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Paradoxes of Arab Refo-lutions

[Collage by Jadaliyya. Images from unknown source] [Collage by Jadaliyya. Images from unknown source]

Serious concerns are expressed currently in Tunisia and Egypt about the sabotage of the defeated elites. Many in the revolutionary and pro-democracy circles speak of a creeping counter-revolution. This is not surprising. If revolutions are about intense struggle for a profound change, then any revolution should expect a counterrevolution of subtle or blatant forms. The French, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Nicaraguan revolutions all faced protracted civil or international wars. The question is not if the threat of counter-revolution is to be expected; the question rather is if the ‘revolutions’ are revolutionary enough to offset the perils of restoration. It seems that the Arab revolutions remain particularly vulnerable precisely because of their distinct peculiarity—their structural anomaly expressed in the paradoxical trajectory of political change.

Historically, three types of bottom-up regime/political change stand out. The first is the ‘reformist change’. Here, social and political movements mobilize in a usually sustained campaign to exert concerted pressure on the incumbent regimes to undertake reforms through the institutions of the existing states. Resting on their social power—the mobilization of the grassroots— the opposition movements compel the political elites to reform themselves, their laws and institutions often through some of kind of social pacts. So, change happens within the framework of the existing political arrangements. The transition to democracy in countries like Mexico and Brazil in the 1980s was of this nature. The leadership of Iran’s Green movement currently pursues similar reformist trajectory. In this trajectory, the depth and extend of reforms vary. Change may remain superficial; but it can also be profound if it materialized cumulatively by legal, institutional and politico-cultural reforms.  

This article is now featured in Jadaliyya's edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.

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6 comments for "Paradoxes of Arab Refo-lutions"


Thanks Assef. One of the principal factors behind change, whethere revolutionary, reformist or refolutionary, is the rise and fall of ideas. The bottom line is that the idea of a dynastic dictatorship died and we will probably see them all fall one after the other. Ben Ali, Moubarak and Qaddafi are finished; the rest are walking dead. Each will happen in a different manner and some may survive but no son will succeed his father and be elected by 97.6% again in that region.

Nadim Shehadi wrote on March 05, 2011 at 04:14 PM

This is very insightful, as usual. Thanks for bringing in the uniqueness of the revolutions, and also linking them to recent and modern revolutions. I was wondering what you think about the impact of new technologies and social media on the refo-lutions. What was remarkable was the sheer momentum of people that was generated in these uprisings. Some people in South Africa were lamenting the absence of charismatic leaders (like Mandela and Tutu). What they lacked (seemed to lack) was made up by very strong initiatives driven by individuals who managed to mobilized friends and comrades (in multiple nodes).

Abdulkader Tayob wrote on March 07, 2011 at 02:29 PM

Thank you, Dr. Bayat for this intense, shockingly valid analysis. Nine years ago, when you taught me "Social Movements," we would have thought a T-Rex in the classroom would be a nearer possibility than any mode of grassroots change in Egypt, be it a revolution, a reformis initiative, or even a re-folution (I love the term). What scares me the most, and you did accentuate my worse of concerns is: "One can readily imagine powerful stakeholders, wounded by the ferocity of popular upheavals, would desperately seek regrouping, initiate sabotage, and instigate counter-propaganda. Ex-high state officials, old party apparatchiks, key editor-in-chiefs, big businesses, members of aggrieved intelligent services and not to mention military men could penetrate the apparatus of power and propaganda to turn things into their advantage...."

I sure hope we become vigilant and that the heated roots of all change remain. I am not very optimistic though, just hopeful. Thank you so much. Dalia A. Mostafa

Dalia A. Mostafa wrote on March 08, 2011 at 03:42 PM

Thank you for this important distinction of refo-lution. I might ask, how much more likely is a refo-lution to be co-opted or de-legitimized by the opposition or status quo? Has this happened in Bahrain, when the King issued each household a check after two protesters were killed? Was this a pacification method?

Patrick Tool wrote on March 10, 2011 at 01:17 PM

Very good this study. It must, however, take into consideration the influence of new media. Today is no longer possible to govern absolutely. The influence of the media poe prove beneficial or detrimental in the specific case of the Arab world it has sides that opens the eyes of the people for democracy, but also teaches people to call the vices of Western civilization.

El-Carmo wrote on April 20, 2011 at 11:52 AM

Definitely, well motivated article trying to describe possible outcomes and patterns for new society reforms at the aftermath of the ongoing social unrest in the so called MENA region. Still there are some considerations that we should keep in mind. First at this stage no one can say in which direction the current events will lead us also comparing the events unfolding in the region with previous social developments in the world is lacking insight regarding Arab societies. The history of the MENA shows us that managing the community or the leadership legitimacy was more or less based on concept of collective interest, justice, equity, public order, collective moral order ( based on a mix of religious and cultural practices). We can hardly talk about ideologies, freedoms of thought or religion even individual freedoms let alone the concept of democracy as we understand it in our days could be referred to in such contexts. Which makes it very difficult to talk about revolutions, Arab spring, the path to reforms, etc and definitely at this stage we can’t talk about counter revolutionary movement or reforms from within, whether radical change or violent ones. Are we at the beginning of a new awakening or a collapse? we are at the beginning of something definitely a new unknown era for at the Arab world. Men need to understand the geopolitics of the region, the longstanding grievances, the relation with outside world whether regionally ( also with non Arab but Islamic world) or internationally( mainly the relation with western world) , the social compositions of local communities, the different centers of powers to at least try to understand the ongoing dynamic. Predictions for the future would be very difficult as the region is discovering advocacy, activism and freedom of expression, breaking down with taboos, opposition whether through internet or mosques, satellite tv’s or facebook. There is a struggle between conservatism versus liberalism, between traditions and modernity, a struggle between generations, also between communities. Last but not least Arabs are finding each others. The concept of Arab world or Umma dismembered during the colonial era but also with the birth of nationalistic new Arab states. The Arab world is reviving, but to which extend and with which impact? it’s also a big question that needs to be answered. At this stage trying to think on classical patterns as we are adjusted to until now will be much difficult.

Amal van Hees wrote on April 28, 2011 at 07:39 AM

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