The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Events in Tunisia

The Tunisian government passed two pieces of legislation last week. One, the infamous economic reconciliation law (which has been championed by President Essebsi since he took office), is designed to protect businessmen and former regime figures from prosecution for corruption. For more on corruption in Tunisia and the tug-of-war between the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (whose now undermined mandate includes corruption) and the government, you can read my report in The Nation from Tunisia last Spring.

The Tunisian government also announced it will be the first Arab country to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. This is excellent news, but the timing fo the announcement seems deeply cynical, designed to draw attention away from the much more complicated issue of corruption, and to use the state's feminist credentials as a form of international propaganda (something Tunisia has a long history of doing.)

Links 26 August - 9 September 2017
LinksThe EditorsComment
Links 19-25 August 2017
LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Sisi's war on the Egyptian constitution

Rather predictably – as predictable as his bid for the presidency was after he led the 2013 coup – Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has been in recent months airing trial balloons on amending the 2013 constitution (supposed to be, in theory at least, a consensual text that brings together a variety of political factions, even it excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and others) to allow himself to become, like his predecessors, a president for life. Cue the protests from his defenders that these are ill-advised initiatives by his over-eager fans; but of course even if Sisi may not be as daring as pushing for such changes now, he is certain to do so after he wins what was supposed to be his second and last term in the 2018 presidential elections. You can expect him to reluctantly answer the popular cry for him to serve his country, sacrificing himself (he had been looking forward to quiet retirement, etc.) as countless other dictators have done so before him, from Sisi's friend Vladimir Putin to his arch-enemy Recep Tayyep Erdogan.  

Arguably, Egyptian constitutional principles have been eroded to such an extent under Sisi that this is simply making official a de facto state of affairs. The symbolism of the formal change, however, is serious, as could be legal repercussions that further enshrine today's state of emergency into the constitution. It would further push the regime's opponents – not all cuddly revolutionary types, to be sure – into a zero-sum logic and amplify the rationale that all hope is lost. Putting term limits on the presidency was, after all, one of the few political gains made among the generally meager returns of the Egyptian uprising. It offers, even from today's bleak prospects, the possibility of an eventual change in leadership that might prevent the ossification of the regime (see Algeria today, Egypt under Mubarak, etc.) This is why even mild-mannered critics of the current Egyptian regime who supported the 2013 coup and Sisi's presidential bid are aghast at this turn of events. The piece below, penned by the founder of the Social Democratic Party, is a case in point.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible. Please check them out if you need your documents translated into Arabic, they do a great job with a quick turnaround.

Amending the Constitution Is a Novel Egyptian Disaster

Mohammed Abou al-Ghar, al-Masri al-Youm, 21 August 2017

We have heard the voices of regime mouthpieces – who have personally benefited from the current regime in the form of high-level positions and other privileges – calling for the constitution to be amended. The reason? To extend the president’s term, possibly indefinitely. I would like to remind you that since 1952, none of Egypt’s previous presidents have voluntarily left office. Mohammed Naguib was deposed in a coup, Abdel Nasser died after 18 years in power, Sadat was assassinated after 11 years in office, Mubarak was overthrown by revolution after 29 years of rule, and Morsi was deposed by the people and the army after just a one year. So why would Sisi enter this vicious cycle? Is there some logic in his thinking?

Some say that under dictatorial rule, every president carries out unconstitutional and illegal measures, such that if he ever leaves office, he and his cronies would face trial and retribution. Therefore, in such systems, the president only leaves by force or in death.

The regime’s henchmen are the beneficiaries of this spectacle. They are the ones who adorn any president who undermines the constitution. Then they demand that he remain in office for life, not out of love for him, but out of love for themselves and their positions. Now, are there legal or popular challenges and problems to amending the constitution?

  1. Lawmakers must remember what happened in the days of Mubarak when parliament tried to make controversial amendments to the constitution. That was after all one of the reasons for the end of Mubarak’s rule. They must, no doubt, be cautious. Indeed, the skill, experience and intelligence of Fathi Sorour, the distinguished university professor and the brilliant lawyer, has no equal in the current parliamentary leadership.
  2. The world has completely changed in the 21st century. It is true that terrorism in the Middle East has given the Egyptian regime broad freedom to act with US, European, Gulf, and Israeli support, but these things do not last forever. Moreover, such support bears a high cost that is now being paid for by Egypt’s freedom to make its own decision. The time will come when the president will no longer be able to pay that price; the support will dry up, and with massive foreign and domestic debts, the situation will be an impossible one unless Egypt can maintain political cohesion and keep its people satisfied. The amendments will cause a new rift that will transform Tiran and Sanafir into a profound gulf, with the people on one side and the President on the other.
  3. Extending the president’s first term is legally impossible both in form and substance. The term is a legally binding contract between two parties – the people elected Sisi for 4 years, no more, no less. That cannot be changed with a law or a referendum or anything else, and any attempts at a referendum would be crazy.
  4. The constitution contains an article that clearly states that it is not permissible to change the articles pertaining to election of the president. The wisdom behind that article is well-established, because all of Egypt’s former presidents wanted to rule for life. Any change to this article would have the intention of keeping the president in office indefinitely. Egyptians want to see the day where a former president ends his term and leaves office: they want to experience rotation of power.
  5. Any planned constitutional amendments that have received approval to appear on a constitutional referendum must first present a referendum to abolish the constitution, as this article cannot be amended. Abolishing the Constitution would also mean abolishing the legitimacy of June 30, the very basis on which the current president was elected. Then we would write a new constitution to the current leadership’s liking before presenting it for referendum once again. Are you ready for two referendums in such a short time, followed by presidential elections, just to consolidate the president’s stay in office?
  6. Is the Egyptian regime capable of holding an honest referendum that gives everyone in the media the chance to speak their mind and then follow that up with presidential elections with the same level of transparency? Of course not. The media is almost completely nationalized and will not allow any competitor the opportunity to express his opinion or explain his point of view; it would just as soon assassinate him as let an opposition voice speak freely.
  7. The regime believes itself to be quite strong, and in fact it is quite strong with considerable foreign aid, but there are severe internal weaknesses, including terrorism and the serious erosion of the economy caused by misguided policies and an unwillingness to listen to any other point of view, and due to the imprisonment of thousands, the shredding of the constitution and the law, chaos, and corruption. In such circumstances, we must reach an understanding with the people and agree upon a future policy in order to overcome our terrible problems, and not by drafting dangerous constitutional amendments that paralyze the country and put us in the middle of yet another mess.
  8. Finally, I do not believe that this was [Speaker of Parliament Ali] Abdel Aal’s idea or that of his colleagues because when one of them brought it up not too long ago, he was told to shut up and be silent. Please be careful, Egypt has 21 million angry young men with no permanent or regular work.

Please think a little and wait until next time, there is no need to be so reckless. Leave well enough alone!

Rise up, Egyptian! Egypt always calls on you!

Links 11 July - 18 August 2017

Most of these are from last week, as we slowly gear up after holidays...

LinksThe Editors
On feminism in Tunisia

I visited Tunis last month and one thing I was interested in finding out more about was what kind of discussions Tunisian feminists are having in the aftermath of the Ben Ali regime -- and of the detailed and horrifying revelations of human rights abuses against women (particularly Islamist women) that took place in this most "feminist" of Arab countries, one that does have the most progressive legislation on women's rights in the region. I find the questions raised by state feminism and the divide between secular and Islamic feminists fascinating. I wrote about it for Al Fanar

Meanwhile, independent female activists who criticized the regime faced harassment and vilification. And, as has been revealed by recent testimony collected by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission, women associated with the Islamist movement were subjected to shocking abuse, including rape, torture in detention and forced divorce.

“Was the Tunisian regime ‘feminist’ out of political necessity and to mask a democratic deficit…or out of modernist conviction? Does it even deserve to be called feminist?” writes Bessis. “What’s certain is that the regime was masterful in its ability to use women.”

It was also successful in dividing women. Under Ben Ali, says Mahmoud, Islamist and secularist women “might as well have existed in two different universes.” Secularist leftist women “were engaged in a political struggle with Islamists” and “did not do much to document or help Islamist women with what they were going through.”

“The dictatorship broke relations between women,” Abdellatif told me.

Links 17 June - 10 July 2017

Recent posts:

Recent links:

LinksThe Editors
On the protest movement in Morocco's Rif

The protest movement (known as Hirak Shaabi or hirak for short) that has been going on in Morocco's northern mountainous Rif region for the last eight months was met with a police crackdown over the Eid holiday. In response for calls to protest in the town of Al Hoceima, police blocked roads between Al Hoceima and other towns and imposed what one observers called a "de-facto daytime curfew." Videos filmed by activists circulated online showing larger crowds marching on side streets, and being chased and beaten by riot police. You can see a number of such videos and photos embedded in this coverage by the local independent site Le Desk.

I've written a few things on this lately. For Al Fanar last week, I wrote about the reaction of Moroccan social scientists, who say the Rif region remains misunderstood and that the divisive coverage of the protests and the heavy-handed response of the authorities have missed an opportunity for a serious debate about unequal development among other topics. 

For the New York Times Sunday Review, I wrote about what has sparked the protests -- going back to the death of a local fish-seller last Fall, and then much further, to the Rif's long history of revolt and violence. The historian Paul Vermeren calls the Rif’s history “a succession of tragedies.”

One could also say that it all started at least a century ago. In the 1920s, Abdelkrim el-Khattabi led the tribes of the Rif in an insurrection against Spain, establishing an independent territory. After the Spanish and the French -- Morocco's two colonizers -- launched a brutal attack on the region, bombing, gassing and burning villages to the ground, Khattabi was defeated and ended his days in exile in Cairo.

In the late 1950s, after Morocco's independence, the region rose up again. Then Prince Hassan II, future king and father of Mohammed VI, led a bloody military crackdown. He held a lifelong grudge against the region, calling its inhabitants "savages" in a televised speech and withholding public investment in services and infrastructure for four decades.

Mohammed VI reversed that policy. He initiated huge infrastructure projects -- a container port in Tangier, a high-speed train -- in the north of the country. Many other projects and investments have been promised or are underway. But so far the benefits have largely failed to reach the locals, even as they have raised their expectations.

“a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic”

Eric Hobsbawn, writing about leadership in the LRB, in 1991:

A rapid glance at the history of the USA also suggests scepticism about the impact of individual leaders. That great country has, by general consent, probably elected to its Presidency – the post of chief executive and (as we have been reminded recently) commander-in-chief – a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic. It has indeed evolved a political system that makes it almost impossible to elect to the Presidency persons of visible ability and distinction, except by accident and, just possibly, at moments of national crisis. More than this, in the USA Presidents have quite frequently had to be replaced at short notice, whether because of assassination or malfeasance or for other reasons, by Vice-Presidents, who have usually been chosen for every reason other than their leadership potential. And yet the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference that the man on the bridge was Andrew Johnson and not Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and not McKinley, Mrs Wilson and not Woodrow Wilson, Truman and not Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and not Kennedy, Ford and not Nixon, or even that there was nobody in the White House at all – as under Reagan.

Sisi's "non-regime"

Already over a year ago Hisham Hellyer has described Sisi's Egypt as a "non-regime". Ashraf Sherif uses the same term in this POMED interview [PDF], describing an increasingly dire situation:

You have written that al-Sisi’s regime is a “non-regime.” What do you mean?

Under Mubarak, the state was corrupt and vastly inefficient, but it was more predictable. It had a coherent decision-making process and some degree of order to its public policies.

By contrast, the system over which al-Sisi presides is too chaotic to qualify as a modern authoritarian regime. It is a complicated structure of competing patrimonial, self-centered, and oligarchic Mafia-type institutions that act more like the gated fiefdoms of the Mamluk age than modern state bodies. Their incompetence and inefficiency is matched only by the viciousness of their conspiracy-mongering discourse.

Sherif doesn't hold back on other political actors, from Islamists to leftists and liberals, either. And the conclusion is bleak. Worth reading.

Is the State Dept. losing patience with KSA/UAE over Qatar?

There was a statement yesterday by the spokesperson of the State Department, Heather Nauert, whose language and tone seemed to be shifting blame/responsibility for the continuing Qatar crisis on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. See the video below at 01:00.

Transcript here:

Since the embargo was first enforced on June the fifth, the Secretary has had more than twenty phone calls and meetings with Gulf and other regional and international actors. The interactions have included three phone calls and two in-person meetings with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, three phone calls with the Foreign Minister of Qatar, and three calls with the Qatari Emir. Numerous other calls have taken place with the leaders of UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and others.

**Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

At this point we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long, simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?**

The Secretary is determined to remain engaged as we monitor the situation. He has been delivering the same message to other diplomats overseas. We are encouraging all sides to deescalate tensions and engage in constructive dialogue.

We once again call on all parties to focus on the core, regional and international goal of fighting terrorism, to meet the commitments that were made in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to constructively resolve this dispute.

Links 1-16 June 2017

Recent posts:

Recent links:

LinksThe Editors
In Translation: And if Qatar folds?

There has been an avalanche of commentary on the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt (and a bunch of hangers-on) in the last couple of weeks. Some tell you one side or another is going to win, others worry it's the beginning of a new regional war. Everything is pointing to this crisis lasting longer than those who initiated it (Saudi and the UAE) intended it to. Whatever happens in the end, the crisis shows the interplay of several lines of tension among regional powers, from the Iran-Saudi divide to Islamist-anti-Islamist polarisation and revolutionary vs. counter-revolutionary narratives. The overlap is confusing, and so much of the media treatment (including in the US and UK press, a sad statement of the influence of Gulf money and ideology) absurdly biased.

The piece below is written by the noted Lebanese leftist intellectual Gilbert Achar, most recently the author of a well-reviewed book on the Arab uprisings, Morbid SymptomsAlthough it is published in the Qatar-owned London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, Achcar has the merit of being a cheerleader for neither Qatar nor its opponents. He traces the history of Qatar's tensions with its neighbors, the spectacular rise and potential fall of its aggressive foreign policy, its bet on the Muslim Brotherhood, and its opponents' successful efforts to roll back the Arab uprisings. For Achcar, the fundamental difference between the two camps is that Qatar sought to adapt to the Arab Spring by banking on the Muslim Brotherhood successfully harnessing its energies, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to roll it back and restore the establishments that were shaken by the uprisings. It is a view underpinned by his assessment, in Morbid Symptoms, that another revolutionary wave looms –  one that may very well wash away those who seek to resist it and reward those that seek to ride it.

As always, this translation is made possible by Industry Arabic. Use them for your Arabic needs.


Campaign Against Qatar is Latest in Series of Attacks by the Region’s Old Establishment

Gilbert Achcar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 7 June 2017

To understand the significance of the violent campaign launched by the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian governments against Qatar, we must look beyond the vagaries of the Qatari ransom money allegedly held by Iraq and the charges leveled against Qatar of supporting terrorism. Such charges lose all credibility when they come from actors that have for decades engaged in just that, we must return to the scene before “Arab Spring” to see how it was affected by the Great Uprising.

During the reign of Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emirate of Qatar took an approach to regional affairs not unlike Kuwait’s after it declared independence from Britain in 1961. The announcement outraged the Republic of Iraq, which demanded the emirate be restored as part of its territory. But Kuwait benefited from the tension that existed between Iraq, under the leadership of Abdel Karim Qassim, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which advocated acceptance of Kuwait’s Arab independence over its status as a British protectorate. And in order to deter its Iraqi neighbor from ambitions of annexation, Kuwait pursued a policy of Arab neutrality, maintaining good relations with the two poles of the so-called “Arab Cold War,” Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The similarity is that Qatar, as is well-known, has a historically strained relationship with its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, particularly since declaring independence from Britain in 1971. After seizing power in 1995, Emir Hamad pursued a policy that sought to make up for the emirate’s small size by reinforcing ties with the two main axes of regional conflict, as evident by extensive deployments of US troops throughout the Gulf: the United States and the Republic of Iran. Qatar’s success is most obvious in its ability to simultaneously host the United States’ most important regional airbase and cultivate its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. The policy of good relations with opposing forces also manifests itself in Qatar successfully establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, while also supporting Hamas.

Qatar’s role during the reign of Emir Hamad was not limited to cultivating good relationships with different parties in the Kuwaiti sense, which is neutral and negative, but it also used its substantial wealth to play an active role in regional politics by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. When Saudi Arabia renounced the Brotherhood, after sponsoring it since its inception in 1928, due to its opposition to American intervention in Kuwait in 1990, the weight of Qatar’s political role greatly increased with the establishment of Al-Jazeera, which resonated with Arab society by welcoming Arab voices of opposition, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

So when the volcano of the Great Arab Uprising erupted in 2011, Qatar was able to play a significant role through its sponsorship of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. As a result, the two axes of conflict that had dominated the Arab world – the old establishment and the fundamentalist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood – found support in the Gulf Cooperation Council. But while Saudi Arabia supported the old establishment throughout the region – with the exception of Libya where it remained neutral and Syria where sectarianism produced an alliance (between the Assad regime and) Iran – Qatar supported the uprisings, especially where the Brotherhood was involved, with the exception of Bahrain for obvious reasons. The conflict between the Emirate and the Kingdom since the onset of the “Arab Spring” was evident by Qatar’s support for the Tunisian uprising, while Saudi Arabia granted asylum to deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Moreover, the Obama administration saw Qatar as a means to ward off the danger of Arab uprisings that might take root in a way that would threaten US interests. So it played both sides, at times supporting the old establishment with Saudi Arabia (as in Bahrain), and at others, trying to contain the uprisings with Qatar through the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (like in Tunisia and Egypt). But Qatar’s role urging Washington to adopt a policy of keeping pace with the uprisings was a cause of Saudi indignation, and outraged the United Arab Emirates, which had designated the Muslim Brotherhood public enemy number one. The pressure the two Gulf countries placed on Qatar continued to build after Qatari bets on the Muslim Brotherhood failed to pay out when the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and violently suppressed the Brotherhood. That was followed by Emir Hamad’s decision to step down in place of his son, the current Emir, Tamim, only to see Gulf pressure reach its first peak in 2014, forcing the new emir to change course.1

After the peak, it seemed that the Gulf conflict had come to an end. Through the consensus of the three aforementioned gulf states to support the Syrian opposition against the Assad Regime, which strained relations between Qatar (and with it, the Muslim Brotherhood) and Iran, and, later, Qatar’s participation in the military campaign against Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis in Yemen – all against the backdrop of a new king ascending to the Saudi throne – it seemed as if peace between GCC members was possible. This trend has been supported by Saudi Arabia’s longtime pursuit of a Sunni consensus against Iran that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and coincides with tension between Riyadh and Cairo. The trend also aligned perfectly with the politics of the Obama administration.

However, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States changed the equation. The new president is a supporter of a policy of confrontation in the face of change and revolution in the Arab world. He is also extremely hostile to Iran and has an intimate friendship with Israel. Some of his closest advisors have classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, concurring in this with the UAE (as evidenced by recently uncovered correspondence of its ambassador to Washington). This fundamental change in the equation led Saudi Arabia to reconcile with al-Sisi’s Egypt, who together, accompanied by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, launched the current frenzied attack on Qatar in order to impose a radical change on its policy.

Thus, the latest episode reversing the Great Arab Uprising and the counterattack launched by the ancien regime all across the region, supported in most arenas by the Gulf axis and by Iran in Syria and Yemen, is almost complete. But a new uncontainable wave of revolution is coming sooner or later (indeed, its harbingers are already visible in Morocco and Tunisia).2 If this day comes and there is no one to contain it, then Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may well regret eliminating Qatar’s role within this space.

Gilbert Achcar is a writer and academic from Lebanon



  1. Note that Emir Tamim came to power in Qatar a week or so before the overthrow of Morsi, not after. ↩︎

  2. Here Achcar refers to the protests in southern Tunisia (mostly Tataouine) and in Morocco (starting in the Rif). ↩︎

Sara Roy on Gaza

In the LRB:

Need is everywhere. But what is new is the sense of desperation, which can be felt in the boundaries people are now willing to cross, boundaries that were once inviolate. One day a well-appointed woman, her face fully covered by a niqab, arrived at the hotel where I was staying to beg. When asked politely to leave by the hotel staff, she aggressively refused and insisted on staying, obliging the hotel staff to escort her off the property with force. She wasn’t asking to beg but demanding to. I had never seen this before in Gaza. Another day a teenage boy came to our table quietly pleading for money for his family. By the time I got out my wallet, the staff had approached and gently ushered him out. He didn’t resist. He was educated and well-dressed and I kept thinking he should have been at home studying for an exam or out with his friends by the sea. Instead he was asked to leave the hotel and never return.

Perhaps the most alarming indicator of people’s desperation is the growth of prostitution – this in a traditional and conservative society. Although prostitution has always been present to a small degree in Gaza, it was always considered immoral and shameful, bringing serious social consequences for the woman and her family. As family resources disappear, this appears to be changing. A well-known and highly respected professional told me that women, many of them well-dressed, have come to his office soliciting him and ‘not for a lot of money’. (He also told me that because of the rise of prostitution, it has become harder for girls to get married – ‘no one knows who is pure.’ Families plead with him to provide a ‘safe and decent space’ for their daughters by employing them in his office.) Another friend told me that he had seen a young woman in a restaurant trying to solicit a man while her parents were sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behaviour he said: ‘People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.’

And this is something that is backed, made possible, even celebrated by not only Israel, but also every member of the Middle East Quartet and their Arab allies in the Gulf and elsewhere. What it reminds one of are the sanctions the UN Security Council imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, paving the way for the destruction of society and abberations we see today.

Links 16-31 May 2017

I would also recommend this series of post on Mali on the excellent Bridges from Bamako blog:

(the links compiled here every few weeks are first out on our Twitter account, @arabist.)  

LinksThe Editors