In her latest work, Informal Politics in the Middle East, Suzi Mirgani, and the other writers who contributed to the book, delve deep into the complex and often misunderstood world of informal politics in the region. Covering a wide range of political actors, from women's associations to tribal leaders, Mirgani’s edited study is a fascinating and highly informative account of the forces that shape the Middle East’s political landscape.
The book is organized into ten well-researched and highly engaging chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of informal politics. Through a combination of historical analysis, case studies, and interviews, writers paint a vivid picture of the intricate web of relationships and power dynamics that exist within the region’s informal political sphere.
Chapter 1, “Defining Informal Politics,” sets the stage for the rest of the book by providing a comprehensive definition of informal politics and exploring the factors that contribute to its prevalence in the Middle East. Mirgani goes into two types of classification in the book and the study’s organization. In the first classification, informal structures in the Middle East work in harmony with the dominant element, the state or regime. Informal structures resolve the conflict with the formal structure or structures, which are the state and its extensions, through mediation with mostly traditional ways. She calls this classification or model as “converging formal and informal politics.” In the second classification, which Mirgani prefers to call “diverging formal and informal politics,” writers present examples of states in which formal and informal politics are in conflict and informal politics elements such as NGOs in Egypt, Iran, and Algeria are struggling to survive for recognition by the formal state and its institutions.
In chapter 2, “Weighing the Tribal Factor in Yemen’s Informal Politics,” Charles Schmitz delves into the complex world of tribal politics in Yemen, exploring how tribes and tribal identities continue to shape political outcomes in the country. Schmitz argues that after the state intervened in the intra-tribal dynamics, tribalism changed its violence-reducing nature and ended the idea of tribalism by damaging the intra-tribal dynamics. He also opens a new horizon by claiming that the war that entered the peace process in Yemen at the time of writing this review has changed tribal relations and brought a new level of violence, especially in the tribes in the North of Yemen.
The role of local leaders in informal politics and particularly during elections in Türkiye is the focus of chapter 3, “Çay Politics: Informal Politics in Turkey and Vote Mobilization in İstanbul and Şanlıurfa.” Michelangelo Guida examines local elections in İstanbul’s Üsküdar district and presents a quantitative analysis regarding voting behavior there. His work illustrates well how İstanbul residents cast their votes based on the places from which their families immigrated. Also, Guida examines the political parties’ approach to tribal leaders in the Southern part of Türkiye to receive their support during elections. In Guida’s work, readers can find bottom-up political mobility in Üsküdar and top-down political activity in Şanlıurfa.
Chapter 4, “Dissecting the Spatial Relevance of the Diwaniyya in Kuwait: An Inquiry into its Publicness” offers a fascinating look at Diwaniyya’s spatial transformation of the traditional role in informal politics in Kuwait. Clemens Chay explains well how Diwaniyya, as a space where social expression of people is allowed, is still relevant to the Kuwaiti population despite challenges created by post-oil urbanization, modernization, and social media as a platform enabling expression of thought.
In chapter 5, “Shi’a-State Relations in Qatar: The Negotiation of Coexistence,” Robles and Cozzi, explain well, within the context of informal politics, how Qatar and its Shia population interact well despite Qatar’s official view of Wahabbisim and the Shia populations’ unwritten, contract-like harmony with the regime by prioritizing stability of their status over identity.
Chapter 6, “Threatening Urban Informality in the Middle East,” Deen Sharp reveals how urban planning is used as a weapon to destroy informal structures in urban areas. The author has explained urban informality well in its historical flow and international perspective. The reader understands urbanization well from an economic standpoint considering regional and global developments.
Chapter 7, “Voluntary Associations as Social Micromovements: The Case for Gradual Sociopolitical Change in Algeria,” Nejm Benessaiah claims that change can come from political parties or formally established organized protest movements and from voluntary organizations that can provide gradual, inclusive sociopolitical change with an informal sense versus formal politics. By opposing the view that sees civil society as an apparatus that strengthens authoritarian regimes, working in Algeria’s central Ghardia as a case study, the writer sheds light on voluntary organizations creating a new political subjectivity and social imagination on how society is organized and how the environment is managed, even if not in a political society but in general society.
In chapter 8, “Perilous Adventures: Women and Civil Society Participation,” written by Shahla Haeri, who is also an anthropologist and former director of the Women’s Studies Program at Boston University, readers will explore the legal and social positions of women and the status of them seen by the Iranian governments, from the Shah Era to the Islamic Republic, and how Iranian women have challenged against this positioning through participation in civil society.
In chapter 9, “Post-2013 Egypt: Declining Formal Politics and Resilient Social Activism,” Amr Hamzawy focuses on the struggle for rights in Egypt after 2013, which enjoyed being able to exist informally in the Arab Spring despite the pressures of formal structures. The author explains that despite an oppressive regime in Egypt, there is also resilient and adaptive social activism. The author reveals the struggle between formal and informal structures by telling the stories of civil society engaged in single-cause activism.
In her conclusive remarks in chapter 10, Suzi Mirgani offers a forward-looking analysis of the potential trajectories of informal politics in the region. She highlights several trends that are likely to shape the future of informal politics, such as poverty. Mirgani predicts that informal politics will intensify at a time when official livelihood structures crumble. Mirgani also forecasts that it is only a matter of time before public anger again spills over in the region while the people are living under heavy control; fear and poverty are becoming more intolerable.
Throughout Informal Politics in the Middle East, writers demonstrate an impressive command of the subject matter and an ability to synthesize a vast array of information into a coherent and compelling narrative. The article collections offer stimulating content and take the reader through the capillaries of the region rather than macro readings of the Middle East. As an elite work, the book appeals to people working in the Middle East rather than the general reader due to its micro-orientations and perspectives. Furthermore, case studies and interviews in the work bring a human dimension to analysis, allowing readers to better understand the motivations and experiences of the individuals involved in the region’s informal politics.
One of the book’s major strengths is its interdisciplinary approach, which draws on insights from history, sociology, anthropology, and political science to provide a comprehensive understanding of informal politics in the Middle East. Although this approach adopts a different disciplinary perspective and methodology in each case, at the end of the book, the reader becomes aware of different parts of the puzzle of the macro scale of informal politics in the Middle East.
Another strength of the book is its emphasis on the agency of local actors, who are often overlooked in discussions of Middle Eastern politics. By highlighting the ways in which individuals and groups navigate the complex political landscape of the region, writers create alternative readings to the notion that the Middle East is solely shaped by external forces or deterministic cultural factors.
The book’s weak point is that it does not give an example of informal politics in Israel. Due to Israel’s Jewish character, addressing the identity differences of Israel from the countries in the region within the framework of informal politics and powerful unionism and workers’ rights groups and the country’s responses to challenges coming from these organizations could offer the reader a critical perspective on Israel’s similarities and differences with other countries in the Middle East.
In conclusion, Informal Politics in the Middle East is a significant contribution to the literature on Middle Eastern politics and provides valuable insights into the complex dynamics that shape the region’s political landscape. The interdisciplinary approaches and focus on local actors make this book a must-read for Middle East scholars seeking to understand the region beyond the traditional readings.