, Volume 91, Number 5

Jane Kinninmont
This article reviews the current state of analysis of the 2011 Arab uprisings. It argues that valuable literature on the uprisings is emerging just at a time when the international policy agenda has moved away from 2011’s flirtation with visions of a democratic Middle East. This literature presents a timely reminder that the uprisings were part of long-term processes of political change, rather than isolated phenomena. Understanding the very different post-uprising trajectories of different Arab countries requires comparative analysis of the political economy, state institutions, the role of the security sector and strategies of opposition movements, among other factors. Moreover, comparative experiences from transitions in other regions indicate that the conflicts, economic problems and social polarization that have ensued in most of the transition countries are not evidence of an Arab exception, but, rather, have parallels with political transitions elsewhere, which have rarely been peaceful or simple. Compared to 2011, the perceived costs of political change are higher today, while the gains remain uncertain. But the drivers of unrest remain unresolved; and a small minority will seek change through brutal and violent means. Western policy-makers need to understand what is driving these movements. Yet they also, crucially, need to understand what is motivating and preoccupying the larger publics in the Arab world, in order to build broad-based relations with these countries, and avoid inadvertently empower violent groups by allowing them to set the political agenda.

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