Book Review: The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East by Marc Lynch

By Eugenio Lilli - 28 December 2013
Book Review: The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle Eas

The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East, by Marc Lynch. New York: Public Affairs, 2012. 288 pp, $26.99 hardcover 978-1610390842, $15.99 paperback 978-1610392358

Three years after the beginning of the so-called Arab Awakening, the outcomes of these popular mobilizations have been mixed. Some have led to the overthrow of longstanding autocrats, as in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. Other uprisings have been brutally suppressed, as in Bahrain. Some others are still unfolding, as in Syria. The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East is a well-informed overview of the wave of unrest that has recently occurred in many countries from North Africa, through the Middle East, and down to the Persian Gulf. The book provides a thoroughly accessible analysis of the historical and contemporary forces that contributed to the outbreak of mass protests in the Middle East, and their implications for the region and US foreign policy. Marc Lynch is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and maintains a personal blog in the online magazine Foreign Policy. Lynch’s knowledge and engagement with the region ensures that the book is of high quality.

The Arab Uprising begins with a general discussion of the recent uprisings. The book then provides a historical overview of the Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, and of the aborted democratization attempts of the late 1980s and early 1990s. After having described developments towards the latest uprisings, the author analyzes the events in Tunisia and Egypt that represented the beginning of a new wave of protests. The next three chapters offer a wide-ranging study of the changing fortunes of the many uprisings that followed. The Arab Uprising ends with a chapter on the future challenges to US foreign policy originating from this new Middle East. The book provides a highly readable narrative of events. Lynch’s choice to stay away from complex social science jargon and to write in the first person - when he reports his personal conversations with public officials or demonstrators on the street - makes The Arab Uprising easily accessible also to an audience of non-experts.

The main focus of Lynch’s book is on the empowerment of the Arab publics that has followed the recent protests and its likely consequences for US foreign policy in the Middle East. The author identifies an inherent contradiction in the traditional foreign policy of the United States towards the region: a heavy reliance on autocratic Arab regimes for security cooperation, US policies that alienate and enrage Arab public opinions, and pressure on friendly governments to open up their political systems to hostile publics. According to Lynch, the fact that Arab publics now carry more weight has made this US traditional policy even more untenable. In the author’s own words, ’America cannot hope to succeed (in a post-uprisings Middle East) without systematically listening to, engaging with, informing, and communicating with the new Arab publics.’ (p.232) Lynch also argues that this engagement should be considered as serious now as the ‘war of ideas’ was after 9/11.

The role of new communication technologies like satellite television and social media is another major theme that features throughout the book. Although Lynch is careful to make it clear that relatively new actors such as Al Jazeera, Facebook, and Twitter did not cause the uprisings, the author repeatedly credits them with joining together otherwise distant events into a single common narrative and with being behind the emergence of a more interconnected Arab public sphere. To stress the important enabling effect played by these new communication technologies during the Arab uprisings, Lynch uses the example of the young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in a small Tunisian village in December 2010. Bouazizi’s self-immolation is generally seen as the spark that started the regional wave of protests. Lynch argues that had it not been for the imaginative use of new social media to spread images of the brutal response of state security forces to mostly peaceful demonstrations, the protests following Bouazizi’s death would not have had the broad revolutionary impact that they eventually had.

Books like The Arab Uprising face the daunting challenge of addressing a multifaceted set of events that are still developing and the meaning of which we are only beginning to grasp. In the case of Lynch’s work, this results in a book that has not very much to offer to the informed reader in terms of original research or unknown details. However, given his deep knowledge of the region and his previous research (see in particular his 2006 book Voices of the New Arab Public), Lynch is successful in placing these new events in context and in pointing out some especially interesting aspects of the latest uprisings (i.e. the empowerment of the Arab public and the enabling role of new communication technologies).

Finally, the book’s evaluation of the United States’ response to the uprisings is generally balanced. However, in cases like that of Egypt, where the US position is more controversial, Lynch has a tendency to place the Obama administration more on the side of the protesters than the administration probably was. Despite this, and some imprecision while reporting the exact dates of some events, The Arab Uprising undoubtedly provides a valuable analysis and stimulating food for thought.

Eugenio Lilli is currently a Postgraduate Researcher at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, and a Teaching Fellow at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. His research interests include terrorism and US foreign policy, particularly United States’ relations with the Muslim world.

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