Having closely watched the Arab uprisings that began just over a year ago, UCLA historian James Gelvin shudders whenever he hears the term "Arab Spring."
"’Spring’ implies renewal and joy, and we’re still a long way from that occurring as a result of any of the uprisings," said Gelvin, a professor who specializes in the social and cultural history of the modern Middle East and is a faculty adviser at the UCLA International Institute’s Center for Near Eastern Studies. "Besides, since not one of the uprisings actually broke out in the spring, it really makes no sense."
In a new book, Gelvin dispels this and other misconceptions surrounding the uprisings. " The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know ," which will be released Jan. 31 by Oxford University Press, also explores the causes, trajectories, significance and likely consequences of the events that began in December 2010, when rioting broke out in Tunisia after a street vendor set himself on fire to protest the police’s confiscation of the fruit and vegetables he was selling. The unrest ultimately led to the resignation of the country’s president on Jan. 16, 2011. Pro-democracy movements swept through the Middle East and North Africa, engulfing Egypt, then Bahrain, Morocco, Syria, Yemen, Libya and other states.
While Gelvin says "no one could have predicted the shape and depth of the uprisings," he delineates in the book four distinct ways in which these rebellions unfolded, each rooted in the particular histories and structures of the nations involved.
Gelvin contends that Tunisia’s and Egypt’s long histories of state-building — unique in the Arab world — made it possible in those countries for an autonomous military to move against long-ruling autocrats. Thus, the "street phase" of the uprisings was speedy and relatively peaceful. Conversely, in Yemen and Libya, with their short histories as unified states, feeble institutions and weak sense of national identity, the regimes fragmented, resulting in protracted and violent uprisings — and a greater potential for revolutionary change than in Tunisia and Egypt, he says.
In Algeria, Syria and Bahrain, the ruling elites are so strongly bonded that institutions cannot splinter, nor can one part of the regime turn against another, as the army did in Tunisia and Egypt, Gelvin argues. "Ruling elites in these states know they must all hang together or they will all hang separately," he said. "So these regimes are going to either be completely replaced or remain intact."