Growth is good for dictators

Here's an interesting theory courtesy of The Monkey Cage:

Contractions in economic outputs due to drought increase the likelihood of democratic reform while short-term weather-related jumps in output decrease that likelihood. That is the core finding of a new article in the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics by Paul Burke and Andrew Leigh (ungated version here, h/t to Kevin Lewis). The effects are substantial. The authors estimate that a one-year recession in an autocratic nation that reduced GDP per capita growth by 6 percentage points increases that country's probability of undergoing significant democratic reform in the next year by 8 percentage points. The authors are careful to point out that these are short-term effects that do not necessarily tell us anything about long-term relationships between income and democracy. That is: shocks in economic outputs may determine the timing of regime change rather than whether a country eventually becomes (and stays) more democratic.

I wonder if you were to track agricultural output and (as much as they can be quantified) democratic openings and closings in the Arab world, you would find such a correlation. Could the current regression seen in Morocco be explained by good crops in the last year, contributing to decent GDP growth? Can you explain the opening of 2004-2006 by a poorly performing economy in 1999-2003 that demanded that a new management team be put in place (in the shape of the Nazif government)? Did Egypt's relatively strong performance (in terms of GDP growth) between 2005 and now make it easier for the regime to pull back from that opening?

Interesting questions all, but I would still look first to specific contingencies: electoral cycles, the policies of external actors, psychology of key regime actors, etc.

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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.

Gulf justice

The backwardness of the religious and political leaders of the Gulf Arabs, combined with their vast wealth, has been the undoing of the contemporary Arab world — perhaps even more so than all the wars with Israel. From HRW:

Saudi Arabia: Where Fathers Rule and Courts Oblige

Saudi judges have repeatedly granted fathers the right to interfere arbitrarily in their adult children's private lives, in serious violation of their right to privacy and to establish families freely, Human Rights Watch said today. Fathers have imprisoned their adult daughters for "disobedience" and prevented their marriage, and have been granted custody over a grandchild without valid reason, all with the support of the courts.

UAE: Spousal Abuse Never a ‘Right’

A decision by the United Arab Emirates Federal Supreme Court upholding a husband's right to "chastise" his wife and children with physical abuse violates the right of the country's women and children to liberty, security, and equality in the family - and potentially their right to life, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling, citing the UAE penal code, sanctions beating and other forms of punishment or coercion providing the violence leaves no physical marks.

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.

How security states work: China

From the NYRB blog, ‘A Turning Point in the Long Struggle’: Chinese Citizens Defend Liu Xiaobo by Perry Link:

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities continue to try to control how the story is perceived both at home and abroad. Liu Xia, who is Liu Xiaobo’s wife, is under house arrest without having been charged, which violates Chinese law and is bad press internationally for the regime. Her telephone and computer have been confiscated, but she managed to get this message out on October 16 by Twitter on a cell phone:

One of the policemen watching me said that it was his wife’s birthday and that he wanted to go shopping for her. But his orders were that he had to stay with me, so would I like to accompany him to the shopping mall? Sure, I thought, and went. When we got to the mall, I noticed all kinds of strange people photographing me from various angles. I realized it had all been a trick. The authorities wanted photographs to prove that Liu Xia is free and happily shopping at malls.

This shows, beyond the regime’s bald mendacity, that it cares about international opinion.

Read the rest of the post for the open letter written by 109 friends of Liu Xiaobo — very courageous people all — calling for political reform in China. It's the same kind of demand that got him in jail.

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.

Gitmo perverts the law

Scott Horton, at Harpers: Another Chapter in the Justice Department’s State-Secrecy Charade

ProPublica’s Dafna Linzer has an important story on a court opinion issued in the case of Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, a man imprisoned for seven years in Guantánamo. Judge Henry Kennedy concluded that the prisoner is mentally ill and that the government had no tenable basis to hold him. He issued an opinion, going through the normal channels for classification review. The Justice Department cleared a form of his opinion, and it was released. Within days, the Justice Department, stung by the scathing nature of the opinion, which methodically reviewed false factual claims that DOJ lawyers made, insisted that it be withdrawn and rewritten, apparently arguing to the judge that it disclosed classified information about the circumstances of the prisoner’s capture. As quickly became apparent, the object of the Justice Department’s revisions had little to do with state secrets—but a lot to do with covering up the Court’s dissection of what lawyers like to call a “failure of candor.”

The US needs to get some training from Egyptian State Security courts if it wants more pliant judges.

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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.

Why do the Saudis need so many helicopters anyway?

From the news that the Bush-era deal for the sale of $60bn of weapons to Saudi Arabia:

The arms package includes 84 new F-15 fighter jets and upgrades to 70 more F-15s that the Saudis already have, as well as three types of helicopters: 70 Apaches, 72 Black Hawks and 36 Little Birds. Saudi Arabia would also get versions of a satellite-guided "smart bomb" system, plus anti-ship and anti-radar missiles.

What will they use all of these helicopters for? Future incursions into Yemen? Riot control in Dhahran province? Counter-terrorism in the Empty Quarter? Helicopters, unlike F-15s, are not really for engaging another state (like Iran) in the case of a major regional conflict.

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The Great Book Robbery

The Great Book Robbery (teaser) from Benny Brunner on Vimeo.

An excerpt from a film about the sacking of Palestinian libraries in 1948.

60,000 Palestinian books were systematically looted by the newly born State of Israel during the 1948 war. The story of the stolen books is not only at the heart of our project but also the launching pad of a much bigger and wider endeavor: We intend on communicating the scope and depth of the Palestinian tragedy through the destruction of Palestinian culture in 1948.

The filmmakers are looking for distributors and financial support, find out more at their site.

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.

How US foreign policy works, part CLXIII

It's from 2008, but if you haven't read it before, I highly recommend former UNSCOM weapon inspector Scott Ritter's account of his dinner with Ahmad Chalabi and a bunch of neocon operatives back in 1998. It's illuminating about Chalabi, about Washington, and about how the neocon network's view of Iraq long predates the Bush administration.

There was a knock at the door, and Chalabi's butler answered. In walked Rademaker's wife, Danielle Pletka, accompanied by none other than James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA. They found seats around the table, and it became clear that this was where we would be eating. The discussion moved from the flawed military planning evident in Gen. Downing's paper and onto the issue of Chalabi's political future. Jim Woolsey was an unabashed supporter of Chalabi, something I found strange since Chalabi and the CIA were at odds over many aspects of the INC's past operations. "This [criticism] is all bunk," Woolsey said. "Chalabi is an Iraqi patriot and visionary who intimidates many lesser thinkers in Langley [CIA headquarters]. My friend Ahmed is a risk taker who understands the reality of Iraq, unlike the desk-bound analysts and risk-averse operators at the CIA. Chalabi scares these people, so they have created false accusations in order to denigrate him and ultimately destroy him." Danielle Pletka chimed in. "We cannot allow this to happen. Ahmed Chalabi has many friends in Congress, and it is our goal to make sure Ahmed Chalabi gets the support he needs to not only survive as a viable opposition figure to Saddam Hussein but more importantly to prevail in Iraq."

These people should really pay for what they did.

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.

Sit like an effendi and eat!

I am loving that expression, courtesy of Rabbi Ovadia Youssef:

The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews, according to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the head of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages and a senior Sephardi adjudicator.

“Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel,” he said in his weekly Saturday night sermon on the laws regarding the actions non-Jews are permitted to perform on Shabbat.

According to Yosef, the lives of non-Jews in Israel are safeguarded by divinity, to prevent losses to Jews.

“In Israel, death has no dominion over them... With gentiles, it will be like any person – they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why? Imagine that one’s donkey would die, they’d lose their money.

This is his servant... That’s why he gets a long life, to work well for this Jew,” Yosef said.

“Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat.

That is why gentiles were created,” he added.

Oh well, back to work for me — the spiritual leader of one of Israel's most important political parties would have it no other way.

Column: Running interference

This week at al-Masri al-Youm, I look at the surreal obsession the Egyptian government has with "foreign interference" — by which it means foreign criticism of its human rights record — and the role some Western countries have played in helping it. France, which this week is sending its human rights ambassador to Cairo with strict instructions to only address anti-semitism (not exactly Egypt's top human right problem), is a particularly telling example.

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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 Real Bahrain

The Real Bahrain - WSJ.com

In 2005, The Wall Street Journal carried a front-page news story about Ali Abdulemam, a young blogger in Bahrain, the island nation off Saudi Arabia's coast that hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The article reported that Mr. Abdulemam's blog mixed "irreverent politics and reverent Islam," and that Mr. Abdulemam had, several years earlier, stopped using a pseudonym. This was remarkable since Bahrain's Sunni-led government has historically used arbitrary detention, torture and other tactics to stifle calls for political equality by Bahrain's majority-Shia population. Mr. Abdulemam's decision to post openly came after King Hamad, who assumed power in 1999, had instituted reforms that included holding elections for an advisory parliament and ending torture.

It would be telling—but impossible—to ask Mr. Abdulemam if he now regrets discarding the pseudonym. On Sept. 4, Bahrain's National Security Apparatus called him to appear for questioning. After making a Facebook post about the call and attempting to contact a lawyer, Mr. Abdulemam left for the Apparatus's headquarters. He did not return.

The next Mr. Abdulemam's family heard of him was from a government news agency's story, reporting that prosecutors were questioning Mr. Abdulemam in a "terrorist network" investigation. Mr. Abdulemam, the account continued, had been "diffusing fabricated and malicious news on Bahrain" and receiving funding from a London-based "terror mastermind."

In retrospect, events during the last weeks of August foretold Mr. Abdulemam's arrest. On Aug. 13, authorities detained longtime opposition figure Abdul-Jalil Singace after he returned to Bahrain from a House of Lords event in London. Shortly after, 20 additional "terrorist network" figures were arrested, including well-known activists, Shia clerics, and a dentist. A charge sheet without reference to any purported facts accused them of "organizing. . . to overthrow and change the political system of the country," and of "working with international organizations."

Also do read this Economist piece on Bahrain.

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.

Nabulsi on Palestine, in LRB

Today's must-read: LRB · Karma Nabulsi · Diary

Nowadays, when Palestinian activists in their twenties and thirties meet up with veterans of the Palestinian struggle, they show an unexpected thoughtfulness towards the older, revolutionary generation, to which I belong. This is nothing like the courtesy extended as a matter of course to older people in our part of the world: it is more intimate and more poignant. What brings us together is always the need to discuss the options before us, and to see if a plan can be made. Everyone argues, laughs, shouts and tells black jokes. But whenever a proper discussion begins, the suddenly lowered voices of our frustrated young people, many of them at the heart of the fierce protests on university campuses and in rights campaigns elsewhere, have the same tone I used to hear in the voices of our young ambulance workers in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s: an elegiac gentleness towards the hopelessly wounded, towards those who were already beyond repair.

The way Palestinians see things, the fragmentation of the body politic – externally engineered, and increasingly internally driven – has now been achieved. This summer, even the liberal Israeli press began to notice that the key people in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s capital in the West Bank, no longer discuss strategies of liberation but rather the huge business deals that prey on the public imagination. Every institution or overarching structure that once united Palestinians has now crumbled and been swept away. The gulf between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and Fatah, between Palestinians inside Palestine and the millions of refugees outside it, between city and village, town and refugee camp, now seems unbridgeable. The elites are tiny and the numbers of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised increase every day. There is, at this moment, no single body able to claim legitimately to represent all Palestinians; no body able to set out a collective policy or national programme of liberation. There is no plan.

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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 18 October 2010

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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.

Egyptian Reggae


Jonathan Richman- Egyptian Reggae
Uploaded by zoltard. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

Jonathan Richman is a Boston-raised musician credited to be an early innovator of punk rock along with his band, The Modern Lovers. In 1977, he had a hit single (reaching no. 5 in the UK) with this instrumental track, Egyptian Reggae. The video above is not his, but a skit done along to the tune of unknown origins.

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 for 16-17 October 2010

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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.

1970s Futurist prediction: Egypt wiped out

From the great blog Paleofuture, excerpts (1, 2) from the 1968 American futurist Paul Ehrlichin's book The Population Bomb, in which he predicted global chaos due to high population growth and the Cold War, and advocated sending food aid spiked with anti-fertility drugs to third world countries:

In 1974 the United States government finally realizes that the food-population balance in much of Asia, Africa, and South America is such that most areas cannot attain self-sufficiency. American expeditionary forces are withdrawn from Vietnam and Thailand, and the United States announces it will no longer send food to India, Egypt, and some other countries which it considers beyond hope. A moderate food rationing program is instituted in the United States. It further announces that food production in the United States will be increased only so long as the increase can be accomplished without damage to the environment of the North American continent.

. . .

"Only the outbreak of a particularly virulent strain of bubonic plague killing 65% of the starving Egyptian population had averted a direct Soviet-American clash in the Mediterranean."

Of course in reality the Green Revolution dramatically increases crop renditions, enabling countries like Egypt to feed their rapidly growing populations by both growing more and importing more. Still, with that kind of literature around no wonder the meme of plots to poison the country by food aid remain a staple of the Egyptian yellow media.

If you have heard of any other insane predictions about Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world, please send them my way! 

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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.

Alastair Crooke on Ahmedinejad in Lebanon

THE TRUE SIGNIFICANCE OF AHMADINEJAD’S LEBANON VISIT « The Race for Iran:

"Firstly, let us put to one side the nonsense: The President of Iran’s visit was not about embedding Lebanon as a part of the Iranian state, nor was it about paving the way for any Hizbullah ‘take-over’ of Lebanon; and nor can the visit be described as a ‘provocation’. It was of course self-evidently intended to express defiance towards Israeli military hegemony and to assert a stand of counter-deterrence to any Israeli military threat, but that it is very different from an ‘act of provocation’ deliberately intended to draw an Israeli response.  All these claims for the purpose of the visit are just a part of the psychological warfare mounted against Iran, and can be ignored.

The visit was, in fact, a State visit. The Iranian President was formally invited by the Maronite Christian President of Lebanon some while ago. Iran is a prominent regional state, just as Turkey is – whose Prime Minister happens to be visiting Beirut today.

Iran’s popularity on the streets should not surprise anyone.  It is real, and it is heartfelt – and extends beyond the Shi’i of the south of Beirut.  Having been present here in Beirut throughout the war of 2006, I experienced the almost universal shock at how leaders and so-called ‘friends of Lebanon’ such as Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice tried to fend-off and delay a ceasefire – in order to allow Israel more time to ‘finish the job’, i.e. to destroy more bridges, more infrastructure and impose civilian casualties – as our ‘price’ to be paid for Hizbullah’s seizure of Israeli soldiers. Feelings here are still raw on this point, and all sectors of opinion know that the only real support for Lebanon in those dark hours came from Syria and Iran.  Unsurprisingly, there was a direct element of gratitude in expression to Iran in recent days both for the support then, and its subsequent economic assistance to repair the damage."

Glad someone is taking the time to debunk the "who invited him anyway" line coming out in Washington. But I'll have to beg to differ about Crooke's conclusion that Ahmedinejad articulates a global revolt against market capitalism or alienated elites — not only are Iran's elites at times as alienated from ordinary people as those anywhere else, but in that country you see two rival elite clusters (broadly identified around the Rafsanjani crowd and the Republican Guards) use corruption, state control and even violence to gain control.

US is now pro-Taliban, but still anti-Hamas

Helena Cobban makes a good point: U.S. supports Taliban talks; Still opposing Hamas??

So here are Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and SecDef Bob Gates now saying they support-- and are giving active support to-- the Afghan government's initiative to negotiate with the Taliban. But the U.S. government continues to completely oppose any attempt by any parties, Palestinian or other, to reach out and deal with the Hamas government that, lest we forget, was democratically elected in Palestine in January 2006. How does that work again? And why?

So you back negotiations the antediluvian crazies who hosted the people who killed 3000 of your citizens, but can't touch the people who never attacked you, were legitimately elected and are defending their homeland. Makes a lot of sense.

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 15 October 2010

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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.

A message from the ADL

The Anti-Defamation League has done us the enormous favor of identifying effective organizations calling for a just peace in the Middle East. Please donate generously to the following 10 groups:

ADL IDENTIFIES TOP 10 ANTI-ISRAEL GROUPS IN AMERICA

New York, NY, October 14, 2010 … They organize mass demonstrations featuring extreme anti-Israel and anti-Zionist messages. They seek to undermine the Jewish state by spreading malicious propaganda. They pursue boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel.

They are the 10 most influential and active anti-Israel groups in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“While there are hundreds of groups that organize and participate in various anti-Israel activities, we have identified the largest and most well-coordinated anti-Israel groups,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “These groups are not promoting peace, they are spreading propaganda to assault Israel’s legitimacy. We want to Americans to know who these groups are and what it is they really stand for, which is to delegitimize the Jewish state.”

In a new online report, ADL takes a close look at the top 10 anti-Israel groups operating in the U.S. The League examines the dynamics of the U.S. anti-Israel movement and the ability of the most prominent groups to organize events, attract supporters and forge relationships with other like-minded organizations.

The Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups, as identified by ADL, are:

  • Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER)
  • Al-Awda
  • Council on American-Islamic Relations
  • Friends of Sabeel-North America
  • If Americans Knew
  • International Solidarity Movement
  • Jewish Voice for Peace
  • Muslim American Society
  • Students for Justice in Palestine
  • US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation

Update: A friend writes in:

From the perspective of someone "on the ground" in the Palestine movement in the US, so to speak, I'd caution against taking the ADL's list too seriously. While its true that groups like JVP are doing enormous work, the U.S. Campaign, for example, is basically a nonfunctional front group at this point. The inclusion of CAIR only makes sense in terms of ADL's Islamophobia, since as far as I know they do no actual Palestine work. SJP is not actually a single organization, of course, but simply the "brand name" of most university Palestine groups. If Americans Knew is not an organization, as far as I know, but simply the website of Allison Weir, who did some good work 10 years ago but is certainly not a key organizer these days.
Just saying-- its about as accurate as your average white orientalists view of Islamist groups or something.

Update 2: Also read this very good piece by Michelle Goldberg in the Daily Beast.

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.