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Unrest in the Arab World: Four Questions

This essay addresses four questions that the “Arab spring” has raised with respect to academic scholarship and policy advice. Why did scholars fail to predict the recent developments? Should we throw the work on Middle Eastern authoritarianism in the garbage bin of academic misinterpretations? In which ways can we support the move toward democracy in the region? Is there a “new Middle East” in the making? In critically examining the scholarly debate about the resilience of Arab authoritarianism, it rejects demands requesting both the predictive power of academic analyses and their direct applicability in foreign policy-making. The continuing interpretation and re-interpretation of the relationship between Islam and politics have absorbed our analytical capacities at the expense of a closer inspection of societal change. In putting the recent events into their international and regional context, the essay tries to give a tentative answer to the question whether we are witnessing a new Middle East in the making.

 

The “Arab spring” seems to challenge a number of scholarly truisms prevalent in the Middle East studies community. The rather quick fall of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and the subsequent resignation and arrest of Husni Mubarak in Egypt took many by surprise. Some of my students, for instance, asked with a smile whether it still makes sense to read the literature in their curricula, alluding to the strong focus on Middle Eastern authoritarianism when discussing domestic politics of the region. A number of critical media commentaries put the scholarly expertise of area experts in doubt who apparently have not been able to predict the recent course of events. A wind of change has not only moved across the Middle East but also seized public debates and university lecture rooms, raising crucial questions for the scholarly establishment. Personally, I have repeatedly been confronted

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