Shamiran Mako and Valentine M. Moghadam, After the Arab Uprisings: Progress and Stagnation in the Middle East and North Africa (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Valentine M. Moghadam (VM): Intrigued by the divergent outcomes of the Arab Spring protests in the various countries, and having conducted comparative research before, I invited Shamiran Mako, then a visiting scholar at Northeastern University, to join me on a project that would explore four explanatory variables: state and institutions, civil society, gender and women’s mobilizations, and international influences. Her political science perspectives and my own sociological ones aligned perfectly to produce an integrated, coherent comparative analysis.

We are both from the region. I was born in Iran and have long researched and visited countries in the region. Like many Iranians, my family and I were affected by the 1979 revolution and, for me, this began an intellectual journey into the comparative study of revolution and especially outcomes for women. As the 2011 Arab protests grew, I became interested in their likely outcomes and began to consider similarities and differences across the countries, as well as with earlier revolutions and mass protests that had led to democratic transitions (for example, Iran’s did not, but Portugal’s did). In 2011, there was much discussion about Egypt’s Tahrir Square sit-ins and the country’s democratic prospects, but I felt that Egypt did not have the necessary conditions for democratization, whereas Tunisia was better placed to move forward. Shamiran and I agreed that we needed to look more systematically at the main countries involved in and affected by the 2011 protests, and that existing studies, while valuable, did not cover the explanatory factors that we considered most important.

Shamiran Mako (SM): I began my doctoral studies at the politics and international relations department at the University of Edinburgh nine months into the Arab uprisings. In line with my research at the time looking at impediments to democratization and statebuilding in Iraq, I became deeply interested in how external actors were responding to region-wide pro-democracy protests. A meeting with Val at Northeastern made us both realize our research agendas were more complementary than we had previously thought. We agreed that an interdisciplinary approach to studying the Arab uprisings was essential for understanding divergent outcomes. Taking a panoramic view of developments and proceses across the region, we came to the realization that an explanation of divergent outcomes across fastly different countries with varying state-society relations, historical contexts, patterns of mobilization, and regional and international responses required a multi-dimensional explanation. The framework we develop in the book of four interacting variables facilitates such a systematic a cross-national comparison across time and space. Five years later, the book came to fruition.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

VM & SM: The book addresses two interrelated questions: Why were some but not all of the Arab mass social protests of 2011 accompanied by relatively quick and nonviolent outcomes in the direction of regime change, democracy, and social transformation? Why was a democratic transition limited to Tunisia (initially), and why did region-wide democratization not occur? It addresses these central questions by analyzing the four aforementioned variables across seven countries involved in or affected by the protests: Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco as one set of cases (with some differences across the three), and Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen as a second, more violent set of cases. Uniquely among books on the Arab Spring, it includes a gender perspective, with attention to the state of women’s movements before the uprisings. It also definitively shows the deleterious effects of external military interventions. The book thus accounts for domestic and geopolitical factors and forces, shows how the four explanatory variables interacted to account for both causes and outcomes, and extends the analysis to the present day.

Across the book’s chapters, we engage with several bodies of literature: on revolutions, social movements, and democratic transitions; on feminist movements, mobilizations, and capacity; on civil society, the state, and democratization; on state capacity, regime types, and political institutions; and on coercive and non-coercive forms of international intervention. Our book contributes a novel framework for understanding how revolutions and mass social movements unfold across time and space to contextualize divergent outcomes. We argue that a systematic exploration of the interaction of micro and macro level developments facilitates a comparative research agenda that maps divergent outcomes across time and space. Here, the explanatory framework we develop in the book based on the four variables facilitates a more systematic examination of divergent outcomes of the MENA region’s largest pro-democracy protest wave. Revolutions are limited because many factors contrain their trajectory—this is an essential argument we make in the book to explain why the Arab uprisings failed to produce consolidated democratic transitions, and why some, from the onset, were beset by sociopolitical constraints.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

VM: I had long researched and published on the Middle East and most recently on the Arab Spring itself (several articles, invited presentations, and roundtable discussions). The book connects with my previous work in the centrality of gender relations and women’s movements to political developments and in previous research I had conducted on and in Tunisia and Morocco. It also connects with my previous work in terms of its comparative approach. For example, my first book, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (1993, 2003, 2013) examined how women of different social backgrounds and political inclinations had taken part in, been affected by, and responded to various social change processes—revolutions, economic development, statebuilding, Islamist movement, women’s rights mobilizations. There and elsewhere, I argued that women’s participation and rights were central to the region’s modernization, and that progress was being made in three Maghreb countries in particular, but that certain structural and institutional obstacles remained that needed to be addressed and overcome. After the Arab Uprisings certainly connects to my earlier work while also taking on a more explicit international relations lens, which is why the collaboration with Shamiran was so fruitful.

SM: The book in many ways reflects my ongoing research on externl interventions, statebuilding, demoratization, and ethnic conflict in the Middle East. In a recent article, “Exploiting dissent: foreign military interventions in the Arab uprisings,” I examine why regional and international actors intervened militarily in some states, such as Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and why such interventions impeded pro-democracy popular uprisings. Focusing on foreign intervention and statebuilding in post-2003 Iraq, my article “Subverting Peace: the Origins and Legacies of de-Ba’athification in Iraq” explores how institutional choices relating to lustration and transitional justice of former Ba’athists reproduced exclusionary governance and ethnic strife in Iraq. The article is part of a special issue I guest edited in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, titled “Evaluating the Pitfalls of External Statebuilding in Post-2003 Iraq (2003-2021).” My current book project on institutions and ethnic conflict in Iraq similarly examines the effects of institutional exclusion on group mobilization, and how foreign interventions and externally imposed democratization and statebuilding, as in the Iraq war of 2003, affect conflict processes in ethnically divided societies.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

VM & SM: The book is pitched at a broad audience: scholars of the Middle East, international relations, social movements, democratization, women’s movements; PhD students and upper-level undergraduates; journalists; and policymakers interested in the Middle East region and the Arab uprisings and their aftermath. We hope that pundits and policymakers can be convinced of the futility of direct military interventions, which have caused so much mayhem and tragedy in Libya, Syria, and Yemen (and earlier on in Iraq, just to mention Arab countries). We also hope that women’s contributions to democratization and to modernization more broadly will be of considerable value to ongoing research on the Arab uprisings and works on democratization and contentious politics in the region—and beyond. We hope the comparative scope of the book and the integrated framework we have developed will enrich ongoing scholarship on revolutions and democratic transitions.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

VM: I am currently working on projects comparing Iran and Tunisia in terms of institutional development and “gender regimes,” and identifying and theorizing the history and varieties of feminist movements across the MENA region. These are two separate research articles but are interconnected. Another project, which entails three forthcoming articles, explores the relationship between state/societal militarization and women’s political representation and empowerment, Finally, I continue to study the evolution of globalization. My book Globalization and Social Movements (2009, 2013, 2020) includes case studies of transnational feminist movements, the global diffusion of Islamist movements, and the global justice movement. The third edition examines the worldwide spread of right-wing populist movements and is sub-titled “The Populist Challenge and Democratic Alternatives.” Of course, the book includes attention to Middle Eastern polities and movements. I am scheduled to write two papers on the current state of globalization, which I think is in decline. In general, the current state of the world is worrisome. Tunisia has struggled economically, with very little international economic support, resulting in serious political challenges. The various political rivalries and alliances in the region, and indeed in the world, show that globalization did not live up to its promise to uplift and unite peoples and their environments (“the world is flat” thesis). I fervently hope that more conflicts are not on the horizon.

SM: I am in the final stages of completing a book project on institutions, exclusion, and ethnic conflict in Iraq. The book examines the relationship between state institutions, exclusion, and ethnic conflict in Iraq throughout formative statebuilding periods. I trace the longitudinal effects of British colonial institutional development on patterns of ethnic dominance and exclusion from governance across subsequent statebuilding periods. I developed a framework of the ethnic selectorate to endogenize how ethnic elites capture and reinforce ethnic dominance through state institutions to elucidate the processes that structure conflict across time. This project is theoretically grounded in literature on ethnic conflict, colonial state formation, and governing in divided societies. I illustrate the conditions under which ethnic elite capture state institutions and determine the parameters of exclusion during critical statebuilding periods, where more inclusive governing options would have increased inter-ethnic cooperation and societal cohesion. I am also developing a project that explores how the notion of contingent sovereignty, often invoked in external state and nationbuilding through foreign interventions, produces civil strife and ungovernable spaces.


Excerpts from the book (from Chapter 1, pp. 1, 3, 20-21 and Chapter 7, pp. 233-235)

Why were some but not all the mass social protests of 2011 accompanied by relatively quick and nonviolent outcomes in the direction of regime change, democracy, and social transformation? Why did Tunisia succeed but Egypt did not? Why did the Bahraini monarchy call on outside military assistance to repress the protests, while the Moroccan monarchy quickly agreed to constitutional amendments? Why did Libya, Syria, and Yemen descend into internationalized civil conflicts? More broadly, what are the prospects for democratization in the region? These are the principal questions posed and addressed in this book.

In our book, we develop an explanatory framework for the varied outcomes and compare two sets of cases. The first consists of Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, which experienced regime change (Tunisia and Egypt) and/or constitutional change (Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco) accompanied by democratic procedures. The second group of countries consists of Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, wherein the 2011 protests failed to bring about reforms or were repressed or descended into violent contention. The first set of cases is subjected to a further analysis to account for Egypt’s more turbulent transition and authoritarian reversal. We isolate four variables as endogenous and exogenous factors and forces – state and political institutions, civil society, gender relations and women’s mobilizations, and international influences (both coercive and noncoercive) – to contextualize and explain the processes underpinning the protests and subsequent developments.

Our book’s explanatory framework is distinctive in several ways. First, the four variables constitute an integrated theoretical framework and are constitutive of state-society relations but also of the given countries’ place and location in the international system (or the hierarchical capitalist world-system) which also could help predict the likelihood for military intervention. Second, ours is the first book to seriously deliberate the role of gender relations and the mobilization capacity of women’s civil society organizations prior to and following the uprisings as an explanatory variable for gauging the course and outcomes of the uprisings. As noted, in the now-prodigious literature on the Arab Spring, gender relations and women’s rights appear largely as outcomes of the protest movements (if they are considered seriously at all), not as part of an explanatory framework. We find that the strength of women’s movements and their prior capacity to effect legal and policy reforms affected the nature of the protests and the policies of new governments.

Third, our comparative analysis integrates elite-centric and movement- centric approaches, and it acknowledges the influence of both endogenous and exogenous factors and forces. It is attentive to both structure and agency, that is, constraints faced by actors as well as opportunities for action and change. Fourth, the book considers external intervention as a key variable for explaining the success or failure of protest movements across the Arab Spring country case studies. We find that regional and international intervention in support of, in opposition to, or to neutralize the regimes across the seven cases drastically altered protest trajectories. We posit that the cases that endured external military intervention experienced more violent transitions, culminating in either authoritarian survival – as in Syria and Bahrain – or civil war, state failure, and the expansion of terrorist groups, as occurred in the wake of the NATO-led intervention in Libya, the destabilization of Syria, and the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen. Lastly, we argue that prospects for democratization are highly dependent on the interaction of our four variables.

MENA democracy movements took place in the context of the global economic crisis, which itself was a consequence of neoliberal economic policies on a world scale. In the 1990s, MENA countries joined the rest of the world in the move away from a statist economic strategy, in which large public sectors held sway, toward one that prioritized denationalization, privatization, the adoption of “flexible” labor markets, and recruitment of foreign direct investment. In many MENA countries, oil wealth helped to attenuate some of the adverse effects of this policy shift, and governments continued to provide citizens with cheap oil (for heating, cooking, and transportation) as well as other subsidies. Even so, unemployment kept rising, making the region’s double-digit unemployment rates – especially among youth and educated young women – possibly the highest in the world and the subject of many academic and policy studies. In more recent years, various social policy “reforms” were enacted, in line with neoliberal prescriptions, such as the withdrawal of state subsidies for food, public utilities, and social services. Then came the financial meltdown of 2008 and ensuing global economic crisis, which saw rising food prices in MENA countries. Egypt experienced strikes and street protests over rising prices, but elsewhere in the region, the combination of high unemployment, high costs of living, and authoritarian rule heightened popular dissatisfaction. In such a contest, the 2011 Arab uprisings were not so much surprising as inevitable.

A decade after the uprisings, progress in the way of democratic consolidation, the expansion of civil liberties, and economic prosperity has been limited and slow. In 2011, Morocco’s monarchy wisely chose the path of compromise and constitutional reform, but in 2019-2020 the persistence of socioeconomic difficulties generated renewed dissatisfaction and citizen demonstrations for policy change. As Karshenas et al. have argued, citizens during the Arab Spring protests essentially demanded democratic development, or democracy accompanied by socio-economic rights. The analysis of Arab Barometer data by Amaney Jamal and Lina Khatib shows in MENA countries such as Algeria, Jordan, and Palestine, the publics regard democracy as entailing both political accountability and economic improvement. Similarly, analysis of data from Wave 7 of the World Values Survey – carried out in seven MENA countries (including Egypt and Tunisia) – confirms the importance to citizens of democracy as a political system but also the importance of distributive policies. The absence or weakness of both triggered the 2011 Arab uprisings – and arguably the 2019–20 wave of protests as well. If citizens associate democracy with robust social and economic rights as well as civil and political rights, then continued economic stagnation could dampen support for democratic alternatives unless new social contracts and better economic conditions emerge.

The late historian Eric Hobsbawm correctly noted that the conditions for effective democratic governance are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent, and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. This is difficult to achieve, especially during times of untoward economic conditions (e.g., unemployment, deficits, inflation, youth unemployment and underemployment, wage stagnation, income inequality), which could lead to either political paralysis and dysfunction or the kind of right-wing populism that we have observed in Europe, the USA, and several Global South countries since at least 2015. We agree with Hobsbawm that democratization is a prolonged, contested, and turbulent process requiring considerable human, economic, and political resources to sustain. It is not an end point but rather an enduring project maintained by ongoing political contestation and negotiation. The enduring legacy of the 2011 Arab uprisings is that democratization is entirely possible in the MENA region but that entrenched structural and institutional obstacles at domestic, regional, and international levels need to be acknowledged, criticized, and overcome.