April 21, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal

The Arab spring has, inevitably, spawned a gaggle of instant books. But it was much easier to make sense of the region’s upheavals a year ago, in the first flush of excitement, than it is today. With Egypt languishing under military rule, Libya groping for national unity, Syria’s body-count rising and only Tunisia witnessing a relatively smooth political transition, is there still a single unifying narrative?

Marc Lynch, an American scholar and blogger with ties to the Obama administration, believes there is. Although alive to the setbacks of the past year, he remains hopeful. In “The Arab Uprising”, he argues that the old status quo in the Middle East has been shattered for good, and that the rest of us had better get used to this brave but baffling new world.

To explain today’s events, he goes back to the 1950s, when the revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt set Arab pulses racing. But that first Arab spring died in 1967, in Israel’s humiliating defeat of the Arab armies in the six-day war—a useful warning for today’s revolutionaries that success is not preordained. Today’s Arab societies have some of the same objectives—to achieve dignity and freedom, to break with Western tutelage—but their populations are bigger, they are readier to challenge autocratic rulers and, thanks to satellite television, Facebook and Twitter, they are more intimately connected with one another and with the world.

Mr Lynch, who made his name with his 2006 book, “Voices of the New Arab Public”, understands what makes Arab opinion tick. His new book sets out, clearly and forthrightly, to dispel Western (and especially American) illusions about the nature of change in the Arab world. He does not accept, for instance, that the successes of the Islamists in recent elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco are cause for alarm. It is inevitable, he contends, that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will benefit from an opening-up of political space, and their democratic pretensions should be put to the test. Mr Lynch also thinks the uprisings, by empowering Arab publics, have made the Palestinian issue more important. He supported military intervention in Libya, but opposes it in Syria.

His account is especially useful when it comes to the regional fallout. He sees Turkey and Qatar, which have embraced the new mood, as winners; Israel and Iran as sullen spectators. As for America, Mr Lynch thinks Barack Obama has got some big things right: the president has understood, in particular, as his critics frequently have not, that these are home-grown uprisings, neither needing nor welcoming American leadership. But Mr Lynch faults Mr Obama for his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, to criticise more firmly the suppression of Bahrain’s uprising or to develop a more effective public diplomacy.

Is Mr Lynch right in declaring the old status quo beyond recall? This may be too rosy. But of all the books on the extraordinary events of the past 15 months, this is one of the most illuminating and, for policymakers, the most challenging.