The National Catholic Review

Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University, has written one of the best books to date on the popular revolts that have swept the Arab world over the past two years. The Arab Uprising is a very readable overview of these remarkable events, suitable both for those with background in Middle Eastern politics as well as those less familiar with the region.

One of the most important of Lynch’s contributions is providing historical background. Lynch emphasizes that the mass mobilizations of the past two years are not novel, and he outlines several earlier waves of uprisings in the region. At the same time, he recognizes that these previous protests “did not in themselves challenge any of the basic operating principles of the regional order.” By contrast, he notes how the Arab Spring was not only successful in ousting autocratic regimes, but—unlike these previous periods—the regimes’ repression backfired and national protests became part of a regional phenomenon.

Lynch is quite frank about the long and sordid history of U.S. support for authoritarianism in the region, including how the United States punished Yemen and Jordan for their genuine, if limited, democratic openings in the early 1990s and then increased aid and assistance as the repression increased. He appropriately dismisses any claims that the U.S. invasion of Iraq advanced democracy in the region and notes how the phony pro-democracy rhetoric of the Bush administration to rationalize for its imperial ambitions actually served to discredit and set back the genuine pro-democracy struggles of indigenous activists.

Lynch not only provides narratives and analysis of individual struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria—as well as smaller protests in other Arab countries—but also examines overall trends of protests resisting regime power. Indeed, the comprehensiveness of his coverage of these remarkable events in just 235 pages is quite impressive, though I was disappointed that he failed to mention the large nonviolent protests in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, which preceded the Tunisian revolt by two months.

The author takes a sober and realistic view of the struggles, avoiding falling into either an overly idealistic or overly cynical view of the revolutions’ eventual outcomes. Noting how previous waves of protests in the Arab world actually led to greater repression, he recognizes that there would inevitably be some reversals, disappointing political outcomes and competitive foreign interventions that would frustrate aspirations for freedom and justice. He recognizes that the problems facing the Arab world are deep and structural and span generations. Yet he also recognizes that while happy endings are not guaranteed, Arab peoples will continue to resist authoritarianism and social injustice, and that the combination of political repression and economic hardship that sparked the revolutions will continue to drive popular resistance until political systems are in place that provide at least some hope of addressing these grievances.

Another important contribution is Lynch’s refusal to deny agency to those who made the revolutions possible—the ordinary Arab citizens who faced down the tanks, often with their bare hands. He recognizes that the driving forces were not traditional opposition leaders or foreign governments, but the people themselves. He also refuses to overstate the role of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, recognizing that while they can be beneficial tools in a popular struggle, they are not causal factors.

Lynch defends President Obama from criticisms from both the right and left, recognizing that the president had the wisdom to recognize the limits of American influence and that the future of the Middle East belonged to those represented in these popular movements for democracy and social justice. Lynch acknowledges that strategic issues still often trump concerns about human rights—as with the administration’s support for the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain despite their brutal crackdown against that island nation’s pro-democracy movement. But there are points where Lynch, who served as an advisor to the White House during the uprisings, is perhaps too forgiving of the administration’s slowness in breaking with allied dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and its continued support for the region’s autocratic monarchies.

Similarly, he makes convincing arguments against some of the more simplistic criticisms of the NATO intervention in Libya and correctly notes the surprisingly strong support for the military campaign in the Arab world, but he fails to address adequately some of the more valid, nuanced critiques or consider less violent alternatives.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the book’s failure to address more thoroughly the centrality of strategic nonviolent action or exhibit much understanding of these increasingly widespread methods of struggle. Lynch tends, for example, to blame the failure of nonviolent means in Libya and Syria on the ruthlessness of the regimes rather than on the countries’ unique circumstances, which made any kind of revolutionary challenge problematic or the strategic failures of the opposition to apply nonviolent tactics more effectively. For example, Lynch argues that Assad’s officers “had none of the Egyptian or Tunisian qualms about shooting on their own people.” In reality, Egyptian security forces killed over 800 protesters over an 18-day period, an even higher rate of killing than during the nonviolent phase of the Syrian revolt, and the refusal of Tunisian officers to shoot into crowds as ordered by President Ben Ali was less about moral qualms as it was the awareness that their soldiers were unlikely to obey.

Overall, however, if I were to suggest just one book to read about the revolutions that have swept the Middle East in the past two years, The Arab Uprising would be my choice.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.