On Sept. 13, 2012, a week that saw violent uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen and marked the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Middle East specialist Marc Lynch gave the first lecture of the Reves International Affairs Lecture Series. He took on the challenging task of exploring the past, and future, of the unfinished revolutions of the new Middle East.
“The Arab Spring, or the Arab Uprising as I prefer to call it, has changed our sense of possibility in terms of how we think about the Middle East, who matters in the Middle East, and what America’s place in the Middle East could be,” said Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
Unlike other commentators who hold that the Arab Spring was an illusion, nothing more than a myth to allow radical followers of Islam to seize power, Lynch instead urged more than 200 William & Mary students and faculty members to appreciate the Arab Spring in the context of a decade or so of increasing political involvement of the region’s societies.
“What we need to do to make sense of the change in the Arab world today is to appreciate it on its own terms,” said Lynch. “What it means to see the empowerment of a public which has been deeply shaped, and misshaped, by authoritarian rule, by the steady work of Islamic governments to reshape political culture, and by the rise of a new generation experiencing profound new ways of interacting with each other through social media, with their government through the possibility of protest, and with their societies.”
For Lynch, the term Arab Spring only applies to a three-month period ending in March, 2011, characterized by extreme integration across the region, as well as a sincere belief that protests could be successful. This period came after almost a decade of the steady emergence of public politics, brought about by new media, which allowed for the creation of a new public sphere.
“There was an enormous outpouring of public discussion, public debate, public discourse,” noted Lynch, who mentioned Facebook and blogs as sites for interested parties to come together and talk politics, leading people to take to the streets in protest in historically unprecedented numbers.
After charting the wave of protests that took place in early 2011, Lynch noted that today the Middle East is a landscape in flux, marked by hope in countries such as Tunisia and Libya that they will continue towards a more democratic future – something the American public often doesn’t see on the nightly news.
“Syria has basically polluted and corroded everything,” said Lynch. “It has soaked up the air across the entire Arab world. It dominates news coverage, and the news could hardly be worse. What started as protests against an authoritarian regime has morphed into a full scale civil war.”
Despite that, Lynch refused to give in to the prevalent motif that ‘Arab Spring becomes Islamist Winter.’
“It doesn’t really matter what we think, because our ability to shape and control this is far more limited than many people believe,” he concluded. “What we saw over the last two years, and frankly over the last 12 years, has been a structural transformation inside the Arab world itself.
“This is being driven from the inside: demographic changes, economic changes, by the creativity and anger of a rising generation, by the anger of an Islamist political project that has been waiting for this opportunity for a very long time, and the sheer corruption and incompetence of most of the Arab leaders themselves.
“Really the only question is how do you respond to it? Do you try to work effectively with these new societies in transition, do you try and maintain alliances, do you try to engage with the political forces on the ground or not?”
Despite the difficulties ahead, Lynch remained optimistic about the future, holding out for a “better” Middle East in which accountability, transparency and more participation will becomes hallmarks of more democratic systems. He acknowledged the difficulties that lay ahead for the region, but noted, “yes it’s going to mean our relationships with those countries are going to be a heck of a lot more difficult… but, you know, just because something’s easy doesn’t mean it’s good.”
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Reves Center for International Studies, the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations and the Program on Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.