James L. Gelvin (ed.), The Contemporary Middle East in an Age of Upheaval (Stanford University Press, 2021).

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

James L. Gelvin (JLG): I had been writing and lecturing about contemporary events for a while, and it had become clear to me that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, on the one hand, and the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 on the other, had had a profound and possibly irrevocable impact on the Middle East. In the winter of 2018, I organized an international conference at UCLA that brought together experts from a variety of disciplines—not only history and political science, but also economics, law, sociology, anthropology, and the like—to discuss the nature and extent of that impact. The idea of sharing our findings with both an academic and non-academic audience was there from the beginning. We were fortunate that Moncef Marzouki, the first president of post-uprising Tunisia, agreed to keynote the conference. He subsequently wrote a wonderful afterward to the volume describing the evolution of the “fourth dream” of the Tunisian people—the democratic project—on which he had been working so hard to realize.

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

JLG: The book addresses what has been called the “New Middle East,” which the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 ushered in. Its most important contribution is to look at contemporary events from an inter-disciplinary standpoint and to situate them in the context of broader global trends. Among the most salient processes the book discusses are:

  • the end of the post-colonial/economic-nationalist moment and the introduction and deepening of a global neo-liberal regimen;
  • the heterogeneous forms of resistance to that regimen;
  • the post-1970s diffusion of global norms of (individual) human rights and democratic transition and its aftermath; the global effects of the end of the cold war, the brief period of American global dominance, the end of the pax Americana, and the emergence of heightened global and regional competition; and
  • the dire state of human security in the region, particularly in the Arab world, as a result of bad governance, demographic pressure, political violence, unequal access to healthcare before and during the pandemic, climate change, and environmental degradation.


The Arab uprisings rearranged the regional order in fundamental ways. In spite of the early hype about a so-called “Arab Spring,” most of the protests and uprisings that occurred in the region had perverse results. In Egypt, for example, the optimism generated by the Tahrir Square protests has long since dissipated as the military reasserted its control and suppressed dissent with unprecedented brutality. Libya has virtually ceased to exist as a state, and Syria and Yemen are nightmares onto themselves. Only in Tunisia, where the uprisings of 2010-11 began, might one look at the changes brought about by an uprising with guarded optimism.

Further diminishing optimism about the future of the region is the fact that much of it is an economic disaster. The only prescription offered by the international community for changing that has been more of the very neo-liberal economic policies—with the attendant crony-capitalism, income inequality, and diminished benefits that citizens rely on—that contributed to the uprisings in the first place. The refugee crisis, the damage to infrastructure, and the region-wide diminution of food and water supplies render economic revival in this second least globalized part of the world economy implausible for decades, if ever.

Growing sectarianization, fueled by the American invasion of Iraq, the civil war in Syria and the resulting flood of refugees beyond Syria’s borders, and the struggle for regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia (which each side couches in sectarian terms), threatens to fragment Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and tear apart the social fabric elsewhere. The emergence of groups such as ISIS in the midst of political chaos also stoked sectarian flames because of its attempts to cleanse territories of potential fifth columnists from non-Sunni communities.

Then there is the tectonic shift in the political landscape of the Middle East as regional and international actors have responded to the American attempt to extricate itself from multiple regional crises that earlier American policies had done so much to foster. The American policy of disengagement created the conditions for Russia to reinsert itself into the region, particularly in Syria. American engagement with Iran spurred Saudi Arabia to set an independent course for itself with the goal of propping up regimes it claims are vulnerable to Iranian subversion. Saudi/Iranian competition has fueled violence in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Even Turkey cast aside its pre-uprising “zero problems with neighbors” policy to take its struggle against the Kurds beyond its borders.

Contributors to the volume assess these and other phenomena from a variety of standpoints, from individual country assessments (Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) and the international relations of the Middle East, to analyses of the state of education in the region, to illuminating discussions of the North African hip-hop scene and the transformation of political Islam, to an analysis of voting patterns among the young in Iran and how Syrian refugees have dealt with their separation from their homeland. 

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

JLG: For the past two decades, I have shifted the focus of my work from late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century Levantine cultural history to contemporary history. Contemporary history provides the perfect framework for understanding what is going on in the region. As historian Peter Catterall (citing historian Fernand Braudel) once wrote, “There is a risk that anyone who studies only the immediate past ‘will continually have his eye caught by anything which moves quickly or glitters.’ But it is ‘absolutely vital to know whether what one is witnessing is the rise of a new movement, the tail end of an old one, an echo from the very distant past, or a monotonously recurring phenomenon.’” That is what the methodology employed by contemporary history tells us. Because of the urgency of the moment, I have taken my work beyond the academy, lecturing and writing for a wider audience as well on such topics as the Arab uprisings, international relations of the Middle East, ISIS, Rojava, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and the like. 

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

JLG: The book is aimed at a wide audience, academic as well as non-academic, professors and graduate students as well as advanced undergraduates. Since the book is interdisciplinary, the authors purposely avoided disciplinary jargon, so it is accessible. The purpose of the book is to engage and inform. There are all-too-many misconceptions about the region and its peoples; how and why the region has evolved as it has; the role international players, particularly the United States, have played in fostering the New Middle East; and the dilemmas facing the peoples living there. And because the field has changed so dramatically over the past two decades, it was time to rethink a host of issues.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JLG: I have just revised two of my books—The Modern Middle East: A History and The Israel-Palestine Conflict: A History. I am about to revise another, The New Middle East: What Everyone Needs to Know. Then I can get back to a project I have had to put on the back burner: a history of the diffusion of the discourse of human rights in the region since the 1970s. Because of events in Algeria, Lebanon, and Sudan, some analysts have begun using the phrase “Arab Spring 2.0,” with the implication that the 2010-11 uprisings mark a distinct period and that events that followed marked its coda. The demand in the Middle East for human rights and social and economic justice, however, goes back decades and has been continuous, not marked by discrete periods. My next project will trace the various permutations of this phenomenon from the founding of the Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’homme in 1976 and the Berber Spring of 1980 through the present.


Excerpt from the book (from chapter 11, pp. 196-199)

The aftershocks of the Syrian uprising and civil war spilled out over Syria’s borders, roiling not only Syria’s neighbors but Europe and North America as well. By the beginning of 2018, more than six million refugees had decamped from Syria, straining economies in the Middle East and provoking xenophobic backlash elsewhere. The civil war had left large areas of Syria ungoverned and lawless, enabling ultraviolent jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, which sought to upend the regional state system, to spawn and incubate. Both the presence of large numbers of refugees, which upset often-fragile sectarian balances in their host countries, and the presence of jihadis committed to purifying conquered territories of Shiʿis and select minorities, exacerbated sectarian tensions throughout the region. Finally, as the war within Syria wound down, outside powers scrambled either to cash in on the victory of their side or to reposition themselves in the wake of the loss.

Perhaps the most visible reminder of the Syrian crisis are the refugees, scattered throughout the world but disproportionately located in surrounding states. By the beginning of 2019, more than 85 percent of Syrian refugees worldwide lived in Turkey (3.64 million), Lebanon (about 1 million), Jordan (680,000), Iraq (250,000), and Egypt and North Africa—and those were just the ones registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of them had left Syria between 2013 and 2016, when urban warfare was at its height.

From the beginning of the Syrian uprising to the end of 2018, Turkey spent $35 billion on refugee assistance. Other sites of refuge paid comparable amounts. While the international community picks up some of the tab, the burden for providing municipal services such as lighting and road building, health care, educational services, and the construction of infrastructure necessary for delivering clean water falls heavily on host countries. According to a report of the World Bank, published in 2016, the influx of refugees sparked a doubling of Lebanon’s unemployment rate (to 20 percent), increased the number of Lebanese living below the poverty line by 170,000, and caused an additional $7.5 billion in economic losses. In Jordan, where upward of 500,000 refugees live outside camps and are thus not wards of the international community, unemployment increased by 34 percent among native-born Jordanians between 2011 and 2014; between 2012 and 2014, the price of housing increased by 25 percent. Jordan has been home to ongoing anti-austerity protests and seven different governments between 2011 and 2018.

Although international law prohibits the involuntary repatriation of refugees, governments in the Middle East and Europe have used both carrots and sticks to encourage what American presidential aspirant Mitt Romney once called “self-deportation.” Germany uses the carrot of providing financial incentives; Lebanon, the stick of denying work permits to refugees and demolishing the “semipermanent” housing they construct. Turkey has chosen to ignore international law altogether. In 2018, the Turkish government began deporting mostly young, undocumented Syrian men to the northern Syrian territory occupied by the Turkish military, despite UN warnings that Syria was still too dangerous for them.

Nevertheless, the refugee crisis is unlikely to go away soon. The joint Russian-American plan for repatriation negotiated by Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki in July 2018 was stillborn, and although 89 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon expressed interest in eventually returning home, few were prepared to do so in the near future. Overall, in spite of pressure from the Lebanese government, from 2016 through June 2019 only 40,230 Syrian refugees in Lebanon returned home—even with a Lebanese government plan to facilitate their departure—or about 4 percent. The proportion for refugees in Jordan is slightly better—close to 6 percent. And who can fault them for their wariness? There are few opportunities and little safety for returnees in Syria, and it has been reported that the Syrian government has a list of 1.5 million expats who are to be arrested upon arrival (not to mention the fact that all men between the ages of eighteen and forty-two are liable for military conscription). Besides, the Syrian regime is in no hurry to repatriate refugees it regards as mostly hostile to the regime and has thrown up roadblocks to prevent their return.

The refugee crisis is one reason for the rise in sectarian tensions in the region. In Turkey, for example, the arrival of Syrian Alawites fleeing anti-Assad forces and ISIS has sparked sectarian resentment among Turkey’s own Alevi and Alawite populations, many of whom fault their government for supporting the rebels and favoring the Sunni refugee community at the expense of endangered Syrian Alawites. But it is not just refugees who are responsible renewed sectarianism. In Lebanon, anti-Assad forces and ISIS have crossed the border from Syria, targeting Hizbullah and the Shiʿi community it represents, the former as payback for Hizbullah’s support for the Syrian regime, particularly its role in the 2013 Qusayr campaign, the latter as part of its general war against Shiʿis. And in both Syria and Iraq, local residents, Kurds, and imported Shiʿi militias have targeted entire communities whom they claim harbored ISIS members or cooperated with ISIS, sparking counterreprisals.

ISIS emerged in Syria in 2013 after Syrian-born members of the Islamic State in Iraq returned home to fight against the regime (they later split from ISIS to found the autonomous Jabhat al-Nusra). Its original core comprised remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Syrian Salafis whom the Assad regime had released from prison, and, perhaps most important in terms of ISIS’s military capabilities, former Baʿathist military officers who had served under Saddam Hussein. ISIS’s first major victory was the conquest of the provincial capital Raqqa, in north-central Syria, which it took from other insurgent forces that had taken the city from government forces. It was from there that ISIS began its rapid conquest of territory in Syria and Iraq, abetted by the Syrian government’s preoccupation with combat elsewhere and the collapse of the Iraqi army. In 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, proclaimed the reestablishment of the caliphate (which, except for its Salafi or jihadist ideology, differed little from any other autocratic state) with himself as caliph. Having briefly consolidated a territorial state, ISIS established outposts elsewhere in the Middle East (the most active being in Libya, Tunisia, the Sinai, Algeria, and Yemen), Africa and North Africa, and Central and South Asia.

It was the threat ISIS posed to the state system in the Middle East that provoked the American-led campaign there, and over time that campaign came to include a multitude of actors, including militias supported by the American coalition (including the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces) and by Iran, along with armed forces from Turkey and Russia, which have used the campaign to justify their pursuit of unrelated geopolitical interests. By mid-2017, the caliphate was all but defeated, leaving in its wake an ongoing insurgency, counterinsurgency, and revenge killings in Syria and Iraq; the weakening of states and state institutions there and wherever else ISIS had set up shop; a global counterterrorism campaign and xenophobic response that far outweighs the threat posed by those who might continue to identify with ISIS; the fraying of the American-Turkish and perhaps American-Kurdish alliances; and the destruction of ancient minority communities and much of the ancient cultural heritage in the heartland of the Arab world. The state system, however, remains intact.