US Foreign Policy

Seismic Shift Addresses Understanding Change in the Middle East

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – The momentous events sweeping the Arab world since the end of 2010 raise important questions about the art and science of analyzing political and societal events.  Stimson invited a group of experts to evaluate how various non-government sectors looked at prospects for change in the Middle East prior to December 2010: university scholars, think tanks, democracy and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, social media, and private business.  No sector would claim to have predicted the exact sequence of events, but many had deep insights into changing conditions in the region.

Though experts from these diverse communities acknowledge that they did not anticipate the timing, the scale, the absence of violence in the initial phase, the fact that Tunisia would be the trigger, or the extent of the contagion effect, many offered deep insights and strategic warning of rising pressures for change, and regimes whose longevity masked serious erosions of elite cohesion and of coercive power.  Experts over the past two years pointed to youth as a “ticking time bomb,” perceived Egypt “about to explode,” suggested Tunisia was “coming apart at the seams,” and foresaw a “seismic shift” about to occur in Egypt. 

Some experts focused on new youth movements, the spread of new media as a powerful tool of communications and eventually of mobilization, and the “collective action of non-collective actors.” Journalists, think tank experts and NGO program officers were persuaded that change would come from the bottom up, but they were not clear who would be the most effective agents of change.  Some expressed concern about perceived bias in writing about democracy; a self-validation for those who are advocates for reform, or, conversely, a journalistic worry about being seen as endorsing a US-policy agenda.

Think tank scholars began to see shifts in regimes’ relations with their militaries, but had not fully assessed what became a critical factor to outcomes in Egypt and Tunisia.

The scholarly community was focused over the past decade on the durability of authoritarianism.  Most scholars did not subscribe to the Arab exceptionalism argument – that the Arab world was uniquely resistant to democratization.  Over years of study, they concluded that authoritarian systems were resilient, and able to thwart demands for political reform through coercion, cooptation, and partial economic liberalization.

Those who did get at least part of the story right – those who judged correctly that the demand for change was reaching a breaking point – were generally those who used very broad-gauged and inclusive analytic approaches, and did not rely on a single theory of change or on quantitative data as a predictor of instability.  Journalists with deep regional experience were the most open to notions of change. NGOs and the business risk firms were also agile in adapting and shifting resources to follow important new trends.

Many experts were drawing important analytic conclusions about growing weakness at the top and rising assertiveness at the bottom of various Arab societies, but few were able to net out the shifting power equation.


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