How did the Arab Spring uprisings shape the path of revolutions?
The neighborhoods have taken on a new function of management and upgrading with the help of young people and local activists. Households have seen new practices in gender relations. Women became more vocal; dozens of them removed the hijab, expressed doubts about religious leaders and disavowed political Islam. Many single women have left their family homes to live independently, and an extraordinary number have engaged in social activism. Such practices vary and are too numerous to mention, but they are detailed in the book “Revolutionary Life”. These subaltern practices have met with strong resistance from political, economic and moral adversaries; yet significant gains have been made.
MT: 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 haven’t been defeated yet‘. You write that “The fall of dictators during the Arab uprisings has generated much hope, happiness, and yet much anxiety and uncertainty among activists and ordinary people”. Do you think the revolutions in Egypt are “defeated” and how does this influence your own thinking and those you talk to?
Asef Bayat: I look forward to reading Alaa’s book soon. In ‘Revolutionary Life’ I touched on 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 vision are inspiring, especially in the conditions where many people in the region and in exile live in despair.
If we look at these revolutions through 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 shift our focus and look at the grassroots of 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 counter-revolutionary regimes cannot ignore and therefore must adjust their policies to respond to this awareness and these emerging expectations.
Just consider – why, despite the “failure” of revolutions in the early 2010s, a new round of uprisings spread to Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq and Iran later in the same decade?
TM: What do you think of recent events in Tunisia, with President Saied taking power, and to what extent do you think they relate to your arguments in ‘Revolutionary life‘?
Assef Bayat: These developments in Tunisia were not greatly exaggerated. Tunisia’s self-limited revolution involved fairly pluralistic democracy, partisan politics and a vocal civil society, but failed to fundamentally transform the state to address the ‘social question’ of poverty, marginalization and disparity. . This inability to respond to social issues has dangerously weakened Tunisian democracy.
This question had already provoked an early dislike among the young and the poor vis-à-vis politicians and high politics. Additionally, ongoing infighting between secular and religious factions in government has added further hurdles to addressing pressing social and economic issues, particularly the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Tunisians seemed to long for a “savior” to protect them from “corruption” and the complacency of the “establishment”.
Kais Saied [who has been Tunisia’s president since 2019] came to embody this “savior” personality…. But everything indicates that support for Kais Saied is waning because he has offered nothing tangible to improve life, except for some populist postures and authoritarian maneuvers.
TM: Even if Tunisia and Egypt are at the center of your books, how do the events in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan fit into the continuity of the 2011 revolutions? What impact have they had on the wider region?
Assef Bayat: It’s fair to say that all of these belong to the “refolution” family, a new generation of 21st century revolutions rich in movement but fairly weak in change. They all have the potential to establish some sort of pluralist politics, but are dangerously vulnerable to the whims and intrigues of the established elites and their allies, whether in government or outside the region.