Politics of the Square: Discussion with Asef Bayat

A man holds the Egyptian flag over a crowd in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution of 2011

A number of high-profile insurgent movements in the Arab world used urban public squares as the primary sites of protest, including in Tunisia (Bardo Square), Iran (Azadi Square), and perhaps most famously in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.  Sociologist Asef Bayat asks “What aspect of urbanity makes the city a space of contention?”

On the 1st of September this year, at Washington Square, a conglomeration of agitating groups at NYU, led by the NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (NYUFASP), organized a protest against the university’s plans to expand its real estate. In their choice of location, whether knowingly or not, the groups mirrored the choices of a number of insurgent movements over the world, which had in the last couple of years set up their sites of protest in urban squares. A number of these more high-profile cases have occurred in the Arab world, including in Tunisia (Bardo Square), Iran (Azadi Square), and perhaps most famously in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt (the subject of a 2013 Oscar-nominated film). The protests in these and other Arab revolutions of late have had a “distinctly urban character,” noted Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois, and the speaker at last Thursday’s event co-hosted by Urban Democracy Lab and the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU. Is there something about their urbanity that links them all (and perhaps in some way even the FASP protests) together? This was the subject of Professor Bayat’s lecture, in which he addressed the question, “What aspect of urbanity makes the city a space of contention?”

Bayat has written extensively about Arab revolutions in the past. In a 2013 article for the New Left Review, he sought to undercut the simplistic commentary of unqualified jubilation (mostly, as he notes, coming from left-wing intellectuals in the West) by addressing the various polarities and paradoxes in the movement, and by clarifying the strategies and motivations of its actors. He began Thursday’s session on a similarly tempered note, acknowledging that while a lot more attention has been paid in recent scholarship to the spatial aspects of insurgent politics, it is important not to forget either the broader political structures and concepts at play, or the specific historical conditions of an uprising.

Framework thus sharpened, Professor Bayat moved into an analysis of the urban politics of insurgency: “Modern cities generate specific needs and at the same time certain entitlements… If states are seen to be unwilling or unable to fulfill these entitlements, it generates outrage.” The interesting part of this, he noted, was that an urban setting actually created a sense of entitlement in people who may not have had it previously. “I grew up in a village that you might call backward. There was no water: my mother would have to bring water from a well… When we moved to Tehran, life changed. You could push a button and the light would come on… now whenever there was a disconnection in electricity, my mother would say, ‘What kind of government do we have…?’”

Bayat also noted the structural aspects of urban cities that brings people together in insurgencies. “The city… provides great opportunities for the formation of group identities,” he said, adding that “the city is really where young people become ‘the youth’ as a category.” As these groups and subcultures form, they are well placed to act upon the friction generated by the uneasy interactions between the public and state-owned spaces. These spaces end up simultaneously being spaces where the state attempts to maintain some form of control, and where the public attempts to exercise their sovereignty: cities become liminal, or “inside-out”, in a sense. What about those who come from outside of cities, as thousands and thousands did during the Arab Spring? For them, urban spaces, and particularly open landmarks like squares, hold a symbolic value (being close to the institutions where or against whom the contentions are being staged), not to mention they also tend to be the “locus of transportation.”

Caution crept in once again as Professor Bayat drew his lecture to a close. Although these structural aspects of urban spaces do seem to hold true, he emphasized again that insurgencies themselves were “extraordinary moments” of history, and that in part it was the character of movements themselves that allowed for effective insurgent behaviour. “Take, for example,” he said, “the fear of sexual harassment in public spaces. In Tahrir Square, this feeling disappeared for the 18 days (of the revolution).” So while it is that cities provide the space and opportunities for insurgencies to happen, it is to be noted that the insurgencies themselves are liminal periods, never fully bound by the structures of any space. “What is important,” Bayat smiled, “is to see what happens the day after the dictator steps down.”