POMEPS Briefings

POMEPS publishes briefing booklets throughout the year. These briefings are collections of relevant Monkey Cage articles from WashingtonPost.com, and, previously Middle East Channel articles from ForeignPolicy.com, with an original introduction by POMEPS Director Marc Lynch. Briefings are available as free PDF downloads and can be used in the classroom. Click here for a complete list.


POMEPS Brief #28— The Gulf’s Escalating Sectarianism

On January 2, Saudi Arabia executed 47 men, including prominent cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr. This sparked immediate backlash, especially among domestic and global Shiite communities. Unfortunately, such rising sectarian tensions are nothing new in the region. Although the media is quick to highlight the Sunni-Shiite divide, it generally points to this split as the root cause of conflicts. How are we to get beyond this primordialist rhetoric and study the real impacts and causes of sectarianism in the region? POMEPS Briefing 28, “The Gulf’s Escalating Sectarianism,” collects 16 pieces previously published by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Monkey Cage to provide a more nuanced look of this divisive trend.

There is a growing body of scholarship that places sectarianism within the study of comparative politics and international relations, rather than treating sectarian identity as an unchanging, essentialist trait. Authors in this collection demonstrate how political elites use sectarian language to legitimize authoritarian rule, consolidate power, and rally against internal and external foes. What appear on the surface as entrenched confessional divides are often more about political and economic power than religion. Interested readers should also look at the 2013 POMEPS Studies 4 “The Politics of Sectarianism,” much of which remains relevant today.

Analysis of individual Gulf states’ domestic and geopolitical maneuvering supports this theoretical framework. In Saudi Arabia, the new leadership is able to refocus attention away from its international and domestic failures by increasing pressure on Shiite dissidents and provoking its main regional rival, Iran. And, in the wake of the nuclear agreement, the increasing Iranian influence gives Saudi Arabia another reason to amp up the sectarian vehemence. Meanwhile in Yemen, the labels of sectarianism fail to tell the whole story, while in Iraq and Syria violence in the name of sectarian identity continues to polarize and entrench both sides. The Arab uprisings challenged the traditional regional powers, and Sunni leaders continue to vie for prominence in this new order. Meanwhile, the increasing use of information technology and social media reinforces existing communities, while further polarizing users and citizens.

POMEPS Briefing 28 “The Gulf’s Escalating Sectarianism” provides crucial analysis from top scholars on the role of this spiraling sectarian rift in the region.

–Lauren Baker
POMEPS Project Coordinator
January 4, 2016


Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 5.26.00 PM

POMEPS Brief #27 — Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy (PDF)

On October 9, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work shepherding a peaceful transition of power. This accolade highlighted Tunisia’s success creating compromise and building coalition, while avoiding much of the violence and authoritarian backsliding of its neighbors. What lessons can be learned from its example, and what challenges still await this fledgling democracy? POMEPS Briefing 27 “Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy” brings together 20 essential articles published by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Monkey Cage that illuminate this small but important state’s internal politics and regional impact.

The National Dialogue came at a pivotal moment for the nascent Tunisian democracy. As trust in its first democratically elected government waned, the nation had to navigate the resignation of the Troika government, without following Egypt’s path to anti-Islamist authoritarianism. The parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014 marked a democratic milestone as the centrist Nidaa Tunis took over from Islamist Ennahda, then — to the frustration of some members in both parties — brought it into a coalition government. The contrast between the fate of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt on one hand and Turkey on the other is marked.

However, despite these notable achievements, the Tunisian democracy has failed to represent a significant portion of the population and overall confidence in the democratic process is slipping. Many of the revolutionaries who initially participated in the uprisings remain disenchanted with their options for representation. Meanwhile, citizens in the interior continue to struggle with staggering levels of unemployment, as elites work the outdated system to their advantage. Though it was the main motivator for the revolution, the economic situation in the country has made little progress. Citizens must also balance their desire for personal freedoms with the need for security, and recent terror attacks have done little to assuage these concerns.

POMEPS Briefing 27 “Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy” offers important background and analysis by leading scholars on the state’s complex relationship with the democratic process.

–Lauren Baker
POMEPS Project Coordinator
November 6, 2015


Turkey Brief 26

Turkey’s Democratic Struggles

POMEPS Briefing 26 — June 17, 2015

On June 7, Turkish voters denied a majority to the long-ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and pushed the Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) over the electoral threshold for the first time. A number of critical trends in Turkish politics came together in the June 2015 parliamentary election: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions, Kurdish political evolution, an unpopular Syria policy and the stunning break between AKP and the Islamist Gulen movement. POMEPS Briefings 26 “Turkey’s Democratic Struggles” brings together more than a dozen essays published by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Monkey Cage that help to make sense of the stakes and results of this crucial election.

AKP’s electoral setback has been widely interpreted as a repudiation of long-building efforts by Erdogan to amend the constitution and consolidate semi-authoritarian rule. Its defeat should be placed in context, of course. It still won the largest share of seats in the election, even if it failed to secure the majority to which it aspired. As Emre Erdogan and David Wiltse explain, it may still emerge victorious since no grouping of very ideologically different parties has yet been able to formulate a governing coalition. It could form a new coalition government on its own terms, or else send the country back to early elections.

In the year before the election, many observers worried that Erdogan’s authoritarianism and the opposition’s disarray could doom Turkish democracy. Turkey’s opposition went into the election cycle scarred by the 2013 repression of protests in Gezi Park and allegations of fraud in the March 2014 local elections. Dark warnings about Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions circulated widely, with many convinced that the AKP clientelist juggernaut and the dysfunction of the opposition would turn the 2015 election into a referendum legitimating fundamental constitutional changes. An election, they worried, could undermine democracy. The resurgence of the opposition in this election, and particularly the success of the pro-Kurdish HDP, has at least temporarily dented this narrative and renewed some hope for the resilience of Turkish democratic institutions.

Other key political cleavages have taken on new meaning in this environment. Turkey’s Kurds have taken stock of the limitations of AKP’s Kurdish outreach and the opportunities and risks posed by the new status of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. The HDP’s electoral success came in large part at AKP’s expense, while challenging the Turkish nationalist convictions of other major opposition parties. Meanwhile, AKP’s surprising break with the Gulen Movement split the potent Islamist networks upon which it long relied.

POMEPS Briefings 26 “Turkey’s Democratic Struggles” offers essential background by leading scholars on these rapidly shifting politics.


   — Marc Lynch, Director of POMEPS

June 17, 2015


Syria and the Islamic State

October 1, 2014

Syria and the Islamic StateSyria and the Islamic State

POMEPS Briefing 25 — October 1, 2014 

Syria’s nearly four year civil war took a dramatic new turn this month as the United States and its coalition partners began bombing militants from the Islamic State group (formerly know as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra. The U.S. intervention opens up profound uncertainties about the objective and targets of the military action, the responses of the dizzying array of actors on the ground, and the potential for escalation. In December 2013, POMEPS published “The Political Science of Syria’s War,” a collection of original essays by many of the top civil wars and insurgencies scholars, which helped to place the Syrian war into a broad theoretical and comparative perspective. This new collection of articles originally published on “The Monkey Cage” explores the evolution of the conflict, the nature of the Islamic State, and key debates about Syria’s horrific war.

Syria’s war itself has evolved into a complex, multipolar, and highly localized struggle. What began as a civic uprising against a repressive regime has long since morphed into an insurgency with a high degree of external involvement on all sides. The enormous complexity of local alliances and power struggles undermines the master narratives, as Kevin Mazur’s detailed examination of northeastern Syria makes clear. Those local complexities are made even more difficult by the uncertain relations between external patrons and local actors, as Ora Szekely notes. Fighters have multiple motivations, as Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt explore with unique survey data. Even counting the war dead poses real problems, as Laia Balcells, Lionel Beehner, and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl demonstrate. And, as evidence of massive war crimes has mounted, Mark Kersten ponders the implications of referring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the conflict to the International Criminal Court.

Would earlier U.S. efforts to arm the opposition have made a difference? There has been a spirited debate over this question, with the answers of great relevance to renewed efforts to build a moderate rebel force. I argue that the literature suggests that arming the fragmented rebels would not likely have made much difference, and that Americans had little interest in doing so, at least until confronted with videos of the beheading of two U.S. citizens. Beehner offers an alternative reading of the literature, while Jonah Shulhofer-Wohl argues that it was the failure of the United States to act that fragmented the rebels in the first place.

[click to continue…]


Iraq Between Maliki and the Islamic StateIraq Between Maliki and the Islamic State

POMEPS Briefing 24 — July 9, 2014

Iraq’s long-simmering political conflicts and violence erupted in June with the stunning capture of Mosul and advances toward Baghdad by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The collapse of the Iraqi army and the rapid seizure of territory by ISIS took most observers by surprise, but the crisis had been developing for years. This POMEPS Briefing collects more than a dozen recent articles by academics writing for The Monkey Cage and other leading online publications that explore both the immediate crisis and its underlying causes.

ISIS may have been galvanized by the Syrian civil war and insurgency, but its traction with Iraqi Sunni political factions and armed groups has a longer history. Toby Dodge and Zaid Al-Ali each trace the roots of the crisis to the sectarian governance and attempts to monopolize power by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and his heavy-handed response to an emergent Sunni protest movement. The stunning collapse of the Iraqi army is equally rooted in this sectarian governance, as Keren Fraiman, Austin Long and Caitlin Talmadge demonstrate. Removing Maliki would not itself solve the crisis, argues Fanar Haddad, given the urgency of the military challenge to Baghdad and the deeper problems of the Iraqi political order. It is difficult to see how Iraq’s Sunnis could be reincorporated into the political system and separated from ISIS while he remains, however.

How should we understand ISIS, particularly after its declaration of an Islamic caliphate? Thomas Hegghammer argues that the caliphate declaration represented a rational but risky stratagem for the group. Its remarkable use of violence has multiple goals, warns Stathis Kalyvas, and it is far too early to project its ultimate success or failure. The experience of similar groups suggests that numerous problems await the Islamic State as it tries to consolidate its power. The seizure of resources such as cash, oil and water have given ISIS real power, but the rapid infusion of such resources has crippled many other insurgencies, notes Ariel Ahram. Paul Staniland lays out reasons to wonder whether ISIS could be the rare insurgency that can overcome its organizational coherence problems.

There are few obvious policy choices for actors outside of Iraq. A longer U.S. occupation of Iraq would not likely have prevented the crisis, argues Jason Brownlee. Nor, I argue, would a return of U.S. troops make a decisive difference without resolving the underlying political problems, which alienated Iraq’s Sunnis. Andrew Shaver and Gabriel Tenoria present evidence that better services, such as electricity, might entice Sunni communities back into the political fold, at least over the longer term. And while many analysts and U.S. officials have argued for the arming of Syria’s moderate rebels as the key to fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, I note the awkward reality that most of the Arab backers of the Syrian rebels actually support what they see as a Sunni uprising in Iraq.

The essays in POMEPS Briefing #24 Iraq Between Maliki and the Islamic State offer a variety of perspectives on Iraq’s ongoing crisis by leading scholars. Please download and share!

                                                                                   — Marc Lynch, Director of POMEPS

                                                                                                            July 9, 2014


Turkey’s Turmoil

January 13, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 12.53.38 PM

Turkey’s Turmoil

POMEPS Briefing 23 – January 13, 2014

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan occupied a dominant political position not too long ago. In June 2011, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won nearly 60 percent of the seats in parliament while expanding its lead over its closest competitor. Turkey seemed well primed to take advantage of the Arab uprisings, with its independent foreign policy and criticism of Israel playing well with Arab audiences. Erdogan even seemed keen to find a resolution to the long-running struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and reconcile with the country’s Kurdish citizens.

Those days seem distant indeed. For at least the last six months, Erdogan has struggled to respond to sustained popular protests, a growing corruption scandal, a stalled peace process with the PKK, a deeply unpopular and ineffective Syria policy, and dissent from within his own party. How did Erdogan’s fortunes reverse so quickly? Are his problems primarily the natural decay of a leader too long in power or do they speak to deeper problems with his party’s ideology or the foundations of Turkish democracy? The 14 deeply researched and analytically powerful Foreign Policy Middle East Channel essays collected in this POMEPS Briefing go deeply into the origins, dynamics, and likely implications of Turkey’s new political scene. [click to continue…]



Egypt’s Political Reset

POMEPS Briefing 20 – July 23, 2013

How should analysts understand the combination of the June 30 massive popular mobilization and the July 3 military coup against then-President Mohamed Morsi? Should these events be understood as a continuation of the January 25 revolution, a second revolution, a straightforward military coup, or a restoration of the Mubarak-era order? Does the blame for the failure of Egypt’s first popularly elected presidency lie with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, with a recalcitrant opposition, with a resistant state, or with the deep problems which any transitional leadership would have confronted? Can a pathway toward a democratic order still be found?

Egypt’s Political Reset, the latest in the POMEPS Arab Uprisings Briefing Series, collects 15 recent Middle East Channel and Foreign Policy essays written by academics grappling with these issues. The essays range widely across a diverse range of interpretations and analysis. They include historical comparisons and cross-national comparisons alongside close examinations of the Egyptian police, the military, the state, and the Muslim Brotherhood. These essays offer no  analytical consensus nor a clear path forward — and nor should they.

[click to continue…]




Yemen’s National Dialogue

POMEPS Briefing 19 – March 21, 2013

Yemen began its long-awaited National Dialogue Conference this week in Sanaa. The NDC hoped to find some zone of consensus for moving forward in its transition from the long rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. It has been beset by many problems of representation, withdrawals and boycotts, deeply entrenched divisions, and the perception of irrelevance to the real problems of Yemenis. For a while it looked like it might never actually convene.

The stakes are high, as April Alley argues in an October essay, in a country facing a slide back into political collapse and mass violence. As Danya Greenfield argues, the urgency of the situation leaves few options: “despite opposition to the dialogue, it is clear that the status quo is unsustainable. The oft-repeated mantra among many Yemenis is that the question is one of dialogue or civil war.” But just because something is needed does not make it possible. “Yemen’s National Dialogue” collects outstanding recent Middle East Channel analysis of the National Dialogue, its challenges, and its prospects. Read more…


Cover The Egypt Policy Challenge

 POMEPS Briefing 18 – March 4, 2013

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Cairo this weekend laid bare some of the deep limitations of U.S. policy toward Egypt. Kerry struggled to find a bridge between supporting a staggering Egypt and pushing it in a more democratic direction. The hotly polarized political environment in Egypt made such a balancing act excruciatingly difficult, as some prominent leaders of the opposition refused to meet with him publicly (although Mohamed ElBaradei found time for a phone call and Amr Moussa sat down with him off-camera) and protestors angrily denounced U.S. policy.

Kerry announced $250 million in immediate economic assistance, including a new $60 million Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund. He said many of the right things about U.S. priorities, pushing President Mohamed Morsi to compromise and the opposition to participate in the elections. His statement on the trip made clear that “more hard work and compromise will be required to restore unity, political stability and economic health to Egypt. The upcoming parliamentary elections are a particularly critical step in Egypt’s democratic transition. We spoke in depth about the need to ensure they are free, fair and transparent. We also discussed the need for reform in the police sector, protection for non-governmental organizations, and the importance of advancing the rights and freedoms of all Egyptians under the law — men and women, and people of all faiths.” Read more…




The Battle for Egypt’s Constitution

POMEPS Briefing 17 – January 11, 2013

On December 26, 2012, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed off on a new constitution. It was not a cheerful occasion for many politically active Egyptians, following one of the most intensely, dangerously polarized months in recent Egyptian history. The bitterly controversial two-round referendum approving the constitution revealed the depth of the political and social chasm which had been torn through the political class. I offered my own thoughts on the meaning of these events late last month in my “Requiem for Calvinball,” but that was only one part of the wide range of coverage on the Middle East Channel of coverage of the crisis. So I’m pleased to announce here the release of POMEPS Briefing #17: The Battle for Egypt’s Constitution, collecting our articles on the constitution and the political landscape left in the wake of this explosive crisis.

The constitutional drafting process, as Nathan Brown pointed out just before the explosion of the crisis, had been a shambolic mess for over a year and little resembled academic conceptions of how a constitutional process should unfold. There was little high-minded public discourse here, little search for wide national consensus, little attempt to reach beyond political interest to seek a higher dimension of political agreement. Rebuilding a ship at sea, in Jon Elster’s endlessly evocative phrase, never looked so perilous. Complaints about Islamist domination of the constituent assembly had led to mass resignations by non-Islamist members and excoriating commentary in the Egyptian public sphere. Backroom battles over the powers of state institutions intersected with principled arguments over matters such as the role of Islam and public freedoms. This was not the heady stuff of the great constitutional assemblies celebrated in the history textbooks — even before the surreal, late-night, non-deliberative ratification process. Read more…


© 2011. Project on Middle East Political Science. All rights reserved.