Protest Temporalities and the Meaning of Contention

By Jillian M. Schwedler
Submitted to Session P4795 (Protest in the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa: strategic interaction perspectives, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Participants and observers of protests often have divergent understandings of what is happening. What they do before, during, and after protests are shaped by those understandings. Protesters often see themselves as demanding that some injustice be redressed, their actions constituting efforts to push back against powers that advance the interests of the powerful at the expense of the rest. Protesters view security forces as the enforcement arm of an unequal system, as agents of the regime who silence those who dare to speak truth to power or demand justice. Security forces, for their part, see themselves as maintaining order, defending the legitimate power structures against troublemakers, and protecting the broader public and its law-abiding citizens and their property.

These diverse understandings often invoke one or more temporalities—frameworks about the past, present, future, and the unfolding of events over time—that can shape their actions on a practical level. In the course of a single protest event as well as across series of events, actors create, adopt, and adapt different understandings about what the event means, and what is possible, and what is to be done.

Actors may include the police, the army, political parties, activists, and bystanders, but also members of parliament, cabinet members, the head of state, and the media. Extended audiences include foreign governments, international agencies, human rights organizations, foreign corporations, tourists, makers and marketers of security technology and hardware, and so on. Actors and audiences often disagree on what is happening.

In this paper I will explore the temporalities of protests. I use a combination of ethnography, archival work, and memoirs to examine long-term, medium-term, and short-term temporalities, and notions of normal versus crisis periods. I begin by examining how scholarly temporal frameworks are often at odds with the temporalities of actors on the ground as well as those observing from a near or far distance. I develop two empirical examples from Jordan—the Adwan rebellion in the 1920s and the protests against the first Jordanian-Israeli trade fair held in 1997 in Amman—to illustrate the ways in which actors invoke temporal registers that are at odds with those of other actors. In both cases, tribal narratives and pre-Hashemite histories are invoked—by protesters in the first case and by security forces in the second—in ways that challenge ideas about loyalty to the nation, what that nation is, and who is even considered an authentic Jordanian.