The so-called ‘Arab Awakening’ is a momentous event that surprised both scholars and policy makers. For over a decade the paradigm of authoritarian resilience had dominated studies of the Arab world, almost entirely replacing the democratization paradigm that had been prominent throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This inter-paradigm debate on how best to explain and interpret the politics of the Arab world now calls for a review, in light of the Arab uprisings. The contributions to this themed issue offer a first attempt at highlighting some of the theoretical issues that should inform our rethinking of this debate thus far. Overall the issue thus aims at making a theoretical contribution by providing a deeper insight into the socio-economic–political structures and the new actors that led to the uprisings in the Arab world. It also explores and considers the opportunities and constraints that these structures offer for sharpening our theoretical tools – which may in turn lead us to use the paradigms and models available to us more flexibly. The case studies that this themed issue deals with by no means exhaust all the issues and case studies that need to be re-thought since the Arab uprisings of December 2010 to date. The aim is to provide useful insights for others to apply more broadly across the whole region.