History Days in Paris: Arab revolutions at the Institute

David Tresilian , Saturday 14 Nov 2020

This year’s History Days at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris discussed revolts and revolutions in the Arab world

Algeria protests
Algeria protests

Taking place against a background of renewed restrictions against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, this year’s History Days at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris were necessarily on a smaller scale than has been the norm for this annual event in recent years, with the Days restricted to consecutive weekends and seeing a smaller number of academics, journalists, and researchers reporting on their thinking on the Arab world.

However, despite the restrictions that meant that audiences, all wearing masks and appropriately socially distanced, had had to book online in advance for tickets to the History Days’ mix of lectures, panel discussions, and research presentations, all held in parts of the Institut du Monde Arabe’s flagship building on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, they had nevertheless turned out in force to hear a programme made up of recent thinking on “revolts and revolutions” in the Arab world.

There were opportunities to hear mostly French speakers discussing topics as diverse as the contemporary hirak movement in Algeria, the contemporary discourse on revolution in Syria and Egypt, revolt and revolution in the Arab Middle Ages and mediaeval Islam, and the role played by religion in contemporary revolutions on 18 October.

 Discussion of contemporary revolution and counter-revolution, revolutions in “predominantly tribal societies,” the 8th-century Abbasid Revolution, and revolts in the former Ottoman Empire followed on 25 October, along with the presentation of this year’s History Days Grand Prix for the year’s best work in French on Arab history, with, as has been the case in previous years, the support of the Académie royale du Maroc, the Moroccan Royal Academy.

While circumstances were not propitious for organising a public event in a period when the coronavirus seems to be taking off across Europe for a second wave, not least because of the enhanced sanitary requirements needed at any event of scale to prevent the propagation of the virus and the travel restrictions that make it impossible for out-of-town speakers or audiences to be present, the Institut du Monde Arabe had done everything possible to allow those present to forget the unfortunate circumstances of this year’s History Days and to focus on the matter at hand.

Some of the speakers at sessions attended by the Weekly noted that the History Days had been if not the only, then at least one of the only, face-to-face events that they had attended since the coronavirus restrictions were first introduced in France along with other countries in March. While some of the sessions at the History Days were streamed in association with co-sponsor the French radio station France Culture, and no doubt others will eventually be available on the Institut’s Website as has been the case in previous years, it was nevertheless a pleasure to attend live discussions in which people were able to hear each other speak face-to-face without the mediating presence of a computer screen in a way that was entirely ordinary before March this year but that has since become an exception to the rule.

As always at such events, it was not possible to attend every session, not least because they tended to run concurrently, and this year there was the added complication that audience sizes in some of the Institut’s spaces had had to be reduced to half or less to meet social-distancing rules. Some of the more popular sessions seemed to have been booked out long in advance, showing the kind of loyal audiences the History Days have been able to build up from successes over previous years.

Nevertheless, on the first day of the Days there was a stimulating presentation of an important new book in French, later announced to be the winner of this year’s Grand Prix for the year’s best work in French on Arab history, that may be the last word, or one of the last words, on the history of Qur’anic studies in the western world. Entitled the Coran des Historiens (The Historians’ Qur’an), the book, in three volumes and more than 4,000 pages long, is the fruit of five years of work by some 30 international scholars looking at studies of the Qur’an since the 19th century as well as providing a digest of French and western contemporary thinking.

Edited by Mohammad-Ali Amir Moezzi of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris and Guillaume Dye, professor at the Free University of Brussels, the book was discussed at the History Days by a panel led by Julien Loiseau, formerly director of the French Research Centre in Jerusalem, and including its editors.

DISCOURSES: Elsewhere on day one of the History Days, speakers returned to the event’s theme of revolts and revolutions by reviewing some of the contestations that have taken place in recent years in the Arab world.

The hirak movement in Algeria that forced the withdrawal of the country’s former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from standing for election for a fifth term in office last year and has since led to some important shake-ups in the regime was reviewed by French academics Tramor Quemeneur, David Goeury, and Aissa Kadri at a session on sociological and comparative perspectives in the Maghreb.

Having put the present contestation in the context of the history of social movements and civil conflict in Algeria from the Berber Spring in the 1980s demanding the recognition of the country’s Kabyle (Berber) community, to the collapse of the one-party system in 1989 and the subsequent elections that led to Islamist victory in the first round of the parliamentary elections, the cancellation of the second round, and subsequent period of civil conflict, Quemeneur handed over to Aissa Kadri who spoke interestingly on the similarities and differences between the present hirak movement and previous contestations in Algeria.

While there were similarities between the present demonstrations and those that had wracked Algeria in the 1980s and the Kabyle demonstrations in 2001, the hirak movement was different from the earlier demonstrations in that the latter had come about largely as a result of the one-party state’s failure to deliver on its promises of economic and social development, its authoritarianism, and its refusal to recognise community rights, he said. The present demonstrations, by contrast, were taking place across Algeria, in towns and cities alike and across all social groups, and they were bringing together the generations and the country’s different communities in an unprecedented common rejection of the established regime.

Similar notes were struck in subsequent discussions of the contemporary discourse on revolution in Syria and Egypt, as well as, once again, Algeria. This session was introduced by French scholar Hamit Bozarslan, who compared the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions with those that had taken place generations earlier in Egypt and Iraq and had been characterised by a marked left-wing discourse, perhaps in line with the generally state-led development objectives of the time. Nearly 60 years after the 1952 Revolution in Egypt, Bozarslan asked, how had the discourse of the young revolutionaries who had led the 2011 Revolutions across the Arab world compared to that which had inspired their forefathers.

Young Franco-Egyptian scholar Youssef El-Chazli responded to the question through an analysis of the iconography of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, followed by a similar analysis of material produced during the early days of the Syrian uprising by young researchers Laura Ruiz de Elvira and Matthieu Rey, the latter speaking via video-link from Johannesburg. While the Syrian uprising undoubtedly had a national character, they said, since it called for a united effort to rebuild the Syrian nation, it also had a universal one, since it called for the observation of internationally accepted human-rights standards.

Young researcher Farida Souiah spoke interestingly on the ways in which the hirak movement in Algeria had recycled iconography from the earlier War of Independence against French colonial rule, even using figures from that conflict such as independence-fighter Ali La Pointe on protest banners as a way of reactivating the memory of past struggles in the interest of giving force and meaning to present ones.

Finally, on the second day of the History Days the Grand Prix of the Institut du Monde Arabe for this year’s best work in French on Arab history was awarded with the support of the Moroccan Royal Academy. Jury members including some of the leading figures from French academic study of the Arab world, among them president of the jury Henry Laurens, professor of the contemporary history of the Arab world at the Collège de France in Paris, and figures from the region such as Carla Eddé, vice-rector for international relations at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut, and Mohammed Kenbib, emeritus professor at the Mohamed V University in Rabat, decided this year to award the prize to the Coran des Historiens edited by Mohammad-Ali Amir Moezzi and Guillaume Dye.

The field was perhaps a less crowded one than usual, though it included several intriguing-sounding works. One of these was Voyage en Haute-Egypte, prêtres, coptes et catholiques (A Journey through Upper Egypt, Priests, Copts, and Catholics) by Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, a professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the author of several other books on religious life in Egypt. This book was particularly picked out by Laurens in his presentation of the Grand Prix, who noted that it included archival work, interviews, and work in the field and that Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen’s personal involvement in her work had meant that in reading the book one “experiences Upper Egypt live.”

Journées de l’Histoire de l’Institut du Monde Arabe, “Révoltes et Révolutions,” 18 & 25 October 2020.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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