I have – alongside Steven Cook, Philip Giraldi and Gonul Tol - a short piece out in the NYT's Room for Debate on the subject of deep states. The other articles are largely Turkey-focused (because of one interpretation of the AKP's recent electoral victory an inversion of the deep state as experienced in Turkey in the 1980s). I take a slightly contrarian view on deep states, pointing out that shadowy networks of interests are not always bad and arguing that in Tunisia, these worked to avert a wider crisis that could have easily gone in the direction of what happened in Egypt. Generally, though, when you hear about the deep state, it's not good news - and when you don't hear about it, it does not mean it's not there.
I have a piece on the Al Fanar site looking at the problems scholars face conducting research on sensitive topics (which can be almost any topic) in the middle east. After hopes were raised of greater access to and circulation of information after the Arab Spring, academics seem to be facing more repression than ever now. Foreign scholars are worried about getting in trouble or losing access to the countries they study. But I came across some cases of young scholars persevering in their work under extreme circumstances.
Lynch says he knows many scholars working “under the radar” and respects their decision to do so. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths. A European Ph.D. student who requested anonymity has been working in Egypt since 2010, researching labor relations. In 2012 he was questioned by the security services and told to “choose another country.”
The young researcher went on visiting a factory town, hiding in the back seat of a rented car when it passed police roadblocks on the way there. But “It’s been tricky to make new contacts,” he says. “People are extremely afraid of talking.” He also suffers from “the mental part of all this—the stress and anxiety and the feeling you’re a criminal when you’re not.”
“I’ve wondered every day if it was worth it,” he says. But “you don’t want to risk being excluded from the one place where you’ve invested so much time and effort, the geographical focus of all your academic endeavors.”
It’s hard to measure the extent to which Middle East specialists face intimidation because many prefer not to draw attention to any difficulties they have. “When a scholar gets into trouble, he or she thinks: if I can cast it differently, if I do it in a different country etc,” says Brown.
I was in just in Rome for a conference put on at the foreign ministry there by Reset, a publication dedicated to inter-cultural dialogue, and the Arab Media Report, an excellent Italian observatory. The conference was about media, censorship and dialogue in the Arab world, Iran and Turkey. Olivier Roy, Fawaz Gerges, Donatella Della Ratta and I spoke about various aspects of the Islamic State's propaganda and about reactions in the Arab media.
Professor Roy emphasized that the Islamic state is a youth movement more than a social movement or an Islamic movement and that those who join are in rebellion against their families (rather than participating in a socially recognized form of militancy). Professor Gerges warned that the side-effect of the focus on the savagery of the Islamic State is the legitimation of "good" salafi-jihadist movements like Al Qaeda and Al Nusra. Professor Della Ratta argued that the media of Sunni Arab countries has not been able to condemn the Islamic State fully because it views it as its deplorable but necessary proxy in the regional Sunni-Shia (KSA-Iran) war.
Everyone agreed that it is much too soon to measure the impact of ISIS propaganda on recruitment and public opinion -- the data just isn't there, and the question is complicated by how much media of different kinds for different audiences they produce. And that one shouldn't rush to try to craft a "counter-narrative" to the Islamic State before even understanding what their narrative is (and that in any case that narrative cannot come from the West, and that it will not be enough unless political and material conditions in Syria and Iraq change as well).
I spoke a bit about the spectacular violence of the Islamic State and the way it is designed to capture and dominate the imagination. The responses meanwhile have ranged from retribution (retaliatory strikes and executions by Egypt and Jordan after their citizens were murdered) to conspiracy theories (a very common claim, based on some elements of truth, is that ISIS is a Western creation) from condemnation to ridicule. The Islamic State is already a joke in many editorial cartoons and TV sit-coms. This satire ranges from a healthy subversion of the sick mises-en-scene of which ISIS is so obviously proud, to a more disturbing sort of denial. One very interesting example of depictions of the Islamic State in Arab popular culture is the Saudi sitcom Selfie, in which a father travels to find his jihadist son and pretends to join ISIS to get close to him and persuade him to leave. Lots of of fun is poked at the Islamic state, but the intergenerational conflict is played straight; the satirical show ends in tragedy. The main comic actor who plays the father has of course received death threats from ISIS.
"Selfie" aired on MBC satellite TV channel last Ramadan
Economist, former government minister and rare voice of reason Ziad Bahaa Eddin presents a list of sensible suggestions for what Egypt should do, undo, and not do to right its sinking economic ship. Pity that they will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. This installment of our In Translation series is brought to you as always by the professional translation team at Industry Arabic.
El Shorouk newspaper, October 20 1015
One cannot describe the current economic situation as only a minor bump, one that we can deal with using the same tools and methods the state has grown accustomed to using over the past years, and which exacerbated the crisis in the first place. I am not referring here to the disturbances in the exchange market that recently grabbed the media’s attention: they are a symptom of an underlying sickness, the expression of deeper problems in the management of the economy. The principle of these problems are weak levels of investment, exports and employment and the rise in both internal and external public debt. The most important of these problems, though, is the government’s lack of clarity in its economic policy and the direction it intends to pursue. For citizens, the steady price increases, especially in food, the continuing decline in public services and the scarcity of employment opportunities are the real indicators of the Egyptian economy’s performance. For them, these issues are more important than figures for growth, reserves and the public debt.
We can, of course, blame the slowdown in world trade, global conspiracies, or the regional situation. None of these, though, are sufficient to explain the rapid worsening of the economic situation over the past few months. We can also demand that minister after minister step down or cabinet after cabinet be replaced every time there seems to be a slowdown or a failure or every time the media calls for an immediate change. However, the gravity of the current situation requires us to stop and reassess our position and to build a minimum of consensus around certain important priorities instead of searching for a scapegoat or trying to satisfy the media’s thirst for a new victim. Here is what I propose:Read More
I have been thinking about the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani, who passed away this week. Then a friend in Milan sent me the picture below, of a signed copy of his novel Zayni Barakat, which has somehow ended up in her library in Italy rather than mine in Morocco.
When I became the culture editor of a little independent weekly called Cairo magazine, back in 2005, one of the first things I did was visit al-Ghitani in his office as editor of the well-known literary magazine Akhbar El Adab. I can't remember how I got the appointment in the first place. He was very kind, patient (with my poor Arabic), helpful (with my questions about contemporary Egyptian literature) and mildly flirtatious (in an unthreatening "if only I was 40 years younger" way). I made it a habit after that to come see him now and then.
Zayni Barakat, which is based on his knowledge of Egyptian medieval texts, is a complicated political allegory about power, surveillance, propaganda and torture -- a very good, disturbing novel.
I also quite enjoyed the premise of The Zaafarani Affair: An alley in Cairo is struck with impotence, and shunned by the rest of the city out of fear it may be contagious.
The other book of his that is lovely -- a book I struggled through when teaching myself to read Arabic -- is Magalis Mahfouzia (later translated by Humphrey Davies as The Mahfouz Dialogs), his collection of anecdotes and quotations by his beloved mentor Naguib Mahfouz, gleaned from the many years he spent attending Mahfouz's various regular "salons." (It was also thanks to El Ghitani that I was able to attend one myself, and meet Mahfouz before he died).
I never visited al-Ghitani after the 2011 uprising in Egypt (although I think we spoke on the phone once). His healthy was poor, and I was very busy. I'm afraid that, as with many leftist/nationalist intellectuals of his generation, his a view of the "second revolution" that put Abdel-Fattah El Sisi in power would have differed from mine and disappointed me. But I will always remember him as a one of my first and most charming encounters with Cairo's world of letters.
- Egyptian Facebook User Sentenced to Three Years in Prison for Photoshopping Mickey Mouse Ears on Sisi
- Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani dies aged 70
- Dinner with Elias Khoury
Nice account by @arablit. I have fond memories of after-class drinks with Khoury.
- Teaching Islam in the Age of ISIS
- Whatever happened to Middle Eastern studies?
Interesting -- they are now "Islamic" studies
- Pictures Showing Where Young Syrian Refugees Sleep
Not Suitable For Your Heart
- Egypt's women-only taxi service promises protection from male drivers
But some say it's just more gender segregation
- A coup busted? | Mada Masr
Hossam Bahgat on an alleged coup against Sisi.
I have recently started writing a column for the Al Fanar site (a bilingual site that cover higher education issues across the Arab world). For the second installment, I met with a Moroccan professor, journalist and activist who is in the center of a controversy here over freedom of speech. Maati Monjib, a historian and a leading figure of the February 20 protest movement, was banned from leaving the country last month.
Mr. Monjib said the ban is an attempt to intimidate him: “They want me to stop my activism, to discredit me, and to silence others.”
Our meeting took place in the offices of a human rights NGO in Rabat—a dilapidated apartment decorated with bright traditional tiles and graffiti. Monjib is alert and combative, despite the fact that for part of the interview he sat in a wheelchair and that two days before this he was hospitalized. He received a steady stream of phone calls, answering friends’ inquiries with: “I’m OK. I’m resisting!” A petition of support has been signed by prominent Moroccan and foreign academics. The Middle East Studies Association has written to the king and the prime minister of Morocco to request an end to the travel ban.
Freedom of expression and academic freedom will be issues of concern for me. So will any promising new educational initiatives and ground-breaking research, as well as the cultural and scholarly debates of the day in the region.
I have a blog post up on Crisis Group's In Pursuit of Peace blog about the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which won the Nobel Peace Prize, explaining in a nutshell why it was able to accomplish what it did in 2013:
There are several reasons the National Dialogue succeeded, including strong popular and international pressure to avoid the Egyptian scenario. A key factor was that the Quartet had real support in Tunisian society. The UGTT, despite years of dictatorship, had managed to build a national network of over 400,000 members and today has the ability to call for massive general strikes that can paralyse the economy. While the UGTT represents labour, the UTICA represents capital, the influential and moneyed business elite. The human rights league and the lawyers’ syndicate are veterans of the opposition to the Ben Ali regime and played an important role in the 2011 revolution. Together, these four organisations had both moral clout and political brawn; they could mobilise public opinion and steer the national debate. The UGTT and UTICA, precisely because they are often at loggerheads on labour issues, made for a particularly compelling duo in jointly pushing an agenda of compromise.
Read the full thing here.
Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite who grew up in Ben Ghazi, was educated and wrote in Italian, and over the course of 40 years penned an extraordinary cycle of novels about the bloody establishment, brief flourishing and troubled aftermath of the Italian colony in Libya. I had the pleasure of writing about his work in the latest issue of The Nation.
Spina belonged to a set of privileged, wandering, mercantile minorities whose identities could not be reduced to nationalities, and who have been all but swept out of the Middle East by xenophobia, conflict, and ethnic cleansing. Spina aspired to cosmopolitanism but inverted its usual polarities: He liked to shock his Italian friends by telling them that he had “un-provincialized” himself by moving from Milan to Benghazi. His influences and references range from Proust to The Thousand and One Nights to the fifth-century Greek philosopher and bishop Synesius of Cyrene. But for all his cosmopolitanism, Spina was not interested in universalism. What he valued, above all, was being unique. He was a Catholic moved by the daily presence of the divine in traditional Muslim society; a successful industrialist who viewed modernization with skepticism and melancholy; a critic of colonialism who was also dismissive of superficial tiers-mondisme; and a scathing critic of the silence of all Italian political factions regarding the country’s colonial crimes. The nom de plume he adopted—spina means “thorn”—suited him perfectly: The Italian he wrote in is exquisite but prickly. His sentences are thickets, dense and erudite, demanding to be reread. But his sharp, poetic images lodge instantly in one’s memory. “The cold hand of that old man an unbreakable dam” is how he describes the severe and orthodox teacher who curbs the young Sheikh Hassan’s flowing curiosity in The Nocturnal Visitor. Spina abhorred shortcuts and banality—journalists, whom he viewed as purveyors of the commonplace, were his bêtes noires. And he didn’t think of difference as something to be dismissed or overcome. “Nothing is more fruitful and more vital than the irreconcilable,” he wrote.
A translation of the first three novels that make up Spina's magnum opus The Confines of the Shadow, by poet André Naffis-Sahely, is out from Darf Publishers. Hopefully there is more to come.
Shereef Azer writes: I’ll Show You “Tinkering with the Constitution”!
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently dismissed the country's constitution as founded on unrealistic "good intentions" (this same constitution was celebrated, when it was approved in January 2014, as basically the best in the world). In the latest installment of our In Translation series, brought to you as always by the translation professionals of Industry Arabic, Shereef Azer imagines what might have led the president -- now that a parliament that will share some of the powers he has monopolized for the last two years is finally on the horizon -- to change his evaluation.
Long ago, we were told that “constitution” is a Persian word that means “father of the law.” Yet it appears as though its current meaning in the corridors of the Egyptian government is “to hell with the law.” The regime’s approach is obvious, as it manipulates the law and the legislative process as it pleases, in the absence of a working parliament. Even so, to now hint at amending the constitution is both extremely provocative and unacceptable.
In his speech at the opening ceremony of University Youth Week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that “the constitution granted broad powers to parliament, and with good intentions, but the country cannot run on good intentions alone.” Of course, these words represent a great insult to the Committee of Fifty that drafted the constitution. They presume that this committee had no idea what it was doing and that its members merely wrote, with good intentions, what was in their hearts. This is not something that a proper president of the republic should be saying.
The problem is that when you get to thinking about this statement, you necessarily arrive at the conclusion that the president fears something in this constitution and that he wishes he could change it in order to serve some goal. It becomes clear that the president wants to run the country according to his whims and without anything standing in his way. Well then, let’s see what in the constitution might be angering our president and getting his knickers in a twist.
First off, it’s clear that the president has gotten into a jam with all this parliament nonsense – even though he had tried to avoid it for quite some time – and he has finally been forced to take a look at the constitution and its meaning. If there’s going to be a parliament one way or another, he figured, then at least he should see what it’s all about. He opened the constitution and (Oh God, please let it be good!)…there right in front of his face was an absolute disaster. This upcoming parliament has the power to remove the president. Now, I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader, but I’m certain that the president reacted to this particular article of the constitution with a certain four-letter word. Surely, certain thoughts began to cross his mind, but thank goodness he said “good intentions” instead – otherwise, he would already have had the Committee of Fifty arrested and tried on charges of planning to overthrow the government.Read More
Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.
Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic.Read More
Press freedom in Turkey has taken a beating in recent years, driven by efforts to detain and expel journalists with ties to the Kurdish PKK. The journalist Frederike Geerdink was recently expelled from Turkey while covering the PKK. And three reporters associated with VICE News were detained for “supporting terrorism” – that is, interviewing PKK members. The government’s logic here is eerily similar to that of the Egyptian court that passed judgment on Al Jazeera reporters for the “crime” of interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are quite a few other “off-limits” topics in Ankara’s eyes today. After the Kurdish Question, the most taboo one is government corruption, whether it is in the form of sweet deals for friends and family of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the diversion of war matériel into Syria.
The most recent episode in this drama was a police raid on the offices of the Kopa Ipek conglomerate. The raid followed a report in the Koza Ipek-owned Bugün newspaper on the transfer of weaponry and construction material into Syria from a Turkish border post. Warrants have since been issued for the firm’s executives on the grounds that Kopa Ipek is allegedly providing material support to Syrian terrorists.
Examining the record of arms transfers into Syria – ostensibly to fight against Assad and build influence among the rebel forces – is a particular sore spot these days, with the government going so far as to arrest the forensics experts and prosecutors who were originally tasked with investigating arms transfers … until their higher-ups decided to kill the probe and punish those whose routine police work exposed a major clandestine operation. Erdogan himself has even demanded that reporters from Cumhuriyet face maximum jail time on the grounds that their reporting is part of a conspiracy by his former Islamist allies, the GulenistsRead More
In a long two-part article, the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel has written an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. I'm not sure what triggered the timing, but it is probably related to the collective hand-wringing about the state of the region, and the Syrian calamity in particular, that the picture of Aylan al-Kurdi and thousands of other refugees from Syria has triggered. Much like some segments of the Western press about the West's response, there has been much questioning as to whether enough is being done for Syria by Arabs. (Of course, there has also been much opportunistic blame-shifting by the various sides of the Syrian war.)
Al-Dakheel's jeremiad, an increasingly common type of article by Arab intellectuals in these dark ages (although one could trace the style, at least, to Sadik al-Azm's Self-Criticism After the Defeat), is about something more general, though. It appears as an exasperated antidote to the widespread strain of fuzzy, conspiratorial, delusional and self-aggrandizing rhetoric that dominates so much of public discourse in the region. It has little interest in focusing on the colonial and neo-imperial roots of the Middle East's troubles, seeing them as a way to deflect responsibility for Arab countries' and societies' faults and choices. Yet in its flattering (and somewhat provocative) assessment of Western superiority, it still remains trapped in the us-versus-them logic that it decries as so poisonous. This is part I of his article published in al-Hayat, part II will be published on Wednesday.
Brought to you, as always, by the excellent professional translation team of Industry Arabic.Read More
- Amnesty decries treatment of injured detainee Esraa al-Taweel
- Maroc : « La progression des islamistes est un sérieux problème pour la monarchie »
It might be a bigger problem if they had no legitimate parties left to co-opt
- Une « révolution des ordures » au Liban ?
Analysis of "You Stink" movement (in French)
- The Egyptian star pupil who scored zero in all her exams
More bald-faced corruption
- Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights
Ursula Leguin (!) reviews Salman Rushdie's latest.
- 'Arabs Without God' translated
Brian Whitaker's book on atheism available in Arabic.
- Four Seasons rolls out the red carpet for King Salman
Who will rid us of these turbulent Sauds?
- Why I tweeted the photo of the dead Syrian toddler
From Liz Sly, who's been reporting on Syria for years
As the bodies of those trying to reach Europe continue to be found piled in trucks or washed up on shores, are we finally acknowledging the almost unfathomable magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, and our responsibility to help? Many ordinary citizens are doing more than their governments.
German train stations are overwhelmed by donations for arriving refugees. An online fundraising campaign has raised $150,000 to benefit a Syrian father of two selling pens on the streets of Beirut. Over ten thousand Icelanders took to Facebook to volunteer to host Syrian refugees (after their government announced it would take 50).
If you are an American, you can sign this petition to resettle more Syrian refugees in our country (we have taken less than 1,000 so far). The suffering of these people is a historic calamity, and a shame on us all.