A new Arab street in post-Islamist times

Analysis, posted 02.05.2011, from Egypt, in:


The popular uprising in Tunisia has surprised many -- Western observers, theArab elites, and even those who have generated this remarkable episode. Thesurprise seems justified. How could one imagine that a campaign of ordinaryTunisians in just over one month would topple a dictator who presided over apolice state for 23 years? This is a region where the life expectancy of‘presidencies' match only the ‘eternal' rule of its sheiks, kings, andAyatollahs who bank on oil and political rent (western protection) to hang ontotheir power and subjugate their people. But the wonder about the Jasminerevolution -- and the subsequent mass protests in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, andmore spectacularly in Egypt's numerous cities on Jan. 25, 2011 -- also comesfrom a common mistrust among the Arab elites and their outside allies about theso called ‘Arab street' -- one that is simultaneously feared and pitied for its‘dangerous irrationality' and ‘deplorable apathy.'

But history gives us a more complex picture. Neither ‘irrational' and proneto riots nor ‘apathetic' and ‘dead,' the Arab street conveys collectivesentiments and dissent expressed by diverse constituencies who possess few orno effective institutional channels to express discontent. The result is astreet politics where Arabs nonetheless find ways to express their views andinterests. Today the Arab street is shifting. With new players and meansof communication, it may usher some far reaching changes in the region'spolitics.

There is a long history of such "street" politics in the Arabworld. Popular movements arose to oppose colonial domination as in Syria,Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon during the late 1950s after Nasser nationalized theSuez Canal. The unsuccessful tripartite aggression by Britain, France andIsrael in October 1956 to reclaim control of the canal caused an outpouring ofpopular protests in Arab countries in support of Egypt. The turbulent yearsfollowing 1956 were probably the last for a major pan-Arab solidarity movementuntil the pro-Palestinian wave of 2002. But social protests by workers,artisans, women and students for domestic social development, citizens' rightsand political participation continued even as the Arab state grew morerepressive. The 1980s saw waves of wild cat strikes and street protests inMorocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt protesting cutback inconsumer commodity subsidies, price rises, pay cuts and layoffs-developmentslargely associated with the IMF-recommended structural adjustment programs. Inthe meantime, the bulging student population continued to play a key role inthe popular movements either along the secular-nationalist and leftist forcesor more recently under the banner of Islamism.

The first Palestinian Intifada (1987 to 1993), one of the mostgrassroots-based mobilizations in the Middle East during the past century,combined demand for self-rule with democratic governance, and the reclaiming ofindividual and national dignity. Triggered by a fatal accident caused by anIsraeli truck driver, and against the backdrop of years of occupation, theuprising included almost all of the Palestinian population, in particularwomen and children, who resorted to non-violent methods of resistance to theoccupation, such as civil disobedience, strikes, demonstrations, withholdingtaxes, and product boycotts. Led mainly by the local (vis exiled) leaders, themovement built on popular committees (e.g., women's, voluntary work, andmedical relief) to sustain itself, while serving as the embryonicinstitutions of a future independent Palestinian state. ThatIntifadaremains a role model and inspiration to today's protesters.

The late 1990s and 2000s produced the next great wave of Arab streetpolitics, a wave which continues today. Arab street politics assumed adistinctively pan-Arab expanse in response to Israel's incursions into thePalestinian West Bank and Gaza, and the Anglo-U.S. invasion of Afghanistan andIraq. For a short while, the Arab states seemed to lose their tight control,and publicly vocal opposition groups proliferated, even among the"Westernized" and "apolitical" segments of the population.Millions marched in dozens of Arab cities to protest what they considered theU.S.-Israeli domination of the region. These campaigns that were directedagainstoutside forces sometimes enjoyed the tacit approval of the Arabstates, as way of redirecting popular dissent against their own repressivegovernments. For a long while, Arab states managed to neutralize the politicalclass by promulgating a common discourse based on nativism, religiosity, andanti-Zionism, while severely restricting effective opposition against their ownregimes.

Things, however, appear to be changing. There are now signs of a new Arabstreet with post-nationalist, post-Islamist visions and novel forms ofmobilization. The 2004 democracy movement in Egypt -- with the Kefayaat the core -- mobilized thousands of middle class professionals, students,teachers, judges, and journalists who called for an end to Emergency Law,release of political prisoners, end to torture, and end to Hosni Mubarak'spresidency. Building directly on the activities of the Popular Committee forSolidarity with the Palestinian Intifada, this movement chose to workwith ‘popular forces' rather than traditional opposition parties, bringing thecampaign into the streets instead of broadcasting it from headquarters, andfocused on domestic issues rather than simply international demands.

More recently, the ‘Cedar Revolution,' a grassroots movement of some 1.5million Lebanese from all walks of life demanding a meaningful sovereignty,democracy, and an end to foreign meddling, resulted in the withdrawal of Syrianforces from Lebanon in 2005. The Iranian Green wave, a pervasive democracymovement that emerged following the 2009 fraudulent Presidential elections, hasserved as a prelude to what are now the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and thecurrent uprising in the streets of Egypt. These are all breaks from traditionalArab politics in that they project a new post-Islamist and post-ideologicalstruggle which combine the concerns for national dignity with social justiceand democracy. These movements are pluralistic in constituencies, pursue newways of mobilizing (such as boycott campaigns, cyber-activities and protestart) and are weary of the traditional party politics.

Why this change? Certainly there is the long-building youth bulge and thespread of new information technology (Internet, e-mail, Facebook, YouTube,Twitter, and especially satellite TV like Al Jazeera). Frustratedyouth are now rapidly moving to exploit these new resources to assertthemselves and to mobilize. For instance, Egyptian youth used Facebook tomobilize some 70,000 mostly educated youth who made calls for freespeech, economic welfare, and the elimination of corruption.Activists succeeded in organizing street protests, rallies and morespectacularly initiating a general strike on April 6, 2008 to support the strikingtextile workers. The January 25 mass demonstration in Egypt was primarilyorganized through Facebook and Twitter. These modes and technologies ofmobilization seem to play a crucial role in the Tunisian uprising.

But there is more happening here than only information technology. Thesocial structure throughout the region is changing rapidly. There is anexplosion of mass educational institutions which produce higher levelsof literacy and education, thus enhancing the class of educated populace.At the same time, these societies are rapidly becoming urban. By far morepeople live in the cities than in rural areas (just below Central and EasternEurope). A creeping urbanity is permeating into the traditional rural societies-- there are modern divisions of labor, modern schools, expanding serviceworks, electrification, and especially a modern communications system(phone lines, cars, roads, and minibuses) which generate time-space compressionbetween the ‘urban' and ‘urban' worlds. The boundary between ‘urban' and‘rural' is becoming increasingly blurred and ‘rural' populations are no longerrural in the traditional sense.

But a key change is the emergence of a ‘middle class poor' (with significantpolitical implications) at the expense of the decline of the more traditionalclasses and their movements -- notably, peasant organizations, cooperativemovements and trade unions. As peasants have moved to the city from thecountryside, or lost their land to become rural day laborers, the social basisof peasant and cooperative movements has eroded. The weakening of economicpopulism, closely linked to structural adjustment, has led to the decline ofpublic sector employment, which constituted the core of trade unionism. Throughreform, downsizing, privatization and relocation, structural adjustment hasundermined the unionized public sector, while new private enterprises linked tointernational capital remain largely union-free. Although the state bureaucracyremains weighty, its underpaid employees are unorganized, and a largeproportion of them survive by taking second or third jobs in the informalsector. Currently, much of the Arab work force is self-employed. Manywage-earners work in small enterprises where paternalistic relations prevail.On average, between one third and one half of the urban work force are involvedin the unregulated, unorganized informal sector. Lacking institutional channelsto make their claims, streets become the arena for the expression of discontent.

And all these are happening against the background of expanding educationalinstitutions, especially the universities which produce hundreds of thousandsof graduates each year. They graduate with new status, information, andexpectations. Many of them are the children of comfortable parents or thetraditional rural or urban poor. But this new generation is different fromtheir parents in outlook, exposure, social standing, and expectations. Unlikethe post-colonial socialist and statist modernization era that elevated thecollege graduates as the builders of the new nation, the current neoliberalturn has failed to offer most of them an economic status that could match theirheightened claims and global dreams. They constitute the paradoxical class of‘middle class poor' with high education, self-constructed status, wider worldviews, and global dreams who nonetheless are compelled -- by unemploymentand poverty -- to subsist on the margins of neoliberal economy as casual,low paid, low status and low-skilled workers (as street vendors, sales persons,boss boys or taxi drivers), and to reside in the overcrowded slums and squattersettlements of the Arab cities. Economically poor, they still fantasize aboutan economic status that their expectations demand -- working in IT companies, secure jobs, middle class consumption patterns, and perhaps migration to theWest.

The ‘middle class poor' are the new proletariat of the Middle East, who arevery different from their earlier counterpart -- in their college education,knowledge of the world, expectations that others have of them, and witha strong awareness of their own deprivation. Muhammad Bouazizi, the streetvendor who ignited himself and a revolution in Tunisia represented this ‘middleclass poor.' The politics that this class pursued in the 1980s and 1990s wasexpressed in Islamism as the most formidable opposition to the secularundemocratic regimes in the region. But Islamism itself has faced a crisis inrecent years, not least because it is seriously short of democracy. With theadvent of post-Islamist conditions in the Muslim Middle East, the ‘middle classpoor' seems to pursue a different, post-Islamist, trajectory.

Will the Tunisian uprising unleash democratic revolution in the Arab world?The events in Tunisia have already caused mass jubilations among the people,and a profound anxiety among the power elites in the region. Mass protests havebroken out in Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan, and Yemen, while leaders are inquandary as to how to react. The possibility of similar trajectories in theregion depends primarily on how the incumbent regimes will behave. The grimreality is that precisely because a democratic revolution has occurred inTunisia, it might not happen elsewhere at least in the short run. This paradoxreminds one of the Bolshevik Revolution's loneliness in Europe, and the IslamicRevolution in the Middle East. Those revolutions did inspire similarmovements around the world, but they also made the incumbent states more vigilantnot to allow (by reform or repression, or both) similar outcomes to unfold intheir backyards.

Yet in the longer term their efforts may not be enough. The structuralchanges (educational development, public role of women, urban expansion, newmedia and information venues, next to deep inequalities and corruption) arelikely to make these developmentalist authoritarian regimes -- whether Libya,Saudi Arabia, Iran or Egypt -- more vulnerable. If dissent is controlled byrent-subsidized welfare handouts, any economic downturn and weakening ofprovisions is likely to spark popular outrage.

At stake is not just jobs and descent material welfare; at stake is alsopeople's dignity and pursuit of human and democratic rights. As we have seen sopowerfully in Tunisia, the translation of collective dissent into collectiveaction and sustained campaign for change has its own intriguing and oftenunpredictable dynamics. This explains why we keep getting surprised inthis part of the world -- revolutions happen where we do not expect, andthey do not happen where we do. After all, who sensed the scent of Jasmine inthe backstreets of Tunisia just a few weeks ago?

Asef Bayat is Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies at theUniversity of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the co-author of "BeingYoung and Muslim" (Oxford University Press, 2010) and author of "Lifeas Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East"(StanfordUniversity press, 2010).