Life as Politics

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Photo by Hani Mohammed

Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East
By Asef Bayat
Stanford University Press, 2009

The months to come will see the publication of glossy photo books showcasing the placards, brave and satirical, brandished by demonstrators in the recent Arab uprisings. There will be hymnbooks of revolutionary songs, and documentaries, films, and even plays that will memorialize the pitched battles of Qasr al-Nil or Pearl Square. We will be introduced to scores of newborn children named Wael, Bouazizi, and Facebook. (They already exist.) Above all, we will see a good deal of scholarship and journalism purporting to explain the circumstances that gave rise to revolts from Tunis to Manama, Cairo to Sana’a.

One such book was already in circulation before the events of this year. (No, it was not Gene Sharp’s Nonviolent Action.) Originally published in 2009, political sociologist Asef Bayat’s Life as Politics is a paean to the cumulative effect of millions of everyday dissenting actions by the ordinary people of the Middle East. Bayat refers to such acts of resistance as “the quiet encroachment of the ordinary”; from street vendors setting up their stalls in public spaces or otherwise forbidden areas, to the withholding of taxes by those most at risk from the termination of rent control, to Iranian women who continue to jog in public parks.

Life as Politics proceeds in two parts. In the first, Bayat groups together seemingly disparate individual actors under the rubric of “nonmovements.” They are the inaudible heroes of his book — the urban dispossessed, institutionally disenfranchised former union members, new city dwellers, or refugees from abroad — who resort to “passive” politics as the only form of resistance not proscribed by the authorities, whosoever they might be. Bayat relies on the “power of big numbers” to suggest that “the protracted mobilization of millions of detached and dispersed individuals” adds up to a kind of political gestalt by which Arab societies reclaim autonomy from their overweening governments. These dissenting actions range from demonstrating in the streets to withholding taxes, re-routing basic services like water, electricity, or cable television, and selling knockoff goods. Though necessarily speculative, the theory is an alluring one. And a generous one, as anyone can (and does) participate in such grassroots nonmovements. Bayat traces a historical genealogy from the 1906 Constitutional Revolution in Iran, via the 1952 Free Officers’ rebellion in Egypt, and the overwhelmingly peaceful first Palestinian intifada, to the efforts of groups today such as Karama, the April 6 Youth, and the textile workers of Mahalla al-Kubra. But the theory extends to include newly arrived fellahin hazardously eking out a living in Cairo, so-called Black Turks from the Anatolian steppes who settle in Istanbul or Ankara, and even Muslim immigrants who find themselves in inhospitable European cities.

The book’s bêtes noires are many: the authoritarian “soft” states of the Middle East (“soft” only insofar as no government can plausibly enforce total, “hard” control of its population, though some would try); the “democracy promotion industry” (neo-con and NGO alike); the recommendations of the UNDP-backed Arab Human Development Reports, which are pilloried for calling for state-led reform; and Bayat’s peers in political sociology, who inadvertently shore up the notion of Middle Eastern exceptionalism by excluding the region from their analyses of resistance.

Bayat is best known as a voice on the subject of Islamism. Having studied its manifestations, “prospects,” and what he terms its “urban ecology,” Bayat concludes that we are now in a post-Islamist era. Unfortunately — and this is a problem throughout the book — he is much in thrall to theory-speak; in paring down this otherwise expansive thesis he has arrived at the slightly insipid idea of “Islamic refo-lutions.” His notion holds that political Islamism — particularly its more violent, takfirist strains — has limited appeal precisely because it does not portend an inclusive or democratic order. But why not just say as much? Due to globalizing social and economic processes, Bayat argues, the priorities of the day in most societies are “reformist politics, legal redress, individualization of piety, [and] transnationalization.” As such, the Islamic state aspirations of, say, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, can no longer compete with the likes of Hizb Al Wasat in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the AKP in Turkey, parties that, while explicitly Islamic, speak more to the socioeconomic preoccupations of lower-income, pious city-dwellers.

Islamism is elided into street politics in the second half of the book. Bayat’s other focus is spatial politics in Middle Eastern cities. In the book’s best two chapters — about “interreligious” cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Cairo, and about the “Arab street” — Bayat describes how ordinary people wrest back control of their public spaces. If nothing else in this book speaks directly to the events of January 25th, it is this. Bayat surely has in mind the Green Movement in Tehran, but the idea applies equally to the million-man sit-ins that brought down the regime in Egypt.

Bayat’s essays, collected in Life as Politics, can be read in any number of ways. We can say about them — as is his intention — that they bestow agency, and thus some dignity, on those whose work is most informal, whose legal status is most precarious, who populate the slums and other spontaneous settlements of the swelling and increasingly globalized cities of the Middle East. We can read this work as a corrective to those who would characterize Arab societies, however illiberal their rulers, as monolithic, dispassionate, or anomic. Life as Politics is deeply indebted to proto-Situationist ideas about spatial politics and the city; indeed, Bayat’s “street politics” as asserting “the right to the city” is functionally identical to Henri Lefevbre’s “everyday life,” and he even resuscitates Johan Huizinga’s ideas about play as a means by which to revivify oppressive politics in his own “politics of fun.” Despite the influence of these guiding lights, the book does well to extend social-science methodologies, including Subaltern Studies and microhistorical perspectives, to a region oft seen as a sociological anomaly. In the end, however, it is hard to get past Bayat’s unabashed romanticizing of the region’s distressed and dispossessed. The former Egypt is not yet that former; as the Arab Spring gives way to summer it is clear that Life as Politics holds only some of the answers.