Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring

The “Arab Spring” has proven astonishing and exhilarating to Middle East analysts and activists alike. Starting in Tunisia and spreading quickly to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria and beyond, a wave of political protest, unprecedented in scope and ambition, swept the region in 2011. In short order, two deeply entrenched authoritarian rulers were jettisoned from office, and by early summer the leaders of at least three other Arab regimes appeared to be in grave jeopardy. In the wake of this wave, nearly every authoritarian regime in the region scrambled to concoct the “right” mix of repression and cooptation in the hope of stemming the protest. And even authoritarian regimes as distant as China took nervous notice of developments in the region. For Middle East specialists, the events of the Arab Spring proved especially jarring, even if welcomed, because of their extensive investment in analyzing the underpinnings of authoritarian persistence, long the region’s political hallmark. The empirical surprise of 2011 raises a pressing question—do we need to rethink the logic of authoritarianism in the Arab world or, even more broadly, authoritarian persistence writ large?