This Essential reading belongs to ASI and MESPI’s year-long effort to mark, interrogate, and reflect on the Arab uprisings by producing resources for educators, researchers, students, and journalists to understand the last decade of political upheaval historically and in the lived present. To check out other publications and events from the Ten Years On project visit The Arab Uprisings Project and MESPI.
This text is an updated version of an Essential Readings contribution from Asef Bayat in 2018, also published on Jadaliyya and MESPI. The Essential Readings series works to regularly update its catalog of publications to keep them current.]
Middle East studies has traditionally paid more attention to the elite power than the people in subverting that power. The Essential Reading compiled by Lisa Anderson in Jadaliyya guides us to a fine collection of publications on the states and regimes in the Middle East since the 1970s. But serious works on contentious politics, social movements, and resistance in the region have been quite recent. Yet within a relatively short period, some significant historically-sophisticated and theoretically-informed works have appeared that go beyond approaching contentious politics simply in terms of ‘riots’, ‘mob action’ or mere religious reaction. They include regional and historical surveys, country studies, analyses of particular movements or acts of contention. Given that I am constrained by the limited essential and representative titles, some important works might have been omitted here. My emphasis is more on studies with regional scope rather than single country monographs; attention is also paid to theoretical contributions that are drawn on the experiences of the Middle East and North Africa. Finally, these publications are all in English language which inevitably excludes non-English scholarships which may be as valuable and insightful. I have looked at scholarship on contentious politics in terms of three repertoires: uprisings and revolutions, social movements, and everyday politics and resistance.
Uprisings and Revolutions
The Iranian revolution of 1979, the rise of radical Islamism, and then the Palestine Intifada instigated some important studies on large scale political contentions. Ervand Abrahmian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton University Press, 1982) remains a far-reaching study of the social and political processes that led up to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Abrahamin’s older and short essay “The Crowd in the Persian Revolution” (Iranian Studies, 1969) also remains a classic in the study of popular revolt in the Middle East. Charles Kurzman’s The Unthinkable Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2004) is an excellent intervention not only in the mode of popular mobilization, but especially in showing how the Iranian revolution, indeed any revolution, could not be planned and executed. The Palestinian intifada against the Israeli occupation also inspired important studies. An early solid analysis offered by Joost Hiltermann in Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women’s Movements in the Occupied Territories (Princeton University Press, 1993) discusses the modes and forces of the first Palestinian uprising that began in 1987.
Beyond these country studies, two major monographs give us broader regional and historical overviews on popular political contentions in the MENA. In The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2013) Charles Tripp weaves a narrative of various types of popular resistance ranging from anti-colonial armed struggle (in Algeria and Palestine) against violent rule, to campaigns against authoritarian Arab regimes, movements against capitalist economic policies, including examinations on the role of space and women in these repertoires. His analysis of the relationship between particular forms of power and forms of resistance is of particular significance. John Chalcraft’s comprehensive account in Popular Politics in the Making of Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2016) traces popular protests in the region in a systematic fashion from the Ottoman rule in the late 16th Century to the present time, discussing diverse repertoires of contention over justice and rights, constitutions, national liberation, revolutionary change and Islamic revival.
Both of these studies appeared after the outbreak of the Arab revolutions of 2010-2011, which in turn have given rise to a library of publications including broad surveys, country studies, as well as studies on aspects of these revolutions such as the place of youth, women, religion, arts, and foreign forces in these popular contentions. Indeed, the theme of ‘Arab revolutions’ may need its own ‘essential readings’. Here I focus on particular interpretations of the Arab Spring. Asef Bayat’s Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford University Press, 2017) tries to understand these political happenings historically and comparatively, and to explain how and why these revolutions were different from those that occurred in the late 20th Century, in particular the Iranian revolution of 1979. One such difference lay in the prevalence of new means of mass communication in recent years, which offered unprecedented possibilities for popular mobilization. Linda Herrera’s Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet (Verso Press, 2014) focuses on this aspect of the Arab uprisings– the role of the new media which facilitated a novel space for public deliberation, cognitive make-up, and political dynamics in these revolutions.
Offering a different perspective, Daniel Ritter’s The Iron Cage of Liberalism: International Politics and Unarmed Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (Oxford University Press, 2014) provides an insightful examination of the role of international relations in regimes’ responses to revolutionary protests. Ritter highlights a shift from armed to unarmed revolutions through a rich analysis of how the establishment of the international regimes of Human Rights after the WWII empowered the liberal opposition and undermined the authoritarian regimes by placing them in the “iron cage of liberalism”. In Where did the Revolution Go: Contentious Politics and the Quality of Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2016) Donatella Della Porta offers an innovative approach that brings revolution, social movement, and democratic transition into a single analytical framework. She compares the experiences of the Arab uprisings with the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 to account for the factors that shape the quality of democratic transition that may transpire as a result of revolution.
In regular non-revolutionary times, the region has periodically seen the emergence of fairly organized social movements that have mobilized diverse constituencies concerned with issues of religion, labor, youthfulness, gender, or human rights. Joel Beinin and Ferederic Veirel’s edited volume Social Movements, Mobilization and Contention in the Middle East and North Africa (Stanford University Press, 2013) is a fine collection of very useful essays on different movements that came out before the Arab uprisings, but was revised, extended and republished after. Beinin and Zachary Lockman had already published important works on labor and workers’ movement in the Middle East region earlier (see Essential Readings on Labor in the Middle East by Joel Beinin in Jadaliyya).
Quintan Wiktorowicz (ed.), Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003) represents an early systematic attempt to bring Islamist activism into the analysis of Social Movements theory at the very same time that Mohammed Hafez in Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World (Lynne Rienner, 2003) brought Ted Gurr’s ‘relative deprivation’ idea to explain Islamist movements. An early initiative in engaging the study of Islam and politics in the Middle East with the social movement approach is represented in Islam, Politics and Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) edited by Edmund Burke III and Ira Lapidus. This pioneering volume remains valuable in its historical-sociological perspective and in the way in which it approaches social movements in the context of the Middle East and North Africa.
In Being Young and Muslim: Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (Oxford University Press, 2013) Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat set a framework to examine youth politics in the Middle East and beyond, by discussing how– in the face of repressive polity, neoliberal economy, and moral surveillance– young men and women in the region manage to claim their youthfulness while wanting to retain their Muslimness.
Analysis of female youth is inevitably part of the universe of scholarship on women and gender. While there is an enormous body of work on gender and women, in particular in relation to Islam and modernity—for instance, Lila Abu-Lughod’s edited volume Remaking of Women in the Middle East brings together some key essays on the subject—we are yet to see a serious account of women’s movement with regional scope. There are indeed many valuable individual case studies of women’s resistance in different national settings both historically and related to the present times. Valentine Moghadam has been a long-time contributor to the subject. Sherine Hafez’s Women of the Midan: The Untold Stories of Egypt’s Revolutionaries (Indiana University Press, 2019) is one of the latest valuable studies that focuses on the place of women in the January 25th Egyptian revolution. Yet, we should be looking forward to a synthesis of women’s movement and acts of resistance across the region. In her latest book, Embodying Geopolitics: Generations of Women’s Activism in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon (University of California Press, 2020), Nicola Pratt moves in that direction by giving us an impressive analysis of women’s activism in multiple countries, across generations from the 1960s up until the Arab uprisings, and in relation to the region’s geopolitics.
Subaltern and Resistance
Recent years have seen some very interesting studies that focus not on large-scale rebellions or organized movements, but on subaltern resistance and encroachments in the context of the everyday life, whether in relation to women, peasantry, laborers, ‘informal people’, young persons, or social minorities. Of quite rare studies on peasantry, one belongs to Nathan Brown in Peasant Politics in Modern Egypt: The Struggle Against the State (Yale University Press, 1990). In the tradition of James C. Scott, Brown departs from the prevailing accounts that view peasantry either as submissive or revolutionary. He offers a moral economy framework to understand and examine peasants’ diverse acts of resistance against the power elites. Stephanie Cronin, ed. Subalterns and Social Protest: History from Below in the Middle East and North Africa (Routledge, 2008) is an insightful collection which aims to bring the method of subaltern studies and ‘history from below’ into the historical studies of the MENA region. Over a vast historical span, the contributors discuss multiple subaltern groups including workers, peasants, women, the urban poor, and other marginalized clusters. Lila Abu-Lughod’s discussion of ‘resistance’ in relation to women and gender includes her classic essay “The Romance of Resistance” where she gives us a critical assessment of the notion of ‘resistance’ in particular when deployed in the political economy and cultural context of the Middle East region.
Asef Bayat’s work in this genre, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010, 2013), provides an analytical framework– in terms of ‘quiet encroachment’ and ‘social non-movements’— to understand and examine subaltern (e.g., urban poor, youth, and women) politics in everyday life. There is now a growing interest by younger scholars in this line of inquiry, who highlight strategies of resistance and encroachment by social groups as diverse as the unemployed youth, Muslim women, street artists, squatters, international migrants, and social minorities. A special issue of the Journal of Resistance Studies (vol, 6, no. 2, 2020) on the Middle East and North Africa includes a number of interesting articles on such issues as women’s struggle, Arab uprisings, counter-revolutionary technology, non-violence, and violence, pertinent to Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and others. In a recent essay, “Egypt’s 2011 uprising, subaltern cultural politics, and revolutionary weakness” (Social Movement Studies, 2020), John Chalcraft invokes a Gramscian take on subaltern cultural politics to account for the weakness in Egypt’s revolutionary outcome.
On the whole we have now a sizeable body of good literature on contentious politics in the Middle East. The Arab uprisings have no doubt generated a serious interest among young scholars to pursue research on social movements and political contention in the region. While attention to youth politics and digital mobilization is on the rise, there is still much room for work on space and contention, transnational networks and solidarity, and gender dimensions of organized dissent.
Asef Bayat is Professor of Sociology, and the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the Department of Sociology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before joining Illinois, Bayat taught at the American University in Cairo for many years, and served as the director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) holding the Chair of Society and Culture of the Modern Middle East at Leiden University, The Netherlands.In the meantime, he had visiting positions at the Universality of California, Berkeley, Colombia University, Oxford, and Brown.