Iran: Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran

By Bahgat, Gawdat | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Iran: Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran


Bahgat, Gawdat, The Middle East Journal


Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran, by Asef Bayat. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. xxiii + 165 pages. Notes to p. 200. Bibl. to p. 216. Gloss. to p. 220. Index to p. 232. $47.50 cloth; $17.50 paper.

Reviewed by Gawdat Bahgat

This is an important book that seeks to shed light on one of the most significant developments in the Middle East-the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Instead of taking the more familiar route of examining the traditional and well-recognized leftist, liberal, Islamist, and monarchical forces, Bayat focuses on the ordinary people, or what he calls the "disenfranchised." The term refers to the "squatters, street subsistent workers, the unemployed, and members of the underworld" (p. xii).

The methodology is a significant strength of this study. The author uses his personal experience in Iran, interviews he conducted there, and numerous documents and newspapers to support the main argument in the book. Throughout the discussion, Bayat attempts to prove that these ordinary men and women had made an important contribution to the socioeconomic and political changes that swept Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By providing a detailed analysis of their efforts to survive, Bayat challenges the conventional wisdom concerning the passivity of the poor. An essential thesis of this study is that the underclass people's movements (e.g. street politics) were not motivated by any ideological orientation (i.e., Islamist or leftist). Rather, these individuals were merely trying to support themselves and provide basic needs for their families. In the process, the argument goes, they contributed to the dramatic change from the Pahlavi regime to the Islamic Republic.

Like many books, this one is not without flaws. The analysis does not examine the efforts by the Iranian leftist political parties and movements to organize the poor. The Tudeh Party, for example, played a major role in "street politics" until 1983 when it was formally banned and its leaders arrested. …

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