The Lynch Menace: A Review of ‘The Arab Uprising’

In the Fall of 2012, I took Dr. Robert’s Vitalis’s course PSCI211: Politics of the Contemporary Middle East.  Dr. Vitalis is well-known at Penn for having…shall we say…a loud personality.  These are the first words from his first lecture:

“OK, we’re not learning anything today.  But can someone please tell me, WHERE THE FUCK IS THE DON MEMO’S TRUCK?”

He’s also renowned among students for his stick-it-to-the-establishment attitude.  Rather than rehashing a syllabus year after year, Dr. Vitalis always updates PSCI211, lecturing on books no older than six months.  So, when I said in an earlier post that this course didn’t mention Iran once, that’s because the most pressing issue of the time was the Arab Spring, and all of Dr. Vitalis’s books reflected that.  If anyone is to blame for the lack of Iran-attention, it is the authors of those books (because let me tell you, if they think Iran isn’t important to the Arab Spring and its repercussions, they’re going to be wildly surprised by the next decade of politics in the Middle East).

Dr. Vitalis emphasized opinion writing in his class: there were only three assignments and they were all reviews of the books he assigned.  This review that I’m sharing now is of Mark Lynch’s The Arab Uprising.  And boy, was the extended Star Wars metaphor fun to use!

I recorded this on September 18, 2013, and you can listen along here:

Is Mark Lynch the George Lucas of Political Science? He’d certainly like you to think so. “Star Wars” redefined the way movie-goers think about science fiction, and with The Arab Uprising, Lynch aimed to redefine the way policy-makers think about the Middle East. Upon reading the book, however, it becomes clear that Lynch failed to approach this task with the type of rigorous scholarship necessary to so substantially contribute. Or, at least, he failed to disclaim that to the reader.

In “Star Wars,” the crux of the universe is The Force. While not quite so melodramatic, Lynch argues that the pivotal variable in the Middle East is what he terms the “new Arab public sphere.”[1] Lynch credits social and news media with catalyzing the revolutions that swept the Middle East from December 2010 thru 2011.

Also parallel to “Star Wars” is the narrative of diametrically opposed groups of actors that Lynch weaves throughout his book. On the Good hand you have the protestors rising up against their tyrannical despots. On the Evil hand you have the despots themselves and the full might of decades of consolidation of powers, military and otherwise.

In order to assess Lynch’s effort, we must critique two components of his analysis. First, we must evaluate the extent to which his constructed narrative holds true. Second, and regardless of the validity of Lynch’s construction, we should evaluate the extent to which he makes proper analysis, arguments, and conclusions based within the framework that he himself sets up. Before diving right in, however, let us briefly consider Mark Lynch himself, to better understand the biases inherent in his book.

Lord Lynch

Mark Lynch is very self-reverential. On the very first page of The Arab Uprising, he orients himself as a figure of authority over the reader.[2] After all, how many emails do you receive from senior advisors to the Obama administration, asking for your input? And while Lynch recognizes that others contribute to analyzing the modern Middle East generally and the Arab Spring (a term he coined, according to him) specifically, he puts this book above the fray, citing his, “active role in the Arab public sphere through my own blog, ‘Abu Aardvark.’”[3]

As we will see, Lynch’s personal attachment to this issue proves to be his underpinning. It is clear that he made his conclusions before writing. For one, the book is framed as a deductive analysis of the Arab Spring. Put another way, Lynch concludes before putting forth any analysis: that the new public sphere played a pivotal role in the ongoing revolutions of the Middle East and will continue to define the region as America and the world attempt to craft foreign policies for the region.[4] And so, for the rest of the book, Lynch presents data that conveniently fits with his pre-determined conclusion, instead of inductively collecting analysis, stepping back, and seeing what results are self-evident.

Return of the Sith

Lynch is right to begin his narrative in the early Arab Cold War. And of course, he repeatedly emphasizes the role that “transnational media” played in sweeping the public into demonstrations for pan-Arabism and in turn strengthening or weakening some regimes.[5] Here, Lynch simultaneously oversteps and fails to adequately address an important variable. The proxy tactics of the Cold War held dramatically different implications for the Middle East then the interventionism practiced by America in the post-9/11 world. To continue the “Star Wars” analogy, Lynch attempts to describe the struggle between Darth Vadar (regimes) and Luke Skywalker (Arab publics) without first clarifying the role that Senator Palpatine (America) played in spawning that conflict in the first place. By attempting to credit media with the periods of mass mobilization during the Arab Cold War, Lynch reveals his one-mindedness with respect to “redefining” the Middle East post-Arab Spring. To be sure, media and the Fourth Estate, as it were, played a major role both in the Cold War and in the ongoing Arab Spring. But Lynch fails to properly frame the international system in which the Fourth Estate was acting in both of those periods.

Han Solo

But for a brief moment, let us assume that Lynch’s constructed narrative is appropriate. That while not perfect, it is at least good enough to host arguments relating to his “new public sphere” thesis. Is this argument at least internally consistent? Taken more broadly to be interpreted as the “new Fourth Estate,” (thereby including the role of traditional media alongside social media) yes, his argument is valid. In this light, the Arab Spring is the latest in a long line of sagas where those seeking information struggle to defeat those aiming to limit information. Frenchmen consorted in salons. Americans printed pamphlets. Egyptians Tweeted. In each case, the latest technology was used to cast a spotlight on the deficiencies of the inept ruling class, in an effort to incite the average citizen into action. And it holds important implications for regimes currently “striking back,” such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iran (though, Lynch doesn’t discuss Iran).

This is a relatively meaningful piece of insight. So why doesn’t Lynch frame it this way? The answer lies in his selfish attempts to re-frame the Middle East, instead of identifying a pre-existing trend. Lynch wrote this book for US policy-makers, hoping to ensure that the next time something unexpected happens in this region, he is once against emailed by the White House and asked for help. To be fair, this kind of self-advertising does play a role in the governing and policy-making process. In “Star Wars,” Han Solo is very upfront about his every-man-for-himself attitude. Lynch’s downfall, however, is his failure to adequately disclaim his motives, choosing instead to assume a position of authority over the reader right from the outset. Lynch goes on to cherry pick the information that fits his pre-determined conclusion.  Not everyone who writes a book on Political Science needs to be a scholar.  But if one does, one’s motivations and purposes must be clearly articulated from the beginning.  Only then can a more discerning reader forgive the lack of comprehensiveness apparent in books like The Arab Uprising.

[1] Mark Lynch, The Arab Uprising, Public Affairs, (New York: 2012): pg. 2.

[2] Lynch, The Arab Uprising, pg. 1.

[3] Ibid., pg. 3.

[4] Ibid., pg. 19-22. And again on pg. 231.

[5] Ibid., pg. 34.