The Arab Uprisings in Perspective

The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the Middle East

(Marc Lynch, New York: Public Affairs, 2012)


(Reviewed for International Affairs) Marc Lynch has all the qualifications needed for an informed analysis of the seismic events that have reverberated across the Middle East over the past two years. He is an American associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy with ties to the Obama administration and particularly apt, considering his take on the role of technology in events, a blogger with over 18,000 Twitter followers.

His work is part of what the Economist called “a gaggle of instant books” that followed the genuine surprise felt in both the academic and policy community by the pace of change heralded by Ben Ali’s departure in Tunisia that set off a chain of events that toppled Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saleh and stalled in an orgy of blood-letting in Syria. Lynch's book is a historical narrative of the multiple uprisings layered with a history that places events in a larger context and smartly disposes of the lazy idea that the Arab world was politically passive before 2011.

The role of technology is generally understood as a key component of the uprisings and is examined in depth by the tech-savvy Lynch. He refers to the protesters as ‘political entrepreneurs’ who helped organise ‘ hash tagged revolutions’ (alluding to the part Twitter played in events). The disenfranchised youth were the vanguard of the initial revolutions and heralded the emergence of a ‘new Arab public’ that would challenge the moribund status-quo of decades of authoritarianism. This new force has altered the certainties through which the reason was understood with Lynch explaining that “the changes sweeping the Middle East today make sudden, massive shocks far more likely” (p.24).

One of Lynch’s strengths is that instead of producing a purely reactive book he looks to connect themes such as technologies links to political power to a larger historical perspective. Lynch writes about the Arab public’s support to General Nasser and his skilful use of the Voice of the Arabs radio broadcasts to mobilise and connect people across borders. Pan-Arab media would underpin the information environment that enabled the modern revolutionaries to bypass and overwhelm traditional state security. Lynch correctly downplays the role of social media explaining that “there was simply not enough Arab users” (p.82) of Twitter and Facebook to have made such a difference. Instead Al Jazeera and the satellite television stations, supported by social media, “bound together these national struggles into a single, coherent narrative of an Arab Intifada” (p.124).

However the revolutions would eventually stall in Bahrain and more violently, Syria, what Lynch refers to as the ‘Counterrevolution’, a word he admits is filled with a less than obvious specific meaning. Lynch observes the phenomena of the ‘violence-mobilization cycle’ (p.142) which burst out from the Syrian town of Deraa engulfing the entire country in a civil war. However Syria is not a country in isolation but rather where the momentum of the Arab Uprising clashed with complex geopolitics surrounding the ‘Cold War’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It is a US-centric appraisal of not just events but US policy towards the region, with Lynch identifying the challenge posed by the Arab Spring coinciding with US values but not US interests. Nevertheless Lynch praises the Obama administration’s response to the so-called Arab Spring as rapid and effective. Yet the author also examines the connected Arab Public’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s policy of ‘leading from behind’ quoting the sentiment that the President “was a nice man who gives beautiful speeches, but with no follow through” (p.195). Lynch believes that against the backdrop of seismic change the first term Obama administration “has done reasonably well in responding to the torrent of developing events, protecting core US interests while rhetorically embracing the democratic transformation” (p.213).

The author’s policy ideas are important component behind the book’s messaging and Lynch’s aim to provide a “guide to what is to come” (p.5). The book does have a slightly rushed feel to it and the author is guilty of a few glib remarks such as when describing the clampdown in Bahrain writing that the “repressive campaign was truly shocking, even by Arab standards” (p.138). Lynch incorrectly refers to Rafik Hariri as Prime Minister at the time of his assassination (p.179) and states that no Arab country made a transition towards democracy under George W Bush forgetting the Cedar Revolution (p.227). There are also some unresolved inconsistencies such as the stress of the framework of the Saudi-Iranian cold war as a driver of much of the regions politics followed by an orphaned line describing “Iran has found itself almost entirely irrelevant” (p.198).

See Marc Lynch's blog here

 

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