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Explaining the Arab uprisings

More than a quarter-million people flooded into Tahrir Square in Cairo on Feb. 1, 2011, filling the city’s main square in by far the largest demonstration in a week of unceasing demands for Hosni Mubarak to step down as president after nearly 30 years in power. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP)
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The delirious early days of the Arab uprisings seem like a distant memory today. The failed promise of the Egyptian revolution, Libya’s utter collapse, the savage sectarian repression of Bahrain’s demonstrations, and above all Syria’s horrors have long since diverted attention from the possibility of meaningful change through popular mobilization. It has become fashionable to dismiss the significance of those uprisings altogether, given how badly most have turned out.

Minimizing the importance of what happened in the first few months of 2011 would be a mistake, however. Even if the autocrats managed to regain control (for now), the uprisings were in fact a remarkable, unique moment in not just Arab but global political history. A new wave of political science is now digging deep into that remarkable moment, even as its history threatens to be swept away by the new demands of chaos, war and autocratic restoration. I am delighted to highlight two new publications: My edited book “The Arab Uprisings Explained” and “Explaining the Unexpected,” a symposium in the American Political Science Association journal Perspectives on Politics (which Cambridge University Press has kindly un-gated) debating whether and why political scientists failed to predict the uprisings.

The Arab Uprisings Explained” is the product of 20 leading scholars in the field, based on a number of workshops convened by the Project on Middle East Political Science. It includes broad theoretical discussions of democratic transition theory (Daniel Brumberg); diffusion and demonstration effects (David Patel, Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik); authoritarian regime adaptation (Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders); regional politics (Curtis Ryan); political economy and finance (Clement Henry); militaries (Robert Springborg); political geography and urban protests (Jillian Schwedler and Ryan King); labor movements (Vickie Langohr); Islamist movements (Quinn Mecham); elections (Ellen Lust); the media (me); constitutionalism and the public sphere (Nathan Brown); and public opinion survey data analysis (Mark Tessler, Michael Robbins, Michael Hoffmann and Amaney Jamal).

The book focuses on the outbreak of the uprisings, not on their outcomes. Few of the authors expected an easy translation of popular uprisings into institutionalized democratic politics. But neither democratic outcomes nor regime overthrow are necessary for the Arab uprisings to be seen as an extraordinary political event commanding the attention of political scientists. The moment of mobilization was extraordinary on its own terms. What made this moment distinctive was not the presence of protest – by 2011, nobody in Egypt was surprised by public demonstrations or by disaffection with then-President Hosni Mubarak – but the speed, magnitude and composition of simultaneous mobilization across multiple countries.

The theoretical framework of “The Arab Uprisings Explained” revolves around this contingency, speed and intense interaction across both domestic cleavages and national borders. The first half of 2011 involved that distinctive type of moment when normal politics and attitudes are overtaken by the rush of revolutionary events, such as the uprisings in the Ukraine and the post-Soviet states vividly described by Mark Beissinger or in Charles Kurzman’s study of the Iranian revolution. The book’s chapters illustrate how a wide array of political actors, institutions and social forces – from militaries and political parties to Islamist movements and labor organizations – struggled to operate strategically within this fluid, chaotic environment.

The book’s chapters also show how and why that moment of enthusiasm inevitably gave way to the return of a more normal type of hard-knuckled, grinding politics. Regimes that survived the initial onslaught quickly adapted and learned how to push back against mobilized publics. Those adaptive strategies have only become more central to the region’s politics over the past year – and have a transnational character of their own, as Gulf regimes actively worked to shore up allied regimes and to crack down on challengers of all description.

The highly integrated transnational public and the outbreak of protest in very different contexts and systems is one of the most intriguing aspects of the uprisings. That pushes against comparative explanations rooted in local or national characteristics. Neither monarchies nor the Gulf were exempt from popular mobilization, as could be seen in Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and even Oman. The interactions between protest movements in places as far apart as Yemen and Tunisia, including the sharing of protest slogans and modes, are difficult to miss. But, as the chapter by Patel, Bunce and Wolchik (as well as this Monkey Cage article by Merouan Mekouar) argue, that is only the start of a theoretical account of diffusion and demonstration effects.

The short-lived region-wide moment of enthusiasm never meant that national institutions and political structures didn’t matter, however. Most of the book’s chapters show in detail how the regional uprising was refracted through national political systems: Different civil-military relations, different political party structures, different Islamist movements, different labor organizations, different political attitudes, different leadership models. A decade of comparative study of Arab authoritarianism proved instructive for explaining the variation in regime resilience in the face of popular challenge.

Even if “The Arab Uprisings Explained” (hopefully) offers a compelling analysis and description of that moment of mobilization, however, what does that mean if the field failed to predict the uprisings in the first place? That is the subject of the symposium in the new issue of Perspectives on Politics. Marc Howard and Meir Walters, in their framing essay, take the field to task for spending the previous decade focused on the resilience of authoritarianism and “marginaliz[ing] questions relevant to the dynamics of popular mobilization.” The supposed failure of political scientists to anticipate the 2011 Arab uprisings has become something of a truism since the influential July 2011 argument to that effect by Gregory Gause in Foreign Affairs.

Those critiques are difficult to sustain, however. Issues of popular mobilization, civil society, local politics, Islamism and new media have been a major part of the field, alongside the important (and productive) literature on comparative authoritarianism. Few graduate students in the subfield could have avoided Lisa Wedeen’s interpretive studies of political symbolism in Syria and local public spheres in Yemen; Asef Bayat’s work on “non-movements” and street politics; Nathan Brown, Carrie Rosefsky Wickham and Jillian Schwedler’s work on Islamist political parties; Diane Singerman’s political ethnography of Egyptian neighborhoods; and (for that matter) my own work on Arab media. As Ellen Lust points out, “87 scholars from the US, Europe, and Middle East — many tenured at leading institutions — produced the work that Howard and Walters cite, in the two sentences they accord it.”

I argue that while the timing and impact of the Arab uprisings did catch most of the field by surprise, it’s important to specify the nature of that surprise. It would be wrong to claim that the field failed to notice popular mobilization. Few scholars studying Egypt in the 2000s could have been (or were) oblivious to the outbreak of protests, strikes and defiance across the political spectrum. Instead, they overestimated the ability of regimes to withstand the pressure (an outgrowth of the resilience literature, which, as Eva Bellin suggests, seems at least in part vindicated by the fierce autocratic restoration of the last two years). And why did they make this mistake? Perhaps because after spending much of the 1990s and early 2000s writing about nonexistent democratic transitions and civil society, as Lisa Anderson ruthlessly pointed out in a 2006 review essay, they “learned” precisely the sort of lesson which the “Explaining the Unexpected” of its day would have advised.

Overall, then, I think the response to the Arab uprisings of 2011 suggests that the subfield is actually healthier than it has ever been. Hundreds of timely, informed analytical articles by academics for sites such as the Monkey Cage and the Middle East Channel (some collected here) have given the field a new degree of real and constructive impact on public understanding. A decade from now, when the scholars struggling with the next unanticipated crisis look for perspective, they may well take the methodologically diverse, empirically grounded, analytically rigorous and publicly engaged performance of the Middle East political science subfield as a model rather than as a cautionary tale.