Asef Bayat, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring (Harvard University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Asef Bayat (AB): In 2010, a year before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, I published a book called Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East in which I discussed how ordinary people—the poor, marginalized women, or youth—could bring about change in their lives and their societies through “non-movements,” despite repressive political and economic conditions. With the spread of the Arab revolutions and the circulation of the book, many academic colleagues and journalists asked me what role, if any, such “non-movements” played in these remarkable revolutions. It was mostly this question that pushed me to begin thinking and researching how the subaltern politics in their daily lives had to do with revolutionary uprisings. The book Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring addresses this central question. But in the process of researching this book, as I was learning more about these events, I became increasingly perplexed by how novel and different these revolutions were from their twentieth-century counterparts. So, I felt an urge to articulate my understanding of these revolutions historically, comparatively, and at a macro level in a different book (Revolution without Revolutionaries, 2017) before I continued with Revolutionary Life.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AB: The book Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring tries to tackle three analytical issues. The first and foremost is to understand and theorize the relationship between everyday life and revolution—or the relationship between the mundane and monumental, ordinary and extraordinary, routine and rupture. These days, the study of “everyday politics,” “social movements,” and “revolutions” each have their own literature; they are often treated as separate fields, even taught as separate courses, often in different departments. Revolutionary Life tries to develop an analytical perspective to help understand the connections between these disparate fields and literatures. After all, in real life people’s struggles are not separate realms; they move from one form to another or combine different repertoires depending on the structural settings and affordances of the actors.
The second issue is the agency of the actors in relation to revolutions; it is about the subaltern subjects and their revolutionary affordances. The book tries to make sense of how different subaltern groups (for example, the urban poor, women, youth, workers, or others) conduct themselves in revolution, what role they play. Given their different affordances (their capacities, potentialities) and their constraints, how does each social group act in a revolution? How do they engage in a revolution and how does revolution affect them? I have tried to address these questions (in three different chapters on the poor, women, and youth) drawing on the empirical context of Middle Eastern societies and the kind of revolutions that they have produced.
So, going beyond looking at the state, elites, and the political, the book asks what revolution means on the ground, among the subalterns, in the social realm. I hope that this bottom-up and everyday approach offers, and this is the third issue, an opportunity to problematize the meaning of revolution—does it mean regime change, state transformation, change in subjectivities, as social transformation? It hope it also problematizes the question of the “end” or “continuity” in revolutionary trajectories (when revolution ends, or how it may continue). And finally, I hope it makes us to rethink the question of “success” and “failure” of revolution—how do we know if revolution has failed or if it has succeeded?
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AB: In a way this book is a follow-up to my previous work, Revolution without Revolutionaries. Whereas Revolution without Revolutionaries takes a more macrostructural, comparative, and largely political view to make sense of the Arab Spring historically, Revolutionary Life focuses on the grassroots, the everyday life, and the social realm to understand what revolution meant on the ground—in farms, factories, families, and neighborhoods, among the poor, women, youth, and other subaltern subjects. As I pointed out, looking from this bottom-up prism, one can get a wholly different understanding about the questions of outcome, failure/success, or continuity/change in revolutionary trajectories.
In fact, these two books in addition to Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (2013) altogether constitute a trilogy on different repertoires of contention in the context of the contemporary Middle East. Broadly speaking, Life as Politics focuses on the mundane politics of the everyday life among ordinary people in which “non-movement” is a central concept. Revolution without Revolutionaries is about spectacular uprisings and large-scale revolutions. And Revolutionary Life tries in a way to understand and discuss the relationship between those two repertoires of contention.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AB: Like the other two books, this one too is largely an academic book. But I have tried to write in a language and prose that an undergraduate student can understand and hopefully enjoy reading. As such, Revolutionary Life is primarily for students and instructors of courses on social movements, revolutions, history, comparative politics, anthropology, Middle East studies, and similar. It can also be used by interested lay readers as well as activists and experts working in NGOs, governments, and research institutions. I am hoping that this book provides a historical narrative of the way in which ordinary people in the Middle East engaged in large scale political events like revolutions. I also hope that the book clarifies and addresses certain conceptual issues relevant to popular struggles in the Middle East and beyond.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AB: Frankly, I had decided earlier that Revolutionary Life would be my last book (even though not my last publication). Those who have done it know that writing books is very taxing and consuming, as if they become the center of one’s life! They require long-term and focused commitment which can work against short-term and perhaps more important or interesting projects one may have. But I think I have one more book project in mind which I do not wish to talk about at this point. But beyond this, I have other smaller research and writing projects, which I am planning to carry out in collaboration with colleagues. One of them is related to the theme of political upheavals and human mobility. The other pertains to the implications of increasing distantiation of human relations and the erosion of the real spatial commons.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-5)
How do we tell the story of revolution? The standard narrative focuses on the state, high politics, the palace, and pashas to examine the outcome and gauge “success” or “failure” of revolutionary movements. This perspective is undeniably crucial for any understanding of revolutions, including the ones that rose up from 2010 and have collectively been called the Arab Spring. The remarkable uprisings that spread throughout the Arab world signaled the emergence of a new generation of twenty-first-century revolutions that were rich as movements but woefully poor as change. No wonder that by the middle of the decade, most observers described these revolutions as outright failures. This appraisal may ring true if we take a macrostructural, political, and state-centric perspective to look at these historical experiences. The picture, however, becomes more complex if we shift the lens to observe and examine what happened in the social realm, in the everyday life, and among the grassroots. This book is an attempt to offer a different way of thinking about revolution by focusing not simply on the elites, the state, and regime change but also on what the revolution meant to the ordinary people, to the poor, the marginalized youth, women, and other subaltern groups in their everyday life. The story of revolution, then, is not just what happened at the top; it is also the tale of what went on at the base—in farms, factories, families, and schools; in social relations governed by old hierarchies; in people’s subjectivities; and in the practices of everyday life. At the core of this inquiry is not just what the revolution did to the everyday, but equally what the everyday did to revolution. Never mind that these two domains of human experience are hardly separate even though they are invariably seen as such. This book brings together and bridges the analytical disconnect between everyday life as the realm of the ordinary, the mundane, and the routine, and revolutions as the domain of the extraordinary, the monumental, and rupture.
The idea of this book came to me just a few weeks after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. This was roughly a year after I had published Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, in which I discussed how unassuming “nonmovements,” those collective actions of noncollective people, were important players in pushing for cumulative change in the countries of the Middle East under authoritarian regimes, neoliberal economies, and moral surveillance. Now, in light of the uprisings, I was confronted by a host of questions from journalists, activists, and academics about what role, if any, those “nonmovements” had played in these extraordinary revolutions. At the time, I had no clear idea. But the question was intriguing enough intellectually and politically to push me to explore further the nature and dynamics of these remarkable political uprisings. I have been engaged in this journey since March 2011, when I began my field research in revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, continuing with a half-dozen fieldtrips during which I attended events, rallies, and street protests; visited popular neighborhoods, street markets, labor unions, research centers, and political parties; and held conversations with activists, academics, officials, as well as ordinary people in cafés, households, organizations, universities, and the streets to secure oral histories of the events. I further collected a substantial amount of archival materials including reports, tracts, surveys, local papers, video clips, and social media posts.
As I began to analyze data and put my findings into writing, I found certain things about these revolutions puzzling, things that I felt differentiated them from their twentieth-century counterparts, such as the Nicaraguan or especially the Iranian revolution of 1979, that I had observed and studied. There were certain novelties in the Arab revolutions that were mostly absent in the previous ones. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen, for instance, were organized more horizontally without a clear unified organization, charismatic leaders, any clear ideology, or intellectual articulation. Indeed, these new revolutions were more peaceful and pluralistic in mobilization but far less radical in terms of causing deep change than their earlier counterparts. Consequently, I felt compelled to write a book reflecting on the meaning of the Arab revolutions from a historical and comparative perspective before I completed the book that you have in your hands. That other book, Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (2017), adopted a mostly macropolitical, state-centric, and historical approach, which, although indispensable, left aside some fundamental questions. What did the revolutions mean to the average person on the ground in terms of everyday life? How did the revolutions seep into communities, schools, and the private realm? How did they affect popular consciousness, relations of hierarchy, and norms? What happened to the “social question” of poverty and inequality? How do we account theoretically for the place of subaltern groups in the revolutionary events? And, ultimately, how can we establish an analytical link between the everyday life and revolution? The current book, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring, takes the radically different lens of a microperspective in attempting to address those very questions. It focuses on the everyday of the Arab Spring, highlighting the social side of the revolutions and looking at the subjectivities, practices, and popular politics at the grassroots level.
This has not been an easy or, for that matter, a quick book to write. It is not just that the study covers a lot of ground, the experience of two revolutions, examining the life and politics of multiple social groups including the urban poor, rural subaltern, marginalized youth, women, and others. The greater challenge lay in how to organize a massive amount of data in accessible and intimate narratives that at the same time yield meaningful analyses and necessary theorizing. I wanted the book to account for structures but also narrate everyday struggles, and to be comparative yet attentive to the integrity of each experience, analytical but also accessible, historical as well as theoretical, concise yet rich with details. Whether I have successfully met these challenges, I leave it to the readers to judge.
This, then, is not a conventional ethnography, which would have yielded deeper insights into the dynamics of a situation, group, or habitat but would have fallen short of covering multiple groups, several sites and situations, and larger processes. The work I set out to do in this book required multiple methods of inquiry and manifold modes of data collection including qualitative, quantitative, observational, archival, and oral history. However, I have to admit that some of the deepest insights for me have come from my experience of living and working for some seventeen years in the region, Egypt in particular, prior to the uprisings. A long experience of living and working in a place can be an asset for any inquisitive observer to acquire critical knowledge about that place, for it is through the actual living, and not just observing, that delicate cultural registers, subtle codes, and intricacies of individual and social life may be detected. This background knowledge about the region has been essential for my understanding of the subsequent events and processes that unfolded during and after the uprisings.
This volume covers the events mostly from the immediate prerevolution years through 2015 and later when Beji Caid Essebsi, a minister from Zein al-Abedine Ben Ali’s regime, was elected as president in Tunisia and when General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi already presided over Egypt. The comparative outlook between Tunisia and Egypt is used to explore how and to what extent the “success” (Tunisia) and “failure” (Egypt) of a revolution may affect the everyday life, in particular the lives of the subaltern subjects. Tunisia and Egypt are often seen in terms of difference and contrast—Tunisia, a country of 10 million people, liberal, secular with progressive women’s rights, and ruled by a police state entailed a liberal democracy; whereas Egypt with its 80 million population, conservative sensibilities, religious population, and strong civil society experienced military rule and autocracy. This book will show that despite these differences, Tunisia and Egypt experienced striking similarities when it came to the revolutionary dynamics and the predicament of the subaltern life—the poor, marginalized youth, women, and the provincial population. In both countries, the revolutions were marked by a liberal outlook, nonradical and revolutionary strategy, and a political class invariably detached from the ordinary citizens who were preoccupied primarily with social justice, self-rule, and radical change. The astonishing disenchantment with the revolution and high politics in both countries might be surprising given their different political trajectories—Tunisia toward democracy and Egypt toward autocracy. However, it may be less surprising when one considers the elites’ very similar socioeconomic vision and their attitudes toward the subaltern. The key difference lay in the fact that democracy in Tunisia by default allowed popular struggles around social justice and inclusion to continue, whereas autocracy in Egypt stifled any form of collective mobilization. Yet the revolutions in both countries left their undeniable imprints on the social fabric and fostered lasting changes in the personal and social worlds.