Egypt and the f-word

Egypt and the f-word

 

This guest post is written by Bilal Ahmed, a writer and activists who is preparing for graduate research that compares the tribal laws and central governance of the tribal areas of Pakistan, and Yemen.

During their brief tenure in power, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi were increasingly accused of fascism. Now, as Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues, the accusations of fascism have begun again. Much of this is because popular discourse has a knee-jerk tendency to link any form of authoritarianism with Nazi Germany. It becomes easier to do that in a national context in which we see fierce nationalism, growing xenophobia, assault against domestic minorities, and the gleeful celebration of state violence.

Let us be clear: Egypt hasn’t gone fascist. And saying that constrains how we should think about its politics in the coming years.

When we compare trends in Egyptian politics to something as complicated as the rise of Continental European fascism, we are as much probing the idea of Egypt going fascist as we are the nature of fascism itself. The rise of fascism in Europe was the result of specific political factors that, although currently present in Egypt, have not been rallied in the service of mass politics in a way that invites the word.


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Sudan revolts (again)

Sudan revolts (again)

 

"Should we pack?", asks President Omar al-Bashir wife's as protests in Sudan continue. The answer is no - his rule in Sudan is stable enough he doesn't need to keep a toothbrush on his person at all times and Saudia on speed dial. But Sudan's President, who claims he will not seek "re-election" in 2015, cannot exactly trust the men he pays to bug the country's phone lines these days, either. 

He cannot, apparently, even trust his own uncle: Al-Tayeb Mustafa, the paper's owner and a critic of the ruling party, has been ordered to stop publishing the leading Sudanese daily, al-Intibahafor the duration of the protests. The paper's editorial criticism of slashed subsidies and reporting on the country's insurgencies has proven too much for the President, who has ordered other papers to shut down as well.

Closing the daily down is just one of the steps the government is taking to diffuse coverage of the protests. Sky News and Al Arabiya were forced to close their offices, and access to the Internet was also temporarily cut off. It was restored, though: presumably because the security services need it to infiltrate protest circles online to false flag and blackmail people.  Sudan has gone down this route before - preventive detentiontorture of detaineesclosing down newspapers, and forcing foreign correspondents out  - when demonstrators held protests last June on the anniversary of the coup that bought al-Bashir to prominence in 1989. This time around, at least 70 people have been killed, and some 700 arrested (the numbers of dead and detained may be even higher). Once again, al-Bashir has dismissed the protestors (last year, he infamously described them as "elbow lickers"), but unlike past demonstrations where most of the participants were students, "those involved were … middle-class Sudanese from well-to-do areas, and those from the poorest districts of Khartoum and towns across the country," with significant female participation through silent solidarity and other actions.

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The Gulf's faulty gaydar

 

No, the Gulf states do not have gaydar detectors installed at their ports of entry. But if you are a guest worker -  one of the hundreds of thousands of South and Southeast Asians who enter the Gulf annually - you may be (or already are) subjected to an intrusive battery of tests to make sure your "gender" matches your anatomy. 

Critics refer to "tests of shame" because in many cases, police doctors conduct these bodily exams of individuals detained on the grounds that their attitude and clothing don't match their physical appearance. Kuwait's health minister announced a proposal this week to make the screening for a "third sex" mandatory in his country, and perhaps across the GCC economic zone - which has a notoriously hard time coordinating comprehensive migration policies. Kuwait already has a law in place that allows the authorities to detain and fine anyone "imitating the opposite sex."

 

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Look who's talking

 

Can Iran and the US reach a nuclear deal in the coming months, one that preserves Iran's enrichment program yet satisfies the US's sanctions regimen against the Islamic Republic? It is possible, but the pressure for the current negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to fail is immense, and comes from multiple domestic actors in both countries, as well as from American allies in the Middle East.

Obama's biggest stumbling block domestically is Congress, and the myriad lobbying groups opposed to a negotiated solution with Iran as long it remans an Islamic Republic. There are some Iranian associations (like the former terrorist organization MEK), but most of the pressure comes from Israel advocacy organizations like AIPAC, along with neoconservative think tanks such as the FDD or AEI. These groups - except for AIPAC - cannot really push Obama, but they can and have been pushing Congress. Republicans, especially, want to claim credit for sanctions bringing the Iranians to the UN with all this talk of cooperation and hints of nuclear concessions - but then, the issue arises of who is willing to say: "the sanctions have worked, let's talk concessions" instead of "Iran is bleeding white financially, tighten the screws and go for broke." And procedurally, this spider's web - as the International Crisis Group calls it - of sanctions cannot just be overridden by the President. Already, the Senate is mulling whether or not to enact even more sanctions, and this is no bluff. This is a concerted effort to pull Obama away from diplomacy and send Rouhani back empty-handed.

There are also other competing interests on the US side: Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. All are united by their fear and animus towards Iran's regional ambitions.  

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A run-down of terrorism in Egypt

 

Nour Youssef has been trying to compile a comprehensive list of terrorist attacks reported in the Egyptian press. The problem, as she notes, is that "they keep publishing the same story under different titles, sometimes lumping a couple incidents together, throwing in an update (without saying it is an update), picking up a detail and sensationalizing it -- or all of the above. The result is a flood of bad news that overwhelms readers." After the jump, our list of reported attacks, in rough chronological order -- and some jihadist videos set to really annoying music. 

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Squabbling over religion

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Before Jan 25, mosques had been hunting grounds for the MB. In the post-Jan 25 days, mosques evolved to become a place where they can meet, organize, mobilize, campaign, and more recently, treat fallen followers, count bodies and hide leaders. They also become the scene of political squabbles. At the time of the controversial Islamist-backed constitution, there were dueling campaigns to 1) challenge imams who used their sermons to support Morsi/the constitution (نزله من المنبار, "Get him down off the minbar") or 2) physically restrain worshippers who challenged the imam (ربته في العمود, "Tie him to a column"). 

The last thing the Brothers needed, after the eventful summer they've had, was to have their comfort zone fall back under government control and, now, the perked ears of pro-military residents, who would report an imam faster than he could compare what soldiers did to Muslims protesters in Raba’a al-Adaweya to what they haven’t done to the Jewish soldiers in Israel.

With the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) resolved to tighten its grip on mosques by passing a number of laws to substitute the much-criticized MB monopoly over religion with its own, many lips had been chewed and prayers for patience muttered.

Now there is a noticeable change in the khutbah (friday sermon). For the most part, it is  shorter, just like the minister wanted (because the men have other things to tend to) and no longer connected to politics, not even by way of metaphors or anecdotes. A considerable number of imams have been contacted by the ministry and told specifically to stay off politics or else they might be considered a national security threat, inciting violence and possessing illegal weapons. Many imams sense danger and have begun self-censoring in case a  housewife cooking in a nearby building hears the khutbah and doubts their patriotism, or in the not-unlikely-event that one of the new faces in the crowd turns out to be an informant.

Even though the great majority of MB imams have kept fiery sermons to a minimum and seem to have contented themselves with neighborhood night marches against the military in the meantime, some allow themselves a fit of rage and lead a protest out of mosques, three times a week, in areas too densely populated for police officers to be coaxed into visiting, like Ain Shams.

“You can tell (the MB supporters) are unhappy when they hear me preach about patience and generosity rather than comment about the situation,” said licensed Sheikh Emad, who is not Amr Moussa or something and should not be expected to talk politics. In the past month, Sheikh Emad was heckled out of his Ain Shams mosque when he tried to close it between prayers (another ministry rule).

But the fact remains that there are well over a 100 thousand mosques in Egypt and about half of them are manned by state-approved Azhar graduates. The rest are freelancers. The feared anti-military extremists can be either one of them. The new Awqaf minister has suspended the license-to-preach of all freelancers,  said the must re-apply, and that only Azharis -- as representatives of middle-of-the-road, official sanctioned Islam -- will get one. 

The ministry is also trying to limit the activities of zawiyas (unofficial very small neighborhood mosques). This may be why its list of four “conditions”  regarding zawiya operation are closer to requests than rules. Laughable requests, according to Sheikh Gamal, a zawiya imam, shopkeeper, and occasional gas cylinder seller.

The conditions are that there be no (big) nearby mosque, or if there is one that it be full full; one can pray in a zawiya so long as it has a written permission to hold prayers or a licensed imam, as if people are going to walk in and ask for ID and licenses like a traffic cop. Anyway, what happens if people don’t abide by these conditions? What kind of legal consequences, if any, could one face for praying in zawiya?

For all its worth, most people under 45 like to skip the khutbah, if not physically, then mentally, and just wait for the iqaamah (the beginning of the prayer), Sheikh Gamal said with a knowing smile. Youngsters like to loiter by a kiosk and appear the moment the prayer starts in the back rows and the old sit inside and ponder life and prices.

The only people really listening to the khutbah now, Sheikh Gamal suspects, are those who wish they could deliver it and those who are there to make sure they don’t.

Head-butt in Qatar

Qatar has installed a statue of French footballer Zinedine Zidan's infamous head-butt (after Italian player Marco Matterazzi allegedly said something rude about his mother) which may have cost France the World Cup in 2006. Zidan's outburst was criticized and defended at the time. Here is an impressionistic version of the statue (called "Coup de Tete," which in French means both header and whim, impulse) by contributor Paul Mutter, who also notes: "Now if only I could photo-shop something representing the Western left walking off the playing field.."  

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The statue has apparently rankled quite a few Qataris.

Interview with Sonallah Ibrahim

A while back, I expressed some misgivings about the great Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim's seemingly uncritical support for the military leadership. I ended up paying him a visit and conducting a rather distressing interview. Despite my admiration for Ibrahim, and his friendliness to me, we were almost immediately disappointed with each other's grasp of what is going on in Egypt these days, and unable to agree on the meaning of words like "massacre" and "nationalism." I was surprised with Ibrahim's willingness to accept repression in the name of abstract, hard-to-achieve and easy-to-manipulate goals like "fighting terrorism" and "standing up to the West."

MM: I can't help feeling that there will never be security sector reform. It's very good for [the security services] to be fighting terrorism. Nobody is going to push them to change. Do you see what I'm saying?
SI: It takes time. The fundamental thing now is, if the police officer who used to insult me and kick me and beat me under Mubarak, if now he is fighting against terrorism, I am with him.

The full interview is at Mada Masr, which also has lots of coverage of Egypt's celebrations of October 6 and of popular sentiment to the army.  

Only room for one general

 

There has been much media focus lately on the ongoing, growing campaign to get defense minister and commander of the armed forces Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to run for president -- a bandwagon on which we can expect see many more flatterers and opportunists jump. El-Sisi's candid discussion with other officers on how Egyptian need to get used to paying more for services and talk on the phone less, how the army can get the media to practice some self-censorhip, and how military personnel will never be held responsible for killing protesters were recently leaked, and seen as evidence of his nefarious dictatorial tendencies by Islamists and of his economic genius and straight-talking by army supporters. 

 It is also instructive to see the reaction to another possible military contender. Nour Youssef has this report. 

While it is generally good to be a soldier rather than another weakling civilian in Egypt, it has not been so for former Chief of Staff General, Sami Anan.

After news of Anan’s announcement of his run for president spread, and despite it being followed by a quick denial, the pro-military media began airing his dirty laundry and then tried to suffocate him with the clotheslineSo far Anan, aka  The Bringer of the Brotherhood (or at the very least:  Key Person Who Helped Make Mistakes That Lead To MB Rule), has been accused of having an under-qualified son as head of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, wasting state land (200 acres of it by Cairo-Alexandria desert road on himself and his wife), having grandchildren born in the US for the citizenship, buying a whole floor in a fancy hotel, among other things.

Although many, like Mahmoud Saad, perfunctorily expressed their respect for Anan's constitutional right to run before all but telling him not to, much of the talk about Anan has been focused on his newly published memoirs and his past.

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A murky battle

My latest Latitude column is on the difficult position of human rights activists in Egypt today -- and of that minority that is equally critical of the Brotherhood and of the military-police state.  

Democracy and human rights activists in Egypt are exhausted and worried. Many of them have spent the two and a half years since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak working nonstop — monitoring elections, submitting reform plans to ministers who have ignored them, counting bodies at the morgue — only to find themselves back at square one. The situation is “the worst it’s been since the 1990s,” a veteran human rights defender told me recently.

At Mada Masr, human right activist Sherif Azer discusses the issue as well. 

In an unprecedented moment, we are currently witnessing public support for human rights violations. The stereotypical idea that only governments are against human rights has been proven wrong, as the majority of Egyptians reveal their open rejection of the concept of human rights. We have seen people calling for sacrificing their own rights and freedoms, just to see their opposition removed. We, the human rights advocacy community, have been called traitors by friends and family members. People began openly calling for abandoning human rights altogether in the name of fighting "terrorism.”

I'm not sure I agree with Azer that the most effective argument for human rights, domestically, is an appeal to international law and treaties. It seems to me that highlighting an issue like torture here is more relevant. But of course when people offer to suspend or sacrifices their rights, they almost always do so in the belief that 1) it is temporary and limited and 2) they're not at risk because they aren't one of the criminals/terrorists/bad guys being targeted.

I've had several people compare the current moment in Egypt to the United States right after 9/11 -- a moment to which we can trace the seemingly irreversible erosion of some key protections and principles. 

 

Slaves of Babylon

Frequent contributor to this blog Paul Mutter follows up on the recent Guardian report on the deaths of Nepalese workers in Qatar with a detailed account of migrant labour in the Gulf.   

A third of the Gulf’s total population today consists of guest workers. Primarily South and Southeast Asian in origin, they have replaced the Arab guest workers of the 1980s who departed – or in the case of 200,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, were expelled – during the 1991 Gulf War. The Gulf states increasingly opted for non-Muslim and non-Arab workers in the years that followed. Two million guest workers are present in just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, out of six million altogether. South and Southeast Asian migrants actually outnumber the native populations of several Gulf states: 70% of the UAE’s population, and 69% of Kuwait’s population, consists of guest workers nowadays. Saudi Arabia hosts tens of thousands of workers – it issued 700,000 new visas for maids alone in 2013 – and now fines or shut downs employers in the Kingdom who employ more migrant than domestic workers.

Qatar is even more heavily dependent on migrant workers than Saudi Arabia. 87% of the population consists of migrants, and 94% of the entire labor force is from overseas – which means that only 6% of the workforce, as native Qataris, can legally form a union or leave a job without their employer’s permission. Qatar is planning a major expansion of its guest worker population in order to build twelve stadiums, along with subway lines, hotels, and causeways, to support the planned city of Lusail that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

 

Another blow to independent Moroccan journalism

In late September, the Moroccan police arrested Ali Anouzla, the editor of the independent online Arabic-language site Lakome. His crime? Publishing a story that linked to a story in the Spanish paper El Pais that featured a jihadist video in which members of Al Qaida in the Maghreb threatened the Moroccan king, Mohamed the VI. Even though the Lakome story condemned the video, Anouzla may be charged with encouraging terrorism. 

This is from an Amnesty International statement:  

“We fear Ali Anouzla is being punished for Lakome’s editorial independence and criticism of government policies, in what signals a worrying setback for freedom of expression in Morocco. He is a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.

No kidding. Lakome is one of the only voices of serious critical journalism in Morocco. The  authorities of this supposedly liberal monarchy have systematically harassed the country's small independent press (the editors of the two best independent magazines of the last decade -- Le Journal and Tel Quel -- both live outside the country now, after being the targets of endless litigations, and Le Journal closed down).

Bye Bye Brothers?

Last week a Cairo court issued an injunction that seems to pave the way for a new ban on all the Muslim Brotherhood's activities. Meanwhile, the new constituent assembly is discussing banning all political parties based on religion. 

In my latest contribution to the NYTimes' Latitude blog, I argue that banning the Brothers -- rather than really addressing the question of the relationship of politics and religion in Egypt, and of the appeal and contradictions of political Islam -- is hypocritical and short-sighted.  

The Brotherhood — and other Islamist parties — should have been required to open their activities to outside scrutiny and to commit to basic democratic principles over two years ago, just after Mubarak was brought down. But back then, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was afraid of how far the revolutionary fervor might go and turned to the Islamists to help it stabilize the country.
The current legal cases against the Brothers are selective and politically motivated. Serious violence has taken place at the hands of Islamists in recent months — police officers and military conscripts have been killed, churches attacked — but the direct responsibility of the Brotherhood’s leadership for that violence has yet to be proved in court. And while the organization is being tried for inciting violence, in case after case police officers are being acquitted of shooting protesters.
Why is the judiciary only examining the organization’s legal status now? What of other Islamist groups, some of which have more violent pasts than the Brotherhood and hold more odious positions on women or Christians?
The Islamist organization needs to be held accountable, but as part of a broader process of transitional justice. Instead, the goal of Egypt’s interim authorities now seems to be to punish the Brotherhood for getting into power and ensure it never does again. Egypt’s non-Islamist political parties have uniformly welcomed the idea of banning the group, even though that would in effect disenfranchise its hundreds of thousands of members and its millions of supporters.

 

A dictionary of the revolution

Artist Amira Hanafy -- whose work I've written about here before -- is doing a kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next project, a dictionary of the revolution. She will travel around the country soliciting people's definition of various terms that have come into heavy use in the last years. 

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From a press release about the project: 

“I’m not interested in creating one uncomplicated narrative for the revolution,” says Hanafi. “You could say, I’m not interested in “the Truth”. Instead, I’m interested in the truths that people believe. Egypt’s population is around 85 million. That means 85 million unique perspectives, 85 million truths. For one unique and incredible moment, it seemed that a great majority of those people were in agreement on what the country needed. But what’s happening in Egypt today is a clash of many truths. I’m interested in documenting the complexity of this moment.”

 

Syria's chemical weapons

Brian Whitaker continues to follow the strange case of a widely circulated article alleging chemical weapons were used by Syrian rebels -- one of whose alleged authors has been vainly trying to remove her byline.  

Mint Press named the journalists who wrote the story as Dale Gavlak (an established freelance based in Jordan who has worked regularly for the Associated Press) and Yahya Ababneh (a young Jordanian who claims to have carried out journalistic assignments "in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Libya for clients such as al-Jazeera, al-Quds al-Arabi, Amman Net, and other publications"). 
The story got more attention than it might otherwise have deserved because Gavlak's relationship with the Associated Press gave it an air of credibility. Ababneh, on the other hand, is virtually unknown and Google searches for examples of his previous journalistic work drew a blank.
Yesterday, however, Gavlak issued a statement denying that she was an "author" or "reporter" for the article. "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author," she said. It was a carefully-worded statement which did not specifically exclude the possibility that Gavlak had been involved in some other capacity in helping to produce the story.

Meanwhile the Sunday Telegraph publishes an interview with a former chemical weapons chief in the Syrian army:

Gen Sakat says he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.

He also insists that all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.

Now he also claims to have his own intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy his chemical weapons by transferring some of his stocks to his allies – Hizbollah, in Lebanon, and Iran.

 


 

 

An overnight project

A friend recently quoted the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila (An overnight Project) and then I read this profle in the Guardian and belatedly discovered them. It's a nice article, but I wish the focus was less on the lead singer's sexual orientation and more on the fact that they rock. Which they absolutely do. 

Living as I do at the moment under the psychic bombardment of full-throttle Egyptian nationalism, I just love the way the song and video Lel Watan ("For the Homeland") punctures everything fake, grandiloquent and sinister about the way the supposed good of a nation is used against the actual good of its people. 

Here is my very awkward translation (please share corrections and suggestions for improvement in the comments): 

Others domesticate hurricanes to govern destiny

We fly off with the breeze and return to destruction

Dare to ask about the worsening situation

And they silence you with talk of all the conspiracies

The herd accuses you of betrayal, if you call for the homeland to change

They make you despair till you sell your freedom, as the homeland is lost

They tell you

Come on smile, come on, dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

They taught you the anthem, they said your struggle is good for the homeland

They numbed your veins, they said your sedation is good for the homeland

They tell you

Come on smile, come dance a while

Why the frown? Come on, dance with me a little

 

 

What this terrible article in the Atlantic Monthly means: nothing

I don't generally have the time or inclination to go after bad writing on the middle east, but this absurd "analysis" on the Atlantic Monthly's site is just too much, starting with the first paragraph, which states: 

Astute observers of recent pro-Morsi protests in Egypt will note a new symbol cropping up in photos of the protesting crowds: Demonstrators are now holding four fingers in the air. Many carry yellow posters emblazoned with the same gesture.

How "astute" do you have to be to notice a hand gesture that is directed at every camera in the vicinity, and as the author says "emblazoned" on bright yellow posters? 

The gesture that is here referred to as "the Rabaa" apparently "signals both a conscious shift in the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus from a global audience to an Arabic one and a rejection of the ideals of the Arab Spring." Unlike, the author argues, the V for victory that was used by earlier demonstrators and that "allowed protestors to communicate a set of shared ideals embodied in the initial self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller: half economic freedom, half national self-determination."

Where to begin? The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that bid Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi an un-fond adieu used a panoply of slogans and symbols. The most common, meaningful and trans-national chant associated with the Arab Spring has to have been the Arabic chant "The People Want the Fall of the Regime." Not only is the argument that the V sign epitomized the Arab Spring extremely debatable; the comparison between the huge heterogenous masses in Tahrir and elsewhere almost three years ago and the mostly Brotherhood supporters protesting today doesn't make sense. They're different groups of people, in different circumstances, saying different things. 

 

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Mubarak's last chuckle

Private newspaper Alyoum7 has been publishing a series of audio recordings on its website of Mubarak and some unknown voices (reportedly recorded by one of his doctors) in which the erstwhile president comments on events throughout the summer. The sound clips are crudely edited, creating a lot of awkward pauses where there probably were none. 

That being said, the voices sound over-rehearsed and sometimes border on hostages trying to keep calm and entertain a mad gunman.

Clip 1:

Mubarak and friends express admiration of el-Sisi. His unknown interlocutors tell lame jokes about the Brotherhood, eliciting gruff chuckles from the former president. 

Clip 2:

Mubarak and friends say the MB is stupid and crazy for going head to head (more like knee to head) against the military, the police and the people. One voice likens them to a mindless CSF soldier who just follows orders and can’t think for himself. They predict that things will calm down and fondly reminisce about Habib el-Adly’s good ol days when the Brothers were “collected.”

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Dickinson on Bahrain: "Who shot Ahmed?"

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.

You can find out more about the book on the publisher’s page, its Facebook page or on Twitter at @WhoShotAhmed. I just bought my copy, get yours by clicking on the cover above!

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.