Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East

Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East

Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East

Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East


In December 2010, the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable vendor set off a wave of protests that have been termed the "Arab Spring." These protests upended the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen while unsettling numerous other regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Dafna Hochman Rand was a senior policy planner in the U.S. State Department as the uprisings unfolded. In Roots of the Arab Spring, she gives one of the first accounts of the systemic underlying forces that gave birth to the Arab Spring.

Drawing on three years of field research conducted before the protests, Rand shows how experts overlooked signs that political change was stirring in the region and overestimated the regimes' strategic capabilities to manage these changes. She argues that the Arab Spring was fifteen years in the making, gradually inflamed by growing popular demand--and expectation--for free expression, by top-down restrictions on citizens' political rights, and by the failure of the region's autocrats to follow through on liberalizing reforms they had promised more than a decade earlier.

An incisive account of events whose ramifications are still unfolding, Roots of the Arab Spring captures the tectonic shifts in the region that led to the first major political upheaval of the twenty-first century.


In the mid-2000s, I lived in Morocco, Tunisia, and Bahrain, conducting research on the political strategies enabling authoritarian governments to persist in the Middle East and North Africa. Middle East comparative politics specialists considered the endurance of authoritarianism in this region a puzzling anomaly. Most of the developing world had at least experimented with some type of democratization from the 1970s through the 1990s—even if many of these states later regressed back to “hybrid” regime types, neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian. Yet the states of the Middle East and North Africa remained undemocratic, lagging on all of the global rankings that measure political freedom and civil liberties.

After conducting over a hundred interviews in these three countries, sitting in on parliamentary sessions, and participating in civil society and political activities, my search for a generalizable explanation for the democracy deficit in the region seemed beside the point. Though there were constitutional, bureaucratic, and socioeconomic explanations for authoritarian endurance, this endurance did not appear to be the most apparent trend in the region. On the ground, from the Casbah of Rabat, Morocco, to the ports of Bahrain, the most remarkable characteristic of the region’s politics during the first decade of the twenty-first century was its widespread dynamism, including a pervasive uncertainty about the future of both regional and local politics.

Of course, the authoritarian state appeared just as strong as I had expected. Internal security services, including, in some places, despised secret police, exercised powerful oversight roles, often interfering in daily life. Political opposition activists traded stories—some real, some imagined—of arbitrary detentions and deplorable prison conditions. The rulers commanded a pervasive physical presence, with pictures of leaders adorning everything from public buses to hotel lobbies, reminding the citizens of the established political order. Yet in Morocco I also found journalists and . . .

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