Revolution without Revolutionaries
Making Sense of the Arab Spring
Asef Bayat



Revolutions of Wrong Times

Novel Revolutions?

Why did the revolutions of 2011 turn out to be so different from their earlier 1970s counterparts? What happened in the course of the past three decades that altered the nature of radical politics? How do we characterize the 2011 revolutionary episode and its distinct trajectory? Not everyone attributes anything distinct to the Arab revolutions, except perhaps their civil character, which avoided war and destruction as seen in the “classical” revolutions. Commenting on the Egyptian experience, the sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim argues that the remarkable revolt that overthrew the Mubarak regime opened the way for far-reaching social and political changes, including three free elections, a new government and parliament, and under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi new economic projects, notably the new Suez Canal.31 Yet most revolutionaries saw the post-Mubarak Muslim Brotherhood government as a barrier to rather than facilitator of deep democratic change. And only a few considered General Sisi, who forcefully seized power from the government on July 3, 2013, as the incarnation of the revolution; if anything, General Sisi’s regime embodied a drive toward restoration.

From a broader perspective, the political scientist Jack Goldstone likewise suggests that the Arab Spring followed the same pattern as any other revolution, beginning with socioeconomic strain and elite opposition, followed by popular anger, shared views, and benefit of favorable international relations.32 He predicted that they “will unfold as all revolutions do” with “ongoing struggles for power between radicals and moderates.”33 It is true that the Arab uprisings had similar preconditions, which tell us about revolution as movement or the way a revolutionary mobilization develops. They do not tell us about revolution as change or the outcome, nor do they reveal the ideology, vision, or choice of organization that has a crucial bearing on the outcome. Did the notion of radicals and moderates have any meaningful relevance in the experiences of Egypt, Tunisia, or Yemen? Where were the radicals, and was the role they played similar to those in the French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions?34 In Why Occupy a Square, a book on the Egyptian uprising that builds on Goldstone’s perspective, Jeroen Gunning and Ilan Baron express doubt whether Egypt’s was in fact a revolution at all because there was little shift in the structure of the state and distribution of power.35 But the question remains: Why was there no significant shift in the structure of power and state institutions or economic vision, even though a spectacular uprising did succeed in toppling an entrenched dictator? Why Occupy a Square does not address the question; its intended focus is on the causes and tactics of revolutionary mobilization rather than on strategic visions about how to wrest power from the incumbents.

Others consider the Arab Spring as true revolutions that were hijacked, manipulated, or stalled by the counterrevolution. What occurred in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya was no less than a “political revolution” in Gilbert Achcar’s assessment, because “the emergence of the people freed from the shackles of servitude, the assertion of collective will in public squares, and success in overthrowing tyrannical oppressors are the unmistakable works of a political revolution.” Unfortunately, however, these revolutions “left the state apparatuses of the fallen regime intact,” thus rendering themselves defenseless against the “conservative coup” or appropriation by such free riders as the Muslim Brotherhood.36 In the view of Jean-Pierre Filiu, revolutions in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen were stalled not simply by the free riders but by the very counterrevolutionary “deep state”—that is, the secretive and extralegal apparatuses of the states, such as the police and intelligence service, which see themselves as the custodians of “saving” these nations at any cost.37

As I show in this book, the question is not whether the counterrevolution was responsible for stalling or hijacking the Arab revolutions; all revolutions carry within themselves the germs of counterrevolutionary intrigues. The question is whether the revolutions were revolutionary enough to offset the perils of restoration. The idea of “deep state” may be useful in highlighting the continuity of the old order after the revolutions.38 But an overemphasis on its exceptional, “deep” character underplays the failure of the revolutionaries to address the question of state power per se, as if things would have been different had the revolutionaries confronted “normal” states. The shah’s state also enjoyed a powerful military and the intelligence apparatus SAVAK yet was overturned by the Iranian revolution. Why were the Arab revolutions particularly more vulnerable in the face of the forces of restoration? As I discuss in Chapter 10, the geopolitical exceptionalism of the Middle East, shaped by oil and Israel, did play a part in undermining the revolutions, but the analytical lens deployed in these narratives allows little room to go beyond the notions of manipulation or hijacking to see something novel about these political upheavals.

Interestingly, those insiders to the upheavals seem to sense, even though in retrospect, something new about what they experienced. Tunisian novelist Kamal Zaghbani views his revolution as something “unique,” one that “opens new horizons in human history.”39 According to the Egyptian revolutionary Wael Ghoneim, “Revolutions of the past have usually had charismatic leaders who were politically savvy and sometimes even military genius.” Those were the “revolution 1.0 model.” But the revolution in Egypt, according to Ghoneim, belonged to a new model, “revolution 2.0,” a “truly spontaneous movement led by nothing other than the wisdom of the crowd.”40 In an attempt to give meaning to such particularities, the political scientist Ivan Krastev finds in the recent global protests, from Tunisia and Egypt to the Occupy movements, a clear departure from the twentieth-century experiences. The past protests were “about emancipation—advocating rights of workers, women, or minorities—and their street marches were aimed at gaining access to and representation within state institutions.” The protests of 2011, however, were neither for revolution nor for reform; rather, they expressed a rebellion against the institutions of representative democracy, “without offering any alternative.”41 The recent revolts, according to Krastev, were not against government but against being governed.

This is an intriguing argument but raises important questions. Were the Arab revolts and the Occupy movements of the same breed? Were the rebels not truly interested in politics? The Arab revolts and the Occupy movements did share certain common roots—neoliberal economies, unprecedented inequality and precarity, unresponsive governments, and the use of new communication technologies for mobilization. But their different political settings—electoral democracies versus autocracies—entailed different political trajectories. Where neoliberal policies operated under an electoral democracy, as in the United States, Spain, Brazil, and Turkey, dissent took the form of Occupy movements; however, in places where neoliberal economies were mixed with autocratic rule, the outcome became revolutions. Yet Krastev, focusing on the centrality of social media, lumps all these together as the expression of a historic shift from politics to protest.42 But in truth these activists seemed to be departing not from politics per se but from a particular kind of politics, the conformist party politics that had failed to offer a way out of malaise. On the contrary, the Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and Aam Aadmi Party in India garnered mass support because they were seen as political parties and programs that articulated unorthodox policies against neoliberal onslaught and corruption. In the Middle East, Iran’s Green revolt of 2009 targeted those who deprived the citizens of participation in fair electoral politics, while the emergence of some one hundred new political parties in Tunisia and dozens in Egypt just after their uprisings pointed not to aversion from politics but a desire for meaningful politics.


What transpired in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, I argue, were neither revolutions in the sense of the twentieth-century experiences (i.e., rapid and radical transformation of the state pushed by popular movements from below) nor simply reform (i.e., gradual and managed change carried out often from above and within the existing structural arrangements) but a complex and contradictory mix of both. In a sense, they were “refolutions”—revolutionary movements that emerged to compel the incumbent states to change themselves, to carry out meaningful reforms on behalf of the revolution.

Revolutionaries held enormous social and street power but failed to assume governmental authority; they did not actually rule. Revolutions stayed relatively peaceful and orderly but brought little structural change. The political and social realms remained relatively open and pluralist, favoring electoral democracy, but became susceptible to the danger of counterrevolution. The protagonists were rich in tactics of mobilization but poor in vision and strategy of transformation; they adopted loose, flexible, and horizontal organization but one that suffered from fragmentation; they espoused civil opposition but overlooked the danger of restoration; they were concerned more with democracy, human rights, and rule of law than reallocation of property and distributive justice. What came to fruition then looked like revolution in terms of mobilization but like reform in terms of change. These revolutions were reformist in the sense that the protagonists who spearheaded masterful mobilization were unable to imagine forms of organization and governance that departed from those against which they were rebelling; they were unable, unwilling, or uninterested in directing the process of change within state institutions; they conceptually separated the economy from those aspects of the political order that they sought to topple; and they hardly offered any exploration of how state power worked or how to transform it. In fact, most seemed to hold little preconceived ideas about revolution when they began their street protests and found themselves overwhelmed by mass revolts they never expected or had any clear idea how to handle.

The Arab revolutions occurred at an ideological time in post–Cold War history, when the very idea of revolution had largely disappeared from social thought and political struggles, when the three major postcolonial ideologies—anticolonial nationalism, Marxism-Leninism, and militant Islamism—that vigorously advocated revolution had vanished or been undermined. In their place was the powerful neoliberal paradigm and its normative frame. Thus, instead of the ideas of egalitarian ethos, fair property relations, welfare state, and popular control that marked the revolutionary discourse of the 1970s Cold War times, there developed in this postsocialist era an upsurge in the notions of the individual, freedom, rights, civil society, free market, and legal reform. The spread of postmodern thought in academia had further constricted efforts to imagine grand ideas, utopian orders, and universal values in a world in which the old utopias (communism, Islamism, national liberation, and revolution) were collapsing, while the postmodern preoccupation with fragmentation, ambiguity, and relativism ultimately served to depolarize. Unlike Frantz Fanon, who was invested in “genuine historical change,” Michel Foucault emphatically rejected any preconceived “vision” for political transformation.43 Foucault’s idea of entrapment in disciplinary power, as Edward Said contended, ended up replacing “insurrectionary scholarship” with “quietism.”44

If there was anything “grand” in these critical thoughts, it was the identity politics, the “politics of recognition” that transcended the politics of redistribution, with status and identity substituting for class politics. Even though scholars like Nancy Fraser wished to combine the two, according to sociologist Zsuzsa Gille, “identity politics came to dominate both the intellectual as well as in many places practical politics.”45 In the meantime, the new anarchist trends that had emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century—to join dissent against globalization and the US-led wars in the Middle East—continued disdaining the state and revolution as detrimental to democratic transformation, and organization as the harbinger of structure and authority; instead, anarchists, with their latent or explicit individualism, revered horizontalism and practices of self-rule on the margins of society, as though “structurelessness” was in reality free from internal authority.46 Even though labeled “leaderless revolution,” this horizontalism was “more evolution than revolution, for it is drawing on people across the world that in order to fix our problems, there is no one to look to but ourselves.”47

Ironically, while movements became more fluid, open, horizontal, and ephemeral, the adversarial states turned more organized, secretive, “intelligent,” and entrenched. Consequently, states came to possess far more knowledge about the dissenting movements than movements knew about the states.48 Even though under neoliberal regimes the states lost much of their infrastructural power, they opted to monitor bodies, disrupt formal collectives, and atomize citizens more than before.49 In these conditions of imbalance it seemed that only contentious acts of surprise, innovations, indefinable collectives, or sheer “people’s power” could win political concessions; otherwise, movements were likely to fall prey to the manipulation or repression of the states if they did not disintegrate by their own inertia. For unlike ideological movements—such as nationalism, socialism, or Islamism—which cemented enduring loyalty and identity, postideological movements tended to vanish as rapidly as they came to fruition. Even the revolutionary heroes, if they ever emerged, fell from grace with the same speed as products traded by consumers in the aggressive markets.

In the end, none of these intellectual and political trends seriously challenged the neoliberal paradigm; if anything, some of their ideas—such as aversion of the state and class politics, flirtation with the market, and marketization of politics—found a selective affinity with the neoliberal normativity that came to inform much of the political field in the post–Cold War era; it simultaneously generated dissent and deradicalization.

Neoliberal Effect

There is a contention that “neoliberalism” is hard to grasp because, from its original coinage in 1938 by the German Alexander Rustow as a modern economic system with state intervention, it has come to refer to many different things—certain economic policies, an economic philosophy, or philosophy of society, describing at once “social market economy,” “market fundamentalism,” and “hyper-capitalism.” Some even suggest that it is nothing but a bundle of ideas.50 I understand neoliberalism both as an economic rationality that solicits contention and a form of governmentality that cultivates compliance.51 Since the 1980s, the world has experienced an economic rationality that is distinct from its postwar economies, which were marked in varied degrees by an interventionist state, regulated economy, trade barriers, social subsidies, protectionism, unionized workers, and welfare provisions; these were known broadly as the New Deal in the United States, social democracy or Keyensianism in Europe, socialism in the Eastern bloc, and developmentalism in the Third World.52

The 1974 military coup in Chile against the socialist president Salvador Allende, however, inaugurated a new era in the world, where governments embarked on reversing most of the earlier trend in the economy and governance through deregulation, elimination of trade barriers and price control, privatization, shrinkage of the welfare state, and imposition of austerity.53 Pushed by a relentless ideology couched in “human dignity” and “individual freedom,” powerful agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and ruthless state policies or “shock doctrine,”54 this hypercapitalist rationality came to be known as “neoliberal.” As a consequence, a staggering disparity in wealth and life chances ensued.55 An Oxfam study presented to the Davos 2015 economic forum found that the richest 1 percent in the world owned almost 50 percent of the world’s wealth. In other words, eighty individuals owned as much wealth as 3.5 billion people.56 In the United States, according to Forbes magazine, four hundred Americans possessed more wealth than half of the entire population; and one hundred British owned more than 30 percent of the wealth of the total populace. Countries as diverse as Canada, China, India, and even the social democratic Sweden also experienced a rise in the share of the national income taken by the top 1 percent. At the same time, almost half the world population, over 3 billion—according to the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank in 2013—lived on less than $2.50 a day, and 80 percent on less than $10 per day.57

The Arab world went through a similar process. As early as 1977, President Anwar Sadat’s policy of infitah and its economic liberalization in Egypt had led to the first mass bread riots in the cities of the region. Before the arrival of liberalization, most countries in the Middle East were ruled by either nationalist-populist regimes (such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Turkey) or pro-Western rentier states like Iran and the Arab Gulf States. Funded by oil income or remittances, these mostly autocratic states pursued state-led development strategies, often attaining remarkable growth rates.58 Most sponsored massive projects of state building, urbanization, industrialization, and educational development that by the 2000s had generated an increasingly urban, educated, and youthful citizenry. The rentier states were able to provide social services to many of their citizens, while the populist states dispensed significant benefits in education, health, employment, housing, and the like.59 For these postcolonial regimes, this “social contract” served to build support among the peasants, workers, and middle strata at a time when the states were struggling against both the colonial powers and old internal ruling classes. The state acted as the moving force of economic and social development on behalf of the populace.60

The social contract, however, dwindled as the Arab states went along with the World Bank and the IMF from the 1980s to implement liberalization and structural adjustment policies. Even though Arab governments, weary of popular unrest, slowed down aspects of liberalization and facilitated safety nets such as social funds, welfare nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or even Social Islam (Islamic charity), the strategy continued ceaselessly.61 The Arab Human Development Reports of 2002–2009 invariably highlighted the Arab developmental deficits, underemployment, and mounting disparity gripping the region.62 By 2008, food prices rose, increasing inflation to more than double the global rate; unemployment (11 percent average), especially among youth, reached the highest in the world (30 percent in Tunisia); exports declined because of the drop in global demand (7.7 percent in Tunisia; up to 22 percent in Yemen); workers’ remittances plunged sharply (17 percent in Egypt) while income inequality grew.63 By the early 2000s, 0.3 percent of citizens in Lebanon controlled 50 percent of the national wealth; of these just six men from two families (Hariri and Miqati) held most of the wealth.64 In Tunisia in 2012, only 70 people held 20 percent of the national wealth, and in Egypt 490 individuals controlled 25 percent of national wealth.65 Most of the new money went to powerful businessmen who, enjoying favoritism and monopoly, increasingly influenced governmental policies.66

As the old social contract collapsed, the new disparity found vivid expression in, on the one hand, a minority of globalized super rich with visible wealth, conspicuous consumption, and snobbery enclosed in the gated communities and, on the other, a majority of marginalized constituencies spreading across the urbanizing villages and ruralizing cities. Despite pushing for liberalization, the Arab states continued to remain at the center of economic activity, managing the neoliberal policies by facilitating, sharing its benefits, and attempting to handle its social costs.67 It is no wonder that these autocratic states would become the prime target of any discontent triggered by developmental deficits, social problems, political repression, or corruption. An early popular reaction to austerity policies, notably cuts in consumer subsidies as the states tried to reduce their deficits, included a series of mass urban riots that extended from Morocco (1983), Tunisia (1984), and Sudan (1982,1985), to Lebanon (1987), Algeria (1988), and Jordan (1989).68 Following a decade in the 1990s of safety nets, welfare NGOs, and Islamist involvement in social provisions for the needy, dissent assumed different dynamics and diverse forms during the years preceding the uprisings; the cost of living and social services protests merged with those of labor, democracy advocacy, and regional politics to form a single episode of mass street politics.

In the meantime, the neoliberal restructuring turned the Arab large cities into what I term “cities inside out,” where a large number of urban subalterns were compelled, by necessity, to resort to the outdoor subsistence economy to survive and to public spaces to perform social and cultural rituals such as funerals or weddings. This then turned the urban space into a site of constant contention between the urban subaltern (the poor, youth, socially excluded, and politically marginalized) and the authorities. In Egypt between 2004 and 2009 there were some nineteen hundred protest actions, including labor strikes, social service unrest, and political protests.69 Tunisia, under Ben Ali’s police state, had seen a dozen large protests in the depressed central provinces within the few years prior to the uprising.70

A plethora of observers have confirmed that the neoliberal restructuring was at the root of the popular dissent that eventually burst into remarkable Arab uprisings. Some have detailed how these policies in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and the Arab Gulf States caused crony capitalism, extraordinary inequality, urban segregation, and deprivation along with unprecedented opulence.71 What is missing, however, is an examination of how the neoliberal framework simultaneously deradicalized dissent. Neoliberalism does not just entail contention; it also structures compliance. The political clout of neoliberalism lies in its ability to serve as a form of governmentality, in its ability to structure people’s thinking to internalize the methods of the market society, considering them to be a commonsense way of being and doing things, against which no concrete alternative is imagined or needed.72 Treating it as “natural” is a key power of neoliberalism; when it is not talked about as a problem or as an ideology such as, say, communism, it becomes the natural way of life.73 Indeed, the change in people’s mentality is so crucial for neoliberal thinking that, in the view of Naomi Kline, it deploys the psychiatric method of “shock treatment” to erase memory and break resistance.74

In its ideal form, neoliberal normativity considers almost every social institution as if it were a business enterprise. Universities, schools, hospitals, art centers, and even the very state itself are expected to behave like corporations—with internalized hierarchies, working toward unlimited growth and efficiency to produce measurable products for their exchange value and in which individuals compete fiercely for self-interest.75 In this perfect market society, the collectivist ideals of solidarity, common good, equality, and real democracy (rather than elections) are dismissed because they are deemed antithetical to the norms of such a society.76 The neoliberal paradigm flatly discards talk about refiguring property relations, fair distribution of wealth and opportunities, or the welfare state as outmoded legacies of “failed socialism” and antithetical to individual freedom while it simultaneously incorporates the ideals of freedom, the common, caring, sharing (economy), or hospitality into its logic. It commercializes activism, human rights, civil society, gender equality, sustainable development, and poverty reduction, draining their radical intent.77 Even the idea of “revolution” is up for sale.

Of course, the extent to which people in different societies have in reality incorporated and internalized neoliberal ideas differs. Certainly the degree of neoliberal norms practiced in the United States differs from those, for instance, in Latin America, which is considered to be an exception. The region, once at the forefront of neoliberal experiment, seemed to move toward a postneoliberal phase in which despite the indelible structural imprints of neoliberalism, many of its core principles have been cast aside.78 This is quite a departure from the early 1990s when the region saw a dramatic process of deregulation, privatization, and decline in state traditional responsibilities toward its citizens. Thus, in the 2000s when neoliberal projects in the Middle East looked unstoppable, Latin America experienced a “left turn” as a number of elected “new left” governments came to construct development policies that rejected neoliberalist dogma.79 Beginning with the Zapatista movement that galvanized the grassroots dissent in Chiapas against the Mexican government, these countries saw the rise to power of radical leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and José Mujica in Uruguay. Explicitly rejecting neoliberal orthodoxy as the source of slow growth, poverty, environmental degradation, and inequality, these governments were deemed to represent the socialism of the twenty-first century. Correa’s government changed the constitution to grant rights to nature; it aimed to develop the oil industry but also to preserve natural resources, to improve economic growth but reduce inequality. Correa campaigned to put an end to the “long and sad night of neoliberalism.”80 Evo Morales was reelected in 2014 for the third term for his rigorous socialist reform that has elevated Bolivia from an “economic basket case” into a country of both growth and equity. It is “one of the few countries that reduced inequality” while it attained “growth much faster over the last eight years than in any period over the past three and half decades.” But along with growth there has also been redistribution: under Morales, poverty declined by 25 percent and extreme poverty by 43 percent; social spending rose by 45 percent and minimum wage by 87 percent.81 José Mujica, the president of Uruguay and former socialist guerrilla leader, was described as the world’s “poorest” president because of his austere lifestyle and his donation of around 90 percent of his twelve thousand–dollar monthly salary to charities that benefited poor people and small entrepreneurs. Broadly, leftist governments in Latin American strived to renationalize industrial and financial companies and take over those in crisis; they resumed government investments, established joint ventures, and returned to dispensing social services.82

Even though some remained skeptical about the actual achievements of these efforts, describing the new left turn as the “fashionable incarnation of dictatorship,”83 or at best no more than an “intent” to transcend the core principles of neoliberalism,84 regional experts such as Arturo Escobar acknowledged that Latin America had been the only region in the world where “some counter-hegemonic processes of importance” may have taken place at the level of the state.85 Otherwise, neoliberal orthodoxy continued to gallop through the rest of the world, where its normativity became, in Doreen Massey’s words, “part of our common sense understanding of life.”86

In the Middle East, in the past two decades significant elements of neoliberalism have spread among the Arab elites, professional groups, and the political class, influencing their thinking about activism, change, and the image of a good society. This has had an undeniable deradicalizing effect. The political class, both Islamist and secular activists, took free market and neoliberal rationality for granted; their concerns, if any, became limited to some of its policy outcomes, such as unemployment. Any radical vision about redistribution, change in property relations, expropriation, or popular control was instinctively discarded. Thus, class politics and concern for the poor, workers, or farmers were largely sidelined in favor of the politics that centered on human rights, corruption, fair elections, and legal reform. Concerns for rights—human rights, women’s rights, or personal rights—certainly had genuine relevance in the contemporary Arab societies. However, because the realization of rights is so deeply entangled in class, status, and political position, a disregard for class politics would strongly undermine the genuine struggle for such rights. Thus, against the real desire of the subaltern groups, “social justice” was reduced to no more than a phrase to be uttered without much clear political vision or programmatic backing. Youth activism centered largely on NGOs engaged in charity, development, poverty reduction, or self-help, often in conjunction with international donors or corporate funding. Such engagement, despite its civic values, was preoccupied with amending the existing order instead of one that devoted itself to political work—envisioning, strategizing, and working toward a different social order. “Civil society” activism then proved to be very different from forging social movements (such as labor, farmers’, or student movements) for change. The most visible women’s activism drew on the “gender and development” frame that was intimately linked to development aid, international NGOs, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), whose “developmentalist” discourse has been described as an “anti-politics machine.”87

This kind of deradicalization was not limited to liberal or secular citizens. The Islamist movements—which during the Cold War had adopted strong elements of revolutionary strategy, distributive justice, and collectivist values—moved to embrace neoliberalism by being at ease with the free market, inequality, and consumption. As I discuss later, the postsocialist conditions shaped a neoliberal Islam that promoted a cozy cohabitation of fervent morals and free markets, piety and profiteering. Thus, by the time the uprisings arrived in the Arab streets, few radical visionaries were planning in terms of revolution—a fact that differentiated the Arab Spring from the 1970s revolutions and their powerful anti-imperialist, anticapitalist, radical democratic, and social justice urge. Only the radical claims of the grassroots gave a revolutionary impulse to these otherwise nonradical revolutions.

In the following chapters, I elaborate on these propositions and discuss their implications for the way in which the Arab revolutions ensued. I show in Chapter 2 how the revolutions of the 1970s, unlike the Arab Spring, were informed by an intellectual component of which socialist ideas were a major element. Here I focus on the Iranian revolution of 1979, in which revolutionary ideas were articulated by the Marxist and Islamic leftist guerrilla movements, as well as the “ideologue of the revolution,” Ali Shariati. The revolution saw radical strategies and repertoires to which revolutionary ideas lent support. Chapter 3 elaborates on these repertoires by examining the widespread (shura, or council) movements for grassroots democracy and self-rule in the neighborhoods, colleges, farms, and workplaces, focusing on the occupation of factories. With the fragmentation of labor and the end of actually existing socialism, radical ideas began to lose their clout. Chapter 4 examines the deradicalization of political Islam, showing how the Islamist opposition evolved from its strong anti-imperialist and social justice propensity to embrace reformist politics and neoliberal economy. By the time the Arab uprisings occurred, most Islamists and secular counterparts alike had been conditioned by the neoliberal climate. Despite the decline in revolutionary projects, popular dissent grew, as neoliberalism transformed the Arab economies and shaped an increasingly contentious urbanity.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss how the Arab large cities became the spaces of popular discontent and how dissent found expression in the Arab squares, exploring what the urban setting of the uprisings tells us about their origin and dynamics. While the urban setting was by no means unexpected, the sudden and fierce eruption of the uprisings surprised observers and protagonists alike. Chapter 7 explores the way in which under the shadow of the authoritarian polity and neoliberal economy, the Arab subaltern were involved in discrete forms of everyday struggles to enhance their life chances; and in doing so, they had created their own opaque and illegible realities outside the radar of the state and scholars. Their struggles, often in the form of “nonmovements,” assumed collective voice once the protests began and merged into what came to be known as the Arab uprisings. But the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt had serious limitations in transforming into full-fledged revolutions. What transpired in the Arab world, I argue in Chapter 8, were not revolutions in the sense of their twentieth-century counterparts but a mix of revolutionary mobilizations and reformist trajectories. Yet I show, in Chapter 9, that the extraordinary acts of claim making by the poor, women, lower-class youth, and social minorities in pursuit of equality, inclusion, and recognition radicalized these otherwise nonradical revolutions. Indeed, as I demonstrate in Chapter 10, these subaltern struggles, in part, rendered the postrevolutionary transition acutely contentious, reinforcing the painful and paradoxical postrevolutionary moments. Defenselessness against the domestic and regional counterrevolution was one such anomaly; it left a devastating impact on efforts to achieve a just and free social order in Arab societies, feeding into the rising disenchantment with the experience and idea of revolution. The final chapter discusses the question of despair that came to afflict so many activists in postrevolutionary moments; it concludes by exploring grounds for hope and the renewal of revolutionary spirit in the post–Arab Spring Middle East.


31. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “Thawra om Enqilab? Tasht om Qanat?,” Al-Masry al-Youm, August 21, 2015.

32. Jack Goldstone, “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011,” Foreign Affairs, May–June 2011.

33. Jack Goldstone, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 130.

34. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1938).

35. Jeroen Gunning and Ilan Baron, Why Occupy a Square? People, Protests and Movements in the Egyptian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 5–8, 211–212.

36. Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Explanation of the Arab Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), pp. 4, 153.

37. Jean-Pierre Filiu, From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy (London: Hearst, 2014).

38. The “deep state” is defined as “unaccountable, unelected elites that exert control over elected or civilian officials.” See David Faris, “Deep State, Deep Crisis: Egypt and American Policy,” Middle East Policy Council 20, no. 4 (2013): pp. 99–110.

39. Kamal Zaghbani, “Al-Thawra al-Tunisia: Al-Thawra al-Mobdaiyya,” in special issue on the Tunisian revolution, al-Kitab al-Okhra 3 (August 2012): 219.

40. Wael Ghoneim, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), p. 293.

41. Ivan Krastev, “From Politics to Protest,” Journal of Democracy 25, no. 4 (October 2014): 6, 16.

42. Ibid., pp. 5–19. Manuel Castells likewise considers the social upheavals since 2011—both the Arab revolutions and Occupy movements—of the same type shaped by our current “network society,” so these are “networked social movements” that brought together dissenters through social media. This approach also misses the historical contexts of these different societies, such as Arab countries ruled by autocrats and those governed by liberal democracy. See Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope, pp. x, 220.

43. See video debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, “On Human Nature,” March 13, 2013,

44. Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said (New York: Vintage, 2001), pp. 53–54.

45. Zsuzsa Gille, “Is There a Global Postsocialist Condition?,” Global Society 24, no. 1 (2010): 9–30.

46. See Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” 1970,; for the resurrection of anarchism in social movements, see Gitlin, Occupy Nation, pp. 80–91.

47. Crane Ross, The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2011), p. 59.

48. The US government established dozens of “intelligence-sharing offices” to monitor the activists of the OWS. Only thanks to the efforts of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden (especially the film Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras) has the public acquired some limited idea about how the states think in certain domains of political life.

49. Emel Akcali, ed., Neoliberal Governmentality and the Future of the State in the Middle East and North Africa (London: Palgrave, 2016).

50. Mitchell Dean, “Rethinking Neoliberalism,” Journal of Sociology 50, no. 2 (2014): 150–163.

51. The Foucauldian reading has produced a host of discussions on neoliberalism as a form of governmentality; see, for instance, Stuart Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies 25, no. 6 (2011): 705–728.

52. See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); M. Steger and R. K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

53. Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

54. Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Random House, 2007).

55. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (London: Verso, 2014); Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

56. Deborah Hardoon, Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More (Oxford: Oxfam, 2015),

57. The UN and the World Bank report on the state of development in the world in 2013. Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats,” Global Issues, January 7, 2013,

58. The average gross national product growth rate for selected Middle Eastern countries during the 1970–1979 period were as follows: Egypt, 7.6 percent; Iran, 22.2 percent; Saudi Arabia, 37.2 percent; Turkey, 15.1 percent; Kuwait, 22.6 percent; Syria, 15.4 percent; Iraq, 28.8 percent; Jordan, 19.6 percent. See “World Tables 1991,” in IMF International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1994, 1996 (Washington, DC: IMF Publications, 1996).

59. Hazem Biblawi, “Rentier State in the Arab World,” in The Arab State, ed. G. Luciani (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 49–62.

60. Asef Bayat, “Activism and Social Development in the Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, no. 1 (2002): 1.

61. Ibid., p. 4.

62. UNDP, Arab Human Development Reports (New York: United Nations Development Program, 2002–2009).

63. Hanieh, Lineage of Revolt, pp. 145–149.

64. “0.3% of Lebanese Own 50% of Lebanon,” A Separate State of Mind (blog), posted on February 18, 2015,

65. According to a Wealth X report, accessed February 21, 2017,

66. Timothy Mitchell, “Dreamland: The Neoliberalism of Your Desires,” in The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt, ed. Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 224–234; Galal Amin, Whatever Happened to the Egyptian Revolution? (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2013). On Amman and Beirut, see Najib Hourani, “Neoliberal Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings: A View from Amman,” in special issue of Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. s2 (2014): 650–662, doi:10.1111/juaf.12136.

67. J. Kinninmont, “Bread and Dignity,” World Today, August–September 2011, pp. 31–33.

68. Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007), p. 268. For a more thorough analysis, see John Walton and David Seddon, Free Markets and Food Riots (London: Blackwell, 1994).

69. Paul Aarts, Pieter van Dijke, Iris Kolman, Jort Statema, and Ghassan Dahhan, From Resilience to Revolt: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, Department of Political Science, 2012), p. 34.

70. Habib Ayeb, “Social and Geopolitical Geography of the Tunisian Revolution,” Review of African Political Economy 38, no. 129 (September 2011): 473–485.

71. See, for instance, Amin, Whatever Happened to the Egyptian Revolution?; Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel, eds., Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, 2nd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Achcar, The People Want; Hanieh, Lineage of Revolt; Ayeb, “Social and Geopolitical Geography of the Tunisian Revolution”; Hourani, “Neoliberal Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings,” pp. 650–662; Najib Hourani, “Urbanism and Neoliberal Order: The Development and Redevelopment of Amman,” in special issue, Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. s2 (2014): 634–639; Najib Hourani and Ahmed Kanna, “Arab Cities in the Neoliberal Moment,” in special issue, Journal of Urban Affairs 36, no. s2 (2014): 600–604; Gunning and Baron, Why Occupy a Square?

72. Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World. See also W. Larner, “Neoliberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality,” Studies in Political Economy 63 (2000): 5–26; Hall, “The Neoliberal Revolution,” pp. 705–728; Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, and Michael Rustin, eds., After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2013),; Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, pp. 175–176.

73. George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism: The Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems,” The Guardian, April 15, 2016.

74. Klein, The Shock Doctrine.

75. Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World.

76. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Essence of Neoliberalism,” Le Monde diplomatique, December 1998,

77. Byung-Cul Han, “Why Revolution Is No Longer Possible,” Open Democracy, October 23, 2015,; Colin Crouch, Klaus Eder, and Damian Tambini, eds., Citizenship, Markets, and the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). The psychologist Paul Verhaeghe has even spoken of the pathology of the neoliberal personality—someone who fiercely competes, is “articulate” in telling lies without guilt, and is “infantilized,” jealous of others for trivial things but suffers constant self-doubt and insecurity. See Paul Verhaeghe, “Neoliberalism Has Brought Out the Worst in Us,” The Guardian, September 29, 2014. “Activist capitalism,” according to the Economist, is groups of investors “campaigning” to change a firm’s strategy to acquire broader participation or remove managers. “Activists are not . . . tree-huggers who dislike what your company does to the atmosphere. They are hedge-funds that seek to shake up your company’s management.” The Economist, February 7, 2015, p. 21.

78. Javier Lewkowicz, “Post-neoliberalism: Lessons from South America,” Open Democracy, February 9, 2015.

79. J. G. Castañeda, “Latin America’s Left Turn,” Foreign Affairs, June 7, 2006.

80. See a fine study by Murat Arsel, “Between ‘Marx and Markets’? The State, the ‘Left Turn’ and Nature in Ecuador,” Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie (Journal of economic and social geography),103, no. 2 (2012): 151.

81. Reported in Ellie Mae O’Hagan, “Evo Morales Has Proved That Socialism Doesn’t Damage Economies,” The Guardian, October 14, 2014.

82. Lewkowicz, “Post-neoliberalism.”

83. Forrest Colburn and Alberto Trejos, cited in Murat Arsel, “Between Marx and Markets?,” p. 151.

84. Arsel, “Between ‘Marx and Markets’?,” p. 151.

85. Arturo Escobar, “Latin America at a Crossroads,” Cultural Studies 24 (2010): 1.

86. The Guardian, June 11, 2013, opinion page. The mass discontent in Greece and Spain was an important reminder of the deep scars the austerity policies and debt had inflicted on southern Europe, pushing, at least in Greece, for a new government that openly proclaimed its anticapitalism.

87. James Ferguson, Anti-politics Machine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).