Interruptor Series No. 43: Sarah Yerkes

We’ve heard and seen it again and again. Youth around the world are becoming increasingly impactful in leading changes. Perhaps no where are youth’s triumphs – and their limitations — more evident than in the Middle East. As we know, youth-led NGOs in Tunisia and Egypt have played a tremendous role in the outcomes of Arab Spring.

To learn more about that role, our student fellow Connie E sat down with Sarah Yerkes, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who researches the relationship between the state and society in the Middle East.

Sarah is a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, where she focused on North Africa. Previously, she was a foreign affairs officer in the State’s Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs. Yerkes also served as a geopolitical research analyst for the U.S. military’s Joint Staff Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J5) at the Pentagon, advising the Joint Staff leadership on foreign policy and national security issues. She received her doctorate in government from Georgetown University in 2012.

She is currently examining the trajectory of the secular, liberal revolutionaries of the Arab Spring. Below, she helps us to unpack the complexities behind some of the most violent regions in the Middle East.

Fun fact: “I was President of my sorority in college and I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly. [Editor’s note: Lauren is jealous]. I say these two things together because I think we should recognize that we are all multifaceted and shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously all the time.”


FPI:  What do you consider is the most exciting aspect of what you do?

SY: The most exciting part of my work is getting to interact with people around the world, primarily people in the Middle East. I really enjoy working with civil society and meeting young Tunisians, Moroccans and Egyptians. I have met so many people who are very brave and have taken on tremendous challenges within their own countries. I also enjoy interacting with students at the university level and bringing my experiences both as an academic as well as a former policy maker into the classroom.


FPI: You did your doctoral fieldwork in Egypt in 2010 and 2011. What’s it like to be on the ground both during the Mubarak regime and shortly after the Egyptian revolution? What struck you the most?

SY: At the time, no one had any idea that the Arab Spring was coming. I was doing my doctoral research on the relationship between civil society organizations and the authoritarian state in Cairo about a month and a half before the revolution started. I interviewed civil society activists about how they get around the authoritarian state, what tools and mechanisms they used to accomplish their goals under that really difficult enviornment. I planned to come back around February 2011 to do some longer-term research, but once the Arab Spring happened, I decided it wasn’t safe to come back straight away so I waited until June of 2011. My research wasn’t originally on the revolution but since it had happened, I got to re-interview a lot of the young people who were inspired by the revolution and were taking political actions for the first time in their lives. I felt very lucky to have had the opportunity to talk to them right before and right after the revolution. What struck me the most was their confidence and ability to take tremendous risks. We see tremendous parallels actually within the United States today where people are now motivated by their discontent with the government and are taking political action, like protesting or lobbying Congress, for the first time in their lives.


FPI: How do you see the role played by young people changing over time? What does the youth-led future look like?

SY: First of all, the youth population in the Middle East is huge – more than 60 percent of the region is made up of young people and they have a huge role to play. I generally tend to be optimistic about a lot of things, but I’m particularly optimistic about the young people in the region. Even though most of the region is worse off today than it was in 2010, with the exception of Tunisia, young people showed what they are capable of through the Arab Spring. And I think these movements are not over. We’re only seeing the first phase right now. Young people have shown that they have a voice and they know how to use it. They’re also better connected to each other than ever before. I worry that the regimes, particularly the Sisi regime in Egypt, have come to understand that and are now pushing back even harder than they ever have against civil society which is largely led by youth. But young people have a huge role to play in determining their own future, whether it’s politically, economically, socially, or culturally.


FPI: What are your current research projects?

SY: I just wrapped up a monograph on youth political participation in Tunisia. The idea was to look at this phenomenon of what happened to the revolutionaries. I started out comparing Tunisia and Egypt as two really different cases; the former is where you have the success story of Arab Spring and democracy whereas in Egypt, you have the push back against all the revolutionary ideals. That’s when I realized there is such an interesting story in Tunisia, it deserves its own piece. So the paper that I just published is my attempt to understand why young people in particular, including some of the revolutionaries themselves, have actually stayed away from formal politics. They’re really choosing to participate in informal politics like civil society, rallies, protests, petitions instead of in formal politics like voting or running for office. They’re actively engaged, they would volunteer for political campaigns, for example, but then not vote. In my research I found that there is a growing chasm between government and civil society particularly among the youth. So the paper examines why that happens and what that means for the future of Tunisia. Next, I’m hoping to turn this into a book comparing Tunisia to a couple other cases, not necessarily in the Middle East, because, as I said, there are parallels to the Tunisian experience the United States and the United Kingdom.


FPI: Some people find the Middle East a fascinating region to study because of its ongoing conflicts and the complexities behind them. What’s the most fascinating aspect of the Middle East to you?

SY: I was always interested in International Relations and I knew that’s what I wanted to do in college. I took a Middle East studies 101 class in my first semester of freshman year and I loved it. On the one hand, this interest has been driving my work for 20 years now; on the other hand, I sometimes think what if I’d taken Latin American or European studies 101 first? I love the Middle East and I haven’t turned away from it, but some of it is due to chance. That being said, I started working on this region well before 9/11 and at the time, there were only 9 students in my first year Arabic class in the whole university. After 9/11, every professor or grad student at my university who could read the Arabic alphabet had to teach Arabic 101 because there was such an interest in it. So I can easily understand now why people are drawn to the region, but for people in my generation and older when this wasn’t the hip thing to do, I don’t know what draws them. I think it’s just a fascinating place and I never looked back.


FPI: You’ve worked at the State Department, the Pentagon, think tanks and you’ve taught at universities. They are very different institutions, how do you navigate your career? Have you always known what you wanted to do?

SY: The benefit of being in the field of foreign policy is that there is no one path. You can jump back and forth, that’s the beauty of what we do. People that I look up to in this field have had careers in government, academia, think tanks and they go seamlessly in between. For me, I knew I wanted to get a PhD for a long time. My father is a professor so when I was little I just thought everyone had a Ph.D. and sort of decided from a young age that I would get a Ph.D. I was fortunate to be a research assistant at the Brookings Institution after getting my master’s degree in 2003. That’s where I met an incredible team of people who became mentors and friends to this day. After I finished my PhD, I was advised very wisely to go get some government experience before trying to return to the think tank world as a scholar. Even if you have never wanted to be a bureaucrat, which I never did, you need to work in government because you cannot really analyze foreign policy unless you know how it actually works: from the very basic, most boring ways that a paper gets written to knowing the major players, knowing who actually has influence. I think that is tremendously important before you can really be a serious analyst, in my opinion.


FPI: Have you ever felt your being a woman was a challenge?

SY: Absolutely. When I worked as a research assistant for Tamara Wittes, who is one of the most amazing women in our field, we would regularly be the only women at a roundtable or in meetings with leaders from abroad. But the bigger challenge has actually been going abroad alone as a woman to do fieldwork in the Middle East. Sexual harassment in Egypt is rampant. On the positive side, I think I’ve got some interviews that I wouldn’t have if I were a man. I’ve had a couple instances with older men where they’ve treated me almost like their daughter so they would confide in me in a way that they probably wouldn’t otherwise. Within foreign policy, I don’t see gender as much an issue in Washington as I do abroad but it is a challenge that people are finally recognizing. It’s great that more panels are featuring women today, but we need to get to the point where we would be invited regardless of our gender – not to correct an imbalance.


FPI: Who are some of those mentors who have influenced you? Also: do you have any other film or book recommendations for those looking to learn more about the region?

SY: As far as people, I mentioned Tamara Wittes, she was my first boss and then my most recent boss at Brookings. Dan Byman, although not a woman, he is one of the few people who has really successfully navigated academia and policy. He is both at Georgetown and Brookings, and has gone back and forth within these two spheres more successfully than anyone I know. For people who are trying to figure out how do you do both, he is a great person to look up to. Some other women who have done tremendous work on the Middle East are Suzanne Maloney, Michele Dunne and Amy Hawthorne. Those are probably some of the rock stars in the Middle East foreign policy field.

For other resources, I think it’s very useful to read or watch the news from the countries you study. I try to watch the Tunisian news broadcast from the local stations on the internet most days. It not only helps you to keep up with the language, but it’s also the best way to find out what are the stories that actually matter to the people on the ground. The other thing I found very useful is to read memoirs, particularly since I study people and society. There are a lot of good books about the Arab Spring focused on the real people who lived through the evnets, they give you more of a flavor of what happened from people on the ground. Some of my favorites are:

– Once Upon a Revolution by Thanassis Cambanis

– Circling the Square by Wendell Steavenson

– Revolution 2.0 by Wael Ghonim

– Revolution is My Name by Mona Price

– Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution by Layla al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel and Nemonie Craven Roderick


FPI: Do you have any tips for emerging and fellow interruptors?

SY: Surround yourself with a strong and supportive network. When you’re in the field, it’s hard and you just have to persist. But I frequently would try to connect with other women in academia or journalism just to have a support network. One of the things that has kept me going here in Washington is that I have two good friends who I met in grad school. They’re both academics, but the three of us have a research support group and we meet every couple weeks and present our research. Half of the time we talk about personal challenges within our careers, but we also offer serious critiques of each other’s work in a helpful and supportive way. Having the two of them who are at the same career point as me where we’re facing very similar challenges both personally and professionally has lifted me up in ways I can’t even describe.

My other piece of advice is that bosses matter. When you’re planning out your career or your next step, I found I’m most successful when I have a boss who I respect and strive to follow in their path. I’ve had good bosses and bad bosses, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost all my favorite bosses have been women. Whom you work for will have a huge impact on your life, and that’s oftentimes overlooked when people apply for jobs. If you have young kids like I do, have a boss who’s either had kids or understands what’s it like to have kids. If you don’t have kids, but have a dedicated commitment like yoga or you have a dog who you need to go home to at a certain time, try to find a boss who understands that. Everyone has her personal challenges, make sure you have support because this is someone who’s going to be controlling a tremendous amount of your life.