Center for Strategic Communication

The uprisings that swept the Arab world following the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 represented a stunning moment in the region’s political history. For political scientists specializing in the region, the events of the last year and a half represented not just an exhilarating moment of potential change, but also an important opportunity to develop new research questions, engage in new comparisons, and exploit new data and information. The Arab uprisings challenged long-held theories dominant in the field, particularly about the resilience of authoritarian regimes, while opening up entirely new areas of legitimate social scientific inquiry.

The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) was created in 2010 in part to build the capacity of Middle East experts to engage and inform policy-makers, the public sphere, and other political scientists about the region. On May 29-30, 2012, POMEPS convened a group of leading political scientists who specialize in the Middle East for its third annual conference at George Washington University to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the Arab uprisings pose to the subfield. Participants were asked: “What new and innovative research questions do you think have become particularly urgent, feasible, or relevant? How would those research questions fit into wider debates in the field of political science?” I am thrilled to announce the publication of a new special POMEPS Briefing collecting nearly two dozen of the memos written for the conference (free PDF download here).

The authors are all academic political scientists and Middle East specialists who speak Arabic and have lived in and studied Arab countries for extended periods. They include scholars at all career levels, from senior faculty at top universities to advanced graduate students still writing their dissertations. The memos reflect on a wide range of debates and paradigms within political science, and taken together lay out an impressive set of marching orders for the subfield. Graduate students looking for dissertation topics and junior faculty looking for articles that might make a big splash take note. [[BREAK]]

One important theme is the importance of keeping current developments in perspective. There is widespread agreement that, as Jillian Schwedler puts it, “it’s just too early to really make substantive headway of the sort that would allow us to either challenge or support existing theories of revolutions and regime change.” At the 2011 POMEPS annual conference, held at the height of the still-surging Arab Spring, political scientists long keenly attuned to the machinations of Arab authoritarian regimes had warned about exaggerated expectations for change. They were right. Popular theories hastily put forward at the height of the Egyptian revolution about inevitable, irreversible change looked foolish within months as the military regime clawed back power, Islamists surged at the polls, and activist groups struggled to adapt. The rise of sectarianism, driven in part by the ugly developments in Bahrain and Syria, divided momentarily united Arab publics, while the descent into violent stalemate in several countries deflated outsized expectations. But one easily forgotten change should not be underestimated, as Nathan Brown eloquently argues in his memo: “politics — in the sense of public discussion and contestation about issues of common concern — now unmistakably exists.” And that matters.

Eighteen months on, the field is now better positioned to ask the right questions and to capture both broad trends and significant variation across and within cases. The questions raised by the Arab uprisings are not parochial. They go to the heart of the most important and relevant debates in the social sciences, to say nothing about the concerns of foreign policy and the broader public. Appropriate caution about leaping to conclusions should not prevent scholars from grappling with these developments head-on. Area experts with deep knowledge of the Middle East cannot cede the field to those who lack such background. But they also cannot simply assume that their expertise will grant them a privileged voice in public or scholarly debate. More than ever before, this is a moment for political scientists specializing in the Middle East to prove that particular expertise makes a real difference. Good articles are beginning to appear in leading academic journals, and more are in the pipeline — but there is clearly far more to be done.

Surveying the emerging region today reveals an uneasy mix of change and continuity — which may be politically frustrating, but is producing the kind of variation that should allow political scientists to gain purchase on crucial questions. Mobilization has receded in many places, but remains real and vibrant in others. Some regimes have fallen but others have proven resilient. Some countries have been consumed by violence, while others have avoided such a trajectory. Islamists have leapt into the political arena, performing better in some countries than others. Few Arab countries seem to be following the “transitions to democracy” template familiar to generations of graduate students. Public opinion surveys have proliferated, but have done poorly in predicting electoral outcomes. Such variation should be red meat for political scientists. 

What are the key questions emerged at the POMEPS conference, then? There is obviously a great deal of research to be done to explain the variation in regime survival. The fall of long-sitting leaders such as Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi each took a different path — and should Syria’s Bashar al-Assad be next, this would be yet another distinct course. Meanwhile, other regimes that might a priori have appeared to be in line for serious trouble survived. Even where leaders have fallen, the continuity with the old regime in some cases seems dramatic (Egypt, Yemen) compared with others (Libya, Tunisia). Explaining this variation in regime survival and which strategies and structures proved more effective in the face of popular challenge will likely be a major preoccupation of the field in the coming years.

One common answer has been particularly contentious among academics: monarchy. Is there a monarchical exception, or some reason to believe that monarchies are more resilient in the face of popular grievances? For some, the answer is obvious: none of the fallen regimes were monarchies, while non-monarchies have struggled or fallen at historic rates. As Michael Herb argues,“the regimes most seriously affected by the Arab Spring were not monarchies, with the exception of Bahrain.” But others are far more skeptical that monarchy makes the difference. After all, Gulf monarchies such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman all experienced significant mobilization, as did non-oil monarchies such as Jordan and Morocco, which gives lie to any sense of their greater innate legitimacy.  Other factors such as oil wealth, ethnic polarization or external support may be more important than monarchy as such. The significance of monarchy in regime stability should be a vibrant debate in academic journals in the coming years.

The real significance of the rentier state is emerging as another extremely interesting area of debate. If monarchy does not provide the answer to regime resilience, what about oil wealth and the ability to distribute patronage as an important buffer to regime collapse? For Glenn Robinson, the verdict is clear: “While oil-poor Arab countries have been riven by turmoil, the hydrocarbon rich countries (enjoying high oil and gas prices throughout 2011) have suffered relatively little turmoil by comparison, and have used their significant rents to placate most potential dissent.” David Waldner, by contrast, warns that “our understanding of the political economy of the Middle East has for too long rested, somewhat complacently, on a relatively vague notion of the rentier state.” How this wealth is used in pursuit of particular political strategies may matter more than the mere fact of its availability. Gwenn Okruhlik further notes, “the oft-utilized rentier framework vastly overstated economic determinism. In reality, money does not spend itself.” Oil rich Libya, for example, did not find itself particularly protected from popular challenge. Peter Moore points to variation in the fiscal capacity of states as a crucial variable, while others point to ethnic or family dominated regimes. And, asks Shana Marshall, what of the financial interests of the militaries themselves, about which far more is now publicly known than ever before?

Beyond oil-fueled patronage, several participants point to questions about the real political impact of social welfare provision in the region as key emerging questions. Melani Cammett directs attention to how little is known empirically about the implementation and effects of social welfare programs. Eleanor Gao asks the pertinent empirical question of “whether governments can purchase loyalty through increasing public sector employment and salaries, reducing taxes, and augmenting food subsidies.” And what of Islamist movements and their vaunted social service sectors — do those reliably buy votes when the moment comes? For David Patel, shifts in existing patronage networks in the face of crisis — including, he notes, global financial crisis and pressures toward austerity as well as the turbulence of popular mobilization — may well be more important than the macro questions of regime survival for explaining new patterns in Arab politics.

The wave of mass mobilization is obviously another primary area for new political science research. Scholars are already doing important work on the protest movements in various countries, unpacking the role of different actors (youth, internet activists, labor unions, political parties, and so forth) and different political contexts. The conceptualization of a "political opportunity structure," so important in the contentious politics literature, appears ripe for rethinking. There is a vibrant debate unfolding about the micro-level foundations and mechanisms driving the sudden explosion of mass mobilization that will be of obvious relevance to the broader political science literature. Some focus on the revelation of private information and updated expectations of success (an argument I developed here). Rex Brynen notes, for instance, that, “compliance with authoritarian rule was sustained, in part, by a regime’s ability to project spectacular omnipotence. Populations, for the most part, genuinely believed that resistance was futile. What the Tunisian revolution did, of course, was to shatter that perception. The consequent demonstration effect then led other Arab populations to reevaluate both the power of popular protest and the strength of regimes.”

Others, such as Wendy Pearlman, focus on the role of emotions in fueling protest, as opposed to rational calculations of the prospects of success. An astonishing array of evidence can now be explored about the state of mind of protestors, as well as those who refrained from joining protests, should researchers find ways to usefully exploit it. And still other scholars focus on the dynamic relationship between repression and protest. Eva Bellin argues, “Syria dramatically challenges [Mark] Lichbach’s analysis given the persistent mobilization of protest even in the face of the state’s use of consistent lethal force against the protesters.” What is the “right” level of repression, that which keeps subjects in line without triggering a cascade of outraged protest?

Several of the memos urge scholars to look beyond the immediate action for deeper causes. Adria Lawrence urges more historical comparisons, noting that this is not the first time such protest waves have caught the outside world unprepared: “in the mid twentieth century, colonial powers were shocked when their subjects took to the streets to demand independence.” Charles Kurzman refers back to his earlier book about the Iranian revolution which similarly emphasized the element of surprise. 

There are also ways to further increase the observable variation. Some, such as David Patel and Quinn Mecham, want more extra-regional comparisons, while Jillian Schwedler urges attention to “in-case variation.We know a lot about what has and is happening in urban centers, and little about the rural mobilizations.” Janine Clark calls on scholars to pay attention to “slow change: the gradual social, economic and political changes at the local level that underlie rapid political change and make it possible.” Like Schwedler, she suggests that researchers “look beyond the capitals and large urban cities of the region and pay attention to the region’s peripheries: the rural areas, small towns and small cities with relatively little national economic significance.”

The regional dimension of the protests and the elicited regime responses should force greater attention to the oft-neglected international relations literature. Curtis Ryan argues forcefully “the outcome of almost every case within the Arab uprisings has turned at least in part on the actions and decisions of external powers.” This is a problem for a comparative literature, which tends to focus on domestic variables and treat each country as a discrete case, which led many to miss the contagious power of the early Arab uprisings. As Gwenn Okruhlik points out, “these were not coincidentally simultaneous parallel revolts but somehow a single collective phenomenon.” Sheila Carapico notes “the sharing of slogans in classical Arabic like al-sha’ab yuridh isqat al-nizam and Irhal invite us to think again about the terrain of an Arab ‘region’ which, for all its diversities and contradictions, has more coherence than either the Middle East or the Muslim world.” My memo points to the role of the media, both broadcast and online, in disseminating information, framing the uprisings, and fueling the protests.

There are also vexing but exciting questions of new evidence. My memo, like this recent essay I published with the SSRC, emphasizes the exciting possibilities offered by social media for research.  Scholars studying an uprising a century ago would be thrilled to find a handful of diaries of participants and observers, but today we have access to millions. Participants in the uprisings have often collected vast amounts of relevant materials, from pamphlets and statements to photos and videos. There are vastly greater numbers and types of public opinion surveys being conducted, but of wildly varying quality and reliability. In some cases, the fall of authoritarian regimes may open access to military or government archives which had always been closed off to outside view, though those hopes are less bright than they appeared in the early days of the Egyptian uprising. These new sources of information should offer great opportunities to ambitious, creative young scholars.  

These are only some of the many research agendas that unfold in the memos to follow. They lay out a rich overview of the current thinking of a cross-section of leading scholars who are deeply engaged in thinking about how the Arab uprisings should change the scholarly field. This is an exciting time for scholars, a time for theoretical creativity and empirical. It is a time when our ideas can actually matter for shaping policy, for informing public debate, and for addressing the mainstream of the field of political science. It should not be missed. This special POMEPS Briefing represents our modest effort to help the field seize these opportunities.