Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition

Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition

by Asef Bayat

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Prior to 2011, popular imagination perceived the Muslim Middle East as unchanging and unchangeable, frozen in its own traditions and history. In Life as Politics , Asef Bayat argues that such presumptions fail to recognize the routine, yet important, ways in which ordinary people make meaningful change through everyday actions. First published just months before the Arab Spring swept across the region, this timely and prophetic book sheds light on the ongoing acts of protest, practice, and direct daily action.
The second edition includes three new chapters on the Arab Spring and Iran's Green Movement and is fully updated to reflect recent events. At heart, the book remains a study of agency in times of constraint. In addition to ongoing protests, millions of people across the Middle East are effecting transformation through the discovery and creation of new social spaces within which to make their claims heard. This eye-opening book makes an important contribution to global debates over the meaning of social movements and the dynamics of social change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804783279
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/08/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 390
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Asef Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies and Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford, 2007).

Read an Excerpt

Life as Politics


By Asef Bayat

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8326-2




THE ARAB SPRING NOTWITHSTANDING, powerful views, whether regional or international, suggest that the Middle East has fallen into disarray. We continue to read how the personal income of Arabs is among the lowest in the world, despite their massive oil revenues. With declining productivity, poor scientific research, decreasing school enrollment, and high illiteracy, and with health conditions lagging behind comparable nations, Arab countries seem to be "richer than they are developed." The unfortunate state of social development in the region is coupled with poor political governance. Authoritarian regimes ranging from Iran, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco to the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf and chiefly Saudi Arabia (incidentally, most with close ties to the West) have continued to frustrate demands for democracy and the rule of law, prompting (religious) opposition movements that espouse equally undemocratic, exclusive, and often violent measures. These conditions have at times caused much fear in the West about the international destabilizing ramifications of this seemingly social and political turmoil.

Thus, never before has the region witnessed such a cry for change as it did in the late 2000s. The idea that "everywhere the world has changed except for the Middle East" assumed a renewed prominence, with different domestic and international constituencies expressing different expectations as to how to instigate change in this region. Small (Marxist and militant Islamist) circles hope for a revolutionary transformation through a sudden upsurge of popular energy to overturn the unjust structures of power and usher in development and democracy. If the Iranian Revolution, not so long ago, could sweep aside a long-standing monarchy in less than two years, why couldn't such movement be forged in the region today? This indeed did happen. The Arab world witnessed a most momentous wave of revolutions in 2011. Yet, as usual, these revolutions came as a surprise. It is doubtful that revolutions can ever be planned. Even though revolutionaries do engage in plotting and preparing, revolutions do not necessarily result from prior schemes. Rather, they often follow their own intriguing logic, subject to a highly complex mix of structural, international, coincidental, and psychological factors. We often analyze revolutions in retrospect, rarely engaging in ones that are expected or desired, for revolutions are never predictable. On the other hand, most people do not particularly wish to be involved in violent revolutionary movements. People often express doubt about engaging in revolution, whose outcome they cannot foresee. They often prefer to remain "free riders," wanting others to carry out revolutions on their behalf. Furthermore, are revolutions necessarily desirable? Those who have experienced them usually identify violent revolutions with massive disruption, destruction, violence, and uncertainty. After all, nothing guarantees that a just social order will result from a revolutionary change unless revolutions turn into a prolonged process of social struggle to achieve original goals. Finally, even assuming that revolutions are desirable and can be planned, what are people under authoritarian rule to do in the meantime?

Given these constraints and the uncertain futures of revolutions, an alternative view would postulate that change should be instigated by committing states to undertaking sustained social and political reforms. Such a nonviolent strategy of reform requires powerful social forces—social movements (of workers, the poor, women, youth, students, and broader democracy movements) or genuine political parties—to challenge political authorities and hegemonize their claims. Indeed, many activists and NGOs in the Middle East have already engaged in forging movements to alter the current state of affairs. However, while this may serve as a genuinely endogenous strategy for change, effective movements need political opportunities to grow and operate. It is hoped that postrevolutionary states in Egypt, Tunisia, or Yemen may offer such opportunity. However, indications already point to certain intolerance by these new regimes, most of which are likely to assume electoral democracy of an illiberal type. How are social and political movements to keep up when authoritarian polity exhibits a great intolerance toward organized activism, when the repression of civil-society organizations has been a hallmark of most Middle Eastern states? In addition, what is the subaltern to do when the states, even if respecting electoral democracy (as in Turkey or Indonesia), fall short of providing an effective mechanism to respond to economic deprivation, social exclusion, gender imbalance, or violation of individual rights?

It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that until recently growing segments of people, frustrated by the political stalemate, lamented that although most people in the Middle East suffered under the status quo, they remained repressed, atomized, and passive. Popular activism, if any, went little beyond occasional, albeit angry, protests, with most of them directed by Islamists against the West and Israel, and less against their own repressive states to commit to a democratic order. Since there was slight or no agency to challenge the ossified status quo, the argument went, change should come from outside, by way of economic, political, and even military pressure. Even the Arab Human Development Report, arguably the most significant manifesto for change in the Arab Middle East, was inclined to seek a "realistic solution" of a "western-supported project of gradual and moderate reform aiming at liberalization." Still, the perception that the Middle East remained "unchangeable" had far greater resonance outside the region, notably in the West and among policy circles, the mainstream media, and many think tanks. Indeed, a strong "exceptionalist" outlook informed the whole edifice of the "democracy promotion industry" in the West, which pushed for instigating change through outside powers and did not exclude the use of force.

The idea of Middle Eastern exceptionalism is not new. Indeed, for a long time now, change in Middle Eastern societies has been approached with a largely western Orientalist outlook whose history goes back to the eighteenth century, if not earlier. Mainstream Orientalism tends to depict the Muslim Middle East as a monolithic, fundamentally static, and thus "peculiar" entity. By focusing on a narrow notion of (a rather static) culture—one that is virtually equated with the religion of Islam—Middle Eastern societies have been characterized more in terms of historical continuity than in terms of change. In this perspective, change, albeit uncommon, may indeed occur, but primarily via individual elites, military men, or wars and external powers. The George W. Bush administration's doctrine of "regime change," exemplified in, for instance, the occupation of Iraq and the continuous inclination to wage a war against Iran, represents how, in such a perspective, change is to be realized in the region. Consequently, internal sources of political transformation, such as group interests, social movements, and political economies, are largely overlooked.

The Arab Spring shook the foundations of such perspectives somewhat, although without terminating them. These perspectives continue to prevail, particularly in the mainstream media, getting a boost from the ascendancy of religious parties in the postrevolution general elections in the region. But a historical outlook gives a different picture. In fact, the Middle East has been home to many insurrectionary episodes, nationwide revolutions, and social movements (such as Islamism), and great strides for change. Beyond these, certain distinct and unconventional forms of agency and activism have emerged in the region that do not get adequate attention, because they do not fit into our prevailing categories and conceptual imaginations. By elaborating on and highlighting these latter forms, or what I call "social nonmovements," I wish also to raise a number of theoretical and methodological questions as to how to look at the notions of agency and change in the Muslim Middle East today. Indeed, conditioned by the exceptionalist outlook, many observers tend to exclude the study of the Middle East from the prevailing social science perspectives. For instance, many narratives of Islamism treat it simply in terms of religious revivalism, or as an expression of primordial loyalties, or irrational group actions, or something peculiar and unique, a phenomenon that cannot be analyzed by the conventional social science categories. In fact, Islamism had been largely excluded from the mode of inquiry developed by social movement theorists in the West until recently, when a handful of scholars have attempted to bring Islamic activism into the realm of "social movement theory." This is certainly a welcome development. However, these scholars tend largely to "borrow" from, rather than critically and productively engage with and thus contribute to, social movement theories. Indeed, it remains a question how far the prevailing social movement theory is able to account for the complexities of socioreligious movements in contemporary Muslim societies, in particular when these perspectives are rooted in particular genealogies, in the highly differentiated and politically open Western societies, where social movements often develop into highly structured and largely homogeneous entities—possibilities that are limited in the non-Western world. Charles Tilly is correct in alerting us to be mindful of the historical specificity of "social movements"—political performances that emerged in Western Europe and North America after 1750. In this historical experience, what came to be known as "social movements" combined three elements: an organized and sustained claim making on target authorities; a repertoire of performances, including associations, public meetings, media statements, and street marches; and finally, "public representations of the cause's worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment." Deployed separately, these elements would not make "social movements," but some different political actions. Given that the dominant social movement theories draw on Western experience, to what extent can they help us understand the process of solidarity building or the collectivities of disjointed yet parallel practices of noncollective actors in the non-Western politically closed and technologically limited settings?

In contrast to the "exceptionalist" tendency, there are those often "local" scholars in the Middle East who tend uncritically to deploy conventional models and concepts to the social realities of their societies, without acknowledging sufficiently that these models hold different historical genealogies, and may thus offer little help to explain the intricate texture and dynamics of change and resistance in this part of the world. For instance, considering "slums" in light of the conventional perspectives of urban sociology, the informal communities in the Middle East (i.e., ashwaiyyat) are erroneously taken to be the breeding ground for violence, crime, anomie, extremism, and, consequently, radical Islam. There is little in such narratives that sees these communities as a significant locus of struggle for (urban) citizenship and transformation in urban configuration. Scant attention is given to how the urban disenfranchised, through their quiet and unassuming daily struggles, refigure new life and communities for themselves and different urban realities on the ground in Middle Eastern cities. The prevailing scholarship ignores the fact that these urban subalterns redefine the meaning of urban management and de facto participate in determining its destiny; and they do so not through formal institutional channels, from which they are largely excluded, but through direct actions in the very zones of exclusion. To give a different example, in early 2000 Iranian analysts looking uncritically at Muslim women's activism through the prism of social movement theory—developed primarily in the United States—concluded that there was no such a thing as a women's movement in Iran, because certain features of Iranian women's activities did not resemble the principal "model." It is perhaps in this spirit that Olivier Roy warns against the kind of comparison that takes "one of the elements of comparison as norm" while never questioning the "original configuration." A fruitful approach would demand an analytical innovation that not only rejects both Middle Eastern "exceptionalism" and uncritical application of conventional social science concepts but also thinks and introduces fresh perspectives to observe, a novel vocabulary to speak, and new analytical tools to make sense of specific regional realities. It is in this frame of mind that I examine both contentious politics and social "nonmovements" as key vehicles to produce meaningful change in the Middle East.


A number of remarkable social and political transformations in the region have resulted from organized contentious endeavors of various forms, ranging from endemic protest actions, to durable social movements, to major revolutionary mobilizations. The constitutional revolution of 1905–6 heralded the end of Qajar despotism and the beginning of the era of constitutionalism in Iran. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952, led by free officers, and the Iraqi Revolution of 1958 terminated long-standing monarchies and British colonial rule, augmenting republicanism and socialistic economies. In a major social and political upheaval, the Algerians overthrew French colonial rule in 1962 and established a republic.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 galvanized millions of Iranians in a movement that toppled the monarchy and ushered in a new era, not only in Iran, but in many nations of the Muslim world. Some twenty-five years earlier, a nationalist and secular democratic movement led by Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh had established constitutionalism, until it was crushed by a coup engineered by the CIA and the British secret service in 1953, which reinstated the dictatorship of the Shah. In 1985 in Sudan, a nonviolent uprising by a coalition of students, workers, and professional unions (National Alliance for National Salvation) forced President Jaafar Numeiri's authoritarian populist regime (born of a military coup) to step down in favor of a national transitional government, paving the way for free elections and democratic governance. The first Palestinian intifada (1987–93) was one of the most grassroots-based mobilizations in the Middle East of the past century. Triggered by a fatal accident caused by an Israeli truck driver, and against the backdrop of years of occupation, the uprising included almost the entire Palestinian population, in particular women and children, who resorted to nonviolent methods of resistance to the occupation, such as civil disobedience, strikes, demonstrations, withholding taxes, and product boycotts. Led mainly by the local (versus exiled) leaders, the movement built on popular committees (e.g., women's, voluntary work, and medical relief ) to sustain itself, while serving as an embryonic institution of a future independent Palestinian state. More recently, the "Cedar Revolution," a grassroots movement of some 1.5 million Lebanese from all walks of life demanding meaningful sovereignty, democracy, and an end to foreign meddling, resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005. This movement came to symbolize a model of peaceful mobilization from below that could cause momentous change in the region. At almost the same time, a nascent democracy movement in Egypt, with Kifaya at its core, mobilized thousands of middle-class professionals, students, teachers, judges, and journalists who called for a release of political prisoners and an end to emergency law, torture, and Husni Mubarak's presidency. In a fresh perspective, this movement chose to work with "popular forces," rather than with traditional opposition parties, bringing the campaign into the streets instead of broadcasting it from headquarters, and focused on domestic issues rather than international demands. As a postnational and postideological movement, Kifaya embraced activists from diverse ideological orientations and gender, religious, and social groups. This novel mobilization managed, after years of Islamist hegemony, nationalism, and authoritarian rule, to break the taboo of unlawful street marches, and to augment a new postnationalist, secular, and nonsectarian (democratic) politics in Egypt. It galvanized international support and compelled the Egyptian government to amend the constitution to allow for competitive presidential elections. More spectacularly, the nonviolent Green wave mobilized millions of Iranians against the Ahmadinejad's hard-line government (accused of fraud in the presidential elections of June 12, 2009) pushing for democratic reform. The Green movement was to become a prelude to the spectacular Arab uprisings of 2011, reminiscent of the revolutionary waves of 1848 and 1989 in Europe. The monumental revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya toppled longstanding dictators; and those in Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria shook the foundation of autocratic regimes or compelled political reforms (see Chapter 13).

Excerpted from Life as Politics by Asef Bayat. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

1 The Art of Presence 1

Part 1 Social Nonmovements

2 The Quiet Encroachment of the Ordinary 33

3 The Poor and the Perpetual Pursuit of Life Chances 56

4 Feminism of Everyday Life 86

5 Reclaiming Youthfulness 106

6 The Politics of Fun 129

Part 2 Street Politics and the Political Street

7 Battlefield Tehran 153

8 Streets of Revolution 175

9 Does Radical Islam Have an Urban Ecology? 188

10 Everyday Cosmopolitanism 202

11 The "Arab Street" 226

Part 3 Revolutions

12 Is There a Future for Islamic Revolutions? 241

13 The Post-Islamist Refo-lutions 259

14 The Green Revolt 284

15 The Coming of a Post-Islamist Democracy 305

Notes 317

Index 369

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