The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Reading Tony Judt in Cairo

My new column at al-Masri al-Youm is up. It's about the late Tony Judt, whose book Ill Fares The Land I was reading when I heard the news of his death, and how the crisis of Western democracy he writes about has parallels in the Arab world. A crisis of Eastern autocracy, if you will.

The phenomena that Judt describes are, for many, only beginning to be recognized in the West, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis and the threat of permanently high unemployment. Political apathy among the young is one phenomenon that has been perceptible for some time--despite the short-lived enthusiasm generated by the candidacy of a quite conventional (aside from his race) American politician, Barack Obama. Another is the striking irrelevance (and just as often, connivance) of weak parliaments in the face of strong executives.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

The trends Judt describes appear to have an all-too-familiar trajectory for those living in the Middle East. After decolonization, Arab states--particularly the “revolutionary” ones--underwent a period of undemocratic rule with considerable social progress, with regimes benefiting from mass support by improving the lot of the majority of the population. Yet today, perhaps in Egypt more than other Arab states, any semblance of a social contract appears to have evaporated and these once partly progressive autocracies have foundered. With this, a deep individual mistrust of both state and society has settled in.

I can highly recommend Ill Fares The Land and Judt's more recent NYRB writings.