Advanced Search

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors
Filter by Categories
African Cities Reader
Arts & Pedagogy
Books & Oration
Cash & Commerce
Chimurenga Books
Chimurenga Library
Chimurenga Magazine
Faith & Ideology
Healing & bodies
Indie Books
Library Book Series
Live Events
Media & Propaganda
Systems of Governance

The Quiet Encroachment of the Ordinary

Asef Bayat

A traveller to Middle Eastern cities, Tehran, Cairo or Rabat cannot help observing the peculiar ways in which poor children stroll in the streets to sell their products, women occupying public spaces of the sidewalk to market vegetables or fruits, and thousands of men having turned public thoroughfares into brisk and busy bazaars. The traveller cannot escape noticing gangs of informal car parkers who control the main streets, turning them into their own private gains with, at times, elaborate organization and division of labour. Often pavements are filled with private business sites, stalls, kiosks or simply street restaurants. Perhaps the more dramatic are the sites of public lands invaded by squatters, or those wherein illegal constructions are erected on legal lands. Between twenty to fifty percent of city spaces, or city escapes, are taken over and “developed” in such a manner. Admittedly, this movement is not limited to Middle Eastern cities. One finds similar patterns from Rio de Janeiro to Jakarta. How do we explain this appropriation of public space for private gain? As scholars have already noted, this has a lot to do with the way in which the poor people work in developing countries. It has to do with the life exigencies of the urban disenfranchised in the global South, especially when confronted by the structures of economic and political forces in their societies. It has to do with the “low politics” of the poor.

cairoSome have viewed this as poor people’s “survival strategies,” or “urban social movements,” or lower class “resistance.” Here, I would like to assess the issue from a different angle, in terms of the quiet encroachment of the ordinary. The notion of “quiet encroachment” describes the silent, protracted but pervasive advancement of the ordinary people on the propertied and powerful in order to survive and improve their lives. They are marked by quiet, largely atomised and prolonged mobilization with episodic collective action – open and fleeting struggles without clear leadership, ideology or structured organisation. While the quiet encroachment cannot be considered a social movement as such, it is also distinct from survival strategies or “everyday resistance” in that, first, the struggles and gains of the agents are not at the cost of fellow poor or themselves, but of the state, the rich and the powerful. Thus, in order to light their shelter, the urban poor tap electricity not from their neighbours, but from the municipal power poles; or to raise their living standard, they would not prevent their children from attending school in order to work, but rather squeeze the timing of their formal job, in order to carry on their secondary work in the informal sector.

In addition, these struggles are seen not necessarily as defensive merely in the realm of resistance, but cumulatively encroaching, meaning that the actors tend to expand their space by winning new positions to move on. This quiet and gradual grassroots activism tends to contest many fundamental aspects of the state prerogatives, including the meaning of order, control of public space, of public and private goods, and the relevance of modernity.

I am referring to the lifelong struggles of the floating social clusters – the migrants, refugees, unemployed, under-employed, squatters, street vendors, street children and other marginalised groups, whose growth has been accelerated by the process of economic globalisation. I have in mind the long processes in which millions of men and women embark on long migratory journeys, scattering in remote and often alien environs, acquiring work, shelter, land and living amenities. The rural migrants encroach on the cities and their collective consumption, the refugees and international migrants on host states and their provisions, the squatters on public and private lands or ready-made homes, and the unemployed, as street subsistent workers, on the pubic space and business opportunity created by shopkeepers. And all of them tend to challenge the notions of order, the modern city and urban governance espoused by the Third World political elites.

The concrete forms of encroachments vary considerably. Post-revolutionary Iran saw an unprecedented colonisation, mostly by the poor, of public and private urban land, apartments, hotels, street sidewalks and public utilities. Between 1980 and 1992, despite the government’s opposition, the land area of Tehran expanded from 200 square kilometres to 600; and well over a hundred mostly informal communities were created in and around Greater Tehran. The actors of the massive informal economy extended beyond the typical marginal poor to include the new “lumpen middle class,” the educated salaryearners whose public sector position rapidly declined during the 1980s. In a more dramatic case, millions of rural migrants, the urban poor and the middle-class poor have quietly claimed cemeteries, rooftops and state/public lands on the outskirts of Cairo, creating well over a hundred spontaneous communities which house over five million people. Once settled, encroachments still continue in many directions. Against formal terms and conditions, the residents then add rooms, balconies and extra space in and on buildings. Those who have formally been given housing in public projects built by the state illegally redesign and rearrange their space to suit their needs, by erecting partitions and by adding and inventing new space. Often whole communities emerge as a result of intense, daily struggles and negotiations between the poor and the authorities and elites.

The encroachers force the authorities to extend urban services to their neighbourhoods by otherwise tapping them illegally and using them free of charge. Once utilities are installed many simply refuse to pay for their use. Some forty percent of poor residents of Hayy al-Saloum, a south Beirut informal community, refuse to pay their electricity bills. The cost of unpaid water charge in the Egyptian city of Alexandria amounts to $3 million a year. Similar stories are reported in urban Chile and South Africa where the poor have periodically refused to pay for urban public services after struggling to acquire them, often against the authorities’ will. Hundreds of thousands of street vendors in Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran have occupied the streets in the main commercial centres, infringing on favourable business opportunities the shopkeepers have generated. Thousands of inhabitants in these cities subsist on tips from parking cars in streets which they control and organise in such elaborate ways as to create maximum parking space. Finally, as in many Third World cities such as those in South Korea, the encroachment of the street vendors on copyrights of labels and trademarks has caused invariable protests from the multinational companies.

As the state employees and professionals, the previously privileged segments of the workforce, feel the crunch of neoliberal policies, they too resort to their own repertoires of quiet encroachment. To compensate for the meagre $40 monthly salary, the school teachers in Egypt turn to private paid tutoring of their own pupils. By doingso, they have created a massive sector of illegal private teaching which generates some $2 billion a year, costing at least 25 percent of the annual earning of Egyptian families. Similarly, the street lawyers or “unregistered practitioners,” who do not hold law degrees, but have acquired some legal knowledge by working as employees in law offices, encroach on the legal profession. They then share their legal experience with the new law graduates (who cannot afford high cost of establishing law offices) to offer competitive services.

These actors do not carry out their activities as a deliberate political act; rather, they are driven by the force of necessity – the necessity to survive and improve their lives.

Necessity is the notion that justifies their often unlawful acts as moral and even “natural” ways to maintain a life with dignity. Yet, these very simple and seemingly mundane practices tend to shift them into the realm of contentious politics. The contenders get engaged in collective action and see their actions and themselves as political only when they are confronted by those who threaten their gains. Hence a key attribute of the quiet encroachment is that while advances are made quietly, individually and gradually, the defence of their gains are often, although not always, collective and audible.

Driven by the force of necessity (effects of economic restructuring, agricultural failure, physical hardship, war and displacement) they set out their ventures individually, often organised around kinship and friendship ties, and without much clamour. They even deliberately avoid collective effort, large scale operation, commotion and publicity. At times the squatters, for instance, prevent others from joining them in specific areas; and vendors discourage their counterparts to settle in the same vicinity. Many even hesitate to share information about their strategies of acquiring urban services with similar groups. Yet as these seemingly desperate individuals and families pursue similar paths, their sheer cumulative scores eventually turn them into a social force.

But why individual, quiet and direct action, instead of collective demand-making?  Unlike the factory workers, students or professionals, these people represent groups in flux, operating largely outside institutional mechanisms through which they could express grievance and enforce demands. They lack an organisational power of disruption – the possibility of going on strike, for example. They may participate in street demonstrations or riots as part of an expression of popular discontent, but only when these methods enjoy a reasonable currency and legitimacy (as in Iran immediately after the revolution, Beirut during the civil war, or after the fall of

Suharto in Indonesia in 1998), and when they are mobilised by outside leaders. Thus, urban land takeovers may be led by left-wing activists; and the unemployed and street vendors may be invited to form unions (as in Iran after the revolution, in Lima or in India). This, however, is uncommon, since more often than not mobilisation for collective demand-making is prevented by political repression in many developing countries where these struggles often take place. Consequently, in place of protest or publicity, these groups move directly to fulfil their needs by themselves, albeit individually and discretely. In short, theirs is not a politics of protest, but of redress – a struggle for an immediate outcome through individual direct action.

What do these men and women aim for? They seem to pursue two major goals. The first is the redistribution of social goods and opportunities in the form of the (unlawful and direct) acquisition of collective consumption (land, shelter, piped water, electricity, roads), public space (street pavements, intersections, street parking places), opportunities (favourable business conditions, locations, labels, licenses), and other life chances essential for survival and acceptable standards.

The other goal is attaining autonomy, both cultural and political, from the regulations, institutions and discipline imposed by the state and modern institutions. In a quest for an informal life, the marginals tend to function as much as possible outside the boundaries of the state and modern bureaucratic institutions, basing their relationships on reciprocity, trust and negotiation rather than on the modern notions of individual selfinterest, fixed rules and contracts. They may opt for jobs in self-employed activities rather than working under the authority of the modern workplace; resort to informal dispute resolution rather than reporting to police; get married through local informal procedures (in the Muslim Middle East under local Sheikhs) rather than by governmental offices; borrow money from informal credit associations rather than banks. This is so not because these people are essentially non- or anti-modern, but because the conditions of their existence compel them to seek a mode of life outside modernity. Modernity is a costly existence; not everyone can afford to be modern. It requires the capacity to conform to the types of behaviour and lifestyles (adherence to strict structures of time, space, contract and so on) which most vulnerable people simply cannot afford.

But how far can the urban subaltern exercise this autonomy? Not only do the poor seek autonomy, they also need security from state surveillance because an informal life in the conditions of modernity is also an insecure life. Street vendors may feel free from the discipline of modern working institutions, but they suffer from police harassment for lacking business permits. The struggle of the poor to consolidate their communities, attain schools, clinics or sewerage would inevitably integrate them into the prevailing systems of power (i.e., the state and modern bureaucratic institutions) which they wish to avoid. In their quest for security, the urban marginal are therefore in constant negotiation and vacillation between autonomy and integration. Yet, they continue to pursue autonomy in any possible space available within the integrating structures and processes.

Becoming Political

cairo3If the encroachment begins with little political meaning attached to it, if illegal acts are often justified on moral grounds, then how does it turn into a collective political struggle? So long as the actors carry on without being confronted seriously by any authority, they are likely to treat their advance as an ordinary, everyday exercise. However, once their gains are threatened, they tend to become conscious of the value of their doings and gains, defending them often in collective and audible fashion, as shown by the mobilisation of squatters in Tehran in 1976, of street vendors in the 1980s, and the street riots of squatters in several cities in the early 1990s.

Alternatively, the actors may retain their gains through quiet non-compliance without necessarily engaging in resistance. Instead of collectively standing by their businesses, the mobile street vendors in Cairo or Istanbul simply retreat into the back streets once the municipal police arrive, but immediately resume their work as soon as the police are gone. At any rate, the struggles against the authorities are not about winning a gain, but primarily about defending and furthering gains already won.

The states’ position vis-à-vis this type of activism is affected, first, by the extent of their capacity to exercise surveillance, and, second, by the dual nature of the quiet encroachment (infringing on property, power and privilege, and, simultaneously, being a self-help activity). Third World states seem to be more tolerant of quiet encroachment than industrialised countries where similar activities, albeit very limited, also take place. The industrial states are far better equipped with ideological, technological and institutional apparatuses for applying surveillance over their populations. In other words, people have more room for autonomy under the vulnerable and “soft” states of the South than in industrialised countries, where tax evasion, infringement on private property and encroachment on the state domains are considered serious offences. On the other hand, quiet encroachment may in many ways benefit the Third World governments for it is a mechanism through which the poor come to help themselves. It is no surprise then that these governments often express contradictory reactions toward these kinds of activities. The soft states, especially at times of crises, tend in practice to allow the encroachments when the latter still appear limited. For their part, the encroachers attempt constantly to appear limited and tolerable while, in fact, expanding. They do so by resorting to tactical retreats, going invisible, bribing the officials, or concentrating on particular and less strategic spaces (for instance, squatting in remote areas or vending in less visible locations).

However, once their real expansion and impact is revealed or when the cumulative growth of the actors and their doings pass beyond a tolerable point, the state crackdown becomes expectable. Yet in most cases, the regulations fail to yield much result, since they are launched usually too late when the encroachers have passed the point of no return. Indeed, the official descriptions of these processes as “cancerous” brings home the dynamics of such movements.

The sources of conflict between the actors and the state are not difficult to determine. First, the distribution of public goods free-of-charge exerts heavy pressure on the resources which the state controls. Besides, the rich – the real-estate owners, merchants and shopkeepers – also lose properties, brands and business opportunities. The alliance of the state and the propertied groups adds a class dimension to the conflict. Secondly, the quest for autonomy in everyday life creates a serious void in the domination of the modern state. Autonomous life renders the modern states, in particular the populist versions, rather irrelevant. Moreover, autonomy and informality (of agents, activities, and spaces) deprive the states of the necessary knowledge to exert surveillance. Unregulated jobs, unregistered peoples and places, nameless streets and alleyways, and policeless neighbourhoods mean that these entities remain hidden from the governments’ books. To be able to control, the state needs to make them transparent. Indeed, government programs of squatter upgrading may be seen as strategies of opening up the unknown in order to be able to control it.

Nowhere is this conflict more evident than the streets, this public space par excellence. The streets serve as the only locus of collective expression for, but by no means limited to, those who generally lack an institutional setting to express discontent, such as squatters, the unemployed, the street subsistence workers, street children, members of the underworld and housewives. Whereas factory workers or college students, for instance, may cause disruption by going on strikes, the unemployed or street vendors can voice grievances only in the public spaces, the streets. Indeed for many of these disenfranchised, the streets are the main, perhaps the only, place where they can perform their daily functions – to assemble, make friends, earn a living, spend their leisure time and express discontent. Streets are also the public places where the state has the most evident presence, which is expressed in police patrol, traffic regulations and spatial divisions – in short, public ordering. The power relationship between the encroachers and the authorities is what I have termed “street politics.”

Two key factors render the streets an arena of politics. First is the use of public space as a site of contestation between the actors and the authorities. In this sense, what makes the streets a political site is the active or participative (as opposed to passive) use of public space. This is so because these sites (sidewalks, public parks, intersections, etc.) are increasingly becoming the domain of the state power which regulates their use, making them “orderly.” It expects the users to operate them passively. An active use challenges the authority of the state and those social groups that benefit from such order.

The second element shaping street politics is the operation of a passive network among the people who use and operate in the public space – an instantaneous communication among atomised individuals which is established by a tacit recognition of their common identity, and which is mediated through space. Vendors of a street are most likely to recognise one another even if they never meet or talk. Now when a threat occurs to the vendors in the street, they are likely to get together even if they do not know each other or have not planned to do so in advance. The significance of this concept lies in the possibility of imagining the mobilisation of atomized individuals, such as the quiet encroachers, who are largely deprived of organisations and deliberate networking. The street as a public space has this intrinsic feature that makes it possible for people to get mobilized through establishing passive networks. Once the individual actors, the encroachers, are confronted by a threat, their passive network is likely to turn into active communication and cooperation. Thus an eviction threat or police raid may immediately bring together squatters, or street vendors, who even did not know one another. Of course, the shift from passive network to collective resistance is never a given. Actors might feel that tactical retreat would yield far better results than confrontation, a tendency so common in Cairo’s streets today, but uncommon in revolutionary Iran where on-the-spot collective resistance prevailed.


A major consequence of the new global restructuring has been a double process of integration, on the one hand, and social exclusion and informalisation, on the other.

Both processes tend to generate discontent on the part of many urban grassroots in the Third World.

First, there are many among the urban grassroots who find it difficult to function, live and work, within the modernising economic and cultural systems characterised by market discipline, contract, exchange value, speed and bureaucracy, including the state organisations. These people attempt to exit from such social and economic arrangements, seeking alternative and more familiar, or informal, institutions and relations. Secondly, globalisation has also a tendency to informalise through the programs of structural adjustment, rendering many people unemployed or pushing them to seek refuge in the informal production, trade, housing and transportation.

Transnational street vendors (circulating, for instance, between the new Central Asian

Republics and Istanbul, or between Jamaica and Miami) are the latest product of this age. In short, the new global restructuring tends to intensify the growth of subjectivities, social space and the terrain of political struggles that are coming to characterise the cities of the developing world.

Although the prevailing perspectives (survival strategy, urban social movements and everyday resistance) provide useful angles to view the activism of the urban subaltern, they do, however, suffer from major drawbacks. The latter are reflected in the essentialism of the “passive poor,” the reductionism of “surviving poor,” the Latino-centrism of “political poor” and the conceptual perplexity of “resistance literature.” I suggest that the “quiet encroachment” perspective might offer a way out of those conceptual problems. Looking from this vantage point, the poor struggle not only for survival, but strive in a lifelong process to improve their lot through often individualistic and quiet encroachment on public goods and on the power and property of the elite groups. In this process, the grassroots do not directly challenge the effects of globalisation. Rather, in their quest for security, they get involved in constant negotiations with globalisation to maintain or seek autonomy in any space that has remained unaffected. At the same time, in this process the unintended consequences of their daily encroachments and negotiations beget significant social changes in urban structure and processes, in demography and in public policy. Yet the question remains as to how far this quiet encroachment can take these actors? Given their existential constraints (poor skill and education, or meagre income, connection and organisation) the quiet encroachment serves as a viable enabling strategy for the marginalised groups to survive and better their lot. However, this non-movement is neither able to cause broader political transformation, nor does it aim to do so. The larger national movements have the capacity for such transformation. Yet, compared to global/national mobilisation, these localised struggles are both meaningful and manageable for the actors—meaningful in that they can make sense of the purpose and have an idea about the   consequences of these actions; and manageable in that they, rather than some remote national leaders, set the agenda, project the aims and control the outcome. In this sense for the poor, the local is privileged over the global or national.

It is true that the disenfranchised succeed relatively in extending their lifechances, often through lifetime struggles; nevertheless, crucial social spaces remain out of their control. The marginals may be able to take over a plot of land to build shelters, may tap running water or electricity illegally from the main street or neighbours; they may secure a job on the street corner by selling things and may be able to bribe or dodge the municipal police every now and then. But how can they get schools, health services, public parks, paved roads and security – the social goods which are tied to larger structures and processes, the national states and global economy? In other words, the largely atomistic and idealist strategies of the disenfranchised, despite their own advantages, leave a search for social justice in the broader, national sense poorly served.

The urban grassroots are unlikely to become a more effective player in a larger sense unless they become mobilised on a collective basis, and their struggles are linked to broader social movements and civil society organisations. Yet, it is crucial to remember that until this is realised and its result is tested, quiet  ncroachment remains a most viable enabling strategy, which the urban grassroots pursue irrespective of what social scientists think of it.

Share this post:

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial