A Minute With...

Asef Bayat, expert on Middle East social movements and politics

1/18/2012  7:45 am

It was Jan. 14 last year when Tunisia’s longtime dictator Ben Ali left power, and Egypt’s Mubarak would follow almost a month later – early results of Middle East uprisings that would come to be called the “Arab Spring.” Asef Bayat has long studied social movements and urban politics in the region; his books include “Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn” and “Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East.” A native of Iran who taught in Egypt for 16 years, the University of Illinois sociologist made trips to Egypt and Tunisia last spring and summer, which included spending time with those at the center of the protests. Bayat talked about the past year, and where things now stand, in an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the situation now seems fluid, ranging from promising transition in some countries to ongoing violence and killing in Syria. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where things stand?

image of professor asef bayatThe balance sheet of the Arab Spring over the past year has certainly been a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have seen four long-standing dictators pushed out of power: Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Gadhafi, and Yemen’s Ali Saleh. And two monarchies, Morocco and Jordan, have undertaken some important reforms, even though their political structures remain largely intact.

On the other hand, Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria has unleashed a bloody crackdown on demonstrators, while taking advantage of the ethnic and religious rift within the country to prolong its rule. The Alavi Muslim minority and Christians support the regime, while the opposition comes from the majority Sunni Muslims. The regime has created an elite class who wish to maintain the status quo. Yet popular defiance continues.

In Bahrain too the uprising has been weakened by a terrible crackdown, carried out by the Saudi military, dispatched to protect the Bahraini rulers. The U.S.’s implicit support of the Bahraini sheikhdom has also played a role in weakening the opposition. Despite this, only two weeks ago, in late December, thousands of protesters again poured into the streets of Manama.

On the whole, however, I remain optimistic. A lot has changed and more is likely to come. The real question is the nature of change and what it entails.

Islamic parties have been the winners in elections in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Is that reason for concern?

It is true Islamic parties have been big winners of the post-revolutionary free elections. This is not surprising. Islamic parties have been the most organized political entities, apart from the old ruling parties. They have had the advantage of grassroots activities in charity and welfare sectors and mosques. Many of them are still untested, and so, untainted.

But the mere designation “Islamic” should not alarm those who are concerned about seeing some sort of Khomeini-type authoritarian rule. These parties are not “Islamist” in the sense of wanting to establish an Islamic state like Iran or Afghanistan. Parties like the ruling al-Nahda in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, or the youth of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, represent more a “post-Islamist” orientation – that is, they don’t want a religious state, but a civil or secular democratic state to operate within a broadly pious society. Even the leadership of the Muslim Brothers has confirmed that they would want a “civil” state.

Nevertheless I would not be surprised to see certain small hardline groups emerging in public spaces trying to impose their moral sensibilities on others, especially on women.

What has gone right and wrong in Egypt since its revolution? Have the protesters who brought down Mubarak now lost out in the struggle for power?

On the positive side, the space for relatively free expression of views is much wider now than before. You have fairly free media, press, private TV stations, and dozens of new political parties have emerged recently. Many civil society organizations have become very active. Restrictive laws on parliamentary, presidential and other elections have been mostly removed. The parliamentary elections have already taken place and a timetable for presidential elections has been set.

But major problems still remain. The military council still rules the country, often with iron hands, with lots of beating, jailing and killing of protesters. Emergency law remains in place, and the military wants to keep some extra-constitutional power even after it hands over power to civilian rule – like keeping its budget unaccounted for. The revolutionaries who brought down Mubarak lack any portion of governmental power. The winners of the revolution have so far included the military, the religious parties like the Muslim Brothers and the Salafi groups. The revolutionaries are yet to fulfill some key objectives of the revolution.

Should we expect democracy to emerge from these formerly authoritarian states?

Certainly the revolutions have already facilitated free elections for the first time after so many years. The Arab Spring is likely to bury the pattern of dynastic presidencies in the Arab world. The parliaments in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco have been formed by fairly free and fair elections. So there’s a good chance that “electoral democracy,” in the sense of free elections determining who runs the countries, will take root.

What remains unclear so far is how liberal these democracies can be if the ruling Islamist parties wish to make religion present in the civil society – in other words, how much the new democratically elected bodies are willing to respect individual rights and liberties. We also don’t know how much the active role of religion in society, outside of the state, may collide with individual choice, like the choice of particular lifestyle, dress codes, or opinions. These issues are yet to be tested.

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