Politics of the Middle East – Course by Dr. Avi Spiegel



Politics of the Middle East

POLS 359

Dr. Avi Spiegel

Spring 2013

MW 2:30-3:50



The Middle East is in the midst of dramatic, unprecedented political change.  This course seeks to understand the roots and possibilities of these changes.  The course is divided into two parts.  Part I seeks to explore why democracy has eluded the Middle East for so long.  Part II examines the dynamics of the diverse political uprisings unfolding in the Middle East today.  What is the “Arab Spring” and why did it happen?  Can democracy take hold in the Middle East?  What explains the perpetual political stasis that has seemingly characterized today’s Middle East?  How have political scientists addressed this question? And how does recent scholarship inform pressing policy debates?

This course aims to equip you with the analytical tools necessary to navigate ongoing debates surrounding what is the most globally significant, and certainly contentious, region in the world: the Middle East.  These are the more of the kinds of specific questions we will address in-depth: What is the Middle East and why should we care about its politics?  Why has authoritarianism proved so durable in the Middle East?  Are democracy and Islam incompatible?  Has oil wealth doomed the region? Are colonially installed borders simply impossible to overcome?  What explains the emergence of political Islam or Islamism?

In sum, this course will examine the major political, social and economic challenges and dilemmas facing the modern Middle East.  The design of the course, like its subject matter, is neither static nor fixed in one set of viewpoints or a single time period.  Instead, to grasp the remarkable diversity of the region—and the challenges it faces—we will encounter a striking array of source material.  We will engage mainly with scholarly articles and books by political scientists, but also with work by economists, historians, sociologists, graphic novelists, filmmakers and scholars of religion.  We will also, whenever possible, draw directly from the writings of Middle Eastern theorists and political figures themselves.

Our learning goals and outcomes are threefold:

1) To grasp the diverse political, social, and economic challenges facing the Modern Middle East and to theorize possible explanations for these woes.

2) To understand and engage in debates within political science regarding the Middle East and assess the scholastic contribution to ongoing policy debates.

3) To navigate and engage in key foreign policy debates surrounding the future of Middle East politics.

A Note on the Readings: 

There is no single textbook required, but rather two books and a collection of course readings available on Blackboard at https://ole.sandiego.edu/


®Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

®The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East by Marc Lynch.

I recommend buying both now.


You will find the other readings listed below in two different places.

1)    IF there IS a link listed below the title, then simply click on the link, and read or print the article or book excerpt directly from the Internet.

2)    IF there IS NOT a link listed below the title, then the reading is available for reading or printing on the course Blackboard page, under the week’s folder.  Each reading is labeled with the last name of the author.  So, for example, if you wanted to access the article by Eva Bellin assigned for Week 2.  You would sign into the WebCT course page, click on the folder marked “WEEK 2”, and then click on the PDF file titled “Bellin.”

A Note On Reading Assignments and Classroom Discussion.

Each week’s readings are accompanied by a set of reading questions—inquiries to guide you while you tackle the week’s topic.  You will be expected to come to class prepared to discuss these questions.  However, the lecture will not be duplicative of these questions, but will rather build on them.  And the exams will be based both on readings and on classroom lectures (even if we don’t directly engage with a particular reading in class).  Class will consist of a dynamic and vibrant mix of lecture and discussion.  Your participation in such discussions is critical to your success in this course.


20% Midterm Exam (in class)

20% Final Exam (in class)

20% Group Presentation (presentations will take place between 4/29-5/8)

20% Final Paper (due at the final)

20% Participation (Active participation in classroom discussions and attendance and short assignments)

General Points and Expectations

Throughout the course of this semester, you will be expected to:

1) Attend class, arriving on time.  More than two unexcused absences (those which have not been cleared with a medical note, or a note from the Dean’s Office or result from a sudden emergency) during the course of the semester will result in a zero grade for participation.  Arriving late is disrespectful to your fellow classmates and disrupts the class.  Being late more than three times may result in a lowered participation grade.  Unfortunately, not being able to find parking is not an acceptable excuse for lateness.

2) Participate actively in classroom discussions.  I will at times call on students without warning.  This is why it is imperative that you come to class prepared – and have read all the assigned readings that are listed on the class date before coming to class.  If I call on you and you are not prepared to participate, you may pass by saying “pass.”  The first pass is free, but any additional passes will significantly lower your participation grade.

Your participation grade will be based on your engagement in class discussions and debates, your performance when called upon and how well you critically engage with the material.  Let me be clear: simply showing up to class does not count as “participating”  — indeed, that is the equivalent of not participating, of showing up to the ballot box and not voting.  Showing up to class and not participating would represent a D grade for participation.  Again, your participation in class discussions is critical to your success in this course.

3) Be aware of course and exam expectations.  Class sessions will not simply regurgitate the readings, but will rather build on them.  Indeed, our class sessions will consist of a dynamic and vibrant mix of lecture, debate, and discussion.  Exams will be based both on readings and on classroom lectures (even if we don’t directly engage with a particular reading in class).  In short, anything covered in class may appear on the exam and anything covered in the readings may appear on the exam regardless of whether it was specifically discussed in class.

NOTE: Study guides for exams—including key terms, concepts and key Powerpoint slides—will be posted on Blackboard before exams.

4) Turn assignments in—during the class meeting time—on the dates specified.  Late assignments will simply not be accepted (except, of course, in cases of medical emergency, and accompanied by note from the Dean’s Office.)

NOTE: You are responsible each week to check the readings on the syllabus – and to check if there are additional reading assignments due on that day.  If there are, I will announce those in class.

NOTE: There will be no make-up exams, nor will anyone be allowed to take any of the exams, including the final, at a time other than the scheduled date and time. (The same rule applies: except, of course, in cases of medical emergency, and accompanied by note from the Dean’s Office.)

5) Abide strictly by the academic integrity rules established by the university (See http://www.sandiego.edu/honorcouncil/integrity.php).  Infractions will most likely result in a failing grade.

6) Inform me if you require any academic accommodation (See http://www.sandiego.edu/disability/accomm.php)

7) Inform me if you are particularly shy or have problems speaking in front of large groups or working within small groups (we all learn in different ways and have unique personalities and I am very sensitive to this).

8) Recognize that the syllabus is a working document.  It is subject to change and amendment.  I will at times during the semester ask you to complete additional assignments, depending on ongoing developments around the world and within the class itself.

9) Engage respectfully with your fellow classmates.  This includes: not using cell phones (in any way — to talk or text); and not reading or perusing materials from outside the class during class.  Using a cell phone more than once in class will result in a significantly lowered participation grade.  Also, please note that laptops, netbooks or any other electronic computerized devices are not permitted in class.

10) Recognize that your professor is here to help.  If you are having difficulty understanding the material or have any questions or concerns in general, I am here to help you.  Visit my office hours or email me.  If the office hours don’t work with your schedule for any reason, email me to set up a different time.  I may not respond immediately to your emails, but I will always respond.

NOTE: When sending an email to me, use this as a subject line:

(Class): (Subject)

For example:

POLS 359-01: Question on Assignment


Important Dates:

Midterm: March 18

Final Exam: May 20, 2-4pm (Paper Due this Day)





Week 1  

Introduction to Middle East Politics: Challenges, Expectations and Possibilities

What do we mean by the term “Middle East”?  Who lives in the Middle East?  Why is studying Middle East politics relevant today?  What political problems challenge the modern Middle East?  What are some possible explanations for these challenges?




First Day, no reading.




Arab Human Development Report, UNDP, 2004. Excerpts. Available at:



Marc Lynch, “Grading Places,” The National, 2010.

Available at: http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/grading-places?pageCount=0


Peruse the collection of maps on this page:


Week 2

Kings, Presidents and Sheikhs: Governance and Authoritarianism in the Middle East

Who has ruled the modern Middle East for the last fifty years?  Are these governing regimes all the same?  How can they be compared and contrasted?  How do these rulers rule?  What is authoritarianism?  Are there multiple forms?  Give examples.  What arguments have political scientists put forth to explain the durability of authoritarianism in the Middle East?




Marjane Satrapi.  Persepolis.  New York: Pantheon, 2004


Kamel Riahi, “A Night in Tunisia,” The New York Times, January 18, 2011.

Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/opinion/19riahi.html?pagewanted=all


*Recommended but not required: Lisa Wedeen, “Acting ‘As If’: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, July 1998, pp 503-507.





Eva Bellin, “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East,” Comparative Politics, Winter 2004.


Lisa Anderson. “Absolutism and the Resilience of Monarchy in the Middle East,” Political Science Quarterly. Spring 1991


Week 3

The Making of the Modern Middle East

How did the states that today compose the Middle East come to be formed?  How can learning about the modern history of the Middle East help us navigate its contemporary politics? Is the contemporary Middle East a victim of colonial policies and regimes? Are colonially imposed borders significant predictors of today’s conflicts? Is geography destiny?  David Fromkin told the Wall Street Journal in 2003: “We tend to overlook a basic rule: that people prefer bad rule by their own kind to good rule by somebody else (WSJ, 3/19/03).”  Do you agree?





Eugene Rogan. “The Emergence of the Middle East into the Modern State System.” In International Relations of the Middle East. Ed. Louise Fawcett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


David Fromkin, “How the Modern Middle East Map Came to be Drawn,” Smithsonian 22, May 1991.




Christopher Hitchens, “Guerrillas in the Mist: Why the war in Iraq is nothing like The Battle of Algiers,” Slate, 2004.

Available at: http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2093381


Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” The New York Times, September 7, 2003

Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/07/weekinreview/the-world-film-studies-what-does-the-pentagon-see-in-battle-of-algiers.html


Elizabeth Murrell, “The Battle of Algiers Study Guide.”

Week 4

Islam and Middle East Politics

More Muslims reside outside the Middle East than live in it.  Plus, the Middle East is not exclusively made up of Muslims.  Yet, Islam has come to play a disproportionate role in the politics of the contemporary Middle East.  Why do you suppose that is?  What were some of your preconceptions coming into this class about Islam and its relationship to politics? This week we will also be discussing the relationship between Islam and democracy.  Does Islam or “Islamic orientations” hinder or help the emergence of democratic reform in the Middle East?  What evidence have political scientists brought forward to suggest that Islam and democracy are compatible or incompatible? What data convinces you? How should religiosity or religious orientations even be measured?




Thomas Lippman, “Law and Government in Islam,” “The Advance of Islam” and “Schism and Mysticism,” in Understanding Islam. Excerpts.


“Understanding Islamism,” International Crisis Group, 2005

Available at http://merln.ndu.edu/archive/icg/Islamism2Mar05.pdf




Mark Tessler, “Islam and Democracy in the Middle East: The Impact of Religious Orientations on Attitudes Toward Democracy in Four Arab Countries.” Comparative Politics 34 (April 2002): 337-354.


Noah Feldman. After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.  Excerpts.




Muqtedar Khan and Daniel Pipes, “Debate: Islam and Democracy,” Wide Angle, PBS, July 15, 2003.

Week 5

Gender and Democracy in the Middle East

What is the status of women in the Middle East? What role do women play in the politics of the Middle East?  Does the status of women distinguish the Middle East from other regions of the world?  Is a low status of women correlated with political stagnation?  Why do women seem to play a smaller role in the politics of the region?  How do political scientists even go about researching the status of women?  What indicators do you think they should look to?




Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart. “The True Clash of Civilizations” Foreign Policy, 2003


Daniela Donna and Bruce Russett, “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Female and Empowerment: What Are the Linkages?” World Politics, Volume 56, Number 4, July 2004.




Margot Badran, “Islamic Feminism Revisited,” 2006


Mona Eltawahy, “Why Do They Hate Us,” Foreign Policy, May 2012


Six Responses, “Debating the War on Women,” Foreign Policy, April 2012


*Marjane Satrapi.  Persepolis.  New York: Pantheon, 2004




March 18




Spring Break

March 25-April 1


Week 6

The Resource Curse? Petro-Politics in the Middle East

What is the relationship between oil and democracy?  Has the presence of oil doomed the modern Middle East?  Why would it? Why would it not? What evidence have political scientists and economists marshaled to support or disprove these claims? What is the Rentier State theory? Do you agree with it?  What would be some possible critiques?




Anne Brocard and Stéphanie Vallet, “The Rentier States in the Middle East,”

Available at http://www.periwork.com/coursepoints/rentier_middle_east.html


Michael Ross, “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” World Politics, Volume 53, Number 3, April 2001, pp. 325-361.  Available at:





Michael Ross, “Oil, Islam, and Women,” American Political Science Review,

Available at:



Tofol Al-Nasr, A Critique of  “Oil, Islam, and Women,” Available at:










Weeks 7-9

The Arab Spring.

What is the “Arab Spring”?  Why and how did the politics of the Middle East erupt in December 2010?  What led authoritarian leaders to fall in the year(s) to follow? Which leaders fell? Why did some Arab autocrats fall and not all? Has everything changed? Has nothing really changed at all?




Lynch, Marc, “The Arab Uprisings” in The Arab Uprising, pgs. 7-28.

Lynch, Marc, “The Arab Cold War” in The Arab Uprising, pgs. 29-42.


Spiegel, Avi.  “Morocco’s Islamist Prime Minister,” Foreign Policy, 2011


Spiegel, Avi.  “The Real Reason Behind Anti-American Protests,” Huffington Post, 2012





Lynch, Marc, “Building Toward Revolution” in The Arab Uprising, pgs. 43-65.

Lynch, Marc, “A New Hope” in The Arab Uprising, pgs. 67-100.




Barbara Geddes, “What Do we know about Democratization After 20 Years?” Annual Review of Political Science, 1999.





Lynch, Marc, “The Empire Strikes Back: The Counterrevolution” and “Intervention and Civil War” in The Arab Uprising, pgs. 67-100, 161-192.


Readings on Monarchies versus Republics in Foreign Policy.





Lynch, Marc, “The Tidal Wave” in The Arab Uprising, pgs. 101-130.


Debate between Malcom Gladwell and Clay Shirky on the role of Social Media and Revolutions:.









Weeks 10-11

Country Case Studies and Group Presentations.

In order to look closely at the dynamics of democratic change, we need to look closely at specific case studies.  In these final weeks, we will do just that.  The readings for these weeks are country and case specific (I will explain in class.)


®4/29 Country case studies


®5/1 Country case studies


®5/6 Country case studies


®5/8 Country case studies



®5/13 Final Class: Making Sense of the Future of Middle East Politics



May 20

Final Exam: 2-4pm

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