It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
Later this month, the representatives just elected by Tunisian voters will begin the task of designing a new political order for the country. If all goes well (though it may not) Egyptians and Libyans will follow suit by drafting new constitutions. It is still not inconceivable that other Arab societies will join them in an attempt to reinvent political systems on a more democratic basis. People in these societies are about to engage in an unprecedented process for them -- while they have all lived under constitutions before, those documents generally enabled authoritarian government. Now they want to write constitutions that will allow them to live democratically. As Americans, this seems to be a story we know well -- a people rises up, throws off oppression, and then deliberates carefully how to write a set of rules for a new republican order fit for a free people. Therefore, we will soon hear lots of well-meaning advice on how Arab societies should write their constitutions and what those constitutions should say.
We saw in Iraq how much U.S. understanding of the constitution drafting process was colored by the U.S. experience. Commentators rushed to speak about a "Philadelphia moment," recommended favorite clauses from the Bill of Rights, and even argued over judicial review by reference to Marbury vs. Madison or Roe vs. Wade. We should have learned our lesson: much of our advice will be bad and most will be irrelevant.
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I long to be back in Cairo. I have fond memories of the two years I spent there from 1965 to 1967. I remember sipping sweet black tea in the Old City's Khan al-Khalili souk, hanging out on weekends at Groppi's Tea Room, and riding the train to the southern suburb of Maadi, where I attended an international high school. I have vivid memories of Tahrir Square's chaotic sidewalks. There were crowds of people everywhere, a moving mosaic of gentle, jostling chaos. It was a noisy city, home to both considerable wealth and desperate poverty, and over the three decades of President Hosni Mubarak's rule the inequality gap has grown even wider.
I wish I could be there today, in solidarity with the thousands of young and old Egyptians, to celebrate the demise of his dreadful regime. But what we are witnessing is more than the end of a government -- it is nothing less than the birth of a new liberal order in Egypt. And that's not only good news for the beleaguered citizens of Egypt, but also the United States and Israel.
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There are, of course, many different ways of categorizing historical revolutions. But for the purposes of understanding what is happening in Egypt -- and the challenges it may pose for the United States -- one simple, rough distinction may be especially useful. This is the distinction between revolutions that look more like 1688 and revolutions that look more like 1789. The first date refers to England's "Glorious Revolution," in which the Catholic, would-be absolute monarch James II was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William and Mary and the English Parliament claimed powerful and enduring new forms of authority. The second is, of course, the date of the French Revolution, which began as an attempt to create a constitutional monarchy but ultimately led to the execution of King Louis XVI, the proclamation of the First French Republic, and the Reign of Terror.
A key feature of 1688-type revolutions is their relative brevity. They may be preceded by lengthy periods of discontent, agitation, protest, and even violence, but the revolutionary moment itself generally lasts for only a few months (as in 1688 itself), or even weeks or days. A regime reaches a point of crisis and falls. The consolidation of a new regime itself may well involve much more turmoil and bloodshed, and eventually entail considerable political and social change -- but these later events are not considered part of the revolution itself, and there is no sense of an ongoing revolutionary process. Men and women do not define themselves as active "revolutionaries" (in 1688, in fact, the English noun and adjective "revolutionary" did not yet exist -- it only came into frequent use after 1789).
Bibliotheque Nationale de France
It's been hard for a historian to watch recent events in Egypt without a sense of déjà vu. Haven't we seen eruptions in streets and squares like this somewhere before, whether in Tunisia last month, in Iran 30 years ago, or in France more than two centuries past? Is Hosni Mubarak going to be next week's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, or Louis XVI?
Matching past and present like this is more than just a parlor game. Revolutionaries, more than most political activists, tend to consciously imitate their predecessors. In this sense, the most transformative political events are often paradoxically the most traditional, as actors take their cues from dramas staged at other times in other places and often follow scripts originally written for quite different theaters.
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If we believe the recently leaked U.S. State Department messages, some leaders of Arab states harbor unkind thoughts about their Iranian neighbors. In addition to describing them in terms like "liar" and "snake," they have expressed a wish to American visitors that this troublesome neighbor would somehow go away. For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stung by these harsh epithets, claims that the entire WikiLeaks affair is a foreign conspiracy to sow discord between Iranians and Arabs and to strengthen the Americans' claim that Iran has become a diplomatic polecat in its own region.
Arab-Iranian hostility is not uniform. Iranians enjoy correct if not warm relations with their Qatari and Omani neighbors. Relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are icy, with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait falling somewhere in the middle. When pushed to the wall, both sides have been capable of putting aside old prejudices and grievances (real and imagined) and can act in their own interest and maintain cordial state-to-state ties. Nevertheless, the big picture is negative, as the cables dramatically show.
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coming weeks, the United States may well be joining a new round of nuclear
negotiations with Iran. But, rather than working to promote their success, most
commentators seem to be consumed with explaining their anticipated failure. And
their follow-up policy prescriptions seem designed to do more harm than good.
Take Karim Sadjadpour's article, "The Sources of
Iranian Conduct," in the November issue of Foreign Policy. Sadjadpour seeks to adapt George Kennan's famous
1947 "Mr. X" article
-- which proposed the outlines of
the Cold War "containment" strategy used against the Soviet Union -- for
America's current Iran debate.
"Like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home," Sadjadpour writes. "Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran's current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam." It's a clever conceit, but it would be a disaster for U.S. interests if Sadjadpour's piece attains anything close to the level of influence achieved by Kennan's.
Of all the problems bedeviling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the status of Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- thrown into the spotlight again this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the United States -- has surely attracted the most attention. But that does not make it the most important or the most pressing issue.
Contrary to what many believe, Israelis are largely in agreement over the terms and circumstances under which they would compromise over the settlements -- a consensus that is surely larger than that which exists in Palestinian society over how to reconcile the feuding Islamist and secular nationalist factions in Gaza and the West Bank. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has used settlements as an excuse to disrupt the latest round of peace talks, the open secret in today's Middle East is that the issue is one of the least problematic obstacles to a final-status agreement.
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For three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has bedeviled the United States, resisting both incentives and disincentives and working all the while to foil American designs in the Middle East. If 20th-century Russia was to Winston Churchill a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, for observers of contemporary Iran, the Islamic Republic often resembles a villain inside a victim behind a veil.
Seeking to understand their mysterious foe, American analysts most commonly invoke three historical analogies to explain its character and future trajectory: Red China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The chosen metaphor pretty much dictates the proposed response, and most prescriptions for U.S. policy have come down to one of these variations: attempt to coax the Iranian regime into modernity; forget the diplomatic niceties and "pre-emptively" attack it to prevent or delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons; or contain it in hopes it will change or collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions.
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The Republic of Yemen is often spoken of in the press and in policy circles as a society on the verge of collapse (last year it was "another Somalia"), based largely on two claims, the first being the supposed weakness of its state, the other the supposed lawlessness of its tribal population that makes up the majority ethnic group (about seventy-five percent are settled agriculturalists in the mountains and another five per cent, nomadic Bedouin in the eastern desert). And supposedly being on the verge of collapse, Yemen is seen as vulnerable to take-over by terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda that threaten America's and the region's security. Let us consider how tribe and state, law and conflict operate in Yemen that few analysts seem to grasp when they make these pronouncements.
History may provide some perspective. There has been a state or dawlah in Yemen for thousands of years, whether the Sabaean state that built Marib Dam and was the reputed homeland of the Queen of Sheba, or the Islamic state created shortly after the advent of Islam which lasted for a thousand years, or the republican state that came into being in 1962 and has lasted until the present day, despite two bitter civil wars. To be sure, the state has waxed and waned in power and contracted or expanded in territory during this history, and it has faced formidable outside opponents, beginning with the Romans and most recently with al-Qaeda, but it has never fully collapsed or disappeared from the scene. It is unlikely to do so in the present in spite of arguments that the current regime is at a tipping point and about to fall apart because of an unprecedented number of seemingly intractable problems facing it (an ever weakening economy, unsustainable water consumption, projected diminished oil reserves, conflicts between the state and certain regional populations, rampant corruption, and let us not forget al-Qaeda).
To those who would say to me, "How do you know it is not at a tipping point?" I can only respond with, "How do you know that it is?" and remind ourselves of the longue durée of Yemeni history.
John Limbert knows better than anyone not to have high expectations about U.S.-Iran relations. One of 52 Americans held hostage by Iranians for 444 days in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Limbert came back from retirement nine months ago to head the State Department's Iran desk in hopes he could help end the bitter enmity between the U.S. and Iran.
Those hopes have been dashed as Iran rejected U.S. overtures and the Obama administration pivoted to a familiar pattern of economic sanctions.
On Friday, Limbert is stepping down from his position. In an interview Tuesday -- his first since rumors of his departure were confirmed earlier this month -- he said he had promised the U.S. Naval Academy, where he had been teaching history and political science, that he would return for the fall semester. But he acknowledged personal regret that U.S.- Iran relations have not made more progress.
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Last Sunday was both a potent reminder of the horrific power of ethnic nationalism and the redemptive quality of multi-ethnic democracies -- lessons that we should be applying to one of the last great moral sores of our time, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territory and the Israeli-Arab conflict. On Sunday, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, world leaders joined 60,000 Bosnians to pay tribute to 775 more Bosnian Muslim victims of the Srebrenica massacre fifteen years ago, whose remains have been identified. Those whose nations or institutions shared responsibility for the massacre were in attendance. The President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, appeared in a brave act of national repentance and a former and respected colleague of mine, Andrew Gilmour, was there to represent the United Nations Secretary General.
Simultaneously, the World Cup's championship match got under way in the multi-racial democracy that is now South Africa. Earlier, Nelson Mandela, the first president of a free South Africa, showed up briefly to be welcomed by tens of thousands of jubilant fans.
One day later in Jerusalem, in sharp contrast and mundane by comparison, the Israeli municipal planning committee in the city approved another 32 settlement units in the Arab eastern half of the city. As Elisha Peleg, a member of the committee put it, "[w]e will continue to plan and build in every neighborhood in this city and we will not allow external forces to intervene." (Presumably, he was referring to President Obama.) And today, in an equally symbolic move, Israel also ended its unofficial ban on destroying Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem.
As the world scrambled to respond to Israel's deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, the first reaction came from an unlikely source: Ireland. On the morning of June 5, the MV Rachel Corrie, which had set sail from the east coast of Ireland in an attempt to breach the Gaza blockade, was intercepted by Israeli forces. The ill-tempered diplomatic spat between the Irish and Israeli governments that accompanied the Rachel Corrie's journey to Gaza is just the latest episode in the countries' long history of antagonistic relations.
The Palestinian issue has long occupied a place in the Irish consciousness far greater than geographic, economic, or political considerations appear to merit. Perceived parallels with the Irish national experience, however, have inspired an emotional connection with Palestine that has inspired Irish activism in the region up to the present day.
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Last month, a group of Egyptian lawyers accused Gamal al-Ghitany, a famous Egyptian novelist and the editor of the country's most influential literary magazine, of printing obscene materials. The two-volume set that Ghitany had just published in his capacity as editor of a government-sponsored literary series had proved wildly popular, reportedly selling out its first printing in 48 hours. But according to his accusers, it was full of "shameless sexual terms" and "sarcasm towards the divine essence."
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Throughout modern history, there has been a direct relationship between conflict and the emergence of new ways of arbitrating world affairs. Every major war since the 17th century was concluded by a treaty that led to the emergence of a new order, from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that followed the Thirty Years' War, to the Congress of Vienna of 1814-1815 that brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars, to the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles that concluded the first World War, to the agreement at Yalta that laid the groundwork for the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. Yet the Cold War, which could be regarded as a global-scale war, ended not with grand summitry, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no official conclusion; one of the combatant sides just suddenly ceased to exist.
Last week, the leading Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat dramatically reported on what it called "a grave and unprecedented escalation" by leading members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, showing that some of its parliamentary deputies "will not know red lines." Since the regime was blocking their participation in upcoming elections to the parliament's upper house, the Brotherhood would "light a fire under the feet of Egypt's corrupt regime." And how? By calling for revolution? Rallying its supporters in the streets? Inciting riots?
No, the Brotherhood claims its dalliance with revolutionary activity has definitively ended. The movement's ideologist for a more combative path, Sayyid Qutb, was executed in 1966. When the Brotherhood climbed back to viability in the 1970s and 1980s after years of harsh repression, it left violent ideas behind in the grave with him. Or so it says. Is it telling the truth? Largely, yes. The Brotherhood has renounced violence. But it cannot bring itself to bury Qutb with it. The respectful treatment of Qutb is a worrying sign, but in a far more subtle way than is usually understood.
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