On Political Books

May/June 2011 Arab Springboard

American democracy promotion didn’t spark the Arab uprisings, but a shared hatred of our Middle East policies sure helped them spread.

By Keach Hagey

The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East
by Marc Lynch
Public Affairs, 288 pp.

Four years ago, during the last spring before the global economy collapsed, I attended a house party in one of the grand, worn colonial apartments down the street from Tahrir Square. The fridge was stocked with beer. Various other forms of contraband circulated. The DJ played Michael Jackson. The only way to tell the difference between the Egyptian and expatriate guests was that the Egyptians were not drinking—though you’d never know it from the way they were dancing. Conversations ranged from Islam to search-engine optimization, but the exchange that has remained etched in my mind over the years is the impassioned debate between young, educated, politically engaged Egyptians about whether there was something in their national character that made them lack the courage to rise up against Hosni Mubarak.

After all, by this point—three years before crowds would assemble down the street and successfully demand Mubarak’s ouster—some kind of national quirk was one of the only remaining logical explanations. Egypt under Mubarak was visibly crumbling. Unemployment was out of control. Young people couldn’t get married because there was no way for young men to amass the money required to buy an apartment. Writer Alaa al Aswany had garnered international fame with a novel calling out the Mubarak regime for its corruption, hypocrisy, and brutality. Political dissidents gave interviews to CNN, and a generation of democracy activists flourished online, despite arrests and censorship from a shaken regime. Mubarak’s ineptitude and disregard for his people’s welfare were all documented and openly discussed—and yet nothing changed.

Until everything did.

One of the great contributions of Marc Lynch’s excellent book on the Arab Spring, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, is his batting down of the widely held notions that the wave of protest that unseated Mubarak either came out of nowhere or was chiefly the result of American-generated social media. Facebook and Twitter played important roles, he argues, but no more so than Al Jazeera or the efforts of democracy activists across the region over the last decade. The U.S. played a role, too, but not the one the Bush ad-ministration signed us up for—spreader of democracy across the globe. Rather, shared opposition to unpopular American policies from support for Israel to the invasion of Iraq helped revive a sense of pan-Arab identity that had lain dormant for decades, and ensured that once the spark of revolution flared up in Tunisia, it would spread across the region like wildfire.

Interestingly, Lynch avoids using the term “Arab Spring” to describe this phenomenon—despite admitting that he may have “unintentionally coined” the phrase in a January 6, 2011, article for Foreign Policy. In that piece, which picked up the “Arab Spring” handle from the media-fueled protests in Beirut in 2005, he wrote, “I don’t expect these protests to bring down any regimes, but really who knows? It’s an unpredictable moment.” In the book, he argues simply that the term “does not do justice to the nature of the change,” preferring to call the protests “Arab uprisings,” without really explaining why. Perhaps it’s because “Spring” has be-come a cliché on the order of “-gate.” And perhaps it’s because, as the period the book examines closed toward the end of 2011, the sense of hopefulness and rebirth that “Spring” connotes was no longer applicable to a narrative that included Western inaction in the face of bloody crackdowns in Bahrain and Syria.

Lynch, however, is no pessimist. An associate professor of political science at Georgetown University and one of the best-known Western bloggers on Middle East affairs, Lynch has long had a special focus on Al Jazeera and the role that the media plays in shaping Arab public opinion. For him, a few falling dictators are less important than what he sees as “a powerful change in the basic stuff of the region’s politics”—a new, media-enabled reality where regimes have to listen to their publics. If experts seemed surprised by the contagiousness of the uprisings, he argues, it was because they did not understand the unique media conditions in the Arab world that bound together separate national struggles into a single narrative.

Lynch traces the roots of this shared media space back to former Egyptian Pres-ident Gamal Abdel Nasser and his use of Voice of the Arabs radio in the 1950s and ’60s to spread pan-Arabism. But Lynch points to this same tumultuous period, dubbed the “Arab Cold War,” as a warning against irrational exuberance among the current moment of pan-Arab unity. Then, like now, mass protests flooded the streets, governments fell, and the region felt swept up in pan-national movement. But none of that tumult led to democracy. On the contrary, it led to decades of despotism, censorship, and the ever-present threat of detention and torture by the secret police.

But this time around, the Arab satellite channels like Al Jazeera and social media outlets have helped to create a new kind of pan-Arabism, built largely around shared anger at the plight of the Palestinians and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Arabs might not be able to agree on much, but they can agree on opposition to America.

Lynch makes clear from the beginning of the book that he has deep ties to the Obama administration. He signed on to Barack Obama’s then-long-shot presidential campaign in 2007 as a policy advisor on the Middle East. Although he holds no official role today, he has consulted with many administration officials on the uprisings and even debated Egypt policy with President Obama himself.

These political ties should be kept in mind as we read his condemnation of the Bush ad -ministration’s Middle East policy, which is the one moment when Lynch’s otherwise calm, clear prose bristles with anger. In almost every way, he considers Bush’s approach to the region a disaster. “The Bush administration managed American strategic interests in the Middle East in an almost uniquely bad manner,” he writes, adding, “There is little evidence for the vindication of neoconservatives beyond the fairly self-evident truth that Arabs want democracy.”

Still, his praise for Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring is less than effusive. “Obama’s approach to the regional transformation was in the end about as effective as could have been hoped for,” Lynch writes. He calls the administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “disastrous” and accuses it of having “fumbled Bahrain badly” and being “overly deferential to Saudi concerns.”

Keach Hagey is media reporter for the Wall Street Journal.