The Contemporary Middle East in an Age of Upheaval
Edited by James L. Gelvin




James L. Gelvin

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE COINED THE phrase “the New Middle East” at a press conference held in 2006. She used it to refer to the Middle East that she saw emerging in the wake of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.1 The United States had invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, ostensibly because it suspected Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction. By November of that year, however, President George W. Bush supplemented his original casus belli: “As freedom takes root in Iraq,” he asserted, “it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty as well.”2

Bush and the neoconservatives he surrounded himself with were, of course, wrong. Besides leaving close to 4,500 Americans and an estimated half million Iraqis dead,3 the American invasion unleashed sectarian conflict that polarized Iraqi society and culminated in the insurgency of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It also led to the creation of a weak, inefficient, and corrupt government in Iraq that was far from democratic.4 Adding insult to injury, the invasion left a gaping geopolitical hole in the center of the Middle East: Since 1979, the United States and its allies had found it intermittently useful to use Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran. Since 2003, Iraq has been too weak and divided to counterbalance much of anything, and Iran interferes in the internal affairs of Iraq with impunity. The invasion inspired no one—except, perversely, the founders of ISIS.

Rice was, however, correct in one sense: the American invasion of Iraq was one of two events that created what has become known as the New Middle East. The other event took place seven years later.

On December 17, 2010, Muhammad Bouazizi, a produce vendor, set himself on fire in front of a local government building in Sidi Bouzid, a town in central Tunisia.5 Earlier in the day, a policewoman had confiscated his wares, and he had been humiliated when he went to complain. The self-immolation touched off protests that reached Tunisia’s capital ten days later.

At first, President Zine al-Abidine bin Ali, who had ruled for a quarter century, tried to mollify the protesters. In a pattern that kings and other presidents-for-life would repeat time after time in the upcoming months, he promised three hundred thousand new jobs, new parliamentary elections, and a “national dialogue.” This did little to appease the protesters. By January 14, 2011—less than a month after Bouazizi’s self-immolation—military and political leaders had had enough, and with the army surrounding the presidential palace bin Ali resigned, appointing his prime minister to head a caretaker government before he fled to Saudi Arabia.

About a week and a half after Ben Ali fled Tunisia, young people, many of whom belonged to the April 6 Movement, began their occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Tahrir Square was one site of many in Egypt where protests took place that day, but it emerged as the symbolic center of the Egyptian uprising.) The security forces and hired goons failed to dislodge the protesters, and the army announced it would not fire on them. Strikes and anti-government protests spread throughout Egypt. On February 11, 2011, the army took matters into its own hands: it deposed President Hosni Mubarak and established a new government under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This phase of the Egyptian uprising—what might be called the uprising’s first street phase—was over in a mere eighteen days.

Over the following several months, uprisings and protests spread to almost all states of the twenty-two-member Arab League, demonstrating the loathing many Arabs felt toward the regimes that governed them as well as the commonality of their experiences and problems. Nevertheless, although all states in the Arab world were equally vulnerable to popular anger, they differed in terms of local history, state structure, and state capability. These factors, as well as foreign interference, defined the course of the uprising in each.

Tunisia and Egypt, for example, are the only two countries in the region that have experienced two hundred years of continuous state building. As a result, there were strong institutions—the military in Egypt, the “deep state” (the permanent bureaucracy and power brokers) in Tunisia—that remained intact and stood firm against revolutionary change. While those institutions allowed for the decapitation of the regime in order to be rid of its most provocative symbol—bin Ali in the case of Tunisia, Mubarak in the case of Egypt—they also either slowed the pace of change, as in Tunisia, or reversed it altogether, as in Egypt. In contrast, Yemen and Libya were “weak states” whose government apparatus was relatively feeble and unable to penetrate much below the surface of civil society. As a result, regimes there fragmented: parts of the military and government apparatus remained loyal, and parts saw the uprisings as an opportunity to enhance their standing or settle scores. In the end, both Yemen and Libya descended into protracted civil wars. Then there were Bahrain and Syria, where the ruling cliques, bound together by ties of kinship and religious affinity (both countries are ruled by members of religious minorities), remained unbroken and played the sectarian card to rally as much domestic support as they could until foreign militaries came to their rescue. In other states in the region, the course of uprisings or protests similarly reflected local conditions.

For all the optimism implicit in the commonplace descriptor “Arab Spring,” then, the uprisings that broke out in the Arab world between December 2010 and March 2011 hardly had outcomes reminiscent of a sunny, springtime rebirth. In Egypt, the army rebelled after a brief but disastrous experiment in Muslim Brotherhood rule. There, and in all the monarchies as well, the forces of reaction snuffed out the demand for change. Libya, Yemen, and Syria are still suffering from the worst excesses of political violence. It seems unlikely that governments in any of the three will rule over the entirety of their territories or populations within the foreseeable future. In Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and even Tunisia and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the weakening of regimes or the diversion of their attention elsewhere created an environment in which violent Islamist groups, like ISIS and al-Qaeda, have bred. And while protesters in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine have mobilized repeatedly to demand accountability from dysfunctional elected governments, those governments continued to prove themselves unable or unwilling to break political gridlock and answer even the most rudimentary needs of their populations.

Across the region, the uprisings led to a rise in sectarianism, fueled in particular by spillover from the Syrian civil war, Saudi-Iranian competition to define the post-uprising regional order and determine the fate of embattled regimes, and the Islamic State’s policy of “purifying” its caliphate of those who do not conform to its rigid interpretation of Sunni Islam. In addition, foreign intervention across the Arab world has taken place with impunity, perhaps signaling the beginning of an epochal shift in the meaning of sovereignty and sovereign relations. Such intervention decisively shifted the trajectory of uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Finally, since 2011 the region has experienced one humanitarian crisis after another. In the most brutal war zones—Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq—entire towns and cities have been laid waste, their populations scattered. The number of IDPs—internally displaced persons—in each country tells the story: as of 2019, there were 6.2 million IDPs in Syria, 2.9 million in Iraq, 2 million in Yemen, and 193,600 in Libya.6 At the same time, the flight of 5.6 million refugees from Syria—more than 1 million to Europe alone in 2015—sparked a xenophobic populist backlash around the world that has yet to dissipate. War and civil disorder not only have taken their toll in terms of civilian casualties but also have destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure and created a public health nightmare. And particularly in Syria and Yemen, mass starvation—both a consequence and an intentional tool of war—is an ongoing threat, endangering millions.7

Tunisia remains the one possible success story of the 2010–2011 uprisings, although the challenges it faces—particularly jihadi violence and poor economic performance—are daunting. This, of course, begs the question: What went wrong? To begin with, it might be too early to write off the wave of uprisings as a failure, particularly since events in Algeria, Lebanon, and elsewhere continue to play out. After all, it might be argued that Europe’s revolutions of 1848—also known as the Spring of Nations—did not achieve all they set out to achieve for almost a century and a half, and even now their dénouement must be considered tentative. Nevertheless, in the Arab world, a number of factors have contributed to what the world has witnessed there so far.

From the beginning, protesters and rebels throughout the Arab world faced overwhelming odds, the tenacity of ruling cliques fighting for their lives, the hostility of those dependent on the old order, foreign intervention, lack of foreign intervention, and extremist groups out for their own ends. Furthermore, the very spontaneity, leaderlessness, diversity, and loose organization on which the uprisings thrived proved their Achilles’ heel as well. On the one hand, these attributes kept regimes off guard and prevented them from reining in rebellious activity. On the other hand, the same attributes prevented protesters and rebels from agreeing on and implementing coordinated policies with regard to tactics, strategy, and program. Even were this not the case, participants in the uprisings were, more often than not, united by what they were against—the regime—rather than what they were for.

The Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci differentiated between a “war of maneuver” and a “war of position.”8 A war of maneuver is a direct confrontation between the old order and those opposing it, as took place during the Russian Revolution. A war of position is the slow, meticulous winning over of a population to one’s ideas by infiltrating institutions and structures like the press, trade unions, civic associations, and the like. This enables those who are committed to change to have already created the foundations of a countersociety by the time they assume power. In the case of the Arab uprisings, protesters fought a war of maneuver, not a war of position. As a result, deep states were able to regroup, call on outside support, and stigmatize and isolate their oppositions. In most of the region, this enabled the forces of counterrevolution to overpower the forces advocating change.


Periodization is a contentious endeavor, and the process displays both the subjective predilections of those doing it and the rickety scaffolding against which the historical enterprise rests. Just as it might be argued that the American invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings set the stage for and shaped a definably new era in Middle East history, it might just as convincingly be argued that the New Middle East represents the culmination of the postcolonial era in the region and not a break with it.

Take, for example, a hallmark of and impetus for the New Middle East: explosive growth in population. This puts an unprecedented strain on resources, the environment, economic well-being, and the capacity of governments to provide services such as health care and education. According to the World Bank, there were about 133 million people living in the Middle East and North Africa in 1960. In 1980, there were close to 230 million, and in 2018, 531 million—close to a fourfold increase in a little under six decades.9 Adding to the strain is the peculiar feature of demographic change in the region: the youth bulge. As of 2018, youth between the ages of ten and twenty-four made up 29 percent of the Arab population. Little wonder, then, that about one-third of young people who wish to work are unemployed.10 Members of the largest cohort in the history of the Arab world face unprecedented competition for education, jobs, and housing, not to mention competition in the marriage market.

Although demographic pressures might be driving the New Middle East, it was the old Middle East that fostered and first bore the strains of the population explosion. The interventionist state that emerged during the period of decolonization brought with it improvements in education, public health, and sanitation. Infant mortality declined, as did the numbers of women who died in childbirth. The children of the baby-boom generation of the 1950s through the 1970s are now paying for these rare successes of the postcolonial state.

Economic stagnation and increasing poverty and income inequality—in large measure the result of the ill-advised and mismanaged application of neoliberal economic policies and rent-seeking behavior—are also defining characteristics of the New Middle East that predate the onset of the twenty-first century. American policy makers began to tout the benefits of neoliberalism, along with its political correlate, human rights, in the mid-1970s, even before Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Neoliberal policies got their tentative start in the Arab world in December 1976, when Egypt negotiated a $450 million credit line with the International Monetary Fund, which also gave Egypt the wherewithal to postpone $12 million in foreign debt. In return, Egypt cut $123 million in commodity supports and $64 million from direct subsidies. The result was two days of bloody rioting in which between eighty and one hundred protesters died and twelve hundred were arrested.11 Similar “IMF riots” broke out in Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, and Jordan. Although the juggernaut of neoliberal policies was tempered, they continued and, beginning in the twenty-first century, accelerated.12 After decades of neoliberal “reform,” the Arab Middle East was less industrialized at the beginning of the twenty-first century than it had been in 1970, with growth rates lagging the rest of the Global South. It is currently the second least globalized region on Earth, beating out only sub-Saharan Africa.13

It might thus be argued that much of what has come to define the region after 2011 is nothing more than a continuation of phenomena that were already present there: Arab states are still rent-seeking and patrimonial, for example, much as they had been before the turn of the twenty-first century. The region is still embedded in a global economic system that gives pride of place to neoliberalism. Arab states are still deficient in human rights, accountability, transparency, and rule of law. Populations still suffer from low human security in much of everything from education and health care to good governance to access to adequate food and water supplies.

All this is true, and it all seems to point to similarities, not differences, between new and old Middle East. But couldn’t this be said for every period? Take, for example, the period that followed World War I. Few historians would deny the significance of the region’s transformation that took place then. Before the war, the Ottoman Empire ruled, in law if not in deed, Anatolia, the Levant and Mesopotamia, Egypt, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1918, the Ottoman Empire was gone. By the early 1920s, Turkey was an independent republic, the Fertile Crescent had been divided into separate states under the control of France and Britain, Egypt had evolved from an Ottoman territory and a British protectorate to an independent state, and much of the Arabian Peninsula had been united under the control of the dynasty of ibn Saud. After the war, the Israel-Palestine dispute took its present form. During the war, Jewish nationalism received the support of a great power. This not only ensured its survival; it ensured the persistence of the struggle between Jewish settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Finally, the war brought about a demographic holocaust: upward of one-fifth of the Ottoman population perished during the war years; perhaps as much as one-quarter of the Persian population as well. It would take until after the middle of the century for the region to recover demographically. World War I seems, then, a turning point in the history of the region. Yet in terms of relations of production, social stratification, and meddling by great powers, for example, little had changed since the nineteenth century.

The moral of the story is that when it comes to dividing history into periods based on one or another characteristic, possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of historians. And regardless of whether the phrase “New Middle East” refers to something altogether new and distinctive or the crystallization of earlier dynamics, the fact remains that the American invasion of Iraq, the Arab uprisings, and even, before them, the end of the Cold War upset the regional order on a number of levels and unleashed destructive forces that are unlikely to be contained anytime soon.


1. “Transcript: Secretary Rice Holds a News Conference,” Washington Post, July 21, 2006,

2. “Full Text: George Bush’s Iraq Speech,” The Guardian, June 28, 2005,

3. The figures are for the years 2003–2011. Amy Hagopian, Abraham D. Flaxman, Tim K. Takaro, Sahar A. Esa Al Shatari, Julie Rajaratnam, Stan Becker, Alison Levin-Rector et al., “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study,” PLOS Medicine (October 15, 2013),

4. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, by 2019 Iraq had slipped from a “hybrid” (simulated) democracy to full-blown authoritarianism. “Democracy Index 2019: A Year of Democratic Setbacks and Popular Protest” (London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2019),

5. For a more detailed account of the Arab uprisings, see James L. Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

6. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Regional Summaries: Middle East and North Africa (Geneva: UNHCR, 2019),

7. Zeina Karam, “Millions of People Are Being Starved to Death as Food Is Used as a Weapon across the Middle East,” Business Insider, February 1, 2016,

8. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 481–95.

9. See information from the World Bank’s DataBank from 2018 for the Middle East, at, and for Turkey, at

10. Arab Human Development Report 2016: Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality (New York: UN Development Programme, 2016),

11. Jane Harrigan and Chengang Wang, “The Economic and Political Determinants of IMF and World Bank Lending in the Middle East and North Africa,” World Development 34, no. 2 (2006): 255, 261.

12. See, e.g., Michael Schwartz, “The Egyptian Uprising: The Mass Strike in the Time of Neoliberal Globalization,” New Labor Forum 20, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 33–43.

13. Arab Human Development Report 2009: Challenges for Human Security in the Arab Region (New York: UN Development Programme, 2009),