Five years ago this month, the Tunisians had brought down a dictator and the Egyptians were on their way to doing the same, beginning with massive demonstrations that grabbed the world’s attention. Protest and revolution would soon spread throughout the Middle East; it would be labeled as the “Arab Spring.” But five years later, there seems little but despair, with repressive rulers once again in power, civil wars raging, and ISIS extremists occupying large parts of Syria and Iraq. Asef Bayat has studied social movements and urban politics in the Middle East, writing books about movements to make Islam democratic and how ordinary people were changing politics in the region. A native of Iran who taught in Egypt for 16 years, the University of Illinois sociologist has made numerous trips back to the region and spent time with protesters. In an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain, Bayat talked about the past five years and where things stand for the future.
Beyond the specifics in each country, what are the broader reasons that these protest movements and revolutions have largely failed?
Certainly the Arab Spring has not given rise to what the majority of people had aimed for – democracy and social justice. Libya, Syria and Yemen have suffered civil war; Egypt has experienced a counter-revolution restoration; and even Tunisia, which has established a pluralist democracy, has witnessed a growing violation of human rights, conducted largely by the repressive institutions of the old regime, which were not reformed. In none of them has the desire for social justice been sufficiently addressed.
Why has this happened? First, because the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen toppled dictators but not the dictatorships. They left the institutions of the “deep state” –the old ruling networks, intelligence services, the military, crony business class and the like – intact. So when the dust settled, the counter-revolutions that nested in these institutions recuperated and began to strike back. They rested on the rhetoric of instability and insecurity to reclaim their position.
Beyond that, the regional conservative powers like Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and, above all, Saudi Arabia, played a decisive role in undermining these revolutions.
You had made the case, prior to the Arab Spring, that the region was making a “post-Islamist turn” away from the appeal of ideologies calling for Islamic law or an Islamic state. Yet we now see an extreme form of that in ISIS, and hear about its appeal for many young Muslims. Which represents the future?
I continue to think that post-Islamism – a religious polity that calls for a nonreligious state and a pious society – remains a more plausible likelihood. But the advent of post-Islamism does not mean the end of Islamist politics, especially when Islamism serves also as a marker of identity. So, extremist groups like al-Qaida, al-Shabab or ISIS might emerge here and there and create havoc by taking advantage of a power vacuum, popular grievance and financial support. But I very much doubt if they can become an established trend since they have failed to develop institutions, a mode of governance, and a source of legitimacy that can win popular support – in the way, for instance, that the Muslim Brotherhood was able to through decades of operation.
In fact, the extremism of groups like al-Qaida or ISIS likely will drive Muslims to dissociate themselves from such ideologies, because Muslims see that these groups have abused their religion for political purposes.
Given the widespread despair about where things stand now, are there reasons for hope?
Despair is quite global these days. Look at the U.S. and its incredible inequality, receding race relations, everyday violence and growing security state, or Europe and its rising far right, xenophobia and authoritarianism, especially in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The Middle East is certainly in bad shape currently. Many people are depressed about the fate of their monumental revolutions. The thing is, however, that the current regimes offer nothing new if not more repression, but people have changed. There is a new awareness and new expectations that are likely to hurt these very regimes, which bank on the people’s fear of insecurity and instability. People are likely to push for change once they see an opportunity. As one example, see how the Kurds of Kubani, even in the midst of a savage war and against the brutality of ISIS, are striving to create a uniquely democratic and egalitarian governance based on the principle of gender, religious and ethnic equality in the Kurdish region of Rojava.