"The quiet encroachment of the ordinary": how pursuing a decent life becomes politics in the Middle East


Following on from Maria Dorthea Skov’s interest in life politics last week (here and here) - people’s empowerment via the leisure and community practices of their everyday life - here’s a fascinating perspective on “Life As Politics” (official book site, free PDF) in the Middle East.

In 2013, Asef Bayat wrote below on what he means by a “non-movement”:

[In this book] I focus on the diverse ways in which the ordinary people, the subaltern—the urban dispossessed, Muslim women, the globalizing youth, and other urban grass roots—strive to affect the contours of change in their societies, by refusing to exit from the social and political stage controlled by authoritarian states, moral authority, and neo-liberal economies.

They discover and generate new spaces within which they can voice their dissent and assert their presence in pursuit of bettering their lives.

The vehicles through which ordinary people change their societies are not simply audible mass protests or revolutions, even though they represent an aspect of popular mobilization. Rather, people resort more widely to what I will elaborate as “nonmovements”.

These are the collective endeavours of millions of noncollective actors, carried out in the main squares, back streets, courthouses, or communities. This book, then, is about the “art of presence,” the story of agency in times of constraints. 

…What are the “social nonmovements”? In general, nonmovements refers to the collective actions of noncollective actors; they embody shared practices of large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leaderships and organizations. The term movement implies that social nonmovements enjoy significant, consequential elements of social movements; yet they constitute distinct entities.

In the Middle East, the nonmovements have come to represent the mobilization of millions of the subaltern, chiefly the urban poor, Muslim women, and youth. The nonmovement of the urban dispossessed, which I have termed the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary,” encapsulates the discreet and prolonged ways in which the poor struggle to survive and to better their lives by quietly impinging on the propertied and powerful, and on society at large.

It embodies the protracted mobilization of millions of detached and dispersed individuals and families who strive to enhance their lives in a lifelong collective effort that bears few elements of pivotal leadership, ideology, or structured organization. More specifically, I am referring to the mass movement of rural migrants who, in a quest for a better life-chance, embark on a steady and strenuous campaign that involves unlawful acquisition of lands and shelters, followed by such urban amenities as electricity, running water, phone lines, paved roads, and the like.


To secure paid work, these migrants take over street sidewalks and other desirable public spaces to spread their vending businesses, infringing on and appropriating popular labels to promote their merchandise. Scores of people subsist on turning the public streets into parking spaces for private gains, or use sidewalks as sites for outdoor workshops and other businesses.

These masses of largely atomized individuals, by such practices of everyday encroachments, have virtually transformed the large cities of the Middle East and by extension many developing countries, generating a substantial outdoor economy, new communities, and arenas of self-development in the urban landscapes; they inscribe their active presence in the configuration and governance of urban life, asserting their “right to city.”

This kind of spread-out and encroachment reflects in some way the non-movements of the international illegal migrants. There exist now a massive border check, barriers, fences, walls, and police patrol. And yet they keep flooding—through the air, sea, road, hidden in back of trucks, trains, or sim- ply on foot. They spread, expand, and grow in the cities of the global North; they settle, find jobs, acquire homes, form families, and struggle to get legal protection. They build communities, church or mosque groups, cultural col- lectives, and visibly flood the public spaces.

As they feel safe and secure, they assert their physical, social and cultural presence in the host societies. Indeed, the anxiety that these both national and international migrants have caused among the elites are remarkably similar. Cairo elite lament about the ‘invasion of fallahin’ (peasants) from the dispersed Upper Egyptian countryside, and Istanbul elite warn of the encroachment of the ‘black Turks,’ meaning poor rural migrants from Anatolia, who, they say, have altogether ruralized and transformed the social configuration of “our modern cities.”

In a strikingly similar tone, white European elites express profound anxiety about the ‘invasion of foreigners’—Africans, Asians, and in particular Muslims—who they see as having overwhelmed Europe’s social habitat, distorting the European way of life by their physical presence and cultural modes—their hijab, mosques and minarets.

Truth is, rhetoric notwithstanding, the encroachment is real and is likely to continue. The struggles of such migrant poor in the Middle East or those of the international migrants constitute neither an organized and self-conscious social movement nor a coping mechanism, since people’s survival is not at the cost of themselves but of other groups or classes. These practices also move beyond simple acts of everyday resistance, for they engage in surreptitious and incremental encroachments to further their claims. Rather, they exemplify a poor people’s nonmovement.

It is often claimed that radical Islamism in the Middle East voices the interests of the poor as the victim of the urban ecology of overcrowded slums, where poverty, anomie, and lawlessness nurture extremism and violence, of which militant Islamism is a variant. But this view finds less plausibility when it is tested against the general reluctance of the urban poor to lend ideological support to this or that political movement.

A pragmatic politics of the poor, one that ensures tackling concrete and immediate concerns, means that political Islam plays little part in the habitus of the urban disenfranchised.

The underlying politics of the poor is expressed not in political Islam, but in a poor people’s “nonmovement”—the type of fluid, flexible, and self-producing strategy that is adopted not only by the urban poor, but also by other subaltern groups, including middle-class women.

Asef’s book was published just before the Arab Spring, and was seen as prophetic of the events there. Writing in 2018, he suggests that this “life as politics” is still being pursued, and constitutes a reservoir of energy for future change in places like Iran. See this from the Atlantic:

These days, it is Iran’s disparate masses, even more than organized labor, that are confronting the authorities on an everyday basis. Since March 2016, some 1,700 social protests have been reported, according to the Association of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution, a conservative body close to the ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Cities brace for daily battles between the encroaching street vendors and the police; taxi-cyclists lacking permits defiantly carry passengers and goods around town; retirees protest over pensions, creditors over lost savings, farmers over hardships with crops and land, as the public decries chronic pollution and water shortages.

As the government casts its restrictive net over informal and “quiet encroachments”—such as building homes without a permit, dodging water and energy bills, or street trading—the poor bring their collective outrage into the streets. Such protests, in part, embody the collective reaction of the lower classes against what they cannot achieve through their quiet encroachments.

More from Asef’s academic site. This everyday politics reminds us of Tamer Ashry’s Photocopy, a feature film shown at the Egyptian embassy a few months ago

A closing thought. How might such “quiet encroachments” be conducted by localists within the UK?