THE ARAB UPRISINGS OF 2011-2012 -- popular protests that challenged authoritarian rule across the Middle East and North Africa-took the world by surprise. The possibility that the Arab region might finally be loosening the chains of tyranny was electrifying. But within five years, this hope had largely been dashed. Popular mobilization had left in its wake a political scene littered with state collapse, civil war, and authoritarian regression. To pessimists, this glum reversal in the Arab world was inevitable. But to others, alternative paths were possible.
Nowhere is this differential possibility captured more clearly than in the comparison of Tunisia and Egypt. These two countries, similarly blessed with historically robust states and ethnically homogenous societies, were the first to shake off their long-lived dictators. At the start of the uprisings, these countries seemed best positioned to transition successfully to democracy. At the end of five years, however, the two countries found themselves in dramatically different places. Tunisia had succeeded in crossing the threshold of democratic transition. But Egypt had regressed, embracing authoritarian practices that were in some ways more repressive than what had come before.
What explains the divergent trajectories taken by these two countries? Could our theories of democratization, the product of three decades of extensive cross-regional study, have anticipated this outcome? And what do the experiences of Tunisia and Egypt say about the dynamics of democratization generally, and the possibility of further democratization in the Arab world specifically?
The goal of this article is fourfold. First, it seeks to cast light on a puzzling reality--the divergent trajectories taken by Tunisia and Egypt. As such, the article is focused on explaining an outcome in a specific historical case, rather than building a generalizable theory or testing it. (1) In line with this case-centric ambition, the article adopts an analytic approach that is eclectic rather than parsimonious, complex and multifactorial rather than theoretically spare and elegant.
Second, the article has ambitions to go beyond the analysis of a single pair of cases and reach for more generalizable knowledge about the dynamics of democratization. By confronting the divergent experiences of Tunisia and Egypt with a synthetic view of some of the classic approaches in democratization theory, the article aims to take stock of the utility of these different approaches and shed light on the scope conditions that might favor one approach over another.
Third, the article seeks to reflect more generally on the special lessons that the Arab uprisings have to teach theorists of democratization. Every regional spurt of democratization (whether fully successful or not) has brought theoretically distinctive insights to this literature--be it the role of learning/voluntarism (the lesson of the Latin American transitions of the 1980s), (2) the contribution of prior institutional endowment (highlighted by the African transitions of the early 1990s), (3) or the importance of international modeling and contagion (illustrated by the color revolutions of Eastern Europe). (4) The experience of the Arab world has important lessons for democratization theory as well, even if the outcome of...
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