Saturday, April 28, 2012

Arab Uprising

Most people who read me probably already know Marc Lynch, the amazingly productive director of GWU's Institute for Middle East Studies, director of the Project on Middle East Political Science, and editor of Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel who also finds time to coach his daughter's basketball team. His most recent major work is The Arab Uprising: Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, published about a month ago by PublicAffairs. This work is a clearly written overview of the wave of protests that began over a year ago in Tunisia, one informed by Lynch's immersion in the Arabic media environment and knowledge of and acquaintance with many key players that will be a fundamental text shaping early interpretations of the events in question.

Lynch views the "Arab Spring" protests as the culmination of a third wave of popular political mobilization in the Arab world, following a first wave in the 1950's after the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and a second in the late 1980's and early 1990's linked for the Palestinian First Intifada, Operation Desert Storm, and a set of economic grievances. This third wave has had different results because of the existence of a new mediaspace which includes independent reporting and discussion on satellite television stations and social media such as Twitter and text messaging. This is not, however, a technological determinist argument, for the focus, especially with the social media, is the way in which they enable individuals to communicate beneath and around state censorship and official sources of information, making it impossible for regimes to control the information environment.

This new media was perhaps most important in Tunisia, which had an unusually high internet penetration rate contributing to the development of a decentralized protest movement perhaps best described as networks of overlapping networks based around social media. The Tunisian uprising did not come out of nowhere, but was simply an overwhelming manifestation of a phenomenon which had been growing around the region since 2000 and increasing late in the last decade. The success of the Tunisian uprising contributed to mass mobilization in Egypt by showing the population what was possible, while the major revolutionary movement in Egypt, the most populous Arab country and often the cultural heart of Arabdom, had similar demonstration effects elsewhere.

The book's middle chapters, which examine this sequence of events and the variations among the different Arab countries, may seem basic to those who have followed the events closely, though it is useful to have it all in one place, especially if the material is relevant to teaching. The same is true with the development of a counterrevolution and stalling in democratization efforts even in Tunisia and Egypt. This chapter did not dwell on the differences between monarchies and nominal republics, which I think is wise. Once the Gulf states are ignored, the numbers are too small to say that there is definitely a pattern, and if there is, I suspect it relates to social developments related to the rise of the presidential dictatorships rather than anything in their style of rule. On one controversial point, Lynch does say based on his contacts that the Obama administration, despite its early hesitancy, played a role in persuading the military not to fire on the protestors, thus contributing to Mubarak's relatively peaceful ouster.

Chapter Seven, "Intervention and Civil War," lays out clearly a case of NATO intervention in Libya, as well as reasons that model cannot simply be applied in Syria. His final chapter, on the future, is perhaps the most valuable, as Lynch puts flesh on his early assertion that 2011 marked the beginning of a new politics from which there is no going back, and new politics in which Islamists of different stripes will play an inevitable role, Arab public opinion will matter, and political systems and the practice of both domestic politics and diplomacy will become more diverse.

Aside from the fact the page numbers in the text and table of contents differed from those in the EBL display window, my only real differences came with Lynch's history, which perhaps makes sense since I'm supposed to be some sort of historian. For one thing, I wondered why the 1950's got to be the first wave of popular mobilization given everything that went on in the region after the end of World War I. I don't have specifics to hand, but my impression is that the late 1930's and the period for a few years from 1919 both need to be mentioned, even if the result is to ultimately exclude them. With regard to why the 1950's mobilizations wound up in what Malcolm Kerr called the "Arab Cold War" did not lead to more open political systems, I'd have to question in part whether that was even a goal, and secondly whether the American-Soviet Cold War also represented a decisive factor. The media environment itself is not a purely independent variable, especially for mass media. Although I think radio is easier to jam that satellite television, there's also a difference in that radio was always conceived as a means of propaganda, where satillite television stations have been more commercial ventures or, in the case of al-Jazeera, perhaps a move to give Qatar some cultural weight. Finally, I wonder if more time needed to be spent on the breakdown of regimes' legitimacy, particularly with the 1970's revision in most of them of the economic compact of Arab socialism which was the heart of the Nasserist project. This, I suggest, is part of what caused the government's to be seen as little more than corrupt cliques of predatory cronies.

All in all, however, Lynch has a good sense of the pulse of the Arab street and has clearly thought long and hard about the road ahead. Anyone wishing to understand Arab politics should give The Arab Uprising a read, especially the last chapter. They should not, however, expect easy answers or soundbite doctrines, but rather a map with many paths that needs to be carefully navigated step by step with awareness of a number of variables both new and old. This book is a key to understanding those variables.



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