Iranian-American scholar Asef Bayat, author of ‘Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring’, on the evolution of revolutions and their impact on everyday lives
By Tugrul Mende
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Asef Bayat, who is a professor of sociology and the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has been studying revolutions and how they affect people. His work has focused on countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where the revolutionary process has evolved over decades.
What started with his influential book ‘Life as Politics’, which was published in late 2009, continues today with ‘Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring’. In this book, Bayat takes a new approach to studying revolutions, looking at them not from above – but in how they affect the everyday lives of general population. In this interview, we discussed his new book and how his understanding of revolutions has changed over the past two decades.
Tugrul Mende: It’s been over a decade since you published ‘Life as Politics’, and now you publish ‘Revolutionary Life’, in what way did your own thinking about your research and the definition of revolution change over this period? Is ‘Revolutionary Life’ the final part of this quest?
Asef Bayat: I think that the Arab revolutions of the past decade are invaluable experiences to better understand the meaning of revolution broadly. Even though in a fundamental sense I have continued to regard revolution in terms of profound change, the past ten years have offered much insight to nuance my understanding of the concept.
To begin with, no matter what is expected of a revolutionary outcome, the very occurrence of revolution as movement (or uprising) and the emergence of rupture in the routine of life, can instigate important changes in popular subjectivities, in social norms, and political imaginaries. This is very crucial to consider, especially when we think about the outcome or the end or the continuity of a revolution.
We need to pay much more attention to understanding the counter-revolution, as not something external to revolution, but as part and parcel of it
The other thing that I learned has to do with the relationship between everyday politics and revolution. As you know, the book ‘Life as Politics’ focuses primarily on everyday or popular politics, which initially I thought was an alternative to, or the opposite of, revolution. But I have come to the conclusion that there are undeniable relationships between these two seeming binaries, between everyday life and revolution.
TM: You write that “we need to know what revolution means at the base of society, how it plays out in the social realm, in everyday life, and among the grassroots”. How did revolution manifest itself for those groups you talk to and how much does theory reflect everyday life in reality?
Asef Bayat: Let me be clear that a narrative of revolution at the top – about political power, the state, or regime change – remains indispensable for any reasonable understanding of revolution. But it is not sufficient. We need to know what it means at the base of the society.
In the cases that I have examined, revolutions came to permeate, so to speak, into everyday life. They were articulated in distinct sentiments and practices among the grassroots, and significantly impacted the social realm. Local people in farms, factories and neighborhoods took the initiative to acquire farming lands, establish independent unions, and fight for better conditions.
In Tunisia, the scale of industrial protests in the last years to improve work relations was unprecedented. Villagers fought to keep and revive local resources, to secure debt relief, and better infrastructure, homes, and services. Demand for adequate irrigation water provoked extraordinary struggles. In cities, poor people waged unparalleled campaigns to secure new shelters, state housing, and retain thousands of squatter apartments.
Neighborhoods assumed a new function of managing and upgrading themselves with the help of local youths and activists. Households saw new practices in gender relations. Women became more vocal; scores of them took off hijab, expressed doubt about religious leaders and disavowed political Islam. Many unmarried women left their family households to live independently, and an extraordinary number got involved in social activism. Such practices varied and are too many to mention, but they are detailed in the book, ‘Revolutionary Life’. These subaltern practices faced stiff resistance from the political, economic and moral adversaries; yet significant gains were made.
TM: Recently, a collection of essays by imprisoned Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who has been described as a ‘philosopher of everyday life’, was published in ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated’. You write that “The downfall of the dictators in the Arab Uprisings generated great hope, happiness, and yet much anxiety and uncertainty among activists and the ordinary“. Do you think that the revolutions in Egypt ‘are defeated’ and how much does this influence your own thinking and those you talk to?
Asef Bayat: I am eager to read Alaa’s book soon. In ‘Revolutionary Life’, I have engaged with Alaa’s wonderful poem, which was published on the eve of the uprising (“Get rid of the experts and listen to the poets—for we are in a revolution….”). His hope and his vision are inspiring, especially in the conditions where many in the region and exile are experiencing despair.
If we look at these revolutions from the prism of democratization, we can say that they are failures. In fact, in some countries there is more repression now than before the revolutions. But if we change the lens and look at the base of the societies to see what has happened in the social and cultural realms, it will be difficult to simply declare the end of these revolutions. Because, as I said earlier, so many ideas have changed, people have developed new visions and expectations that even the counter-revolutionary regimes cannot ignore and so have to adjust their policies to address such emerging consciousness and expectations.
Just consider – why is it that, despite the ‘failure’ of revolutions in the early 2010s, a new series of uprisings spread in Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq and Iran later in the very same decade?
TM: What do you think about recent events in Tunisia, with President Saied’s takeover, and how much do you think they are linked to your arguments in ‘Revolutionary Life’?
Asef Bayat: These developments in Tunisia were not terribly far-fetched. The self-limiting revolution in Tunisia entailed a fairly pluralist democracy, party politics, and vocal civil society, but failed to fundamentally transform the state to address the ‘social question’ of poverty, marginalization and disparity. That failure to address the social questions made Tunisia’s democracy dangerously fragile.
This issue had already caused an early disenchantment among the youth and poor with the politicians and high politics. In addition, the ongoing bickering between the secular-religious factions in the government added further obstacles to address urgent social and economic problems, especially the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Tunisians seemed to desire a ‘savior’ to protect them from the ‘corruption’ and self-indulgences of the ‘establishment’.
Kais Saied [who has been Tunisia’s president since 2019] came to embody that ‘savior’ personality…. But indications are that support for Kais Saied is diminishing because he has not offered anything tangible to improve life, except some populist posturing and authoritarian maneuverings.
TM: Even though Tunisia and Egypt are the focus of your books, in what way are the events in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan a continuation of the 2011 revolutions? What impact have they had on the wider region?
Asef Bayat: It is fair to say that all of these are in the family of ‘refolution’, a new generation of 21st-century revolutions that are rich as movements but quite feeble in terms of change. They all have the potential to establish some kind of pluralist polity, but are dangerously vulnerable to the whims and intrigues of the incumbent elites and their allies, whether within the government or outside in the region.
But as much as counter-revolutionary elites learn from each other, so do the revolutionaries. Revolutions in Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan or Algeria came later and so have had a chance to observe and possibly avoid the shortcomings of the earlier ones. A good example is Sudan, whose management of its revolution has been quite inspiring, even though the military rulers, inspired by Egypt, are poised to undo the whole revolutionary enterprise.
TM: You initially studied the 1979 Iran Revolution, and you talk about it in your books as a starting point for thinking and researching revolutions. In what ways did your view change over the course of your career and do you think that the revolutions are still unfolding, and are part of a longer process of which we have not seen the outcome yet?
Bayat: There is no doubt that the study of the Iranian Revolution has given me a valuable vantage point to examine and understand the experiences of later revolutions, whether the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 or the Arab Spring of the past decade. Through a comparative historical lens, one can get precious insights into what has remained and what has changed in the experiences of revolution.
The new revolutions of the 21st century showed the extent to which historical transformations influence the configuration of revolutions. But whatever shape they may take, revolutions continue to take place in one form or another, and they have become even more frequent in recent years. Another key lesson of the Arab revolutions is that we need to pay much more attention to understanding the counter-revolution, as not something external to revolution, but as part and parcel of it.
TM: Looking at the role of the West and the European Union, do you think the West understood the process of the revolutions and what expectations might you have about their role concerning fostering democracy in the region?
Asef Bayat: I think that the Western powers view these revolutions fundamentally from the perspective of their national interests. If establishing democracy [in other parts of the world] were in their interest, they would support it, otherwise they would oppose it.
In fact, the Arab Spring showed how inconsistent certain Western countries, notably the US, was in supporting or opposing the revolutions. Tunisia largely escaped from the US radar (though France was deeply worried). The US remained ambivalent with respect to Egypt; it supported the uprisings in Syria and Libya, but disapproved of those in Bahrain and other Persian Gulf states.
Today, in North Africa, people who care about democracy and human rights are very disappointed, if not outraged, by the practical complicity of the US and EU with respect to the counter-revolutionary and anti-democratic onslaught in Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan. Many people in Sudan feel that the military is dismantling their democratic revolution and yet the reaction of the US and EU does not go beyond lip service for a ‘democratic opening’ in these countries. No serious action has come from these Western governments.