The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Cole on Egypt

I like Juan Cole's blog, and I like some of the principled stands he's taken against CampusWatch's attack dogs, and his valuable coverage of Iraq over the past few years. And I like to watch the fights he gets into with people like Christopher Hitchens.

This makes it all the more painful to see him do a sloppy job in this Salon story on the Egyptian presidential elections.

It's not only that the article is very superficial in its description of Egyptian politics, which might be excused by the fact that this was a short article for a non-expert audience. Still, simplistic and sometimes simply erroneous statements like these are grating:

On Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Mubarak, thin-skinned about his family and his son's ambitions, tossed Ibrahim into prison in 2000, sentencing him to seven years, but released him early in the face of international pressure.

That is a oversimplification of the Ibrahim case, which has a lot of twists and turns. Also, it is plausible that Ibrahim was eventually released by honest judges rather than political interference.

On Ayman Nour: Mubarak tossed Ayman Nour, the popular leader of a major new recognized political party, al-Ghad ("Tomorrow") into prison for 45 days on trumped-up charges.

Again, it simplifies the Nour case. Some of the charges against him are serious, as we will see when next week's trial resumes.

On the boycott:The bottom line: The outcome of the Sept. 7 elections was never in doubt, a fact recognized by Kifayah, which called for a boycott. The boycott received far more support than did Nour.

Just because 77% of eligible voters did not vote does not meant that they supported a boycott or Kifaya. Apathy may have been the real winner here.

On the middle class and Kifaya: The Egyptian middle classes, many of them highly educated and with entrepreneurial ambitions, chafe at the government's heavy-handed interference in the economy (mostly for protectionist purposes), which they believe limits their opportunities. They and other groups have formed the Kifayah ("Enough!") movement, which has held protests against the regime.

It's dubious that the middle class, if you can talk about it as such, is mostly liberal either politically or economically. This particularly applies to the vast chunk of the middle class that is employed in the public sector. I would argue that conservatism defines the middle class today, culturally and politically. The appeal of the liberal Nazif government is not so much what it is doing, but that unlike previous governments that it is doing anything at all.

On the middle class, Al Wafd and Al Ghad: The new middle class is represented by the New Wafd Party and by its new competitor, the Tomorrow (al-Ghad) Party. The government recognized al-Ghad in October 2004; many observers believed it did so to weaken the Wafd and to split the urban middle-class vote.

Saying that Al Wafd represents the middle class is ridiculous, in fact that it represents anyone under the current leadership is dubious. The NDP has as much claim to represent middle class interests as any other "liberal" party. Furthermore, if what I and others saw on election day is representative, the "urban middle-class" does not vote Al Ghad or Al Wafd -- it doesn't vote at all.

Finally, he also calls Gamal Mubarak "Galal", although that might just be a copy editing error. Altogether rather sloppy, particularly for an academic. Cole writes quite well, but one wonders whether he might not have too much on his plate at the moment and should be writing about everything and everyone. Or whether he (and Salon) should be publishing articles about the Middle East whose main purpose seems to be not describing the situation in the region but bashing Bush. As a bona fide "Bush hater", I wish more time was spent digging up real dirt on the bastard (Valerie Plame, cronyism, FEMA, etc.) than this rather trite question of US policy towards the Middle East, which wasn't exactly great before Bush anyway.