When a young fruit-seller named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia late 2010, the popular uprising that followed was succeeded by a string of protests in the region. CNAS Non-Resident Senior Fellow Mark Lynch says no one predicted this string of uprisings. But he tells host Scott Simon many people saw that the old order was crumbling.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When a young fruit-seller named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia late in 2010, the popular uprising that followed was succeeded by a string of protests in the region. Some, like the ones in Egypt, overthrew a longtime regime. Some, like the ones in Libya, had outside assistance to succeed. And some, like the protests in Syria, continue in uncertainty. Mark Lynch says no one predicted this string of uprisings. But Mr. Lynch, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and editor of the Middle East Channel for ForeignPolicy.com, says, many people saw that the old order was crumbling. He's written a new book: "The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East." He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARK LYNCH: Well, it's great to be here.
SIMON: In a sense, did these uprisings call America's bluff?
LYNCH: Well, they really do, because the United States has been talking about Arab democracy for quite some time. The Bush administration made this a central part of its foreign policy, at least in rhetoric, but it never really wanted to confront the realities of what Arab democracy would mean. And so, when the Muslim Brotherhood looked like it might win in Egypt or when Hamas won the elections in Palestine, basically they backed off and they said we're just not ready yet to confront the reality that an empowered public that doesn't like us might actually take power.
SIMON: You write in this book that it had long been, of course, a dream of some people to have some kind of pan-Arab union. And you suggested that electronically that it's beginning to happen.
LYNCH: What's funny is that if you go back to the 1950s, 1960s, that was the dream of Arab unity, washing away the old borders. But really this was the stuff of high politics. What we're seeing now is that the dream of pan-Arabism is actually much more real than it ever was before, and it's happening at the popular level where people who watch Al-Jazeera, they can put themselves in the shoes of those other Arabs and they can imagine, well, those are the same problems that we have; that the Egyptians can get rid of Mubarak, we should be able to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. And if you go back to the dizzying days early in the revolutions, you would see these astonishing images on Al-Jazeera, where they would show a split screen, six different Arab capitals and every single one of them you would have huge numbers of people holding up the identical posters, chanting the same slogans, all in real time.
A lot of what's happened since then has been those regimes trying to take away that hope. That's what happens when Bashar al-Assad sends the troops into the cities and tries to get back into the business of murdering and crushing people, to try and show them that that change that they thought was possible really isn't.
SIMON: That raises a question. We talk about - I believe it's your phrase even - unified political space that suddenly seems to exist and many similarities. Why do we see some protest movements succeed in forcing change in - let's say, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia - but not, at least so far, in Iran, for example, and so far in Syria?
LYNCH: Well, I mean, I think that the desire for change and the sense of empowerment, I think, is universal across the Arab world. But the circumstances that those movements face is very different. And the responses they've gotten from the regimes is very different. So, in some cases, like in a lot of the Persian Gulf, these extremely wealthy governments have simply been able to buy off most of their possible opponents. The Saudis used a $130 billion package of public works and spending to basically make sure they wouldn't face any challenges.
In the one case that I would say was really systematically and then effectively crushed, Bahrain, you had both the money and the outside troops coming in, and the West, including the United States turning a blind eye. Now, I don't think they've actually solved their problems. I think Bahrain has purged themselves decades of instability and illegitimacy to come. But at that moment they managed to clear the streets and crush the movement.
And then you've got Syria which is, I think, the absolute last and key standing example of a regime that's willing to use all of that force, which other regimes were not. I believe that Syria and the regime of Bashar al-Assad actually brought clear problems on themselves by their use of violence; that if they had simply done some real reform early on that most Syrians probably would not have then gone out into the streets. But when they started killing people indiscriminately and really making some quite astonishing moves, all the way the very beginning back in May, I think that turned a lot of Syrian citizens against them who were simply outraged at the way the force was being indiscriminately applied.
SIMON: You've called for Bashar al-Assad to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. When we hear reports about human rights groups raising questions about some of the actions of the opposition - kidnapping, torture being the allegation - do we have a reflexive sympathy with the opposition to regimes that sometimes let them slip on some of these other questions?
LYNCH: I think there is a real risk of that. And there's also the real risk of falling prey to wishful thinking about oppositions. I think that we understood Syria in the context of the Arab uprisings and I think we did immediately and, in my view, appropriately equate them with the kinds of protest movements that we saw in Egypt and Bahrain and Tunisia, and others.
And I think that you're right. That might have led us in a certain point to turn a blind eye to some of the less attractive parts of the Syrian opposition movement. At the same time, I do believe that the Bashar al-Assad's regime should be brought before the International Criminal Court.
I don't think there's any question that the documented abuses which we've seen coming out in multiple international agencies - at the United Nations Human Rights Council, international NGOs - they have all made extremely clear that what the Assad regime has done at least meets the standards by which the Criminal Court should take it on and investigate it. And I really at this point believe that the key regime officials are beyond the pale of rehabilitation. They need to be brought before justice.
SIMON: Marc Lynch, his new book, "The Era of Uprising:" The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East." Thanks so much for being with us.
SIMON: Coming up: Hearing Shakespeare in his own accent, said trippingly off the tongue in a new recording, forsooth. Stay tuned, on our next segment of WEEKEND EDITION.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.