Asef Bayat, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Asef Bayat (AB): How could I not write it? The outbreak of the uprisings—starting with Tunisia (where no one expected it, except perhaps people like the militant miners of Ghafsa) and then quickly moving to Egypt, then Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and others—generated an extraordinary political and intellectual excitement for many of us who had been following the region’s politics for a long time before the uprisings. I lived in Egypt and travelled extensively in the region for years prior to the revolutions. I had developed some kind of personal, emotional, and intellectual stake in these monumental political happenings. While I was so enthused by the innovative ways in which activists and ordinary people were pushing for their claims, I was also perplexed—and worried—by the way in which things were evolving. I was exhilarated by the popular mobilization, but anxious about how the popular will could be represented in the centers of the state power, especially when these centers were still manned by members of the old order. I quickly sensed that these were different kinds of revolutions from the ones I had seen and studied before, in particular the Iranian revolution of 1979. So, I began to think and delve into research in both Egypt and Tunisia immediately after the fall of the dictators. My aim was to make sense of these revolutions and highlight their peculiarities by examining them through historical and comparative perspectives. This approach, I was hoping, would help me understand what had changed in the domain of radical politics in the world over the past forty or so years.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AB: The book covers a number of issues. While the book has a macro historical focus more broadly, it discusses details of how popular mobilizations took shape, who the protagonists were, how they were thinking, and what the political classes (both Islamists and non-Islamists) were doing. It also explores the ways in which change in urban life generated popular dissent, and how urban streets offered spaces for the expression of dissent—known as ‘square politics’. The book also examines the element of ‘surprise’ in the seemingly sudden flare up of the uprisings as well as the particular form the revolutions and their ‘transitions’ took. One key argument is that while the growing privatization and neoliberal policies since the late 1990s caused inequality and dissent on the part of the subalterns, neoliberal thinking and institutions cultivated de-radicalization on the part of the political class—including Islamists and non-Islamist nationalists. So, the book engages with the literature pertinent to social movements and revolutions, urban space and politics, the place of the non-movements in these uprisings, the socio-economic change in the Middle East, Islamization and post-Islamization, the politics of neoliberalism, as well as debates around transitionology.

In brief, the book is an attempt to understand the meaning of Arab revolutions by comparing them to the revolutions of the 1970s, in particular the Iranian revolution of 1979. It examines the causes, actors, mobilization processes, and the outcome. It shows how and why these revolutions were different from those that came before—not only in terms of ideas, organization, and mobilization, but also in how the protagonists viewed state power, and what was expected from the revolutions. Unlike the revolutions of the 1970s—when the protagonists tended to tackle the matters of imperialism, inequality, distribution, and property—protagonists in the revolutions of the 2011 were more concerned with the issues of political accountability, democracy, human rights, participation, and the like.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AB: This book very much connects to my other book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, which was published in 2010, a year before the Arab uprisings (it was then revised and republished with three new chapters in 2013, as a 2nd edition). In Life as Politics, I discussed different forms of popular struggles by the ordinary women, youths, and urban poor, which I had conceptualized in terms of social non-movements—the everyday struggles through which these subaltern groups aimed to enhance their life chances. I had also suggested that these non-movements might take larger collective forms and be merged into the broader popular mobilizations when opportunities became available. So, in a way, Revolution without Revolutionaries may be said to continue the story of subaltern struggles discussed in Life as Politics through the uprisings of the 2011 and after. In addition, a few discussions draw on ideas that I had developed earlier in Life as Politics and other works, ideas like the “urbanity of discontent” or “streets of revolution,” which the readers of my previous works may be familiar; however, in the process, especially in this book, I have tried to sharpen, nuance and fine-tune them further. In general, I tend to rethink, revisit, and reformulate ideas and concepts once I get fresh data, face novel questions, or find new angles. So, these concepts continue to evolve. Needless to say, I am so grateful and indebted to colleagues and careful readers who direct their critical points to me, pushing me to rethink and refigure the ideas further.  

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AB: I am hoping that the book will be read by the academics involved in social sciences and humanities. I think it will be a suitable text for classroom use in the courses like Comparative Politics, Revolutions and Social Movements, Political Sociology, Political Anthropology, History, Middle East Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and the like. Beyond academia, I am hoping that activists, those who think about and take the subject of social and political change seriously, will read the book to engage with its arguments and conclusions. Of course, the book is not meant to offer a text about how to do or not to do revolutions (it would be incapable of doing so); after all, this book draws in many ways on the experience of revolutionaries who have actually taken the risk of leading or engaging in the uprisings. Rather, the book offers an interpretation about how and why things turned out to be as they did. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my key objective has been to record, narrate, and interpret the events in the way I have understood them. Alongside engaging in this kind of scholarship, I also value maintaining the memory of these monumental uprisings—these remarkable experiences of popular revolt against the systems of injustice—as a moral and material resource for the struggles yet to come.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AB: I am currently working on a sequel to the Revolution without Revolutionaries. As I described already, Revolution without Revolutionaries covers the processes of mobilization, actors, transition, and somewhat the outcome of the Arab uprisings; at the core, however, this book tries to offer a big picture—to speak from the macro, historical and comparative outlook, as a way to highlight some of the key features of these revolutions. From this outlook, it tells the story of how radical politics at the global level has been transformed in the past 30 or 40 years. But revolutions are not just about what happens at the top, the state power and state institutions—however indispensible they may be. Revolutions are also about what transpires at the base of the society, the grassroots, and the underside. My current project concerns writing a follow-up book to Revolution without Revolutionaries in order to examine the Arab revolutions from a micro perspective, to see what these revolutions meant to the ordinary people in the everyday life. Without this, I feel, the story of the revolutions is incomplete.

Alongside this, I am also producing, together with Linda Herrera, an ambitious volume on Global Middle East. It is a collection of over two dozens of solicited essays to show the transnational and global exchange, influence, flows, and interconnections between the MENA and other countries in social, economic, political, cultural, and religion domains.


Excerpt from the Book:

In 2011, the Arab uprisings were celebrated as world-changing events that would redefine the spirit of our political times. The astonishing spread of these mass uprisings, followed soon after by the Occupy protests, left observers in little doubt that they were witnessing an unprecedented phenomenon—something totally new, open-ended, a movement without a name, revolutions that heralded a novel path to emancipation. According to Alain Badiou, Tahrir Square and all the activities that took place there—fighting, barricading, debating, camping, cooking, and caring for the wounded—constituted the “communism of movement.” Posited as an alternative to the conventional liberal-democratic and authoritarian state, this was a universal concept that heralded a new way of doing politics—a true revolution. For Slavoj Žižek, only these “universal” political happenings, without hegemonic organizations, charismatic leadership, or party apparatuses, could create what he called the “miracle of Tahrir.” For Hardt and Negri, the Arab Spring, Europe’s indignado protests, and Occupy Wall Street expressed the longing of the multitude for a “real democracy,” a different kind of polity that might supplant the hopeless liberal variety worn threadbare by corporate capitalism. These movements, in sum, represented the “new global revolutions.”

New, certainly, but what does this newness tell us about the nature of these political upheavals? What value does it attribute to them? Just as these confident appraisals were being circulated in the United States and Europe, the Arab protagonists themselves were anguishing over the fate of their revolutions, lamenting the dangers of counterrevolutionary restoration or hijacking by free riders. Five years after the fall of the dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, not a great deal had effectively changed in the states’ institutions or the power bases of the old elites. Police, army, and judiciary; state-controlled media; business elites and the clientelist networks of the old ruling parties—all had remained more or less intact. The fact that Egypt’s provisional military rulers in 2012 could impose a ban on strikes and bring more than twelve thousand revolutionaries before military tribunals suggests that there was something peculiar about the character of these revolutions.

I suggest that the key marker of the Arab revolutions lay in their painful paradox in coupling revolutionary mobilization with a reformist trajectory. “Half Revolution, No Revolution” is how a protester’s placard in Egypt captured the spirit of this anomaly. Indeed, the contrasting reactions to the Arab Spring—lauding and lamenting—reflected precisely this paradoxical reality of the Arab revolutions, if we take revolution to mean, minimally, the rapid and radical transformation of a state driven by popular movements from below. The polarities of opinion echoed the profound disjunction between two key dimensions of revolution: movement and change. The celebratory narratives focused predominantly on “revolution as movement”; on the dramatic episodes of high solidarity and sacrifice, of altruism and common purpose; on the communitas of Tahrir. The attention here is centered on those extraordinary moments in every revolutionary mobilization when attitudes and behavior are suddenly transformed: sectarian divisions melt away, gender equality reigns, and selfishness diminishes; the popular classes demonstrate a remarkable capacity for innovation in activism, self-organization, and democratic decision making. These outstanding episodes, which for anarchists represent the “future in the present,” certainly deserve to be highlighted and documented. However, the overemphasis on revolution as movement served to obscure the peculiar nature of these revolutions in terms of change, with little to say about what happens the day after the dictators abdicate. It even served to disguise the paradoxes of these upheavals, shaped by the new political times in which grand visions and emancipatory utopias had given way to fragmentary projects, improvisation, and loose networks and when the possibility of revolution as change had been drastically undermined while revolution as movement was in spectacular supply. The Arab upheavals expressed this anomaly. The trajectories of the Arab revolutions—barring those in Libya and Syria, which assumed the form of civil wars mediated by foreign military intervention—resembled none of the known pathways for political change about which the literature has informed us: reform, insurrection, or implosion. They had a character of their own, marked by a mix of revolutionary movements and reformist change, “refolution,” and shaped by the dynamics of our postsocialist and neoliberal times.


In a sense, they were revolutionary in terms of movement and mass mobilization but reformist in terms of strategy and vision for change. These revolutions were reformist in the sense that, first, they had almost no intellectual inputs to articulate a vision of revolution in the ways they did with respect to their twentieth-century counterparts—Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran. Second, the protagonists who initiated the uprisings seemed to be unable to envision modes of governance and institutions different from those against which they were revolting; they seemed to be reluctant or unconcerned about directing change within the state institutions. In fact, no group or organization had before the uprising proposed any serious appraisal of the state power or articulated ways to transform it. Third, most protagonists conceptually separated the realm of the economy from polity, from those aspects of political order that they wished to undo.


Why did the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen assume this refolutionary character? Why did key institutions of the old order remain unaltered, while revolutionary forces were marginalized? In part this had to do with the very swift downfall of the dictators, which gave the impression that the revolutions had come to an end, achieved their goals, without a substantial shift in the power structure. As we have seen, this rapid “victory” did not leave much opportunity for the movements to establish alternative organs of power, even if they had intended to. In this sense, these were self-limiting revolutions. But there was something more profound at play: revolutionaries remained outside the structures of power because they were not planning to take over the state; when, in the later stages, they realized that they needed to, they lacked the resources—unified organization, powerful leadership, strategic vision, and some degree of hard power—that would be necessary to wrest control both from the old regimes and from free riders who had been reluctant to join the uprisings when they began but were organizationally ready to take power. A principal difference between the Arab uprisings and their twentieth-century predecessors was that they occurred in quite altered ideological times.


The Arab uprisings thus occurred at a time when the decline of key oppositional ideologies—anticolonial nationalism, Marxist-Leninism, and Islamism—had delegitimized the very idea of revolution and its radical components so that activists and the political class in general ceased to entertain change in terms of revolution. This was a very different era from the late 1970s, when my friends and I in Iran would often invoke the notion, even though it seemed farfetched; cycling through the opulent neighborhoods of northern Tehran, we speculated about how the shah’s palaces could be taken over and the lavish mansions redistributed among the poor. We were thinking (and reading) in terms of revolution—an idea that embraced not only political freedom but also equity and economic justice. But in the Middle East of the new millennium, hardly any group imagined change in these terms; few Arab activists had really strategized for a revolution, even though they might have dreamed about it. The neoliberal ideas and practices had structured the conduct of and deradicalized much of the political class.


Market mobilization of this sort was not new; it originated from the “brand” that the Serbian opposition movement Otpor had deployed in its 1998 campaign against the dictator Slobodan Milošević to undo the communist economy and polity in favor of a liberal and market society. Operated by activists from NGOs and universities, Otpor pushed for political reform through nonradical, electoral, and market-driven language and practices. Resorting to music, street art, chic branding, and fun, they wanted to make revolution “cool” and “sexy.” Otpor received funds from the American National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, and the International Republican Organization. The US State Department enhanced such activities in 2006 under its new “public diplomacy” and “cyber-dissident diplomacy” projects to promote US interests abroad by linking to foreign citizens, including the youth of the Muslim Middle East. At the end of the Bush administration, the US State Department with the support of Google instituted the Alliance of Youth Movements to focus on Muslim youth to counter Islamist radicalism by promoting values of democracy, moderation, and entrepreneurship. The US support seemed crucial in making Otpor’s model available to dissidents in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and later Tunisia and Egypt during their uprisings.

Such a mode of mobilization, in sum, reflected new political times when instead of the ideas of egalitarian ethos, welfare state, and revolution, the focus shifted to the individual, identity, freedom, competition, and free market; in place of revolution as fundamental change, “civil society” had become the panacea for both democracy and development. But this was a different kind of civil society— different from the Gramscian notion that in effect meant revolution before the revolution. Rather, it was a reinvented civil society that ironically both the dreamers of change and the institutions of the status quo simultaneously embraced. This “reinvented civil society,” according to the Slovenian philosopher Tomaz Mastnak, originated from the Eastern Europe of the 1970s and 1980s, where the anticommunist intelligentsia reconstructed civil society as a cure to all ills of communism, but one that left postcommunist societies with no defense against the onslaught of neoliberalism. Now devoid of a class dimension, this civil society stood as the remedy against the tyranny of the state and party; it was premised on the aversion of structures and allure of fluid and free forms reflected in the much-valued notion of “human freedom.” Assuming an ethical inference as “truth” (against the “political society” representing “interests”), this notion of civil society then spread across the globe following the demise of the communist bloc.

It is tempting to reduce the Arab revolutions, as some have, to a series of plots designed by foreign institutions or states to manipulate dissent, generate partial and trivial change, or shape “color revolutions” acceptable to Western powers. Foreign states, no doubt, do project elaborate strategies in pursuit of their national and international interests; in this sense, they are always in the business of “conspiring.” The exceptional geopolitical position of the Middle East—shaped by the presence of oil and Israel—has for decades rendered the region susceptible to international intrigues. And this geopolitical exceptionalism did play a significant role in impairing the revolutions after they occurred. However, defining the Arab revolutions simply in terms of foreign manipulation betrays the genuine desires and demands of ordinary citizens for deep and meaningful change. In fact, irrespective of the vision of the political class, the subaltern groups, the urban poor, rural tenants, women, and social minorities were engaged in a real grassroots struggle for social justice, redistribution, inclusion, recognition, and dignity. Indeed, these grassroots activities marked the radical impulse of the Arab Spring, which deepened its revolutionary character.