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Why Libya Matters To The Middle East's Future
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Arab world is undergoing a transformation, and no one really knows
where it will lead. My guest, Marc Lynch, has been closely following the
protest movements, including the one in Libya, where the U.S. is
participating in military action to enforce the no-fly zone sanctioned
by the U.N. Security Council, which also called for an end to Moammar
Gadhafi's attacks against civilians.
Lynch co-edited the new ebook "Revolution in the Arab World:
Understanding the Upheaval While It's Happening." He's the director of
the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East
Political Science at George Washington University. He edits the Middle
East channel for Foreign Policy Magazine's website and writes his own
blog on that site. He's the author of a book about al-Jazeera and Middle
Marc Lynch, welcome to FRESH AIR. You seem to see both sides of the
Libya intervention question. What are the pros and cons of the U.S.
interceding as it's done; the pros and cons as you see them?
Professor MARC LYNCH (George Washington University): Well, the cons are
enormous because, you know, anyone who's lived through the last 10 years
and lived through Iraq can understand all the reasons why we want to be
very wary about intervening in another Arab country without a great deal
of thought about what kind of role we might have to play in a post-war
Libya or post-war Iraq and really having to worry about all the
unintended consequences of something which seemed like a good idea going
And I think that I, like many of us, look around, and we see that a lot
of these questions don't seem to have been answered or even asked.
On the other side, I spent a lot of time reading Arab blogs, talking to
Arabs, watching Arab media, and I can see how important Libya really is
to what's happening inside the Arab world right now.
And you can see that there is this incredible momentum towards change,
where the hopes of everybody in the region were being raised, and then
when you got to Gadhafi beginning to respond with really brutal
violence, it had an effect across the entire region.
And they did look to the United States and to the international
community to rescue something which was going badly wrong. And so I
think what you have is a real gamble where we see that an intervention
is in many ways the moral thing to do, and it could have really
positive, region-wide effects. But if it goes wrong, it could actually
bring all of this to a crashing halt.
GROSS: So what's really at stake in Libya for the West and for the Arab
Prof. LYNCH: When you're looking around the region, you've got a lot of
people who desperately want to try and push for peaceful change, and
they saw Tunisia. They saw Egypt. And it led them to believe that it was
And in both of those cases, one of the key things was that the armies
decided not to shoot on their people. And even though it was tense, and
it was difficult, it actually showed people that there was a possibility
And then what Gadhafi did in Libya, and for that matter the rulers in
Bahrain and Yemen, what they did was they said: No, we're not going to
go. And they then used really brutal force against the people. The
people didn't back down, but it then stalled and turned into this more
of a pitched struggle.
If Gadhafi survives, it sends a message to every dictator in the region
that force pays, that the way to stay on the throne is to shoot your
people if they protest, and the international community really won't do
anything about it. And that sends a powerful message both to the
dictators and to the people. That's the real stakes in the region.
GROSS: What about the stakes for the West?
Prof. LYNCH: We have a real stake in what this region's going to look
like down the road. What kind of Middle East are we going to be dealing
with for the next decade, one in which you've had peaceful transitions
to some kind of more accountable, more democratic rule, where the people
see that the West was on their side? Or do we see a return to kind of
sullen dictatorships, angry people who blame the West for standing by
while their hopes were crushed?
And at the same time, the oil-rich rulers, who look around and say,
well, the West didn't really help us, either.
And, you know, those are two very different kinds of worlds that we
could be looking at in the next few years.
GROSS: I think Libya has been much more confusing, at least for
Americans, than Egypt. In Egypt, it was - I think it was clear. There
was a movement of young people who were for democracy. There were so
many of them, and it seemed to be such a truly pro-democracy movement.
Whereas in Libya, for instance there's a New York Times headline today:
"A Struggle for Democracy, or Just a Tribal Civil War?" And that's a
question I think a lot of people are asking now, and I think a lot of
people are asking, like, who are the people who are protesting, and why
are they protesting?
And another example I'll give of the confusion is that Richard Engel,
the NBC reporter, reported yesterday that some of the rebels who he was
asking why are you protesting, were saying, well, it's because Gadhafi's
So, like, do we know what the movement is really about and who the
protesters really are in Libya?
Prof. LYNCH: Well, I think the answer to that is no. I think that our
starting point for knowledge about Libya, compared to, say, Egypt, is
incredibly low. In Egypt, a very large number of people - both in the
government and journalists, academics, researchers - we knew Egypt very
well. We knew who the players were both inside the government and in the
And it didn't mean that we could necessarily predict what was going to
happen, and there are many questions about Egypt that still remain, but
it's not like Libya, where it's almost a black hole of information.
One of the legacies of Gadhafi's rule is that he almost completely
crushed civil society. And that means that we don't have political
parties or trade unions or civil society organizations, human rights
organizations; the sorts of people and organizations and institutions
that we could see as potential leaders in some kind of new post-Gadhafi
Libya. So our starting point of knowledge is very, very low.
I had a chance to meet with some of the leaders of the Libyan
opposition, and they were at great pains to assure me that they were
broadly representative of the Libyan people, that they included
representatives of all regions, that they wanted to create a genuine
And I listened to them, and I found them to be very impressive people,
but at the same time, they're talking to an American, and they were
telling me what I wanted to hear. And I was painfully aware of that.
So I don't think that we really know with any confidence what kind of
people we're looking at in the Libyan opposition.
That said, we do know what we're looking at with the Gadhafi regime, and
I think when you compare the two, the unknowns of the opposition don't
look quite so bad.
We can be quite confident that a post-conflict Gadhafi is going to be
far worse than he was before because he's going to be vengeful, he's
going to believe quite rightly that the entire world turned against him,
and that's going to include the Arab governments that have taken the
lead in facilitating a Western intervention, it's going to include the
United States, Britain, France. And I think that we have, I would say, a
great deal of certainty about how Gadhafi would behave should he
GROSS: Okay, say Gadhafi doesn't survive, either that he's killed or
that he just doesn't survive as the leader of Libya. Do we risk having
just, like, tribal fighting in the wake of that?
Prof. LYNCH: Well, I think it's going to be much more difficult to put
together a workable, functioning, Libyan, more democratic, more
accountable state, compared to, say, Tunisia or Egypt, where you have, I
think, a much more developed infrastructure of civil society unions,
movements, political parties and so forth.
So I don't think that we have to give in to despair and assume that
we're going to be looking at another Somalia or another Afghanistan, a
kind of ungoverned space full of conflict.
But it's a real risk. It also makes it more likely that there's going to
be great pressures in a post-Gadhafi situation for people here to start
thinking about putting in peacekeeping forces or the boots on the ground
that Obama has been at great pains to say we're not going to do.
But I do fear that the logic of the situation, when you begin to see
turmoil and anarchy in a post-Gadhafi situation, will probably lead a
lot of people to say: Well, the next step is we can't let Libya turn
into a failed state or an ungoverned state. And then next thing you
know, we do have a large number of troops on the ground, whether ours or
GROSS: My guest is Marc Lynch. He's the director of the Institute for
Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science at
George Washington University. He just co-edited, an ebook called
"Revolution in the Arab World." And he's a senior fellow at the Center
for a New American Security. Let's take a short break here, and then
we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Marc Lynch. He's the director of the Institute for
Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science at
George Washington University. He edits the Middle East channel for
foreignpolicy.com, and he is a senior fellow at the Center for a New
I have to say I was so surprised and kind of confused when the Arab
League asked for the U.N. to impose a no-fly zone, when it asked for
Western intervention because I'm so used to the Arab League opposing any
Western intervention. And I wonder how you would explain that.
Prof. LYNCH: Basically, the big structural change in the region is that
the public is far more empowered than it was before - obviously in
places like Tunisia and Egypt, where you've had actual changes of the
government - but even in the rest of the region.
The leaders are far more attentive now to what the public wants and what
the public things. They have to be because there's so much pressure on
them from below, and they don't want to do things now which are going to
risk triggering more protests or anger the people.
And so there's much more now of a sense that public opinion matters, and
the Arab public was deeply invested in the Libya situation. Al-Jazeera
has been covering Libya extremely tightly, to the exclusion, some would
say, of other protest movements, such as those in Bahrain, right next
door to Qatar.
But for the al-Jazeera public, Libya is the number one issue. It might
not be the number one issue in American concerns, but for the Arab
public, by the time we got to where we are now, this was the top issue
for the Arab public.
The coverage is very sympathetic to the Libyan opposition, very hostile
to Gadhafi. And there's been a very strong interventionist tone to much
of the commentary. So you have these graphic images of protestors being
killed and combined with this kind of moral appeal that goes out: Why is
the world not intervening? Why is the world not helping us? And this
really set the frame for why you saw the Arab League and others
welcoming some kind of international intervention.
This was being pushed on the leaders of the Arab world by this empowered
public. They really understood what was happening in Libya as the next
chapter in this ongoing story that started in Tunisia, spread to Egypt,
and they really are looking to see how things end in Libya. That's going
to affect what happens in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen.
And so you get this welcoming on the part of the Arab League, which as
you say is quite extraordinary.
GROSS: Now, are some of the countries in the Arab League that ask for
Western intervention countries that are run by dictators or strong men
who are themselves under attack?
Prof. LYNCH: Yeah, and I think that that's very clear. And indeed, some
of the backers of the intervention are simultaneously intervening in
Bahrain in order to prop up a king in that country against a very strong
GROSS: Are you referring to Saudi Arabia there?
Prof. LYNCH: Yeah, yeah, especially Saudi Arabia, but Qatar also and the
UAE. But what you have is a combination of them responding to this
powerful imperative from below, combined with the fact that Gadhafi has
no friends in the Arab world. He has badly alienated and antagonized
both the Saudis and the Qataris over the years.
So he has no friends in the leading countries in the Arab League right
now, and there might also be some sense that supporting a Western
intervention in Libya might buy them some space in their own countries,
in Bahrain, in Yemen, while the West is both distracted in Libya and
also dependent on their support in Libya.
So there might have been some calculation there, as well, on the part of
the leaders, which allowed them to align themselves with this empowered
Arab public at relatively little cost to themselves.
GROSS: And it keeps the focus on Libya and not on them. Is that what
Prof. LYNCH: Exactly, exactly. But there's a major caveat to this: This
support is relatively thin because there's a counter-narrative out there
which is deeply shaped by Iraq.
And the - it is extraordinary to see the Arab League and Arab public
asking for Western intervention, but that then conflicts with this
competing narrative of the United States as imperialist, as the memories
of Iraq and Western intervention and all of the arguments about a war on
Islam, wars for oil, general complaints about double standards.
One of the lines I've heard the most often in the Arab media and talking
to people is: No-fly zone over Libya, that's nice. Where was the no-fly
zone over Gaza? And all of these things come together into a powerful
counter-narrative, which basically says that yes, we want the West to
help, but the minute we start seeing American troops on the ground or
Western bombs killing innocent Libyan civilians, then all of a sudden
that's not acceptable.
And I'm watching very carefully what's happening in the Arab public
debate, and I would say that you're already seeing powerful signs of
When you say Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, flip
from supporting the no-fly zone to complaining about the bombing, that's
exactly what I'm talking about, where he's looking at it and saying:
Well, as long as it was a costless, cheap intervention, that's fine, but
when you have Western troops suddenly actually attacking an Arab
country, that then brings us back into Iraq territory.
Just today, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, who has an extremely
gifted ear for Arab opinion, and he's become one of the most popular
leaders in the Arab world, just today he gave a speech in parliament
where he warned about the West going to war for Libyan oil.
And I think that right now, Arab opinion, which was very enthusiastic
about an intervention to protect the Libyan people, is already starting
to teeter on that edge of having the fears of another Iraq outweigh
their desire for helping the Libyan people.
GROSS: And is that because of the way the bombing is being handled or
because of damage that was done by the bombing? Like, what changed the
Prof. LYNCH: It's inevitable. I think that - actually in the Arab world,
I think it's very similar to here in the United States, where the debate
about what to do in Libya was very poorly served by how we talked about
a no-fly zone.
Many people talked about a no-fly zone as if this were kind of a cheap
alternative to war, and it's just a matter of shooting planes out of the
sky, sending a symbolic message and emboldening the opposition. But it
was actually a war.
And but of course that's not what a no-fly zone is. A no-fly zone
includes bombing to take out the anti-aircraft capabilities. And - but
that wasn't the way that it was being discussed, either here in the
United States or in the Arab world.
And so I think what you see now is this kind of visceral shock, that
this wasn't what we signed up for. When we said we wanted a no-fly zone,
we didn't think that meant, you know, the bombing of Libyan cities or
paving the way for a ground intervention.
And so I think that part of it is just that shock of not being prepared
for the reality of it. This was entirely predictable, but I think that
the way we talked about these things, both here and in the Arab world,
didn't serve us very well on that.
GROSS: And one of the things that you've pointed out in your writing is
that you think the focus on Libya has distracted attention from Bahrain,
where the king is being challenged by a large movement. The king is
blaming the challenge on a foreign plot and accusing Iran of trying to
create a revolution in Bahrain.
Would you try to put Bahrain into context for us? It's a small country.
It's a country most Americans don't know much about. So what's the
larger importance in the Arab world of the uprising in Bahrain?
Prof. LYNCH: What happened in Bahrain is just another example of how
what started as this big, grand narrative of peaceful, popular uprisings
against autocracy has been diverted into different kinds of stories.
So if Libya gets turned into civil war and intervention, in Bahrain
what's happened is it's turned into sectarianism and a really nasty
resurgence of the Iranian-Saudi Cold War.
So basically what happened was you had peaceful protestors who were
largely Shia because the population of Bahrain is a large majority Shia,
but the protestors were talking about democracy and human rights and
they very clearly saw themselves as part of the Tunisia-Egypt story.
When they began to challenge the king of Bahrain, the response, after
initially being somewhat tolerant, the response was to instead paint
them as Shia sectarians and to try and rally the Sunni world to their
defense against what they increasingly portrayed as Iranian proxies.
And once that framing kicked in, you saw this spreading through the
entire region so that now you have major Shia figures, like Ali Sistani
in Iraq and Hassan Nasrallah in - the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon,
now weighing in on the side of the Shia in Bahrain; and major Sunni
figures such as Yusafa Qaradawi, who is the Islamist figure on al-
Jazeera, weighing in on the side of the Sunnis.
And so what's happened is that Bahrain has shifted its narrative from
being one of popular uprising against a dictator to a Sunni-Shia
sectarian struggle. And that's been, I think, very, very unfortunate.
And what's happening is that Bahrain is - that the sectarianism there is
actually now spreading out into the region and helping to inflame
sectarian tensions elsewhere.
GROSS: Marc Lynch will be back in the second half of the show. He co-
edited the new ebook "Revolution in the Arab World: Understanding the
Upheaval While It's Happening." And he directs the Institute for Middle
East Studies at George Washington University. I'm Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the protest
movements in the Arab world, including Libya where the U.S. military is
helping enforce the no-fly zone authorized by the UN Security Council.
My guest is Marc Lynch. He co-edited the new eBook "Revolution in the
Arab World: Understanding Upheaval While It's Happening." He directs the
Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He
edits the Middle East channel for Foreign Policy magazine's website
where also blogs. And he's the author of a book about Al-Jazeera and
Middle East politics. When we left off we were talking about the protest
movement in Bahrain.
Now the Saudis intervened in Bahrain against the demonstrators. At the
same time the Saudis were represented in the Arab League and called for
UN intervention in Libya. So you have the Saudis taking two different
sides here. In Libya, they're supporting the uprising and in Bahrain
they're supporting the king putting down the uprising.
Prof. LYNCH: That right, and that's why they recast it saying we, you
know, we can support popular uprisings but this is a sectarian one. And
they're trying to basically write it out of the popular narrative. And
it hasn't just been Saudi Arabia. It's been pretty much the entire GCC
has rallied to...
GROSS: That's the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Prof. LYNCH: The Gulf Cooperation Council has rallied to the side of the
king of Bahrain. And so, for example, Al-Jazeera, which has been
covering Libya nonstop, has almost completely ignored Bahrain and Qatar
has contributed, along with several other Gulf countries, to this
security assistance force for the Bahraini regime. And so you've seen
this rallying effect in the Gulf where basically they're saying we're
going to draw the line here. There might be revolutions and protests and
regime changes in North Africa or even in the Levant but we're not going
to let it come to the Gulf.
The other thing which is happening in the Gulf though, is Yemen, where
Ali Abdullah Saleh, the long-serving president, looks to be as of this
morning when we're talking, on his last legs, where his attempts to put
down the popular protesters and offer a series of reforms just hasn't
succeeded and you're seeing massive defections from his regime including
major tribal figures, parts of the military. And it's looking to almost
everybody that the Yemeni regime is not going to last very much longer.
That's going to have huge effects on Saudi Arabia, they share a long
border and have a long and conflicted political history there. So in a
sense, Saudi Arabia is both, you know, putting its finger in the hole of
the dike in Bahrain, trying to stop the floods there, but the wall on
its other flank is starting to crumble and the Saudi's are very much
feeling encircled and threatened by these changes around them.
GROSS: If president Ali Abdullah Saleh losses power in Yemen, how might
that affect Saudi Arabia?
Prof. LYNCH: A lot depends on how it plays out. And so for example one
of the big questions would be if Saleh goes does Yemen hold together as
a single state? There's been a southern insurgency for many years
demanding a separation back into what used to be north Yemen and south
Yemen. And there's been an insurgency for several years in the northern
part, the Houthi rebellion, which has Sunni/Shia overtones. And then, of
course, you have al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula with its strongholds
And so the real question is if Ali Abdullah Saleh falls, will he be
replaced by some kind of broadly representative and inclusive government
which is able to keep the place together, or does everything collapse?
I'm actually more optimistic about Yemen than some people are, simply
because there actually is a surprisingly robust civil society in Yemen.
And a lot of people there have converged for a long time on the sense
that Ali Abdullah's regime is actually the problem â that the
corruption, the authoritarianism and the use of violence against the
various rebellions has fueled all of these problems, and that there's at
least some reason to hope that if peaceful protests managed to bring
down the Saleh regime, that the future there will be a lot brighter
than, for example, in Libya, that we were talking about before.
GROSS: There are a lot of Islamists who have found a safe haven in
Yemen. And I'm wondering with the - with North Africa being in such a
state of transformation now, are there places such as Yemen, where it's
possible that Islamists will really increase their power and kind of
come out from hiding and actually have more official positions and be in
Prof. LYNCH: Well, there's two different ways to think about that. And
it's not a perfect distinction but I think we can broadly distinguish
between moderate Islamists and extremists. The moderate Islamist, like
Muslim Brotherhood type organizations in Egypt or Yemen for that matter,
they probably will be in more official kinds of positions to the extent
that the country's become more democratic. They represent some portion
of the population. Many people estimate in Egypt for example that they
might win 15 to 20 percent support in real free and fair elections.
And that basically generally would be a healthy thing. The more that
groups like that are included in parliament, included in the political
system, the more incentive they have to continue to avoid violence, to
form coalitions with non-Islamists and, you know, to find ways to
cooperate with labor unions or leftists on issues of common interest and
basically just to stay invested in the status quo. And so that's
basically a good thing.
Then you have the extremist organizations, like al-Qaida or al-Qaida in
the Arabian Peninsula who basically see all of these systems, democratic
or authoritarian as equally illegitimate and they're looking for ways to
attack, to undermine, to destroy, to carry out acts of terrorism because
they want to try and bring down the system whatever it is: democracy,
dictatorship, king; doesn't really matter. It's all - none of it is an
Islamic system in their perspective and so they're going to be looking
GROSS: Which are the countries where you think radical Islamists stand
the greatest chance of wreaking havoc?
Prof. LYNCH: Well, probably the places where they already had a degree
of strength - Yemen, some of the North African states where there's
already organizations that are in place.
The other part though is just the general sense of when you have a very
weak state, these ungoverned failed state situations, that often does
create openings for those groups to move in where they don't have to
worry about being harassed by security forces and they can create safe
havens and the like.
And I think that's one of the reasons why a lot of people are worry
about Libya. Not so much because the opposition right now is necessarily
sympathetic to al-Qaida, despite some of the things you hear in the
media, but simply because to the extent that you get anarchy and a weak
state, it simply creates spaces where groups like that can move in.
GROSS: My guest is Marc Lynch, co-editor of the new eBook, "Revolution
in the Arab World," and director of the Institute for Middle East
Studies at George Washington University.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Marc Lynch. He's the
director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on
Middle East Political Science at George Washington University. He just
co-edited an eBook called "Revolution in the Arab World. He's also a
senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Now you recently got back from an Al-Jazeera forum in Qatar. And you
were also recently at the University of Beirut talking about the role of
the new media in the wave of Arab uprisings. Now in Egypt everybody was
calling it like the Twitter/Facebook revolution. How has the role of Al-
Jazeera been changing in terms of its importance in covering these
revolutions and uprisings?
Prof. LYNCH: I think you have to look at them altogether because what's
happened is that the overall information environment has completely
changed. So you have the social media, Facebook, Twitter, all the new
media, and those have been really important for building connections
among activists, for allowing the uploading onto YouTube, of user-
generated videos and all that sort of thing.
Al-Jazeera itself very enthusiastically and aggressively moved into the
new media space. And so when they were unable to cover events from the
ground in Tunisia or Iraq or, you know, all kinds of places where they
were banned by authoritarian regimes, they were able to discover people
they could interview, they could find videos and all kinds of content
that they could use and bring online.
It was really quite amazing that when they were kicked out of the
country they often didn't miss a beat, that they were able to continue
to cover things relying on this network of social media activists and
YouTube sites and all these things to get this unbelievable video
content which made for this, which made for gripping TV. And so the
lines between the broadcast media and the social media have really
blurred over the last three months of the Arab uprisings.
GROSS: What do you think of their coverage in terms of its fairness and
Prof. LYNCH: Well, I think that they're very professional and they do
their job very well. And I think that all of us who are watching it -
and that now includes a significant portion of America, able to watch
Al-Jazeera English, at least under iPads or the computer, if not on the
actual cable TV - I think they've been able to see how riveting the
television is and the professionalism of the commentary and the
coverage. I think that they've done a stellar job, certainly in Egypt
and in kind of working with this rapidly changing Arab environment.
There's some concerns that recently over the last few weeks you're
hearing more and more complaints about the selectivity of their coverage
and some are saying that they're overinvested in Libya. That perhaps
because of the murder of their cameraman, perhaps just because they see
this as such a decisive battle in this larger war. But there's been more
and more criticism that they focus so much on Libya that they're
ignoring protests and uprisings in Bahrain or in Syria and Yemen. And
also that they're explicitly siding with the oppositions rather than
covering it directly.
Those are criticisms that are not unfamiliar to them. They're
comfortable with at least the charge of their being on the side of the
protesters because that's their identity, right? Their identity is that
they represent the Arab people in the Arab street against the dictators,
so they're comfortable with that. But I think they're struggling a bit
with the selectivity question. And I think they're really going to
struggle if it turns out that Arab opinion begins to shift against the
American intervention or the international intervention in Libya,
because then they're going to find themselves trapped between their
intense advocacy for the intervention and a public opinion, which is
shifting away from them.
GROSS: So Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar. So is it funded by the
government there and does Al-Jazeera funding affect its coverage at all?
Is it affecting its coverage of Bahrain at all?
Prof. LYNCH: Well, Al-Jazeera is fully funded by the Emir of Qatar and
that can't help but affect their coverage. There's, many people feel
that there's been increasing use of Al-Jazeera as a weapon in Qatari
foreign policy in recent years compared to the past and they point to
changes in how Al-Jazeera covered Saudi Arabia, for instance, when it
stopped covering Saudi Arabia critically after there was a diplomatic
rapprochement between the Saudis and the Qataris. And it's very rare to
see Al-Jazeera really critically covering something which the Qatari
This is a major issue for Al-Jazeera in terms of their credibility and
one that they are I think very attuned to and trying to deal with
because if they are not seen as this independent voice of the Arab
people, then they lose their ability to speak on their behalf. And so if
this delicate balancing act they walk. As Al-Jazeera has become more and
more prominent in the last month especially, this is becoming more and
more of an issue, especially with the disproportionate coverage of Libya
GROSS: How do the uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Arab
world, how are they likely to affect the future of Israel?
Prof. LYNCH: Well, Israel, like the United States, is going to have to
adapt to this new reality. I think that before these uprisings, Israel
had been able to develop fairly comfortable working relationships with
the leaders of most of the Arab governments, in the Gulf, in Egypt, in
Jordan, and were largely indifferent to the fact that the vast majority
of the publics in those countries was becoming more and more hostile as
the peace process continued to not exist. And so I think that now that
those regimes are either gone or under pressure, Israel is going to have
to face a choice about how they are going to deal with these empowered
Arab publics. Are they going to just retreat into a shell and just
basically resign themselves to an ever more hostile and unwelcoming
environment or are they going to begin to do things which might allow
them to break through that hostility and that wall? And I think that
it's such a cliche to say it, but it really is true, that the peace
process is what's going to make the difference there.
If there's some movement back towards serious negotiation, towards a
two-state solution, then Israel might be able to navigate this new
environment more easily or more comfortably.
GROSS: We're living in a time that is - might be an incredibly
transformative time for the Arab world. And when you look ahead into the
future, what are some of the transformations you see, some of the best
and worst case scenarios that you see?
Prof. LYNCH: You know, we all over the last five or six years, we could
all see that the status quo in the Arab world was unsustainable. We all
wrote many things and spoke frequently about how the absence of
democracy, the crushing socioeconomic problems, the corruption, the -
all of the problems of these Arab countries was creating a situation
where - that it was going to be impossible to continue, and that's why
we kept urging reform and urging change and urging democracy promotion
and the like.
By, you know, by 2009, middle of 2010, I think most of us had become
discouraged. We basically had come to see that the authoritarian regime
seemed to have been able to adapt and to contain and control the
challenges to their rule and we didn't believe that we were living in a
democratic moment and that it looked like it was going to be a long haul
before these underlying conditions and underlying changes were going to
be able to bring about meaningful transformation. And then boom. Tunisia
happened and all of a sudden everything is in ferment and everything
seems possible. And it's just a â it's a sobering lesson for all of us,
that we're likely to be surprised by things.
That said, I would say that the, some things look like they are likely
to continue. And one of them is something we were talking about earlier
in the show, which is just the general fact that Arab publics are more
empowered now than they've ever been and that that's likely to continue
and to escalate, that as you get the introduction and the very, very
rapid spread of this new media technology - and actually, I think, that
people should pay attention to the role of Web-enabled smartphones in
all of this, which basically freed people in the region from the tyranny
of poor Internet connections and low household Internet penetration.
But the combination of Al-Jazeera, of the new media technologies and of
this real youth bulge - if you look at the demographics in most of these
Arab countries, there's very large youth populations who are
increasingly educated, who are wired, and who can't get jobs, can't get
married, and in a sense that's the backbone of what we're seeing now, of
these uprisings, are these wired, empowered but underserved youth.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is
Marc Lynch and he's director of the Institute for Middle East Studies
and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington
University. He just co-edited an eBook on revolution in the Arab world,
and he edits the Middle East Channel for foreignpolicy.com.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Marc Lynch. He directs the Institute for Middle East
Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George
Washington University. He edits the Middle East Channel for
foreignpolicy.com. And he is the senior fellow at the Center for a New
American Security. He just co-edited an eBook called "Revolution in the
The Iranian government managed to smash the uprising there. Is it
possible that Iran will emerge a kind of winner at the other end of all
these transformations in Arab countries?
Prof. LYNCH: I think a lot of people are worried about that, and
certainly there are people within Iranian ruling circles who feel that
way, who think that it's primarily American allies who have been
undermined, and with, you know, with Hosni Mubarak gone and the Saudis
in trouble, there's a sense that this strengthens the Iranian position.
I'm not sure that that's right in the long term.
Iran has been largely irrelevant to the protests that are going on.
They've tried to reach out and brand this as an Islamic awakening and
got virtually no takers for it. The only place where Iran has been a
factor in any way, really, has been Bahrain, and there it's been in this
very negative sense of reintroducing sectarianism and the Sunni/Shia
divide into - into the Arab public sphere.
For one thing, because they crushed their own democracy movement, that
really makes them look bad in the eyes of this empowered public. Nobody
looks to Iran as a model. They see Ahmadinejad and they see Hosni
Mubarak, they see Ali Abdullah Saleh. They don't see the leader of
resistance to the West. They see just another dictator who crushed his
people. And I think that's been an almost insuperable obstacle for Iran
in trying to grapple with these protest movements.
GROSS: You recently got back from trips to Beirut and Doha, Qatar. You
spoke to a lot of young people. You spoke to a lot of leaders of protest
movements. You spoke to a lot of media people. What are some of the
things that you heard there that will be useful for us to hear in
putting into context what's happening across northern Africa now?
Prof. LYNCH: Well, I think the fundamental overriding message was this
one of things are changing, that you need to pay attention to these
voices, treat them with respect, listen to them. There was a palpable
just dissatisfaction or even anger, not just with the United States and
not just with their leaders, but with their elders, for not listening.
There's this feeling of we made these revolutions and we don't need you
to tell us what they mean. And so there's a very powerful sense among
the activists especially that they were the ones making this new world
and that they wanted to be treated with respect and to be listened to.
There was also a really deep divide, I would say, about some of the big
high-profile issues. So on Libya, for example, among young activists I
heard very strong support for international intervention because they
identified with the Libyan people. Whereas among the older generation of
pundits and analysts and commentators, I heard much more of the Iraq
analogy and opposition to any form of Western intervention. There's a
real generational divide there.
And then there's the Palestine question, which has been largely absent
from much of the public discourse about what's going on in the broader
Arab world. I think that broadly speaking almost everybody continues to
view American foreign policy through the lens of its support for Israel,
and there's a deep identification with the Palestinians as one more
example of an oppressed Arab people. But in the younger generation
there's less of a reduction of everything to that single issue. It's
seen as one issue among many, whereas I think in the older generation
there's more of an exclusive focus on this, where almost a palpable
impatience, where can we stop talking about Egypt so we can get back to
Palestine? Whereas in the younger generation there's this much broader
worldview of the region as a whole transforming.
And I think from the perspective of the United States, that creates real
opportunities to listen and to engage and to act productively on this
broader range of issues, which is one of the reasons why American
support for helping to see a real genuine transition of democracy in
Egypt and Tunisia, hoping for a positive outcome in Libya, and really
getting these big regional issues right, that's why it matters so much.
I think this is one of the first times in a long time where you can see
a generation of really politically significant activists and just
individuals all over the region who are looking to the United States
with a relatively open mind. Doesn't mean they're sold on us, but it
also doesn't mean that they're automatically rejecting it, and I think
there's a real chance to get this right.
GROSS: Well, Marc Lynch, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. LYNCH: Well, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Marc Lynch is the co-editor of the new eBook "Revolution in the
Arab World." He directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at George
Washington University. He blogs at Foreign Policy magazine's website and
he edits the site's Middle East Channel.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org,
where you can also find a link to Lynch's blog.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.