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New Texts Out Now: James Gelvin, "The Modern Middle East" and "The Arab Uprisings"

[Cover of James Gelvin, [Cover of James Gelvin, "The Modern Middle East: A History"

James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, Third Edition. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

James L. Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2011.

Jadaliyya: What made you write The Modern Middle East: A History originally, and what led you to work on this revised and updated edition? 

James Gelvin: Oxford originally suggested I do the book and I agreed immediately. It was something I had been thinking of doing anyway. Although the book is published by Oxford's textbook division, it is actually an expanded analytic essay that situates modern Middle Eastern history in the context of global history and traces the integration of the Middle East into global modernity. That is why I start the book at the beginning of the sixteenth century with not only the founding of long-lived "gunpowder empires" in the region, but with the Commercial Revolution and the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Those two events set the stage for the modern world economy and the modern state system, which, in turn, have set the parameters for global modernity.   

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address, and how has this changed since the first edition?

JG: The book recasts the history of the modern Middle East by widening the lens and by using an "analytical-cum-chronological" approach. I suppose you can say the book forces readers to confront their understanding of regional history as well as of the "modern." While the central premise of the book has remained the same since the first edition, I have rewritten quite a bit of it. I've had to update it of course, but I have also had to include new research, my own and others', and I have rethought a number of issues. This is particularly true of the last section, in which I explore the region during the post-World War II period. Although the last edition came out the very week Ben Ali left Tunisia, the current uprisings have forced me once again to reassess events in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I would urge readers to check out my remarks at the conference “Teaching the Middle East After the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions” to see how I have done so and to get a preview of the fourth edition.

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

JG: The book connects more to my teaching than it does to my research. As a matter of fact, the first draft of the book was my lecture notes for my modern Middle East survey. My research does inform the book, however, and since I had written previously on Syria, Israel/Palestine, nationalism, state formation, etc., those sections were the easiest and fastest for me to write.   


[James Gelvin. Image from Jadaliyya archives.]

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

JG: I have aimed the book at two audiences: college and university undergraduates and graduate students, on the one hand, and the educated public, on the other. That is why I have avoided jargon and have tried to make the book a "good read." For example, I have included a number of separate "vignette boxes" in which I describe the culinary effect of the Ottoman siege of Vienna, the effect of the Crimean War on men's fashion, the effect of nineteenth-century America's obsession with dates on the economies of the Persian Gulf and Iraq, etc.

J: What other projects are you working on right now?

JG: I am currently working on another book for Oxford tentatively titled The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. It is targeted at the same audience and should be out sometime this fall. Then I can get back to two projects I had set aside. The first is about the impact of the Italian invasion of Tripolitania (Libya) in 1911 on the Arab East. I am particularly interested in how mobilization took place in the Arab East in an age of rail, steam, and telegraph, and how intellectuals perceived the invasion and the Ottoman Empire in wake of the invasion. The second project has to do with the interaction between the Egyptian nationalist movement and the Irish nationalist movement from the time of the Easter Rebellion (1916) through Egyptian independence and beyond (1922-). The Irish were very unhappy that all the British offered them was home rule while they offered the Egyptians quasi-independence. 

Excerpt from The Modern Middle East: A History, Third Edition

At its height, the Ottoman Empire governed a huge expanse of territory, not only in the Middle East, but in North Africa and southeastern Europe—Greece, Hungary, the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria—as well. Indeed, there is reason for the famous quip by the nineteenth-century Austrian statesman Prince Klemens von Metternich that “Asia begins at the eastern gate of Vienna.” The Ottomans, in fact, had laid siege to Vienna itself twice, the first time in 1529, the second in 1683. No wonder, then, that an English historian writing in the beginning of the seventeenth century called the Ottoman Empire “the present terror of the world.”

The second empire to emerge at the beginning of the sixteenth century was the Safavid Empire. The Safavid Empire was centered in Persia but at its height included territories that stretched from the Caucasus mountains in the north to eastern Iraq. The Safavid Empire lasted from 1501 to 1722, when it was overthrown by an invading army from Afghanistan. After a disastrous interregnum period, most noted for bringing Persia incessant war, depopulation, and intermittent famine, another Turkic dynasty took over from the Safavids. This was the Qajar dynasty, which ruled from 1796 to 1925. Although the Safavid dynasty itself lasted only half as long as the Ottoman Empire, its significance lies in its twofold legacy: The Safavid Empire established a state whose boundaries roughly coincided with the boundaries of present-day Iran and, under the Safavids, the population of Persia became adherents of the Shi’i branch of Islam.

One other Muslim empire emerged during this period, which bears mentioning even though its history lies outside the scope of this book: the Mughal Empire of India. Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire stretched, at its height, from Afghanistan in the north three-quarters of the way down the Indian subcontinent. The Mughal Empire ran afoul of British imperialism and, in 1858, was demolished by the British, who then made India into a British colony. The Mughal Empire resembled the Ottoman and Safavid empires in many ways. Like the other empires, it was founded by a people from Central Asia (the first Mughal emperor, Babar, claimed descent from the half-Mongol, half-Turkish conqueror, Tamerlaine) and it shared political and economic structures and intellectual traditions with the Ottomans and Safavids. Unfortunately, the Mughal Empire lies outside the artificial boundaries we set for ourselves in writing the history of the modern Middle East. Its history is instead commonly addressed by historians who focus on another artificial geographical division, historians of India.

The second event that occurred at the dawn of the early modern period was the commercial revolution in Europe. During the early sixteenth century, trade among Europeans, on the one hand, and between Europe and other parts of the world, on the other, began to increase dramatically. A variety of factors encouraged the commercial revolution: technological breakthroughs, such as the use of the compass and adjustable sails and multiple masts on ships; new institutions for organizing trade and banking; the introduction of new crops—from tomatoes and potatoes to tobacco—from the New World; the introduction of massive quantities of New World gold and silver into Europe; and the establishment of overseas colonies, from the Persian Gulf to the newly discovered Americas. According to many historians, the commercial revolution set off a chain of events that would culminate in the establishment of the modern world economy. The impact of the commercial revolution on the Middle East is the topic of Chapter 3.

The final event that took place at the dawn of the early modern era was the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation is commonly dated from 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral in present-day Germany. Luther’s theses both protested various policies and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and advocated new ones. The Protestant Revolution split Europe into separate Protestant and Catholic kingdoms and principalities, thereby ending the idea of a universal Christian state. It culminated in a series of religious wars during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Europe that emerged from these wars was very different from the Europe that entered them. As a result of the religious wars, Europe divided into highly competitive and sometimes highly efficient political units. European history became marked by attempts of these states to gain advantage or achieve a balance among themselves. In effect, then, modern nation-states and the nation-state system might be traced to the Protestant Reformation. The spread of the modern state system would have a profound effect on the Middle East.

Of course, the ways in which the three aforementioned events affected the Middle East were to a large extent determined by their interaction with existing social structures, economic arrangements, and cultural norms. Thus, to understand the impact of this period on the Middle East we have to understand the legacy of the earlier history of the region. That is where Part I of this book begins.

[Reprinted from The Modern Middle East: A History by James L. Gelvin with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]


[Cover of James Gelvin, "The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know"]

Excerpt from The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know

From CHAPTER I: A REVOLUTIONARY WAVE?

….There were four factors which, acting together, have made authoritarian regimes in the Arab world susceptible to popular anger: the widespread perception that states were reneging on the “benefits for compliance” bargain they had struck with their citizens, demographic challenges, a food crisis, and the brittleness of authoritarian regimes.

First, over the course of the past thirty years, and particularly since the 1990s, states have attempted to renegotiate unilaterally the ruling bargain that linked governments with the populations they ruled.

Most states in the Arab world received their independence at roughly the same time, during the post-World War II period. There was variation in government forms, of course. In many cases, although not all, this had to do with the identity of the colonial power that had been present before independence. The British, the preeminent power in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf, generally left behind kingdoms and shaykhdoms (Egypt was a kingdom until 1953; Iraq until 1958). The French, the preeminent power in North Africa, Syria, and Lebanon, generally left behind republics. In spite of the variation in government forms, however, the ruling bargains states struck with their populations were roughly the same. States played a major role in the economy. They did this to force-march economic development, expand employment opportunities, reward favored elements of the population, and gain control over strategic industries. States also provided a wide array of social benefits for their populations, including employment guarantees, healthcare, and education. Consumer goods were also subsidized by the state.

There were a number of reasons why states in the region—and, indeed, throughout the developing world—adopted these policies. The United States encouraged them to do so, believing that a combination of economic development and welfare would create stable, pro-Western states. So did international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and a legion of development experts who passed on cookie-cutter policies wherever they went. These policies fit the economic paradigm popular at the time. This paradigm gave pride of place to full employment and rising standards of living as the two indicators of economic success. Governments, it was believed, could guide resources to ensure both goals were reached more effectively in environments where markets were not well developed. A third factor was the logic of decolonization: Before independence, imperial powers set economic policy, mainly for their own benefit. With independence, states asserted their economic rights to make up for lost time and attempted to win support through the redistribution of national wealth. Some states—Egypt, post-independence Algeria, Libya, Iraq and Syria at various times, Libya, etc.—justified their policies using a populist discourse that extolled anti-colonialism and the virtues of the revolutionary masses. In those states, the old regime that young military officers replaced represented collaboration with imperialists, feudalism, and corruption. Other states—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, for example—appealed to tradition or efficiency. Whether “revolutionary” or reactionary, however, Middle Eastern governments came to the same destination, although via different routes.

Toward the end of the 1970s, governments in the Arab world began their attempts to renegotiate the ruling bargain. They had to. After the price of oil spiked first in 1973, then again in 1979, it plummeted. All Arab states had benefitted from high oil prices, oil producers and non-oil producers alike. Oil producers subsidized the ruling bargains of their less fortunate brethren. They did this through grants and loans, on the one hand, and by providing job opportunities to the populations of labor rich, but oil poor, Arab states. When oil prices began their rapid descent in the 1980s, governments had to retrench. Two factors made matters even worse. First, a number of Arab states—Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, and the Sudan being the most prominent—had borrowed heavily in flush times when interest rates were low, then continued to borrow to pay debt service, maintain what they could of their increasingly tattered ruling bargain, or both. The debt burdens were so massive that one economist referred to the region as part of a “Mediterranean debt crescent.”[1] Second, times had changed, and so too had the prevailing economic paradigm. State-guided economic development was out, as was public ownership of manufacturing and commercial ventures. Neo-liberalism was in.

Neo-liberalism is the name given to a market-driven approach to economics in which the role of the state is kept to a minimum. While often identified with Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, the roots of neo-liberalism go back to the early 1970s, when the United States took a combative approach to demands made by developing nations for greater control of the raw materials they produced, as well as for a greater role in deciding international economic policy. When in 1973 oil producers gained control of the pricing and ownership of oil—acts that led to higher oil prices and stagnant economies and inflation in the developed world—the United States pushed back, decrying any and all political interference with the market. The debt crisis of the 1980s, which affected much of the developing world, presented the United States with a golden opportunity to push the new paradigm: States that not so long before had asserted their economic rights were now begging international banking institutions for debt relief.

Debt relief was forthcoming—but at a price. In return for debt relief and access to fresh capital from international lenders such as the IMF and the World Bank, states had to undertake immediate steps to stabilize their economies, then longer-term measures to ensure fiscal health. IMF and World Bank experts demanded states cut expenditures, liberalize trade, balance their budget, remove price controls, deregulate business, privatize public enterprises by selling them off to the highest bidder, and end across-the-board subsidies on consumer goods. In place of across-the-board subsidies, international lending institutions recommended subsidies “targeted” only to the very poor. In other words, governments were to shred the ruling bargains they struck with their populations.

Neo-liberal policies got their tentative start in the Arab world in December 1976, when Egypt negotiated a $450 million credit line with the IMF, which also provided Egypt with the wherewithal to postpone $12 billion in foreign debt. In return, Egypt cut $123 million in commodity supports and $64 million from direct subsidies. The result was what one might imagine: two days of bloody rioting in which eighty to one hundred protesters died and twelve hundred were arrested. Similar “IMF riots” broke out in Morocco (1983), Tunisia (1984), Lebanon (1987), Algeria (1988), and Jordan (1989, 1996) after the IMF attempted to impose conditions on loans and loan guarantees.

Initially, states backpedaled. The IMF also modified its demands. States only began to apply neo-liberal policies in earnest in the late 1980s, after a “lost decade” of virtually no growth. In Egypt, serious “economic reform” did not really begin until 2004 with the appointment of the “cabinet of businessmen.” Libya began its first wave of privatizations in 2003 and followed them up with cuts in subsidies a year later. And it was not only the IMF that was responsible for the spread of neo-liberalism in the region: Saudi Arabia and Syria, for example, voluntarily adopted measures associated with neo-liberalism. Saudi Arabia did so in order to join the World Trade Organization; Syria, as part of its fruitless quest to join the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area. The fact that such entry requirements existed in the first place only demonstrates the global predominance of the neo-liberal economic paradigm.

In most states, the overall effect of neo-liberal policies was to overlay a jury-rigged market economy on top of an inefficient command economy. And some policies had effects different from their intentions. Privatization, for example, did not lead to capitalism but rather to crony capitalism, as regime loyalists took advantage of their access to the powerful to gain ownership of sold-off state assets. Thus it was that in Egypt, a friend of the son of the president came to control 60% of the steel industry, while in Syria the first cousin of the president gained control over the mobile communications giant Syriatel, which controls fifty-five percent of the market. Both became popular symbols of regime corruption during the uprisings. And while states in the region enjoyed high growth rates during the past decade, they also experienced greater income inequalities. This, in part, explains the participation of large numbers of middle-class, professional youths in uprisings throughout the region: While states have stripped members of this cohort of the “middle-class welfare” benefits their parents had enjoyed and condemned many to fend for themselves in the ranks of the un- and underemployed, they are both denied benefits targeted to the very poor and entry into the ranks of the very privileged. It also explains the upsurge in labor activism in various places in the Arab world and the prominent role played by labor in the uprisings in such places as Tunisia and Egypt. Or, as the last pre-upsurge finance minister of Egypt put it, “We do not have a constituency for reform at the street level.”

The second factor that has made authoritarian regimes in the Arab world vulnerable is related to demography. Approximately 60% of the population of the region is under the age of thirty, and the broader Middle East and North African region is second only to sub-Saharan Africa in the percentage of youth within that bracket. Demographers call what has taken place in the region a “youth bulge.” To a certain extent, the current youth bulge might be attributed to the successes of states in the region. Historically, youth bulges occur as a stage in the process of moving from a population characterized by a high rate of fertility and a high rate of mortality into a population characterized by a low rate of fertility and a low rate of mortality. This transformation most frequently accompanies a rise in the standard of living. If such a transformation takes place at an even rate, there would be no youth bulge. But most often it does not. Mortality rates have been steadily declining in the Arab world for decades, if not longer, in large measure as the result of improvements in healthcare, education, public health, and sanitation. Fertility rates, on the other hand, did not begin their decline until the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Population growth thus peaked in the 1980s as those born in the 1960s-70s entered their childbearing years. The result is the current youth bulge.

There is another statistic, however, that is more telling about the current state of the Arab world than the percentage of those under the age of thirty: the percentage of those between fifteen and twenty-nine, the period during which youths begin entering the job market and, more commonly in the case of women, marriage.[2] Youths between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine make up 29% of the population of Tunisia, 30% of the population of Egypt, 32% of the population in Algeria, and 34% of the population of Libya. Across the region, youth make up approximately 25% of the unemployed (30% among women). But even this statistic has to be taken with a grain of salt. As might be expected, the youth unemployment rate is much higher in states whose exports of oil are either minimal or nonexistent. Youth unemployment in Egypt is 43%, for example, and in Tunisia it is 30%. Furthermore, the statistics on employment do not include those who have given up on finding work (the “discouraged unemployed”) and those who work part time but who wish to work more hours. In Egypt, for example, almost 60% of youths between 18-29 are out of the labor force (in the case of women it is 83%). And when it comes to employment, education provides little advantage. As a matter of fact, in Egypt youth with college degrees rank highest among the unemployed of any sector of youth, and in Syria a vast majority of college graduates spend at least four years looking for employment before landing a job.

The lack of employment opportunities for youth in the Arab world has given rise to a phenomenon one political scientist has called “waithood,” a period in which youth “wait for (good) jobs, wait for marriage and intimacy, and wait for full participation in their societies.” Men in particular delay marriage until they become solvent enough to pay customary expenses associated with marriage and can support a family. As a result, life is put on hold, and the average age for marriage among men in the Arab world is the highest of any region of the world.

None of this is to say that demography is destiny, or that frustrations about job or life prospects necessarily translate themselves into rebellion. As a matter of fact, a 2010 survey of youth around the world found that Egyptian youth, for example, with all their demographic baggage, rank alongside their cohort in Jordan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Russia as the least likely to participate in oppositional politics among youth populations globally. As of 2004, Vietnam had a youth unemployment rate of under 5%, and Russia a rapidly graying population—very different profiles from that of Egypt. Furthermore, youth were hardly the only segment of Arab populations that mobilized during the uprising. Nevertheless, by 2010 there was a cohort of youth throughout the Arab world with grievances. Under the proper circumstances, this cohort was available to be mobilized for oppositional politics.

The third factor that has made authoritarian regimes in the Arab world vulnerable was a crisis in the food supply chain. In January 2011, the Japanese investment bank Nomura compiled a list of the twenty-five countries that would be “crushed” in a food crisis. The Arab world was well represented on the list: Tunisia came in at #18, followed by Libya at #16, Sudan at #8, Egypt at #6, Lebanon at #5, Algeria at #3, and Morocco at #2. To understand the full effects of these numbers, consider the following: The average percent of household spending that goes to pay for food in the countries on the list range from 34% in Lebanon to 63% in Morocco. The average percent of household spending that goes to pay for food in the United States is about 7%—a figure that includes dining-as-entertainment, that is, dining outside the home.

There are two main reasons for the vulnerability of states in the Arab world to a food crisis. First, even though the region contains two areas that have historically been associated with agricultural plenty—the “Fertile Crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq and the Nile valley in Egypt—agricultural conditions throughout much of the region are harsh, populations are rising, and water tables are increasingly diminished. Only two countries in the Arab world had reached the level of food self-sufficiency before 2006: Syria and Saudi Arabia. Then four consecutive years of drought made Syria a food importer rather than the food exporter it had been. Investment in agriculture had enabled Saudi Arabia also to become a food exporter, and for a brief period in the early 1990s Saudi Arabia was the world’s sixth largest exporter of grain. After the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, however, the Saudi government began diverting much of the money it had spent to subsidize agriculture to military procurement. In 2008, the government abandoned its grain cultivation program entirely, and two years later it was contemplating building a new Red Sea port geared toward handling imports of wheat and barley. Now all Arab countries are net food importers, and Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat.

The other factor that has contributed to making the region vulnerable to a food crisis is neo-liberal economic policies. As governments increasingly avoided intervening in markets to fix prices or manipulate the exchange rates of their currencies, populations had to face fluctuations in international food prices on their own. In addition, the neo-liberal policies that compelled governments to abandon across-the-board subsidies on food and replace them with subsidies targeted to the very poor has diminished food security for a wide swath of the population. It has also fuelled popular anger when food prices go up. In 2007, for example, when prices began to climb, bread riots spread throughout the region, from Morocco and Algeria to Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Given a choice between facing the ire of their populations and the ire of the IMF, governments chose the latter and increased subsidies and raised public sector wages. Egypt alone spent three billion dollars for subsidies on food.

The increase in the price of food that the region began experiencing in 2007 turned out not to be a fluke. Between 2007 and the beginning of 2011, the price of food doubled on international markets, and as of March 2011 food prices had risen every consecutive month for eight months. Economists have given a number of reasons for the price increases. There is the increased acreage American, European, and Brazilian farmers have given over to the production of bio-fuels. In the United States alone, more than one quarter of the 2010 grain harvest went to bio-fuel. (Rather than offering Tunisians and Egyptians IMF and World Bank assistance to further neo-liberal policies in their countries—which President Obama did in his May 2011 speech to the Arab world—he might have offered them a very different type of remedy to their plight: an end to federal subsidies for the cultivation of corn for bio-fuel in the United States.) There is also climate change, which has had its most dramatic effect on Russia in 2010: As a result of a heat wave, the Russian wheat harvest declined by 40% and Russia halted its grain exports. As it turns out, Russia had been Egypt’s biggest supplier of wheat. In addition, some economists cite the changing patterns of consumption in emerging economies, particularly China. As the standard of living in China has risen, so has meat consumption. And while estimates of how many pounds of corn are required to produce one pound of beef vary widely, there is no denying that the production of more beef requires more corn. Finally, economists cite the effects of dollar inflation on food prices. As in the case of all internationally-traded commodities, the price of grain is denominated in dollars, and as the value of the dollar declined in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008, the price of grain has risen. Whatever the causes, however, the fact remains that at the point at which the uprisings began and spread throughout the Arab world, the question of the vulnerability of the region to such a crisis was no longer theoretical.

The final factor that has that has made authoritarian regimes in the Arab world vulnerable is the fact that they are brittle. The first Arab uprising in Tunisia took place a little over two years after the onset of the economic crisis of 2008. The intervening period was not a good one for governments throughout the world, which found themselves caught between bankers and economists recommending austerity, on the one hand, and populations fearing the end of the welfare state they had come to know, on the other. As the Arab uprisings spread, populations in other regions continued to show their dissatisfaction with those who governed them. Populations voted out ruling parties in the United Kingdom, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Iceland, among other countries. The ruling party of France lost heavily in local elections and was looking forward to presidential elections the year after with trepidation. The prime minister of Italy came within a few votes of losing a no confidence vote. In the United States, elections first threw out a Republican president, then a Democratic congress. And throughout Europe protesters and rioters took to the streets to prevent governments cutting workers’ pay and unemployment benefits, increasing retirement ages and cutting pensions, and eliminating bonuses to families having children. Yet throughout it all, not one government was overthrown, nor were political institutions uprooted. Blame fell on politicians and parties and the policies they pushed.

Now turn to the Arab world where political institutions are weak and the lines separating the ruler, the ruling party, and ruling institutions (from the party congresses and “parliaments” to the military and intelligence services) are often blurred, if they exist at all. In most cases, popular representatives cannot be turned out of office because there are no popular representatives. In those few cases where there are, their power is limited. This is why populations throughout the region have taken to the streets as their first option. This is also explains why the most common slogan during the uprisings was, “Down with the nizam (regime/system/order), and not “Down with the Government.”   

It is important to emphasize that unilateral attempts by regimes to renegotiate ruling bargains, demographic challenges, a food crisis, and brittleness made autocracies in the Arab world vulnerable, but they did not cause the uprisings. To attribute the uprisings to these factors or to any others overlooks a key variable—the human element—that determines whether a rebellion will or will not occur. It also makes it seem that once a set of conditions are met, people will automatically respond in determined ways.

In the past, for example, it was common for historians and political scientists to attempt to connect outbreaks of rebellion with changes in economic conditions. In some cases (as in the case of France in 1789) they have tracked the increase in the price of bread during the years leading up to the revolution and argued that increasing bread prices led to (caused) the French Revolution. Others, demonstrating that you can argue almost anything in the social sciences and get away with it, have asserted just the opposite. Rebellions, they claim, take place when a sudden reversal disrupts a period of improving economic conditions, thereby frustrating popular expectations. The problem with both theories is that they cannot explain the countless times in which conditions for rebellion are met but rebellions do not occur. For example, Americans did not rebel after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, when the economy suddenly collapsed, nor did they rebel in 1937, when the economy again took a sharp nosedive after years of recovery. Nor can the theories account for the timing of rebellions, except with the telltale sentence, “After X years of hunger/repression/corruption, the people had had enough.” The problem is that unemployment and bread prices, for example, are objective categories that are quantifiable. The sense of deprivation or injustice—not to mention the compulsion to translate that sense into action—is not. To make matters even more unpredictable, peoples’ sense of deprivation changes as circumstances unfold. Thus, people might suddenly discover a cause worth fighting for once their neighbors have taken to the streets.

Then there is the role played by unexpected events which people might latch on to (or not) to reinterpret their circumstances in new ways. As we shall see, the unforeseen departure of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt in the wake of popular protests changed the course of ongoing protest movements in Algeria and Yemen, troops firing on peaceful protesters in Bahrain revitalized that protest, and the arrest and torture of schoolchildren in a provincial city in Syria, followed by the murder of irate parents and their neighbor by security forces firing into a crowd, touched off a rebellion that no one had anticipated.

All this raises the issue of the predictability of rebellions in general and the predictability of the Arab uprisings in particular. While many observers of the Arab world had turned their attention to the problem of why authoritarian regimes in the region seemed so durable, others predicted their demise. They pointed out the many problems, particularly economic, that Arab regimes faced, and asserted that in a post-cold war world in which democracy and human rights had taken on a new lease on life, autocracies were just outmoded. The problem with these predictions was that they rarely offered up a timetable for events, and none foresaw the type of popular movement that swept through the region. Instead of masses of demonstrators shouting “Peaceful” and demanding democratic rights, those who claimed to foresee the demise of regimes in the Arab world predicted that Islamists or disgruntled members of the regime would provide the shock troops for rebellion. Their predictions were thus like the proverbial stopped clock that tells the right time twice a day—only you do not know when that is.

No one really predicted the uprisings, but no one could have done so. All rebellions—the Arab uprisings included—are by their nature unpredictable, as are the courses they take.

[1] Clement M. Henry, The Mediterranean Debt Crescent: Money and Power in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996).

[2] The United Nations has chosen the ages 15-29 to define youth because most countries divide their data into five-year increments.

[Reprinted from The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know by James L. Gelvin with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press. For more information, or to preorder the book, click here.]

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