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Paradoxes of Arab Refo-lutions


Asef Bayat11
3 March 2011

Many in the revolutionary and pro-democracy circles in Egypt and


Tunisia have expressed serious concerns about the sabotage of the
defeated elites, and speak of a creeping counter-revolution. This is not
surprising. If revolutions are about intense struggle for a profound
change, then any revolution should expect a counter-revolution of
subtle or blatant forms. The French, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and
Nicaraguan revolutions all faced protracted civil or international
wars. The question is not whether the threat of counter-revolution
is to be expected; the question rather is whether the revolutions
are revolutionary enough to offset the perils of restoration. It seems
that the Arab revolutions remain particularly vulnerable precisely
because of their distinct peculiaritytheir structural anomaly is
expressed in the paradoxical trajectory of political change.
Historically, three types of bottom-up regime/political change
stand out. The first is the reformist change. Here, social and
political movements usually mobilize in a sustained campaign to
exert concerted pressure on the incumbent regimes to undertake
reforms through the institutions of the existing states. Resting on their
social powerthe mobilization of the grassrootsthe opposition
movements compel the political elites to reform themselves, their
laws and institutions often through some of kind of social pacts.
So, change happens within the framework of the existing political
arrangements. The transition to democracy in countries like Mexico
and Brazil in the 1980s was of this nature. The leadership of Irans
Green Movement currently pursues a similar reformist trajectory.
In this trajectory, the depth and extent of reforms varies. Change
may remain superficial, but it can also be profound if it materializes
cumulatively by legal, institutional, and politico-cultural reforms.
The second mode of political change is the insurrectionary
model, where a revolutionary movement builds up over a fairly
extended span of time during which a recognized leadership and
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organization emerge along with some blueprint of future political


structure. At the same time that the incumbent regime continues to
resist through police or military apparatus, a gradual erosion and
defection begins to crack the governing body. The revolutionary camp
pushes forward, attracts defectors, forms a shadow government,
and builds some organs of alternative power. In the meantime,
the regimes governmentality gets paralyzed, leading to a state of
dual power between the incumbent and the opposition. The state
of dual power ends by an insurrectionary battle in which the
revolutionary camp takes over the state power via force; it dislodges
the old organs of authority and establishes new ones. Here we have a
comprehensive overhaul of the state, with new functionaries, a new
ideology, and a new mode of governance. The Iranian Revolution
of 1979, the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, or the Cuban
Revolution of 1959 all exemplify such insurrectionary courses.
The third possibility pertains to regime implosion, when the
revolutionary movement builds up through general strikes and
broad practices of civil disobedience, or through a revolutionary
warfare progressively encircling the regime, so that in the end the
regime implodes. It collapses in disruption, defection, and total
disorder. In its place come the alternative elites and institutions.
Ceausescus regime in Romania imploded in a dramatic political
chaos and violence in 1989, but gave rise eventually to very different
political and economic systems under the newly established political
structure, the National Salvation Front. Muammar al-Qaddafis
Libya may experience such an implosion if the revolutionary
insurgency continues to strangle Tripoli. In both insurrection and
implosion, and unlike the reformist mode, attempts to reform the
political structure take place not through the existing institutions
of the state, but overwhelmingly outside of them.
Now, Egypts revolution, just like that of Tunisia, does not
resemble any of these experiences. In Egypt and Tunisia, the
powerful political uprisings augmented into the fastest revolutions
of our time. Tunisians in the course of one month and Egyptians in
just eighteen days succeeded in dislodging long-serving authoritarian
rulers, dismantling a number of institutions associated with them,
including the ruling parties, the legislative bodies, and a number of
ministries, in the meantime establishing a promise of constitutional
and political reform. And all these have been achieved in manners
that were remarkably civil, peaceful, and fast. But these astonishing
rapid triumphs did not leave much opportunity for the opposition
to build parallel organs of authority capable of taking control of

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30 THE DAWN OF THE ARAB UPRISINGS

the new state. Instead, the opposition wants the institutions of the
incumbent regimes, for instance the military in Egypt, to carry
out substantial reforms on behalf of the revolutionthat is, to
modify the constitution, to ensure free elections, to guarantee free
political parties, and in the long run to institutionalize democratic
governance. Here again lies a key anomaly of these revolutions
they enjoy enormous social power, but lack administrative authority;
they garner remarkable hegemony, but do not actually rule. Thus,
the incumbent regimes continue to stand; there are no new states or
governing bodies, nor novel means and modes of governance that
altogether embody the will of the revolution.
It is true that, like their Arab counterparts, the Eastern
European revolutions of the late 1990s were also non-violent,
civil, and remarkably rapidEast Germanys revolution took
only ten daysbut they managed, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt,
to completely transform the political and economic systems. This
was possible because the imploded East German communist state
could simply dissipate and dissolve into the already existing West
German governing body. And broadly, since the difference between
what East European people had (one party, communist state) and
what they wanted (liberal democracy and market economy) was so
distinctly radical, the trajectory of change had to be revolutionary.
Half-way, superficial, and reformist change would have been easily
detected and resisted, which is something quite different from the
Arab revolutions in which the demands of change, freedom, and
social justice are broad enough to be claimed even by the counter-
revolution. Consequently, the Arab revolutions resemble perhaps
more Georgias Rose Revolution of 2003 and Ukraines Orange
Revolution of November 2004January 2005 where in both cases
a massive and sustained popular protest brought down incumbent
fraudulent rulers. In these instances, the trajectory of change looks
more reformist than revolutionary, strictly speaking.
But there is a more promising side to the Arab political upheavals.
One cannot deny the operation of a powerful revolutionary mode
in these political episodes, which make them more profound than
those in Georgia or Ukraine. In Tunisia and Egypt, the departure of
despotic rulers and their apparatus of coercion have opened up an
unprecedented free space for citizens, notably the subaltern subjects,
to reclaim their societies. As is the case in most revolutionary turning
points, an enormous energy has been released in the societys body
politics. Banned political parties have come to surface and new
ones are getting established. Societal organizations have become

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more vocal and extraordinary grassroots initiatives are under


way. In Egypt, working people, free from fear of persecution,
aggressively follow their violated claims. Laborers are pushing for
new independent unions; some of them have already formed the
Coalition of the 25 January Revolution Workers to assert the
revolutionary principles of change, freedom, and social justice.
Small farmers (with less than ten feddans) in rural areas are
organizing themselves in independent syndicates; others continue
fighting for better wages and conditions. The first Organization of
the Residents of Cairos ashwaiyyat (slums), established recently,
has called for the removal of corrupt governors, and for the abolition
of regime-sponsored local councils. Youth groups organize to
clean up slum areas, engage in civil works and reclaim their civil
pride. Students pour into the streets to demand that the Ministry of
Education revises the curricula. The stories of Coptic and Muslim
cooperation to fight sectarian rumors and provocations are already
known and need not be repeated here. And of course the Tahrir
Revolutionary Front continues to exert pressure on the military
to speed up reforms. These all represent popular engagement of
exceptional times. But the extraordinary sense of liberation, the urge
for self-realization, the dream of a new and just orderin short the
desire for all that is new are what define the very spirit of these
revolutions. At these turning points, these societies have moved far
ahead of their political elites, exposing albeit the major anomaly of
these revolutions: the discrepancy between a revolutionary desire
for the new, and a reformist trajectory that may lead to harboring
the old.
How do we then make sense of the Arab revolutions? These
may be characterized neither as revolutions per se nor simply
as reform measures. Instead we may speak of refo-lutions
revolutions that want to push for reforms in, and through the
institutions of the incumbent states. As such, refo-lutions express
paradoxical processessomething to be cherished and yet
vulnerable. Refo-lutions do possess the advantage of ensuring orderly
transitions, avoiding violence, destruction, and chaosthe evils that
dramatically raise the cost of change. In addition, revolutionary
excess, the reign of terror, exclusion, revenge, summary trials
and guillotines can be avoided. And there are the possibilities
of genuine transformation through social pacts, but only if the
societythe grassroots, civil society associations, labor unions,
and social movementscontinue to remain vigilant, mobilized,
and exert pressure. Otherwise refo-lutions carry with them the

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perils of counter-revolutionary restoration precisely because the


revolution has not made it into the key institutions of the state
power. One can readily imagine powerful stakeholders, wounded
by the ferocity of popular upheavals, would desperately seek
regrouping, initiate sabotage, and instigate counter-propaganda.
Ex-high state officials, old party apparatchiks, key editors-in-chief,
big businesses, members of aggrieved intelligence services and not to
mention military men could penetrate the apparatus of power and
propaganda to turn things into their advantage. The danger can be
especially more pronounced when the revolutionary fervor subsides,
normal life resumes, the hard realities of reconstruction seep in, and
the populace gets disenchanted. There is little recourse for realizing
a meaningful change without turning refo-lutions into revolutions.

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