Five years after the Arab uprisings: An interview with Asef Bayat
Özgür Gökmen (ÖG): In Life as Politics you refer to the dangers of foreign intervention more than once. Expectations were not high but there was still some hope for the region in 2011. Today Libya and Yemen are failed states, and the worst has happened in Syria. Five years ago, people asking for change were chanting “silmiyah mou silahiya” (peaceful, not armed). Then a proxy war started. What happened?
Asef Bayat (AB): If we look carefully to all of these experiences, all of the protests, including those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, they were at first remarkably peaceful and civil. In both Syria and Libya, the regimes’ reaction was brutal and extraordinary. The protests suffered a lot of casualties, but they were still non-violent until the foreign forces got involved: NATO and Qatar in Libya and a host of countries ranging from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Unites States to Iran, Hezbullah, al-Qaeda and then Russia. Their involvement militarized the bulk of the uprisings, turning these countries into a theatrical stage for settling geopolitical accounts. It is remarkable that despite the brutality and violence by the regime and the armed opposition, the ordinary Syrians have shown that they still wish to protest peacefully when opportunities arise as we have seen in recent episodes.
ÖG: How did the January 25 Revolution in Egypt end up in a praetorian autocracy?
AB: This is certainly a sad story of counter-revolutionary restoration. We should bear in mind that every revolution carries within itself the germ of counter-revolution waiting for an opportunity to strike. But the counter-revolution’s victory depends on whether the revolution has enough defence mechanisms to neutralise the sabotage. In the case of the Arab revolutions, counter-revolutionary forces acted both internally and at the regional level. The Arab Spring no doubt shook the edifice of the Arab autocracies, kings and sheikhs, who became adamant that these revolutions should not succeed. The key counter-revolutionary force, Saudi Arabia, and others were involved in acts of sabotage instigating sectarian conflicts.
But the revolution in Egypt suffered also from its own limitations in that it failed to transform the old power structure; so that the revolution remained exposed and vulnerable to the counter-revolutionary forces which had nested in such unaltered institutions as the military, intelligence services, judiciary, etc. At the same time, because the government under former president Mohammed Morsi ruled miserably, failed to act inclusively (in the way that Ennahda in Tunisia did), and created a lot of disenchantment and dissent, the military used the opportunity to move in, to impose its own rule. The danger could be seen much earlier—in fact I had made this observation just three weeks after the fall of Mubarak in my piece, “Paradoxes of the Arab Refo-lutions,” even though I had tried to be optimistic as well. But it seems that the “pessimism of the intellect” should have been emphasized more rigorously.