The old is dying


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SIX years after the birth of contemporary social movements (Iran’s Green Movement in 2009 and the 2011 Arab Spring) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the region is caught between a rock and a hard place. The confluence of the global power structures and local socio-political conditions effectively repressed the revolutionary spirit in MENA, the ‘quiet encroachment’ by counter-revolutionary forces largely replacing hope with despair, and excitement with resentment.1 The rise of DAESH/ISIL/ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the predicament of Islamism in power and the subsequent return of a military junta in Egypt, the breakout of a proxy/civil war in Syria and Yemen, the suppression of Iran’s pro-democracy movement, and the chaos and collapse of the Libyan polity have together contributed to the revival of an old discourse of ‘Middle East exceptionalism’, implying that the region is exceptionally immune to democratic movements, values and institutions. This essay attempts to examine why and how the MENA region is not exceptionally immune to democratic social movements.


The MENA social movements are currently experiencing a deep and profound crisis. However, such a crisis is not unique to this region: ‘Almost all post-revolution moments are marked by an ecstatic exhilaration followed by a deep disappointment and demoralization … The great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg goes so far as to suggest that revolution is the only form of "war" in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats.’2 Likewise, Antonio Gramsci reminds us that ‘such crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’3

The MENA democratic forces may, for the moment, appear largely repressed but will most likely return and recapture their social position. The quest for human dignity, social justice and freedom will continue to give rise to new democratic social movements in the region. The genie is out of the bottle; these social movements signify a deep-seated socio-cultural and structural transformation in the region. ‘The current crisis’, argues Bayat ‘is hardly a measure of popular consent or compliance. Rather, it is driven by the inner force of life itself, expressed through an urge for self-regulation; it is a technique of survival in rough times.’4 Hence, these movements are suffused with endless and open-ended possibilities; they are unfinished projects.

One should not overlook the profound impact of these movements on postcolonial MENA societies. For some time they brought together secular and religious individuals, Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, poor and middle class, transcending ethnic, religious, gender, class and ideological divides in these societies. They symbolized a potential paradigm shift towards a ‘post-ideological’, ‘post-nationalist’ and ‘post-Islamist’ discourse in the region.5


These movements were neither religious nor anti-religious. Islamic state/Caliphate was not a popular slogan on the MENA streets. The MENA social movements symbolized a popular quest for human dignity, freedom and social justice, and a backlash against the neo-liberal order – the Washington Consensus and the Structural Adjustment Programme in the region. They challenged the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis6 and nullified the discourse of ‘Middle East exceptionalism’.7 Note that the quest for social justice and a reaction to the neo-liberal order, or ‘McWorld’,8 was a common theme in both the MENA social movements in the East and the ‘Occupy movements’ in the West. Ordinary people in both the East and the West shared similar concerns and demands in these movements. ‘The West met the East over global mass protests in 2011-2012.’9


The contemporary social movements in both the East and the West represented a new paradigm shift from the hegemonic discourses of the post-Cold War era, best exemplified by Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis and Francis Fukuyama’s propositions in the End of History. Human dignity, freedom and social justice are not exclusively western civilizational achievements; they are widespread values across the West and the East – ‘a common theme in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Aden, Tehran, Madrid, New York, Athens, and London.’10 These social movements revealed a systematic crisis in the neo-liberal order that Fukuyama liked us to see as ‘the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’11

The Occupy Movements symbolized a ‘post-ideological’ moment in which the well educated ‘middle class poor’ poured into the streets and challenged the dominant elements of the neo-liberal order – the richest one per cent. As the international development agency Oxfam reported: ‘The richest one per cent has increased its income by 60 per cent in the last 20 years with the financial crisis accelerating rather than slowing the process.’12 According to the report, ‘The US$ 240 billion income in 2012 of the richest billionaires would be enough to make extreme poverty history four times over.’13 It went on, ‘We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true… Concentration of resources in the hands of the top one per cent depresses economic activity and makes life harder for everyone else – particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder.’14 Hence, ‘A global new deal is needed to reverse decades of increasing inequality.’15 Likewise, in his masterly work, Capital, Thomas Piketty suggests that in 21st century capitalism ‘the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income.’ Hence, ‘Capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.’16


The rise of contemporary social movements in the East and the West was nothing less than a warm welcome ‘to the End of the End of History.’17 These movements paved the path towards, to use Walter Mingolo’s concept, an ‘epistemic disobedience’.18 They resisted hegemonic universalism, celebrated our differences, and proposed a third alternative way to both Fukuyama’s hegemonic universalism and Huntington’s essentialist particularism. The third way is a radical call for ‘universalism from below.’19 It suggests that each culture/nation should engage in a critical dialogue with its own tradition and formulate the universal values of freedom and social justice in a local language that can be implemented through local/home-grown institutions. In other words, ‘It spires to a different kind of universalism, one based on deliberation and contestation among diverse political entities, with the aim of reaching functional agreement on questions of global concern. This kind of universalism differs from one resulting from universal injunctions by self-assured subjects.’20 This emerging third way is an unfinished project but signifies a new historical era towards post-Islamism in the Muslim context.


In a number of MENA societies after the 2011-2012 social movements, ‘the old order is largely back in business’. ‘These are the old ways in new times, when the old order faces new political subjects and novel subjectivities; when the memories of sacrifice, the taste of triumph, and betrayal of aspirations are likely to turn quiet but lingering mass discontent into periodic social upheavals. These are uncharted political moments loaded with indefinite possibilities, in which meaningful social engagement would demand a creative fusion of the old and new ways of doing politics.’21


The MENA social movements have created a historical momentum and ‘memories’ of ‘extraordinary episodes’; they have generated ‘moral resources’ which ‘have become part of the popular consciousness’ of the young and restless generation in the region.22 For this generation, revolutions and social movements are unfinished projects. ‘Many of Middle East and North African societies and cultures’, argues Dabashi, ‘are in the midst of systematic and epistemic changes, by virtue of the material forces that underlie their daily lives. False and falsifying binaries still afflict these cultures (East-West, Persian-Arab, Sunni-Shia) but the body of their seismic transmutation moves towards liberating horizons apace.’23 Change, however, is not easy. Freedom is not free; it is costly.

There are at least two major challenges ahead: regressive forces from within and the meddling of external forces, i.e. regional powers and the global hegemon. Despite such structural constraints, one should not underestimate the force of hope and public will, the power of people’s agency. Antonio Gramsci reminded us of the need to overcome the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ by the ‘optimism of the will’. ‘This will and hope will be materialized’, Bayat argues, ‘with building an "active citizenry" endowed with the "art of presence"; a citizenry that possesses the courage and creativity to assert collective will in spite of all odds by circumventing constraints, utilizing what is possible, and discovering new spaces within which to make themselves heard, seen, felt, and realized.’24


* An earlier version of this essay was published in Mojtaba Mahdavi, Sociology of Islam 2(3-4), 2014, pp. 103-110.


1. Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. (2nd ed.). Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2013; Asef Bayat, ‘Revolution and Despair’, Mada Masr, 25 January 2015. http://www.mada

2. A. Bayat, 2015, ibid.

3. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (eds. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith). International Publishers Co. New York, 1971, p. 276.

4. A. Bayat, 2015, op. cit., fn. 1.

5. Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Spring: The End of Post-colonialism. Zed Books, London/New York, 2012; Asef Bayat, Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013; Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. 2013, op. cit., fn. 1; Mojtaba Mahdavi, ‘Post-Islamist Trends in Post-Revolutionary Iran’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 31(1), 2011, pp. 94-109; Mojtaba Mahdavi, ‘Muslims and Modernities: From Islamism to Post-Islamism?’ Religious Studies and Theology 32(1), 2013, pp. 31-56.

6. Bernard Lewis, ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage: Why so Many Muslims Deeply Resent the West, and Why Their Bitterness will not be Easily Mollified’, The Atlantic Monthly 266(3), September 1990, pp. 47-58; Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1997.

7. Mojtaba Mahdavi and W. Andy Knight, Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither ‘End of History’ nor ‘Clash of Civilizations’. Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Farnham, 2012.

8. Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vs McWorld. Ballantine Books, New York, 2001.

9. Mojtaba Mahdavi and W. Andy Knight, 2012, op. cit., fn 7, xxi.

10. Ibid., xxi.

11. Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’ The National Interest 16, 1989, pp. 3-18.

12. Oxfam, Annual Income of 100 Richest People Enough to End Global Poverty’, 19 January 2013. <http://www.afriquejet. com/20130119220/Oxfam-Annual-income-of-100-richest-people-enough-to-end-global-poverty.html>?

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2014. features/capital-in-the-twenty-first-century-introduction.html

17. Pankaj Mishra, ‘Welcome to the End of the End of History’, Bloomberg. 31 December 2013. <>

18. Walter Mingolo, ‘Epistemic Disobedience and the Colonial Option: A Manifesto’, Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1(2), 2011, pp. 44-66.

19. Mojtaba Mahdavi, 2013, op. cit., fn. 5.

20. Siba N. Grovogui, ‘Postcolonialism’, in Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki and Steve Smith (eds.), International Relations Theories: Disciplines and Diversity (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. 2013, p. 263.

21. A. Bayat, 2015, op. cit., fn. 2.

22. 2. A. Bayat, 2015, ibid.

23. Hamid Dabashi, ‘Revolutions Without Borders’, Al-Araby, 6 April 2015.

24. A. Bayat, 2015, op. cit., fn. 2.