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A genuinely tragic story

Jul 16,2017 - Last updated at Jul 16,2017

The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East

Marc Lynch

New York: Public Affairs, 2016

PP. 284


Having previously published an account of the Arab uprisings, Marc Lynch in this book analyses their aftermath up until 2016 — their unravelling into civil wars, failed transitions to democracy, and the restoration of authoritarian rule. Despite today’s abysmal situation, Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University, challenges the preemptive conclusion heard over the last few years, by writing, “It is far too soon to conclude that the uprisings have failed.” Nor do the unsuccessful transitions prove “that Arabs are not ready for democracy”. (p. xii) 

Lynch manages to weave together the disparate and often seminal events in different Arab countries into a single coherent narrative, by focusing on a handful of key trends. The first of these is that the Arab uprisings and the efforts to defeat them were both thoroughly transnational and international. While not denying local factors, Lynch shows how the uprisings in different Arab countries were linked in their origins, learned from each other and coordinated. The same holds true of the regimes that felt threatened by the uprisings, and set out to defeat them. With the exception of Tunisia, transitions to democracy were disrupted or aborted. “Failure in one country bred crisis in the next, while the impact of civil wars was felt through both the torrent of horrifying images and the all-too-real flood of refugees into neighbouring countries.” (p. 167) 

Though the first protestors tried to remain independent, regional powers engaged in unprecedented interference in other countries. “The Arab uprising, by weakening key states and empowering diverse non-state actors, opened the gates to a dramatically new regional politics of proxy war and competitive interventions.” (p. 27)

Lynch examines in detail is how such interventions escalated and prolonged civil conflicts with Libya being a prime example: “external sponsorship meant that local militias had little incentive to resolve their differences, since that would only mean the drying up of their revenue streams.” (p. 181)

Lynch’s account also provides a background for the Saudi-Qatari rivalry that has recently taken on added dimensions. All in all, alongside proxy wars, “Direct military intervention became normalised as a policy instrument in Yemen and Libya in ways rarely seen before among Arab states.” (p. 29)

Using a good balance of regional and international (mainly American) sources, Lynch analyses the burning questions of the day from how Gulf wealth, competition among regional powers, the pervasive new media, the availability of arms and many other factors shaped the conflicts and their interconnectivity. He covers the debate over whether the uprisings should have militarised, most critically in Syria, and the reasons for the revival of sectarianism, after it was hardly in evidence in the original uprisings. Linked to the latter is his analysis of the rise of the Daesh, for which he names numerous causes, not least the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy for peaceful democratic participation after its suppression in Egypt: “The destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood removed the most powerful competitor to the jihadist trends.” (p. 162)

In his explanation for the rise of the Deash, it is only surprising that Lynch doesn’t put more weight on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. 

An important theme in the book is how US policy influenced and was influenced by events. Lynch tends to vindicate then president Obama’s minimalist approach, not by claiming that it was successful but by showing that more US intervention would simply have made the situation worse. In this sense, the book is a case study in the limits of US power. In the conclusion, he bluntly states that in terms of shared values and strategies, the US has no real allies in the region, with the exception of Jordan.

“The story told in these pages is a genuinely tragic one, because it did not have to be this way.” (p. 242)

Since the root causes of the uprisings have remained unresolved, Lynch expects another round in the future.



Sally Bland 

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