Scholars who work on the Middle East have been furiously updating their syllabi and revising their book proposals in the past month and a half. The events in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya have upended conventional academic wisdom about the region.
"In some ways it recalls the way Middle East studies was reoriented after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, in 1975, and the Iranian revolution, in 1979," says Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Middle East, a regional leader, and a U.S. ally, has long been a focus of attention among Middle East specialists. The collapse of the Mubarak regime is leading scholars to re-examine several common assumptions—about the persistence of authoritarianism, the process of democratization, and the appeal of Islamism—and to pose a variety of new questions.
What Scholars Missed
As Hosni Mubarak's regime endured, year after year, the study of Egypt became a study of stasis.
For at least the past decade, the persistence of authoritarianism has been "the predominant theme in the literature," says Sheila Carapico, chair of the political-science department at the American University in Cairo.
An entire niche literature took up the robustness and durability of authoritarian regimes—so called hybrid regimes, authoritarian at the core but with some democratic trappings and some economic liberalization—to explain the political longevity of Mubarak and others.
Jason Brownlee, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, put President Mubarak on the cover of his 2007 book, Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization (Cambridge University Press).
Today, says Brownlee, "the hopeful scenario is that there will be very little regime continuity, and it will be proven more fragile than many of us, including myself, thought."
Brownlee is finishing a book on the Egypt-U.S. relationship. "I'm really glad I'm not writing a book on hereditary succession," he says, referring to a line of scholarly inquiry into the efforts of Arab autocrats to pass their positions on to their sons. The chances of President Mubarak's son Gamal becoming Egypt's next president—once considered quite solid by many academics—have evaporated along with those of other presidential scions in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya.
Given that Arab publics have now rejected such transitions of power so forcefully, "maybe scholars will now be more serious about understanding how citizens experience the repressive political structures under which they live," says Mona El-Ghobashy, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College. "The old assumption was that these structures were infinitely resilient, in spite of popular resistance."
In fact, the old assumption was that there simply wasn't much popular resistance. Robert Springborg is the author of the seminal 1989 study Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order (Westview Press). A professor of national-security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, he is teaching a class on Egypt this semester. "We've tried to use some of the readings," he says, "but everything has to be redone."
"We were blindsided," says Springborg. "We didn't see the depth of the indignation that was there." That may be because too many political scientists followed an "econometric model," he says, on the principle that "if you can't count it, it's not real." They focused on the data that were available (economic indicators, elections results) regardless of reliability or relevance (many Egyptians live in a completely "informal" economy, and elections were rigged). Springborg hastens to note that "90 percent of what I say I'm guilty of myself."
Still, research on authoritarianism may unfortunately remain relevant. Joshua Stacher is an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University and an expert on authoritarianism in Egypt and Syria. (He notes somewhat ruefully that he submitted his first book on the subject for review 10 days before protests in Cairo broke out.)
Stacher calls what's happening in Egypt "an unfinished revolution" and warns that there are parts of the Mubarak regime that "remain intact and are trying to reconstitute themselves."
But what's undeniably changed is the idea that Egyptians and other Arabs gravitate to one of two extremes—political apathy or political violence—and that something particular about their culture, history, or politics explains the region's "democratic deficit" and makes collective political action there unlikely.
For a long time, academics studying the matter thought that "there must be something funny in the Middle East that makes it different from everywhere else," says Springborg. "But thankfully, there isn't."
"Middle East political science shared the elite bias embedded in political science more generally, focusing on the presidents and kings who hold power," argues Barnard's El-Ghobashy, whose work has focused on political Islam, judicial battles, and social movements. "Now that ordinary citizens and opposition forces have launched such spectacular collective action, analysts should rethink their elite bias."
As a result, perhaps areas of inquiry that scholars have largely ignored will be the focus of new attention.
Joel Beinin, at Stanford, has long studied labor movements in Egypt.
"Whether the economic transformation of Egypt since the 1990s has produced economic justice, whether the growth has been remotely equitably distributed: Those are the questions that the labor movement raises, and very few people have asked those questions," he says.
The waves of strikes that have swept Egypt since 2005 arguably signaled the unrest to come. The demands of Egyptian workers and their ability to mobilize are expected to be major sources of pressure on any new government.
"It's important to pay attention to the politics of ordinary people, to grass-roots movements," to "the underside" of societies, says Asef Bayat, a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His 2009 book, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press)—which touches on earlier protests in Egypt, youth culture, and the everyday struggles of the urban poor—appears eerily prescient today.
But Bayat is the first to say that no one could have predicted what happened in Egypt this year, and that revolutions are, by nature, unpredictable.
Now, though, says Beinin, "there is going to be a small cottage industry dedicated to understanding what happened and why."
A question that will probably remain contentious is the role of Western democracy-promotion programs. Some argue that the uprising in Egypt shows their limitations. "The vision of democracy brokers was of a very gradualist reform process dominated by liberal intellectual elites operating through very formal organization, indoors, sitting in chairs, and kind of persuading governments to do better," says Carapico.
The protests in Egypt and elsewhere remind academics that democracy doesn't happen without a struggle, Carapico and other experts argue. But Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, points to evidence that some Egyptian activists have been the beneficiaries of Western training. "Those critiques of democracy promotion were out there" before the uprising, he says. "I would argue on the contrary: Its value has been confirmed."
Scholars will also be reinterpreting the role of Islam. Egypt's protesters surprised many by making demands that were neither based on nor articulated through religion. While the Muslim Brotherhood—an illegal but popular Islamist group in Egypt—played a significant role in the uprising, it was not a leading one.
That has made some academics wonder whether there hasn't been an overemphasis on Islamist and Islamic groups as the only significant opposition groups and social movements in Egypt, and not enough attention paid to opposition groups that don't fit into a secular/Islamic dichotomy, like the Kefaya ("Enough") protest movement, which began calling for President Mubarak to step down in 2005. Egypt-studies researchers' emphasis on the Muslim Brotherhood "paradoxically ... reflected the regime's perspective," says Zachary Lockman, referring to the Mubarak regime's oft-repeated argument that it was the only bulwark against Islamic extremists. Lockman is a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and history at New York University.
Within security and policy studies, says Springborg, of the Naval Postgraduate School, an overwhelming focus on counterterrorism "has been a distraction." Scholars have been "so infatuated with studying various manifestations of Islamism" that they missed "a whole new world out there of young and old Egyptians who were not motivated by Islam at all."
In Life as Politics, Bayat discusses a possible "post-Islamist turn," in which Islamists will have to reconcile their ideas with demands for democracy and ally themselves with other social and political forces. In Egypt there may now be "new conditions for transcending Islamism," he says.
But scholars must wait for "free elections that will reveal Islamism's true weight in society," says Masoud, of the Kennedy School. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have already announced their intention to form a new political party. In the meantime, he expects researchers to "redouble efforts to figure out the phenomenon of political Islam."
Other topics of obvious interest to Egypt specialists include military-civilian relations; the role of new media; youth culture; transitional political periods; and the extent to which Arab countries are connected to and influenced by one another.
Academics are eager to start working on those and a long list of other questions. (Almost all of the scholars interviewed for this article are planning imminent trips to Cairo.)
Some hope that this research will take place under new conditions. "Now that many of the crony capitalists of the Mubarak era are behind bars, one might be able to find out a little more about how they were influencing the country behind the scenes in the past decade," notes Brownlee, of the University of Texas. "We could potentially look forward to opening all sorts of archives."
Still, many point out that events are still unfolding, and that scholarly analysis will depend on how much, and in what direction, Egypt changes.
During revolutions, says NYU's Lockman, "time becomes very compressed and what seemed unimaginable becomes real."
"There's a time lag before scholars of whatever kind can make sense of it and what it means to their work," he continues. "That process has just begun, and we don't know how it will end."
But "some kind of new chapter seems to have opened."