Revolutionary Life delves into an often overlooked aspect of the 2011 "Arab Spring" revolts: their everyday participants. Prevailing scholarship, especially concerning Egypt and Tunisia, tends to omit the masses, opting instead to focus on the structures and individuals at the top. Bayat, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, argues that to understand the outcomes of the Arab revolts, one must first understand their grassroots. With this, his book pioneers an important topic.
The 2011 uprisings are widely perceived as a failure because real reform has hardly materialized in institutions, leadership, and policies. But Bayat describes how at the micro level—in families, schools, farms, art scenes, and popular media—change has, in fact, occurred. The spirit of the revolts led to the questioning of well-ingrained norms and to challenges to social hierarchies. Bayat observes that while this progress may not be initially obvious, it is, nonetheless, substantial.
For example, change took root in women's lives. Despite an initial rise in violence and sexual harassment following the deposition of Mubarak, Egyptian women found their voices and the will to fight for their rights. Collectives sprang up everywhere, from Aswat Nissat, empowering women to enter politics, to Sitta al-Heita's urban mural project, which confronts ideas of female domesticity. Divorce, removing the hijab, solo travel, involvement in government, activism, career choices, and a willingness to speak out against patriarchy were just some of the "bottom-up feminist" changes that Arab women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, experienced.
Studying the non-elite helps understand why 2011-like events might happen again. The chapter on youth participation in the Arab revolutions is especially compelling. Here, Bayat distinguishes between "youth in politics" and "youth politics." The former is how this group is traditionally depicted in analytical works: as tangential. The latter sees it as a vector of change, equipped with the right balance of independence and ideological flexibility to push revolutionary movements to fruition. Throughout the book, Bayat expands on the portmanteau "refolutions"—reform revolutions—in which movements pressure incumbent powers to reform themselves. These, he finds, result in little change at the state level but in much impact at lower levels.
By diving deeper into overlooked and marginal groups, Bayat reveals the dynamics of ordinary people disregarding individual ideals and participating in something exceptional. Revolutionary Life is a study of the ordinary that is anything but.