Book Review

How Ordinary People Change the Middle East?

[Asef Bayat. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.]

A book about struggles for social change in the Muslim Middle East, mostly focused on Iran and Egypt but with scattered references to other countries as well. The first edition was written not long before the Arab Spring and laid out an analysis that didn’t quite predict the uprising but that described dynamic circumstances allowing for its possibility in a way that most commentators in that moment failed to recognize. This edition was updated in 2013.

In retelling any history of revolutions, the uprisings that spread through the Middle East in 2011 will remain watershed events. These uprisings toppled longstanding dictators, overturned entrenched interests, and unsettled authoritarian regimes in a measure and magnitude that took everyone by surprise -policy makers, intelligence agents, scholars, and even the protagonists themselves. Yet these revolts did not emerge from a vacuum. They had their precursors- in structural changes reflected in urban growth, demographic shift s and growing disparity, the formation of new political actors, and in ongoing everyday struggles that all merged into these revolutionary moments. A new Middle East may now be on the horizon, a Middle East informed not only by the actions of the elites, military men, or foreign intrigues but a region influenced by the ordinary people. Change is no longer an elusive concept “alien” to the region, as the dominant narratives would have us believe; tyrannical rules do fall; and people do matter.

The revolutionary moment has shown how a previously excessive focus on Islam to explain political behavior and on elite politics to expound political reform did not take us very far in understanding the dynamics of the region. Elite politics has largely been subservient to the collective will of the subaltern groups. Certainly, Islam does occupy a significant place in the social dynamics of these societies, but not in the way that has been wished, perceived, or presented by the mainstream narratives. In truth, Islam is not only a mobilizing force deployed to push for change but also the subject of intense social struggle to define its place in society and politics.

Precursors. Indeed, it is a common practice of post revolution scholarship to read history backward, to project the outcome to the process, or to explain the revolution by weaving precursory narratives to fit the eventuality.

But, in this book, Asef Bayat believes that this book does not fall into this same trap. The first edition of Life as Politics was published in 2010, a year before the uprisings began. In the preface to that edition, Bayat stated that the central theme of the book was agency and change in the Muslim Middle East. More specifically, the book focused on the configuration of sociopolitical transformation brought about by internal social forces, by collectives and individuals, and by the diverse ways in which the ordinary people— the subaltern, the urban dispossessed, Muslim women, the globalizing youth, and other urban grass roots— could strive to affect change in their societies. In refusing to exit from the social and political stage controlled by authoritarian states, their moral authority, and neoliberal economies, these groups discover and generate new spaces within which they can voice their dissent and assert their presence in pursuit of bettering their lives.

As Bayats’ work shows, ordinary people can change their societies through opportunities other than mass protests or revolutions; they can and do resort more widely to “non-movements”— the collective endeavors of millions of non-collective actors, carried out in the main squares, backstreets, court houses, and communities.

As the reception of the first edition coincided with the raging Arab uprisings, many commentators described the book as “prophetic,” “prescient,” and even as something that “predicted” the Arab revolutions. Whether or not the insights projected and the perspectives developed in the book could warrant these pronouncements will be left to the judgment of the reader.

This book highlights how, during the last three decades or so, Middle Eastern societies have been transforming economic, social, cultural, and religious domains, and how these changes have been associated with and resulted in deep social cleavages and conflicts, generating social groups with demands, desires, and political subjectivities that the dictatorial regimes were unable to tackle.

More significantly, perhaps, the book shows that the discontented subaltern groups— the poor, the youths, women, and the politically marginalized— do not sit around passively obeying the diktats of their police states, nor did they tie their luck to the verdict of destiny. Rather, they were always engaged, albeit in mostly dispersed and disparate struggles in the immediate domains of their everyday life— in the neighborhoods, places of work, street corners, court houses, communities, and in the private realms of taste, personal freedom, and preserving dignity. By engaging such social “non-movements,” they can take advantage of moments to turn misfortunes into advantage and, when the opportunity arises, shift their mostly quiet and individual struggles into audible and collective defiance.

…What are the “social non-movements”? In general, non-movements refers to the collective actions of non-collective actors; they embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leaderships and organizations. The term movement implies that social non-movements enjoy significant, consequential elements of social movements; yet they constitute distinct entities.

In the Middle East, the non-movements have come to represent the mobilization of millions of the subaltern, chiefly the urban poor, Muslim women, and youth. The non-movement of the urban dispossessed, which I have termed the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary,” encapsulates the discreet and prolonged ways in which the poor struggle to survive and to better their lives by quietly impinging on the propertied and powerful, and on society at large.

It embodies the protracted mobilization of millions of detached and dispersed individuals and families who strive to enhance their lives in a lifelong collective effort that bears few elements of pivotal leadership, ideology, or structured organization. More specifically, I am referring to the mass movement of rural migrants who, in a quest for a better life-chance, embark on a steady and strenuous campaign that involves unlawful acquisition of lands and shelters, followed by such urban amenities as electricity, running water, phone lines, paved roads, and the like.

Asef Bayat

The book, Life as Politics by Asef Bayat contains some of the best and most realistic analyses and insights into Middle Eastern societies that have been shaped by the author’s years of research, observation, experience, and living in the Middle East.

An important part of this book is to describe (and prescribe) “slow progress”; alternative strategies in response to the Islamist triangle, neoliberal economics, and authoritarian governments, which have unilaterally terminated their social contract with citizens. Despite its merits, slow progress is largely apolitical and cannot effect major changes; However, as the author explains it sometimes has the potential to become politicized, as evidenced by the political developments of recent years in many Middle Eastern societies.

Rather than falling into the trap of Orientalism or Eurocentrism, Bayat also pays attention to the structural and historical aspects of Middle Eastern societies. These historical processes show the impact of post-colonial populism, neoliberalism of the world economy, authoritarian state structures, and guardianship structures in family and neighborhood life, etc., on the social life and political expression of Middle Eastern societies.

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