Magical Thinking about Isis

Best piece I've read about the aftermath of the Paris attacks thus far, by Adam Shatz. Deep thinking throughout but I think this is one of the important points:

In a recent interview with Vice, Obama described IS as a child of the Iraq war. It’s true that if it weren’t for the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and its replacement by a Shia-dominated sectarian system, IS would probably not exist. And in its war against the Sykes-Picot frontiers, IS has paid a peculiar homage to the neoconservatives who have always viewed the post-Ottoman borders as artificial constructs, a map to be redrawn in blood, with multi-confessional states replaced by ethnically exclusive, weak statelets: Christian Lebanese, Kurdish and Shia.
But the problem of IS can’t be laid exclusively at the door of Bush, Blair et al. The war in Libya, and Obama’s accommodation with the Sisi regime in Egypt, have encouraged the spread of IS well beyond Iraq. It is, however, the US’s dangerously incoherent Syria policy that has perhaps done the greatest damage. When Obama called for Assad to step down, apparently confident that his days were numbered because an American president had said so, he raised the expectations of the opposition that the US had their backs, in the event that Assad began firing on them. But Obama had no intention of sending troops, or imposing a no-fly zone. His determination to will the means for Assad’s removal has never matched Russia’s or Iran’s determination to keep him in power. The result was to leave the Syrian opposition exposed to Assad’s war.

 But read the whole thing.

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

The following is a guest post from Nathan Field, an entrepreneur and commentator on Middle Eastern politics. While Western governments weigh which military actions to take against ISIS, Field looks at the long-term economic reforms that could introduce greater employment, development and therefore stability to Arab countries, and weaken the appeal of extremist ideologies. 

The ultimate outcome of the military struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is certain. ISIS will land some blows but has too many enemies. Eventually, it will lose a war of attrition. The territory it controls in those countries will be reclaimed.   

The bigger, long-term challenge is the spread of Islamic State’s ideology in the broader Middle East, as opposed to the presence of the group in Syria and Iraq. This ideology of extreme utopian populism is caused at a most fundamental level by the socioeconomic stratification of Middle Eastern societies, a problem that is aggravated by the weakness of Arab economies in the global marketplace.

This has created a division between roughly the top 20% of societies, which is in a position to thrive and obtain status, and the vast majority that can mostly only hope to achieve the same. While such gaps have always existed, they are now being amplified by the explosion of the internet, social media and smartphones. For a growing number of young men, Islamic State’s utopianism offers a sense of purpose, meaning and masculinity that they don’t believe they can obtain by playing according to the conventional rules of society.

Economic reform, therefore, will be the key to undermining the group’s broader ideological appeal throughout the Muslim world-- with one major caveat. To succeed, it must not be a mere intensification of the neoliberal reforms that have transformed Arab economies since the 1980s. Those efforts generated unprecedented macro-economic growth, but failed to distribute the gains to different segments of society in a socially optimal way. Socioeconomic stratification increased, and that has directly contributed to the ongoing surge of radicalism.   

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In Translation: A modest proposal to fix Egypt's economy

Economist, former government minister and rare voice of reason Ziad Bahaa Eddin presents a list of sensible suggestions for what Egypt should do, undo, and not do to right its sinking economic ship. Pity that they will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. This installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the professional translation team at Industry Arabic

Recommendations for Dealing with the Economic Crisis

El Shorouk newspaper, October 20 1015

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin

One cannot describe the current economic situation as only a minor bump, one that we can deal with using the same tools and methods the state has grown accustomed to using over the past years, and which exacerbated the crisis in the first place. I am not referring here to the disturbances in the exchange market that recently grabbed the media’s attention: they are a symptom of an underlying sickness, the expression of deeper problems in the management of the economy. The principle of these problems are weak levels of investment, exports and employment and the rise in both internal and external public debt. The most important of these problems, though, is the government’s lack of clarity in its economic policy and the direction it intends to pursue. For citizens, the steady price increases, especially in food, the continuing decline in public services and the scarcity of employment opportunities are the real indicators of the Egyptian economy’s performance. For them, these issues are more important than figures for growth, reserves and the public debt. 

We can, of course, blame the slowdown in world trade, global conspiracies, or the regional situation. None of these, though, are sufficient to explain the rapid worsening of the economic situation over the past few months. We can also demand that minister after minister step down or cabinet after cabinet be replaced every time there seems to be a slowdown or a failure or every time the media calls for an immediate change. However, the gravity of the current situation requires us to stop and reassess our position and to build a minimum of consensus around certain important priorities instead of searching for a scapegoat or trying to satisfy the media’s thirst for a new victim. Here is what I propose:

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In Translation: Egypt's president reads the constitution, sees a problem

Shereef Azer writes: I’ll Show You “Tinkering with the Constitution”!

Online magazine 18+, Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently dismissed the country's constitution as founded on unrealistic "good intentions" (this same constitution was celebrated, when it was approved in January 2014, as basically the best in the world). In the latest installment of our In Translation series, brought to you as always by the translation professionals of Industry Arabic, Shereef Azer imagines what might have led the president -- now that a parliament that will share some of the powers he has monopolized for the last two years is finally on the horizon -- to change his evaluation. 

Long ago, we were told that “constitution” is a Persian word that means “father of the law.” Yet it appears as though its current meaning in the corridors of the Egyptian government is “to hell with the law.” The regime’s approach is obvious, as it manipulates the law and the legislative process as it pleases, in the absence of a working parliament. Even so, to now hint at amending the constitution is both extremely provocative and unacceptable.

In his speech at the opening ceremony of University Youth Week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that “the constitution granted broad powers to parliament, and with good intentions, but the country cannot run on good intentions alone.” Of course, these words represent a great insult to the Committee of Fifty that drafted the constitution. They presume that this committee had no idea what it was doing and that its members merely wrote, with good intentions, what was in their hearts. This is not something that a proper president of the republic should be saying.

The problem is that when you get to thinking about this statement, you necessarily arrive at the conclusion that the president fears something in this constitution and that he wishes he could change it in order to serve some goal. It becomes clear that the president wants to run the country according to his whims and without anything standing in his way. Well then, let’s see what in the constitution might be angering our president and getting his knickers in a twist.

First off, it’s clear that the president has gotten into a jam with all this parliament nonsense – even though he had tried to avoid it for quite some time – and he has finally been forced to take a look at the constitution and its meaning. If there’s going to be a parliament one way or another, he figured, then at least he should see what it’s all about. He opened the constitution and (Oh God, please let it be good!)…there right in front of his face was an absolute disaster. This upcoming parliament has the power to remove the president. Now, I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader, but I’m certain that the president reacted to this particular article of the constitution with a certain four-letter word. Surely, certain thoughts began to cross his mind, but thank goodness he said “good intentions” instead – otherwise, he would already have had the Committee of Fifty arrested and tried on charges of planning to overthrow the government.

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"We told you our shitty Syria policy would fail"

This (from the NYT) is pretty disingenuous from the Obama admin:

WASHINGTON — By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.

But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

. . .

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

. . .

“It is true that we have found this to be a difficult challenge,” Mr. Earnest said. “But it is also true that many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we’re facing in Syria right now. That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for.”

If it was convinced this was the wrong idea, then it should not have done it and come up with another alternative. This kind of half-assed abdication of responsibility seen in Syria and Libya (support the overthrow of the regime, but in the first case don't do anything serious about and in the second pursue regime change with no day-after strategy) is really a disgrace. Foreign policy is one matter where the president usually has to compromise less, particularly with his own cabinet. If he disagreed with Clinton and others inside the administration then Obama should have told them to stuff it, not meet them half-way.


Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.

Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic

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In Translation: Western superiority and Arab denial (Part 1)

In a long two-part article, the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel has written an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. I'm not sure what triggered the timing, but it is probably related to the collective hand-wringing about the state of the region, and the Syrian calamity in particular, that the picture of Aylan al-Kurdi and thousands of other refugees from Syria has triggered. Much like some segments of the Western press about the West's response, there has been much questioning as to whether enough is being done for Syria by Arabs. (Of course, there has also been much opportunistic blame-shifting by the various sides of the Syrian war.) 

Al-Dakheel's jeremiad, an increasingly common type of article by Arab intellectuals in these dark ages (although one could trace the style, at least, to Sadik al-Azm's Self-Criticism After the Defeat), is about something more general, though. It appears as an exasperated antidote to the widespread strain of fuzzy, conspiratorial, delusional and self-aggrandizing rhetoric that dominates so much of public discourse in the region. It has little interest in focusing on the colonial and neo-imperial roots of the Middle East's troubles, seeing them as a way to deflect responsibility for Arab countries' and societies' faults and choices. Yet in its flattering (and somewhat provocative) assessment of Western superiority, it still remains trapped in the us-versus-them logic that it decries as so poisonous. This is part I of his article published in al-Hayat, part II will be published on Wednesday.

Brought to you, as always, by the excellent professional translation team of Industry Arabic

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In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks

In Translation: In Lebanon, the status quo reeks


In the latest installment of our In Translation series – brought to you as always by the crack translation team of Industry Arabic – we look at commentary from within Lebanon on the “You Stink” movement. These protests, sparked by the failure of municipal garbage collection services, have taken on an unexpected amplitude, targeting corruption and the political impasse (the country has no president and its parliament’s mandate expired in 2013) created by its sectarian politics. The article below, from An-Nahar newspaper, discusses the attempts by the Lebanese factions to use the protests to resolve the impasse over the presidency to their advantage. 

“All of Them Means All of Them”: A Third, Civilian Way for Rights and to End the Gridlock?

Rosana Bou Moncef, An-Nahar31 September 2015

The countries now closely observing the situation in Lebanon would like to see the political authorities take up the popular demands that have brought thousands of people out into the streets. People are hurling charges of corruption against officials, although some of the officials are trying to exempt themselves from these charges and shift the blame to others, while they continue to huddle around the Cabinet table or around sectarian leaders complaining of insult and neglect. Most of the countries watching would not like to see the current order seriously disturbed, although they would like to see the Lebanese people form a peaceful civil force or a third force that could compel officials to take the interests of the people into account, or grant them more attention than they do to their own. This is based on the idea that the Lebanese people and Lebanese youth in particular have a dynamism that obliges them to confront the political class and claim their rights, rather than emigrate and leave officials to run their fiefdoms and tend their personal interests.

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The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry

Thanassis Cambanis, writing for the Boston Globe about food riots and the dependence on imported grain in Arab countries:

THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.

I don't think he gets it quite right. Apart from the poorest states, Arab states have largely been able to cover their grain imports – either by spending a lot of their budget on it, or with aid. And the era of regular food riots (even if cost of living – in Egypt for instance a poor household will spend a disproportionate part of its income on food – was part what spurred of the Arab uprisings) is over. Morocco used to have these food riots on a regular basis until the early 1990s, they were often brutally suppressed. The last major for riot in Egypt was in 1977, even if there were clashes over the malfunctioning of bread distribution in 2010-2013. The sharp rise in commodity prices of 2008 was handled in the short-term by these governments, even if it may have contributed to the 2011 uprisings.

In other words, states are actually able to sustain food subsidies. Moreover, there are interest lobbies that want them maintained, particularly since traffic in subsidized flour is lucrative. Better management of bread supplies is clearly needed; and arguably delivering on that makes you popular – in Egypt, since 2011 the army's (partial) takeover of bread distribution was widely seen as successfully putting an end to shortages. The point here is that local droughts are less important than fluctuations in commodity prices and the ability of the state to raise funds to cover these or insure against them, since essentially many of these states import not just their calories but also their water in the form of grain. And that is more sustainable than it seems, because these governments do have access to funding (and it is far more sustainable than spending on fuel subsidies). In fact, droughts may be more important how they impact the agrarian economy than how they affect the food supply – arguably the long drought of the late 2000s in Syria, and the rural-urban migration it caused notably in the north-east, was an important cause of the rebellion there but not because it disrupted food supply at a national level.

Israel's Iran Deal Enthusiasts

Daniel Levy, in Foreign Affairs, points out that most experts and security apparatchiks in Israel like the Iran deal, but very few politicians. There are some real zingers in this piece, such as:

In main, the Israeli leadership has focused on castigating the deal for what it was never designed to address, namely Iran’s role in the region. That must be particularly irksome to the P5+1 powers. It was, after all, Israel’s leaders who insisted that the nuclear file be addressed first and on its own, and who pushed back hard against any attempt to forge a more comprehensive understanding or grand bargain with Iran (an idea explored over a decade ago in back-channel talks during the term of President Mohammad Khatami). Last summer for instance, when Iran and the West found themselves on the same side against Islamic State (also called ISIS) in Iraq, senior Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was head of the Iran file at the time, noted that Israel had pushed for and received commitments from “the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans—that a total separation will be enforced,” that is, the West would not negotiate with Iran on regional issues until the nuclear question was dealt with. Israel, in other words, demanded that the nuclear file be treated as a standalone issue—the very thing that it now criticizes about the deal.

So basically it seems that Israeli politicians feel about the Iranian nuclear deal the same way they feel about Israeli-Palestinian peace: a nice idea to pay lip service to, but something they'll do everything to oppose in practice. Levy's analysis of what stands for Netanyahu's opposition in Israeli politics, and their repositioning as not only against the deal but also against the way Netanyahu has opposed the deal, is enlightening to read inasmuch as what it tells you about the chronic short-termism of Israel's political leaders.

The conclusion on Israel-US relations is fascinating, too:

More than the Iran deal itself, it is this Netanyahu-led campaign against the White House that is so controversial, both in Israel and in the United States. The Israeli center–left, the country’s President Reuven Rivlin, and the security establishment have all condemned Netanyahu on that score. Stateside, Bibi has the competing pro-Israel lobbies—AIPAC and J Street—duking it out, and Jewish community centers, federations, and synagogues are all being pulled into the fray. American Jews are being asked to ditch the Democrat president they have overwhelmingly voted for (twice) in favor of a Republican-aligned Israeli prime minister, who previously pushed for the Iraq war and is now engaged in a deeply partisan struggle, in which he wants the Israeli interest (as he interprets it) to be placed above the American interest. Many American Jews are uncomfortable with being put in this predicament. Polls suggest that a clear majority back Obama and his Iran deal. To be sure, at this point, it is unclear who is using whom more—Israel the Republicans or the Republicans Israel.

In Translation: April 6's Ahmed Maher on Egypt under Sisi

Last month, Huffington Post launched its Arabic edition in London to great fanfare. Like other spin-offs of the American website, HuffPo Arabi is a joint venture, not under the direct editorial control of the original. It is not the first Arab world edition to launch – HuffPo Maghreb has French-language Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan sites – but it is the first Arabic edition one. It has generated some controversy already (update: meant to link to this critical Buzzfeed piece), in part because the site is far from the liberal leanings of the HuffPo mothership, but also because of its pro-Islamist leanings. One of the key people behind HuffPo Arabi is Wadah Khanfar, a former director-general of al-Jazeera known for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood trend. The site has predictably taken the kind of positions generally associated with the Qatari-funded media (i. e. anti-Assad, anti-Sisi, pro-Erdogan, etc.)

Among one of its early coups is to secure an interview with the imprisoned leader of the April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher, sentenced to prison last year for violating the draconian protest law approved by interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour and enforced with gusto under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi. The interview does show some criticism of the Brotherhood, even  if most of the vitriol is reserved for Sisi, and paints an alarming picture of the radicalization taking place in Egypt's over-flowing prisons.

We bring you this translation through our friends over at Industry Arabic – we heartily recommend them for any Arabic translation job big or small. Check out their website to get a quote for your needs.

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The Farce Behind Morsi’s Death Sentence - The New Yorker

Jon Lee Anderson:

As its leaders present and former grapple with their legacies, Egypt, no longer a regional leader of any sort, is mired in a miasma of self-made miseries, a nation best known for its corruption, poverty, and the absence of the rule of law. The 2011 “revolution” that seemed to have pulled it briefly from its steadfast implosion seems not only to have come and gone but to have been a mirage.

Tragically, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is likely to be remembered as a place where hopes were raised for democratic change, only to have those hopes dashed by the country’s perennial powers-that-be. The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to kill Morsi is not only a crudely cartoonish attempt at the implementation of justice; it defies even the kind of canny political logic that one might expect from a military élite like Egypt’s. If Egypt’s generals thought that brutality would buy them control, they didn’t get it. In the Sinai, ISIS now runs amok, seizing police posts and massacring captives. As for the heroes of the country’s Arab Spring, so vaunted by the West during that fateful spring of 2011, most have left the country, been killed, or are themselves in prison. The farcical show trials, in which Morsi and other former senior officials are exhibited in courtrooms in cages, covered with soundproofed glass so that they cannot be heard shouting, must be seen for what they are, alongside a myriad of arbitrary arrests and detentions, including of journalists.

Links 8 - 19 June 2015

Ramadan Kareem. Get your Moroccan Harira recipe here (the secret is lots of celery btw). Photo by Shutterstock.

Ramadan Kareem. Get your Moroccan Harira recipe here (the secret is lots of celery btw). Photo by Shutterstock.

I am ready to be held accountable by the people: Al-Sisi

As reported in the Daily News Egypt:

Sunday evening, titled “A year of achievements: the president’s untraditional activities,” in which it listed 24 activities as achievements. With the exception of the international Economic Summit held last March, the report did not tackle other economic steps, nor was there a mention of the ambitious New Suez Canal project.

Furthermore, the 24 attainments in the report included seven meetings with different social factions and organisations, excluding any politician, where potential projects had been discussed. The report also counted Al-Sisi’s participation in a bike marathon and Cairo Runners’ marathon as achievements.

“Al-Sisi’s first phone interview” was also the title of one of the president’s achievements.

The banality of the Islamic State

Interesting post by Reyko Huang about "the Islamic State as an ordinary insurgency", over at Monkey Cage:

The point here is not to downplay the threat posed by the Islamic State or to “normalize” its behavior by highlighting the group’s ordinariness among violent political groups. It is simply to stress that comparatively speaking, the group is not as exceptional as observers and the media have often characterized it. Putting the Islamic State into a broader theoretical and historical perspective – that is, beyond the frame of “Islamist terrorism” and beyond the post-9/11 period – is important because there are clear dangers in hyperbolizing the group’s own claims to exceptionalism. To unduly emphasize the Islamic State’s distinctiveness is to distort its threat, inadvertently boost its legitimacy, and worst of all, to directly play into its leaders’ hands. Whatever the Islamic State has achieved so far, history has seen much of it before in other contexts. Knowledge of these other contexts can therefore inform both scholarship and policy on this pressing issue.

Well worth reading the whole thing, particularly as the Islamic State is being used by so many in the region as a boogeyman to advance their own agenda, from Sisi in Egypt to the Iranian regime to Bashar al-Assad in Syria to the very IS-like (ideologically) Saudi regime.