The pessimist's take on the Arab uprisings

Rob Malley and Hussein Agha, in a NYRB essay well worth reading for its many insights into the regional situation — most notably that it will continue to be extremely chaotic and could well result in a regional war — offer a grim prognostic about revolution:

Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.

The Arab world’s immediate future will very likely unfold in a complex tussle between the army, remnants of old regimes, and the Islamists, all of them with roots, resources, as well as the ability and willpower to shape events. Regional parties will have influence and international powers will not refrain from involvement. There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization. But the result that many outsiders had hoped for—a victory by the original protesters—is almost certainly foreclosed.

I think he's wrong, or rather than this is an unnecessarily pessimistic view of the long-term processes unleashed by what happened this year. Things could get very grim, especially in Yemen and Syria, but the picture is not one of universal despair.  

Links 6-8 September 2011

My latest al-Masri al-Youm column, "In Sinai, Egypt must be tough but fair", is up. It's about the need for a different approach to Sinai's tribal politics.

I'll be in Geneva over the weekend for the International Institute of Strategic Studies' Global Strategic Review. I'll be taking part in a talk on Egypt and another one on the Arab spring, along with Sultan Qassemi, Karim Sadjapour, Emile Hokayem and other noted writers on Middle Eastern politics. We'll also be tweeting the whole thing with the tag #IISS_GSR.

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Odd timing in Israel/Palestine

This is guest post by Paul Mutter.

Israeli security forces report that they have arrested at least 100 suspected members of Hamas and claim to have foiled multiple bombing and kidnapping plots. These actions would seem to indicate a severe setback for Hamas's influence in the Occupied Territories and undermine prospects for reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. With the UN vote approaching, the timing of the announcement can only help buttress the Netanyahu government's security credentials after the embarrassment of the August 18th Eilat attacks. The arrests also coincide with a major media and diplomatic campaign by the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian activists ahead of the UN vote for recognition of a Palestinian state.

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Nic Pelham on Libya

Our friend Nic Pelham — who intrepidly went to cover war-torn Libya with a broken arm! — has a good long piece in MERIP on the situation post-Tripoli, in which he finds thatmost Libyans don't care much about catching Qadhafi. They're too busy making sure that their neighborhoods run and keeping the rebels from outside at bay:

But while the incoming fighters rake the night sky with triumphal volleys from anti-aircraft guns, locals decry them as impostors, intent on stealing their credit. By their telling, the capital’s conquest was an act of self-liberation, an intifada launched by residents on 820/820 -- 8:20 pm on August 20 -- or the twentieth of Ramadan, the day the Prophet is said to have liberated Mecca from unbelief. A fighter recalls how four sentries shared one Kalashnikov, rotating guard duty every six hours, maintaining eight shifts before the rebels arrived. An NTC member from Tripoli claims Operation Mermaid never happened. “NATO didn’t bomb its 40 pre-designated targets, and the fighters from the mountains turned up 48 hours late,” says ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Radi. “By the time they arrived in the early morning of August 22, Tripoli was a liberated city, and they could march all the way to Green Square without a fight.”

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How a top Israeli commander sees the Arab uprisings

This post, contributed by Paul Mutter, illustrates the evolving Israeli strategic thinking towards the Arab Spring and its consequences. Personally, I can understand this: the Arab uprisings means that Israel can no longer continue the same behavior as before. That must sting for the war criminal in charge of Cast Lead. [I.E.]

Some strange comments in a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies by IDF Major General Eyal Eisenberg, former commander of the Gaza Division during Operation Cast Lead and newly appointed Home Front Command Chief, seem to be throwing everyone in the defense establishment into a tizzy. Although Ynet reports that the remarks were approved by military censors before the speech, the defense establishment is moving quick to denounce them and demand that IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz reign in Eisenberg.

Much of what Eisenberg apparently said is it not new and has been expressed before by Israeli officials: the Arab Spring is a catalyst for disorderEgypt is facing total national collapseTurkey needs to tone done its rhetoric over the flotillaHezbollah is further entrenching itself in LebanonHamas and Iran are plotting their next moves against Israel.

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Obama and the Gaza war, revisited

Report: Documents expose U.S. wiretaps of Israeli officials in Washington - Haaretz:

the Israeli Embassy in the United States provided “regular written briefings” on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza intended for "President Obama in the weeks between his election and inauguration."

Remember, back then when Obama was studiously ignoring the Gaza war and refusing to comment on it because "there is only one president at a time." Even though he commented on other things.

Saudi to US: Give us Predator drones to use in Yemen

This is a guest post by Paul Mutter.

U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in Yemen (which I reported on for The Arabist a few months ago) have not been without controversy. While the U.S. conducts it own drone strikes in Yemen against suspected al Qaeda targets and provides extensive funding, intelligence and training to government forces, it also provides satellite imagery to the Saudis, who conduct airstrikes and ground offensives against suspected al Qaeda targets and anti-government Shia militias. Given that much of the U.S.-Saudi joint effort has come in the form of airstrikes, many of the same objections regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been raised over the air campaigns in Yemen. In February 2010, according to diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh recently released by Wikileaks, the U.S. raised such objections with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, but was satisfied with their response to the matter and has continued supplying them with satellite data.

The Saudi military, never ones to pass up an opportunity to expand their capabilities, used the opportunity of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to suggest that "if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem [of killing Yemeni civilians].”

“Obviously, some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen," Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khaled concluded, when the U.S. presented him with evidence that Saudi airstrikes were inaccurate and caused collateral damage to civilian facilities, such as medical clinics. 

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Decoding Mubarak's trial

I have a short piece in the Guardian as part of their "decoding the news" series, in which I adress why the trial is no longer televised, what's expected in the witness testimonies, and what the clashes outside the courtoom are about. Here's the bit about the witnesses:

Initial witnesses will focus on the orders being given by Mubarak and other senior officials to deal with the mass protests that began on 25 January. What the prosecution will try to prove is that Mubarak approved of shoot-to-kill orders, the deployment of snipers, and other measures taken by security forces before Mubarak stepped down. The time period that will be most intensely examined is between 25 January and 28 January (when the police retreated from the streets and the military deployed) and the "Battle of the Camel" in Tahrir Square on February 2-3, when pro-Mubarak thugs fought (and lost) a battle to regain the square from protesters. Those who testified today are part of a group of senior ministry of interior officers who were in the ministry's operations room in the first days of the uprising.

There is some controversy over who might be summoned: among the witnesses Mubarak's lawyer wants to testify is Egypt's current interim ruler, minister of defence Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. If the already unpopular Tantawi was in the loop in the decision-making process over the repression of protesters, it could make his position untenable.

Read the rest here.

On Libya in Internazionale

My blog post from a couple of weeks on the fall of Tripoli to rebel hands has been published in Internazionale, the Italian international affairs magazine. Italian readers can read it here [PDF, 10MB].

Incidentally, I will be speaking at Internazionale's journalism festival in Ferrara, held on 30 September - 2 October. Our friend Hossam El-Hamalawy should also be there.

More me in Wikileaks

Since Wikileaks decided to release all the cables that were inadvertently leaked (or whatever happened), more and more cables featuring yours truly (and friends) have appeared. I particularly like this one which conveniently showcases my analytical acumen and future-prediction abilities:

El-Amrani speculated that if the GOE continues to cut off avenues of legal, non-violent political participation for both the secular opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood, and remains unable to build real popular support for the ruling party, it faces potential crisis if and when an economic dislocation or other shock, including labor unrest, were to occur. El-Amrani noted that he and other independent analysts have increasingly begun to wonder if an event like the 1952 riots1, which precipitated the Free Officers coup d’etat, might be on the horizon. 

To be honest, it was an opinion many voiced at the time of the disastrously anti-democratic 2007 constitutional amendments, during which this cable was written. But it’s nice to see one being quoted for record.


  1. The January 1952 Cairo riots presaged the Free Officers’ coup that came six months later.  ↩

A new wall for Israel, in Cairo

First there was the West Bank wall, then the Gaza wall, then the Israeli-Egyptian wall in Sinai — and now the Egyptian government is building a wall outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo to protect it from protests. 

It may be a necessary thing — all countries have a responsibility to protect foreign missions in their territory. But, at a time of renewed indignation over the deaths of Egyptian border guards in the context of Turkey's downgrading of relations with Israel, it certainly sends a weird message.

There are those, notably in Israel, who will no doubt regret that it has come to this: Israeli diplomats being protected from an angry Egyptian population that is now as anti-Israeli as anytime since the two countries were at war. They should face the reality: this anger does just stem from the shootings, it also comes the fury at their own government's inaction (or connivence) over the Gaza war, the Lebanon war, the ever-expanding settlements in the last three decades.

A thought-provoking piece on Libya

Of all places, in the New York Times. Steven Erlanger does a magnificent job of raising many important points. In order of appearance:

Libya has been a war in which some of the Atlantic alliance’s mightiest members did not participate, or did not participate with combat aircraft, like Spain, Turkey and Sweden. It has been a war where the Danes and Norwegians did an extraordinary number of the combat sorties, given their size. Their planes and pilots became exhausted, as the French finally pulled back their sole nuclear-powered aircraft carrier for overdue repairs and Italy withdrew its aircraft carrier to save money.

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Libya: Mass arrests of black people

A masked armed man from the Old City argues with the wife of a detainee, who is seeking information about her husband. © 2011 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights WatchOne of the Libyan civil war's relatively under-reported features has been the rebels' attacks on dark-skinned people — migrants and Libyan nationals — who were lumped together as "mercenaries". Considering Libya had hundreds of thousands of foreign works from sub-Saharan Africa (who already experienced much racism in their everyday life), this meant many innocents got attacked because there were a few hundred foreign soldiers recruited by the Qadhafi regime. It also helped the rebel narrative to claim that those defending the regime were foreigners, downplaying the civil war aspect of the conflict (i.e. that not all Libyans were against Qadhafi.)

Human Rights Watch had this release out today:

Libya: Stop Arbitrary Arrests of Black Africans
Vulnerable Migrant Workers in Tripoli Need Protection


(Tripoli, September 4, 2011) – The de facto authorities in Tripoli, the National Transitional Council (NTC), should stop the arbitrary arrests and abuse of African migrant workers and black Libyans assumed to be mercenaries, Human Rights Watch said today. They should release those detained as mercenaries solely due to their dark skin color, Human Rights Watch said, and provide prompt judicial review to any for whom there is evidence of criminal activity.

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The UAE's global ambitions post-Libya

This post was contributed by Jenifer Fenton.

It is a dot on a map dwarfed by its neighbors, but it is also an influential and stable country in a rough neighborhood. The United Arab Emirates is an increasingly sought-after ally, one with an ambitious foreign policy that it can finance with its rich resources. 

Do not underestimate the power of a small state, said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. The UAE (and Qatar) is saying we “are determined, ready to play an unusual leading role in events…We are daring enough. We have the capacity, the ability and the desire to play a bigger role,” he said. 

The UAE sent a dozen aircrafts to support the no-fly zone over Libya and the country was arguably (along with Qatar) one of the biggest contributors on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts. Now as the NATO campaign is winding down, the Emirates’ contributions to Libya will “continue and become much more prominent in the post-Gaddafi era,” Abdullah said.

But Libya is just one of the many arenas in which the UAE is currently operating. For the past eight years, the UAE Armed Forces have been in Afghanistan — the only military force from an Arab country. (Previously, the Emirates assisted with peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Kosovo.)

“The US, UK, France, see in the UAE an Arab state that thinks strategically, and one with which they can cooperate,” said John Chipman, director general and chief executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The contribution of UAE Special Forces to the operation in Afghanistan and of air assets to the coalition effort in Libya demonstrated that the UAE had no strategic aversion to direct cooperation with Western militaries when strategic perspectives and aims were aligned,” he added. “This case by case, but unemotional, strategic cooperation is likely to continue.”

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Egypt: The Sharia debate... in 1985

Hosni Mubarak in 1985

Here is a little item from history worth reconsidering in light of the growing Islamist-secularist debate in Egypt over the future constitution and the application of Sharia (referenced in Ursula’s hilarious post yesterday). From a Wikileaks State Dept. cable dated from March 1985, we get a little insight in how the American Embassy in Cairo saw Egyptian politics: a democratizing Mubarak set against retrogade political foes.

¶2. BEGIN SUMMARY. MOMENTUM IS BEGINNING TO BUILD TOWARD A MAY DEBATE IN THE PEOPLES ASSEMBLY ON ISLAMIC SHARIA (KORANIC LAW). IN RECENT DAYS, KEY OPPOSITION FIGURES FUAD SIRAJ AL-DIN (CHAIRMAN OF THE NEW WAFD PARTY) AND OMAR TALMASSANI (GENERAL GUIDE OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD) APPEARED BEFORE THE ASSEMBLY’S RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE TO EXPRESS SUPPORT FOR PURGING OF EXISTING LEGISLATION NOT IN ACCORDANCE WITH SHARIA. THE SPEAKER OF THE ASSEMBLY, RIFAAT EL MAHGOUB, WHILE SUPPORTING THE OVERALL OBJECTIVE, LEFT DELIBERATELY VAGUE THE TIMING AND EXTENT OF THE PURGE. THE ADVOCATES DOUBTLESS KNOW THE PROCESS OF IMPLEMENTING “FULL SHARIA” WILL BE PROTRACTED; INDEED, MUBARAK IS PERCEIVED AS UNCOMPROMISING IN OPPOSITION TO “THE FULL IMPLEMENTATION OF SHARIA.” IN ADVANCE OF THE MAY DEBATE PUBLIC DISCUSSION OF, AND MANEUVERING ABOUT, SHARIA ISSUES IS ALREADY UNDERWAY. END SUMMARY.

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What Islamists say a secular Egypt will look like

In the (extremely unlikely, not to say nearly unimaginable) event that Egypt took a strong turn towards militant secularism, Islamists here have put together a video (linked to by the Muslim Brotherhood's twitter feed) showing what the future of the country will look like. 

Some highlights:

It all starts when in a new constitution in 2012, Egypt no longer designates Islam as the religion of state and removes the references to Sharia as the main source of its legislation. 

  • In 2013, the Egyptian parliament outlaws poligamy.
  • In 2014, women's rights organizations celebrate a new law that gives women equal inheritance rights. 
  • In 2015, women are prohibited from wearing the hegab in public buildings.
  • In 2017, the first movie theater "specializing in porno films" opens.

Obviously sexual freedom spreads, and tourism declines due to the spread of sexual harassment (Ed. Note: This is particularly ironic for those of us aware of the current rates of sexual harassment).

I don't know what's funnier about this video: the hysterically ominous music; the fact that women's rights groups are represented by a grinning blonde drinking a beer; or the way it ends up describing Bizarro Egypt, where up is down, left is right and Islam doesn't dominate every aspect of public life (politicians get in trouble for opening their speeches with "in the name of God.")

It just goes to show that playing on feelings of fear and indignation (even if you are ascendant and everyone is actually scared of you) is at the basis of most politics. More about the video's predictions after the jump.

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This Eid, Saturn is ascendant

Love this story from al-Masri al-Youm:

Based on Thursday’s headlines, it seems the biggest news story on the third day of Eid concerns the question of whether or not it really is the third day of Eid. Making the front pages of independent dailies Al-Shorouk, Al-Dostour, and Al-Tahrir are reports claiming that millions of Muslims around the world have “broken their fast early by an entire day, based on a sighting of Saturn.” Traditionally, the holy month of Ramadan ends at the sighting of a new moon; a role that, this year, might have gone to Saturn instead.

“The sighting of a new moon last Monday would have been simply impossible,” Maged Abou Zahra, president of the Jeddah Astronomical Society, states in Al-Shorouk. “Saturn is visible this time of year, and can be easily observed with the naked eye. Either way, the new moon could not have been visible under Monday’s circumstances because the glare from the sun was too strong to observe the moon at that particular moment… this has been confirmed by the most prominent astronomers in the region.”

The mistake has inspired a wave of jokes and sarcastic tweets, as independent dailies such as Al-Shorouk and Al-Tahrir are quick to point out, Al-Tahrir carrying the headline: “Today is the second of [Islamic month] Shawal and the third of Saturn."

Oh, the multiple ironies. One is that Saturn is the planet of the goat-horned devil in many mythologies — something that religiously-minded conspiracy theories will be sure to point out. The other is that this stupid tradition of waiting for sightings of the moon, which sometimes yields different beginnings and ends of Ramadan (with Saudi Arabia often setting the pace for others), yet again proves its anachronism. Anyone can get hold of a computer program that will indicate with great precision when the new moon arrives. I would suggest a little bit of science and ijtihad is in order: let the astronomers rather than the imams tell us when the moon is new.

Words of Women from the Egyptian revolution

The is the trailer for a documentary film titled Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution. They're fundraising to complete the project. It sheds light on the things many Egyptian women did on the front lines and behind the scenes to support the uprising. It's a nice idea at a time when many complain that women have largely receded from the post-revolution political scene, notably in the formation of political parties.