Understanding the Arab Spring

“Revolution without Revolutionaries” by Asef Bayat

What really happened? How did it come to that? Seven years later, what is left of the Arab revolutions? These are some of the questions raised by sociologist Asef Bayet and to which he provides original answers in a book which, though sometimes a bit disjointed, is certainly one of the most stimulating to deal the subject. The author is an internationally recognized researcher who lived through two revolutionary periods in the region, in Tehran in 1978–1979 during the fall of the Shah and in Cairo in 2011–2012. Consequently he is a privileged witness, highly qualified to produce a comparative analysis of the two experiences.

In 1979 Iran, the notion of “revolution” was fraught with meaning in large sectors of the population, both modernized and traditionalists. It was as deeply implanted among Marxists as it was among the tenants of political Islam, represented by the emblematic figure of Ali Shariati, an Islamo-Marxist thinker. With the fall of the Shah, the State apparatus collapsed and a broad social movement developed, involving the occupation of farmland, residences and factories. People’s minds were aflame with Republican ideals, combining an assertion of popular sovereignty and a dream of social justice.

It was a decade of revolution, especially in what was then called the Third World, from Yemen to Palestine, from Latin America to the Portuguese colonies in Africa. A decade marked by the triumph of the Vietnamese people over the might of the United States and by the collapse of the last remnants of the colonial empires. All of these struggles fueled the intellectual imagination of Iranian revolutionaries whether of Marxist or religious inspiration. There was a general hostility towards the Western powers, first and foremost towards the United States, and socialist ideas were hegemonic in many areas. Even a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood, much less radical than its Iranian counterparts, advocated “Islamic socialism”. Political transformation was closely associated with economic and social transformations.

A Post-Ideological Era

Thirty years later, the fundaments of the world have changed, the revolutionary horizon is lost in fog, we are experiencing a post-ideological phase. “Today’s voices,” Bayat observes, “whether secular or Islamist, accept the market economy, property relations and neoliberal thinking”. This turnaround has depoliticized oppositional forces the world over. Now they focus on the defense of human rights, individual rights, the rights of women and minorities without always realizing that the obtaining of these rights is deeply linked with social and economic issues. And while the Arab revolutions spread like wildfire, from Morocco to Syria, toppling four dictatorships in six months, they never involved or even demanded any radical break with the old economic and social order. Are we to blame the multiple failures witnessed since then on the “counter-revolution?”The explanation is too simplistic, the author finds, because revolutionary movements everywhere have always come up against a counter-revolution. “The question is whether the revolutions were revolutionary enough to offset the perils of restoration.” Regarding the Arab world, the answer is no.

In that case, however, may we even speak of revolution, when the chief protagonists of the changes that took place had neither a project nor an ideology which can be called revolutionary. “Yes”, the book answers, which explains its title, “Revolution without revolutionaries”, because in part the process got out of the hands of its instigators with the sudden emergence of the “have-nots” who for decades have developed strategies of resistance and struggle. At this point, Bayat pursues his analysis of city-life under neoliberalism, begun in Life as Politics1. Massive urbanization and the transformations caused by the shrinking role of the State, the downsizing of the public sector, have boosted part-time and informal employment and resulted in a situation where “a massive portion of the urban population, the subalterns, become impelled to operate, subsist, or simply live in public spaces, in the streets, in a substantial ‘outdoor economy’. . . The outdoor spaces serve as indispensable assets for both the economic livelihood and social/cultural lives of much of the urban population”, including students and university graduates. The street becomes a space for permanent clashes, more or less muted, more or less violent.

All the more so as cities have created new needs and given rise to new demands which the State is increasingly unable to satisfy, especially regarding services. The State is perceived by the urban population as having to provide those needed services (few country people actually rely on the State) but it no longer does so, it merely disciplines and punishes. In a poll taken on the eve of the 2011 revolution, Egyptians cited drinking water or the sewage system more often than job access among their demands.

“Social Non-Movements”

It is on the streets as well that young people’s collective consciousness is forged. Whether they are peddlers, young mavericks or rabid football fans, they cannot avoid challenging the existing order as represented by the police. And the poor are far from powerless, they get organized, they have a street politics which takes the form of what the author calls “social non-movements.” How are these different from social movements? First because they focus on actions instead of being ideologically motivated; they implement their demands immediately; their actions are not separated from their daily lives; they are not carried out by small groups but, as Bayat wrote in Life as Politics, “they are common practice of everyday life carried out by millions of people who albeit remain fragmented… Their power is the power of big numbers. (…) What effect do ‘big numbers’ have? To begin with, a large number of people acting in common have the effect of normalizing and legitimizing those acts that are otherwise deemed illegitimate. The practice of big numbers are likely to capture and appropriate spaces of power in society within which the subaltern can cultivate, consolidate and reproduce their counter-power. (…) the effects of their action do not of necessity fade away in seclusion. They can join up, generating a more powerful dynamic than their individual sum total.”2

This resistance expresses itself in everyday life, on the ground, when street peddlers take over a territory, when a piece of land is occupied, when an illegal structure goes up, when young people assert their right to have fun or when Muslim women assert their right to autonomy in public space. These non-movements are part of daily life and they are what conferred on the “Arab spring” its revolutionary character. They made it possible to move beyond the narrow confines of “reasonable’ thinking but could not be followed up because the political class was steeped in the indefeasible neoliberal ideology. As Bayat points out, “So while the Arab revolutions embodied in practice radical impulses and initiatives on the part of the subalterns, no serious intellectual articulation, ideological frame, or social movement anchored them.” Quite the contrary, “The commonsense neoliberal thinking among the elites, liberal as islamist” denigrated these initiatives. Which is obviously what made the situation so different from the 1970s. The fact that no theoretician of the stature of Ali Shariati stood out confirmed the existence of an ideological void, perceptible across the world with the collapse of the Third-Worldist and socialist vision.

A dangerous Lack of Horizon

This lack of a horizon laid bare the limitations of “street politics”. “The protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, and New York’s Liberty Square [Zuccotti Park] were truly the most extraordinary expression of street politics in recent memory. But they were precisely that, extra-ordinary, which in ordinary times reveals their limitations; they cannot be sustained for a long span of time. (…) because they are by definition divorced from everyday life.” And this, of course, was even truer in the Arab world than in the West, since, concretely, the long-term demonstrations meant a worsening of living conditions for the poor as a result of “instability,” the falling-off of the tourist trade, the decline in investments and the powerlessness of governments already impoverished and weakened by decades of corruption and neoliberal policies.

One of the most significant and lasting achievements of the Arab revolutions, as Bayat points out, is the ‘change in consciousness’ marked by the brutal irruption on the political scene of both conservative and liberal ideas in debates as impassioned as they were unprecedented. Western public opinion, alarmed by glaring headlines about an ‘Islamist autumn’ was only aware of one side of the phenomenon: the rise of Salafism and conservative ideas—with the appearance of bearded men, women in burqas or vice squads3—underestimating the quite powerful mobilization around the ideals of pluralism, secular and civilian government (dawla madaniyya), women’s rights and the public expression of atheism. In spite of the backlash, in spite of the wars, it is unlikely that this new dynamism will fade away, it has simply assumed new guises, some cultural, some underground, but still strong.

At the end of the day, we cannot help wondering: is the “Arab case” so “exceptional” as all that in spite of its specifics–in particular the weakening of the Nation-State under the repeated assaults of transnational organizations like Al-Qaida or ISIS? Over the years an ideological straitjacket has taken hold everywhere, summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement : “There is no alternative.” We are told we must give up the idea of any in-depth transformation, that the only path to a better tomorrow lies through “reforms” of the labor market and unlimited free trade. At the risk of driving to despair those who experience the concrete effects of those policies and promoting a widespread fascination with bloody millenarian utopias.

1Life as Politics. How ordinary people change the Middle East, Stanford University Press, 2010.

2Ibid., p. 20.

3The author devotes a fascinating and rich chapter to the question of Islamism and the parallel that has been drawn with the Latin-American theology of liberation. He explains why this parallel is not relevant and examines the fundamental limitations of the Islamist movements. We will return to these questions in a forthcoming article.