Voices of the New Arab Public

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 frame the definition of an Arab public sphere. In this theoretical exercise, 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 emotional discussions.

Using his data as evidence, Lynch explicitly and insistently belies the picture of Al Jazeera as a fundamentalist channel and the picture of an Arab public sphere as unconditionally anti-American and ignorant. Arab debates might be extremely self-referential and centered on Arab or Muslim problems, but, Lynch argues, these self-centered disputes hold enormous transformative potential for home grown democratic reforms. With this argument he breaks fresh ground in prevailing debates among US officials. In his view, the US’s diplomatic approach towards the Arab World is disastrous and needs to be changed to encourage reform. Lynch’s point may be rather banal, but is nevertheless worth making, especially as Al Jazeera tends to be dismissed or demonised rather than understood as the core of a new Arab public sphere that must to be listened to and engaged with.

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.

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Copyright 2006 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Electronic Journalism, the American University in Cairo and the Middle East Centre, St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK