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Five Questions Political Scientists Should Be Asking Themselves in the Wake of the Arab Revolutions

May 15, 2012

The Arab spring–or, as he prefers it, “awakening” proves so complex on any close examination that “a fixation with pre-existing fault-lines can blind us to alternative sources of revolutionary energy,” writes Shashank Joshi in his essay “Reflections on the Arab Revolutions” in the May 20, 2011 issue of the RUSI Journal (RUSI, for those who don’t know, is the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, the world’s oldest still-existing military think tank, founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington).

What’s more, he says, trying to force our thinking about the Arab uprisings into the same tired categories that have guided Western security policy during the last several decades is likely to

prove misleading as to the post-revolutionary futures that exist beyond the ‘lurking Islamism’ caricature invoked by so many trite public-policy briefs and Arab despots over the past decade of stagnation. The Arab world resists both utopian and dystopian simplifications, and our policy discourse must equally resist the lure of each.

Joshi argues that long-held assumptions about “the Western trilemma in the Middle East – the choice between democracy, stability and pro-Western foreign policy” – must be  reevaluated. In particular, five key assumptions must be re-evaluated:

  1. The utility, especially in the long term, of supporting nondemocratic regimes in pursuit of stability.
  2. Whether commitment to economic liberalization has helped or hurt political and social change in the Middle East.
  3. How to decide how much democracy is too much and how much pursuit of immediate stability is too much.
  4. Whether the “Arab World” is undergoing a revolution or whether there are as many proto-revolutions as there are protest movements.
  5. Whether to continue to speak of revolution as an “event,” or whether to recognize it as a process.

These norms that need to be rethought Joshi finds particularly in the influential works of Samuel Huntington, particularly his Political Order in Changing Societies (1968, Yale University Press).

This article is a year old now, but (unlike many speculations on the revolution) its main points are still cogent.

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