The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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Taking a page from Cossery on Trump and Bannon

There are reports that Donald Trump is annoyed by Steve Bannon’s high profile (the jokes about #PresidentBannon, the SNL skit, the Time magazine cover etc.) 

The idea of our pathologically narcissistic president being troubled by the prominence of his lieutenant seems very plausible. It also reminded me of the plot of Albert Cossery’s La Violence et la derision (translated as The Jokers). Cossery was born in Cairo to a Greek Orthodox Levantine family. He left Egypt for Paris in 1945. But all of his brilliant, satirical novels — whose antiheroes are vagabonds, dandies, thieves and hashish smokers — are set in the Arab world (mostly in Egypt). 

InThe Jokers, a group of men in Alexandria, annoyed by the city’s stupid and incompetent governor, decide to undermine him by heaping inordinate praise on him, printing flyers that glorify him and writing letters to the newspaper full of over-the-top compliments. The idea is that such praise will render him ridiculous and that he will be forced to resign for seeming to aggrandize himself. 

There have been a number of comparisons between Trump and Arab dictators (the love of gilded fixtures, the contempt for the press, the allegations that all protesters are paid stooges). Another resemblance is the way he loathes being mocked and being upstaged. The Resistance should take a page from The Jokers and work to put Bannon on the cover of many more magazines.

Sisi plagiarized his "spare change" idea

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

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

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

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

J.M. Coetzee in Palestine

Nobel Literature Prize winner J.M. Coetzee spoke in Ramallah recently as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature, an event I cannot recommend following and (if you are as lucky as I was a few years ago) participating in enough.  

Free Ahmed Naji

Today is an international blogging day on behalf of imprisoned Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji, who has unfortunately become the latest poster child for the ruthless, petty and seemingly endless crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt. Jailed on charges of offending public morals for a few scenes featuring drugs and sex in his novel "The Use of Life," Naji has just received the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

The blog Arabic Literature in English is the place to start to read abut Naji's case and the solidarity efforts on his behalf. I interviewed him several times for an article on writers in Cairo published in The Nation a few months back and was as shocked as everyone else by his conviction. 

Here is a link to the offending chapter -- simply a rather charming description of a weekend spent partying with friends and lovers, in that most difficult of cities, Cairo -- in Arabic.  There are also excellent English and French translations available, and I strongly recommend reading them. 

Cairo: Unreal City

I have a long piece in The Nation about writing and freedom of expression in Egypt these days, the role of the country's intellectuals and the regime's attitude to public space, culture and young people. Needless to say it is not an upbeat read (although I am always impressed when I go back to Cairo by folks' wits and guts). I started reporting it last December -- in the meantime, the writer Ahmed Naji, who was on trial for obscenity, was acquitted in his first trial and then handed a 2-year sentence in a retrial. It is a ridiculous, unprecedentedly harsh sentence for a novelist. 

Graffiti on a blockade put up by the authorities in March 2012

Graffiti on a blockade put up by the authorities in March 2012

Here's an excerpt: 

Naji’s novel is a surreal tale of Cairo’s future obliteration and features illustrations by the cartoonist Ayman al-Zurqani. The narrator, speaking from the future, reminisces about the impossible city he lived in as a young man. In the chapter that landed Naji in court, the narrator recounts staying up all night smoking hashish and drinking with his friends; the next day, he meets his lover for brunch and mid-afternoon sex. Then two female friends pick him up and they drive through streets empty of the usual traffic, to drink a beer at sunset on cliffs overlooking the city:

Mona’s wearing a long skirt of some light fabric. I stick my head between the seats and see she’s bunched up her skirt in her lap and is rolling a joint. I’m distracted by the glow of her knees, and Samira’s turning up the music. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieks like a hen laying its first egg. I open the window as we pass over the Azhar Bridge, and imagine I catch a whiff of cumin, pepper and spices. As we exit the bridge and enter the Husayn district, I smell some burnt coffee beans that, without being an expert, I can tell are of poor quality. The scent fills my nostrils. Among the tombs in the City of the Dead, the smell of liver fried in battery acid lingers like a rain cloud.

In describing the sex scene between the narrator and his lover, Naji uses the Arabic words for “cock” and “pussy.” In August of 2015, a middle-aged man from Cairo’s Bulaq neighborhood filed a claim against Naji. In his complaint, Hany Salah Tawfiq spun a lively tale himself, one designed to appeal to the most paternalistic and moralistic impulses of Egypt’s judicial system. He claimed that reading the story after his indignant wife pointed it out to him, and before his innocent daughters could be exposed to it, caused him such consternation that “his heartbeat fluctuated and his blood pressure dropped.” The prosecutor who took the case to trial that November seemed to treat the novel as a factual description of Naji’s own immoral behavior. To restrained titters from the author’s friends in the audience, the prosecutor delivered a long indictment tinged with religious rhetoric and mixed metaphors on the poisonous effect of such filth.

The prosecutor spoke entirely in fusha. Traditionally, there has been a divide between fusha—formal Arabic—and amiya, colloquial Arabic. Although they’re derived from the same sources, the first is closer to the Arabic of the Koran; different forms of it are used in religious and official discourse, the media, and literature. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s 1988 Nobel laureate, wrote his dialogues in fusha even though amiya is what everyone actually speaks. Ahmed Naji is part of a generation of younger Egyptian writers whose work increasingly includes dialect, allusions to pop culture, profanity, and the funny neologisms created by the Arabicization of foreign words. The spread of this new, young, colloquial, “vulgar” Arabic is a democratic phenomenon linked, in part, to the online world, where people tend to write as they speak. Using slang is a way to puncture the disingenuousness of official discourse. The use of profanity can also be deeply political. For many of the online activists writing in the years before Mubarak fell, it was a purposeful choice to insult his regime in the foulest terms possible—to deny figures of authority the linguistic deference that, no matter how unpopular they may be, they expect to be shown in public forums.

Naji argues that the terms he uses for the male and female anatomy not only can be heard on every street corner in Cairo, but also appear in classical Arabic literature. It was only in the 19th century, he says, that “middle-class Egyptian intellectuals,” fresh from visits to Victorian England, popularized the euphemisms that became common in literature. Nasser Amin, Naji’s lawyer, argued the point in his trial, presenting the judge with books of classical Arabic literature and Islamic exegesis containing the vulgar terms in question.

You can read the rest here

At the Cairo Book Fair

I just got back from another quick visit to Cairo, where I visited and wrote about the annual book fair for Al Fanar


Unlike the well-known Frankfurt Book Fair, the Cairo fair is not a networking event for publishers but rather an opportunity for individuals and institutions to find new books at the best prices. Many buyers are students, professors and university administrators stocking up on textbooks and reference books. At the outlet of the Egyptian Book Organization, a government-owned publisher that releases deeply discounted no-frills editions of hundreds of classics and works of history, sociology and literary analysis, the staff can barely keep the shelves stocked. This year the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity has also introduced an initiative to allow less well-off Egyptian families to use their food-subsidy cards to buy some books at reductions of 90 percent off the usual prices.
For many, the fair is also an opportunity for an inexpensive, pleasant outing. By the late afternoon, the streets surrounding the fairgrounds in the suburb of Nasr City are packed with traffic, and families carrying food are coming in to picnic on the grass between the book stalls and listen to free evening concerts.
The theme of the fair this year is “Culture on the Front Lines”—the implied front lines being those of the country’s ongoing crackdown on the ousted and outlawed Islamist party the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the military conflict with terrorist groups taking place largely in the Sinai peninsula.
The fair also commemorates Egyptian writer Gamal El Ghitany, who passed away in 2015. Collections of El Ghitany’s works—including acclaimed novels such as Zayni Barakat, which is set in medieval Cairo and based on extensive archival research by the author—are some of the fair’s new releases.

The article also covers the many, seemingly daily, violations of freedom of expression that are taking place at the same time as events as these. One of the latest was the detention of cartoonist Islam Gawish -- although that allowed many more of us to discover his work.  

The Arab of the Future

I've just published  a review in The Nation of the first two volumes of French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future (volume 1 is out in English). Sattouf grew up in Ghaddafi's Libya and above all in Hafez Al Assad's Syria and has penned a disturbing, affecting and darkly funny childhood memoir. 

It’s 1983, and a family has landed at the Damascus airport. The father, who has avoided military service, bribes his way into the country. Accompanying him are his foreign wife and small blond son. Outside the airport, Syria assails them. A scrum of screaming cab drivers fights over the startled new arrivals. Cabbies abandon the brawl and compose themselves on the sidelines, combing their hair and smoking cigarettes, until the last one left shouting—and close to keeling over from his exertions—hustles the family into his taxi. He ashes his cigarettes through the moving vehicle’s missing floorboard.
This scene of homecoming and culture shock falls about halfway through the first volume of The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir by the French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The book delivers a vision of childhood that is both extreme and familiar: its terrors and painful revelations, the utter mystery and absolute power of adults, the sensory details that lodge forever in the memory. But Sattouf’s vision is also of the unusual childhood he lived in Moammar El-Gadhafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, as well as in the shadow of his father and his delusions. The Arab of the Future blends a rueful backward glance at the early days of two dictatorships that finally imploded in the Arab Spring and an intimate indictment of the way boys were taught to be men.
Sattouf, who is 37 and lives in Paris, has directed two movies and written dozens of graphic novels, many of them focused on adolescence and sexual losers (one is called Virgin’s Manual, another No Sex in New York). Other work is drawn from life: For one piece, he spent 15 days in an elite French high school. Between 2004 and 2014, Sattouf contributed a weekly comic called “The Secret Life of Youth” to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Based on scraps of life seen and heard on the streets and subways, it was preoccupied, like much of Sattouf’s work, with observing those moments of cruelty, violence, or strangeness that happen in plain sight but are generally passed over in silence, purposely ignored.


All of Bidoun online

Bidoun, a ground-breaking magazine about the arts and culture of the middle east -- and much more -- is celebrating its tenth anniversary by making available a huge digital archive. (Issandr and I have contributed several reviews articles and interviews over the years). You can browse by issues, articles or authors.  Under "Collections" you can see specially curated tours of the archive by the likes of Etel Adnan, Lynne Tillman, Orhan Pamuk and Hans Ulrich Obrist. 


PostsUrsula Lindseyarts, bidoun
Dispatch from Tunis, January 2011

Five years ago today, Zine al-Abideen Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Shortly after, I spent a week in Tunis reporting on the revolution - personally for me an unforgettable moment, and one that burns just as vividly in my memory as the Egyptian uprising that would come a few days later. Looking from through my archives, I found the fragment of a long piece I had planned to write on Tunisia before having to rush back to Cairo; as result of the drama unfolding there, I had to abandon that Tunisia piece. It is reproduced below, with only minor stylistic editing and no correction of facts that were, back then in January 2011, very fresh and still uncertain.

The Tunisian revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a young man who supported his family by selling fruits and vegetables in a cart in the central town of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi decided to set himself alight after a humiliating altercation with a female police officer in the town’s square who had decided to confiscate his cart. One version of events has the officer attempt to extract a bribe from Bouazizi; others slap him publicly when he protested.

Either way, Bouazizi was the victim of both a petty injustice and a larger symbolic one: although he was probably not, as initially reported, a unemployed graduate forced into menial labor by lack of opportunities, he endured the precarity of this long-neglected part of the country and the arbitrariness of Ben Ali’s police state. His death launched the rebellion of the town’s youth, which over the next several weeks would slowly spread to other cities. The angry young men of Sidi Bouzid responded by fighting a type of guerrilla warfare against the police, drawing them one or two at a time into the warrens of the city’s popular neighbourhoods and then mobbing them.

These tactics gradually spread to neighbouring cities, and eventually the wealthier towns of the coast, but the protests were not taken up in Tunis until very late. It appears it was the decision of the police to use snipers with instructions to shoot-to-kill over the weekend of 8 and 9 January that tipped things over and signalled the end for Ben Ali. Due to the slow buildup of the confrontation by between the people and the state, the fiercest part of the uprising remained in places like Sidi Bouzid and other towns of the inner centre like Kasserine, the site of some of the worst killing (at least 50 people are believed to have been killed over that weekend, mostly by sniper fire).

Ben Ali’s response to the crisis came in three speeches. The first, in late December, threatened; the second, after that murderous weekend, cajoled and attempted to deflect blame; the third, on the eve of his departure for Jeddah, apologised made concessions but came too late. By that point, the army had already refused to fire on protestors and was in places intervening to protect them from the police. The vast security apparatus Ben Ali had set up was falling apart. Many Tunisians believe that, at some point between 4 and 8pm on Friday 14 January, General Rachid Ammar, the head of the armed forces, told their president that it was time to go, perhaps in coordination with the US, which had showed no sign of wanting to defend Ben Ali.

Among the ensuing chaos – said to be caused by the collapse of the secret police and the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (known by its French acronym RCD) party, whose more thuggish members were widely said to be part of the looting – the many palaces of relatives of the first family were ransacked and fear spread that insecurity was deliberately being created to justify a triumphant return for Ben Ali. In each neighbourhood, local militias formed. They mounted checkpoints, checking IDs and ensuring that no strangers were allowed in at night.

One taxi driver in his sixties spoke of this with pride: "I am working overtime to allow the young people to take care of security, to take care of us. They keep security in the neighbourhood with sticks and metal bars, and in the morning when we wake up, we find that they’ve left bread and milk on our doormats. They know how much each house needs, how many people it contains. We take care of each other."

Even so, he later acknowledged that the said supplies had been looted from a nearby French supermarket whose local partner had been Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s despised wife who ran her family’s business interests like a mafia. The line between civic duty and vigilantism is sometimes hard to see.

Even after the security situation began to return to normal, at least in the capital, the government’s stability remained a concern: most of the ministers in the interim cabinet where RCD members, some of them privy to the decisions that led to the brutal repression of the weekend. This infuriated many, but none more so than the youth of Sidi Bouzid and other central towns that had suffered the bulk of the repression: they marched towards the capital and began to lay siege to the Kasbah, the seat of government near Tunis’ old city. Once again, protestors clashed with police, which fired tear gas. “These young men from Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere in the centre, they have the right to be here, to be angry,” a trade union activist told me in a Tunis café. “They carried out the revolution and paid the price for it.”

On the second day of the siege, General Ammar intervened personally, telling the crowd that the army would act as “a guarantor of the revolution” and prevent the comeback of the RCD. This in turn set off a frenzy of speculation as to whether Ammar himself might be the best choice to lead a transitional government, rather than Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who held the post since 1999 and had been a cabinet minister throughout Ben Ali’s reign.

In revolutionary moments, even the wisest and best-informed change their minds from one moment to the next, dizzy from the rampant rumour and disinformation. People go from living in a strictly regulated police state to protesting for freedom to wishing for order to be restored as quickly as possible, even at the hands of a military figure. They see a protest movement against the government as another potential source destabilisation, a delay to getting the country economically back on track.

One night about 10 days after Ben Ali fled, I sat plumped in a white leather designer armchair at the chic villa of one of Tunis’ most prominent doctors — he owns a clinic where clientele from Libya, Algeria, Mali and Europe come to receive treatment on a par with French hospitals but at a lower cost. I was listening to a group of wealthy Tunisians have a heated debate about the growing unrest against the interim government headed by Ghannouchi. They all agreed it must go: its ministers were too deeply implicated in the scandals of the Ben Ali era, even if they did not benefit from them themselves.

Several entrepreneurs and an industrialist are also present; they have all received excellent education in France or the US and come from moneyed families. They worry about the composition of the RCD, but also about the new political reality. In particular, the UGTT — a trade union federation once largely loyal to the Ben Ali regime — has emerged as a potent political force, organising a general strike in the economic hub of Sfax and is beginning to flex its muscles to demand higher wages. While the UGTT’s leadership was largely composed of RCD cronies, its mid-level members across the country often took a leadership role in the revolution, using their nationwide network to organise protests and spread information. In the posh northern suburbs of Tunis, many worry that this will dampen the economic recovery.

As they argue, the industrialist — who runs a factory that employs 1200 mostly low-skilled workers — strikes a different tone than the rest "We are suddenly experiencing an extraordinary abundance of discourse and opinion," he says. "It is as if time has accelerated, things are moving too fast to judge where they are going. We change our opinions everyday. And if we want to return to normality, we have to address the concerns of lower-income people. I see them everyday at my factory, they are scared and directionless and worried about their daily bread, we don’t know what they’ll do if they don’t get their 220 dinars a month. The solution cannot be only political. We took advantage of the old system. We were all seduced by the myth of economic growth. The Tunisian elite betrayed its people, and personally I am going to work to counter this. The distribution of wealth was not carried out correctly in recent years. This revolution was borne out of anger, and if it continues we are all headed towards suicide."

The others think the industrialist is exaggerating, and that while social and economic policy will have to be addressed, the current problem is chiefly one of public relations and confidence. Prime Minister Ghannouchi infuriated the public by revealing, soon after the first interim was formed, that he had a telephone conversation with Ben Ali, whom he even mentioned — perhaps out of habit — with reverence. What they seem to want most of all is someone with uncontested authority, like Ammar, the army general.

Yet, for now, it is hard not to feel that some hope about Tunisia’s future is warranted. As normality returns (even if there will have to be some longer-term process of national reconciliation for those elements of the security forces associated with repression, as well as informants and local-level ruling party bosses) there is a ebullient sense of democratic possibility.

On Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’ central boulevard where multiple protests are organised daily — sometimes by mere high school kids, giddy to have a share of a revolution started by others — random strangers have vigorous debates unimaginable a month beforehand. They argue about whether to stick with a presidential system or adopt a parliamentary one, debate the merits of this or that party or politician, and make solemn calls to maintain Tunisia’s attachment to secularism and women’s rights. There is a nostalgia for the certitudes of the old regime, where everyone knew the place of everything. They need to grow used to the fact that, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, freedom is untidy.

Five years

One of my favorite Bowie songs (there are so many to choose from) and oddly appropriate as we prepare to commemorate five years since the 2011 uprisings. Reminds me of many Cairo evenings at home with friends who would ask me to play The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, which begins with this track. 


(For fans and non-fans alike, I heartily recommend Simon Critchley's wonderful essay, Bowie.)

To Beat ISIS, Focus on Economic Reforms

The following is a guest post by Nathan Field, an entrepreneur and commentator on Middle Eastern politics. While Western governments weigh which military actions to take against ISIS, Field looks at the long-term economic reforms that could introduce greater employment, development and therefore stability to Arab countries, and weaken the appeal of extremist ideologies. 

Saudi construction workers

Saudi construction workers

The ultimate outcome of the military struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is certain. ISIS will land some blows but has too many enemies. Eventually, it will lose a war of attrition. The territory it controls in those countries will be reclaimed.   

The bigger, long-term challenge is the spread of Islamic State’s ideology in the broader Middle East, as opposed to the presence of the group in Syria and Iraq. This ideology of extreme utopian populism is caused at a most fundamental level by the socioeconomic stratification of Middle Eastern societies, a problem that is aggravated by the weakness of Arab economies in the global marketplace.

This has created a division between roughly the top 20% of societies, which is in a position to thrive and obtain status, and the vast majority that can mostly only hope to achieve the same. While such gaps have always existed, they are now being amplified by the explosion of the internet, social media and smartphones. For a growing number of young men, Islamic State’s utopianism offers a sense of purpose, meaning and masculinity that they don’t believe they can obtain by playing according to the conventional rules of society.

Economic reform, therefore, will be the key to undermining the group’s broader ideological appeal throughout the Muslim world-- with one major caveat. To succeed, it must not be a mere intensification of the neoliberal reforms that have transformed Arab economies since the 1980s. Those efforts generated unprecedented macro-economic growth, but failed to distribute the gains to different segments of society in a socially optimal way. Socioeconomic stratification increased, and that has directly contributed to the ongoing surge of radicalism.   

Beating the ISIS ideology will require new economic reforms that retain the good elements of Neoliberalism, ie the profit motive, but are more likely to channel more (or most) of the gains to the bottom 80%. I suggest five ways this is possible. For the purpose of clarity, this post is primarily focusing on Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the source of several thousand recruits for Islamist extremist groups in Syria.

Making the Diagnosis: What are the “causes” of the ISIS Ideology?

Proper diagnosis of the cause is the key to solving any problem. At the most fundamental level, the appeal of Islamic extremism is related to economics. This is because the baseline needs and concerns of individuals in all societies are economic. Does a critical mass of people in a given country or region have a reasonable chance to get a job, which gives them the ability to attract a mate, raise a family, and live a purposeful life?

Political and religious views become more extreme or moderate depending on whether these baseline needs are met. Islam has not changed. What has changed is that over a period of 30 or 40 years, an increasing number of people have interpreted their religion more literally in response to their personal environment. Political instability and the lack of democracy is a reflection, not a cause, of the underlying baseline needs deficit. Until the economic equation changes, politics cannot be stable.

Three points to ponder:

First, from the information that is available, Saudi and Egyptian recruits for the Islamic State are virtually all coming from the lower socio-economic 80% of society.  Many commentators are misunderstanding this because of a focus on superficial symbols of economic status, such as university attendance, which are no longer indicative of much in a 2015 world where more people than not attend universities. For example, Saudi Arabia is sending a shocking 78% of its high school graduates to university – one of the highest rates in the world.

Peter Bergen of CNN argued against the Obama administration’s assumption that economics is a cause, by pointing to a lead ISIS terrorist who had received a degree in Computer Science from a British university. Yet what about the fact that this individual could not find a job with his degree? The more important question for those trying to understand the appeal of ISIS, is whether a person could get a job after university, not whether they went in the first place.

Second, if the rise of ISIS is a surprise to some US policy makers, its appearance is consistent with the trajectory of global history in the industrial era. The group is a 21st century Middle Eastern version of the forces behind National Socialism and Communism -- violent, utopian reform movements that gain traction in times of deep economic turmoil and class insecurity. Demand for violent reform options always grows over time as the more moderate options fail to achieve results. That was exactly the situation in Europe with Communism and Nazism, which could only attract a critical mass of followers for its “blow up the system” approach to reform in the 1920s, even if its underlying ideas had been in circulation for several decades. ISIS can point to similar failures of moderation in Arab politics today, which fuel its appeal.

A great book for understanding the appeal of ISIS today is German historian Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler because of his focus on the role of status in explaining the motives of the original supporters of National Socialism:

Almost all came from numerically strong petty bourgeoisie that had long been prevented from rising socially; obtained positions of leadership during war only because of heavy officer casualties; had expected glorious post-war careers; Versailles had thrown them back socially, ended up teaching in grammar schools, standing behind store counters, grilled windows in government offices; lives that seemed utterly unworthy to them. Same impulse to evade normality that led Hitler to politics now brought them to Hitler.

There is little difference between the foot soldiers of ISIS, as seen in the Vice documentary The Islamic State and the true believers of National Socialism and Communism of the 1920s. Economic struggle and class conflict was the fundamental driver of those movements, just as a central tenet of US National security in the Cold War was economic reform to try to prevent their resurgence. With healthier baseline economic conditions, the “demand” for radical political solutions would disappear, or at least decline.

Third, while the Syrian Civil War is the immediate short-term cause for the appearance of ISIS, it is not the cause of populist utopian extremism, which was occurring in Egypt and Saudi Arabia long before the Arab Spring. In 2009, I co-authored a study on Salafi Satellite TV in Egypt, attempting to understand the sudden emergence of ultra-conservative Islamic TV stations that emerged in Egypt around 2007. These stations were widely believed to be the most watched programming of any kind in Egypt. We found their popularity was clearly linked to the liberalization of the economy, and that they were most watched by those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. There is not a huge jump between the contents of these programs and what we see in ISIS today.  Salafis of the pre-Arab Spring Egypt period were “quietist” as a matter of pragmatism, not because of a permanent ideological belief in the utility of doing so. As one well-known Egyptian scholar of Islamism predicted to me in 2009 “Egyptian Salafists will eventually split: one group will move towards the Islamic centrism of al-Qaradawi and the political activism of the Ikhwan, while a second will embrace Salafi jihad.”

And if the Syrian Civil War has presented a natural cause for Islamists to rally around, especially when it is framed more nobly as “defending the Syrian people,” less honorable anti-Shia and ugly sectarian sentiment was a fundamental theme of Islamist media in the decade before the Arab Spring. So while some kind of settlement to the Syrian Civil War is desperately needed, extremist of the ISIS variety won’t go away just because that conflict ends.

 Growth is the Easy Part. The Dilemma is in the Distribution

The challenge with economic reform is not growth itself, but ensuring a socially optimal distribution of the benefits. What makes this difficult, however, is the natural human inequality of abilities. In any given country, and especially in the 2015 global economy, only roughly  20% of the people have the ability, the ambition, and the temperament to generate new growth either as entrepreneurs or as skilled employees. The gap between the two classes is even more pronounced in Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia where cronyism, nepotism and familial connections play a stronger role in determining who is a position to succeed economically than in more developed countries.   

Egypt’s reform experience during the last decade perfectly illustrated this dilemma. The government followed the neo-liberal textbook and from 2005 through 2008 and achieved an impressive 7% annual GDP growth rate. It is an ironic fact that in the years just before President Mubarak was overthrown, the Egyptian economy was generating higher growth than at any other point in the country’s history. But the gains were disproportionately held by a very small segment of Egyptian society. That distribution is a natural, amoral, and inevitable result of free-market capitalism.

The Right Types of Economic Reforms

Here are five economic reforms that might strike the right balance between market-driven capitalism and socialist redistribution of wealth.

Promote Low(er) Tech Entrepreneurship

The State Department has correctly identified the promotion of entrepreneurship as key to generating long-term economic reform in the Middle East. However, it continues to operate under the assumption that entrepreneurship can only mean Silicon-Valley style tech companies, or the building of apps. This has the unintentional result of focusing reform efforts on those who are already generally in the top 20%.

What the Arab world needs is lots of jobs. The problem with tech companies or apps is that they are not labor intensive. Future economic reforms therefore should more strongly encourage people to think about starting companies in more traditional areas. In a 2012 Arabist post “The Virtues of a Low(er) Tech Future in Egypt,” I described this dilemma in greater detail and focused on several types of labor-intensive companies worth promoting because of their potential for greater impact for the 80%.

Try to Create Niche Industrial Sectors That Add New Value in the Global Economy

A significant obstacle to economic reform in the Middle East is the competitiveness of the world economy. Whereas countries like China and South Korea, roughly equal to Egypt economically in the 1940s and 1950s, created new opportunities for millions of people through the development of manufacturing, most Arab countries are purchasers of goods, not producers. Unless something new is created that people want to buy on the global market, new opportunities to shake up the economic power balances in Arab societies are limited.

It is very difficult to create value-adding niches at the global level in 2015. But out-sourcing happens constantly and there is no reason to think that work will cease flowing to places where the cost of labor is cheaper. Countries looking for an economic boost have seized on niche services and made them cornerstones of their economies. The textbook case is the Philippines’ call-center industry. In 1997 there was not a single person in that country employed in a call center. By 2012 it had surpassed India as the world leader, producing $11 billion in annual revenue and employing 638,000 people.

Saudi Arabia is attempting to do something similar by leveraging its oil resources to become a player in the automotive industry. Its goal is to manufacture up to 500,000 cars per year by 2025. If the program is even a partial success, hundreds of thousands of very good jobs for Saudis will be created.

Finding new gaps and trying to start new industries is a worthwhile endeavor. Even if the attempt is unsuccessful, the skills gained are useful to other areas of the economy.

Labor Market Reform

Labor market reform in Saudi Arabia is critical to undermining ISIS. Since 2011, the government has undergone a series of reforms to the labor market, which are shifting the balance of power between workers and employers more in favor of workers. I cover this trend in great detail in a 2014 piece for the Saudi-US Trade Group. The beneficiaries of these reforms are almost entirely Saudis from the 80%, precisely the group most vulnerable to the appeal of radical utopianism.

Promotion of Blue Collar Jobs

In Saudi Arabia there is significant potential for new Saudi employment in blue-collar sectors such as manufacturing, construction and maintenance. For example, just 6% of workers in the construction sector are Saudi nationals, making it one of the least localized sectors of the economy. This also means it is the sector with the highest number of available, already existing jobs. 

Some dismiss this argument out of hand, saying that Saudis just will not work those jobs. But, the grandfathers of the Kingdom’s younger generation worked with their hands, so there is no long-term cultural aversion to “hard work.” The issue is primarily one of status; if wages rise, so will interest in these types of jobs. According to Table 51 of the Ministry of Labor annual report for 2013, construction brings in the lowest average salaries for Saudi males, at just $937 per month. However, since this type of work is often for publicly-funded government projects, higher wages can be written into bids without affecting the bottom line of private sector firms.  

Furthermore, there are enough examples of successful industrial or manufacturing projects staffed by Saudi labor to refute the myth that Saudis will not or cannot work in this field (see Mr. Amr Khashoggi’s comments about the situation in his firm during the May 2014 SUSTG webinar on Saudi Labor reform). If we look at countries such as Germany or the U.S. where mechanics, construction workers, plumbers, etc., all make attractive wages and have a certain “masculine” status within their communities, there is no reason this can’t happen over time in Saudi Arabia. Making it possible would be beneficial in undermining ISIS’s appeal.

Increase Vocational Training

It is hard to find fault with the way Saudi Arabia is spending so much money on education, but as Dr. Habibi of Brandeis University points out is it quite possibly training too many university graduates. He notes that the Kingdom has increased the number of universities from 15 in 2005 to 34 in 2015 and enrollment has risen from 604,000 to 1.5 million during the same period. The reality is that the vast increase in graduates does not match the actual needs of the economy and significant numbers of these new graduates are not going to find jobs (to be clear this is a problem everywhere). This may have the ironic effect of increasing, not decreasing, support for radicalism. After all, the most vulnerable to its appeal are not usually the poor, but those educated enough to know what is out there, which only increases their disappointment when their expectations of higher status are not met. This explains why so many members of Islamist extremist movements have attended universities. 

One remedy for this is a massive increase in vocational training because the direct economic need for those skills already exists. There are some programs but not nearly enough. Better-trained Saudi workers would support the previous four policies of this section. If every year Saudi Arabia produced, say, 5,000new vocational graduates into an environment where there is enough blue-collar work to support them all at wages where they can raise a family, it would be a major challenge to the ideology of ISIS. 


I fear that ISIS-style utopian extremism may be just beginning to spread in the Middle East. It would be consistent with the decades-long slow path to radicalism that we saw in Europe in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Unless meaningful changes are made in the socio-economic distribution of economic status in the Arab world, the popularity of groups like ISIS will not wane. In fact, it will likely grow stronger. Yet because of the nature of the global economy, it is difficult to see how major reforms can be made. The only hope is through new thinking about the types of economic reforms that will put a larger share of the 80% in a position to succeed.

Nathan Field is the co-founder of Industry Arabic and a commentator on Middle Eastern politics. Contact him at



Paris, Beirut, Raqqa

I lived and studied in Paris during and right after my university years. I'm particularly shaken by the attacks on a city that I've had a deep crush on since I was 20.

Although I really think FB should keep out of the business of deciding which massacres deserve their own branding. 

More importantly, fuck every US right-winger using this horror as a pretext to mock gun control. Fuck every fascist European politician using it as a chance to smear refugees. Fuck the US invasion of Iraq and the cynical all-around manipulation of the Syrian uprising. Fuck this butcher. Fuck ISIS' criminally ignorant, life-despising young murderers. 

Solidarity to the innocent inhabitants of Paris, of Beirut, of Sinai, of Syria and Yemen, of ISIS-controlled Raqqa -- of everywhere that people aren't able to live in basic safety, dignity and freedom. Which is getting to be so many places. 

Repression and suspicion for scholars in the middle east

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.
The Islamic State and the Arab media: violence and ridicule

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.

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

Cartoon in egyptian newspaper al masry al youm following assassination of egyptian coptic christians in libya in february 2015. "american products: daesh, al qaeda, apple laptops." (courtesy mada masr press review)

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). 

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

"what ISIS?" by Andeel, published on mada masr

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


Remembering Gamal al-Ghitani

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. 

The Mahfouz Dialogs
By Gamal al-Ghitani

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
By Gamal al-Ghitani

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.