of these two states, and the decades of conflict that followed independence. The second pair of lectures focused on the Palestinian refugees, that population caught between these two national projects. The lectures were framed by three themes: nationalism and national identities, the making of nations and securing of states; relations between self and other, how Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians have attempted to live with and beside each other, as three nations in two states; and the colonial legacies, from Britain’s dual promise to the Arabs and the Jews, to the sectarian politics instituted by France (and before them, the Ottomans) to help the Lebanese get along. The lecture on Lebanon depended on Sara Fregonese’s excellent papers on Lebanon’s discrepant cosmopolitanisms and hybrid sovereignties, and the final lectures allowed me to draw on a lot of my own work on the camps in Lebanon.

These two short lecture series will come together next year at Birmingham. It’s always nice to head back to Cambridge and see old colleagues and former students, but hopefully next year the commute will be a little more bearable.

Adam Ramadan


Imperial Humanitarianism

Colleagues in the Department of History at Birmingham are hosting this interesting roundtable on Imperial Humanitarianism. Dr. Ben White, who lectures modern history of the Middle East, is also leading the research theme “Saving Humans: Risk, Intervention, Survival” at Birmingham’s new Institute of Advanced Studies:,
in which Adam is currently involved, so watch this space!


We’re holding a round table this Friday on ‘Imperial Humanitarianism’, with speakers including Alan Lester (Sussex), Matthew Hilton (Birmingham, talking about something we’ve posted about here recently), and—following a late change of programme—Ben White (also Birmingham). Full details are below; attendance is free, but please email to reserve a place so we can order enough tea, coffee, and cake. Yes! There’ll be free tea, coffee, cake…

Imperial Humanitarianism poster

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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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