It has been widely noted that monarchies have done better at surviving the Arab uprisings that began two years ago. Three Presidents (Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh) have fallen, along with Muammar al-Qaddafi's unique Jamahiriaya, while Bashar al-Assad's Baathist presidential regime faces a mortal threat. No Arab monarch has yet lost his throne. For some analysts and academics, this pattern suggests a fairly obvious "monarchical exception" which demands explanation.
In August, I launched a debate on Foreign Policy about whether and how monarchy matters in explaining the resilience of Arab regimes. I was not impressed. Against arguments that monarchies possess some kind of unique legitimacy commanding the loyalty of their people, I noted that Arab monarchies have in fact faced significant popular mobilization over the last two years: Bahrain has had one of the most intense and protracted uprisings anywhere; Kuwait is facing the deepest political crisis in its post-occupation history; Jordan experienced unprecedented protests; Saudi Arabia has had a protracted challenge in its Eastern Province; Oman experienced unusual levels of protest; Morocco's protest movement drove the king to adopt a significant (if underwhelming) constitutional initiative. I concluded, "the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths."
The responses I got over email, over Twitter, across blogs, and at various academic conferences convinced me that the monarchy question remains an open one, however. It is an important debate for political scientists and analysts, with a wide range of arguments and evidence to consider. Over the last few months, I have reached out to a number of leading scholars to weigh in on the question of Arab monarchy. I asked them to move beyond simple binaries ("monarchy does or doesn't matter") to explore the specific mechanisms by which it might matter, to weigh them against competing explanations, and to show how monarchy operated in particular cases which they knew well. Those articles, along with some particularly relevant older Middle East Channel essays, are now collected in today's new POMEPS Brief, "The Arab Monarchy Debate."
-- The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog --
There are plenty of strong reasons for the United States and the international community to remain deeply cautious about taking a deeper role in Syria's internal war. Concerns about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the unintended effects of arming them, fears of a slippery slope from limited to direct military involvement, and questions about international legitimacy remain as urgent as ever. But what could possibly justify the failure to adequately address the humanitarian needs of the expanding Syrian refugee population?
Nobody can seriously question the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are now more than 465,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. By past experience, this likely dramatically undercounts the real number as many refugees shy away from registering with official organizations. That does not count the internally displaced, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. Most of the refugees are living in harsh conditions, inside or outside of camps.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
The Internet blackout comes at a time when Syria's rebels are believed to be making significant gains around Damascus. This map provides a snapshot of the insurgents' gains (in red) around the capital's suburbs. The fear among opposition activists is that the shutdown is the first step in a wider crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad's regime, to preempt a rebel offensive.
There are signs that Damascus airport could be the focal point of the brewing conflict between Assad and the rebel forces. The airport road was closed after being the scene of fierce fighting, and Dubai-based Emirates Airline suspended flights into the capital - possibly a reaction to the rebels' acquisition of surface-to-air missiles. An Egypt Air plane landed in Damascus today, but according to an official at Cairo airport, the pilot was instructed to take off back to Egypt without passengers "if he felt that the situation there is not good to stay for longer."
This sounds like the beginning of a story, rather than its end. More as it develops.
The unusually intense protests that swept Jordan two weeks ago in response to the government's decision to raise fuel subsidies focused attention on the kingdom's long-simmering political crisis. The protests shocked many observers not only because of their size and geographical scope, but because of the virtually unprecedented calls for the overthrow of the monarchical regime. The protests tapered off after a few days, partly due to a backlash against these more extreme slogans among a generally reformist opposition. But even if the Jordanian monarchy was not to be quickly swept away, deep and fundamental political problems remain unresolved.
To get a better sense of the meaning of these protests, I sat down with Jillian Schwedler of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for the eighth in our series of POMEPS Conversations with leading Middle East specialists (the full series can be found here, with the latest featured each week in the video box of the Middle East Channel home page). Schwedler, who is completing a book on the politics of popular protest in Jordan, helps to explain why the tens of thousands demonstrating in the downtown al-Hussein mosque which impress the casual observer are less politically significant than a few hundred at the interior ministry. Schwedler had this to say:
The subsiding of the headline-grabbing protests does not mean that Jordan's political crisis is over. Nor is it likely that the crisis will be resolved by elections held under an unpopular election law, boycotted by most opposition parties, and viewed as irrelevant by most activist youth. Popular mobilization is rapidly reshaping the contours of Jordanian political life in ways which the Jordanian regime seems unable or unwilling to recognize. The fading of the most potent protests (for now) should not lead anyone to relax about the country's fate.
For more on Jordan's troubled politics, see these recent articles from the Middle East Channel:
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
Few developments associated with the Arab uprisings have generated as much concern of late as the rapid emergence of Salafi movements into the public arena. The performance of al-Nour Party in Egypt's parliamentary elections stunned many observers. Waves of attacks on Sufi shrines in Tunisia and Libya, denunciations of secular citizens, and loud calls for the imposition of sharia have raised fears at home and abroad. The violent protests over the anti-Islam YouTube film, the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the emergence of Salafi-jihadist trends within the Syrian opposition have made these political concerns ever more urgent.
Who are these new Salafi movements? How should we interpret their rise? I am pleased to announce the publication of our new POMEPS Brief, available as a free PDF download, which collects more than a dozen recent ForeignPolicy.com essays on Salafis across the Arab world, including a detailed look at Salafi politics in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The picture that emerges is troubling -- but also unexpectedly reassuring. These well-funded and well-entrenched subcultures will likely continue to thrive in the open, contentious new Arab political realm. But how they will behave, the response they will generate from other political trends and societal sectors, and how they will approach political institutions remains very much in question.
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #8
King Abdullah's approval this week of a controversial new law imposing potentially draconian controls over Jordan's internet is finally drawing attention to the country's increasingly dangerous political situation.
The new law's effort to stifle political expression puts at risk the Jordanian IT sector, which makes up some 14 percent of the country's GDP, produces a very significant share of youth jobs, and is one of the few bright spots in its grim economy. It's hard to see the gain in further alienating disaffected youth and crush their primary source of economic hope at a time of grinding economic problems and simmering political protests (for more background, see May's Jordan, Forever on the Brink). Jordanians in the IT sector, as well as conbributors to its vibrant political public sphere, point to the irony of the famously dysfunctional Parliamentary system managing to suddenly work so effectively to produce this legislation out of all the real problems in the country it has spent years neglecting.
It's also hard to see much hope in the regime's response to its political problems. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is reportedly again discussing a push for constitutional monarchy which it has intermittently floated for the last five or six years. But there does not seem to be much of a sense of urgency. Instead, there has been a combination of more repression and more of the same, tired political games: rumors of yet another prime ministerial shuffle, plans for a Parliamentary election by the end of the year under an extremely disappointing new election law. Fears of replicating Syria's bloody chaos may restrain protestors from fully challenging the King even with these escalating grievances, a familiar theme in Jordanian political history. But for how long can this be enough? And will a disappointing election be a trigger for simmering discontent to turn into something more?
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's sudden move last week to oust the senior leadership of the Egyptian military broke a long period of political stagnation and began to bring into view the contours of the emerging political order. It reversed views of Morsi almost overnight. Only two weeks ago, most analysts had written Morsi off as a weak and ineffective executive boxed in by the ascendant military leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After his bold move against the SCAF and reversal of its constitutional decrees, many now fear that he and the Muslim Brotherhood stand at the brink of nigh-totalitarian domination.
I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World's Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn't ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.
This afternoon, a sizable Washington audience turned out to watch White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talk about American policy toward Yemen. Imagine that -- a large Washington audience turning out in the dead of summer to hear about Yemen! And even better, Brennan began by responding directly to the criticisms of U.S. policy toward Yemen expressed in a recent Atlantic Council-POMED letter to President Obama, which called for moving "beyond the narrow lens of counterterrorism." (I made similar criticisms in this space in January.)
Brennan's main goal was to push back against these criticisms. It is simply wrong, he argued, to claim that the U.S. views Yemen only from a security and counter-terrorism lens. He laid out the administration's "comprehensive" strategy for Yemen, including support for the political transition, humanitarian aid and economic development, and institutional reforms. He effusively praised President Hadi and his efforts at institutional reform and political transition, and he emphasized several times that more than half of the increased U.S. aid to Yemen went to the political transition and economic development, not to counterterrorism. Of course at the end he came to AQAP and mounted a spirited defense of drone strikes as ethical, legal, and effective, but the speech was structured to show that these efforts came within a broader political and developmental context. (He also, thankfully, didn't waste our time blaming Iran for Yemen's problems).
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
The Middle East Channel Editors Reader #6
Votes are being counted in yesterday's historic election to select a temporary 200 member General National Congress in Libya. The voting process itself was a resounding success, which defied the many skeptics who predicted violence, boycotts, or worse. Reports from across Libya highlighted an enormous, infectious enthusiasm for the vote which belied the sensationalist press reporting and commentary about a collapsing, violent Libya on the brink of chaos. Voter registration and turnout were remarkably high, and there have been few reports of either violence or attempted fraud. With luck, Libya's electoral commission will avoid the self-inflicted wounds of, say, Egypt and quickly announce credible results which will be accepted as such by all of the major contestants.
Few observers have any illusions that the elections themselves will solve any of Libya's many problems, from economic woes to the absence of effective state institutions to the continuing role of armed militias. The absence of any prior history of such elections makes it almost impossible to predict the likely winners. And the experience of countless transitional elections elsewhere warns against exaggerated hopes for a smooth political ride to come. There will be fierce struggles for power and positions as a government is formed, existential decisions to be made by the election's losers about whether and how to contest their defeat, and looming battles about core questions of the country's identity and direction. But the high participation in and smooth progress of the elections will help to ground those coming political battles within a legitimate, democratic and hopefully resilient institutional framework.
In short, July 7 was only one day in Libya. But it was a good day.
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader, #5
Last week's outbreak of the largest wave of popular protests in Sudan in nearly two decades has opened up the possibility for change in one of the cruelest regimes in the Middle East and Africa. Few regimes are more deserving of popular challenge than that of Omar Bashir, who should long since have been in custody in the Hague answering for his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The "Arab spring" is hardly needed to account for the protests in Khartoum, which has a long history of popular uprisings, but it certainly frames the perception and politics of what is unfolding. The current wave of protests were triggered by austerity measures, including cuts to food subsidies, in a tenuous political arena framed by the tensions surrounding the new South Sudan. Activists, especially students who had been trying to keep protests alive for over a year and a half, have moved creatively to embrace the online communications and organizational tactics made familiar by the Arab uprisings of the last year and a half. The tortuous path of popular struggles in Syria, Yemen and so many other Arab countries following early waves of enthusiasm should be a cautionary tale about overly high expectations. But Sudan's rising protest movement in the face of a growing crackdown clearly merits the world's attention.
Welcome to The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader, my weekly guide to important and interesting new long-form writing and research. None of the books which I read last week merited a recommendation -- disappointing! -- so this week I will be only be featuring articles and reports on Egyptian Salafism and Egyptian judges, American grand strategy in the Middle East, the Iranian nuclear challenge, and the lessons of Western academic engagement with Muammar al-Qaddafi.
- Marc Lynch, June 11, 2012.
Welcome to this week's edition of the Middle East Channel Editor's Reader, in which I share books and articles which I've been reading recently. This week, I highlight three books, a great special issue of an academic journal, and a new policy brief by two political scientists.
The MEC Bookshelf
The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest and Social Change in Egypt, edited by Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing (Verso). This collection of essays, most of which were previously published in the journal Middle East Report, covers a variety of dimensions of Egyptian politics, culture, economy, and society. The collection includes classic essays such as Mona el-Ghobashy's "The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution," Asef Bayat's "The Arab Street," and Timothy Mitchell's "Dreamland," along with first rate essays by Elliott Colla, Ursula Lindsey, Joel Beinin, Issandr El Amrani, Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, Karen Pfeifer, Hossam Bahgat, Ted Swedenburg, and more. Be warned, however, that most of these essays have previously been published, some are a bit dated, and many can be found online.
Political scientists specializing on the Middle East see Jordan as the Arab country most likely to experience major new mobilization during the coming year, but see Bashar al-Assad as the Arab leader most likely to lose power. They see the Obama administration as doing a pretty good job overall in its response to the Arab uprisings, but performing terribly on Bahrain and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are largely against military intervention in Syria, don't expect war between Egypt and Israel in the next two years, and don't expect a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians in the next decade. And they are perfectly divided over who they think will win the upcoming Egyptian Presidential run-off election.
Those are among the interesting findings of a pilot survey I conducted this week during the third annual meeting of the Project on Middle East Political Science, a network of academic political scientists specializing in the Middle East which I direct. The sample for this pilot survey included about forty political scientists at all career levels, all of whom have spent significant time doing research in the region and speak the relevant local languages, and are primarily based at a university or college (rather than a think tank or NGO). This survey is a pilot study for a larger expert panel I'm planning to put together for the Middle East Channel. I hope that expert panel will offer a regular barometer of views of regional issues -- and also be willing to offer predictions which might offer some meat for the Philip Tetlock-inspired debate about the value of expertise for prediction.
Below the break are some of the key results of the POMEPS pilot survey:
Welcome to the second edition of the Middle East Channel Editor's Reader. Each week, I will present my personal selections of the books and articles to read about the Middle East. With Egyptians going to the polls for historic presidential elections, this week's readings primarily focus on Islamists and electoral politics. How are Islamist parties and movements adapting to their new political horizons? How have they done so in the past -- and does this offer any useful lessons for their future?
My frequently repeated observation to journal publishers: it would be a lot easier and more effective for me to direct attention to your articles if you would liberate them from behind the paywall.
What should you be reading about the politics of today's Middle East, beyond (of course) the outstanding daily content on the Middle East Channel and the news and analysis featured in the MEC Daily Brief? The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader -- or, "Abu Aardvark's guide to good reads on the Middle East" -- is a new regular feature which will highlight what I consider to be the best of the academic journal articles, long-form magazine articles, policy reports and books which come across my desktop.
The MEC Editor's Reader will reflect what I'm actually reading and think merits your attention. Some weeks that might mean an extended book review, others a selection of journal articles. I may write about a ten year old book if it's what I'm currently reading, or I may write about forthcoming academic research. I will particularly highlight publications by the talented academic members of the Project on Middle East Political Science, which I direct, but I will try to not neglect writers from other fields. I can't promise to even try to be comprehensive -- which you'd thank me for if you actually saw my desktop. This will be a selective guide to work I found interesting for some reason, reflecting my own ideosyncratic interests and reading habits. But please do send me your articles and books if you want me to consider them. And with that, welcome to...
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #1 (May 16, 2012)
The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen. (Harvard University Press 2012).
Harvard historian Roger Owen had almost completed a book on "Arab Presidents for Life" in late 2010, just as several of those Presidents suddenly faced mortal challenges. Rather than simply insert "and Fall" into the title, Owen chose to integrate the new developments into a thoughtful and incisive evaluation of Arab political authoritarianism in all its components. Owen points out the many ways in which Arab Presidents and Kings imitated one another, with Presidential sons following - or attempting to follow - their fathers, and all relying on extensive security services and webs of patronage. His analysis of the personalization of power challenges recent efforts to distinguish Arab monarchies from their Presidential counterparts, and lays bare the internal logic of such personalized security states. As an historian, Owen is sensitive, and admirably transparent, about the limits of our knowledge about the inner workings of these regimes. But his brief discussions of each country effectively convey both the commonalities and differences across the cases. Owen's highly readable book serves as a fitting requiem for a system of rule which long seemed immovable, has now been exposed in all of its flawed brutality, but seems likely to adapt to new structural conditions rather than simply fade away.
My PDF Reader:
Voting for Change: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of First Elections in Arab Transitions, by Ellen Lust (Brookings Doha). Yale University Political Scientist Ellen Lust, who has written widely on political parties and elections in authoritarian Arab regimes, lays out the challenges and opportunities in the foundational elections in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond. First elections, she warns, should be treated differently from subsequent elections, with different objectives and obstacles, with priority given to building a strong democratic system and addressing the fears and uncertainty which plague any transition rather than on managing a particular political outcome. Lust wrote about Syria's recent pre-transitional Parliamentary election for the MEC here.
The Rise of Islamist Actors: Formulating a Strategy for Engagement, by Quinn Mecham (POMED). Middlebury College Political Scientist and former State Department Policy Planning staffer Quinn Mecham argues for a more systematic strategy for engagement with Islamist political parties. It should surprise nobody that Islamist parties do well in Arab elections or more open political arenas. Mecham expertly lays out the benefits and risks of engagement, and urges the U.S. to engage broadly in order to build understanding on both sides ---but to neither compromise on core value commitments or to exaggerate their likely power.
Tunisia's Transition and the Twin Tolerations, by Alfred Stepan (Journal of Democracy). Columbia University Political Scientist Alfred Stepan, one of the leading figures in the study of democratic transitions globally, examines the relatively successful Tunisian experience since 2011. "With secularists agreeing that Islamists could participate fully in democratic politics, and Islamists agreeing that popular sovereignty is the only source of legitimacy," he writes, Tunisia has been able to avoid the violence and polarization found in some other cases. Egyptians and others should take note.
Networks of Third-Party Interveners and Civil War Duration. Asyegul Aydin and Patrick Regan (European Journal of International Relations, 2011). What is the likely impact of military assistance to the opposition on the duration of Syria's civil war? Aydin and Regan's 2011 article doesn't talk about Syria directly, but it does focus on the logic and historical record of external interventions in such conflicts. The network analysis suggests that such interventions are likely to increase civil war duration and encourage opportunistic, rent-seeking behavior among the combatants unless there is a high degree of unity of purpose and shared interest among the intervening parties. Well worth a read, even if you have a low tolerance for math, for trying to think through the likely implications of supporting armed opposition in Syria.
... and don't miss these from the Project on Middle East Political Science:
Jordan, Forever on the Brink. Collection of essays on the shortcomings of political reform and growing instability in Jordan.
Breaking Bahrain. Collection of essays on the political stalemate in Bahrain.
Jordan's Prime Minister Awn al-Khaswaneh submitted his
resignation today after less than a year in office. His surprising move reportedly
came in protest over the refusal of the Royal Court to allow
meaningful political reforms. The last straw, it appears, was the
disappointing new election law which failed to respond to long-standing
complaints by political activists, parties, and outside analysts. Less than a
week ago, I told the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad
that I was deeply worried about the kingdom's stability because of its failure
to enact any serious political or economic reform or to engage seriously with a
growing wave of protest and unrest. The sudden resignation of the respected
jurist should draw renewed attention to Jordan's political stability -- and
raise important questions about its willingness and ability to reform.
The Middle East Channel has been keeping a close eye on Jordan's ongoing political problems:
"The Implications of Jordan's New Election Law" -- Curtis Ryan, April 13, 2012
"Identity and Corruption in Jordanian Politics" -- Curtis Ryan, February 9, 2012
"Just What Does Jordan's King Abdullah Understand" -- Laurie Brand and Fayyaz Hammad, January 17, 2012
"Jordan's Fictional Reforms" -- Sean Yom, November 9, 2011
"Fragile Hopes for Jordan's New Prime Minister" -- Christine Satkowski, October 24, 2011
We will have more soon on the unfolding developments in Jordan.
On April 17, 2012, M. Cherif Bassiouni, international Arab legal expert and Chairman of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry joined Middle East Channel editor Marc Lynch for a short conversation at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies. Among the topics covered: Bahrain's response to the BICI recommendations, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immunity deal, a war crimes tribunal for Syria...and why Muammar al-Qaddafi's sex addiction will make it difficult to convict Saif al-Islam.
The escalating bloodshed in Syria has rapidly become the center of regional and international attention. While the United States and its allies struggle to find ways to effectively help the Syrian people, the body count mounts and the prospects of a negotiated transition grow dim. Meanwhile, a growing chorus calls for a military intervention to protect Syrian civilians or to accelerate the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The response to the Syrian crisis is shaped by its unique combination of humanitarian crisis and strategic significance. The horrifying death toll and the political failures of the Syrian regime are real, urgent, and undeniable. So are the strategic stakes of a potential regime change in a long-time adversary of the United States and its allies, and the key Arab ally of Iran. The Syrian crisis has revealed and exacerbated the profound tension between the narrative of "Resistance" which has long shaped regional discourse and the narrative of the Arab uprisings.
Our new POMEPS briefing, "The Syria Crisis" -- to which this post is the introduction -- surveys the issues posed by the ongoing struggle in Syria. The the ninth in our Arab Uprising Briefing series, "The Syrian Crisis" collects recent analysis and commentary from the Middle East Channel on these urgent questions.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian journalist Ashraf Khalil joins me this week on Abu Aardvark's Middle East Channel Editor's Video Blog to discuss his new book Liberation Square and the state of the Egyptian revolution. Tune in to see us talk about how Egypt has changed in the year since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the prospects for Egyptian protestors. And don't miss the special bonus appearance of a certain psychedelic former Arab leader!
Episode 4 of Abu Aardvark's Middle East Channel Video Blog, guest starring
Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University. In this week's installment, I talk
about why arming
the Free Syrian Army is a dangerous option and weigh in on the standoff
between the Egyptian government and the United States over democracy NGOs. The
heart of the episode, though, is a ten-minute conversation between Mitchell and
me about his new book, Carbon
It's a special treat to be able to present the conversation with Mitchell, who is one of the most innovative and original minds in academic Middle East Studies. His earlier books, Colonizing Egypt and Rule of Experts, were path breaking intellectual works that reshaped entire disciplines. Carbon Democracy, selected as one of The Middle East Channel's Top Five Books on the Middle East for 2011, offers a radical new reading of how coal and oil have shaped not only the Middle East but also Western democracy, the international system, and the discipline of economics. You can watch Mitchell and me talk about his book, about the meaning of an "oil crisis," and about how Middle East Studies has responded to the Arab uprisings. If you enjoy the discussion, let us know -- we'd like to do more of this kind of extended conversation on the Video Blog.
I hope you enjoy the show!
Welcome back to Episode 3 of Abu Aardvark's
MEC Video Blog! In this week's installment, I discuss the potential for a
U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. I was at the United Nations for
Tuesday's debate, and had the chance to talk to a number of key players. On
Wednesday I posted my thoughts about what such a resolution
might accomplish, and on the video blog I answer a number of questions that
have been posed about those efforts. I also talk about Kuwait's
Parliamentary election, with a special appearance by former U.S. Ambassador to
Kuwait Edward "Skip" Gnehm, and about what the horrible violence at a
football game in Port Said might mean for Egypt's political transition.
Enjoy, and as always we welcome your feedback on our ongoing video blog experiment!
Is there any hope for Yemen's political transition? Is Egypt on the way to a new revolution? And has the Arab Spring really, really vindicated neoconservativism? Those are only a few of the topics that I take up today in the second exciting episode of Abu Aardvark's MEC Video Blog. All that, and some great guest appearances, which I won't spoil here. Enjoy!
This photo of the "sleeping salafi" from the opening session of Egypt's new Parliament burned like wildfire through the Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of my Arab, Egyptian and Middle East watcher friends. The overwhelming tone of the comments was high snark, as liberals fell over themselves snickering at the dozing beards. The image played to every prejudice which has greeted this new wave of salafi Islamists.
There's just one problem. The iconic figure in the lower right corner of the photo wasn't sleeping. He's blind.
Dr. Wageeh el-Sheemy is a university professor and new parliamentarian from the Salafi al-Nour Party. As the We Are All Khaled Said page explained yesterday, el-Sheemy is "the first blind person to become member of the Egyptian parliament thanks to the #Jan25 Revolution. In fact, he is the first ever disabled member of the Egyptian parliament." That's really impressive, and a great story. Congratulations to Dr. El-Sheemy -- and to the Nour Party for putting him forward as a successful candidate.
It should also be a lesson to all. For all the legitimate concerns about where the newly empowered salafi trend will take Egypt -- and there are many -- it is far too easy for people to leap to unwarranted conclusions about them. In the coming days, it will be useful for all Egyptians, and those watching Egypt, to take a breath before rushing to judgement.
We can't help you with that guy in the third row though...
On January 25, 2011 on the Middle East
Channel, Ashraf Khalil marveled from the streets of Cairo about "sheer size of the turnout, which was larger
than anything I've seen in 13 years of covering Egyptian protests." From
Washington, I pushed back against skeptics who doubted that Tunisia's
revolution would spread to Egypt, as I noted that, "the images and
stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy
and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian
protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world."
Over the following 18 days, the Middle East Channel published a remarkable range of analysis and commentary about the unfolding Egyptian revolution. It featured not only outstanding reporting from the ground but also incisive analysis from the Middle East Studies academic community -- who stepped up in a big way to help inform public debate at a critical time. Nathan Brown, Shadi Hamid, Sherif Mansour, Emad Shahin and Daniel Brumberg assessed Washington's response. Vickie Langhor called on the Obama administration to side with Egyptian democracy, as did Tarek Masoud, Ellen Lust and Amaney Jamal. Geneive Abdo pushed back against those who saw echoes of Tehran 1979. Helena Cobban talked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ellis Goldberg checked in with the business community, while MEC co-editor Daniel Levy surveyed the implications for Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Nathan Brown laid out the Egyptian constitution's rulebook for change, while Tamir Moustafa asked whether Egypt needed a new constitution to have a revolution. Michael Hanna laid out the reasons to doubt Mubarak's intentions. Sheila Carapico shrewdly observed how al-Jazeera's relentless focus on Tahrir framed understandings of the revolution. In one of Foreign Policy's most widely read, and arguably prescient, early contributions, Robert Springborg warned that the military's role in the transition meant that by February 2 the chance for democracy in Egypt had already been lost. Ambassador David Mack warned observers to curb their enthusiasm. I offered a stream of commentary from Washington. And all of this is only a small part of what appeared on Foreign Policy over those critical weeks.
This week, the Middle East Channel is proud to offer a wide range of commentary looking at an Egypt one year after the outbreak of the revolution. Among the highlights, including a few from last month for perspective:
More is coming over the course of the day, and I'll update the post as those pieces go live.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
General Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, announced the lifting of the much-criticized State of Emergency today on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution. Ending the state of emergency has been one of the primary demands of Egyptian activists and civil society, as well as the international community, for many years. What does it mean? The Middle East Channel asked Nathan Brown, a leading expert on the Egyptian constitution, for his thoughts:
General Tantawi appears to have given the Egyptian Revolution a tremendous birthday gift -- he has ended a state of emergency that has lasted (with only brief interruptions) since the 76-year-old general was four. Except, of course, for the baltagiyya, hooligans or thugs who roam Egyptian streets attacking peaceful citizens and virtuous revolutionaries.
Ending the state of emergency was one of the most important demands of the revolutionary coalition that ousted President Hosni Mubarak last year. I have read only news accounts of his action, but those make it clear that the fine print makes this a bit less of a gift than it initially appears. As far as I can make out:
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
Welcome to the Middle East Channel Editors Vlog, or possibly
MECTV, or the MEC-VLOG or -- if I get my way -- Aardvark TV! We're working
on it. Whatever the name, I'm thrilled to announce the pilot episode of what we
hope will be a weekly video blog hosted by me on the Middle East Channel. Hey,
it worked for Justin Bieber, right?
We recorded the pilot episode this week. It touches on Syria (jump to 1:01), Yemen (4:15), and the war debate (7:08); talks about some of my favorite articles on the Channel last week (9:45), including Aili Tripp's overview of the debate on electoral quotas for women and Michael Hanna's fascinating counterfactual on whether the Arab spring would have toppled Saddam; and profiles my book of the week (10:40). As we sort out the tech issues, we'll insert chapter breaks so you can link directly to segments. We had some fun with this one, and I hope you all do too!
Not all the episodes are going to be quite so, um....well you can provide your own descriptor once you've watched it. Each episode will be different, and most will bring in guests to join the conversation. Most weeks I plan to respond to selected questions which readers pose on Twitter, in the comment section, or over email. I'll talk about MEC articles, and when possible get the authors on camera -- or at least on Skype -- to answer questions about them. We'll feature conversations with scholars, authors, policy makers, and folks from the Middle East who come through Washington. We'll feature a book every week, some to recommend and others not so much. We'll have fun.
A big part of the reason for doing this is the opportunity to interact with readers, so do tweet questions or suggestions for the show at me (@abuaardvark) or drop me a line. We're hoping that this will be fun as well as informative. Thanks for watching, and be kind as we work out the bugs!
It's hard to think of two people with less in common than Katy Perry and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet, as Sheila Carapico notes, some enterprising Internet denizen mashed up Perry's hit song "Hot 'N Cold" with excerpts from the speeches of the long-serving autocrat, who has his own people -- and diplomats everywhere -- pulling their hair out over his many broken promises to step down from office.
"I should know that you're no good for me," Perry sings. "You're yes, and you're no. You're in, and you're out. You're up, then you're down." Yup, that's Yemen for you these days.
Yemen seems trapped in an endless political stalemate. More than a year after massive protests erupted challenging the 33 year old regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen seems no closer to achieving a meaningful political transition. The deadlock has persisted despite the outrage over regime violence against civilians, splits at the top of the military, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence and calling for a transfer of power, a Nobel Peace Prize for leading Yemeni protest figure Tawakkol Karman, and the near assassination of Saleh himself. In the absence of a political solution, the humanitarian situation has dramatically worsened and regional conflicts across the country have intensified. Is there any hope for Yemen?
On Wednesday, January 25, from 12:30-2:00 pm, I will be hosting a POMEPS panel discussion at the Elliott School of International Affairs on Yemen's political stalemate, featuring three political scientists with deep experience in Yemen and very different specializations: Stacey Yadav, Sheila Carapico, and Laurent Bonnefoy. When I chose the title "Yemen's Stalemate" for the panel a few months ago, several people commented that this seemed gloomy. I would have loved to have been proven wrong, but here we are. I hope many of you can attend; a video of the event will be posted later. The post which follows is the introductory essay to POMEPS Briefing #8: Yemen's Stalemate, which can be downloaded here.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
four armed Americans in civilian
clothes in Baghdad who claimed they were there to protect Shiites heading
toward Karbala. The two men and two women were reportedly carrying automatic
weapons and driving a silver BMW with unregistered diplomatic plates. The
Iraqis said that they found this all suspicious, since there had been no prior
coordination and the law forbids such American activities without notifying the
responsible authorities. The U.S. Embassy reportedly stepped in within 15
minutes of the arrest, and the four were released without charge. It isn't
obvious exactly what was going on, but we can all probably guess.
Baghdad governor Salah Abd al-Razzaq told reporters that even if the group were U.S. intelligence operatives, their activities had nothing to do with Iraqi security and were a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. He demanded an explanation from the U.S. Embassy and a promise that it not be repeated. A diplomatic crisis seems to have been averted, but the curious episode should be a cautionary tale. Whatever really happened, this could have easily escalated into a major diplomatic showdown and a legal nightmare for the Embassy.
Expect a lot of more of these kinds of incidents in the coming days. While there hasn't been much coverage of the incident in English, it's being heavily covered in the Arab and Iraqi media. Arresting and exposing American operatives in Iraq is going to be politically popular and the local media will eat it up. A lot of ambitious political forces might find it useful to be seen on TV arresting an armed American. Armed Americans traveling around Iraq, whether security contractors or intelligence operatives, are going to be an endless source of potential crisis. And people wonder why the Pentagon staunchly opposed maintaining any U.S. military presence in Iraq without a SOFA which guaranteed immunity from prosecution for American soldiers?
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