Why it’s a little early for dramatic and sweeping statements about the Arab uprisings.
The Arab Uprising: The Wave of Protest that Toppled the Status Quo and the Struggle for a New Middle East By Marc Lynch • PublicAffairs • 2012 • 288 pages • $26.99
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.”
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