[This Essential Readings belongs to ASI and MESPI’s year-long effort to mark, interrogate, and reflect on the Arab uprisings by producing resources for educators, researchers, students, and journalists to understand the last decade of political upheaval historically and in the lived present. To check out other publications and events from the Ten Years On project visit The Arab Uprisings Project and MESPI.
This text is an updated version of an Essential Readings contribution from Jack A. Goldstone in 2018, also published on Jadaliyya and MESPI. The Essential Readings series works to regularly update its catalog of publications to keep them current.]
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.
In some ways, the outcome of the Arab Revolutions ten years later is a familiar tale from this history of revolutions, a combination of hope and disappointments. Tunisia remains a democracy, if one struggling with economic challenges and continuing threats of political instability. Other Arab regimes, from Egypt and Syria to Yemen and Libya, have reverted to harsh autocracies or remained mired in civil war. To those who have studied the past revolutions in Russia, Mexico, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Ukraine, this is largely what we should have expected: democratic outcomes are rare, and instability and dictatorship are the more common short-term outcomes of revolutionary upheaval. Yet there are new and specific elements in the Middle East: The Arab revolutions have unleashed Turkish assertions of its leading role in the Muslim world, echoing its Ottoman heritage and have led to a three-way competition between Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia for influence across the Middle East and North Africa. The larger revolutions in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen have reduced the significance of the Palestinian conflict with Israel, giving opportunities for Israel to expand its formal relations and informal cooperation with Arab nations. And the most extreme, radical Islamic threat—the so-called “Caliphate” of ISIS in Syria and Iraq—has been defeated and driven from the Middle East, only to resurface in multiple locations in Africa and South Asia. Accounts of the Arab Revolutions and the Middle East ten years later thus are predominantly pessimistic, as they chart major changes in the economies and politics of the region. Yet the aspirations for greater democracy remain; and despite the oppressive nature of most current regimes, those aspirations may yet resurface in the future.
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: Oxford University Press, 2013.
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. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
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: Oxford University Press, 2014.
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: Oxford University Press, 2016.
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. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.
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 New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East. New York: Public Affairs, 2016.
An excellent account of how the Arab uprisings arose, got derailed by internal polarization and external interventions, and ended up producing multiple civil wars. It is especially good on how international relations became interwoven with domestic conflicts, turning civil wars into proxy conflicts involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, NATO and the United States.
Jeroen Gunning and Ilan Zvi Baron. Why Occupy a Square?: People, Protests and Movements in the Egyptian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
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. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
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: Princeton University Press, 2012.
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.
Robert F. Worth. A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
This account of the Arab Spring, by an outstanding foreign correspondent, brings events to life through the stories of real participants. This is the best book to understand the hopes and fears aroused across the Middle East by the uprisings, and to follow the emotional ups and downs in people’s lives as they saw events unfold.
Kevan Harris. A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.
The stability of the Iranian Islamic Republic since the 1979 Revolution has been a puzzle – despite war with Iraq, repeated internal uprisings, and severe international economic sanctions, the regime has held firm at a time when seemingly more prosperous states across the region were felled by revolutions and riven by civil wars. Harris shows why in his deeply informed account of how Iran’s leaders built a wide-reaching welfare state that transformed families and the relationship of the state to the population.
Joel Beinin, Bassam Haddad, and Sherene Seikaly (Eds). A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2020.
One of the great puzzles about the Middle East is why so much political upheaval was sustained after 2010 when the prior decade had generally been one of strong economic growth across the region, including in Libya, Egypt and Syria. This volume of essays by leading scholars can be a bit technical, but provides the best recent insights into how the economies of the region were organized to benefit mainly political elites and international capital. Examining the role of oil, regional economic relations, and the cases of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Iraq, Israel/Palestine and Morocco, this volume is full of fresh insights into how things can go well and still go badly.
Noah Feldman. The Arab Winter: A Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.
Focusing on Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, the constitutional scholar Noah Feldman offers a post-mortem on what went wrong in the first two states and what is still most hopeful in the last in regard to the pursuit of democracy. Feldman argues that despite tragic outcomes, the Arab revolts marked a new entry of the people into active politics. Though in many cases “the people” lacked political experience and chose poorly, rushing into radical movements or rallying behind dictators, their entry into politics has the promise of future democratic transformations.
The concerns of researchers now are focused on understanding how the 2010-2011 revolutions fit into the broader pattern of political changes in the Middle East. Will Tunisia withstand economic stress and avoid backsliding from its fragile democracy? Will democratic yearnings, already expressed in Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Jordan, and other states that survived the Arab Spring, return and cause further instability? Will the region’s major powers—Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran—continue their efforts to shape regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, and with what outcome? Has the territorial defeat of ISIS permanently reduced the appeal of radical Islamism, or will it return? General theories of revolution only tell us that, on average, revolutions do not usually produce stable democracies, but neither do counter-revolutions tend to produce stable dictatorships. Rather, once a revolutionary process has begun, political conflicts and regime change can recur for decades, as happened in France from 1789 to 1851, or in Germany from 1918 to 1945, or in Afghanistan from 1978 to the present. To understand what lies ahead therefore requires both knowledge of past revolutionary processes, and the particular social structures and cleavages in current Arab societies. All that seems certain is that the story of these revolutions is not over.