Marc Lynch is an American professor and Middle East expert who blogs at Abu Aardvark. Late last year, he wrote a disarmingly frank and honest article for the Washington Post on what scholars of the Middle East had gotten wrong about the Arab Spring of 2011. Many of them had high hopes at the time, which were later dashed. As I read it recently I thought to myself: 'Some of this wishful thinking and distorted perception reminds me a lot of what I am seeing currently in Germany.'
See if you agree:
I asked a group of the authors from my edited volume “The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East” to write short memos assessing their contributions critically after having another year to reflect. Those memos have now been published as POMEPS Studies 10 “Reflections on the Arab Uprisings” (free PDF available here). Their auto-critique is full of worthy observations: We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.
One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment. That’s a fine quality in activists, but not so helpful for academic rigor.
As for me, there are a number of areas where I’ve been rethinking things over the last year or two. There are some negative developments that did not surprise me, I should add, even though I had hoped they would be avoided. My earlier book, “The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East,” devoted an entire chapter to demonstrating how each previous round of popular mobilization in modern Arab history had ended up with the consolidation of even more heavy-handed authoritarianism. The disastrous results of the decision by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to field a presidential candidate were easily foreseen. So were the catastrophic consequences of external support to the Syrian insurgency, which has produced unbelievable human suffering but few real surprises to anyone versed in the comparative literature on civil wars and insurgencies. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the problems of Yemen’s transition.
New Arab Public: For a long time I believed that a mobilized Arab public would never again allow themselves to be manipulated and dominated by autocrats. Whatever the tactical setbacks and inevitable ups and downs of difficult transitions, I thought that the generational transformation would keep trends moving in the direction of more open politics. It was this new Arab public that gave me at least some optimism that the region could avoid repeating the failures of the past.
That conviction suffered a near-mortal blow in Egypt, where a shocking number of the youth and public voices who had made the uprisings proved more than willing to enthusiastically support the restoration of military government and violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was not simply the military’s successful coup that was shocking – such a denouement was always a possibility. The shock was the coup’s embrace by many of the popular forces upon whom hopes of irresistible change had been placed. The new Arab media and social media proved to be just as capable of transmitting negative and divisive ideas and images as they had been at spreading revolutionary ones. Egypt’s military coup traveled just as powerfully as had its revolution. The pan-Arab revolutionary unity of early 2011 has long since given way to sectarianism, polarization between Islamists and their enemies, and horror over the relentless images of death and despair in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
The media generally played a highly destructive role in the post-uprisings environment. For a brief, tantalizing moment, independent television stations and newspapers seemed to constitute a genuine Egyptian public sphere. But that quickly collapsed. Unreconstructed state media offered up a relentless stream of propaganda. Many private media outlets were captured by the state or by counter-revolutionary interests and the airwaves filled with the most vile forms of populist incitement. Meanwhile, transnational broadcasting descended into little more than transparent vehicles for state foreign policies, a change most noticeable – and damaging – with the once proud Al Jazeera. And while social media and new Web sites have certainly offered a plethora of opportunities for information to flow and opinions to be voiced, they have largely failed to supplant mainstream media as a source of news for mass publics.
"[W]e understated the importance of identity politics...we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment."