By Daniel Byman
On December 17, 2010 a fruit vendor in Tunisia lit himself on fire to protest government abuses. Less than three months later, dictators in Tunisia and Egypt had fallen, Libya is in a state of civil war, and Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories have seen massive and at times bloody protests. Why?
For the last decade, social scientists have focused on the persistence of authoritarian rule in the Middle East, trying to explain why this region, uniquely, has proven immune from the waves of democratization that swept other lands. When talk turned to reform, it was usually considered in the context of top-down efforts by enlightened autocrats (think Jordan’s King Abdallah, at least according to his fans) or bottom-up efforts to foster civil society. No one predicted sudden, massive unrest that unceremoniously toppled regimes we all assumed were rock-solid.
The research questions that are emerging from this unrest should ignite the imaginations of political scientists, historians, and sociologists. Let me throw out a few topics that I think need examination or reexamination, though there are hundreds that deserve attention:
· Social media and revolution. Champions of Facebook and Twitter are taking bows as these social-networking tools united oppositionists in the face of regimes famously skilled at preventing any anti-government organization. Is this unstoppable in the future as information technologies spread or did it work simply because dictators were not aware of their importance and thus will be ready the next time?
· Contagion. Studying Egypt alone would note tell you that Mubarak would go—it took events in Tunisia to give the protesters a model of and hope for revolution. How do ideas spread and why do some take off so successfully?
· Youth politics. In Egypt at least, older voices in the opposition counseled against taking to the streets, having learned the hard way that the government will crack down. Why did this younger generation rise up and how will this shape politics to come?
· Political Islam and democratization. One of the enduring questions—and one that incites fear in policy circles—is the future of Islamist movements in new regimes. Part of the challenge is that Islamists have often garnered support both for their ideas and simply for being the voice of opposition. How does Islamist influence change now that they can organize openly but, at the same time, there are competing opposition voices?
· Comparative social movement creation. Recent events are shaping up to be a natural social science experiment, with new movements and organizations emerging every day. Why will some movements succeed while others will lose out?
· Weaknesses of the security state. One of the many surprises in Tunisia and Egypt is that the security services could not quell the unrest and the military, assumed to be loyal to the regime, stood aside at first and eventually pushed the autocrats out. Even in Libya, part of the security forces are now on the side of the opposition. How did the state’s iron hand turn to clay?
· Rewriting the past. Doing interviews in an authoritarian country is difficult. Truth is often the first casualty of tyranny. When discussing politics, honesty can lead to imprisonment, torture, or even death. Now people can speak more freely about past government decisions, wars and civil wars, preferred authors and artists, and the many other things that scholars chronicle. So much of what we wrote before faced data limits, and the new information is likely to change our conclusions dramatically.
Perhaps most important, even the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are far from over. Enterprising graduate students can and should go to these countries and immerse themselves in their changing politics. Let’s hope they are studying how emergent democratization works, but they may chronicle the reemergent forms of autocracy. Either way, this is a rare moment to write and think amidst the swirl of history.
One of the many hopes I have for this new era is a flowering of scholarship from the region. Historically, the Arab world has produced less than its share of scholars as regimes snuffed out many forms if inquiry. If democracy succeeds in several Arab countries, scholars there will be far more able to study, speak, and write freely, helping the world, and their own people, gain an understanding of the momentous events unfolding before our eyes.
Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. His book A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism will be published by Oxford University Press in May.