Only tragedies count

Ah, Niall Ferguson -- an article reminding us that some revolutions in history have turned out badly. Very good -- but the trend since the mid-1980s has arguably been the reverse. Why? The single anti-pluralist vanguard party has largely been discredited, and pluralism is in. I'm sure that the Philipines and Indonesia had lots of unemployed young men as well involved in their revolutions, but somehow avoided a reign of terror. The Weekly Standard of all places had a very eloquent description of why the 2011 revolutions will not necessarily take a tragic course, because it acknowledges one of the simplest history lessons of all: times change. Other than the obligatory call for American assertiveness and the pseudo-recommendation to airstrike Qaddafi's forces to show up Ahmadinejad, it's very much worth a read.

Libya faces some unique challenges,

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Libya: The Iron Fist that Failed

What does Libya's uprising mean, in terms of showing which regimes are vulnerable to revolution, and which are not?

It's been an article of faith in some circles (usually among "realists" of the right, but not always) that if a regime is ruthless enough, then it doesn't have to worry about being overthrown. It's all very well for us misty-eyed human rightsers to get euphoric about the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, but cold hard realists should realize that this "people power" thing is only good against genteel dictatorships. "Why are the more oppressive governments of Syria, Iran, and Libya not subject to the same degree of popular unrest that is said to be surely spreading to Jordan or the Gulf?" asked Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online. "Is it because for all the authoritarianism of a Mubarak or a Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there was never the threat of a genocidal Hama, or thousands perishing on the proscription lists under a Khomeini, or international assassinations of dissidents in the Libyan manner?" A week after the article was published, the rebel flag was flying over Benghazi.

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Links 27 February 2011

Two more links I've been asked to spread: both Kolena.org and Talabatna.com are websites for Egyptians to debate their priorities and propose new initiatives. Check them out.

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Whose candidate is Amr Moussa?


It's just been announced, unsurprisingly, that Amr Moussa intends to run for the Egyptian presidency when elections take place, most probably late this year. In many respects, Moussa is well-positioned to win: he's the best-known of the slate of names that has been popping up of late, with a reputation for straight-talking and toughness towards Israel from his days as Egypt's foreign minister. Since the rumor was that Mubarak kicked him upstairs to Secretary-General of the Arab League because he was getting too popular, there is an impression that he was not close to the former president. He has gravitas, since he's been seen powowing with world leaders for two decades now, and even a certain macho concept of manliness that politicians like John McCain like to strut about — the equivalent of being seen as "tough" in the American context. It's something others, such as Mohammed ElBaradei, don't have.
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Mouin Rabbani: Libya's significance

With the 42-year reign of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi coming to a seemingly inevitable end, it is worth reflecting on the significance and regional implications of his ouster. Perhaps most importantly, Qaddafi’s removal cannot but result in genuine regime change. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Libya does not possess autonomous state institutions or state-sponsored elites with the capacity to force out the leader in order to perpetuate their custodianship of the state. If Qaddafi falls – and absent foreign intervention – Libya’s power elite will either go down with him, or remain masters of institutions and networks that no longer exist, are shattered beyond repair or have lost their relevance. Libya, in other words, will be spared the spectre of a permanent transition, and any successor appointed by the Ancien Régime will make Shapour Bakhtiar’s 39-day tenure look everlasting. As with the national uprising against the Shah in the late 1970s, the only possible outcomes are restoration or revolution.

It's one of those real the whole thing piece: Libya's Significance

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.

Facebook's role in Egypt's #jan25 uprising

Facebook was more involved in ensuring protection for the Facebook groups organizing the January 25 and subsequent protests than is known, NewsBeast says:

Email records obtained by Newsweek, conversations with NGO executives who work with Facebook to protect activist pages, and interviews with administrators of the We Are All Khaled Said page reveal the social media juggernaut’s awkward balancing act. They show a company struggling to address the revolutionary responsibilities thrust upon it—and playing a more involved role than it might like to admit.

On the night of January 25, Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe, responded to the worried administrator. “We have put all the key pages into special protection,” he wrote in an email. A team, he said, “is monitoring activity from Egypt now on a 24/7 basis.”

It's an interesting story involving coordination by Facebook executives, Egyptian activists, and Washington-based democracy advocates who push pressing issues onto the executives.

Egypt: the military's gambit

As most of you know by now, the Egyptian army beat up protestors on Friday night, with some apparently donning masks to hide their identity and using electric cattle prods. The army subsequently apologized, and then once again stressed the need for everyone to go home, and then spoke of the usual foreign dangers against the sanctity of the Egyptian people, etc.

Sarah Carr as always has an account that captures the mood, read it in full:

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Qadhafi's bunker

I want a bunker.

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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.

Links 26 February 2011

Blake Hounshell and me on Bloggingheads.

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Ursurprising surprises

Thanassis Cambanis has an essay in the Boston Globe called How wrong we were, in which he outlines five surprises stemming from the Arab revolutions. The surprising thing is that he's really wrong in picking those five surprises. Let's go through the ones he chose (update: I am told these subheadings were the editor's choice, not the author's — it makes a difference since the text is more nuanced):

Surprise #1: Military aid might be the best way to promote democracy.

Err... it didn't really work that well for the last 30 years in Egypt, did it? This idea rests on the conceit that the Egyptian army did not fire on protestors because of US pressure. I doubt this is the case; firing on the protestors would have been a grave escalation of matters putting the population against the army, risking civil war and insurbordination by younger officers. Continued military aid to the Egyptian military now only serves US interests, these are quite distinct from democracy or its promotion. And despite some $35bn in aid delivered since 1975, the US continues to have little understanding of the Egyptian military and military-civilian relations.

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Haenni and Tammam on #jan25 and religion

Two of my favorite commentators on religion and religious movement, Patrick Haenni and Hossam Tammam, collaborate on an excellent summary of various religious movements and institutions desultory participation in the Egyptian protest movement:

The Salafist movement condemned the protests; the Muslim Brothers first retreated, then got sucked in by the dynamism of the dispute, then tried to open up a negotiation process which the demonstrators, bolder in their demands, didn't want. Though that was not necessarily the position of all Egyptians, many of whom would have settled for a compromise, with Mubarak running the transition and the demand for democracy postponed until the next elections: the voice of the street isn't necessarily the will of the people. The Islamist groups were without doubt the most detached. Among these, various parts of the Salafist movement condemned the demonstrators very clearly from the time of the first appeals.

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“A Rose in the Desert”

"My husband's family tortures people for fun, but I'm hot so who cares"

From  Imelda Marcos of the Philippines to Asma Al-Assad, the western media has had a long love affair with foreign first ladies.  Perhaps this is the result of some subconscious attachment to the disappearing world of queens and princess. Indeed there is a touch of the royal in Vogue’s well-written profile of Asma Al-Assad, First Lady of Syria. As written the courtship between the future first lady and President Bashar Al-Assad seems to be missing only a glass slipper. The author’s profile includes a visit to the presidential residence in Damascus where the Al-Asad family makes decisions “on wildly democratic principles". The reporter also steals a few moments to chat with Syrian President. In a candid moment, the former eye-surgeon and rock fan characterizes the world of ophthalmology: "it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood” he says.  The reader is left to wonder how Al-Asad would characterize the world of Middle Eastern politics.

Links 25 February 2011

  • Neocons split over Arab revolts.
  • Walt does a mea culpa on his prediction that Tunisia's uprising would not spread.
  • Oh boy: "The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in "psychological operations" to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war, Rolling Stone has learned – and when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators."
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    Weirdest Iran video ever

    I'm not sure what's the point here — that there's a nice upper class lifestyle available in Iran and not everybody is a mullah?

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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.

    Discontent in Tunisia

    A good AJE report on social discontment in Tunisia. A very good example of why it's not enough to change the leaders, the very model of economic distribution has to be changed. Too many Arab countries basically adopted a economic model after decolonization where an elite replaced the old colonial class and the fundamental distribution of wealth remained the same.

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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.

    The Economist on Libya

    This week's Economist has an excellent leader on Libya and the whole question of whether Western engagement over the past decade was a mistake. An excerpt from the conclusion:

    The lesson from the Arab awakening is an uplifting one. Hard-headed students of realpolitik like to think that only they see the world as it truly is, and that those who pursue human rights and democracy have their heads in the clouds. In their world, the Middle East was not ready for democracy, Arabs not interested in human rights, and the strongmen the only bulwark between the region and Islamic revolution. Yet after the wave of secular uprisings, it is the cynics who seem out of touch, and the idealists have turned out to be the realists.

    Just occasionally, the power of ordinary people can overturn the certainties of the experts. That is why countries dealing with dictators should never confuse engagement with endorsement and why the West should press for human rights and democracy—even when it is inconvenient, as it is with China and Russia. Just ask those who have summoned up the courage to risk death for a cause on the streets of Tripoli.

    Also see, if you have a subscription (or the print issue), the rest of their briefing on the regional unrest, including this report from Eastern Libya:

    IN A parliament building that predates the Qaddafi regime, the founding fathers of a new Libya have gathered. In this Green Mountain town, perched above the coastal sand-flats, they plan to write a new constitution and restore civilian rule. A week after their uprising against 41 years of dictatorship, lawyers, doctors, tribal leaders, colonels, university professors and even Muammar Qaddafi’s justice minister are preparing for power. Inside and outside the assembly hall, crowds of men, women and children cheer and cry for their “monkey king” to leave.

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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.

    Calls for change at Al Ahram

    One of the most interesting (and hard to follow) phenomena of the moment in Egypt is the proliferation of demands for reform at the level of institutions and workplaces. At all sort of different organizations, workers are demanding the resignation of top officials and the institutions of more equitable pay scales. 

    I just did a piece looking at this for the radio show The World. One of the people I spoke is my old friend Sabah Hamamou, who is one of the leaders of an effort to reform state newspapers. She and 300 other journalists wrote a letter of apology to readers for Al Ahram's coverage of the protests. The editors refused to print it so they called a press conferences and read it out loud. They have also created a Facebook group called The Front to Save Al Ahram (there is another Facebook group calling for a boycott of the paper until its management changes). And for an account of an editorial meeting right after Mubarak's resignation in which Hamamou confronted the newly, suddenly "revolutionary" management, listen to the piece. 

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    More on intervention in Libya

    Helena Cobban responds to my post on choices for intervention in Libya, advocating "incapacitation" rather than my "decapitation." But then again she is a Quaker and therefore a pacifist, I am an Arab and therefore prone to irrational bouts of violence and strong-horse worship (if I understand my Lee Smith correctly). To tell the truth, I am not bothered by the idea of killing Qadhafi, I just prefer that Libyans do it.

    I guess I would just tweak his proposal by changing "decapitation mission" to "incapacitation mission." I think it's both wrong and unwise to plan outright to kill anyone, even someone who's done such heinous things as Muammar Qadhafi. But incapacitating him-- and also, crucially, the command-and-control networks through which he exercises his power-- is another matter completely.

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