New book: Daesh is not the point

Friend of the blog Peter Harling, who recently founded synaps.network, has just published Daesh is not the point: Counter-intuiting the Middle East. This is a collection of essays, including three (co-written with Sarah Birke and Alex Simon) that first appeared on this site over 2014 and 2015. It also features additional content, including a "postword" written by yours truly. If you liked those essays, and I know many of you did (they were hugely popular when first published), then please buy this book. Peter writes:

This books fights the Islamic State by not obsessing about it. As the Middle East continues to pass through a phase of historic upheaval and uncertainty, media coverage, political discourse and even policymaking remain largely fixated on the creature known as Daesh. Given the complexity of the forces driving change in the region, this Daesh-centricism is as reductionist as it is dangerous. This ebook aspires to step back from this mentality and present a measured, sensitive analysis of the long-term trends at work in the region. We have collected three previously published essays that acknowledge and explore Daesh for what it is: one constituent part in the region’s complex, fast-evolving ecosystem. Tying these essays together with new, unpublished analysis, we aim to lay the groundwork for a deeper understanding of the region’s convulsions.

The original essays have been removed from this site, but buy access to the ebook and you get the updated versions and support the Synaps project. Get it here.

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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.

In Translation: Trump and the Arabs

There has been a wide range of reactions to the election of Donald Trump as US president in the Arab world, ranging from horror to accommodation to cheers. Much of the Egyptian media – indeed, the Egyptian regime – sees in Trump hope that of a leader who will develop closer ties to Abdefattah al-SIsi, ending the funk in Egypt-US relations and declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group on a par with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In the Gulf, commentators close to the Saudi regime show cautious pragmatism, cheered by the anti-Iranian stance (even if they might not be so happy about the Iran nuclear deal being scrapped, since at least it contained Tehran’s nuclear ambition). Many right-wing Israelis are overjoyed by the prospect of a US president who not only promises to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but is overly anti-Palestinian and whose chief advisor hails from an “alt-right” movement many of whose members are pro-Israel and whose ideologues describe as “White Zionism”. And of course, many, many others fear (another?) war-mongering US president with openly Islamophobic views and, more generally, yet another element of uncertainty at a moment of regional turmoil.

But there is an argument to be made that, while Trump’s impact on the US may very well be dire, it will not mark such a significant shift for the region. First, Trump’s foreign policy ideas are basically non-existent. He will draw in advisors with radical and biased views, to be sure, but this happened before under George W. Bush and other administrations haven’t exactly been impartial mediators on many issues (see Israel-Palestine). Trump backing Assad or staying away from conflicts such as Yemen and Libya or seeking to extract a kind of tribute from the oil producing state of the Gulf can be seen as a more forthright departure from existing policy, not a radical departure. Indeed the thing to fear the most is geopolitical uncertainty, amateurism and military adventurism. But again, nothing entirely new. Only the idea of the “Muslim ban” offers something that pretty much draws universal condemnation in the region. The likes of veteran commentators AbdelBari Atwan, whose post-election commentary is reproduced below, are making these points. They likely underestimate the new and innovative forms of damage a Trump presidency could wreck.

This In Translation feature is only possible through the support of our friends at Industry Arabic – please check them out for your company’s Arabic translation needs.

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The Democratic Party establishment is finished after Trump

Before Trump was elected, everyone was saying the Republican Party will need overhaul after the election. The Republicans - even the ones who were anti-Trump - are now rushing to feed at the trough. As Jim Newell writes for Slate, it's the Democratic Party that needs a radical overhaul. 

The party establishment made a grievous mistake rallying around Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t just a lack of recent political seasoning. She was a bad candidate, with no message beyond heckling the opposite sideline. She was a total misfit for both the politics of 2016 and the energy of the Democratic Party as currently constituted. She could not escape her baggage, and she must own that failure herself.
Theoretically smart people in the Democratic Party should have known that. And yet they worked giddily to clear the field for her. Every power-hungry young Democrat fresh out of law school, every rising lawmaker, every old friend of the Clintons wanted a piece of the action. This was their ride up the power chain. The whole edifice was hollow, built atop the same unearned sense of inevitability that surrounded Clinton in 2008, and it collapsed, just as it collapsed in 2008, only a little later in the calendar. The voters of the party got taken for a ride by the people who controlled it, the ones who promised they had everything figured out and sneeringly dismissed anyone who suggested otherwise. They promised that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Electoral College. These people didn’t know what they were talking about, and too many of us in the media thought they did.
We should blame all those people around the Clintons more than the Clintons themselves, and the Clintons themselves deserve a ridiculous amount of blame. Hillary Clinton was just an ambitious person who wanted to be president. There are a lot of people like that. But she was enabled. The Democratic establishment is a club unwelcoming to outsiders, because outsiders don’t first look out for the club. The Clintons will be gone now. For the sake of the country, let them take the hangers-on with them.

Off with their heads – it's time to declare open season against the Clintonistas.

Christopher Davidson's "Shadow Wars"

Christopher Davidson is a British academic and the author of several books on the Gulf (generally quite critical of the petro-monarchies there.) Longtime reader Amjad compiled together an interview Davidson gave on Twitter on the occasion of the release of his new book, Shadow Wars. We are reproducing the interview below – with light editing for punctuation etc. – as it may be interest readers for its out-of-the-mainstream approach to the Arab Spring. It’s not an endorsement of the book, which we have not read, but looks interesting if it sheds light on the policies of Gulf states during the last six years.

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In Translation: The abusive Egypt-Saudi relationship

Over the past week, the most serious crisis in Egypt-Saudi relations since the June 2013 coup against Mohammed Morsi has taken place. It is likely to be well-short of the divorce many have argued is impending (after all only last month Saudi Arabia deposited $2 billion into the Central Bank of Egypt), but is nonetheless significant enough to have raised tensions in the media on both sides of the Red Sea. In addition to vocal Saudi attacks against Egypt in the media, Saudi Aramco has suddenly suspended delivery of oil products (at low costs), a form of in-kind support that has been going on for over three years. 

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The Syrian Trauma

Sit yourself down to read, without distraction, this essay by our friend Peter Harling. It drives through, with unforgiving force, through the apathy that many of us who watch Syria from afar (and indeed those of us for whom Syria is a professional interest). There is a "Syria" out there that is synonymous with evil, misery, apocalypse and the collapse of a regional, or even global order. There is a "Syria"that is a "problem from hell" or an argument about i teventionism. And then there is Syria, the country, the complicated people, which is what Peter is reminding us to listen to:

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.”

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

Dissidence and Deference Among Egyptian Judges

For Egypt judiciary nerds (you know who you are), this article by Mona El Ghobashy for Middle East Report is just such a great read that weaves so many threads together, I have to link to it again. Money quote:

It is tempting to dismiss pro-government judges as lackeys of military rulers, automatons who move only at the behest of the de facto center of power. The reality is far more troubling. Many judges are active, self-willed architects of an expanded regime of legal exception and legal repression.

. . .

There have always been judges who see their role as applying, not checking, punitive laws. The zeal with which these judges and prosecutors are expanding the infrastructure of legal repression and resuscitating Mubarak’s paradigm of permanent emergency suggests that political dissidence is not their only target. A broader pacification of the population seems to be the goal, to punish the rampant disobedience and disrespect for authority that ruling elites remember as the revolution. Commenting on an avalanche of summary expulsions of students from universities, an administrative court judge said, “The reasons behind the expulsions [nowadays] weren’t there during Mubarak’s time. There wasn’t a revolution during Mubarak’s time.”

Sisi plagiarized his "spare change" idea

There has been much hullabaloo in the last couple of days about Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi's idea that transactions in Egypt's banking system should be rounded off to the nearest pound, with the "spare change" (i. e. whatever is left in piasters) donated to the government to, you know, pay for stuff.

Sure, the idea seems like a silly back-of-the-enveloppe calculation that an out-of-his-depth ruler has casually come up with because he has no economic vision for his country beyond a general sense that people are not sacrificing enough and that there should be more prestigious mega-projects run by the army. Yes, he could be clutching at straws because, while Egypt was in pretty dire straits when he took over in 2013, he has not improved economic fundamentals nor set the country on a path to reform

Of course, I'm not an economist, so all these assessment could be wrong and Sisi may actually be doing brilliantly. Who knows. The only thing I'd like is for Sisi to acknowledge where he got his idea from: 1999's cult comedy Office Space, in which disgruntled employees scam their company's credit union by introducing a virus into the computer system to syphon off fractional remainders of pennies from transactions. This shows he has better taste in movies than I thought, but, come on – credit where credit is due.

(By the way, anyone seen the printer at the presidency lately?)

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.

Links 18-27 September 2016

The new issue of Middle East Report is out, and it features some great pieces by old friends, including Mona El-Ghobashy on Egypt's judges and Joshua Stacher on Hebron. And don't miss editor Chris Toensing's editorial on the absurd $38 billion President Obama decided to give Israel – a country whose leaders have tried to serially humiliate him – as a parting gift.

MER and its parent organization MERIP are subscriber-funded. Get a subscription and keep them producing great reporting and analysis on the region. 

Now here are the links...

In Translation: Egypt's sorrowful class

Among all the many painful things Egypt has gone through in recent years – state violence, terrorism, oppression, a bitter political closing after the opening of 2011 – it may be the economic situation that is most sorely felt by the most people. The Sisi regime's grandiose plans – a new capital city, an expanded Suez Canal – are either in mothballs or have failed to deliver much-needed new revenue so far. The military is taking control of an increasing chunk of the economy, squeezing out the private sector that has driven much of the past 30 years of job and wealth creation (however skewed) and not doing much for the non-military public sector. (It's even creating its own private schools!) The chief victim of these policies, especially the ongoing devaluation of the Egyptian pound, is probably the middle class (because the poor are both less exposed to their impact as many subsistence goods are subsidized and because Sisi done more, even if it's not enough, on poverty alleviation and targeting the poorest in the country through cash handout programs and other measures).

In recent weeks, there has been a spate of writing in the Egyptian press about the struggling middle class – perhaps because it's back to school time, a moment in the year where families feel particularly pinched (especially if you want to avoid sending your kids to public school.) Tareq Hassan's column below is one of the better examples of this trend, which is so politically significant in the medium term to the Sisi regime. Defining the middle class is hard in terms of income (there are multiple layers), and one element of it is more about aspirations and class outlook than pure financials. In Egypt, I would argue there are three middle classes: the private sector middle class (currently losing out), the public sector middle class (stagnating) and the military middle class (accumulating privilege). They are not hermetically sealed from one another, but it does represent a shift, even reversal, of the trends of the Mubarak era.   

We are grateful to our pals at Industry Arabic for making this In Translation series possible. Check them out if you need to translate your professional documents from the language of the ض.

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Bidoun #25 in Arabic

Our friends at Bidoun write:

This issue of Bidoun was assembled in Cairo between March and April of 2011. It remains, if nothing else, a true record of an uncertainty — so rare that even those who experienced it can hardly imagine it today.
We're making this Arabic-language version available more than five years later. We had originally hoped to launch it in Egypt, but the moment wasn’t right. We’re still waiting.

Get it here.

In Translation: The case against democratic transition

Conservatism – as in a propensity for caution in politics, not necessarily the Islamist or traditionalist kind – is making a comeback of sorts in the Arab world. The devastated post-“Spring” landscape of the region, the conflict and chronic instability many countries face (Syria, Yemen, Libya) and the reassertion of authoritarianism in two countries that went through major upheavals (Egypt, Bahrain) and those that avoided them (Algeria, Morocco, in a different ways most GCC countries) has made many citizens very weary of contesting the powers-that-be with the same enthusiasm they might have in 2011. It is certainly a sentiment I come across often in Morocco, where I live.

Parliamentary elections will take place in Morocco on 7 October,  and in anticipation the normally sleepy national political debate is heating up. The party that leads the outgoing government, the Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), is making much of both its modest record and is promising to take on the regime more forcefully if re-elected. The question of whether or not Morocco has experienced an authoritarian comeback in the last few years – a kind of revenge against the protest movement of 2011, civil society and political parties has taken place; it might be most aptly described by that favourite academic non-sequitur, "semi-authoritarian" – is heatedly discussed. The PJD and some of its allies, having spent (in the eyes of their critics) timidly nibbling on whatever crumbs of power that the regime of King Mohammed VI would allow them, is promoting to assert itself in the name of democracy.

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Links 13-31 August 2016

Links 1-8 August 2016