What will be the impact of the May 1 death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden? And how does it fit with the dramatic events of 2011 in the Middle East, now a mix of relatively peaceful transition, violent crackdowns and civil war? University of Illinois sociologist Asef Bayat studies social movements and political change in the region, and wrote the recently published book "Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East." A native of Iran who also lived and taught in Egypt for 16 years until 2003, he recently returned to Egypt for a post-revolution visit. Bayat was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What do you see resulting from the killing of bin Laden? How might it affect recent developments in the region?
One would hope that the physical demise of bin Laden symbolizes the demise of the ideology that he represents. Not quite, though. Actually, in the short run the people around al-Qaida might intensify their activities precisely to prove that they are still alive and well. But al-Qaida's ideological reach has certainly declined.
The current Arab democratic revolutions stand diametrically opposed to what bin Laden or his deputy (Ayman) al-Zawahiri advocate - theocracy and extremism. In fact the current upheavals have cornered not only the autocracies in the region, but also extremist and intolerant ideologies like al-Qaida. After weeks of silence following the Egyptian revolution, al-Zawahiri, who himself is an Egyptian, came out saying that this revolution was inspired by Islam, even though religious language has been basically absent in all of these revolts.
You maintain that the region is in a "post-Islamist" phase and that the appeal of extreme ideology, such as that of al-Qaida, has declined dramatically in recent years - demonstrated by the wave of democratic revolution. What brought the change?
Look, we should realize that these revolts did not emerge out of the blue. There have been dissenting currents in the underside of these societies. There has been quiet resistance by the poor, laborers, women, youth and many impoverished middle classes.
But what brought all these to the surface in late 2010 were, briefly, three things. First, Islamist politics, which had garnered a great deal of support from dissenting groups, faced a crisis because they were undemocratic, intolerant, and used religion as a tool to gain power.
Second, the political class in the Arab world, which had been consumed by struggle against foreign domination by the U.S. and Israel, realized that their nationalistic concerns were being abused by the autocratic regimes to gain legitimacy. So, instead of being sidetracked by those concerns, they began to focus their struggles against their own autocracies first.
Finally, the spread of new media and especially social media - satellite TV, Al Jazeera, email, and most recently Facebook and Twitter - offered an unprecedented opportunity for the opposition groups, especially youths, to communicate, organize and mobilize.
Is Egypt still on track toward democracy, three months after Hosni Mubarak left power?
I have characterized the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions in terms of "refo-lutions." Because here the revolutions have not (yet) taken over the state power. So, these revolutions are expecting the institutions of the incumbent regimes to carry out reform on behalf of the revolutions. Now, because the revolutionaries have not taken over the governments, people feel a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty: Will the army go back to its barracks? Could there be a counter-revolution? But it seems that the revolutionaries are exerting a lot of pressure on the governments to democratize. Tunisia is doing well, and things are moving in Egypt more or less smoothly, but slowly.
In the wake of Tunisia and Egypt, however, protests in Libya, Syria and elsewhere have met with much more violence, and their outcomes seem much less assured. Could we be seeing the end of the "Arab Spring"? Or is there no going back?
I am not surprised to see the fierce resistance of some regimes against these movements. But I do not think that this means the end of the "Arab Spring." The Yemeni regime may soon fall, and revolts continue in Libya, Syria and Bahrain despite terrible violence. I feel that things are unlikely to go back. The Arab political mood has been fundamentally transformed. The very acts of mass and collective revolts have altered the political culture. The Middle East has now a new public that is deeply aware of its democratic rights and knows its deficits. Authoritarian regimes would have a hard time handling such a new public.