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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 3: Social Movements, Activism and Social Development in the Middle East

5 Apr 2001

  • Author(s): Asef Bayat


To what extent is "pressure from below" requisite for meaningful policy change and institutional reform conducive to social development, and for people's livelihoods and rights, in the Middle East? What forms of activism are gaining prominence in the region? These are questions the author attempts to answer in this Programme Paper.

Prior to political-economic restructuring in the 1980s, the Middle East was largely dominated by nationalist populist states or pro-western rentier states. They pursued state-led economic development strategies and stifled political participation and the development of civil society organizations. Controlled mobilization prevailed.

In the 1980s, liberalization and marketization in the Middle East brought about important
socioeconomic changes. The free market economy enriched society's upper strata and increased income disparity. State provisions were undermined and the poor made to rely mainly on themselves for survival. At the same time, the globalized notions of human rights placed economic rights and citizen participation on the agenda, opening up new areas for social mobilization.

Growing economic informalization and urbanization in the Middle East shifted needs and demands. Struggles for wages, for example, lost ground to broader concerns about jobs, work conditions, health care, education and transportation. Thus emerged a form of grassroots activism that is characterized less by demand-making movements than direct action, individual, informal or institutional. Through direct action, grassroots groups made themselves heard; created realities that authorities had to come to terms with, adjusting their policies accordingly.

The Programme Paper shows how "pressure from below" in the Middle East experience is highly relevant to social development. It concludes that given the gradual retreat of states from their traditional social responsibilities, the poor in the Middle East would be worse off had grassroots action not existed.

Asef Bayat is Associate Professor of Political Sociology at The American University, Cairo, Egypt.

Order PP CSSM 3 from UNRISD ($5 for readers in the North; $2.50 for readers in the South).