In the first days of January 2011, Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University, wrote a piece about a wave of demonstrations in Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and Algeria. “I don't expect these protests to bring down any regimes,” Lynch wrote in his article, published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, “but really who knows? It's an unpredictable moment.”
Just how right he was with that last statement is laid out in “The Arab uprising”, Lynch's book-length account, published just over a year after his article, of how the unrest toppled four of the most entrenched Arab dictators – Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. Their fall shattered decades-old alliances and certainties; it exposed the brittleness of regimes whose main claim to international legitimacy had been the stability they seemed to guarantee. It was an astounding testament to the power of mobilisation, on a par with the revolutions that shattered Soviet power in central and eastern Europe in 1989.
“Beneath the random turbulence and human agency, there were deeper forces at work,” Lynch writes. He goes on to explore both the chaotic surface events and the deeper factors that made them possible, from education and demographic developments to the rise of the internet and satellite news channels. His book is an engaging and generally well-written account of events up to about November of last year, which means that the full horror of the Syrian uprising and its vicious suppression by the Assad regime is not on display here. Lynch looks at the “hash-tag revolutions” – the mobilisation of protests through Twitter, Facebook and other social media – across the region and suggests why such mobilisation worked in some cases and not in others (such as Algeria or Jordan).
The author of an earlier book called “Voices of the new Arab public”, Lynch is attuned to the feelings of frustration and rage that broke through the stranglehold of state control. But while he is a keen observer of the new public sphere created by social media, he stresses that satellite news, and in particular Al-Jazeera, has been of far greater importance in mobilising a truly pan-Arab public.
Lynch, who has close ties to the administration of US President Barack Obama, defends the US's overall performance during the Arab uprisings. “Obama correctly saw from the start that these Arab revolutions neither wanted nor needed American leadership,” he writes.
He rejects the charge that Obama was slow to react, or too cautious in his comments. “Only six days after Egypt's protests began, the United States had unequivocally and publicly called for the president of its closest Arab ally to step down,” he writes. But this is an exaggeration. What Obama really said on 1 February 2011 was more circumspect: “An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”
But Lynch is no apologist for the US administration. He sharply criticises its failure to push the conservative, Sunni leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain toward serious reform – a failure that greatly diminished the value of anything that Obama had to say about the other countries involved in the ‘Arab spring' by exposing America's double standards (largely shared by the EU). It is one of the many strengths of this book that it does not treat Bahrain as an aberration or a curiosity but as an integral part of the counter-revolution that soon unfolded. Lynch describes the Saudi-backed repression in Bahrain as “truly shocking, even by Arab standards”. To the “shock and outrage of the activist public”, the Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera, which supported the rebels in Libya and Syria, did not cover the crackdown in any meaningful way.
One clear demand
Lynch constructs an interesting argument about the nature and dynamics of the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. “The leaderless crowd [in Cairo's Tahrir square] was unable to agree on anything more than the simple, clear demand that Mubarak must go.” This, he writes, immunised it to attempts by the regime to draw the opposition into long negotiations or to split it by co-opting certain factions through concessions.
This kind of mass resistance could only have been broken by sheer military force. But Egypt's military, whose leadership received several phone calls every day from numerous US officials urging restraint, sensed that its only chance of securing its position was by forcing Mubarak to step down.
Once the military had removed Mubarak and allowed for a more competitive brand of politics, the spoils went to those parties that had focused on organisational development rather than protest – above all, the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Syria today, by contrast, we are witnessing the brutality of a regime that is fighting for its survival. Compromise is unthinkable, and the regime will use whatever means it has at its disposal to crush the uprising.
Assad's determination to stamp out the revolt has probably been reinforced by the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and above all, Libya. The Arab uprising has entered an altogether darker phase.