A Reading List for the Arab Uprisings

Have you wondered how Middle East specialists have dealt with the Arab uprisings? Do you want to know how the field has responded to the scathing indictment offered by Gregory Gause in Foreign Affairs last summer that "the vast majority of academic specialists on the Arab world were as surprised as everyone else by the upheavals?" Or are you just looking for new books and articles which might be useful for course syllabi or research projects? 

With the Labor Day weekend marking the traditional launch of a new academic year, I am delighted to share the new POMEPS bibliography of academic books and journal articles about the Arab uprisings. The bibliography includes books and journal articles, and will soon be expanded to include selected policy reports written by academics. We won't try to include the many shorter articles such as those published on the Middle East Channel and other online publications. Over the summer, I edited a collection for the Project on Middle East Political Science of a set of reflections by more than two dozen leading political scientists about new research opportunities presented by the Arab uprisings. This bibliography shows a field beginning to grapple with and hopefully to deliver on those ideas.

The Arab uprisings and the political struggles which have followed should generate rich intellectual opportunities for new thinking, new research, and new ideas. No analytical consensus has emerged, nor should it any time soon. Some scholars claim theoretical vindication that so many authoritarian regimes survived the massive protest wave of 2011. Others have attempted to adapt pre-existing theories which would seem to have been contradicted rather spectacularly by events. Still others have seized the opportunity to develop new research programs around the dynamics of mobilization and contentious politics, international diffusion, information technology, transitional elections, and the role of international and transnational actors.    

The articles and books now appearing show a field of experts from a wide range of analytical and political traditions grappling with both the uprisings and the political aftermath. It's very clear that Middle East scholars did not miss the Arab uprisings because they didn't believe Arabs wanted democracy, or because they failed to observe the signs of escalating mobilization. The literature of the last two decades was full of studies of rising political protest, the transformative impact of new information technologies and a new public sphere, the decaying foundations of Arab regimes, economic deprivations and escalating corruption, succession problems among republics and monarchies alike, the rejection of the regional status quo, and so forth. And there were plenty of studies of Islamist movements, political parties, civil society, and various social movements. 

Indeed, Lisa Anderson acidly noted in a 2006 review essay that the real problem may have been that academics focused too much of their efforts on questions about democratization which manifestly did not exist. It was political scientists sobered by decades of abortive democratization and false promises of change who shifted their focus to explaining the persistence of authoritarianism, and were thus caught off-guard by the massive region-wide popular wave of protest and fall of several long-serving leaders. While I have argued repeatedly that the uprisings are a manifestation of a deep, structural transformation of Arab politics driven in part by the changing information environment, others have good reason to disagree. They point to the survival of so many other regimes and the frustrations of the revolutionaries, to the frightening lessons of Syria's descent to civil war or Bahrain's remorseless crushing of opposition, or to the continuing role of oil rents or U.S. support for helpful dictators to question the extent of real transformative change. These are good debates to have. Indeed, as with my piece last week on the Arab monarchies, questions matter as much as answers at this point, and it would be a pity if a new consensus settled in prematurely.

I hope that scholars and journalists find this resource helpful. Please send us books or articles which we've missed -- we will be constantly updating, and looking to provide a one-stop resource for academics working on the topic. And I will just say again that it would be even more helpful if journal publishers would allow the articles to emerge from behind the paywall (we will link to as many ungated versions of the papers as possible). Thanks!

UPDATE: Some quick responses to comments on Twitter: This is meant to be a comprehensive bibliography of academic books and journal articles, not recommendations or endorsements. We will generally include books when they are published in the United States, which means that we may run behind some of the interesting books which appear elsewhere. Based on one reader's excellent suggestion, we hope to add a section on Arabic publications. Remember -- this will be updated regularly, so if you have ideas about new topics, articles or books just send them along. And finally, a big shout out to GW graduate student Chana Solomon-Schwartz for her assistance in preparing and maintaining the bibliography! 


Marc Lynch

Does Arab monarchy matter?

What does it mean that no Kings have thus far fallen in the Arab uprisings while four non-monarchical rulers (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saleh) have toppled from their (non-royal) thrones and a fifth has plunged his country into a brutal civil war?   Is there a monarchical exception in the Arab world?   The significance of monarchy has been one of the most vibrant debates among political scientists over the last two years, as I wrote about a few months ago.  A new article in the Journal of Politics by Victor Menaldo claiming statistical evidence for a monarchical advantage prompted me to revisit these arguments this week.    

The advantages of monarchy have taken on the feel of "common sense" among the public and in academic debates. But I remain highly skeptical about the more ambitious arguments for a monarchical exception. Access to vast wealth and useful international allies seems a more plausible explanation for the resilience of most of the Arab monarchies.  Surviving with the financial resources and international allies available to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE seems like no great trick.  The active, concerted economic, political, media (and occasionally military) Saudi and Qatari support for their less wealthy fellow monarchs seems to be more important to the survival of the current crop of kings than the intrinsic institutional characteristics of a throne. 

There has been a robust academic argument over the possible political benefits of monarchy at least since Lisa Anderson's influential 1991 article "Absolutism and the Resilience of Monarchy."  The operation of dynastic monarchies in relation to other regime types have been detailed and analyzed in important work by Michael Herb and many other political scientists over the last two decades.  That debate intersects in productive ways with broader research trends in political science over the last decade over the many varieties of authoritarianism.  In that context, I certainly don't mean to say that monarchy doesn't matter at all.  It seems obvious that different regime types will create different incentives, institutions, and possibilities for political contention.  And the relative survival rate of the monarchies during the Arab uprisings of the last years is certainly suggestive of something.  But I remain highly skeptical of the stronger theoretical and policy claims about the positive political benefits of Arab monarchy.   

I am particularly unpersuaded by arguments that the Arab monarchies enjoy a distinctive legitimacy.  Some Kings no doubt have been popular due to their personalities, their policies, or their ability to play their assigned role effectively.  But it is difficult to reconcile the idea of monarchical legitimacy with the tightly controlled media, carefully cultivated personality cults, and brutally policed "red lines" which generally characterize such regimes.  The alleged unique legitimacy of Arab monarchs strikes me as a carefully cultivated and ruthlessly policed political myth which could dissolve as quickly as did the universal adoration for Bashar al-Assad or Moammar Qaddafi when challenged.  If monarchy confers unique legitimacy on, say, King Abdullah of Jordan, then why the need for a draconian l'ese majeste law criminalizing insulting the King or escalating controls on the online media?  Why the need for Kuwait to jail someone for posting a YouTube video of a poem criticizing the Emir?  Why such concern among the Saudi leadership over the grumblings of the religious establishment?  

The claim for a unique legitimacy among the Arab monarchies is further undermined by the fact that they have in fact experienced significant political dissent over the last two years, to which they responded through fairly typical (albeit unusually well-resourced) combinations of repression and co-optation.   Kuwait experienced the most dramatic, largest and most effective political protests in its history, leading to a political crisis which has shut down Parliament and for the first time brought the prerogatives of the royal family directly into the public debate.  Quiet Oman faced unprecedented levels of protest which forced significant political reforms.  Saudi Arabia has faced persistent and growing protest in its Eastern Province, and forcefully cracked down on dissent elsewhere even as it lavished $130 billion on its restive population.  Bahrain's monarchy survived (for now) against truly massive popular mobilization only through the application of a brutal, sweeping campaign of sectarian repression.  Morocco's monarch diverted popular mobilization through an early offer of limited political reforms, while Jordan's monarch struggles with growing  popular mobilization and an ever-shrinking ruling coalition as his regime fails to effectively adapt. In other words, the resources and capabilities of the Arab monarchies may be different from their non-kingly peers, but the challenges facing them from popular mobilization really were not.

Other popular arguments in the literature for the monarchical exception also strike me as limited. It's true that the monarchies practice divide and rule, selectively co-opt and repress, and in some cases allow controlled elections to Parliaments with limited power --- but is this so different from the games played by Ben Ali, Mubarak, or Assad?  Perhaps monarchies offer a sense of predictability to politics and reduce the stakes of competition -- but were Syrians or Egyptians really under the illusion that their leaders might be voted out of office?  Perhaps monarchy allows all other citizens to know their place and not get any uppity ideas about a role in governing or oversight of their government's budgets -- but is such a second-class citizenship really viable in today's political environment?  And can we really say that monarchs are better at offering an inclusive national identity in the face of the virulent anti-Shi'a exclusions in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, or the constant exploitation of Transjordanian-Palestinian identity divides in Jordan? (I'd rather not get into Menaldo's arguments as to why the monarchies have less corruption, since the premise seems so implausible on its face.)

To me, the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths.  And that means that they will not likely be spared should those assets lose value -- as they well might, given young, often underemployed populations that have some of the highest smartphone and media penetration in the world; dysfunctional political institutions; extravagant promises of public spending which may soon put serious strain on even Gulf budgets;  shifting regional political dynamics and reduced U.S. commitments; and uncertain leadership successions.  The monarchs may be on offense around the region right now, but their defense might not be a strong as it appears.

To paraphrase one of our great living philosopher kings, the Arab monarchies may be forced to choose among three dreams: the Saudi King's, Dr. King's and Rodney King's.   The monarchs would like their own people and the outside world to believe that they survive because of their effective and benevolent leadership, their unique political culture, and their distinctive legitimacy which requires no great concessions to meaningful democratic political participation.  But that very myth can blind them to the ever more urgent calls by reformists for just such political inclusion, transparency, an end to corruption, and equality of citizenship.  The violent repression and angry protests in Manama or Qatif provide stark warning of the danger of believing such comforting mythologies of resilience or legitimacy.  

The discussion of Arab monarchy really should be a debate, of course.  A lot of smart people do think that monarchy matters, and have developed sophisticated arguments and evidence to support the contention.  They may be right.  There's an outstanding literature in political science on the nature of various regime types, to which Middle East specialists have contributed significantly.  But if Gulf regimes start to suddenly fall, as predicted in this forthcoming book by Christopher Davidson, or the popular mobilization which already exists takes on new forms, then the embrace of the monarchical exception could soon look as foolish as did the passion for Lebanese consociationalism in the 1960s, the admiration for the Shah's developmental state in Iran in the 1970s, or the confidence in the resilience of Arab authoritarian regimes in the 2000s. 

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