Diaspora mobilization plays an important role in global politics and political change. Activists abroad bring attention to abuses taking place in their homelands. Emigrants channel in millions of dollars’ worth of aid to populations impacted by state violence and natural disasters. Exiles lobby foreign powers to intervene against home-country dictatorships, foment insurgency from abroad, and even lead revolutions, as in 20th-century Russia, Vietnam, and Iran.
In the language of Albert Hirschman’s enduring work on Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, those who remain “loyal” to their homeland after “exit” can wield “voice” as a weapon against the regime that forced them abroad in the first place. Yet, diaspora activism is not the automatic product of exit. Many anti-regime diasporas refrain from mobilizing after settling abroad, even when they gain new rights and political opportunities for protest in democratic host-countries. So when do anti-regime diaspora movements emerge, and under what conditions do they make a difference at home?
My book, The Arab Spring Abroad: Diaspora Activism Against Authoritarian Regimes (Cambridge, 2021/2022), takes up these questions through a comparative study of Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni diaspora movements in the US and Great Britain during the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolutions. Based on 230 interviews conducted over the course of four years of fieldwork, the book’s central contribution is the identification of mechanisms that allow diaspora movements to become transnational forces for change. I show that even the most well-positioned anti-regime diasporas must overcome several major hurdles in order to wield voice after exit against authoritarian regimes. These obstacles make impactful diaspora activism highly contingent, and even downright rare.
Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the ties that motivate diaspora members to intervene at home simultaneously subject them to demobilizing home-country conditions. Before the 2011 uprisings in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, two obstacles stemming from the home-country isolated exiles and silenced the broader anti-regime community. First, some groups were subjected to what I call “transnational repression” by home-country regimes. This put them at risk of being monitored, threatened, and even harmed physically by sending-state regime agents. Diaspora members were terrified that “coming out” against these regimes from afar would endanger them or their loved ones in the home-country. Speaking out was therefore seen as a selfish act, since the repercussions extended to the whole family.
Second, each diaspora was subjected to what I call “conflict transmission”: diaspora members’ identities—e.g., Islamist vs. secular, pro-unity Yemeni vs. pro-secession South Yemeni—entangled them in divisive conflicts rooted in the homeland. Conflict transmission made coming together for regime change and humanitarian relief a process fraught with infighting. The ensuing fear and mistrust from transnational repression and conflict transmission made public anti-regime activism a rarity in the US and Britain before 2011.
The Arab Spring changed this dramatically. The mass movements that emerged in Libya, Syria, and Yemen challenged regimes’ stability, and this had transnational effects. Specifically, the revolutions undermined regimes’ abilities to repress their diasporas and produced new solidarities against dictatorships. Having temporarily overcome the deterrent effects of transnational repression and conflict transmission, anti-regime diasporas came out and came together for regime change and humanitarian relief as never before.
Despite this unprecedented mobilization, Part II of The Arab Spring Abroad shows that only those diaspora activists with (a) the ability to convert resources to the cause, and (b) strong geopolitical support from states and other powerholders, gained the capacity to become auxiliary forces for regime change.
For instance, strong international support for the Libyan revolution in combination with the Libyan diaspora’s skills and wealth enabled these groups to support the uprising in five ways. They broadcasted the claims of their compatriots at home through social media and protests; they represented rebel groups abroad as lobbyists and media spokespersons; they brokered between civilians and insurgents on the ground and foreign journalists and policymakers; they remitted all kinds of aid, from satellite phones to diapers and cash; and they volunteered on the front lines as interpreters, fighters, and humanitarian workers.
By contrast, moderate international support for the Syrian revolution waned over time, and even the wealthiest Syrians abroad had their resources drained by the enormity of the humanitarian crisis. Yemenis abroad were largely shut out of the policymaking process in their host-countries, and faced challenges in fundraising among their predominantly working-class communities. Despite the unprecedented mobilization of these groups during the Arab Spring and the risks many activists took to save lives on the ground, Syrian and Yemeni diaspora activists lacked the ability to move resources across borders and weigh in on foreign policy as their respective revolutions evolved over time.
Maintaining cross-border connections is cheaper and easier today than ever before. However, my research on the Arab Spring abroad shows that long-distance connections are not so easily transformed into long-distance activism. Transnational repression, conflict transmission, resource shortages, and the lack of geopolitical support cut diasporas off from the people and places that most need their support. With authoritarianism on the rise across the world today, understanding when and to what extent diasporas can contest abuses at home remains a pressing topic of concern.
Dana M. Moss is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Notre Dame. Her research focuses on repression and resistance in a globalized world. Her first book, The Arab Spring Abroad: Diaspora Activism Against Authoritarian Regimes, has recently been published by Cambridge University Press (received 20% off the hardback price by entering the code MOSS2021 at checkout). You can follow Dana on Twitter at @Dangermoss16.