Lynch, Marc: Voices of the New Arab Public. Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. 293 pages. Hard Cover. ISBN 0-231-13448-7.
Reviewed by Carola Richter
With “Voices of the New Arab Public, “ Marc Lynch has published a scholarly book that reads in parts like a thriller. Lynch traces the emergence of a new Arab public sphere starting in the early 1990s until the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2004, analyzing the evolution of Arab debate on political developments related to the Iraqi crisis.
His main thesis is that national Arab public spheres could never really develop as they are at the mercy of the politics of the carrot and the stick practiced by the ruling elites of authoritarian states. The emergence of new media targeting the pan-Arab market changes the rules of the game, creating a transnational sphere that, according to Lynch’s argument, provided the breeding ground for a new Arab public sphere. The actors of this public sphere do not shy away from addressing taboo topics head-on and encourage audiences to turn into publics. Therefore, this new Arab public holds transformative potential for Arab national systems.
This thesis is not new. Since the emergence of new media in the Arab region, political and communication scientists began to speculate about political, cultural or social transformations that can be triggered by or at least be transmitted by the media.
However, Lynch’s thesis is novel in that it is underpinned with impressive empirical data. Between January 1999 and June 2004, Lynch analysed 976 of al-Jazeera’s talk shows and a number of op-eds of leading Pan-Arab newspapers. In his book, he quotes some of these shows and op-eds at length, using them as an empirical basis for his political analysis.
Lynch is one of the rare academics who successfully bridges communication and political science, even if a communication scientist would have welcomed more information and reflection on his methodology. The immense amount of data as well as the criteria for analysing those shows and op-eds are nowhere clearly defined. A critical reader could argue that his data is strategically chosen to support a prefabricated analysis. However, this point of critique is marginal in light of the overall scope of material examined in the book.
In the second chapter, Lynch attempts to theoretically frame the definition of an Arab public sphere. In this, his pragmatism stands out positively from many other authors who evaluate democratization processes in Arab countries by using quite idealistic definitions of a public sphere. A gradually emerging public sphere in authoritarian systems cannot be understood as the Habermasian ideal of an area of negotiation between the state and civil society – if only because non-state actors have to be able to voice their arguments freely in public in order to break the political and discursive monopoly of authoritarian governments. Lynch affirms that one has to look at the actual public discourses to get an accurate picture of the political potential of an Arab civil society. In terms of its political influence, the effects of such a public sphere (which is still in its infancy) may be very limited, but at least it is a promising start.
In chapters three to six, Lynch
gives a chronological overview of the emergence of an Arab public sphere
within the context of regional and international political developments.
After pleasantly short introductions to the political developments of
the respective period, he provides empirical data to show how Arab media
discourse dealt with these developments. Finally he analyses the impact
of those debates on political transformation in the region. The “old”
Arab public sphere began to vanish in the middle of the 1990s when “private
deliberations of elites and carefully modulated editorial debates in the
elite press” took place. The new era of a “new” Arab
public sphere started with al-Jazeera and its open, public and at times
In the last chapters, Lynch comments on several clichés and debates that frequently come up with regards to the Arab media – in this reviewer’s opinion an unnecessary attempt to defend the Arab media’s performance. Nonetheless, he has produced must-read work for anyone interested in political communication, civil society, democratization or transformation processes in Arab societies.