by Jas Kirt (UCLA 2015)
UCLA International Institute, June 4, 2015 — At a May event hosted by the Center for Near Eastern Studies, UCLA Professor of History James L. Gelvin discussed the second edition of his recent book, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2015). The new edition comes four years after the start of the revolutionary protests that spread throughout the Arab world in late 2010. The session was moderated by Nouri Gana, associate professor of comparative literature & Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA.
Gelvin uses a comparative framework to explain the outcomes of each country where uprisings occurred. By pairing two countries together based on common historical trajectories, the analysis is able to define the various options available to those countries in the post-revolution period.
Egypt and Tunisia, for example, are paired together and compared side-by-side, based on common conditions that existed prior to their respective revolutions. They are “the only two countries in the Arab world that have faced over 200 years of institution building,” stated Gelvin. Consequently, both Egypt and Tunisia had very strong executives that did not fragment in the face of social unrest; instead, parts of the each respective regime turned on one another.
By contrast, the second pairing, Yemen and Libya, are both young countries with relatively little state-building history. The state of Libya was created only in 1951, and the unification of North and South Yemen into the state of Yemen occurred only in 1990. The leaders of both countries deliberately did not form long-lasting institutions. Therefore when the rebellions took place, the regimes split apart because there was not a strong center to hold them together.
Syria and Bahrain are paired because, in Gelvin’s view, their common defining feature is having been “coup-proof.” By limiting the government’s inner circle to family and sect — the minority sect dominates the political sphere in both countries. — the two authoritarian regimes guaranteed that control would stay within the hands of their respective ruling groups.
In Syria, a country that is primarily made up of Sunnis, President Bashar Al Assad concentrated power in his own family and the Alawites, a Shi’a minority sect. This process, which Gelvin categorizes as “political naturalization,” ensures the survival of a regime because the leader can call upon members of his sect to defend and fight for the survival of the government. By doing precisely this in Syria, Al Assad has caused the conflict to become increasingly sectarianized.
Myths and misunderstandings
Gelvin clarified many common misconceptions about the causes and nature of the Arab uprisings in his lecture, including the distorted role of social media and youth in the revolutions. The history professor argued that social media did not play as critical a role as many have believed. The new media was not the single cause of the revolutions in the Arab world, he said; rather, it was an innovative and effective tool for mass mobilization around underlying causes, issues and grievances that had long existed.
James Gelvin (left) and moderator Nouri Gana. (Photo: Jas Kirt/ UCLA.)
The speaker also argued that youth were not the primary participants in the uprisings, noting that 59 percent of protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square were between the ages of 25 and 44. In the cases of Libya and Syria, moreover, the parents of youth killed by these authoritative regimes, not the youth themselves, were the ones who sparked protests as they took to the streets to demand answers about their missing and mistreated children.
Gelvin claimed that many of the ongoing conflicts in the region were not sectarian in nature. The ongoing conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, are primarily concerned with improving their respective geopolitical position in the region, with sectarianism simply utilized to mobilize troops and societies. The same methods can be seen in Yemen and Syria, where sects have been exploited to deepen societal divisions and further the strategic interests of specific governmental and nongovernmental actors.
Many individuals incorrectly equate the lack of military intervention in the Middle East as a sign of a weakening U.S. position in the region. However, Gelvin argued that the United States has had significant influence on Arab states through the use of soft power and diplomacy. The vast majority of the recent uprisings in the Arab world have called for the state to recognize human rights and democracy, which are values for which the U.S. has been advocating in the region since the 1970s.
The future of the so-called “Arab Spring”
Gelvin described the term Arab Spring as an “abomination,” arguing that use of this phrase disregards the history behind the uprisings, which were “a culmination of 30 years of resistance and bad economic policies.” The word “spring” also refers to a fixed term, whereas the uprisings have been occurring sporadically and their consequences are still unfolding.
The speaker also criticized the notion that there must be an ending or conclusion to history, arguing that there are no definite endings to the events taking place in the region. The most important aspect of his book, he said, is to provide an understanding of the trajectories that have taken place in the diverse countries of the Arab Middle East.