Yale political scientist investigates fallout from the Arab Spring

Using the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as case studies, Elizabeth Nugent is writing a book on how legacies of repression affect democratic transitions.
One of the protestors waving the Egyptian Flag during the protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

One of the protestors waving the Egyptian Flag during the protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt toppled autocratic regimes during the 2011 Arab Spring, but the countries’ fates diverged after the revolutions ended. While Tunisia has established a stable democratic government, Egypt’s shift to democracy was fraught with strife that ended in a military coup and the imprisonment of the popularly elected president 

Elizabeth Nugent, assistant professor of political science, is writing a book on how legacies of repression affect democratic transitions, and Tunisia and Egypt are her primary case studies. She has interviewed more than 100 dissidents from both countries who endured persecution — often including imprisonment and torture — at the hands of the regimes that held power before the Arab Spring. Their accounts provide insight into why democracy took hold in Tunisia, but not in Egypt, said Nugent, who joined Yale’s faculty in July. 

In Tunisia, there was widespread repression affecting just about every opposition group, which increased those groups’ ability to compromise and work together after the Arab Spring uprising,” she said. “In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was singled out for repression over and over again for almost 30 years. This contributed to a victim mentality that made the Muslim Brotherhood unable to compromise or work with groups that hadn’t been persecuted. They had a sense that because they had suffered the most, they alone deserved a chance to rule.”

Former Tunisian dissidents described enduring brutal and persistent repression under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who held power from 1987 to 2011, Nugent said. 

I discovered that nearly every family has had an experience of state repression in which a family member had been imprisoned, tortured, forced out of a job, or forced to leave the country,” she said. “I spoke to men who spent 15 years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. They often were randomly rotated among prisons as an additional form of psychological torture.”

The dissidents suffered systematic and gruesome physical torture, she noted. In numerous cases, the dissidents told her that their wives had been raped by the regime’s henchmen, she said.

The repression continued after dissidents were released from prison. They would be forced to check in with police regularly and their ability to travel or make a living could be severely restricted, she said.

All opposition groups in Tunisia were subjected to repression — whether they were leftists or Islamists — which Nugent argues helped unite them.

It was amazing to listen to people of very different political perspectives make sense of these events by strengthening their belief in their political ideology,” she said. “That was not the repression’s intended effect. It was intended to make them give up.”

The shared experiences in Tunisia contributed to the dissidents’ ability to compromise, providing a boon to the country’s fledgling democracy, she said.

 “There are other factors that contributed to Tunisia’s more successful transition to democracy after 2011, but of the 217 members of its first constituent assembly, 67 had been in jail or exile together,” she said. “I think it made a huge difference. There is some common ground about what the Tunisian identity should be. Islam will have some role but it might not be the overarching framework for the government.”

In Egypt, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak singled out the Muslim Brotherhood for repression, routinely rounding up and jailing the opposition organization’s members. The Brotherhood’s victimization impaired its ability or willingness to cooperate with other opposition groups after the Mubarak regime collapsed, Nugent said.

When Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won Egypt’s 2012 presidential election, he took an uncompromising approach to pursuing the group’s Islamist agenda, sparking mass protests. Morsi was overthrown in 2013 and subsequently imprisoned. The current Egyptian government, led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, labeling it a terrorist organization. The group’s members once again are being subjected to imprisonment and exile.

One of the most unfortunate things about Egypt is that the pattern hasn’t changed,” Nugent said. “Victimizing this large political group is not going to contribute to democratization of the country. It appears the leftist opposition groups have bought into the current regime’s rhetoric conflating the Brotherhood with terrorists.”

As a result, Egypt remains deeply divided between secularists and Islamists, she said.   

Political leadership feels that Egypt will either be a secular, pluralistic society or an Islamist one, and there is no middle ground,” Nugent said. “It is very difficult for people to have a conversation about even basic political issues in that environment.”

In addition to her work on repression, Nugent studies the influence of religion on political behavior.

Elizabeth Nugent
Elizabeth Nugent

What made me interested in studying the Middle East was questions that I had about the role religion plays in people’s lives and explicitly their political lives,” she said. “The current political science literature on Islam in politics posits various motives for why people turn to religion, such as economic reasons, the provision of social services in a specific context, cognitive mistakes, etc. I was trying to understand why somebody would turn to religion in politics for explicitly religious purposes.”

She has co-authored papers examining different aspects of whether economic considerations lead people support Islamist parties or whether there is a religious element to economic factors that drives them to vote for Islamist candidates.

Another paper tests the common belief that Islam is an inherently conservative religion.

We found that emphasizing certain progressive aspects of the Quran can persuade people to become more supportive of women’s empowerment,” she said. “In North Africa, for example, there are a lot of Islamic feminists who want to reclaim this heritage as something that could be more progressive and are finding something more progressive within the religious tradition itself.”

A recently published study explores the role of social media in the 2011 Egyptian uprising, comparing the mobilizing effects of social media networks with those of traditional “offline” networks, such as labor unions, community associations, and religious groups.  The study, based on a survey of nationally representative sample, found the traditional networks played a crucial role in bringing Egyptians into the streets.  

There was so much press about social media driving events, which didn’t track with our experiences on the ground,” she said. “Social media clearly helped. It definitely provided people with information, but at the end of the day, people still have to show up and the more traditional social networks were crucial to getting people into the streets.”

Nugent’s work incorporates a range of techniques for gathering evidence, including interviews, surveys, randomized controlled experiments, and archival research. This versatility makes her a good fit for Yale Department of Political Science, according to Steven Wilkinson, the department’s chair.

Liz investigates some of the major events of our time, such as the Arab Spring, using a terrific blend of interviews and different social science methods,” said Wilkinson, the Nilekani Professor of Political Science. “We’re excited to welcome her back to New Haven, where she attended high school.”

Nugent, who was raised in Westport, Conn., is a graduate of the Hopkins School in New Haven. She was a 16-year-old student at Hopkins on 9/11, and she says the terrorist attacks inspired her to study Islam and the Middle East.  

It was an extremely formative time for me,” she said. “I would not be doing what I’m doing without it. It raised questions about religion and repression that still guide large aspects of my research agenda.”

For her part, Nugent said she is excited to return to New Haven. 

There is a cohort of young scholars within the department, and it’s fun to be a part of it,” she said. “There is a certain vibrancy here. Collaboration is happening across disciplines and professional schools. It makes Yale a fun place to be creative and push the envelope on all sorts of research.”


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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548