Professor Marc Lynch is interviewed about his new book, Voices of the New Arab Public.

I think the biggest difference between what I’m calling the new Arab public and a lot of the old publics is that it’s more diverse and open to disagreement today. If you go back to the Middle East in the 1950s there was international broadcasting, and there was a press that was full of angry and politically mobilizing arguments, but what you didn’t have was the notion that everyone should have their own opinion. What you had were powerful Arab leaders or political movements who were trying to mobilize or rally people to a cause, and anyone who didn’t agree with them was not only wrong, but considered “not an Arab.”

That’s the key difference–in this new Arab public, it’s okay to disagree about important issues; in fact you almost have to disagree to be an “Arab”. And that’s an important difference, especially for people who are interested in seeing the emergence of a democratic politics in the region. It’s really revolutionary.

Good stuff. Lynch’s central point — more diversity and openness in Arab media makes the world a better place even if some of its manifestations, like al-Jazeera, are occasionally offensive to some people — is certainly correct.

My main criticism of Lynch in this area concerns his insistence that, even in the absence of the Iraq War, we would have seen a similar movement to freedom, as in Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, in the area. Consider this exchange:

Q: Now how would you connect the 2005 protests in Egypt and Jordan, along with the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, to the creation of this new Arab public and the emergence of networks like al-Jazeera?

Lynch: Well there’s a huge indirect relationship, and obviously each country in the Middle East has its own individual issues, but if you look at the changes going on across the region as a whole recently, I would say that this new Arab public is one of the most important driving forces. I think that al-Jazeera had a lot more to do with them than the Iraq war. Its talk shows had been talking democracy since the late 1990s, and if anything the invasion of Iraq drove democracy questions off the front burner for almost a year.

In other words, in the counter-factual world of non-US invasion, the Cedar Revolution would have happened anyway, and sooner.

Perhaps. It is tough to know about counter-factuals. But, if this is true, then Lynch or someone like him should have predicted it, should have said, back in 2000, that a democratic revolution was coming to Lebanon, that the rise of al-Jazeera made it largely inevitable that the Syrians would be forced out.

Yet, neither Lynch nor anyone I know of made that prediction. This dog that didn’t bark makes me think that the Cedar Revolution was far from inevitable despite the “driving” force of new Arab media , that without the shock provided by the Iraq War it would not, in fact, have happened.

Print  •  Email