One reason Egypt's uprising seems to have taken most of the world by surprise is the lack of any major political unrest in the last 30 years. For a deeper understanding of the long history of authoritarian rule in the Middle East, turn to Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes, which includes essays that consider the ongoing political dynamics and the region and show how Arab regimes have retained their power despite ongoing transformations in societal, political, and economic spheres.
Another surprising factor is the apparent absence of any one leader of the protests. Instead, the focus has largely been on Egypt's middle class youth (60% of Egypt's population is under 30). Frances Hasso explores the growing frustration of Egypt's young people, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed and thus unable to marry or start a family, in Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East
Finally, later this spring Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel examine social movements, political opportunity, and collective action in their forthcoming book, Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa. For a look at how precisely these social movements have influence the current uprising, see Joel Beinin's Egypt at the Tipping Point? in a January 31, 2011 posting on Foreign Policy's "Middle East Channel."