Samer S. Shehata (eds.), The Struggle to Reshape the Middle East in the 21st Century (Edinburgh University Press, 2023).

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

Samer S. Shehata (SS): The Struggle to Reshape the Middle East in the 21st Century examines the turbulent regional politics of the Middle East from the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq to the decade after the 2010-2011 Arab uprisings, a period of roughly two decades. These two decades have been among the most turbulent and politically unstable in the region’s contemporary history. The 2003 Iraq war not only produced greater insecurity within Iraq, including hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths and millions of displaced, it also destabilized the surrounding region, altering the regional balance of power, inflaming sectarian tensions, and intensifying the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The 2011 Arab uprisings then produced unprecedented popular mobilization across the region, which was followed by regime breakdown and collapse in some states, multiple and devastating civil wars, massive refugee flows, intense regional competition, the rise of new and even more violent non-state actors, and different forms of international and regional intervention by multiple states across borders.

I wanted to understand the causes, dynamics, and consequences of this unprecedented turbulence both analytically and in terms of how turbulence and its subsequent disorder impacted particular countries and cases at multiple levels and scales. It was obvious that such a project would be extremely difficult or impossible to undertake on my own and because of this, I decided that the best way forward would be through the collective efforts of a group of select scholars each able to examine regional turbulence in their particular area of expertise.

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

SS: The volume examines both the region-wide dynamics generating instability and insecurity during this period as well as the consequences of regional turbulence on individual countries and cases. We hope the volume contributes to literatures on the international relations of the Middle East, the foreign policies of states covered in the volume (for example, the United States, Turkey, Iran), and the consequences of the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 Arab uprisings on the regional and domestic politics of countries in the Middle East.

The book consists of ten chapters and an Introduction. I outline what I describe as the three intersecting and overlapping conflicts driving much of the turbulence during this period in the Introduction: the struggle between freedom and authoritarianism (or revolution and “counter-revolution”), the conflict between Islamist politics and anti-Islamist forces, and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In chapter one, Marc Lynch presents an overview of the drivers of turbulence in the Middle East at the global, regional, and domestic levels while Waleed Hazbun, in chapter two, compares the Obama and Trump administrations’ foreign policies toward the Middle East during this period, emphasizing the contradictions of US foreign policy and its tragic consequences. Noa Schonmann then examines Israel’s role within the Middle East regional order and assesses the extent of change that has occurred within or beyond this order in the post 2003 and post 2011 period. The next two chapters focus on the Syria crisis. Nader Entessar examines Iran’s policy toward Syria from the perspective of Tehran’s regional security calculus while Gencer Özcan and Soli Özel analyze the evolution of Turkey’s Syria policy from 2011 through the present. The following three chapters focus on the consequences of regional turbulence caused by the 2011 Arab uprisings on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Yemen, and Egypt. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen explores how the 2011 uprisings and the different reactions to these developments by Arab Gulf states impacted the GCC as an organization and relations between GCC member states. Waleed Mahdi investigates the justifications for international and regional intervention in Yemen, as well as its disastrous consequences, while I analyze the role of regional actors, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, on Egypt’s short-lived “democratic transition”—or alternatively, how and why these states supported the “counter-revolution” in Egypt. Two final chapters examine different types of Salafi groups during this period. Cole Bunzel assesses the successes and mainly failures of Al Qaida in Iraq and Syria while Valeria Resta and Francesco Cavatorta analyze the foreign policy ideas and platforms of Salafi political parties in Tunisia, Egypt, and Kuwait after the 2011 uprisings.

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

SS: This book is a significant departure from my previous work, although there are some areas of regional and thematic overlap. My first book, Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt (SUNY Press, 2009 and American University in Cairo Press, 2010), was an ethnography of labor and working-class politics in two Egyptian factories. That project analyzed class formation, politics at the point of production, power and resistance during the labor process, and firm culture. To undertake the study, I worked as a “winding machine operator” for over ten months in two public sector textile factories in Alexandria, Egypt. The research method—ethnography, including working the day shift in a factory—was perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the research as it was, and remains, extremely difficult to penetrate what Marx called “the hidden abode of production.”

My second major research endeavor took up two overlapping topics, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and electoral politics under authoritarianism. Again employing ethnography, I studied political campaigns and elections in Egypt with Brotherhood and non-Brotherhood candidates, and I produced a series of articles and book chapters about the Brotherhood and its electoral participation, along with other articles about Egyptian politics. One of the products of this research was an edited volume entitled Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change (Routledge, 2012).

The Struggle to Reshape the Middle East in the 21st Century looks considerably different from these previous projects. First, this book is about regional politics and “the international relations of the Middle East.” The focus is on the intersection of what has traditionally been understood as “comparative politics” and “international relations”: states, foreign policy, regional politics, threat perception, regional intervention and its consequences. This book is therefore quite different from my previous research both in terms of focus and method.

At the same time, one common thread between this project and my previous research is the question of authoritarian politics and its consequences for people across the region. Whether it is authoritarian social relations in the factory, authoritarian elections, or the exclusion of political groups from the political process—or in this volume, the efforts of powerful regional states to maintain and entrench a regional authoritarian order and oppose movements for freedom and change across the region—the question of authoritarianism has been, and will remain, an enduring focus of my research.

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

SS: I hope that both scholars and students researching and studying the Middle East read this book. The book is also relevant for journalists, policy analysts, and government officials who want to understand this critical period in the region’s history. Although the collection is based on original research and analysis and is geared toward scholars, it was written without excessive jargon and will be accessible to a much wider audience beyond the smaller group of professional academics working in this field.

The volume could also be easily adopted in undergraduate and graduate courses on Middle East politics and the international relations of the Middle East. So really anyone wanting to understand the dynamics of regional politics in the Middle East and North Africa over the last two critical decades, from the 2003 Iraq war to the 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath—a period in which powerful regional actors pursued conflicting agendas often with deadly and disastrous consequences—would benefit from reading this book.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SS: I am working on several different projects of different scales simultaneously. I am working on a short film about Egypt’s 2011 parliamentary elections, the first and last democratic legislative elections in Egypt’s contemporary history, entitled “Egypt’s Moment of Democracy.” I was fortunate to film the elections with the help of several videographers in 2011. I filmed campaign rallies and election events and I interviewed party leaders, candidates, and regular citizens—young and old, women and men, from different social classes, with differing political perspectives –in Cairo, Alexandria, and smaller towns in the Delta. This was a particularly dynamic and vibrant period in the year after Mubarak’s ouster and the footage I have is, in some senses, extraordinary. I have already completed a five-minute “marketing trailer” which was screened in April that could be used in university courses. I hope to explore funding opportunities in the future which would allow me to produce a longer, perhaps twenty-minute documentary.

I am also working on an article with a brilliant former student at the University of Oklahoma, Emma Albrecht, on Arab first ladies, which we will present at MESA. We analyze the function of three Arab first ladies, Jordan’s Queen Rania, Syria’s Asma Al Assad, and Egypt’s Suzanne Mubarak, in promoting their regimes to Western publics and governments.

I am also working on a book about what I call the regional or transnational dimensions of authoritarianism in the Middle East, approaching authoritarianism as a region-wide phenomenon rather than focusing exclusively on how individual autocratic regimes function and survive. The project examines authoritarian learning and cooperation in the region as well as regional organizations that, in contrast to many regional organizations elsewhere, have no commitment to human rights, accountable governance, or individual freedoms but instead are focused on the “stability” and resilience of the regional autocratic order. I explore this phenomenon for the decade after the 2011 Arab uprisings, where it is most visible, but also for the period before 2011.


Excerpt from the book (from Introduction, pp. 3-7)

This volume examines different aspects of the turbulent regional politics of the Middle East over the last two decades through detailed case studies by leading Middle East scholars. Collectively it examines the drivers of regional change and turbulence, the foreign policies of Iran and Turkey toward the Syrian crisis, the role of Israel in the Middle East regional order, violent and non-violent Islamist actors that emerged following the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 Arab uprisings (i.e., Al Qaida in Iraq and Salafi political parties), and the impact of regional turbulence following the 2011 Arab uprisings on Egypt, Yemen, and relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the GCC as an organization. Three intersecting and at times overlapping conflicts have produced much, although not all, of the regional instability and violence during this period. The first conflict, briefly mentioned above, is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was devastating for the millions of Iraqis killed, injured, or who became refugees because of the war and its aftermath. The war also dramatically shifted the regional balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Iran. It eliminated Iran’s historic regional adversary and increased Iranian influence in Iraq and beyond. The war’s aftermath also heightened sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis within the country and the wider region, with significant repercussions for other states in the Middle East.

The Saudi regime perceived these developments with great concern. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia has viewed Iran as an adversary, rival and, at times, an existential threat. The Iranian Revolution overthrew a monarchy and established an Islamic republic in its place. Both revolution and the form of political Islam supposedly embodied by the Islamic Republic are perceived as profoundly threatening to the Saudi monarchy, which bases its own legitimacy, in part, on Islam. The Saudis have long accused Iran of ‘exporting revolution’ and working to undermine Arab Gulf monarchies. And as a Shia majority state, Iran is also said to support fellow Shias across the region, many of whom are marginalized, including in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf monarchies. Tehran and Riyadh also find themselves in adversarial regional and international alliances, further exacerbating tense relations.

Thus, the shift in the balance of power and the expansion of Iranian influence was deeply troubling for the Saudi regime and led to a series of direct and indirect conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, including a number of proxy wars, with deadly and destabilizing consequences.

The second conflict that has fueled regional turbulence in the Middle East over the last decade has been the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism or, stated differently, between revolution and counterrevolution. The 2010-2011 Arab uprisings were inspiring for millions across the region who hoped the protests would bring about an era of freedom, social justice, and democracy. The uprisings simultaneously motivated autocrats across the region to respond aggressively to the increased threats they faced, even in states that did not experience widespread protests. Regimes responded immediately as a result of increased threat perception, both inside and outside of their borders. The unwillingness of the Obama administration to forcefully support autocratic allies during the protests, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, also demonstrated to rulers that they could no longer depend on Washington in the face of such crises.

The lesson for US-backed autocrats was that they needed to act aggressively both at home and abroad in order to maintain power. The heightened threat perception as a result of the uprisings and the realization that the US could not be relied upon in the face of domestic protests produced increasingly aggressive behavior by some regimes, including a willingness to interfere in neighboring states and the wider region, including militarily, in pursuit of regime security.

Bahrain provides an obvious example of direct intervention during the uprisings as well as the intersection of two of the conflicts mentioned above: the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Peaceful protests began on the small island kingdom on February 14, 2011, following the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Thousands of Bahrainis demonstrated calling for the release of political prisoners, a new constitution, freedom of expression and other political reforms. Although the protests were met with repression, the uprising gained strength over the following weeks to include hundreds of thousands of citizens peacefully demanding change.

The struggle for democracy in Bahrain threatened the country’s ruling monarchy, but it also threatened other Gulf autocrats. In response, on March 14, 2011, approximately 1500 Saudi and Emirati troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield forces crossed the 25-kilomter King Fahd causeway into the island nation in support of the regime. Although the Peninsula Shield Force did not directly put down the uprising, the importance of their deployment cannot be overstated. It signaled to protesters, regional adversaries, and international actors that Bahrain’s autocratic Arab neighbors would not tolerate the overthrow of an Arab Gulf monarchy or the establishment of a democracy on the Arabian Peninsula.

Over the next few days, more than five thousand Bahraini security forces, aided by tanks and military helicopters, violently dispersed protests in Manama and other cities and towns across the country. More than a thousand people were arrested, including opposition leaders, and a number of people were killed. Dozens were disappeared. Government forces also entered hospitals, detained patients with protest-related injuries and arrested many of the health care professionals treating them. A few days later the government demolished the Pearl Monument in central Manama, the epicenter and symbol of the uprising. A harsh crackdown on opposition and civil society in the country has continued.

The 2011 Bahraini uprising and the GCC intervention illustrate the intersection and at times overlapping character of two of the conflicts that have produced much of the regional turbulence in the Middle East in the post 2003 and post 2011 periods. The uprising was about democracy (at least initially) while the government’s response and the GCC intervention was about maintaining an authoritarian regime. The Bahraini uprising was also simultaneously intertwined with the Saudi-Iranian conflict.

Bahrain was part of the Persian Empire for several hundred years and Iran continued to make territorial claims on the island at least until 1970. With an economically and politically disenfranchised Shia majority living under an autocratic Sunni monarchy, Bahrain has long been a point of contention across Gulf waters. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have repeatedly alleged Iranian interference in the country’s domestic affairs. And the Bahraini government has frequently questioned the loyalty of Shia Bahraini activists and opposition movements.

Riyadh and Manama accused Tehran of fomenting opposition during the uprising with the aim of overthrowing an Arab Sunni regime. In this sense, the 2011 Bahraini uprising and the GCC intervention simultaneously reflect the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism and that between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The third conflict that has produced significant turbulence in the Middle East over the last decade revolves around political Islam and Islamist movements. Like democracy, some regimes in the region are profoundly threatened by political Islam. These regimes have reacted with great alarm to the rise and, at times, increasing power of Islamist movements, particularly after the 2011 uprisings. To a large extent, these fears reflect regime anxieties about Islamist movements as domestic challengers. Saudi Arabia and particularly the UAE, have deep anxieties about Islamist movements, with Abu Dhabi almost hysterical in its fear and opposition to political Islam.

Popular, mass-based Islamist movements like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s al-Nahda represent a profoundly different understanding of the relationship between Islam and politics than that supposedly practiced in Saudi Arabia. For these movements, Islam is compatible with mass politics, political participation, and electoral democracy. Many such movements have been the primary challengers to autocratic rule in the region, decrying corruption and promising better governance. These movements are often premised on ideas of social justice, resistance to oppression and Western domination, and championing ordinary people’s interests rather than those of the elites. In this sense, mass-based Islamist movements represent an ideational and political challenge to regimes in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere.

The conflict surrounding political Islam has pitted regimes supportive of Islamist movements in Qatar and Turkey, against those opposed to such movements in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt under Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Egypt after the 2011 uprising was the main, although not the only, battleground in this conflict. While Ankara and especially Doha supported Mohamed Morsi and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh actively worked to undermine Morsi’s rule. These states also found themselves supporting different sides of political contests in Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere. And the 2017 Qatar or GCC crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain along with Egypt, severed diplomatic ties and imposed a blockade on Qatar, also reflected this divide, among others.

Taken together, these three intersecting and at times overlapping regional conflicts have generated tremendous turbulence in the Middle East in the nearly two decades following the 2003 Iraq war. The chapters in this volume explore specific cases of turbulence during this period through detailed case studies based on original research and analysis.