Books in the mail

BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen is a fine journalist, and I enjoyed his book on the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. I just received his latest, on the Arab uprisings, and I have to ask: is this cover really appropriate? I mean, are the Arab uprisings best illustratd by Bowen's face?

This is reminiscent of the John Simpson school of British journalism. 

The book focuses on Egypt, Libya and Syria, and is drawn from Bowen's reporting. Get on Amazon US or UK.

Our friend Yvez Gonzalez-Quijano, of the fantastic blog Cultures et Politiques Arabes, has a new book out on "the Spring of the Arab web," called Arabités Numeriques. It tracks the evolution of the Arab web, its early manifestations on various social services as a political force and its role in the uprisings and the post-uprising period — including the negative role the web plays, including the notion of "cyber-pessimism."

Get it from Amazon France or UK.



Stephen Starr's Revolt in Syria is an account of the early phase of the Syrian insurrection by a journalist who lived there for several years, with insight into Syrian society.

Get it from Amazon UK or US.



John Wright's A History of Libya is an updated edition of well-regarded standard, the first such book to be published since the uprising. I reviewed older books about Libya last year, and this one has the merit of going into pre-modern Libya (Vandals!) in great detail.

Get it on Amazon US.

Weekend long reads

This is an experimental new feature — every weekend, links to some long articles and essays worth reading. Some of these articles may be behind subscription walls.

1. Sinai: The Buffer Erodes 

Nic Pelham writes for Chatham House on the deterioration of security in Sinai:

For over 30 years, the Sinai peninsula has served as a near-empty territory cushioning the geopolitical aspirations of Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians. With the changes brought about in Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, that buffer is in doubt. The state security apparatus that underpinned the Egyptian regime collapsed, creating a vacuum that the territory’s sparse Bedouin population quickly filled with coping mechanisms of its own. Captivated by the prospect of acquiring power, local irregulars reacted fiercely to the regime’s efforts to regain control over its periphery, culminating in the August 2012 operation that targeted an Egyptian base, killing 16 soldiers, and perforated Israel’s border defences at the intersection of its border with Egypt and Gaza. Security officials, police stations, government buildings and Cairo-based institutions have all come under attack. In the eyes of its neighbours, Egypt is losing its grip over Sinai, transforming the peninsula into a theatre for the region’s competing new forces.

2. The Politics of Security Sector Reform in Egypt 

Dan Brumberg and Hesham Sallam, in a report for USIP:

The most pressing priorities for SSR in Egypt entail disengaging military institutions from political and economic activities that are not relevant to their mission of national defense and subjecting these institutions to meaningful oversight by elected civilian bodies, and transforming the police establishment from a coercive apparatus into an accountable, politi- cally neutral organization that upholds the rule of law and protects human rights. These challenges may seem conceptually distinct, but they are interrelated in a broader politi- cal context, in which the military establishment and other entrenched bureaucracies are attempting to limit the scope of institutional reform. Military interest in attenuating civilian control in a post-Mubarak Egypt seems to have deepened its reliance on the coercive capac- ity of the ministry of interior, which has taken the lead in suppressing popular mobilization. Civilian security forces, sometimes in coordination with the military, repeatedly used deadly force in confrontations with protesters calling for ending SCAF’s rule. The intertwining of institutional interests between the military and the police impedes SSR.

On a related note, see this NYT piece by Kareem Fahim on the issue of police reform, and this report by the One World Foundation on the same topic.

 3. The Revenge of the East? 

David Shulman asks some tough questions on Pankaj Mishra's much-praised book From The Ruins of Empire [Amazon US, UK], on Rabindranath Tragore, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Ling Qichao the intellectual roots of "Eastern revival":

Are these men, then, among the major “intellectuals who remade Asia”? One thing is clear: all three are fully modern figures, their consciousness shaped primarily by the terms of the modernist crisis and debate. But can we even speak of a broad “Asian” response to the West and the newfangled technologies and concomitant power equations that the West brought to the East—“printing presses, steamships, railways and machine guns,” as Mishra lists them? Living in Jerusalem and traveling often to India, I find it hard to think of Asia as a cultural unit with any integrity. There is, however, one experience that was indeed shared by the Islamic world, India, China, and Japan in the nineteenth century—that of predatory intrusion and sustained economic violation by the Western powers. The forms this intrusion took varied from place to place, but its traumatic effects were common to all the great Asian states and cultures.

4. Indecision as Strategy 

Adam Shatz reviews Israeli historian Avi Raz's The Bride and the Dowry [Amazon US, UK], a book about post-1967 Israeli strategy in the Israel-Arab conflict which uses new material to argue that "Israel's postwar diplomacy was deliberately ineffective because its leaders preferred land over peace with its neighbors":

The story of Israeli policy in the late 1960s has been told before, by Tom Segev and Gershom Gorenberg among others. But no one has provided as thorough – or as damning – an account as Avi Raz, a former reporter for Ma’ariv who has read every pertinent document in every available archive, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The Bride and the Dowry is a work of meticulous scholarship, but it is also an angry book, burning with the sort of righteous (and sometimes repetitious) indignation to which native sons are particularly susceptible. It covers only the first 21 months after the 1967 war, but it tells us everything we need to know about Israeli policy during this ‘critical and formative phase’ of the occupation. It also sheds considerable light on Israeli diplomacy today: its resistance to a deal that would allow for genuine Palestinian sovereignty; its belief that the Americans will always come to Israel’s defence, however much they privately object to land grabs; and its use of protracted negotiations as a means of buying time. Raz’s book is about the conquest of time as much as it is about the conquest of territory: the fruitless peace processing of the last two decades is only the latest chapter of his story.

5. Why India’s Newspaper Industry Is Thriving

Ken Auletta writes a fascinating essay on the state of Indian publishing and its advertising-driven editorial practices, with many lessons applicable to developing countries:

While profits have been declining at newspapers in the West, India is one of the few places on earth where newspapers still thrive; in fact, circulation and advertising are rising. In part, this is because many Indian newspapers, following an approach pioneered by the Jain brothers, have been dismantling the wall between the newsroom and the sales department. At the Times of India, for example, celebrities and advertisers pay the paper to have its reporters write advertorials about their brands in its supplementary sections; the newspaper enters into private-treaty agreements with some advertisers, accepting equity in the advertisers’ firms as partial payment. These innovations have boosted the paper’s profits, and are slowly permeating the Indian newspaper industry.

From the ruins of empire

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

This book by Pankaj Mishra sounds fascinating. From the blurb:

Tagore, Gandhi, and later Nehru in India; Liang Qichao and Sun Yatsen in China; Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire—are seen as outriders from the main anticolonial tradition. But Pankaj Mishra shows that it was otherwise in this stereotype-shattering book. His enthralling group portrait of like minds scattered across a vast continent makes clear that modern Asia’s revolt against the West is not the one led by faith-fired terrorists and thwarted peasants but one with deep roots in the work of thinkers who devised a view of life that was neither modern nor antimodern, neither colonialist nor anticolonialist. In broad, deep, dramatic chapters, Mishra tells the stories of these figures, unpacks their philosophies, and reveals their shared goal of a greater Asia.

Book excerpt: Josh Stacher's "Adaptable Autocrats"

One-time contributor to the blog Joshua Stacher recently published his book, Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria. Since the 2011 uprisings, there has been a debate in Middle Eastern academia as to whether regional specialists focused too much on the persistence of authoritarianism (and power elites in particular) and not enough on the societies (and social movements in particular.) Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, and the debate has had its ups and down according to what’s in the news. In this book, Josh looks the regime structures as an indication of both regime sustainability and adaptability, and applies this research to how Egypt and Syria handled the uprisings and their aftermath.

Josh writes:

Rather than explain the transition, this book compares how the structure of executive power allows for an authoritarian regime to change its ruling coalition (or not). Thus, it explains why Egypt could rapidly begin a transition while Syria could not. In the case of Egypt, this meant a long-time dictator and the neoliberal team could be removed and replaced by SCAF while “the state” remained in tact. Contrastingly, no such coalitional alterations could be made in Syria and is why its state was drawn into a long conflict with society as a consequence of the challenges posed by popular mobilization. The book does this by comparing institution building during the 1970s as well as examines elite and non-elite politics during the last decade in Egypt and Syria.

We are reprinting below the abstract of the book and an excerpt from its introduction to give readers a sense of the argument.

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New Book: The Journey to Tahrir

A new collection of articles about Egypt that appeared in Middle East Report in the last decade or so is now out. It's edited by Chris Toensing and Jeannie Sowers, and includes a piece by me as well as other blog contributors, friends, and leading Egypt experts (Mona El-Ghobashy, Tim Mitchell, Joel Beinin, etc.). It's a great way to review late Mubarak Egypt and the January 2011 uprising, as well support the excellent MERIP.

Get your copy now.


Suzanne Mubarak's memoirs

I would approach this story with caution – after all it was published in the trashy Rose al-Youssef – but I'd like to confirm some of these tidbits:

In “Egypt’s First Lady: 30 Years on the Throne of Egypt,” to be published this year, Mubarak says that the United States gave her and her family asylum. A special envoy from the United States, she wrote, arrived in Cairo in early February 2011 with all the documents required to have in order to leave Egypt, but her husband refused to leave.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait gave the Mubarak family the same offer. However, the author adds, all those asylum documents were taken from the family in the Red Sea city of Sharm al-Sheikh on February 11, 2011, the day the president stepped down.

In the memoirs, Mubarak recounts how she had a nervous breakdown when she knew she was to be arrested, which drove her to try to commit suicide through overdosing on sleeping pills.

She was later rescued and her husband conacted several countries and begged many officials to let her stay with him in the hospital. His wish was granted, provided that she does not leave the hospital.

I like the bit where she says her childhood dream was "to become a flight attendant." After all, she was married to a man whose hope for retirement was to run Egypt Air. And also this nugget:

Among the secrets Mubarak reveals in her memoirs is that her husband did not think that he would be able to leave the palace and was almost certain that he would be assassinated. That is why he asked the Presidential Guard not to leave him alone for one minute and even used to let them accompany him to the bathroom.

Update: Reader "S" writes in with a reminder – "AUC Press was on the verge of publishing her memoirs in time for the 2011 Cairo Book Fair and was copy editing them just as the January protests started... "

Liberation Square

Today, Ashraf Khalil's riveting account of the Egyptian uprising, Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation, it out! Go ahead and click on that link to buy from Amazon, or rush to your nearest bookstore and demand your copy NOW.

Ashraf — who contributes to our podcast and is an old friend of ours — has really done a great job here. Here's a passage of his experience in the "Battle of the Bridge", at the moment when riot police abandon the fight on January 28, allowing more people to stream into Tahrir Square:

At about four in the afternoon, the phalanx of Central Security troops broke ranks and ran, leaving their paddy wagons behind. For a while it was hard to even grasp what had happened. Protesters gleefully spray-painted slogans on the trucks—some of which still contained terrified Central Security guys.

It was a powerful moment—the exact turning point when the police realized the people weren’t afraid of them and that they were badly outnumbered. There was a surreal interlude while the protesters casually flowed around the remaining pockets of disoriented police on the bridge. A few shell-shocked Central Security troops remained behind, taking shelter inside their trucks. At least one paddy wagon driver was hopelessly and tear- fully pleading with protesters not to trash his truck, saying he would be punished if anything happened to it. (They left him alone but totaled the truck.)

Interior Ministry officers gathered impotently on the small bridge, while the protesters merely ignored them and surged past. I walked past one group of officers hud- dling around a walkie-talkie and heard one of them say, “Nobody’s answering.” In an instant, the fearsome and hated bullies of the Interior Ministry had become pathetic and irrelevant. 

It's shock-full of intimate moments of the uprising like this one. We'll be talking about the book on the next podcast, and you can already read a very positive review on Salon.

Brian Whitakers' books now on Kindle

I'm a big of fan of Brian Whitaker's work at the Guardian (where he was Middle East editor for many years and now edits the Comment is Free part of the website), of his longstanding website al-Bab and have liked his books. They are now available on Kindle, so if you have one take a look at the Amazon links below (both US and UK stores) — or get the dead tree versions.

Unspeakable Love was one of the first looks at LGBT activism in the Middle East, while What's Really Wrong with the Middle East is a bracing critique not just of Middle Eastern politics but also of the social oppression (famiial, religious, etc.) that many face. Great reading for the bigger post-revolutionary picture in many Arab countries. 

Five Books interview

I was recently interviewed by the great website Five Books, about the Arab world and books worth reading about it. I decided to give some broad (and somewhat idiosyncratic) recommendations. It was very difficult to choose what books to talk about, so in the end I went partly with books that give context to the current situation, and partly with very personal choices (and yes I fully expect to be branded an Orientalist for picking the Arabian Nights as my fifth choice, and I don't care — it's my favorite book.)

It made me think that I need to get around to making a longer list about what to read about the Arab world. I'd be interested to hear what readers believe should be included, and in what category (for instance, fiction, politics, history, religion, etc.) Putting together of 100 books might be a fun summer project.  

Review of ElBaradei's "The Age of Deception"

I must have been traveling when it came out, but I have a  review of Mohammed ElBaradei's new book, The Age of Deception, out in The National. The book is entirely about his time at the IAEA, so don't look for commentary on Egyptian politics here, but it does tell us about the man's character. That character has undergone several waves of assassination, from the propaganda of the Mubarak-controlled press in 2010 to those who see ElBaradei as some kind of Trojan horse for secularism post-revolution. Consider the lawyer who is currently trying to strip him of his Egyptian nationality (alongside Gamal Mubarak):

Meanwhile the lawsuit accuses ElBaradei of turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear weapons during his term as IAEA director. “ElBaradei had a stake in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which makes him unworthy of carrying Egyptian nationality”, it said.

ElBaradei's book is not the most riveting read — at the end of the day, it's a company man's diary — but it certainly puts to rest any notion that ElBaradei did not try to prevent (within his abilities as IAEA chief) the invasion of Iraq and the sexing up of its WMD dossier, or try to broker a negotiated outcome to the Iranian nuclear issue. From the review:

"Early on, I often got the feeling that the Arab world - and many westerners - expected me, as an Egyptian Arab and a Muslim, to show bias in favour of Iraq. Of course, I also heard that I was being tough on Iraq to prove my lack of bias. My only bias was that of an international civil servant: an insistence on independence, professionalism and treating all parties with equal respect."
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Yasmine Rashidi's "The Battle for Egypt"

My friend Yasmine Rashidi has chronicled Egypt's revolution for the New York Review of Books. Her writings are now being published in a collected form as a ebook, which you can get from Amazon for Kindle or in various other formats.

Yasmine writes "The book is dedicated to the memory of those who have died in this battle for Egypt, and what proceeds I get from its sales will go to one of the youth-based movements that is working to help build a better, freer, country."

Get your copy now!

New books on Egypt: Alaa Al Aswany and David Sims

Imbaba, an informal neighborhood of Cairo that was agricultural land a few decades ago, seen from the skies.

The National has just run my joint review of two interesting new Egypt books. One is Alaa Al Aswany's On the State of Egypt -- a collection of his newspaper columns from the year and a half or so preceding the revolution, which is a good introduction to both the tenor and substance of many of the big cultural/political debates preceding (and in some cases laying the groundwork for) the uprising.

One of the things about the Egyptian revolution is the way it gave so many -- famous and unknown -- their chance to shine. I open the piece with what I believe was Al Aswany's moment: a now-historic TV debate in March, in which the novelist wiped the floor with then prime minister Ahmad Shafiq (Shafiq resigned the next day). 

The other book I discuss is David Sims' original, measured and hugely informative reference on Cairo, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control. The book delves into how and why the capital's staggering informal neighborhoods have come into being; into the patronage and speculative networks that explain the city's heedless expansion into the desert; and into the way governance (of traffic systems, municipal authorities) just barely functions in a "minimalist" city in which officials have little independence, authority or accountability. 

Support by getting your copies of these books from

In LRB: Is there a Libya?


I have a new review of the two books above, on Libya's 20th-century history, out in the London Review of Books (subscription). I really recommend both of the books above if you want some background to the ongoing civil war, they're both excellent. Vandewalle focuses on the creation of Libya, in terms of its establishment as a state but also the experimentation Qadhafi conducted. Martinez focuses on the Qadhafi era and provides a condensed overview of the transformation of Libya from a revolutionary state to a mafia state.

Here's an excerpt from the end of the (long) review:

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Humphrey Davies on FiveBooks

My friend Humphrey Davies, a translator of Arabic literature (and, a while back, the translator and editor of a learned medieval treatise on flatulence in Tanta), was recently featured on one of my favorite books sites, Five Books. Cheeky Humphrey recommended some books that he translated himself, such as Alaa al-Aswany's Yacoubian Building, but that's OK since it is after the best-selling Arabic lit book worldwide in decades if not ever. I agree with his choice of Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise and Taxi too. 

I should be giving my own list of Egypt books soon to FiveBooks, so stay tuned.

David Sims' "Understanding Cairo"

My friend David Sims' new book on Cairo's urban planning, Understanding Cairo, is newly out on It comes highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about Cairo's urban history, the problems of the slums and gated communities, the way the city has evolved and more. A must for the library of anyone interested in Egypt and this confounding city.

On the occasion of Police Day

Many readers will know that today is Police Day in Egypt, a commemoration of the resistance by Islamailiya police against the British in 1952 during which 41 police officers were killed. For decades it has also bee the annual occasion for pageantry by the Ministry of Interior, the highlight of which is a boat show on the Nile. It will also be, potentially, the revival of a large anti-government, anti-torture protests, with many hoping for a turnout on the streets not seen since 2005 or perhaps even the day of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of the main organizer appears to be the Facebook group for Khaled Said, the victim of police brutality who died last year and became a symbol of torture, which will be providing continuous updates throughout the day. You might also read Jack Shenker's optimistic take in the Guardian, or this piece on the Ministry of Interior's pledge to arrest anyone who takes part in al-Masri al-Youm. We'll see how it turns out — in my book, if you get a tenth of the 80,000 people or so who support the initiative online, it will be a success. 
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