- What It Feels Like to Be a ‘Demographic Threat’ to Israel i.e. one of its Arab citizens
- Nigerian Army Noticeably Absent in Town Taken From Boko Haram
- How Will Tunisia Respond to the Bardo Museum Attack?
- War has plunged 80% of Syrians into poverty: UN report and "reduced life expectancy by 20 years"
- The Syrian spy who fooled the Assad regime in the southern front
- Tunisia’s Grand Compromise Faces its Biggest Test | Crisis Group
Q&A on Bardo terror attack.
- The Politics of Egyptian Migration to Libya
A historical view.
- Egypt honors mother who dressed as man for 43 years to provide for family
- An interview with the urban designers behind The Capital Cairo project
- An Israeli Election Turns Ugly
- 19 Killed in Attack at Tunisia Museum; 2 Gunmen Dead After Firefight
- NYU Professor barred entry into U.A.E.
Andrew Ross has been a critic of labour abuse
- Tony Blair poised to step back from Middle East peace envoy role - FT
Took him long enough.
- De rares photos de Ben Laden dans son repaire afghan ressurgissent
Abdel Bari Atwan's 1996 snapshots.
Courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic -- a professional translation service that can fulfill your every Arabic need -- a column on the battle to liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Iran's prominent role there, and the way it may undermine the fragile equilibrium in Iraq.
By Ghassan Charbel
El Hayat, 12 March
ISIS is a cancer that can only be treated by excision. Its removal is a patriotic, national and humanitarian duty. Successful treatment to ensure that a relapse will not occur requires involving the community that it has infiltrated in uprooting it, and insulating this community against ISIS' lies and claims. It is not out of place at this juncture to consider in advance what the patient’s condition will be after the malicious tumor is removed.
It is not insignificant for ISIS to control Tikrit, a city with much resonance in recent Iraqi history -- not because Saddam Hussein’s tomb is in the nearby village of Awja, but because it is symbolic of the Sunni Arab role in Iraq. The Iraqi government could not leave Tikrit in the hands of ISIS, but the conditions of the current surgery raise concerns that if Tikrit falls into the hands of its attackers – which is the necessary outcome – this could lead to the collapse of balance required for Iraq to remain united and part of the Arab world.
These concerns would not have been prompted if the Iraqi army was the one leading the charge to retake Tikrit and had adopted measures to quell the concerns of the inhabitants of Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh. But what is happening now is that “popular mobilization” is playing the main role in combating ISIS, and “mobilization” means an alliance of Shiite militias. The attack is also marked by an American refusal to provide air cover and an increasing tendency by Iran to openly admit that it is managing the campaign.
Iran has intervened in the countries of the region over the past two decades and has skillfully found many covers for this activity. What is remarkable in recent weeks is that Tehran has openly avowed these interventions through images of General Qassem Suleimani in the field in both Iraq and Syria and statements by Iranian officials about their solid influence in four Arab countries, not to mention talk about the Mandab Strait and an entrenched presence on the Mediterranean.
Why has Tehran abandoned its previous reserve? Does it wish to say that it has seized its regional role in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen before any potential nuclear agreement with the US has been signed? Does it wish to make decisive changes that cannot be reversed? Does it wish to signal that the above countries are a vital extension of Iran and that the inhabitants of the region ought to get used to seeing Iranian generals left and right? Does it wish to unequivocally declare what it used to whisper to its visitors, which is that it is not just an important country in the region, but the most important country? And that the most important country has the right to recalibrate the balances in the region in a manner that accords with its new role? It is not a trivial matter for Ali Shamkhani to be declaring that Iran has prevented the fall of Baghdad, Erbil and Damascus.Read More
At the economic conference Egypt hosted last weekend, officials had a surprise announcement: they plan to build the country a new capital. And it is going to be fantastic:
The scale of the plans certainly defy historical norms. If completed, the currently nameless city would span 700 sq km (a space almost as big as Singapore), house a park double the size of New York’s Central Park, and a theme park four times as big as Disneyland – all to be completed within five to seven years.
According to the brochure, there will be exactly 21 residential districts, 25 “dedicated districts”, 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 1.1m homes housing at least five million residents.
The plan has unsurprisingly generated some skepticism. Egypt has a long history of failed, delusional, top-down urban planning:
I won’t dwell on the fascination with Dubai as a model for urban development and how unsuitable this model is for Egypt whose GDP per capita is 8% of that of the UAE. Nor will I dwell on the deep political and social inequalities that lie beneath the glittering veneer of Dubai, and the serious political implications that this model bodes for the new proposed capital of Egypt. I also won’t dwell on the meaning and significance of announcing such a momentous decision not in front of parliament (for we have no such institution due to a legal fracas that delayed the elections to an unspecified future date) and not to the local media (despite the fact that whatever independence this media might have once enjoyed has evaporated in thin air), but to a group of word leaders and foreign investors who claim to be “focus[ing] on efforts to promote shared prosperity in Egypt and the region” (in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry).
I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital? The website says that it is hoped that the new city will attract 5 million inhabitants when it is finished. Assuming that the aim of building a new administrative capital is to alleviate the pressure from downtown Cairo where the majority of government offices are located, and assuming, for argument’s sake, that the 5 million inhabitants will actually be moved from overcrowded city, what will happen to the rest of us?
It has also garnered quite a bit of genuine support, driven, I imagine, by the undeniable fact that central Cairo is such a brutal, and worsening, urban environment. It's not that the capital doesn't urgently need drastic new measures to solve its pollution, transportation problems, traffic, overcrowding, poor public services. I spent a year after the uprising going to weekly meetings at an Egyptian NGO where experts and activists from dozens of different fields talked knowledgeably about the city's problems, argued over solutions, and proposed many creative, worthy ideas. But none of these ideas ever get anywhere near government offices, where denial (of the 2/3 of the city that consists of informal housing, to star with), bad taste and bad faith reign supreme and no one can admit the obvious: Cairo's fundamental problem is governance.
In the latest installment of our In Translation series -- brought to us courtesy of the diligent translation professionals of Industry Arabic -- we look at this extremely bleak assessment by a Saudi columnist writing in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. The columnist quotes Thomas Hobbes and presents all attempts at contestation and demand for democracy in the MIddle East today as doomed, because of what he deems the pre-existing frailty of Arab society. The argument raises more questions than it answers, though -- is "society" really non-existent in Arab countries? And if so, why? Is the author referring to his own homeland or to places like Syria where society has been submitted to unbearable, inhuman strain? Is the point that there is no alternative to the authoritarian status quo?
Civil Wars…and “pre-society”
By Fahad Suleiman al-Shigeran, Al Sharq Al Awsat, March 9
The slogans that have filled squares across the Middle East reflect a variety of concepts. What they have in common is the search for the key to deliverance, for a way to reach the dream of democracy and freedom and lose oneself in its bliss. However, all the current attempts to gain freedom have led to is bloody civil war, or symbolic social warfare between one individual and another. The Spring of Dreams has led to the rallying to ISIS, the rise of Boko Haram, the spread of extremism, the dismantling of the state, proposed partition schemes, economic crises, environmental pollution, overcrowded mass graves, and a sea irrigated with the blood of recently severed heads.
There is nothing strange in the fact that such furious, chaotic events should lead to what we are now witnessing. What is strange is that there are people who are betting – even now – that the revolutionary movement will reach “inevitable victory,” on the basis that what is happening is merely “dialectic” that will sweep everybody along to a “historical inevitability” in the Hegelian manner.
In our region we are not witnessing civil wars of a conventional kind. Events have superseded the formulation of “war” and have reached a level of brutality that includes images of severed heads, disembowelments, and brutal revenge. We abuse the word “war” when we use it to describe what is going on now. Throughout history, civil wars were the bugbears of theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals, because they are not legitimate wars against a particular enemy – since wars have their particular circumstances and legitimacy; they have an art, as Machiavelli would say. However, the Arab world is sinking into brutality, through its painful unleashing of arbitrary civil wars that have opened up sectarian wounds, shredded the patrimony of minorities, and revived the phenomenon of organized tribal purges. Everyone has retreated into their caves; no one trusts even their own shadow. This absolute breakdown, constant doubt, radical condemnation, and suspicion all makes the lived environment nothing but a massive jungle that contains masses of people that do not compose a society in the scientific sense, but rather a random assemblage of people in a single geographical location, because “society” is what exerts pressure to transition from desire to reason. Among the foundations of this transition is establishing the rule of law and building institutions in preparation to drafting a constitution, and thence to constructing a state and propagating its prestige.
- Morocco: The slow pace of change
- Europe Stands Up to Saudi Arabia
Interesting Swedish-Saudi falling out
- Built on Sand: Egypt’s Questionable Strategy for Growth and Development [PDF]
- Egypt: Newspaper reporting that ministries dodged over US$1 billion in taxes confiscated
- The “invisible hand” of the state in MENA economies
On SOEs, many good points.
- AFTER ARAB SPRING, SURVEILLANCE IN EGYPT INTENSIFIES
Good to see The Intercept focus on Arab countries.
- The big drop: Riyadh’s oil gamble
Interesting long piece on Saudi energy policy.
- The Inquiry: Who Wants What in Libya?
With my contribution.
- Iran Offers to Mediate Talks Between Republicans and Obama
- On the difficulties of forming a Shia-Sunni alliance against ISIS
- Sisi has a lot riding on this economic investment conference
- How to get (and dump) and ISIS boyfriend online: A reporter’s undercover life with a terrorist
- Becoming Jihadi John
Good analysis of how ISIS "weaponizes discontent"
- Liberman: 'Behead' Disloyal Arab Citizens of Israel
- School shut down after pupil allegedly killed by teacher in Cairo And teacher arrested?
- 'SNL' Has Nothing On The Way The Middle East Mocks ISIS
- Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art: A year after a terrorist bombing, the famed museum remains in ruins. Partly because of corruption in Egypt
- Max Fisher on another murder of a Muslim in the US and the climate that may have encouraged it
- In Libya, will Misrata be the kingmaker?
Good overview of diversity of militias in Misrata.
- New EU Syria sanctions reveal regime collusion with Isis - FT
- Collusion to Crackdown: Islamist-Military Relations in Egypt | Brookings Institution
- Saudi Arabia wants us to make peace with Egypt, says Turkish president
- Will #SisiLeaks be Egypt's Watergate for Abdel Fatah al-Sisi?
Here is a review I wrote for the LRB blog of the comic L'Arabe du Futur, by Syrian-French comic artist Riad Sattouf. It's a very accomplished, very troubling, work (and should be out in English soon).
In Libya, where his father accepts a teaching post, the family lose their university housing immediately to squatters who invoke Gaddafi’s ban on private property. Sattouf’s mother, Clementine, nearly gets into trouble after she breaks into hysterical laughter reading out propaganda on the radio. Sattouf remembers the crowds jostling to buy unripe bananas and Tang, the afternoons spent playing unsupervised with the children of other foreign professors. In a child’s worldview, the strictures of a dictatorial regime are no more bizarre than most other rules.
When Sattouf’s father decides to take his family back to Syria, things turn almost farcically awful. He didn’t do his military service, so has to bribe his way past army officers at the airport. The family waits as a group of cab drivers has a brawl over who will take them. Back in the village, at the family home, the women sit in a separate room and eat the men’s leftovers. Sattouf’s father discovers that his brother has sold his land. The village is full of rubbish and feral little boys who wave sticks and threaten Riad.
Depressing at the state of things may be, I found researching and writing this article about the questions scholars are asking today about the role of social and digital media in political mobilization in the Middle East, for The Chronicle of Higher Education, very interesting.
"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring, Mr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups?
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."
You should also read this article on the topic by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "Social media in the Era of ISIS."
Amazigh, itineraire d'hommes libres ("itinerary of free men") is a graphic novel by the Moroccan artist Mohamed Arejdal (written with Cedric Liano). It tells the story of Arejdal's long, tortuous, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to emigrate illegally to Spain. It captures the teenage rebelliousness and nonchalance that lead to the decision to make the trip; and the casual mistreatment that takes place along the smuggling route. Much of the story takes place in the Canary Island, where Arejdal ends up in a succession of detention centers. It is there that a social worker gives him some art supplies. When he is forcefully repatriated to Morocco, he ends up studying at the Fine Arts Institute in Tetouan; his long trek in search of European opportunity ultimately becomes material for some of his art projects. His book concludes with him being granted the much-sought-after European visa to attend a biennale in Italy.
Regarding the title: Arejdal is Amazigh, meaning that he belongs to the country's indigenous Berber population (the word means "free man" or "rebel"). Most Moroccans do, ethnically, but only some identify as Amazigh. At least a third of the country speaks Amazigh languages-- which have historically been marginalized -- as their first language rather than Arabic. The issue of language and identity here is a fraught and complicated one.
“Dos De Femmes, Dos de Mulet” (“Woman's Back, Donkey’s Back”) is a proverb in the mountain villages of Morocco. The Moroccan journalist Hicham Houdaifa chose it as a title for his first book of reportage, which focuses on the most vulnerable of Moroccan women — women who are illiterate, legally non-existent (because their births were never registered), single mothers (with no rights because their marriages were never registered) or vulnerable seasonal workers. With the help of some of Morocco’s impressive NGOs, Houdaifa criss-crossed the country last Fall interviewing underage brides; waitresses in Casablanca bars; some of the tens of thousands of women who pick the fruit that is exported to Europe (and are sexually exploited by their male superiors and the wealthy families that own farms)'; and others. Avoiding condescension or sensationalism, Houdaifa presents a picture of hard work and terrible unfairness, of the way — despite Morocco’s supposedly progressive family code and its economic development — rural uneducated women remain a reservoir of cheap, vulnerable labour. Most of these women are brutally cut off from any chance of improving their lot, but spend their lives toiling to try to offer a slightly better chance to their children.
The book is the first in a series of investigative books to be published by the independent publishing house, En Toutes Lettres, run by Houdaifa and his wife, the cultural reporter Kenza Sefrioui — both veterans of Morocco’s quashed independent press.
One of many videos mocking ISIS, with a re-mixed version of one of its anthems.
- Fascinating blog narrates trip on a container ship through the Suez Canal
- gary's choices | Netanyahu’s Speech Gary Sick on what was not said about Iran's nuclear program
- Facebook rant against his Emirati employer lands US man in UAE jail
- Al-Azhar says Islamic State backed by Western agencies
So do a lot of other idiots
- Tunisia blogger gets 6 months for defaming army
- Sinan Antoon: an Iraqi novelist living in continuous mourning
Looking forward to forthcoming English translation of his latest
- Sultan Al Qassemi on the resurgent art scene in Beirut
- Brookings - With friends like these
Wittes responds to Indyk (but why think an architect of Oslo and dual containment had much to offer?)
- Insight - Syria's Nusra Front may leave Qaeda to form new entity
With Qatari encouragement/funding
- Egypt's investment expectations are "a little ambitious." From the Awraq blog
- This reviewer calls Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy, translated by Robin Moger "one of the best books he's read all year"
- Terrorist Targeting of the Libyan O&G Sector
Interesting stuff from Geoff Porter
- Political transition in Tunisia [PDF]
- Recordings Suggest Emirates and Egyptian Military Pushed Ousting of Morsi
- ETH Zurich - Sinai Peninsula – from Buffer Zone to Battlefield
- #We Are Not Charlie: Muslims’ Differentiated Reactions to the Paris Attacks, and the Dangers of Indiscriminate Finger-pointing
Excellent SWP report [PDF]
- Online, American Helps Fuel Attacks in Egypt - NYT
Uh-oh, don't tell all the folks who are indignant over SNL's ISIS sketch, but people have been making fun of the group for a while in the Arab world.
To mock ISIS is not to disrespect their victims. It is a way of challenging their self-important, grandiose, hypocritical thuggery and their determination to frighten us.
The hostage in this video is being punished for a Playstation infraction. At the end there is a dance party.
- Activists Trying to Draw Attention to Killings in Syria Turn to ISIS Tactic: Shock Value
- Did Egypt’s President Sisi Just Fall Into ISIS’s Trap?
Steve Negus on how ISIS may be Sisi-baiting.
- The Battle for Benghazi
Good paper (PDF)
- Mr Freeze « LRB blog
Masterful takedown of de Mistura by Moin Rabbani
- Migrants scattered by Morocco's new immigration policy
- Egyptian student given prison sentence for atheist Facebook posts
He was reported by his science teacher
- Egypt confiscates revolution graffiti book for “instigating revolt”
- More Egyptians kidnapped by ISIS
Why didn't Egypt plan for retaliation/organize evacuations?
- Journaliste, j'ai été arrêté au Maroc : surréaliste et violent
French journalists tailed, searched and deported from Morocco
- "Once Upon a Revolution"
Review of Thanassis Cambanis' book on Egypt
- Why Syrian Refugees Risk the ‘Journey of Death’ to Europe
Reporting from Alexandria
- Simmering Unrest and Succession Challenges in Oman
On "the sleepy sultanate"
- Frantic Intrigue of King Abdullah's Last Hours
Another fascinating, plausible, but ultimately unsourced (single-sourced?) piece by David Hearst.
- Egypt Conducts Airstrikes on Islamic State Targets in Libya
Two very different takes, from two prominent middle east scholars, on the question of how Islamic the Islamic state is -- a debate that I am sure will be with us for a while.
This long piece in The Atlantic quotes Bernard Haykel (who was teaching at NYU when I studied there):
Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.
According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”
Meanwhile Juan Cole makes the opposite argument in a post entitled "Today's Top 7 Myths about Daesh/ISIL" on his blog:
1. It isn’t possible to determine whether Daesh a mainstream Muslim organization, since Muslim practice varies by time and place. I disagree. There is a center of gravity to any religion such that observers can tell when something is deviant. Aum Shinrikyo isn’t your run of the mill Buddhism, though it probably is on the fringes of the Buddhist tradition (it released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995). Like Aum Shinrikyo, Daesh is a fringe cult. There is nothing in formal Islam that would authorize summarily executing 21 Christians. The Qur’an says that Christians are closest in love to the Muslims, and that if they have faith and do good works, Christians need have no fear in the afterlife. Christians are people of the book and allowed religious freedom by Islamic law from the earliest times. Muslims haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but Christians were a big part of most Muslim states in the Middle East (in the early Abbasid Empire the Egyptian and Iraqi Christians were the majority). They obviously weren’t being taken out and beheaded on a regular basis. They did gradually largely convert to Islam, but we historians don’t find good evidence that they were coerced into it. Because they paid an extra poll tax, Christians had economic reasons to declare themselves Muslims.
We all know that Kentucky snake handlers are a Christian cult and that snake handling isn’t typical of the Christian tradition. Why pretend that we can’t judge when modern Muslim movements depart so far from the modern mainstream as to be a cult?
2. Daesh fighters are pious. Some may be. But very large numbers are just criminals who mouth pious slogans. The volunteers from other countries often have a gang past. They engage in drug and other smuggling and in human trafficking and delight in mass murder. They are criminals and sociopaths. Lots of religious cults authorize criminality.