Understanding the Political Economy of the Arab Uprisings/Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab World/Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism/The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East

By Waterbury, John | Foreign Affairs, January/February 2015 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Political Economy of the Arab Uprisings/Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab World/Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism/The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East


Waterbury, John, Foreign Affairs


Middle East

Understanding the Political Economy of the Arab Uprisings EDITED BY ISHAC DIWAN. World Scientific, 2014, 308 pp. $56.00.

Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab World EDITED BY LARRY DIAMOND AND MARC F. PLATTNER. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 424 pp. $34.95.

Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism EDITED BY LINA KHATIB AND ELLEN LUST. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 368 pp. $59.95 (paper, $29.95).

The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East EDITED BY MARC LYNCH. Columbia University Press, 2014, 352 pp. $90.00 (paper, $30.00).

The uprisings of 2011 were unprecedented in recent Arab history, as civilians took to the streets in massive numbers not to protest rising prices or condemn foreign governments but rather to demand the downfall of their own leaders. Arab countries have long ranked among the least free in the world, and the uprisings suggested that perhaps the region was about to come in from the autocratic cold. In four recently edited volumes, experts try to make sense of the uprisings and the subsequent regime changes, as well as the reversals and bloody stalemates that followed. Together, they shed some light on the basic question now facing the region: Is autocracy back for good, or did the protests signal the start of an irreversible march toward greater democracy that is merely stalled at the moment?

In considering the origins of the uprisings, these volumes tend not to emphasize structural factors, such as the region's high level of youth unemployment or its "youth bulge." One might assume that, for example, a sevenfold increase in the number of unemployed educated people-which Tunisia experienced between 1994 and 2011-would be a major contributor to civil unrest. But the expert analyses collected by these four books tend to see other kinds of issues as more important in explaining why the uprisings occurred.

Of these volumes, Diwan's includes the most commentary on the structural factors behind the uprisings, and a credible hypothesis emerges from some of its essays: in recent decades, neoliberal reforms enacted by Arab states combined with corrupt privatization schemes and crony capitalism to undermine the economic base of the middle class, driving a portion of the middle class to ally with the lower-middle class and the poor. Some contributors to Diwan's book also make use of "transitology" scholarship that looked into the democratic transitions in Latin America and eastern Europe in the 1990s. This research suggests that transitions to democracy involve deals made among four distinct groups. On the one side is civil society, which is divided into moderates and radicals; on the other side are autocratic regimes, which are themselves divided into reformers and hard-liners. If civil society moderates and regime reformers hold sway and can arrive at an understanding, then a transition to democracy is possible. But if radicals and hard-liners dominate, their intransigence makes a transition virtually impossible.

In the past four years, Egypt has produced both of those outcomes. In 2011, elements of the Mubarak regime that were open to change (including some in the military) made a series of deals with moderate elements of the opposition (especially within the Muslim Brotherhood), leading to modern Egypt's first freely elected government. Then, in 2013, when the new president, a former Brotherhood leader, revealed his antidemocratic intentions, the military turned hard-line, ousted the president, gunned down his supporters when they rallied in protest, and established a new regime that is even more autocratic than Hosni Mubarak's was. …

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