‘Revolution without Revolutionaries:’ Making sense of the Arab Spring
A conversation with Asef Bayat on his latest book
 
 
 
Courtesy: Heba Khalil
 

The summer of 2017 saw the release of Revolution without Revolutionaries by Asef Bayat, an author read by some during the Tahrir Square sit-in back in 2011. Preluded by another work, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change in the Middle East, this latest book explores how time and space affected the nature and outcome of the Arab Spring.

In this conversation, sociologist Heba Khalil engages Asef Bayat on several of his main points. We publish their conversation as we remember the January 25, 2011 revolution.

Heba Khalil: The Arab Spring continues to be a complex set of events: unpredicted, unplanned and with unforeseeable, unintended consequences. Your new book, Revolution without Revolutionaries, is about making sense of the Arab Spring. What, in particular, are you trying to make sense of?

Asef Bayat: I want to understand the Arab Spring in the sense of how the revolutions proceeded, why they happened in the way they did, what the various forms of mobilization were, who were among the protagonists and critical mass, and what the immediate outcome was. But, above all, I am very interested in exploring the meaning of the Arab Spring historically, as I sense these revolutions were different from those I had studied and experienced before, I mean those of the 1970s.

HK: The Iranian Revolution of 1979 has often been referenced in relation to the Arab Spring as an Islamic revolution that produced an Islamic state. This oversimplification misses the nuanced dynamics of the Iranian Revolution, and its ideological innovations. How is the Iranian Revolution a relevant lens for understanding the Arab Spring?

There was a time when even during the uprisings, the protagonists would think, “We are probably not ready for this” … “we haven’t thought about this” … “we need to think about this,” but, by then it was too late. 

AB: Well, the term “Islamic revolution” was used largely at the end of the revolutionary mobilization, and after the downfall of the Shah’s regime. In fact, Islamization began basically after the take-over of the state by largely Islamist revolutionaries and the establishment of the Islamic state. The new elites labeled it Islamic revolution, and the international media popularized it. I think you are right that this labeling obscured and overshadowed many interesting and progressive features of this revolution. I am talking about the possibility of what at the time we called “popular democracy” — I mean, those shuras or some kind of self-management that sprang up in the neighborhoods, farms, among the ethnic groups, and especially in the factories and the universities, wherein people began to practice some sort of self-rule; they began to run those institutions in quite a democratic way. They based their claim on the principle of self-determination. I think those aspects of the Iranian Revolution have remained really both insufficiently explored, and gotten little attention. I think these aspects of popular expression of sovereignty both at the everyday local as well as national levels is one the features that distinguishes the Iranian Revolution from the Arab uprisings.

Iran - Courtesy: Khabar

HK: You juxtapose the Iranian Revolution with the Arab Spring (and the occupy movements), comparing the radical politics of the 1960s and 1970s to what you call the “square politics” of the Arab Spring and Occupy. How do you view this difference?

AB: The key thing to be able to explain the difference between the two movements is that they happened in different ideological times. The revolutions of the 1970s were happening at the time when the Cold War was at its height, so the world was divided between the Soviet Union and its allies, the socialist world on one hand, and the capitalist world on the other. Then you had a third world, which Iran and Nicaragua were part of. But you still had movements — both liberation struggles and social movements — that inclined toward radical ideologies like socialism and communism, largely in developing countries.

There were also very powerful anti-imperialist movements, which a lot of these political groups in developing countries upheld. In contrast to the ideological times of the 1970s, the Arab Spring came to fruition in some kind of post-ideological interval; this was the aftermath of 1989, when the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe were to mark the very end of ideology per se. So, with the end of socialism following the Eastern European revolutions, the very idea of revolution, which was likened to and informed by socialism, came to an end. It was as if the world had gone beyond the relevance of revolutions. So, the Arab revolutions happened at a time when the very idea of revolution had dissipated.

HK: Even though we are speaking of the so-called “post-ideological times,” the Arab Spring did actually happen, perhaps unforeseeably. In your book, you call them “Ref-olutions.” How can we have revolutions, which are by default radical, but at the same time fail to even challenge the worldview of the very system we are revolting against?

AB: I suppose this apparent contradiction in some ways reflects a paradox of reality. In fact, the first sentence in the book starts with this: People may or may not have ideas about revolutions for them to happen… because the outbreak of revolution has little to do with any idea and even less with a theory of revolution. Revolutions “simply happen.” Of course “simply” here is in inverted comas, because in reality it is far more complex. Having or not having an idea about revolution has critical implications for its outcome. In other words, revolutionary movements can happen and do happen, even if the political class, the activists for instance, may not have thought and imagined the revolution. And it was for this reason that when what happened took place in Sidi Bouzid and later on in Tahrir Square, revolutionaries and activists had to improvise; they had to come to terms with what they had never expected. And it was very difficult.

There was a time when even during the uprisings, the protagonists would think, “We are probably not ready for this” … “we haven’t thought about this” … “we need to think about this,” but, by then it was too late. As a consequence of this paradoxical reality, the outcome became what might be called “refo-lutions,” or, if you like, “reformist revolution.” This means that we had a revolutionary movement that wished to compel the existing state to reform itself on behalf of the revolution. This is different from previous revolutions where the revolutionaries would form a provisional government, an alternative organ of power, with some kind of hard power that they would use together with their street power to force the incumbent regime to abdicate and allow them to take over the governmental power and to institute new governing structures, new social institutions and relations in society.

Tahrir Square - Courtesy: Ahmed Abd El Fattah

HK: Let’s talk a little bit about the formative ideas of revolutions: You note in your book that the Arab Spring was “movement-rich and change-poor.” In what ways did the absence of an “Ali Shariati-type intellectual,” this Islamic-socialist ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, affect the process and the outcome of the Arab uprisings?

Revolutions are usually associated with some intellectual articulation, some degree of conceptual baggage that informs the activists’ thinking and expectations.

AB: Even though most revolutions start spontaneously and surprise everyone, even the protagonists themselves, revolutions are usually associated with some intellectual articulation, some degree of conceptual baggage that informs the activists’ thinking, expectations and especially the strategy of revolution and the vision for transformation, acting as a general guide for how to push the revolution forward. With Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, it was a matter of bringing what she called theory into revolutionary praxis. People like Lenin had written a sophisticated study on the nature of capitalist development in Russia.

The Nicaraguan Revolution had an intellectual component informed by democratic socialism, and the vision of Augusto Sandino. Ali Shariati had developed a vision of revolution that was attuned to the particularities of Iranian society and culture — a mixture of Marxian socialism and revolutionary shi’ism. In the case of the Arab revolutions, it seems, there wasn’t any intellectual articulation of a revolutionary vision — whatever form it might have taken. There weren’t alternative visions to the institutions or economic relations operating under the existing regimes.

In the case of the Arab revolutions, it seems, there wasn’t any intellectual articulation of a revolutionary vision — whatever form it might have taken.

It seemed that what the protagonists wanted was to have autocrats like Hosni Mubarak, Zein al-Abedine Ben Ali or Ali Abdallah Saleh removed. But what would happen after that? Probably they were envisioning a more representative government and so on. But what I am trying to pin point is the “how.” How do you want to replace them? In other words, the question was how to wrest power from the incumbent regimes, with what means and resources? Of course they had power on the streets, and that is also important. The hope was then that these regimes would calculate the costs and benefits and conclude that the cost of resisting the revolution would be higher and so agree to negotiate. This is only likely to work if there is sufficient and sustained power, as well as political skills and knowledge of how the concrete power centers work (as with the Solidarity movement in Poland). But this might not work, as in Bahrain or Syria; nor did it work in Tunisia. Ben Ali fled the country, he did not negotiate. The Egyptian and Yemeni cases show precisely the vulnerability of “ref-olution” in addressing the danger of counter-revolutionary manipulation and restoration. The question is how to deal with this danger of counter-revolution? How do you neutralize it?

HK: You describe the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements as “post-ideological,” in that they either failed, or consciously refused, to voice a set of concrete demands, or to organize in institutional ways, and thus were unable to subvert the status quo. What are the benefits of post-ideological movements?

AB: This question has to do with the two sides of ideology: It can be very powerful in mobilizing, unifying and galvanizing, creating a unified whole, which matters as far as power is concerned. But then ideology also, for that very reason, has the danger of dogma, and of being untouchable and unquestionable, meaning it can also be repressive. So, ideology has both sides. If you look at what happened in the Arab revolutions, this duality is present. On one hand, the process of the Arab revolutions was by far more open, more participative and less repressive than the earlier revolutions that had a unified organization and leadership. A unified organization can easily stifle diversity and plurality, which we see in the case of the Iranian Revolution, although it did have a strong radical democratic component in terms of the emergence of popular councils in neighborhoods, workplaces and educational institutions.

On one hand, the Arab revolutions were by nature pluralistic, because power was not monopolized by the revolutionary take-over of the state — many institutions within civil society, including those associated with the old regime, remained active. Revolutionaries have not been able to subdue the incumbents and to elevate themselves to the height of power. On the other hand, however, precisely because of this, the forces of counter-revolution might have better chances of engaging in acts of sabotage and regrouping to restore the old order.

Neoliberalism has become an ideology. It is very powerful in galvanizing, but at the same time it is very dangerous in the sense that it has been able to present itself in terms of common sense.

HK: Do you think that meaningful change is possible in our current world order that is dominated by postmodern and post-ideological thought?

AB: I don’t know the answer to this. I understand the dynamics and the constraints, but all I can say is that these are times of open-endedness. Maybe there is greater potential for meaningful change that will benefit the majority of people in disadvantaged positions politically, economically, racially or in terms of identities. But I think we cannot do this unless we seriously address the overpowering ideology, practices and institutions of neoliberalism. Post-ideology might mean that opposition to power may not adhere to a particular ideology, as most power holders likely do. Neoliberalism has become an ideology and it is a very powerful one, and it has these two aspects: It is very powerful in galvanizing, but at the same time it is very dangerous in the sense that it has been able to present itself in terms of common sense, as a natural way of thinking about and organizing public life. It is very important to critique and subvert this, and to highlight its principles and its very repressive and un-egalitarian consequences.

As I argue in the book, neoliberalism has had the effect of creating dissent among ordinary people, because it generates deprivation, exclusion and inequality. But it has also de-radicalized the political classes, meaning that it has presented itself as a way of life for which there is no alternative. Neoliberalism has the ability, and the tendency, to incorporate and absorb the radicalism that might try to challenge it, by commoditizing and marketizing it. It can elevate radicals, can market personas like Che Guevara, as they sell their posters or other things. It can even marketize revolutions. This tendency goes as far back as the anti-Slobodan Milosevic uprisings in Serbia, when some ideas developed to make revolution chic, trendy or sexy.

Courtesy: Alberto Korda

HK: A lot of your work focuses on the actors of revolution and politics, including both revolutionaries and ordinary people. The book title is about the absence of revolutionaries. Who do you identify as the activists of the revolution? And what ideas were guiding their activism?

AB: In the book, the revolutionaries are those activists who took the lead in mobilizing protesters and articulated ways forward. When I say “revolution without revolutionaries,” I mean revolutions without revolutionary ideas. They were quite remarkable in other ways, in terms of tactics for mobilization — how to mobilize, resist, and manage to bring so many people to the streets. In the Egyptian case, Tahrir Square became a global space, it became a model for other movements that emerged in other places later on in some 5,000 cities around the world. But revolution in terms of change, and in terms of having a vision about change, about how to rest power from the incumbents, this to me was quite lacking.

I think that, while Tahrir was so spectacular, so inspiring, it was also exceptional and transitory. It was a moment in which practices emerged for navigating between the real and the unreal, between reality and utopia. But the question for me was, what happens the day after the dictator abdicates, when people go home to attend to their daily needs?

I do think some ideas emerged in the process, but they needed to be supported by deep thinking and rigorous analysis. For instance, what happened in Tahrir Square itself for some outside observers means little more than a “future-in-the-present” kind of moment — a democratic space run by people collectively, something like what Hannah Arendt called a “Greek Polis,” where people run their own affairs democratically without a sovereign power presiding over them.

This is a very interesting idea that has mesmerized a lot of people, like Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and others. But I think that, while Tahrir was so spectacular, so inspiring, it was also exceptional and transitory. It was an exceptional moment in the long process of revolution, which has happened in most of the great revolutionary transformations. It was a moment in which practices emerged for navigating between the real and the unreal, between reality and utopia. But the question for me was, what happens the day after the dictator abdicates, when people go home to attend to their daily needs, wanting bread, jobs, security and normalcy? These are the kinds of issues I mean when I speak about broader visions and deep thinking, attributes that I feel revolutionaries should possess. One has to have some fairly good ideas about what happens the day after. How do you want to build a democratic model based on Tahrir in society, at the level of the state and nation? That is the challenge.

HK: Do you think the activists, with their lack of revolutionary ideas and preparedness, failed ordinary people during the Arab Spring?

AB: Not at all. We are not talking here about responsibility or blaming. We are making a historic observation that these movements were the product of a particular historical period. And it is not just the Arab uprisings. If you look at other social movements throughout the world at that juncture of 2011, for instance the Occupy movements, they are pretty similar in terms of their position of not having had a particular alternative vision in the way that previous revolutions had.

The activists of the Arab Spring separated in some ways the realms of polity and the economy, as if they were two separate spheres to contend with. In fact, they didn’t do or say much about economic relations, except for calling for “social justice.”

All that I’m saying here is that having ideas about how power works, how to deal with it, how to alter it, and how to institute new power relations in order to have a more just, egalitarian and inclusive order; having ideas about these things matters. But going even further, we don’t just need to think about how to tackle power, but also how to deal with the question of property in our movements. I want to emphasize a key difference here: The activists of the Arab Spring separated in some ways the realms of polity and the economy, as if they were two separate spheres to contend with. In fact, they didn’t do or say much about economic relations, except for calling for “social justice.” But, it is necessary for us to ask what they meant by “social justice,” and whether or not they had any institutional basis for building this, or if it was purely a reaction to terrible inequalities and deprivations that economic neoliberalism has unleashed on ordinary people. How do you address these deprivations?

Issues of equality were fundamental for a lot of earlier revolutionaries, but this wasn’t really picked up by Arab revolutionaries, even though social and economic exclusion was a key concern for ordinary people. The key issues raised by the Arab political class seemed to be, and this is perhaps in keeping with the spirit of our neoliberal times, those concerned with governmental accountability, democracy and human rights. I have to say these things are very significant issues in our region. But these are also the words used by authoritarian regimes and their western allies, albeit usually hiding their links to social exclusion, economic deprivation, terrible inequality and the regime of property.

No revolution succeeds without ordinary people. Even in guerrilla warfare, in cases where the protagonists were not more than a couple of hundred people, they still couldn’t have managed if they did not have the support of those from rural as well as urban areas.

HK: Your previous works have highlighted the role of ordinary people in politics, and the idea that the poor engage in ordinary struggles to survive and advance their lives, and end up making extraordinary claims. What role did ordinary people play in bringing about the Arab Spring?

AB: No revolution succeeds without ordinary people. Even in guerrilla warfare, in cases where the protagonists were not more than a couple of hundred people, they still couldn’t have managed if they did not have the support of those from rural as well as urban areas. Otherwise, they would be defeated. In the current revolutions, as in Egypt, the participation of ordinary people can very much secure the interests of the protagonists and the protests, by making it as if they were the preoccupation of everyone and bringing them to the social mainstream. To turn a non-routine, illegal protest into an ordinary occurrence is a pretty extraordinary act. If it does not become mainstream, the extraordinary activists can easily be identified, shunned and separated as anti-social deviants and agitators, and thus suppressed. But when you see a massive number of people on the streets — men, women, the elderly, children, families and so on, this really matters a lot. Such presence of the masses in public squares demonstrates the strength of the movement both to themselves and their opponents. So, yes, ordinary people do play a crucial role in revolutionary struggles.

Tahrir Square - Courtesy: Floris Van Cauwelaert

HK: What can you tell us about neoliberalism and political Islam?

AB: Neoliberal normativity has affected the political class as a whole, including the liberal secular classes and the Islamic political classes, as well as the post-Islamists. Post-Islamists did not exist during the Cold War, and their language is in fact a product of the post-Cold War period — the language of democracy, accountability, civil society, individual rights, and so on. Political Islam used to embrace certain ideals of equity and justice, which were clear in Ali Shariati’s writings, or in those of Sayed Qutb and Mohamed Bakr Sadr. Sadr’s two-volume Iqtisadna (Our Economy), is basically a competitive battle with socialism in an effort to prove that Islam is more just, more egalitarian, and somewhat more socialist than socialism. These ideologues were informed by the powerful presence of socialist ideas during the Cold War. But things began to change — Islamism shifted to the right after the Cold War. Today, Islamists and post-Islamists alike basically take the workings of the free market for granted, rather than questioning them as they had done in the past.

HK: Your book is exploring a very thin thread between hope and despair, which we all have to grapple with. What can you tell us about the Tahrir moment in relation to this?

AB: During those 18 days, Tahrir politics defined our politics. But the question was: How is it possible to institutionalize Tahrir, in the sense of sustaining it in different institutions that operate in normal, non-exceptional, post-revolutionary times? I also wondered if there was an attempt to explore how to sustain the Tahrir moment, or whether it was just an ephemeral moment in the long process of revolutionary mobilization. It is very significant to document and think about the Tahrir moment, and to take it as a historical, political and even moral resource; to deploy it in thinking about an alternative future.

This brings me to the idea of revolution: The idea, the ideal and the memory of revolution needs to be maintained. We should still be talking about it, and not put it aside. Instead, we should treat it as an unfinished project that may have openings for the future. Of course, we should not be simply waiting for the future to come, but rather we should make it what we want. My sense is that some activists are doing this — they’re reading, they’re reflecting on what they were doing, what they had and what they lacked.

Islamism shifted to the right after the Cold War. Today, Islamists and post-Islamists alike basically take the workings of the free market for granted, rather than questioning them as they had done in the past.

The history of a country like Egypt is not just one of these few years. There are also future generations to consider. Therefore, I am not depressed, despite globally depressing political conditions. Let us not forget that in the greater scheme of things, even in our own lifetimes, regimes will come and go, but a country and a society will remain. It is therefore imperative that we work on our societies. A strong and conscious society that values egalitarianism, inclusion and social justice will be able to socialize, even to acclimatize, and bring their states and their henchmen in line. So there’s much work to do and think about.

Note: The author would like to thank social anthropologist Linda Herrera, from the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, for her help setting up the interview, and her comments on an earlier draft of the questions.  

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Heba Khalil