By : Jack A. Goldstone and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)

Building from the previous installments of John Chalcraft and Asef Bayat, we are excited to announce the third of an ongoing series of Essential Readings on the Arab Uprisings and revolution, ahead of the eighth anniversary of their launching in Tunisia in December 2010. 

The Arab world reeled from revolutions during the 1950s and 1960s.  These decades included the Egyptian Nationalist Revolution of 1952 led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, the September 1 Revolution in Libya led by Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the 14 July Revolution in Iraq that overthrew the Hashemite monarchy, and the Algerian Revolution of 1954-1962 against French colonial rule.  These decades also saw numerous revolutionary coup d’etats in Iraq, Syria, and other Arab nations, as well as the defeat of the Parliamentary regime of Mohammed Mossadegh by the Shah of Iran.

In the 1970s, however, Middle Eastern regimes appeared to settle down for a long and stable period of authoritarian rule.  This was interrupted by the Islamic Republican Revolution against the Shah of Iran in 1979.  Yet otherwise the remaining monarchies and the new military authoritarian regimes throughout the region seemed to hold firm all the way through the end of the twentieth century.

Behind this stability, however, there remained two revolutionary impulses.  One stemmed from the tradition of western constitutional revolutions and the Arab socialist revolutions of the 1950s; this was for secular democratic regimes that would end corruption and deliver the benefits of modern economic growth to the masses.  The second stemmed from the radical Islamist writings of Sayyid Qutb, who condemned Western materialism and advocated the rebirth of Arab societies that would be governed by Islamic principles.  Qutb’s followers branched out in two main directions: some followed the Muslim Brotherhood, which organized political parties and social welfare societies in several Arab countries; others followed more violent Jihadists and joined Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other extremist groups in guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

In the early 2000s, both of these revolutionary impulses gained strength and began to break out across the Middle East.  In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces in 2003 created a power vacuum in which Al-Qaeda in Iraq took root.  In Egypt and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood supported political candidates in parliamentary elections.  In 2010, a popular democratic movement broke out in Tunisia that led to a revolution in 2011; this was quickly followed later that year by similar movements in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen that overturned long-standing authoritarian regimes.  Yet in each case, Islamists of either the Muslim Brotherhood or Jihadist varieties, sometimes both, scrambled for a place in the post-revolutionary regimes.   The result was often violent counter-revolution and civil war.

The Arab uprisings were of great interest in part because they tested our understanding of revolutions.  Recent work on revolutionary struggles had suggested that non-violent social protest was more effective in achieving regime change than violent revolutions, and that non-violent protest had better chances of replacing dictatorships with democratic governments.  In fact, both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions started out self-consciously using non-violent tactics, aiming to repeat the success of the anti-communist revolutions of 1989-1991 in Eastern Europe.  In Tunisia, this was successful.  Yet elsewhere in the Middle East the conflicts with Islamists, and the international interventions by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russian, the US and Turkey – each trying to gain influence in the wider region and take sides in Sunni vs. Shi’a competition for state power – pushed popular uprisings along a trajectory from protest to conflict to counter-revolution and civil war.

Recent research on revolutions has thus grappled with why revolutions turn violent, whether such violence helps or hinders the success of revolutionary movements, and how international interventions shape revolutionary episodes.  Theoretical work on revolution and social protest has engaged deeply with the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the Arab Uprisings, as these events display the full range of types of social protest and revolutionary conflict, from peaceful and non-violent change to successful counter-revolution and to the most brutal and violent revolutionary civil wars.  While theories of social protest and revolution help us to better understand the revolutions in the modern Middle East, these events have also forced us to revise and update our theories of protest, revolution and social change.

The following readings provide the essential background to understanding these latest events. They range from general surveys of revolution to accounts of the particular events of 2011.

Jack A. Goldstone, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press)

Goldstone covers the main social science theories of why revolutions occur, paying attention to both economic factors and issues of social justice, and to long-term social forces and short-term triggering events.  Chapter 3 examines divergent revolutionary trajectories, from peaceful to violent, and from counter-revolution to civil war.  Goldstone also offers a survey of how revolutions have developed across history, with Chapters 8-10 examining, respectively, revolutions against dictatorships, color revolutions, and the Arab Uprisings of 2010-2011.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict(Columbia University Press)

This path-breaking book provided the first detailed study of how effective non-violent protests have been relative to violent revolutions in achieving regime change.  Examining conflicts from 1900 to 2006, they argue that non-violent protests have been more successful, and detail the reasons why.

Daniel Ritter, The Iron Cage of Liberalism: International Politics and Unarmed Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (Oxford University Press)

Ritter’s book provides the most incisive examination of how international relations shaped the responses of regimes to revolutionary protests, and shows how non-violent protests were enabled to succeed, or halted, in the MENA region.

Eitan Y. Alimi, Avraham Sela, and Mario Sznajder, eds. Popular Contention, Regime and Transition: Arab Revolts in Comparative Global Perspective (Oxford University Press)

This volume uses political and sociological theory to compare the Arab Revolts to other cases of revolution and non-revolution.  The many excellent essays by top scholars in this book highlight issues of legitimacy, diffusion, repression, protest dynamics, and international interventions to detail how revolutions differ in their processes and outcomes.  Even reading just two or three essays from this volume can be helpful in placing the Arab Revolts in a broader comparative framework.

Misagh Parsa, Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How it Might Succeed (Harvard University Press)

Parsa examines events in Iran from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that toppled the Shah and established the cleric-led regime up through the failed “Green Revolution” of 2009.  He discusses both why the 1979 revolution succeeded and why it has proved so durable, despite surprising election results, splits with reformers in the regime, and popular discontents.

Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (Public Affairs)

This was an early but still excellent survey of how and why the 2011 revolutions arose across the Middle East.  Written by one of the most perceptive analysts of popular opposition to the Arab autocracies, it reaches back to the sources of unrest and follows the unfolding of opposition from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt and Syria.

Jeroen Gunning and Ilan Zvi Baron, Why Occupy a Square?:  People, Protests and Movements in  the Egyptian Revolution  (Oxford University Press)

If you wish to learn how a revolution gets started and manages to confront a regime, this book is an excellent account of how the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 began.  Demolishing myths that the revolution “came out of nowhere” or was a “leaderless” or “twitter” revolution, Gunning and Baron show how labor and student protest organizations developed in the decade prior to the revolution, how network leaders mobilized their followers to occupy Tahrir Square, and how they stood for weeks against the government until Mubarak stepped down.

Steven Cook, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East

Cook offers an overview of events since the onset of the 2011 revolutions, showing why the early hopes for peaceful democratic change were frustrated, with attention to the role of the U.S. and comparisons to Turkey’s similar post-2011 trajectory from promising democracy to authoritarian regime.

Fawaz A. Gerges, ISIS: A History (Princeton University Press)

Gerges provides a history of the Islamic State, from its roots in Al Qaeda to its expansion to control large parts of Iraq and Syria in the wake of the Arab Uprisings.  ISIS may be the most radical and revolutionary actor in the current Arab world, but its extremism and violence have made it the enemy of a remarkable coalition of Western and Arab states and Iran, who have waged war against it.



[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at for any inquiries.]