The Arab world never seemed more unified than during the incandescent days of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Tunisia’s revolution clearly and powerfully inspired Arabs everywhere to take to the streets. Egypt’s January 25 uprising that led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak taught Arab citizens and leaders alike that victory by protestors could succeed. The subsequent wave of protests involved remarkable synergies that could not plausibly be explained without reference to transnational diffusion. Bahrainis, Yemenis and Jordanians alike attempted to replicate the seizure and long-term encampments in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and protestors across the Arab world chanted the same slogans and waved the same signs.
But what happened in the months and years after those heady days? Did similar processes of diffusion and cross-national learning shape the post-uprisings era? Did autocratic regimes learn from one another in the same way that protestors did? In June, more than a dozen scholars came together in Hamburg, Germany for a workshop jointly organized by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the German Institute for Global Affairs. The workshop closely examined learning, diffusion and demonstration across autocratic regimes during the Arab counter-revolution. The papers for that workshop, available here as an open access PDF download, closely examine the ways in which Arab autocrats did – and did not – learn from one another.
Similarities do not, in and of themselves, prove that diffusion or learning have actually taken place. As German scholars Thomas Richter and André Bank emphasize, not everything that looks like diffusion is necessarily so. Many policy responses may simply be obvious tactics available to any reasonably competent political actor, not innovations that had to be learned. Authoritarian regimes hardly needed to be taught to torture or jail their own people, strip citizenship from dissidents, monitor social media, clear the streets of protestors or censor the media.
The contributors to this collection go considerably further than past studies have done to show how significant learning and diffusion did take place among Arab regimes in the years following the uprisings. Demonstrating diffusion and learning requires careful attention to timing and sequence. It also requires scrutiny of the mechanisms by which ideas are transmitted, whether passively as actors observe events in the media, or actively as agents make direct efforts to spread those ideas. While direct evidence of the thinking and interactions between secretive autocrats may be hard to gather, these scholars carefully trace the timing and sequencing of these processes to show where learning and diffusion mattered. Such careful scrutiny of local conditions and the precise mechanisms of diffusion introduces healthy skepticism into the research agenda, but it does not lead to the conclusion that no diffusion occurred. Today’s Arab world is profoundly shaped by forces promoting transnational interactions, from pervasive social media and satellite television to weakening states, refugee flows, cross-border military interventions.
The authors in POMEPS Studies 21 Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East have decisively advanced our understanding of these processes of diffusion and learning in regional politics.