How does one evaluate or even describe the nature and effects of a tornado when it’s still swirling? This is the conundrum facing anyone writing about the tumultuous changes taking place in the Arab world. These qualities of extreme flux and fluidity—what Frantz Fanon termed an “occult zone of instability”—are what have given rise to the dizzying plethora of terms coined to try to describe the unrest: “Arab Spring,” “Arab uprisings,” “Arab revolution(s),” “Arab awakening,” and Iran’s particularly misguided phrase, “Islamic awakening,” are just a few. Since concerted popular protests began in Tunisia on December 18, 2010, anti-government unrest has spread to many Arab countries. Several dictators have fallen, and others appear to be on their way out. But the outcomes in different Arab states undergoing these radical changes, and for strategic relations in the region as a whole, remain undetermined and, to some extent, unreadable.
The reshaping of the political and strategic landscape of one of the most important regions on earth properly commands the attention of the entire world. There are profound implications for U.S. foreign policy given that virtually everything most Americans, including policy-makers, thought they knew about Arab societies and political culture turns out to be incorrect or no longer applies. The uprisings clearly require a thorough reconceptualization of American and other Western attitudes toward Arab peoples, culture, and societies, and the casting aside of moldy orientalist stereotypes and anachronistic assumptions.
Because everything is changing so quickly and in so many places at the same time, following the trajectory of developments is daunting enough, let alone trying to analyze and understand exactly what they mean or where they’re going. The most obvious and persistent questions are almost impossible to answer. Are we seeing the emergence of liberal Arab democracies, Islamist systems, or entirely new hybrid post-Islamist political orders? Will the new Arab world be more pluralistic or embolden sectarianism? Will the changes bring greater stability or more conflict? Will they be the basis for economic revival or the chaos underwriting economic collapse? Developments are shifting so dramatically that it is difficult even to formulate the right questions, let alone to investigate possible answers.
Under such circumstances, reporters and journalists who limit themselves to narratives describing and contextualizing events have it a little easier than analysts and academics, who are supposed to produce “big picture” evaluations. Two new books, Liberation Square by Ashraf Khalil and The Arab Uprising by Marc Lynch, are excellent illustrations of the strengths and limitations of both approaches. Khalil focuses primarily on telling the story of the days between the outbreak of the protest movement in Egypt on January 25, 2011, and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak 18 days later. Lynch, on the other hand, tries to provide a broad-based analysis of the unprecedented events in the region, and to posit a comprehensive methodological framework for understanding them.
Having set himself a much more limited, manageable, and straightforward task, Khalil, a reporter who has covered the Middle East for several major Western publications including The Los Angeles Times, succeeds admirably. But his book doesn’t offer any guide to what happened after Mubarak fell in Egypt, or what is likely to happen in that country or anywhere else in the future. Lynch’s project is infinitely more complex and, ultimately, unrealizable, at least at this stage. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for trying, and I’m not sure anyone else could have done any better than Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University. As a consequence of being both impossibly broad and clearly premature, Lynch’s book suffers from serious flaws. In many passages it feels rushed, at times even becoming a hodgepodge of incongruous arguments, and Lynch is fixated on the influence of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network. But unlike Liberation Square, The Arab Uprising does offer a broad framework for understanding not only what has happened, but what may well happen in the Arab world, and some sober suggestions about what this implies for the United States.
For a detailed, day-by-day account of exactly what happened in Tahrir Square, one need look no further than Liberation Square. This is exemplary reportage: fair, serious, dynamic, and engaging. It is at its most vivid in Chapter Nine, “The Fall of the Police State,” in which Khalil describes in detail the process by which protesters finally overwhelmed the Egyptian security units and forced the military into making a final decision whether or not to intervene to crush the rebellion. He is clear, and correct, that this was the decisive turning point: “Egypt’s nonviolent revolution wouldn’t have happened without some people who were willing to be extremely violent at times. Over a four-day period, a hardcore cadre of protesters confronted and physically shattered the Egyptian police state.” Khalil brings to life a “full-blown rock war” on the crucial day of confrontation, January 28, pitting stone-throwing protesters against tear gas and baton charges from security forces. He explains how “the protesters worked in organized shifts; those returning from the front lines of the conflict were treated for tear-gas exposure and buckshot wounds by makeshift triage units,” while others “dragged a blanket loaded with hundreds of rocks and concrete chunks toward the front to be thrown at the police.”
But Khalil’s three-word final paragraph, after describing the removal of Mubarak by the military, is profoundly misleading: “It was over.” As subsequent events in Egypt have conclusively shown, if by “it” one means the tumultuous changes transforming the Egyptian political scene and system, then “it” had only just begun. The overthrow of Mubarak was, in fact, not a revolution at all, but a regime decapitation by elements of the existing power structure seeking to preserve as much of their supremacy, privileges, and wealth as possible in the face of a popular rebellion. As this essay goes to press, Egypt is still firmly in the grip of the Mubarak-era military. A year after Mubarak’s downfall it would still be possible, and probably accurate, to argue that the fundamental transformation of that country, if that is indeed what is taking place, remains in its infancy.
The greatest strength of Liberation Square is Khalil’s masterful contextualization of the genesis of the Egyptian uprising. He grounds it in the plight of what University of Illinois sociology professor Asef Bayat has perfectly described as the “middle-class poor” in the Arab world, mainly educated and primarily young people who simply cannot find jobs commensurate with their education and expectations. Khalil’s most revealing passages vividly describe the “palpable sense of despair and helplessness…taking hold” in much of Egyptian middle-class poor society in the last decade of Mubarak’s rule. Through an insightful reading of Cultural Film, a superficially lightweight comedy released in 2000, Khalil describes how, because “[t]here are no jobs out there—at least none that pay enough” for young professionals and couples to get their own apartments, their lives are placed on hold for years if not decades. Both careers and romantic relationships fall apart under such strains. Khalil suggestively wonders “just how much pure sexual frustration fed into Egypt’s revolutionary rage.” While the film ends on a contrived happy note, he aptly points out that its main characters in fact “would have no true options other than to start a revolution, join a fundamentalist cell, or kill themselves.”
It’s hard to overstate the centrality to these uprisings of the economic, social, personal, and, indeed, often sexual frustrations faced by the young middle-class poor that make up such a huge percentage of so many Arab societies. One of the most serious problems with Lynch’s book is that it occasionally acknowledges but ultimately pays very little attention to this vital class and materialist element. Instead, Lynch grounds his analysis in the subject of his last book, 2005’s Voices of the New Arab Public, which was mainly about Al Jazeera. He therefore reads the uprisings, which he thinks of as a unified movement or phenomenon, as primarily driven by “the rise of the ‘new Arab public sphere.’” He mainly attributes this to Al Jazeera, and also to some extent social media and the Internet, as well as cheap mobile phones.
There’s no doubt that the phenomenon that Lynch returns to time and again of a technologically driven and relatively new “Arab public sphere” is essential to understanding the uprisings. Lynch is correct in noting that because of this development, “the ability to credibly align with the Arab public on its core issues and to shape those convictions will become an ever greater source of power and influence,” and that “the unified political space will increase the linkage between issues across the region.” He also correctly identifies this as a significant challenge to American foreign policy, particularly regarding the question of Palestine.
But Lynch ultimately is too focused on the media. One could make a drinking game based on every time he mentions Al Jazeera. You’d be in real trouble on page 90, in which Al Jazeera is mentioned no fewer than nine times, as well as credited with having “owned the revolution.” This fixation occasionally draws Lynch into indefensible hyperbole such as “Al Jazeera now found itself in a position to make or break uprisings,” as if Arab public opinion were simply a marionette dancing on the strings of the puppet masters in Doha.
Lynch acknowledges that Arab politics in the past decade were dominated by competition between a “resistance axis” and a “moderate axis,” and that this “came to define all regional interactions in classic bipolar fashion, giving regional strategic meaning to local events and bringing together unlikely coalitions.” But he doesn’t explain what those unlikely coalitions were, how they have broken down and, most importantly, what they have been replaced with. The primary narrative promoted by Al Jazeera and some other influential Arab media in the past decade was that the Arab world was the scene of a historic confrontation between a “culture of resistance” (mainly the Islamist groups and the Iranian-led alliance) and a “culture of accommodation” (most of the Arab governments). This narrative informed and rationalized extremely strong and sincere Arab Sunni support for Hezbollah in its war with Israel and, more emphatically, the combined Sunni Islamist and Iranian-alliance support for Hamas.
But Lynch misreads Al Jazeera’s role in promoting the “culture of resistance” as merely a symptom of “its refusal to sign on to the Saudi-led campaigns.” He is likewise wrong to say that the network’s “sympathetic coverage of Hezbollah” simply “reflected the views of the vast majority of the Arab public with which it identified.” Both assertions elide the domination within Al Jazeera’s on-air talent and management of Islamists and pro-Islamist anti-imperialists and left-nationalists with a strong ideological tilt toward the “culture of resistance.” (They also elide the usefulness of such rhetoric to Qatari foreign policy.) The narrative spread by Al Jazeera and other like-minded Arab media in fact created the ideological space for these trans-sectarian alliances, based on the mythology of the “resistance axis.” This “accommodation versus resistance” story line threatened to give the various protest movements that Lynch describes in detail a prescriptive character—that “accommodationist” governments needed to be replaced by “resistance” movements—but in the event it did not.
Al Jazeera no doubt did help create a new Arab public sphere and consciousness. But its rhetoric over the past decade did not, in fact, anticipate or set the stage for the uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt. Had it done so, those uprisings would have been far more Islamist in character and oriented toward anti-imperialism regionally rather than mainly focusing on social justice, accountability, and democracy at home. A very different emancipatory spirit took hold on the streets of Arab capitals. Like the Islamist parties it generally promoted, the station and its analysts were also largely taken aback by the protests and essentially had to play catch-up with movements they neither informed nor fully understood. Both rushed to try to benefit from the unexpected uprisings, and to some extent they have, but neither were the authors of them.
While developments in each individual Arab state are shaped mainly by local contingencies, the effect of the uprisings regionally has been the emergence of a new strategic landscape based mainly on sectarian identification that has been increasingly pitting Arab Sunnis against all confessional minorities and vice versa. Lynch incorrectly implies that sectarianism in the Middle East was much stronger in the middle part of the last decade than it is now. In fact, the sectarianism that has been emerging in recent months is far starker than what was circulating then. The space for trans-sectarian alliances is now foreclosed. Hamas, for example, can no longer be aligned with the Syrian regime, Iran, or Hezbollah because it has been forced to choose between its Sunni Islamist ideology and its alliance with Damascus and Tehran. It has an identity and a branding crisis of unprecedented proportions, and is hoping to avoid paying a major price in having to readjust its policies in a manner that would severely undermine its ability to challenge the mainstream Palestinian nationalists. The identities of both the pro- and anti-regime camps in the Syrian struggle have changed. This is not a reflection or extension of the old dichotomy, but a new and largely sectarian one. It doesn’t fit well with Lynch’s model of a new, unified, empowered Arab public brought together by Al Jazeera and the Internet, but in fact it’s defining how regional actors are lining up on issue of the legitimacy and survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime and, indeed, how Syrian society itself seems to be dividing internally.
Lynch argues that because Al Jazeera shone the spotlight on the regime’s violence, “both Syrians and other Arabs consciously placed the unfolding events within the broader Arab story. In that story, Assad was the villain, regardless of his ‘resistance’ foreign policy.” That’s an accurate reflection of how almost all Sunni Arab public opinion has shifted regarding the Syrian regime and its allies, but it doesn’t reflect the completely different understanding of events embraced by most Arab Shiites, many if not most Levantine Christians, and others. Yet Lynch manages to write almost 20 pages entirely devoted to the uprising in Syria without ever delving into its increasingly sectarian character, or the nature of its minority Alawite government and all that this implies given the new regional realities.
He briefly acknowledges that the conflict in Syria seems to be giving rise to “a sectarian narrative” in “troubling ways,” but it’s a momentary flash of recognition. Lynch suffers from a similar blind spot regarding Bahrain, which is a mirror image of Syria: an oppressive minority Sunni regime almost unanimously supported by Arab Sunni governments, Islamist groups, and most prominent organizations. He is convinced that “the Arab public saw the Bahraini protesters as part of its shared struggle, and the regime as equivalent to its own hated regimes,” until a Saudi-led “steady barrage of sectarian accusations” undid this solidarity. But it was difficult to ever detect any particular Arab Sunni sympathy for the Bahraini protesters outside of narrow circles of liberal youth and online activists.
Lynch is at his strongest when discussing the American policy debate on how to respond to the Arab uprisings, and he provides a powerful and convincing intervention. He makes the case, which I agree with strongly, that the Obama Administration has done a reasonably good job in reacting to the immediate challenges of the unanticipated uprisings, but that the United States needs to develop a much more coherent approach to Middle Eastern change, because “if it continues to act as a status quo power…it will fail” to promote either its interests or its values. Lynch is absolutely right that the more empowered Arab publics and the highly significant emergence of “the new Arab public sphere” will make the issue of Palestine more, not less, important and that as long as the United States is mainly perceived as “playing defense on Israel’s behalf…this will no longer work.” He offers powerful and effective critiques of the realist and neoconservative approaches, and sensibly puts little faith in “a left-leaning academic tradition” that “likely does not want to offer useful advice” for the United States to advance its interests in the region.
He clearly outlines the challenges facing the United States: It must engage more fully with the Arab publics and position itself on the right side of history and Middle Eastern transformations; undertake “a serious rethinking of America’s relationship with Israel”; “respond rationally to the public participation of Islamist movements” by accepting they are an unavoidable and important part of the new Arab political scene; combat Islamophobia in the United States; and “accept the limits of its ability to control the Middle East.” This is an excellent summary of the challenges facing the development of a new, more effective American policy toward the Arab world, which will be urgently required in the coming months and years. I don’t think Lynch can be faulted for very ably laying out the challenges rather than suggesting any solutions.
Khalil’s book describes the economic and class bases that are central to the uprisings, as well as their liberationist passion. Lynch’s book foregrounds the crucial development of a “new Arab public sphere.” Above, I have described the rise of a dangerous new sectarianism in the emerging regional order. Many others have noted that while their rhetoric and organizations did not dominate the protests, Islamist parties are proving to be the primary and immediate beneficiaries of newly opened political space in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Others point out that the process of rebellion and of participating in new systems is itself transforming the Arab Islamists and forcing them to adopt a more pragmatic and less dogmatic worldview. Still others note the regional rise in influence of Turkey and the precipitous decline of Iran. Yet all of these dramatic changes are but strands in a complicated weave, the broad patterns of which we cannot yet fully discern.
The causes and the symptoms of the uprisings are identifiable, but not their ultimate nature or outcomes. Both Lynch and Khalil have written significant books that should help the American public and policy-makers alike comprehend the complexity and the magnitude of the challenge facing the American role in the Middle East. A little bit of humility under such circumstances, not only for commentators and analysts, but also for the country, goes a very long way indeed.