Marc Lynch

A Reading List for the Arab Uprisings

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!