Five years ago today, Zine al-Abideen Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Shortly after, I spent a week in Tunis reporting on the revolution - personally for me an unforgettable moment, and one that burns just as vividly in my memory as the Egyptian uprising that would come a few days later. Looking from through my archives, I found the fragment of a long piece I had planned to write on Tunisia before having to rush back to Cairo; as result of the drama unfolding there, I had to abandon that Tunisia piece. It is reproduced below, with only minor stylistic editing and no correction of facts that were, back then in January 2011, very fresh and still uncertain.Read More
One of my favorite Bowie songs (there are so many to choose from) and oddly appropriate as we prepare to commemorate five years since the 2011 uprisings. Reminds me of many Cairo evenings at home with friends who would ask me to play The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which begins with this track.
(For fans and non-fans alike, I heartily recommend Simon Critchley's wonderful essay, Bowie.)
I have – alongside Steven Cook, Philip Giraldi and Gonul Tol - a short piece out in the NYT's Room for Debate on the subject of deep states. The other articles are largely Turkey-focused (because of one interpretation of the AKP's recent electoral victory an inversion of the deep state as experienced in Turkey in the 1980s). I take a slightly contrarian view on deep states, pointing out that shadowy networks of interests are not always bad and arguing that in Tunisia, these worked to avert a wider crisis that could have easily gone in the direction of what happened in Egypt. Generally, though, when you hear about the deep state, it's not good news - and when you don't hear about it, it does not mean it's not there.
I have a blog post up on Crisis Group's In Pursuit of Peace blog about the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which won the Nobel Peace Prize, explaining in a nutshell why it was able to accomplish what it did in 2013:
There are several reasons the National Dialogue succeeded, including strong popular and international pressure to avoid the Egyptian scenario. A key factor was that the Quartet had real support in Tunisian society. The UGTT, despite years of dictatorship, had managed to build a national network of over 400,000 members and today has the ability to call for massive general strikes that can paralyse the economy. While the UGTT represents labour, the UTICA represents capital, the influential and moneyed business elite. The human rights league and the lawyers’ syndicate are veterans of the opposition to the Ben Ali regime and played an important role in the 2011 revolution. Together, these four organisations had both moral clout and political brawn; they could mobilise public opinion and steer the national debate. The UGTT and UTICA, precisely because they are often at loggerheads on labour issues, made for a particularly compelling duo in jointly pushing an agenda of compromise.
Read the full thing here.
Great idea: displaced Syrians act as online Arabic tutors
- Anthropologist Seeks the Roots of Terrorism
On the challenges of studying jihadists
- Donne che mordono donne
In Italian: testimony of medieval practices of ISIS female police
- Eric Laurent interpellé pour chantage au Roi
French journalists accused of blackmailing the king of Morocco
- Vast Reserves of Natural Gas Found Off the Coast of Egypt
Great, much-needed news.
- IS posts pics of food distribution in North Sinai
- Sinai Militancy and the Threat to International Forces [PDF]
- The disgrace we should not embrace
Khaled Mansour on Egypt's human rights council.
- Egypt in Talks to Buy Mistral Warships From France
More Sisi defense spending...
- Securing the Sinai MFO Without a U.S. Drawdown
Eric Trager on MFO policy review.
- Is Alawite Solidarity Finally Breaking?
- Brookings | Rethinking Political Islam
Essays on Islamists in various countries.
- Lebanon’s Un-collected Problems
Sahar Atrache on Beirut's garbage crisis
- You Can't Stop the Signal
Great piece by Mahmoud Salem.
There has been an odd meme spreading around since the tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the last week. The idea, widely spread by the press and politicians, is that Libya is the source of all these problems. For example, in Politico:
One EU migration official spelled out just what would be needed to stop the flood of people seeking refuge in Europe.
“You have to stabilize the situation in the countries of origin,” she said. That means figuring out a way to return order to Libya, which has descended into civil war and chaos following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011. That was the result of a NATO bombing campaign led by EU countries.
Libya is not the country of origin or the source of the migration, for the most part. It is a largely a transit country, and if you look at the country of origin of migrants you will see that many of them are not just economic migrants. Many, perhaps most, appear to be fleeing conflict zones or repressive regimes – Syria, Gaza, Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea (where many migrants say they are escaping military service). So surely EU officials should be thinking about addressing the conflicts themselves, or at least the humanitarian crisis they engender? This seems to be particularly the case in Syria, since the humanitarian response (with chronic recurrent shortfalls in funding for refugee camps) has been largely inadequate.Read More
I just bought my copy of Brian Whitaker's new book on atheism in the Arab world, Arabs Without God. This is the third in a series of books Brian – a veteran Guardian reporter and the man behind one of the oldest blog and websites on the region, al-Bab –has written over the last several years that deal with freedom of conscience and/or lifestyle in the Middle East, and they've always been interesting.
In a blog post announcing the book, Brian writes:
The aim of Arabs Without God is not to make a case for atheism but to argue for the right of Arab atheists to be treated as normal human beings. The first half, based on interviews with non-believers, looks at how and why some Arabs choose to abandon religion. Chapters in this section also explore the history of Arab atheism, arguments about the divine origin of the Qur'an, and the way atheism relates to gender and sexuality.
One of the more unexpected discoveries was that Arab atheism is somewhat different from atheism in the west: "scientific" arguments about the origin of the universe are much less prominent. In interviews, the issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational Deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity.
There is an excerpt of the book here. I am a fan of such publishing efforts on issues that may not find a wide commercial audience (especially ones that can bypass the publishers), so if you have an interest in these issues I'd encourage you to get a copy of the book.
Charles Glass reviews a new book on the history of the CIA's Arabists for the TLS:
In 1947, two American intelligence operatives, Miles Copeland and Archie Roosevelt, flew from Washington to the Levant together to take up posts in, respectively, Damascus and Beirut. Copeland described the pair at that time as "me a New Orleans jazz musician and Tennessee riverboat gambler, he a member in good standing of what passes for nobility in America". The two became friends and co-conspirators, who, together with Archie's cousin Kim Roosevelt, did more to mould the modern Middle East than the so-called policy-makers in Washington. Hugh Wilford tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency' s three musketeers in this absorbing account of romantics enchanted by Kiplingesque myths and the Lawrence of Arabia legend, who cynically harboured the self-contradictory ambition of democratizing the Arab world and Iran while arrogating all decisions to themselves.
. . .
When Copeland arrived in Damascus in 1947, Syria had an elected parliament and prime minister under a democratic constitution similar to that of the Third Republic in France. It did not take Copeland long to strike up a friendship with the Syrian Army's chief of staff, the Kurdish Colonel Husni Zaim, and turn his thoughts to politics at a time when the civilian government was delaying a treaty to permit an American oil pipeline through its territory from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Lebanon. Roosevelt had been cultivating what he called the "young effendis" and Copeland the "right kind of leaders" to drag the Arab world away from Britain and France and into the American century. Zaim seemed perfect. As Wilford writes, he told Copeland that there was "only one way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy", pausing to slash at his desk with a riding crop, "with the whip".
Worth a read. This story has been told many times, and in this book from Glass' description it is told through the lens of CIA operatives being pro-democracy romantics. Dubious proposition to say the least...
Wikileaks has released the now declassified record of State Dept. dating from President Jimmy Carter’s first year in office, which were obtained through FOIA requests. The Carter Library had also released earlier this year a range of administration documents, but Wikileaks makes them searchable through its (much-improved) database. The cables cover 1977, including the January bread riots in Cairo and Alexandria. One early take on the protests sounds strikingly similar to the protests seen in 2011-2013:
3 - OUR IMPRESSION IS THAT VIOLENT ELEMENTS WHICH LAST EVENING THREW ROCKS IN TAHRIR SQUARE AND ROAMED IN SMALL GANGS THROUGHOUT CENTRAL CAIRO WERE ALMOST ENTIRELY COMPOSED OF YOUNG BOYS OF HIGH SCHOOL AGE. SIGNIFICANTLY, OLDER PEOPLE DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO MOST OF VIOLENCE. WE UNDERSTAND, HOWEVER, THAT OLDER WORKERS CONTRIBUTED TO VIOLENCE WHICH ERUPTED IN WORKING CLASS SUBURBS, ESPECIALLY SHUBRA.
4 - SITUATION AT 1030 LOCAL (0830Z) JANUARY 19: WHILE TAHRIR SQUARE STILL CLEAR, THOUSANDS HAVE BEGUN DEMONSTRATE TO NORTH AND EAST, ESPECIALLY NEAR CENTRAL BANK. ROCK THROWING AND PROVOCA- TION OF POLICE ARE PRIMARILY BY MOST YOUTHFUL OF RIOTERS. POLICE CHARGING CROWDS USING TEAR GAS. MOST SHOPS ARE CLOSED AND PRIVATE CARS ARE BEING KEPT OFF STREETS. POLICE HAVE SEALED OFF MOST OF DOWNTOWN CAIRO. ALL UNIVERSITIES AND SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED. MOST BUSES AND TAXIS ARE OFF STREETS. FOR FIRST TIME SINCE DEMONSTRATIONS BEGAN, ARMY UNITS WITH RIFLES ARE SPOTTED THROUGHOUT METROPOLITAN CAIRO AND WE HAVE HEARD LOUD REPORTS WHICH MIGHT BE RIFLE SHOTS. WE HAVE NOT, HOWEVER, SO FAR SEEN CRACK SECURITY RESERVE FORCES.
There are also some amusingly laconic Cold War artifacts, such as the following:
1 - CAIRO PRESS REPORTS THAT KHALID MUHI AL-DIN, LEADER OF EGYPT'S NATIONAL PROGRESSIVE UNIONIST PARTY (MARXIST), HAS LEFT FOR MOSCOW TO ATTEND PEACE COUNCILS MEETING AS HEAD OF EGYPTIAN COUNCIL.
2 - AS NOTED PARA 2 REFTEL, KHALID HAS BEEN DOING WHAT HE CAN BOTH TO BURNISH SOVIET IMAGE HERE AND TO PRESS FOR IMPROVEMENT IN RELATIONS. AS EGYPT'S "RESPECTABLE" COMMUNIST HE HAS KEPT HIS COMMENTS IN CHARACTERISTICALLY LOW KEY. MATTHEWS
Probably worth digging through if you have a specific enquiry about events taking place in 1977. Of course I chose Egypt as a search term but the cables are worldwide. Can't wait till they get to 1979 and those on the Iranian revolution, hostage crisis and siege of Mecca are released.
Friend of the blog Elisabeth Dickinson, a correspondent for The National , has a Kindle Single out today about the 2011 uprising in Bahrain and its subsequent repression. From the blurb:
Who Shot Ahmed? recounts the murder of a 22-year-old videographer, killed in cold blood in the dead of night at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring revolution. On a small island Kingdom swirling with political, economic, and sectarian tensions, Ahmed’s murder epitomized everything that had gone wrong since 2011, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in droves. Drawing on dozens of testimonies, journalist Elizabeth Dickinson traces the tale of Ahmed’s death and his family’s fearless quest for justice. Darting between narratives and delving into characters, it is a tale of a life lost and the great powers—from Washington to London, and Riyadh to Manama—that did nothing to stop the crisis. Dickinson has a deep knowledge of the region, but she brings a story from a foreign land straight back home: Ahmed could be any of our sons.
When I created this blog 10 years ago, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I had no idea it would become so well-trafficked or that it would last so long. It was an experiment, one that had its up and downs, a range of contributors, the occasional hiatus and periods of prolific production. It has never been a major (or frankly even minor) source of income for me, but having been self-employed for most of that decade, I had complete freedom to put as little or as much work into the blog as I wanted.
For me, the current version of The Arabist is 4.0 — it is a mature product, with many idiosyncrasies built up over time and a personality its readers have come to expect. Some of that is going to change in the year ahead as we move towards a 5.0 iteration of the website. Some recent changes were behind the scene, in terms of the engine that drives the site and making it more mobile-accessible. The coming changes will be more editorial.
First of all, my own role in the blog will be reduced for a while at least. The editor role is passing on to Ursula Lindsey, and she is likely to become the most frequent poster. I will post occasionally but, at least initially, much less frequently.
The main reason is that I am starting a new job as the North Africa Project Director at International Crisis Group, the conflict prevention organization. My new job requires me to publicly represent them, and I want to avoid confusion with the range of views and contributors on this site. For this reason the Twitter handle I have been using, @arabist, will now mostly be used to publicize site content and links. I will be moving to @boumilo – please follow!
The Egyptian crisis, Libya's increasing chaos, and the transition in Tunisia are going to be my main focus for the next few months. This will all require a lot of my attention, and I want to dedicate myself entirely to this task, which will mean a hiatus in blogging. I'm sure that Ursula, Steve Negus, Nour Youssef, Paul Mutter and other regular contributors to the site will do a great job. Things readers have indicated they like, such as links lists, will remain – although we want to find a better way to present them and attract your attention to great articles about the Middle East, which is one of this site's main missions. And we want to act some more static content alongside the blog. So stay tuned and thanks for reading.
The most important piece of the last few days about Egypt, in my view, in this great reporting by David Kirkpatrick, Peter Baker and Michael Gordon in the New York Times. It's worth reading carefully because it represents the most detailed public account of efforts at defusing the post-July 3 crisis, negotiations between the army and the MB and how hardliners in the government nixed them, and gives some indication of key personalities around Sisi. It also provides details, such as that Mohammed ElBaradei meant to resign in late July after the second massacre of pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo but was convinced to remain by John Kerry. It's really sterling work.
One impression I came away reading this was that, while dynamics inside the Egyptian leadership were the most important factor, the interventions of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham may have prevented (because of their perceived arrogance from an Egyptian point of view) a breakthrough in efforts to avoid further violence.
Update: A source familiar with the negotiations / mediation efforts (not a journalist and not an American) confirms the NYT account is, small errors aside, largely correct but that the deal had already collapsed when McCain and Graham came to Cairo. Their swagger, at most, helped the Egyptian government in providing a pretext for nationalist backlash, but the decision had already been made to close the talks and move to a crackdown.
Below are links collated in the last few days, from different perspectives. I may come back to a few later.Read More