“The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East” – A Conversation with Marc Lynch

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University as well as the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS). He discussed his new book, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East.

He began his talk by touching upon one of his earlier books, “The Voice of the Arab Public,” in which he argued that al Jazeera first started to shatter the image that authoritarian regimes would always stay in power. He saw al Jazeera as lending itself onto a growing populist movement, evolving into a medium for the exchange of ideas. Lynch asserted that when the Arab Spring broke out, a lot of people said it was unexpected. However, in his view, this interpretation was “nonsense.” What was predictable was the way the particular events played out, namely the sequence in which they took place.

The first spark started in Tunisia, as Lynch called it, “the margins of the margins.” Yet, he voiced his opposition to the term “Arab Spring,” primarily because the mass protests found their beginnings not in January but over the past decade. He laid out two broad trends that built up to what he prefers to refer to as the “Arab Uprising” — mass movements and protests, as well as a new, unified Arab space, that al Jazeera helped to create.

Lynch described the collective movement of the early months that was not focused on nor based in a specific country. It was these movements that led to what became the Arab uprisings. But they were not new.

In the case of Tunisia, what Lynch called the “fabled black swan,” the regime was very prepared for the protests. He asserted that the hype about Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook in the Arab Spring is hugely overrated. However, the exception in his view was Tunisia, because of their repressive state-controlled media and their relatively high Internet penetration, with 50 percent of Tunisians on Facebook, one of the largest percentages in the region.

According to Lynch, the pivotal facet in the Arab Spring was that the army did not shoot against its citizens. When this restraint was demonstrated in Tunisia, other countries in the region didn’t simply observe the Tunisians, but thought, “we can do that!” This really took hold in Egypt. As Lynch mentioned earlier in his remarks, activists had already been there for the past 10 years.

At the onset, Lynch noted that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had the army ready to encounter 5,000 people. However, he was not prepared for the ordinary people who were fed up and affected by the situation in Tunis. In Egypt, as in Tunisia, the military chose not to shoot at its citizens, which Lynch insists was largely due to the influence of the Obama administration.

With the fall of Mubarak, the Arab mood, in his view, went from possibility to inevitability. One exception to this, however, was in Libya. The images of bloodshed and people dying stood in stark contrast to the relative lack of violence on the part of the Egyptian and Tunisian security forces. This contrast played a large role in building the broad support — international, Arab, and Western — for Libyan intervention. Timing was also a contributing factor, as the uprising in Libya took place at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Yet despite these examples, there were also many places in the Arab world that, for various reasons, did not see uprisings such as Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, and the Palestinian Territories..

Using the phrase “the empire strikes back,” Lynch described the end of the Arab Spring and the various Arab regimes’ responses. The course of this finale, in his view, took place over 10 days in March. That month, the king of Morocco instituted reforms that calmed most of the opposition and fractured their unity. In Saudi Arabia, their day of protest, coined the “day of rage,” turned up little more that one protester by some estimates. Ultimately, 131 million dollars in buyouts and handouts to citizens quelled unrest before it could evolve into full-fledged protests.

Protests in Bahrain took a hit when Saudi Arabia intervened in support of the regime. The use of violence and jails were all documented in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, set up by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and carried out by Dr. M. Cherif Bassiouni. In the short-term, the monarchy in Bahrain survived, yet sectarian tensions across the region were greatly ignited.

Lastly, Lynch examined other parts of the region and the way the uprising played out in each respective country toward the end of this “Arab Spring.” The army shot at students in Yemen, while NATO jets in Libya began their bombing campaigns. In Syria, protests broke out, only to be met with a crushing and brutal response. Protests in Jordan mainly targeted the interior minister, yet efforts at change were thwarted by what he described as “regime-backed thugs.”

When it came to constitution referendums in the aftermath of the region’s regime changes and the subsequent military transition, revolutionaries were more often than not relegated to the outside of these transitions, particularly in Egypt. Lynch laid out four other lasting consequences that defined the end of the so-called “Arab Spring” including: less of a feeling of the inevitability of regime change; a less cohesive opposition; the realization that some regimes in the region would stay in power; and lastly, the end of the Arab Spring’s unification.

Despite the end of the uprising, at least in its spring 2011 incarnation, he predicts that there will always be protests in Tahrir Square over the next few years. There are changes in the region that may have yet to be seen.