The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The unbelievable gall of Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy, who is currently on trial (among many corruption charges) because he may have used Gulf (Qatari) or Libyan money to finance his electoral campaign, embarked his country on ill-thought out foreign adventures (Libya) and is the architect of a policy of mainstreaming far-right populist memes for his party's electoral purposes, said this:

The axis of power is shifting from West to East as visionary leadership is surpassing democratic governance as key to stability and prosperity, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy told the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend forum.

Mr Sarkozy was the final speaker to address the forum hosted by Tamkeen and The Aspen Institute at New York University Abu Dhabi, touching on themes of globalisation, leadership and Brexit.

“Where you see a great leader, there is no populism,” said Mr Sarkozy, who was president of France from 2007 to 2012. “Where is the populism in China? Where is the populism here? Where is the populism in Russia? Where is the populism in Saudi Arabia? If the great leadership leaves the table, the populist leaders come and replace him.”

Modern democracy “destroys” leaderships, he said, noting some of the world’s greatest leaders today come largely from undemocratic governments.

“How could we have a democracy and at the same time accept leadership?” Mr Sarkozy asked the audience. “How can we have a vision that could look into 10, 15, 20 years and at the same time have an election rhythm in the States, for instance, every four years? The great leaders of the world come from countries that are not great democracies.”

And he does this in a country that is almost entirely dependent on Western (and incidentally, democratic) military backing for its own regime security, including defending the "vision" of its leaders.

Links 22 January - 10 February 2018
LinksThe Editors
Links 15-21 January 2018

Recently on the arabist

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LinksThe Editors
Robert Caro handwrites to slow down

Claudia Dreyfus interviews Robert Caro, the author of the monumental biography of LBJ, for NYRB - I found this bit fascinating:

Is it true that you write your books by hand?

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don’t believe this about me: I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Later, in the early 1960s when I was at Newsday, my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting The Power Broker, I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I said, “You have to slow yourself down.” That’s when I remembered Blackmur’s admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down.

On the politics behind Tunisia's protests

I wrote the piece below with my colleague Michael Ayari, to touch on the politics behind the scenes of the ongoing protests in Tunisia, which are examined at length in a new Crisis Group report, Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift. (Update: Michael and I also have a different piece in Le Monde: En Tunisie, « le risque d’une dérive autoritaire ».)


The protests and rioting that have raged in parts of Tunisia since last week are sometimes branded, both inside the country and abroad, as signs of a new revolutionary moment similar to the 2010-2011 uprising that launched the Arab Spring. The images circulating, after all, give a sense of déjà-vu: young men burning tires at impromptu barricades, throwing stones at police; the army deploying to secure public institutions and banks, etc. This is indeed familiar: it has taken place at regular intervals, especially in winter months, for the last few years. As before, it will most likely die down: protestors are largely driven by specific socio-economic grievances, not a desire to overthrow the regime. Even if there is some continuity -- frustration with social injustice and corruption -- today’s Tunisia is not ruled by a dictator.

The immediate trigger for the current protests was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January. It introduces tax hikes on a number of consumer goods (especially imports) and services, as well as a one-percent increase in value-added tax, contributing to a pre-existing rise in the cost of living that, in a gloomy economic context for most Tunisians, is understandably unpopular. The government says it needs to raise income to balance its finances, and especially to pay for public sector salaries (which account for over half of expenditures). This budget, passed in December 2017, received the support of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the main trade union federation. In most respects it is more protectionist than liberal, and was opposed by business lobbies.

The government has not been deft in selling its policies: claims that the increases won’t affect the poor have fallen on deaf ears (perceptions of cost-of-living increases are much higher than the 6-percent official inflation rate), and the minister of finance sounded rather Marie-Antoinette-ish when he impatiently suggested in a recent interview that mobile-phone recharge cards, whose prices have increased, were not a basic necessity.

At its core, anger against the government’s austerity policies is driven by an overwhelmingly young population with few prospects, especially in the long-neglected interior part of the country. Successive governments have had little success in changing this since 2011, and the current one must reconcile pressure from the street with that coming from its international partners, including the IMF, which has called for accelerated reforms and greater fiscal responsibility.

The protests are mostly non-violent -- the large protests during the day have been well-organized and peaceful, expressing the general frustration of the population about the meager returns of the 2011 revolution when it comes to living standards. At night, however, a different crowd comes out, often engaging in looting and attacks on public buildings, stealing from stores or taking advantage of localised chaos for criminal purposes. The rage against the system that periodically erupts in the most deprived areas of the country -- and has done so before, during and since the 2011 uprising (indeed there have been similar protests every January for the last three years) -- often targets security forces, as the arson of police stations attests.

The police, which must address the rioting, is showing signs of panic and over-reach: among the over 700 persons arrested since the unrest began are left-wing bloggers and activists who have conducted no illegal acts. This reversion to bad old habits of the era of dictatorship is dangerous, as it may encourage further escalation and shift the framing of current unrest in a more anti-state direction. It is also yet another sign of the lack of reform and capacity-building that has plagued the ministry of interior.

There are subtler political dimensions to the unrest. The protest movement is, unsurprisingly, being encouraged by the opposition, especially the far-left, some of whose activists have been arrested. Tunisia is entering a two-year electoral cycle (local in May 2018, parliamentary and presidential by the end of 2019) and the opposition has an interest in positioning itself against the current governing coalition, led by the secular nationalist Nida Tounes and Islamist An-Nahda parties. It is also supported by elements of civil society and activist groups such as the “Fech Nestannew?” (”What are we waiting for?”) campaign, which is expressing a widely-felt resentment against austerity policies.

Somewhat paradoxically, the anti-government protests are convenient for Nida Tounes and An-Nahda, perennial rivals who nonetheless share a common foe: Youssef Chahed, the prime minister appointed in August 2016 who must now deal with the unrest. Originally seen as subservient to Béji Caid Essebsi, the Nida Tounes leader who was elected as Tunisia’s president in 2014, Chahed has grown in stature and popularity, especially after he launched an anti-corruption campaign in summer 2017. In recent weeks, Chahed is said to have threatened to arrest senior members of both parties and their allies in the public administration -- but has been blocked from doing so. More generally, he has begun to build political alliances in anticipation of 2019’s presidential election, especially with the powerful UGTT. His relationship with Essebsi and An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has now significantly soured, and they may hope to use the unrest as a pretext to justify his removal or at least dent his appeal.

Previous protests died down after political leaders mobilized to calm the situation or the government granted concessions; this may yet still happen. If not, they carry a risk of amplifying the increasingly prevalent idea that Tunisia’s democratic transition is failing, particularly if security forces over-react and political bickering allows the situation to fester, providing an opening for a wider crackdown in the name of public order. The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading. As Crisis Group argues in its latest report, the danger is that this will encourage political adventurism by would-be saviours on horseback; the resistance any such attempt would engender would likely create far greater unrest, violence and economic misery than the ongoing, often plodding and frustrating, democratic transition.

Tunisia’s leaders, in other words, has little choice but to move forward and work harder to strike a compromise on the social contract -- and especially address the historic neglect of parts of the population -- as they did on their political transition. Nostalgia for the era of dictatorship or the revolutionary fervor of early 2011 will bring only problems, not solutions.

Issandr El Amrani and Michael Ayari are respectively North Africa Project Director and Senior Tunisia Analyst at International Crisis Group.

Links 6 December 2017 - 14 January 2018
LinksThe Editors
Nasser at 100

Maged Atiya on Nasser's legacy:

If great theater is catharsis for the audience, then Nasser provided a partial version for all the Egyptians, regardless of how they felt about him. This giant shadow forces a question: Does today’s Egypt represent Nasser’s success or his failure? An answer is difficult to come forth because the relationship between the man and his nation is fundamentally that of betrayal. Nasser’s errors betrayed the unreserved trust Egyptians placed in him. Similarly, Egyptians failed to rise to Nasser’s exhortation of their innate greatness, most of all by failing to hold him to account and to limit his power and hence the consequent damage of his errors. Nasser longed to be a great hero and he needed a great people to lead, while the Egyptians hoped for national greatness and signed up with the man who promised it. This is hardly a unique arrangement in the history of nations, and on many occasions such arrangements either work well or fail disastrously and thus force a reckoning and subsequent improvements. In Egypt’s case neither happened. Nasser’s project of national greatness was too farcical to be a tragedy and too grim to be a comedy. The drama he put forth provided no resolution, only an abrupt end. Nasser’s catharsis was incomplete, failing the Emile Durkheim final stages of integration and renewal of self-confidence and internal strength.

Five decades after the actor left the stage the theater lights have come on. The audience members stare at their neighbors scarcely able to discern what relations they might have with each other and what might have brought them together in the first place. They stare blankly at the empty stage and try to decide if this is merely an intermission or if the performance is truly over, in which case they should rush the doors and explore the freedom and chaos of the world outside them.

Nasser is responsible for his (many) failures, but Egyptians bear a collective responsibility for the failure to get out from under his long shadow. That they have willingly surrendered to a wannabe Nasser like Sisi since 2013, almost grateful to be relieved of any responsibility (beyond wanting to be saved from uncertainty or the Muslim Brotherhood), is part of that failure. And that many have not is what gives one hope.

What makes for good writing

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, commenting on Ulysses Grant's memoirs, on what makes for good writing:

The essence of all good writing is clarity. Style seems like a separate attribute of good writing. But it’s not. Style is really just a byproduct of clarity and concision. It is the personality or other uniqueness of the writer coming through on the page because they write clearly.

So how does one write clearly? The writing is the easier part of it. Once you know precisely what you mean to say, writing it is usually straightforward if not always easy. At least 90% of poor writing stems from the writer not knowing exactly what it is they mean to say. We’re all lazy like this. Half-formed thoughts pop into our heads and we push them out as words that have some relation to the hazy ideas and feelings in our minds. This may do in talking to your coworker or spouse about simple topics over the course of the day. The points are simple. In speaking we have physical cues and intonation. If you’re not clear the first time you can try again.

Writing is different. If you are writing it down the ideas must be significant or else you wouldn’t be writing them down. You only have one shot to make your meaning clear. There is no follow-on interaction to fill in the gaps. Often what you mean to say is still more a feeling than a thought or a not fully worked through set of ideas and connections between them. Jargon and vaguenesses are added to the mix to cover spots in the writer’s thinking that aren’t clear in their own head. Or they paper over things the writer means but is not ready to say.

Take a wordy or clumsy sentence you may write. Examine it and you will almost always see that it is wordy or clumsy because the idea is unclear in your head. Fuzzy parts of your thinking, connections that don’t fully bear out or don’t connect in a clear way end up on the page in fuzzy or vague groupings of words. If you work at the idea in your head long enough that you know exactly what it is, precisely how one idea or action connects to the idea or actions that came before and after it, the language can be direct, brisk and clear. It all but writes itself … once you know precisely what you mean to say. Absent that clarity it never can because the language you use to express your ideas can never be clearer than the ideas or thoughts as they exist in your mind. Work over the ideas, how each connects to each other, the order and progression that connects them and the words will, largely, take care of themselves.

Clarity is simply taking the meaning in the writer’s head and conveying it as clearly as possible in words. This kind of directness is the power and force driving Grant’s Memoirs.

This is the point that every good editor I've had and every writing guide I've read comes back to.

Links 15 November - 5 December 2017

I try to blog the links I bookmark (and that get automatically posted to the @arabist Twitter account) every couple of weeks. Those links are usually things I think are worth highlighting for one reason or another. For the last two weeks I was traveling a lot, and have decided to give up on the 40+ tabs I have open in Safari and simply dump them below. So only a few proper links:

and a huge Safari tab dump:

LinksThe Editors
Links 1-14 November 2017

Above, gratuitous feature of The Prisoner's opening theme in honor of Saad Hariri's "resignation" – but mostly because I'm rewatching at the moment.

Recently on The Arabist:

And the links:

LinksThe Editors
The Arab world is not ready for complacency

This commentary was contributed by friend of the blog Dr H.A. Hellyer, who is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

One would think the whole 'Arabs aren't ready for democracy' shtick would get old at some point. But it doesn't. The virus of this strand of pseudo-intellectualism is an equal opportunity one, across the board, whether the carriers are politicians, diplomats, journalists or just your average taxi driver (that last one, not really; that’s just an additionally problematic way of understanding the region, but I digress).

When the claim of ‘they’re not ready’ comes from within the region, it's simply a way for autocrats, dictators and worse to justify their abuses and maltreatments. When it comes from outside of it, it's merely a new way of expressing a 'bigotry of low expectations', underpinned by a skewed and self-serving cultural relativism. Or, to put it bluntly: “what kind of standards can you really expect these kinds of people to uphold? I mean, after all, they are what they are…”

The Complacency of ‘Within’: Colonel Jessup is at the party, not just in Gitmo

We’ve seen that from rulers and officials from within the region, of course. To defend, excuse and minimise the seriousness of abuses they oversee or have responsibility for, they revert to this crude style of orientalism. They caricature their own people, so that their own problematic rule is justified. “Yes, we’re abusing our own people – and so what? This isn’t the West, and they’re not Westerners. We’re in a rough neighbourhood, we’re not all educated, and you need to understand what we are going through – the responsibilities we have – the challenges and problems we face – so leave us be.”

It reminds me so much of that scene in that 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, where Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, defends his ordering of an abuse of a soldier (Santiago) under his command:

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines…You have the luxury of not knowing what I know; that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall!”

How many times have we heard the autocrats and their domestic apologists use the same logic. But the situation is worse. Because they’re not just talked about at the parties, like Colonel Jessup is talked about – they are at those parties, as honoured guests.

The Complacency of ‘Without’: ‘The natives said they aren’t ready, and they’re right!’

And when it comes to the advocates for these kinds of figures, who will do the party invites, write the raving reviews and the delirious declarations – they will just say, ‘well, they’re not ready for democracy. They even said so themselves, and they’re right.’

How convenient, of course – especially when we, as governments, want to sell weapons and arms to these autocrats, with no strings attached. When we, as writers and journalists, want to act as propagandists for the same. At so many levels, this skewed ‘cultural relativism’ is deployed, time and again. It has nothing to do with respect for difference and pluralism, and everything to do with shirking basic human responsibilities.

Pragmatism isn’t evil. To minimise further damage to regional stability, to ensure lives are saved rather than slaughtered by the likes of ISIS and worse; sometimes, it is necessary to work with unsavoury characters. But there is a clear difference between engaging in order to reduce harm and increase benefit – and engaging because we essentially don’t care about anything more than the bottom line.

So, let us be frank – the ‘not ready’ argument is little more than a 21st century version of that old ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric that underpinned the colonialist endeavour. It is just a shallow and thinly disguised regurgitation to justify our complacency, our lack of care, our rank disinterest in the well-being of the peoples of this region, all the while we seek to benefit ourselves by them.

Has anywhere ever been ‘ready’? No: we all makes mistakes and we all learn

But here's the truth of it - has there ever been a place that has been 'ready' for 'democracy'? Or, let's break it down, to avoid the tired old tool of ‘democracy is a Western, imperialist, non-universal way of governing’. Indeed, the Arab world ought to be able to produce its own indigenous ways of governing, without fetishizing the modern nation-state model. So, let’s ask: has any place in the world – in human history – been ‘ready’ for respecting the fundamental rights of all, while choosing their representatives openly and freely?

No, of course not. Was the United States 'ready', when it started out with slavery, and systematic exploitation of Africans on its soil for centuries? Was it ‘ready’ for democracy, when it elected a man who is daily chipping away at its fundamentals? Was the UK ‘ready’, as we colonised much of the known world? Is the United Kingdom 'ready', when we voted 'yes' in a referendum that is leading us to economic turmoil, a referendum tainted by xenophobic memes? Was Europe ‘ready’, as we perpetrated the Holocaust? Is Europe 'ready', when the bigoted populism of the far-right is the fresh new game in town?

No, there's no place that is 'ready'. We all learn – by being given chances, and opportunities, and options. We might all make mistakes, and grievous ones at that. We might make mistakes with Islamists; with anti-Islamists; with right-wingers; with left-wingers; across the board. But they will be our mistakes, and no one else's.

We all have the right to have that chance: stand for that, or be silent We all have the right to have that chance - and if the comfortable, privileged few within these lands of the Arab world want to disavow their own right to have that chance, that's their choice. But they do not have the right to negate that choice for the rest.

For those of us outside of the Arab world, who find it easy to accept the supercilious worldview of these few; those of us who are comfortable in accepting the 'barbaric Arabs who need a strong man to control them’, because it makes it easier to ingratiate the autocrats... well. You ought not to be surprised when you're called out on it.

And when you are called out – don’t act so wounded. Long after your emotional bruises are healed, there will be people fighting & struggling; pushing & pulling; to fight the good fight & to hold back the tide, to hold the line & to keep the faith. All to make a difference; all while you're back on your comfortable couch in suburbia, pontificating about these ‘objects’ of discussions. They’re not objects – they’re human beings, with their own dreams and the right to have those dreams.

And when you finally start to ponder, ponder this: if your assertion really is that this region is not 'ready', then explain why so many in 2011 insisted - nay, they revolted - in order to have a chance to say 'no: we demand the right to choose; and to be treated as human beings.' What, because they are tired, six years later, exhausted and healing, they are suddenly domesticated pets? Is your view so shallow, your perspective so narrow, your outlook so self-serving?

If you would not stand with them, that's fine. It's your choice. It would be a credit to you if you did, and an honour you would earn nowhere else. But if you wouldn't, then respect their struggle, admire their sacrifice, and remain silent, without implicitly or explicitly admiring their oppressors. Decency demands no less.

A visiting professor at the Centre for the Advanced Study of Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur, Hellyer is the author of several books including A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond RevoltMuslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans and the forthcoming A Sublime Path: the Way of the Sages of Makka. You can follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

The Editors Comments
A new podcast from The Arabist and ArabLit: BULAQ
bulaq-burnt ornage on turq - lores.jpg

I am so pleased and excited to be co-hosting a new podcast on books in, from, and about the Arab world with M Lynx Qualey of ArabLit. I read many more interesting books than I am able to review or write about and I can't think of anyone I'd rather discuss them with than MLQ. It should also be an opportunity to look at literary news, cases of censorship, and the kinds of debates and exchanges that books provoke in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Our first episode focuses on a novel about gay life in Cairo, "In The Spider's Room," and much more. 

This is an experiment and a labor of love. With the help of our producer (my amazing husband Issandr El Amrani) we are still working on improving the sound quality (i.e.  soundproofing my small office). We will also be tweaking the format as we go along. We hope you'll join us for the ride. You can subscribe in the iTunes Store.  

Links 14-31 October 2017

For the Pyramids nerds among you, read more about the new cavity found in Khufu with cosmic rays (which alone should revive a whole genre, popular in the 1970s, of aliens-build-the-pyramids literature) in Nature and the researchers' press release.

And now for the rest of the links:

LinksThe Editors
Cross-pollination

I was just in Cairo, a visit that inspired the usual mixed feelings: the aching pleasure of the familiar; the somewhat dulled pain at the loss of all the hopes that burned so bright here just a few years ago; the awe that this city-to-end-all-cities inspires (and the suspicion that I couldn't survive its daily grind anymore). 

I was there to talk about writing an editing with my former colleagues and all-the-time heroes at the one-of-its-kind independent web site Mada Masr (blocked in Egypt until now but still publishing there on Facebook and running a full operation). 

In our discussion, I used several readings that the Beirut-based research and analysis organization Synaps has shared online. Developed out of their own grappling with the writing/editing process, these materials are very well written and engaging and pushed me to think about my own writing -- about how often I struggle, when starting a piece, with answering the basic questions, because they are the hardest. For anyone writing journalism, analysis, or research, I strongly suggest checking them out and sharing them. 

And it was just neat to be at one unique venture in Cairo using materials from another original and self-reflective organization in Beirut. Right now in terms of intellectual and cultural and media life in the region it seems like we are in a phase of survival -- just hoping some bright spots can hold on and last long enough to see us through, keep open a little space for thought and hope and discussion. 

Ursula Lindseymadamasr, synaps
Links 10 September - 13 October 2017

Another overdue link dump:

LinksThe Editors