Revolution without Revolutionaries
Making Sense of the Arab Spring
Asef Bayat



People may or may not have ideas about revolution for it to happen. For the outbreak of a revolution has little to do with any idea, and even less with a “theory,” of revolution. Revolutions “simply” happen. But having or not having ideas about revolution does have critical consequences for the outcome when it actually occurs. This book is about revolutions without “revolutionary ideas”—ones that are conditioned by the modalities of our neoliberal times. It focuses on the Arab Spring, the remarkable revolutionary uprisings that ironically burst onto the political stage at a time when the very idea of revolution had been dispelled. Thus, the book is neither a simple narrative of the Arab Spring nor a work of current affairs. Its central aim is to make sense of these extraordinary political happenings, primarily in Tunisia and Egypt, to understand their dynamics, analyze their mobilization process, examine their paradoxes, and highlight their promises from a global, historical, and comparative outlook. As much as it details the actual operations of these revolutions, the book is also a work of social theory, a modest attempt to introduce idioms and insights to better understand these political episodes.

The urge behind writing this book derived from my early fascination with and frustration over the unsettling novelties that marked the Arab revolutions, when I looked from the prism of a revolution that I had witnessed, experienced, and studied some thirty-five years earlier. Having lived in both Iran and Egypt just prior to their revolutions, I was struck by how different these experiences were. I was enthralled by the Arab Spring’s more peaceful, open, pluralistic, and less repressive texture but was perplexed by its nonradical, loosely organized, exposed, and perilous quality. I wondered if the Arab revolutions were revolutionary enough to withstand the dangers of restoration. What made the political language, ideological makeup, and the broad trajectories of the Arab Spring so remarkably different from those of the revolutions of the 1970s? In attempting to address such questions, I am hoping to highlight the nuances of the Arab Spring and complicate the meaning of “revolution.”

This book is not a product of one-time research and writing; rather, its data, insights, and conceptual makeup originate from many years of reflections on the question of social and political change in the Muslim Middle East—long prior to the 2011 uprisings, when I was living and teaching in Cairo. In fact, my thinking about and experience of revolution goes back as far as the Iranian revolution of 1979, of which I was a participant-observer. I have reworked some of my earlier studies on the Iranian revolution to include in this volume for comparative purposes. However, the substantial part of the thinking, research, and writing that informs this book began as soon as the first protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and the subsequent developments that took the world by surprise. As uprisings surged in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, I became deeply engaged in attempts to understand what was unfolding so rapidly. This involved multiple research trips to Egypt and Tunisia after the outbreak of the uprisings.

Of course, the import of the Arab uprisings has been far greater than the intellectual interests they stirred; the uprisings were poised to reshape the future of the region and remake the fortune of its people. I was aware of the challenges one faces in researching revolutions that are unfolding. How should one do scholarship in turbulent revolutionary times filled with struggles, sacrifices, intrigues, and passion, the time when people’s lives, liberty, and material well-being are at stake? How can we observe and understand the events that are in the making, and what to do when the very act of observation could have the effect of intervention? And above all how should one navigate between a position of wanting to see the uprisings succeed yet retain the sobriety of critical scholarship and sincerity of judgment? I hope that this text has been sensitive to such concerns and succeeds in avoiding their potential pitfalls.

In Egypt, I had multiple discussions with observers, onlookers, secular people and Islamists, and revolutionary activists who included some of my ex-students from my teaching years in Cairo. I also collected valuable information by speaking to ordinary people, in particular the youth, women, and many unknown individuals at homes, neighborhoods, offices, universities, and especially in the streets; I visited poor neighborhoods in Cairo to observe their engagement with the revolutionary dynamics and followed the workings of new organizations in the localities, colleges, and public spaces that had emerged just after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia, I spoke to academics, intellectuals, activists, civil society organizations, both secular and religious, and many anonymous citizens in public places; I visited headquarters of political organizations, universities, and neighborhoods—both the posh Sidi Bou Said and the slums of Tadamon and Al-Menoubiya in Tunis. Speaking to ordinary people, both men and women, in the streets, neighborhoods, private homes, colleges, or during the rallies and demonstrations provided valuable insights into their ideas about revolution, change, role of religion, expectations, and obstacles they faced as a result of the uprisings in both Egypt and Tunisia. In referring to these informants in this book, I have used mostly fictitious names. Both in Egypt and Tunisia, I collected a considerable amount of written materials, beyond what one finds in the social media, in the form of leaflets, tracts, papers, reports, news items, and books. As fresh and more compelling data are becoming available, the future studies will, I hope, fill any gaps this study may contain.

I am indebted to many people who in different capacities and at different stages have helped bring this book to completion. The anonymous reviewers of the earlier drafts provided valuable comments and suggestions that involved two rounds of substantial revisions. In Tunisia, Professor Souad Halila and her family kindly hosted and facilitated a wonderful evening of discussion with a number of Tunisian intellectuals and academics. Habib Ayeb was most gracious in offering his intellectual insights as well as practical guidance during my research work in Tunisia. I also thank the numerous Tunisian activists and observers who generously shared their perspectives on the events, in particular Mabrouk Jebahi, Abdel-Haqq Zammouri, Mehdi Barghoumi, Nadia Marzouki, and Tareq Kahlawi, as well as Reda, Rasha, Fadwa, Delal, and many others. I thank Ozgur Gokman, who beyond translating my works into Turkish has supplied me with valuable ideas and sources on Turkish politics. In Egypt, I have benefited much from the support and insights of many friends and colleagues directly or through their writings; I am particularly appreciative of Ahmed Zayed, Hosam Bahjat, Omnia Khalil, Khaled Fahmi, Gamal Eid, Ala Abdel-Fattah, Abdelrahman Mansour, Samah Naguib, Rabab El-Mahdi, Ali El-Regal, Samia Mehrez, Mona Abaza, Hanan Sabea, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Hani Shukrallah, Lina Ataallah, Hosam Hamalawi, Mustapha El-Sayyid, Reem Saad, Malak Roshdi, Hoda Sadda, Heba Rauf, Yahya Shawkat, Alia Mosallam, Nicholas Hopkins, Omar Nejati, Abdallah Erfan, Mona Seif, and Mohammed al-Arabi, to name only a few.

The Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences where I teach remain avid supporters of faculty research and writing. I am grateful to them for their support and encouragement while I worked on this book. I especially appreciate Antoinette Burton for her professional guidance and intellectual engagement. Some of the themes raised in this book were discussed with inspiring students in my graduate seminars, where they helped sharpen some of the arguments. I have been especially fortunate to have Heba Khalil as my student and research assistant. Heba has helped significantly both intellectually and in alerting me to relevant ideas and information. Her knowledge of Egypt together with Ahmed Elowfi’s visions on the Persian Gulf States made possible lively discussions about the revolutions in the region. Kate Wahl, my editor at Stanford University Press, has consistently shown that her critical comments and counsel always benefit the outcome; I am grateful to Kate for not giving up. Finally, and as always, I am most indebted to my family, Linda, Shiva and Tara, for continuous love, intellectual engagement, and moral support without which this project might have a different destiny.