News Release

Making sense of the Arab Spring

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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau

Asef Bayat, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

image: U. of I. sociology professor Asef Bayat has made a career of studying political and social movements in the Middle East and now has taken a look at the Arab Spring and its aftermath. view more 

Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Thousands flooded streets and squares in the Arab Spring of 2011, and dictators fell. But true revolution never came, or has been thwarted since.

University of Illinois sociology professor Asef Bayat, in a new book, argues that activists never thought out or planned for true revolution - at least not the 20th-century kind, as in Russia 100 years ago or Iran and Nicaragua six decades later. Not the kind that brings radical change to the government and often society as well.

"Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring" focuses on Tunisia, where the uprisings began; Egypt, where they captured world attention, and Yemen, where they devolved into civil war. Bayat draws on extensive research in those countries and with the people involved there, also taking in the broader movement.

"Prior to the uprisings, the activists were not thinking in terms of revolution; they were thinking in terms of reform, meaningful reform of the government - to have an accountable government attending to human rights and social exclusion" said Bayat, also the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies.

"Even though during the uprising some realized that the regimes should be dismantled, they did not have the necessary resources to achieve this," he said. "So, through sheer popular power, they were saying to the regimes, 'We are here and you should reform yourself,' rather than moving on to replace it or build new governing structures."

Instead of revolution, the Arab Spring turned out to be something like "refolution," he said, borrowing a term coined elsewhere. Despite some advantages, this model remained very vulnerable to counterrevolutionary sabotages, internal and regional, which helped turn it back.

The Arab Spring was "extraordinarily unparalleled" in its speed, spread and intensity, Bayat said. Dubbed at the time the "Facebook revolution," it benefitted from social media that governments didn't yet know how to control or counteract, along with energy and organization in streets and neighborhoods, he said. "Online was very much connected to offline."

But the Arab Spring was extraordinary in other ways as well, compared with revolutions of the past, Bayat said. Its uprisings had no central charismatic leadership or solid organization, no intellectual foundation and no plan for taking power.

"The key point is that the Arab revolutions occurred in different ideological times from those that came earlier, like revolutions of the 1970s," Bayat said. Ideologies that had driven previous revolutions had declined after the end of the Cold War.

"In fact, the very idea of revolution had been discredited," he said. Revolution was not "in."

Instead, the emphasis was on change through civil society - nongovernmental organizations, voluntary associations, unions, political parties, etc., or through legal reform - rather than through a complete upending of the state.

"The paradox, however, is that even if the idea of revolution is not in, revolutions can still begin," with the Arab Spring a prime example, Bayat said. "Revolutions simply happen."

It's only natural that Bayat would write a book about the Arab Spring and its aftermath, along with the nature of revolution itself. A native of Iran, he experienced its revolution in 1979 and has spent his career studying political and social movements in the Middle East. Among his book titles are "Life as Politics," "Street Politics" and "Making Islam Democratic."

He also taught for 16 years in Cairo, ending in 2003, which enabled him to experience the Arab Spring through former students and acquaintances, some of whom were at the center of protests and became sources for his book.

Bayat sees positives in the experience of revolutionary times, even when the revolution - or refolution - falls short. The experience can bring "a new opening to imagine something better," he said. Many he talked to for the book said they were "transformed."

Even when the opening is closed and the old order returns, Bayat believes it's difficult for people to return to previous ways of thinking. They have gained "a significant sort of moral resource that can be deployed at a time when opportunity arises," he said.

And even though refolution carries risks for those seeking dramatic change - aspects of the old order stay in place, making counterrevolution and reversal more likely - Bayat thinks it has its positives as well.

Revolution often brings violence, disorder and radical change, even a reign of terror against those who have lost out in the struggle for power, he said. Refolution, on the other hand, at least holds the promise of a more-orderly transition, as well as of a more-pluralist social and political order at the end.

The Arab uprisings may have to be viewed "as long revolutions that may bear fruit in ten or twenty years by establishing new ways of doing things, a new way of thinking about power and citizens' rights," Bayat writes. "Indeed, the long revolution may have to begin even when the short revolution ends."


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