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New Texts Out Now: James Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know

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

James Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): How did you come to write this book?

James Gelvin (JG): In the winter of 2011, I made contact with Oxford University Press about doing a condensed, “trade” (i.e., mass market) version of my The Modern Middle East: A History. I thought this would be useful because, among other things, the book lays out the historical background for the Arab uprisings we were witnessing. The press was not particularly interested in that project, but one of the editors did ask me if I were interested in writing a history of modern Egypt directed toward the same audience. I wasn’t, so I countered with the suggestion that I write about the Arab uprisings. It just seemed logical at the time. To ensure wide readership, we decided it should be published as part of Oxford’s What Everyone Needs to Know series, in which books are written in a question-and-answer format and are relatively succinct.

Two factors made it possible for me to write the book during the summer of 2011. First, there was the Libya uprising. Having just completed a project on Syria, I decided to focus on someplace very different—Libya—and explore how the inhabitants of the Arab east reacted to the 1911 Italian invasion and occupation of that territory. I had started working on getting a visa when the uprising broke out. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to abandon my travel plans and find another project to work on instead.

A second factor—my location—helped me complete the manuscript in two months. I live in Los Angeles, a communications hub abounding in educational institutions and civic associations. After the Egyptian uprising demonstrated that the Tunisian uprising was no fluke, I began receiving requests for interviews and media appearances from as near as the local affiliates of the major American networks and as far away as Brasilia and Beijing. I also received requests for presentations from institutions as diverse as local colleges and universities and the Santa Monica Rotary Club. As of this writing, I have done about eighty interviews and made some three dozen presentations. The requests for interviews and presentations forced me to hone a narrative that would be accessible to a variety of audiences. The result is this book.

J: What do you mean by “hone a narrative?” 

JG: The way I present it, the wave of uprisings we have been witnessing in the Arab world has both transnational and national elements. The transnational elements are found mainly in terms of inputs: Over the course of the past half century, all Arab states came to share similar characteristics; and over the course of the past two decades, all Arab states have faced similar shocks that made them vulnerable to popular anger.

In the book, I identify four factors that rendered Arab regimes vulnerable. First, there was the imposition of neoliberal economic policies. For populations throughout the region, this meant a shredding of the “benefits-for-compliance” ruling bargain that regimes had put in place starting in the 1950s. Second, there was a huge population of young people in the Arab world—what demographers describe as a “bulge”—and this cohort shares significant grievances. Under the proper circumstances, they might be mobilized for oppositional politics. Third, beginning in 2010, there was a massive inflation driving up the price of food worldwide. The Arab world imports more food than any other region in the world and the percentage of household income that goes to buying food is among the highest in the world, so the inflation inflamed economic grievances. Finally, there is the nature of Arab regimes themselves: Over the course of the past four years, populations have thrown out governments around the globe, but mainly through the ballot box. In the Arab world, the lack of representative institutions forced populations to take to the streets as their first option.

While these four factors affected all states in the region, there is, of course, significant variation in national histories, state structures, and state capabilities in the region. This variation has opened up possibilities for each uprising and foreclosed options for each.

In the book I divide the uprisings into a number of clusters. The first consists of Tunisia and Egypt, which are unique in the region because both experienced over two centuries of continuous state building. As a result, in both there were functioning institutions separate from the executive branch of government, the most important of which were militaries that could declare their neutrality yet still maintain their cohesion. In the end, the militaries decided the course of the uprisings. The second cluster consists of Yemen and Libya. In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, neither Yemen nor Libya has strong institutions or has inspired strong national identities. As a result, once uprisings in Yemen and Libya began, what institutions that did exist splintered, and uprisings necessarily became violent and drawn out. Then there are Syria and Algeria (and, on reflection, I would also now put Bahrain in this category), where, for various reasons, regimes are structured in such a way that they could not but maintain their cohesion against uprisings. This means that uprisings in Algeria, Syria, and Bahrain will either be crushed, or, as in, say, Libya but not Egypt, result in a true revolutionary change. The final cluster of states includes the remaining monarchies that have experienced turbulence in the past year. For reasons yet to be explained, protests in those monarchies share two characteristics that set them apart from uprisings elsewhere: they have been more limited in scope and they have demanded reform of the system, not its overthrow.

J: The trajectory of the Arab uprisings has continued to unfold since you first wrote the book. How did you attempt to account for this at the time of writing, and what additions or changes might you make should you be able to publish a second edition?

JG: The rush of events was less of a problem than one would think. Although the book describes the specifics of each uprising, that is not its focus. Rather, its focus is on how the past informs events in the region and in each country and delimits the possibilities open to regimes and their opponents. It also describes the international and regional factors, from American and Saudi interests to the Israel-Palestine Conflict, that act in a similar manner. I anticipate there will be changes in the second edition as the uprisings continue to play themselves out, and I shall include new developments, particularly if they compel me to rethink larger issues. But one of the virtues of the book is that readers do not have to wade through a thicket of detail, and the overall thrust of the book will remain the same.

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

JG: Throughout my career, I have alternated between researching and writing for a more restricted academic audience and writing for a larger one. Twice before I have written books aimed at a general, non-academic audience: my The Modern Middle East: A History and my The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War. This book follows suit. Hence, its subtitle and its question-and-answer format, which makes it easily digestible. I feel comfortable stepping out of the narrow cocoon of the professional historian and acting as a public historian. I believe using our expertise to inform the public and guide its understanding of events should be a central job of the historian. And although I am a historian, I feel comfortable engaging with contemporary events, since I have had to do so for those two books as well as for my teaching. For example, I am currently looking at how the oil price revolution of 1973 and the Third World demand for a “New International Economic Order” induced American policy-makers to reset the international agenda with neoliberalism and human rights as key touchstones. I am fascinated not only by how an economically and diplomatically weakened United States was able to run the table on the Third World, but was able to establish an economic and political order whose consequences we are currently witnessing.      

[James Gelvin. Photo via the author.]

J: As a historian by training, what do you think is particular, if anything, in terms of how your historical training comes to bear on the way in which you analyze and write about these contemporary uprisings?

JG: Former French president Georges Clemenceau once said that war is too important to be left to the generals. In the same vein, it might be said that the Arab uprisings are too important to be left to the journalists. Historians have a number of skills they might apply to events such as the Arab uprisings. First, historians are trained to bring together disparate and complex events and narrativize them in a way that might make them useful to non-specialists. Historians also bring to the table a number of methodologies honed in their discipline to analyze those events. In the case of the uprisings, the methodologies associated with “crowd studies,” pioneered in the 1970s and 1980s by George Rudé, Charles Tilly, Natalie Zemon Davis, and others come to mind. Applying these methodologies enables historians to read protests and uprisings as texts, much like any other texts. Third, historians might deploy their knowledge of the past to plot the possible paths unfolding events will take. Hence the role played by national histories, state structures, and state capabilities, described earlier, in opening up possibilities and foreclosing options for each uprising. Finally, historians are able to contextualize events. The Arab uprisings become more explicable if placed not only in the context of the global diffusion of neoliberal economic policies and international norms of human rights, but also in the context of protests and uprisings demanding political and economic rights that have marked the Arab world over the course of the past thirty years. A list of those protests and uprisings would include the 1988 “Black October” riots in Algeria, the Bahraini intifada of the 1990s, the Damascus Spring, the emergence of the Kifaya movement in Egypt, and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, as well as the “IMF riots” of the 1980s and labor activism of the past decade. The uprisings also become more explicable if viewed laterally in the context of recent events in Israel, Spain, and Zuccotti Park.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JG: I am eager to get to my Libya project, but first I want to figure out exactly how the discourse of human rights connects to America’s war against the Third World in the 1970s.

 Excerpts from The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know

What was the role of labor in the [Tunisian and Egyptian] uprisings?

In both Tunisia and Egypt, labor activism has a venerable history, has long overlapped with political activism, and increased during the years building up to the uprisings. It should be no surprise, then, that labor activists in both places would put their skills in service to the uprisings.

In Tunisia, organized labor was at the forefront of the independence struggle, and after independence the trade union federation (the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, or UGTT) was one of two pillars upon which the new state rested (the other being Bourguiba’s Neo-Destour Party). As a matter of fact, soon after independence there was a brief period in which it was impossible to determine whether the UGTT would become an affiliate of the party or the other way round. Since then, the UGTT has had a checkered relationship with the regime, sometimes serving as a lapdog, sometimes standing in opposition to the regime’s policies, particularly when they affect the federation’s members. In 1977, for example, the UGTT called the first general strike in Tunisia’s post-independence history, and in the mid-1980s relations between the federation and the regime got so bad that the regime clamped down hard on its rival. In addition, not all the trade unions represented in the federation march to the same drummer, nor have workers necessarily been compliant with their leadership, particularly when that leadership has aligned itself with the regime at their expense.

Labor activism in Egypt dates back to the turn of the twentieth century. Most recently, there has been an upsurge in labor activism, particularly as the Mubarak regime pushed ahead with a neoliberal agenda. Workers have found privatization and attempts to hold down wages and cut back benefits in the midst of inflation particularly offensive. Most link privatization with reductions in a firm’s workforce and cutbacks in benefits guaranteed by public firms. Between the seating of the “cabinet of businessmen” in 2004 and the outbreak of the uprising, there were more than three thousand labor actions involving more than two million workers and their families. Labor activism spiked in the years 2006–2008, when it seemed that the entire textile industry and the communities that housed it had walked off the job and when the government was forced to recognize the first independent trade union since 1957. It would not be too far off the mark to say that labor activism became the primary form of resistance to the regime over the course of the decade that preceded the uprisings.

Labor thus came to play a key—and some would say pivotal—role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In Tunisia, education unions were at the forefront of organizing unemployed youths, many of whom had a university degree, and ensured that their demands would include political reform alongside bread-and-butter issues. Other unions and professional associations (syndicates), such as those that represented lawyers and doctors, followed suit, and it was probably as a result of their pressure and the wildcat strikes they organized that the UGTT threw its weight behind the uprising.

In Egypt, where protest leaders and the labor movement had an intertwined history, tens of thousands of workers from both the public and private sectors, including those from the petroleum, railroad, banking, retail, manufacturing, public transportation, health care, and heavy industry sectors, struck on 10 February 2011, and joined protesters on the streets of most major cities. In the volatile textile industry, eighteen thousand workers left their jobs, and walkouts shut down the Cairo airport and stock exchange. All this took place on the day before the army told Mubarak he had to go. It might have been coincidence, or it might have been that the strike wave had demonstrated to the military that Mubarak’s position was untenable. There is no doubt, however, that the military was watching the strikes with trepidation: a few days after Mubarak’s departure, the military sent out a text message to millions of Egyptian cell phone users reading, “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urges honest citizens to take part in efforts to reach a safe haven”—a not-very-subtle demand for them to get back to work.


Why did the uprisings in Yemen and Libya turn violent?

Saif al-Islam al-Quaddafi blamed the violent nature of Libya’s uprising on Libya’s “tribal character.” The highly respected International Crisis Group cites infiltration of violent elements into the ranks of peaceful demonstrators in Benghazi. Still others have blamed the euphoria of the protesters after their initial successes and the looting of armories abandoned by government troops. Yemen too is “tribal” (although this explanation rests on two dubious assumptions: that tribal affiliation and violence are necessarily linked, and that calling a society “tribal” actually tells you something meaningful about the society). Then there is the fact that Yemen has the most heavily armed population in the Arab world. It is, after all, a country in which carrying a ceremonial dagger is considered a fashion statement.

Lurking behind the question is the contrast between events as they purportedly unfolded in Tunisia and Egypt and events in Yemen and Libya. Although the nonviolence of the earlier uprisings has been overstated, there is an important contrast between Tunisia and Egypt on the one hand and Yemen and Libya on the other. The first two uprisings succeeded in dislodging autocrats because the army acted as a unit, declared its commitment to nonviolence, and in some cases even kept protesters and the thugs hired to attack them separated. Such was not the case in Yemen and Libya, where, rather than quashing the violence, militaries and a variety of other armed groups divided into loyalist and opposition camps. It was not that the protesters in Yemen and Libya weighed nonviolence against violence and found the former somehow lacking. Rather, the weakness of the two states and the fragmentation of the army—the very institution that had imposed order in Tunisia and Egypt—defined the tactics protesters had at their disposal.


How did the uprising in Syria begin?

The beginning of the uprising in Syria bears a closer resemblance to the beginning of the uprising in Libya than to that in Egypt. Whereas protesters in Egypt made the capital city, Cairo, the symbolic center of the uprising, in Syria, as in Libya, the uprising broke out in the provinces. This was not simply because regimes in the latter two countries concentrated the repressive apparatus in their capitals. After all, such was the case in Egypt as well. More to the point, unlike the uprising in Egypt, the uprising in Syria, like the one in Libya, did not take place in the wake of meticulous preparation. It was spontaneous.

Three days after the anemic March 15 demonstration in Damascus, all hell broke loose in Syria. In the first week of March, security forces had arrested ten schoolchildren aged fifteen or younger in the dusty provincial city of Daraa (population seventy-seven thousand). Their crime? Borrowing a slogan from the Egyptian revolution, they had written, “Down with the regime” (nizam) on a wall. They were imprisoned and, while in prison, tortured. For about two weeks their families attempted to gain their release. Then they took to the streets. Security forces opened fire, killing several. The next day, their funeral procession brought out twenty thousand demonstrators who chanted antigovernment slogans and attacked government buildings.

Coincidentally, protests erupted the same day far to the north in the coastal city of Banias. As in the case of the Daraa protests, the protests in Banias initially reflected local concerns (the secular regime had cracked down on female schoolteachers there who wore the niqab, the Syrian variant of the veil), then expanded their focus to national issues, such as the brutality of the regime, the absence of democratic institutions, and corruption. Protests soon spread to other cities, including Latakia, Homs, Hasaka, and Qamishli, as well as to the small towns surrounding Damascus. By summer, the uprising had reached the ghost-ridden city of Hama, which security forces hastily abandoned (to the astonishment of the protesters), only to retake again, repeating the devastation of 1982. Although some cities—including Damascus and Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo—remained relatively quiet, six months after it broke out the Syrian uprising showed no signs of subsiding.


What can history tell us about “revolutionary waves”?

Ever since the Egyptian uprising, when events in one country (Tunisia) found a receptive audience in another (Egypt), historians and other social scientists have looked to the past to explore other “revolutionary waves” that might help explain current events and instruct us about the course those events might take. In chronological order, the most common historical analogies are: 1789, the kick-off date for the French Revolution, which spread notions of “liberty, equality, fraternity” among subjugated populations throughout Europe; 1848, the “Springtime of Nations”; 1968, when a wave of “youth revolutions” demanding an end to social and political hierarchies (to oversimplify a bit) engulfed France, Mexico, the United States, and Japan, among others; and 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet domination of central and eastern Europe ended. So far, 1989 seems to be the most popular touchstone, although Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace makes the intriguing suggestion that the current series of uprisings in the Arab world most closely approximates “the wave of authoritarian collapse and democratic transition” that took place in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1990s: “After more than two decades of stultifying strongman rule in sub-Saharan Africa following decolonization, broad-based but loosely organized popular protests spread across the continent, demanding economic and political reforms.”

For his part, President Obama has been studying the close to sixty “people power” uprisings of the 1980s, the most famous of which occurred in the Philippines, South Korea, and Indonesia. And while we are at it, what about the wave of constitutional revolutions that broke out around the turn of the twentieth century, when rebels in the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Egypt, Russia, Mexico, Japan, and China demanded a written contract with their rulers specifying their rights?

The list of possible analogies seems endless, depending on what particular characteristics and outcomes one wishes to highlight and what particular characteristics and outcomes one wishes to forget. It is doubtful, for example, that Obama is looking for lessons from the first of the so-called people power revolutions—the 1978–79 Islamic revolution in Iran—or from what is arguably the last—the Palestinian intifada, which broke out in 1987. Instead, he has chosen his revolutions on the basis of their demands (an end to authoritarian rule and a more open system) rather than their tactics (which is, after all, what people power is all about). Optimists are likely to find assurance by comparing the current uprisings in the Arab world with 1989; pessimists, with 1848. The moral of the story is that historical analogies do not explain and do not instruct, although for historians and history geeks their entertainment value cannot be overestimated.

[Reprinted from Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know by James Gelvin with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2012 by OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. For more information on the book, please click here; to purchase the book, please click here.]

[MEI Conference: James Gelvin, "What History Explains: The Arab World at the Intersection of the National and
Transnational" from Middle East Institute, Singapore on Vimeo.]

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