Democratic movements in the Middle East have the potential to mobilize a pan-Arab public both on local issues and transnational issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, argues Professor Marc Lynch in his book The Arab Uprising. Focusing largely on the events unfolding in 2011, Professor Lynch hails Al-Jazeera as a singular force pushing for mobilization across nation-state boundaries, while criticizing it as pushing, in the later stages, too much of Qatar’s foreign policy over its alleged reputation for unbiased news reporting. “Al-Jazeera has become a major weapon in Qatar’s arsenal, allowing that tiny state to play an outsized role in shaping the Arab agenda,” he writes. For example, “Al-Jazeera framed the Tunisian protest as a pan-Arab event and the fall of Ben Ali as an unmitigated good.”
Professor Lynch’s book outlines the seminal moments in the Arab uprisings for a number of countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Syria. Readers are encouraged to see the similarities and differences between these countries.
Adopting a pan-Arab view himself, he constructs a transnational view of each movement. “The Syrian uprising therefore came to be seen through the lens of regional power politics: a struggle among Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey for the center of the Arab world,” he writes. “Israel and Iran currently look to be the greatest losers from the new regional environment.” Iran’s influence over nearby countries has diminished, he argues, and Israel faces the loss of key regimes tangentially favorable to its interests. Professor Lynch predicts that the more democratic the aforementioned countries become, the more hostile each government will be toward Israel in order to assuage popular opinion. Gone are the days of a dualist policy in the Middle East, he argues, where authoritarian governments secretly work with Israel while stoking anti-Israeli fervor on the ground.
Professor Lynch’s accounting is rich with detail and emotional appeal. However, there are several limitations. Firstly, his data largely ends at the end of 2011 (excluding the new afterword). Events continuing to unfold in the Middle East in 2012, especially in Egypt, make some of the conclusions feel outdated. Secondly, the George Washington University professor is notoriously soft on terror. He describes the terrorist group Hamas as an “Islamist movement” and the terrorist group Hezbollah as a “Shi’a resistance movement,” insinuating that Hamas merely wants to establish an Islamist state and that Hezbollah is merely resisting the status quo. In fact, both groups are composed of violent extremists and should be identified as such.
“Arab dictators pointed to Iraq’s chaos as a reason to avoid loosening their own hold on power, while Arab publics thrilled to the rise of the Iraqi insurgency,” writes Professor Lynch. No, there aren’t “terrorists” in Iraq, there are “insurgents,” according to Professor Lynch. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines insurgency as “a condition of revolt against a government that is less than an organized revolution and that is not recognized as belligerency.”
The author is convinced that Islamists, who have gained great political power amid the Arab Spring, will be changed by the experience, rather than changing their societies to match themselves. “Islamists will be changed by the political openings and new challenges they face,” he asserts.
Professor Lynch also remains confident that Islamist groups will not gain a plurality, much less a majority, in the emerging societies and looks to Turkey as a framework for successful Islamic democracy. As Andrew C. McCarthy argues in his book on the same topic, “It is perverse to regard the Islamist AKP as a ‘model for the Arab Spring.’” McCarthy’s book, Spring Fever, details the changes in Turkey brought about by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership: a reduction in women’s rights, attacks against religious minorities, oppression of the press, and stacking of the judiciary.
Overall, The Arab Uprising is a great resource for anyone interested in the details of the Arab Spring. I would call it an essential primer and it has received high praise from outlets such as Foreign Affairs. However, conservatives may wish to skip Chapter 8, as it is almost entirely a diatribe against George W. Bush and a favorable review of the Obama Administration. “Where the Bush Administration talked about democracy but abandoned it at the first sign of progress, the Obama administration acted on its belief that democracy would serve America’s long-term interests,” writes Professor Lynch. “Prudence and pragmatism most characterized the administration’s response.” In contrast, he writes, “George W. Bush’s administration gave bold speeches on democracy and devoted significant funds to promotion programs, but quickly backed away when Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and left behind a region less democratic than it inherited” (emphasis added).
Again, Professor Lynch appears a bit soft on terror and minimizes the role al Qaeda plays in the region. In fact, he blames Bush’s policies for inflaming support for al Qaeda and fails to grasp the intimate part in history which extremist movements have played in places such as Algeria and Syria.