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. 

"Frank discussions"

These State Dept. press briefings on Egypt regularly have some telling exchanges (I bet the journalist here is AP's Matt Lee.) On the sentencing to death of former President Morsi:

QUESTION: I have a question on Egypt --

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: -- and whether or not you have any reaction to the sentence handed down to Mohamed Morsy and whether the U.S. has shared any of those thoughts or concerns with Egyptian officials.

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Diary: In Sanaa

A must-read piece on the Houthis by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad:

The Houthis’ supreme military commander, Abu Ali al-Hakem, is a delicate and compact man, one of the original 75 who fought alongside Hussein in the first battle in the mountains of Marran and one of the few who survived. In Sanaa one evening I watched him enter the Houthis’ headquarters accompanied by two gunmen; his arrival caused a flutter among even the most senior apparatchiks. He wore a dark blue coat over a crisp white dishdasha, with a leather pistol holster strapped to his chest. He spoke of his memories of the war, of a day of heavy battle, it was the third or fourth war, he couldn’t remember. The Houthis had lost many men and they were besieged. ‘At dawn the fighting stopped and I decided to take a break. I switched on the TV. I wanted to see what the world was saying about us: the whole world would be speaking of this battle. I flipped through the channels. There was nothing, even from countries we call our friends, nothing in Iranian or Arabic. There was no mention of us. We were alone and there was no one to help us.’ He spoke in the language of good and evil. ‘How can we not win if we have God with us?’ The Houthis – from Abu Ali al-Hakem to the lowliest fighter – all spoke in the same terms, a logic developed after a decade of war and siege in the mountains. They were the pure and all their enemies or those who raised their voice to oppose them – leftists, the media, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadis – were all Daesh, or Isis, or agents of the US and the Saudis. Their enemies in turn portrayed them as an Iranian militia, alongside those of Bashar al-Assad and the Sadrists in Iraq.

In Translation: Aboul Fotouh on culture wars and patriotism

For the last few weeks – not for a lack of more serious things to talk about – the Egyptian media has fixated on two different aspects of the longstanding culture wars the country has fought over religion and public life. One is the brouhaha caused by TV personality Islam al-Beheiri and his frontal attack on al-Azhar for needing reform; the other is the lament by the writer Cherif Choubashi that Egyptian women should take off their veils. These type of storms in teacups have been standard for decades, they used to be a favorite issue for the Muslim Brotherhood to champion and embarrass the government under Mubarak. But what now that the Brotherhood is exiled and underground, and that current strongman Sisi is himself issuing calls for religious reform?

In the piece below, former presidential candidate, pre-2011 Brotherhood leader and head of the Strong Egypt party Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh gives a stab at an answer, from what we would venture to say is a somewhat post-Islamist perspective. Translation from the original Arabic is provided, as always, by the stupendous team at Industry Arabic. Please give a go for your translation needs, you won't be sorry.

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The phoney ‘enlightenment’ battles in Egypt

Khalil al-Anani has a scathing column on the debates taking place in Egypt over religion, the veil, etc.:

It is funny how none of the "enlighteners" or the media outlets covering their discussions and "debates" can utter a single word about the deteriorating political situation in Egypt, or to comment on the systematic repression and human rights violations; the brutality of the security forces against civilians; the corruption that has flooded state institutions; the poverty that has struck the country from north to south; or the inflated prices and the lifting of subsidies for the poor, who deserve them most. None dare call for an end to the arbitrary executions of anyone opposed to the government, nor can they stand in solidarity with the dozens of prisoners who have been on hunger strike for months. These "enlighteners" can't demand fair trials for the government's political opponents or condemn the ongoing torture and murder of innocent citizens in detention. The enlighteners are "custom-built" and act according to the mood of the general controlling their actions and their minds. He guides their thoughts, forms their consciousness and directs their moral compass.
The phoney enlightenment battles reflect what Egypt, its culture, intellectuals and thinkers have become. One hundred years ago, Egypt fought true enlightenment battles, most of which occurred between great intellectuals and literati, such as Taha Hussein and Abbas El-Akkad, El-Akkad and Mostafa Al-Raf'i, and Al-Raf'i and Ahmed Shawqi. These were serious intellectual and literary battles in a big country that was aware of its cultural and civilisational role. However, nowadays, our intellectual battles are shrunken, not only because of the trivial nature of the issues and their distance from priority matters, but also because of the shallowness and superficiality of those engaged in them.
It is true that Egypt has many intellectual and cultural problems, but they are all symptoms of a serious illness called "tyranny". This is what the "modern enlighteners" fail to say. All of the genuine and original enlightenment experiences emerged for the purpose of freedom. No country has been able to achieve a genuinely effective enlightenment without true freedom. Freedom was a basic requirement for the European Enlightenment, with a deep desire to break away from absolute monarchy and weaken the power of religion.

Sale of U.S. Arms Fuels the Wars of Arab States - NYT

Good report on all the possible upside of regional chaos for the U.S. arms industry:

American defense firms are following the money. Boeing opened an office in Doha, Qatar, in 2011, and Lockheed Martin set up an office there this year. Lockheed created a division in 2013 devoted solely to foreign military sales, and the company’s chief executive, Marillyn Hewson, has said that Lockheed needs to increase foreign business — with a goal of global arms sales’ becoming 25 percent to 30 percent of its revenue — in part to offset the shrinking of the Pentagon budget after the post-Sept. 11 boom.
American intelligence agencies believe that the proxy wars in the Middle East could last for years, which will make countries in the region even more eager for the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been marketed heavily to European and Asian allies. It has not yet been peddled to Arab allies because of concerns about preserving Israel’s military edge.
But with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, several defense analysts said that could change. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran, and a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to sell an advanced air defense system to Iran could increase demand for the F-35, which is likely to have the ability to penetrate Russian-made defenses.
“This could be the precipitating event: the emerging Sunni-Shia civil war coupled with the sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Iran,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “If anything is going to result in F-35 clearance to the gulf states, this is the combination of events.”

Remember, this is what Obama recently made quite clear about his Middle East policy: it's about selling more weapons

Why Terrorists Weep

Thomas Hegghammer offers the text [PDF] of a recent lecture on in his recent research - sounds fascinating:

My lecture today has a fancy title, but it is basically about what jihadis do in their spare time. Before you sneak out the back door and tweet “underwhelming”, let me say that this is the most interesting topic I have ever worked on, and it is much more important than it seems. My main message today is this: the non-military activities of terrorist groups can shed important new light on how extremists think and behave. In fact, I’ll go so far as claiming that this topic is one of the last major, unexplored frontiers of terrorism research, one that merits an entire new research program. Although I’ll be talking mainly about the culture of jihadi groups, the perspective and concepts I present can be applied to any type of rebel group.

Egypt's Leaderless Revolution

This piece by David and Marina Ottaway in the Cairo Review is not about Mohamed ElBaradei per se, even if it is illustrated with a picture of him, but delivers this assessment of his failings:

Mohamed ElBaradei, who emerged at various time as the great hope of Egyptian secularists, stands out as an apt symbol of the old elite’s political failings. He refused to run for president on the ground that Egypt was insufficiently democratic, but did little to make it more democratic. Nor did he seem upset when his supporters tried unsuccessfully to convince the military to name him president, skipping elections. He launched the Destour Party but also did little to build it into a viable force. After the July 2013 military takeover, he readily accepted an appointment as El-Sisi’s vice president. But ElBaradei resigned six weeks later, after the military dispersed pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo at a high cost in lives—Human Rights Watch reports that at least 817 were killed—apparently appalled by the violence that had been predictable ever since his appointment. Whatever ElBaradei’s commitment to democracy in theory, he was never ready to lead secularists in the hard struggle to make it a reality and was all too ready to accept unelected high positions in government.

Worth reading in full, as a an argument that the dominant position of the Islamists and failure of leadership all-around doomed the Egyptian revolution, although I think it has a few blind spots – such as ascribing too much intent to what those who rose up against Mubarak in 2011 wanted. 

In Translation: Egypt's double bind in yemen

The crisis in Yemen, coming just as a breakthrough in negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program took place, appears to encompass the entire region's strategic dilemmas. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see it as a direct expansion of Iranian power, via the Houthis, on the Arabian Peninsula, right on their border. Iran sees the Saudi-led offensive as further signs of anti-Shia rhetoric and militarisation of the Gulf region, and confirmed again its ability to extend its perceived infuence throughout the Arab world (whatever the reality of Tehran's support for the Houthis is). The US, which had blithely backed a deeply flawed Saudi-directed transition in Yemen while it focused on counter-terrorism, is caught in the middle of its desire for a deal with Iran and its strong backing of the Saudi offensive. This is nothing to say of Yemen's own internal dynamics: the remarkable rise of the Houthis, the return of the prospect of two distinct Yemens, the opportunism of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh, the irony of the Yemeni Muslim Brothers now finding themselves on the Saudi side (alongside al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). One could go on.

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The Obama Doctrine

In Thomas Friedman's interesting sit-down with Obama about the Iran deal, this tidbit on US policy towards Arab countries:

Regarding America’s Sunni Arab allies, Obama reiterated that while he is prepared to help increase their military capabilities they also need to increase their willingness to commit their ground troops to solving regional problems.
“The conversations I want to have with the Gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities,” the president said. “I think when you look at what happens in Syria, for example, there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done? I also think that I can send a message to them about the U.S.’s commitments to work with them and ensure that they are not invaded from the outside, and that perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians. What I can’t do, though, is commit to dealing with some of these internal issues that they have without them making some changes that are more responsive to their people.”
One way to think about it, Obama continued, “is [that] when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab] friends — and I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.” But, he repeated, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own security — without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

Let me translate that for you: our priority in the Arab world is selling them weapons and making sure that the regimes are stable enough so that they will keep buying our weapons, and don't act too embarrassingly either in terms of human rights and so on because it might make selling them weapons more difficult. Also, we would like to formalize as much as we can how we will sell them weapons.