The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged arabspring
Amro Ali on Arab Berlin

Amro Ali, writing on his blog (and originally in al-Sharq):

Following the 2011 Arab uprisings and its innumerable tragic outcomes, Berlin was strategically and politically ripe to emerge as an exile capital. For some time now, there has been a growing and conscious Arab intellectual community, the political dimensions of which to fully crystalize is what I wish to further explore.

When the storm of history breaks out a tectonic political crisis, from revolutions to wars to outright persecution, then a designated city will consequently serve as the gravitational center and refuge for intellectual exiles. This is, for example, what New York was for post-1930s Jewish intellectuals fleeing Europe, and what Paris became for Latin American intellectuals fleeing their country’s dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Against those historical precedents, the Arab intellectual community in Berlin needs to understand itself better, moving away from an auto-pilot arrangement, and become actively engaged with political questions that face it. In effect, there is a dire necessity for this community to acquire a name, shape, form and a mandate of sorts. With a vigorous eye to a possible long-term outcome, this may include a school of thought, a political philosophy or even an ideational movement – all cross-fertilized through a deeper engagement with the Arab world.

This is certainly not about beckoning revolutions and uprisings, nor to relapse into the stale talk of institutional reforms. If anything, there needs to be a move away from these tired tropes of transformation – away from quantifiable power dynamics that do not address matters that go deeper, into the existential level that shores up the transnational Arab sphere. This is the very area where the stream of human life animates a language of awareness and the recurring initiative helps to expand the spaces of dignity for fellow beings. Yet, this area is currently ravaged in a torrent of moral misery and spiritual crisis.

Having travelled to Berlin multiple times in the last few years, and knowing quite a few Arab exiles there and the wider German community that often hosts them – think-tanks, stiftungs, universities, etc. – I am struck by the emergence of the city as a genuine hub for quite varied Arab intellectual activity and political activism. For Egyptians in particular (Amro is Egyptian), it has been a sometimes difficult host: the Egyptian embassy is unusually active in following the diaspora community, sending its goons to disrupt gatherings, defend the Sisi regime at conferences, and I’ve heard reports of harassment of certain activists there.

Angela Merkel’s government has been usually craven (for Germany, that is, which unlike say France or Italy has tended to defend human rights more consistently in the past and have fewer economic interests in the Arab world) in pandering to the Sisi regime, staging state visits and at the EU level refraining from much criticism. Part of this is driven early bets Sisi made on German business, including very lucrative contracts for Siemens and for the German defense industry, but also by Merkel’s need to watch her right flank after her (admirable) intake of mostly Syrian migrants in 2015: she has sought to present Egypt as a partner in countering migration flows across the Mediterranean, although one might be skeptical about Egypt’s minor role in the migration crisis of the last few years and its ability to contribute.

But it has been welcoming to a wide array of people escaping their home countries, and Berlin has become a hub of sorts: as Amro argues, it is less politically tendentious, easier to access, and cheaper than other major Western cities with large pre-2011 Arab communities. It also more diverse and is a city that has, due to its peculiar history and relatively cheap rents, been welcoming to artists, students and bohemian life more generally. Amro’s essay is as much about the particular of appeal of Berlin as a city, rather than Germany, as it is about the condition of Arab exiles in the ongoing current great Arab exodus (perhaps not seen as region-wide as it is today since the 1970s) . An interesting essay that meanders through the history of the city, the status of exile, and the role of intellectuals in political activism; well worth reading.

Sloppy scholarship and the Arab uprisings

Bassam Haddad, in Jadaliyya:

Much of the writing on the Arab uprisings continues to suffer from the new think-tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual, sloppy-analysis syndromes. It is as if having a platform and a mandate are sufficient to produce sound knowledge. For the most part, the proof is in the pudding. Follow platforms and individuals across time and space and this becomes clear: zigzagging and pendulum-swing judgments and analysis, driven more by events and politics than by historical and analytical depth. Worse still, this sloppiness has extended to scholars who frequently opine on social media and electronic publication platforms that seek content quantity over quality in a mutually beneficial exercise. Rigorous analysis that stands the test of time suffers.

Extending beyond quick platforms, the deluge of books on the uprisings is staggering and qualitatively inconsistent across publications, with some coming out within the first year of these protracted events, yet they do not consciously address their own temporal (premature?) shortcomings. Other books are published within months of the emergence of new phenomena (e.g., ISIS) and extrapolate from that particular phenomenon to all cases that experienced an uprising. Finally, as I already shared, a continuing trend of erroneously addressing the uprisings, or the odd title “Arab Spring," as one event lingers, with insufficient attention to the vast variance across cases. For the most part, the best work on the uprisings has not been written yet, and for good reason.

I suspect we will see really good literature about the uprisings before we see really good non-fiction. I don't think anyone has really put their finger on the real story here yet.

Morsi, more Yeltsin than Putin?

✚ The Terrible Twos - By James Traub | Foreign Policy:

Egypt's revolutionaries have begun to think of President Mohammed Morsy as their Putin, consolidating power and crushing dissent. But it's much more likely, as Sestanovich observes, that Morsy will prove to be Egypt's Yeltsin, presiding fecklessly over weak institutions and an increasingly fragmented polity. Yeltsin's Russia resisted demands for market reform from the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Morsy's government has spent months putting off an agreement with the IMF even as foreign exchange reserves dwindle down to a three-month supply. Morsy has been unable or unwilling to curb the hated security forces directed by the Interior Ministry, deepening the outrage at his high-handed political tactics. We should remember that Yeltsin was first seen as a bully, and only later as a weakling. Morsy's own position is hardly secure; he may react to his growing unpopularity by becoming more autocratic, which will in turn provoke more protest.

Some interesting thoughts on comparing the post-Arab uprisings situation to the former republics of the USSR. Limited relevance, but some more things to worry about...

Of flags in protests

Brothers in the Hood: Egypt’s Soft Powers and the Arab World

This is an interesting piece in Jadaliyya but I have a problem with this:

When Egyptian liberals complain of Islamist protesters waving Saudi flags in Tahrir Square, it needs to be pointed out that this is not so different from when liberals wave Tunisian and revolutionary Syrian flags. One has a conservative pan-Islamist agenda, the other a revolutionary pan-Arab one – both with an Egypt at the head.

Not really — on the rare occasions Egyptian protestors had Tunisian or Syrian flags, it was to express solidarity for those revolutions. Since Saudi Arabia was not having a revolution, one can assume it was either an indication of allegiance to the Saudi monarchy or the regime's religious viewpoints. There's a big difference there. 

Will Arabs turn out for Gaza?

Will Arabs turn out for Gaza?

Lynch has this right:

Morsi has demonstrated his preference to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy here, offering some sympathetic rhetoric and a visit from his relatively anonymous Prime Minister but thus far avoiding dramatic gestures such as opening the border with Gaza or throwing Camp David on the table.  But as much as Morsi values solidifying relations with the U.S. and the international community, and is constrained by the status quo orientation of the Egyptian military and foreign policy apparatus, he may also see real opportunities to gain domestic popularity and assert Egyptian regional leadership.  Morsi's conversations with Erdogan may be implictly focused as much on coordinating to avoid a bidding war over Gaza which pushes both countries towards overly risky moves.  But it is not clear that such a stance can be maintained if the tempo of protests and the human toll of the war escalates.  

The coming days will, among many other things, offer some of the first real evidence about the strategic effects of the Arab uprisings.  It is important to recognize how limited the response of the Arab public and leaders has been thus far.  But it's also important to recognize how quickly this could change, and how unsurprising this would be should it happen.  The Arab uprisings have introduced far greater unpredictability and complexity into everyone's calculations, raising the potential payoff to dramatic political gestures and decreasing the confidence of rulers that they can safely ignore public demands.   All of those ready to confidently dismiss the possibility of such rapid developments should go back first to read what they wrote about Tunisia in December 2010, Egypt in January 2011, or Syria in February 2011.  All the more reason for all parties to push hard for a ceasefire now, so that it isn't put to a test.  

So far Morsi has handled this well: he has done enough in terms of domestic opinion and perhaps even more importantly the Brotherhood base. His inner circle feel content that they calibrated their reaction correctly. But that's today. If this continues, it may be that Morsi will be constrained by US threats and other considerations, for now, and take a humiliation that Netanyahu may be interested in giving him. But even if things don't change immediately, it will have set in motion the preparations for a strategy to act differently next time.

The Children Devour the Revolution

The Children Devour the Revolution 

BEIJING - The Arab Spring that swept away dictatorships across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 unnerved many in the Chinese leadership. Liu Yuan, one of the boldest and most ambitious generals in China's People's Liberation Army, was particularly shaken by what he identified as a fatal weakness of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi: his son. Until the revolution, Qaddafi's second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam, was seen as a Western-leaning reformer, a voice for modernization and democracy. And he was educated in the same class of prestigious overseas universities attended by dozens of princelings (the sons and daughters of high-ranking Chinese officials).

In an extraordinary closed door speech in February, notes of which Foreign Policy has seen, Liu cautioned that Saif exposed himself to the flattery, privilege, and ideological brainwashing of the "Western hostile forces" -amorphous enemies of Chinese communism. And he returned to Libya with ideas of liberty and democracy, which fatally softened the ideological defenses of his once-defiant father, Liu said, leading to his bloody demise. It is exactly this kind of Fifth Column that Liu fears could kill China from the inside.

Perversely, I think the Chinese general has it right — among many things, one cause of the regime's fall was their pretense to be something they weren't — democratic. The rest of this fascinating piece is on Chinese politics, btw.

Agha/Malley: This Is Not a Revolution

This Is Not a Revolution by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley | The New York Review of Books

Another almost melodramatically lucid-pessimistic view of the Arab uprisings and their consequences by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley. Much of the phenomena they describe is accurate, but what they object to is history in motion, which they see as more of loop. This is too depressed-romantic a view. There are terrible debts to be paid for the way power was organized in the Arab world over the last 60 years, they will be paid in blood. Let's get on with paying them, and not cry over spilt milk. But the idea that a restoration of the Ottoman model (in terms of a MB caliphate, not Turkish domination) is happening I find dubious.

I liked this bit:

The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?

Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.

Agha and Malley lament the rise of the Islamists and the bizarre Gulf-financed taste for Western interventionism that creates opportunities for Islamists, and the retrograde views most Islamists advocate under the petrol-fueled influence of the Salafi international. There is a potential key to making things go differently: the collapse of Saudi Arabia as it currently is politically organized. Which probably means, for a while at least, the collapse of order in that country in the way we see in Syria today. But that is the solution that is always unpalatable to the way the world is run — it has little to do with the Arab world and its politics, the security of the Gulf regimes is not underwritten locally.

To get Western support, Arab secularists need to stop being stupid

Borzou Daragahi has a piece in FT titled Arab liberals need the west’s support (and a companion report here). He argues:

Close watchers of the Middle East knew the Islamists would be a major factor once Arab tyrannies were toppled. They have organisational capacity, popular support and international connections lacked by their rivals.

But what is most surprising, given the gutting they suffered at the hands of Arab dictators for the past few decades, is how strong, vital and persistent liberals, secularists and leftists in the region are becoming.

. . .

The challenge for the west and for the next US president, and a worthy subject for the next debate, is how to support liberal and secular political forces as well as the tolerant wings of the ascendant Islamist forces so that they pursue the pragmatist course of Turkey rather than the harsh, repressive vision of Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I'm all for greater Western support for like-minded people in the Arab world — rather than the betting on the Muslim Brotherhood as the new normal that has characterized, for instance, part of the Obama administration's approach. But it's not a one-way street. Arab secularists, leftist, liberal or conservative, have to not only be better organized and able to perform well in elections, but also stop having moronic attitudes towards the West.

Having lunch yesterday with a Western diplomat, he complained that for instance labor groups and other leftist forces refused to meet with him because they feared being accused of collaborating with Western forces. The MB, of course, has used the charge that secularists are Western-funded to tar them. The Mubarak regime used to do the same. But considering that Muslim Brothers spent much of the past 18 months ingratiating themselves with the West, they have to move beyond these fears and push back on these charges. And there is absolutely no reason for them to refuse to meet with Western officials, or form partnerships with like-minded political parties, trade unions, and other organizations in the West. The Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly impervious to attacks on having foreign ties, either, after all.

I believe in the electoral viability of non-Islamist parties, even if I despair of their divisions and organizational abilities. These things will improve. But I am simply dumb-founded by the stupid pseudo-nationalist positions some cling to. They need to multiply foreign ties and leverage them for political advantage. That's what the MB has been doing, even before it was in power. Why should secularists be any different?

Gresh on the key aspects of the Arab uprisings

Alain Gresh:

Même s’il y a des différences d’un pays à l’autre, une même volonté anime ces révoltes qui ont en commun trois caractéristiques :

1. La volonté d’en finir avec l’autoritarisme et la dictature, mais pas seulement au sens politique. Avant tout au sens d’arbitraire. C’est ce que disent les gens quand ils parlent de karama – de dignité. Ils veulent vivre dans une société où ils ne sont pas soumis à l’arbitraire du fonctionnaire qui les envoie «promener», du policier qui les maltraite ou les frappe, une société où tous les agents de l’Etat respectent les citoyens. Cela va bien au-delà d’une demande de démocratie.

2. La volonté d’en finir avec l’accaparement des richesses par une minorité, avec une libéralisation économique imposée par l’Union européenne, qui ne profite qu’à la clique au pouvoir et accroît la paupérisation de la population.

3. La volonté d’en finir avec un patriarcat oppressant qui marginalise une jeunesse instruite, mieux formée que ses parents et qui ne trouve pas de travail.

Révolte contre l’arbitraire, contre l’injustice sociale, contre la marginalisation de la jeunesse : ces trois facteurs sont communs à tous les soulèvements qui secouent le Monde arabe.

Three key aspects of the Arab uprisings: anti-authoritarianism with a libertarian streak and a focus on rule of law, a demand for socio-economic justice, and against what might be termed the geronto-patriarchy (i.e. the rule of old men). Seems about right, and if so it should bring major social transformations in the next decade.

Harling: Is the Arab world really in "winter"?

An excellent piece going beyond the superficial Arab spring/winter dichotomy, by ICG’s Peter Harling in Le Monde:

Ce qui rend les transitions en cours impossibles à juger, c’est qu’elles font apparaître d’innombrables tensions latentes au sein des sociétés de la région, au moment même où elles font disparaître les moyens traditionnels de leur gestion, puisque les procédés habituels des régimes sont très exactement ce que leurs sujets ne tolèrent plus. L’enjeu de ces renégociations consiste justement à recréer des mécanismes de règlement des conflits sociaux, sur des bases nouvelles elles-mêmes source de conflits. Il n’est dons pas surprenant de les voir susciter des désaccords, voire des violences. Le véritable point d’interrogation porte sur l’apparition de systèmes politiques accordant une importance centrale à la légitimité populaire, dans une région qui en a jusqu’à présent été dépourvue.

My translation:

What makes the transitions underway impossible to judge is that they have all brought to the fore innumerable tensions at the heart of the region’s societies, at the very moment when these societies are ridding themselves of the traditional means to manage these tensions, since the the usual means used by the regimes are exactly what their subjects no longer tolerate. At stake in these negotiations is precisely the creation of mechanism to regulate social conflicts, but on new bases which are themselves sources of conflict. It is therefore not surprising to see disagreements, and even violence. The real question mark is whether new political systems will appear that will give a central importance to popular legitimacy, in a region that has hitherto been deprived of such systems.

You really have to read the whole, very thoughtful piece – it’s a breath of fresh air from the morose reporting and alarmist analyses you see a lot these days (often corroborated by depressing if transient news). ICG often translates its staff’ analyses on their website, so check there in a day or two. An important point he makes at the end is the importance of mixing the uprisings with geopolitical games (Iran, for instance).

The Arab Spring, US foreign policy, the Status-Quo Lobby and the Dream Palace of the Zionists

I'd like to touch upon America and Egypt, because I've seen a lot of hand-wringing in American newspapers about the future of that relationship and a sense of misplaced buyers' remorse about the Egyptian revolution – misplaced because the US had little to do with the revolution, and because it is wrong-headed thinking about an unstoppable, irreversible event.

Generally speaking, the American foreign policy establishment is stuck on Egypt. It is having a hard time imagining a different Middle East. Its path of least resistance is banking on their financial and political relationship with the generals now in charge and maintaining the ability to project power in the region that it has had since 1945 to some extent and since 1990 in particular. If it continues on this path, which is unfortunately likely, because of the dearth of imagination in a foreign policy elite that has grown lazy in its imperial thinking, and because of the dire state of American politics, it will fail. 

The most important thing you can do about Egypt right now is be patient and not try to force things or maintain a system that Egyptians clearly want to change. This is what worries me the most: that the US will choose to encourage the perpetuation of military rule in Egypt, as people like Jon Alterman have already subtly advocated and many others in Washington are discreetly but more vigorously doing in games of "armchair generals". They are the Status Quo Lobby.

America is a country that has grown complacent in its assumptions about the Middle East and its politics, and too wedded to the idea of having an imperial role in the region (of which CENTCOM is the embodiment) and the world more generally. For several years I have advocated an American withdrawal from the Arab world. The Arab uprisings have made this all the more urgent, although it is a delicate, difficult, and potentially dangerous matter. But that's a debate for another day.

Let me focus now on a few pieces by people who have written very unwise things, and who are the other bigpart of the problem with American foreign policy in the region: those who primarily see US Middle East policy through the lens of Israel. 

Robert Satloff, a leading hack of the Israel lobby think tank WINEP, and Eric Trager have a piece in the WSJ you can read here. A few years ago Satloff was all into pressuring Egypt on democracy issues, but now has buyer's remorse – confirming my long-held suspicion that people like him and Elliott Abrams (and many others) were only tactically interested in democracy promotion as a manner to wield greater influence over the Mubarak regime. Now that Islamists have won a majority in Egypt's parliament, they are shitting their proverbial pants.

Their piece, however, is weak in its argumentation and is a transparent attempt at scaremongering for Israel's sake.

They worry that Camp David will be submitted by the MB to a popular referendum, which not certain at all. the real issue is how Egyptian politics react the next time – and that time will soon come – Israel decides to commit atrocities like the Gaza war of 2009 or the Lebanon war of 2006. And the honest answer is no one knows, and the honest solution is that the US can no longer sanction such atrocities as it did in 2006 and 2009.

They make a big deal of the Gamaa Islamiya joining the MB's coalition, even though the reconciliation process by which Gamaa members recanted the use of violence was backed by the US and followed closely by the CIA in Cairo over the past decade and heralded as a deradicalization model (despite the human rights costs of the Egyptian government's campaign against the Gamaa). I can't stand the Gamaa and their call for Omar Abdel Rahman's release (basically because the Gamaa sees mostly composed of his sons these days) but it's rather disingenuous to point this out when you have Kahanists in the Knesset they never mention.

They then turn to the frivolous lawsuits against Naguib Sawiris (brought forward, among others, by a Salafist MP) and talk about the future of the Coptic minority – a real cause for concern, but one that WINEP was hardly vocal about under Mubarak. The Muslim Brothers and others could worsen the situation, true, but they're not even really in power yet. I don't remember Satloff & co. calling for a freeze of US military aid to SCAF after the Maspero massacre.  

One thing I agree with them on is the need for Egypt to carry out robust policing and deradicalization in Sinai, for many reasons including to prevent armed groups operating from there to carry out attacks against Israel. But I would add to that the urgent need for Egypt's policy towards Gaza to change, by opening the border for goods and people, and to vocally push back against the current framework of the Middle East peace process (the Quartet and its conditions).

Overall, though, this piece is so telling of the mainstream American Zionist mindset: it's all about Israel, and about maintaining the status quo – even in a region where everything is pointing towards change. These are the same people (like Martin Indyk, like Dennis Ross) who spent the 1990s massaging Israel's violations of the letter and spirit of the Oslo process and rendered it meaningless.

This piece by Elliott Abrams, defending the neo-con push for Arab democracy under the Bush administration, is self-serving bullshit. People like Abrams were only interested in Arab democracy when it suited their plan to remodel the region, and as a pressure tool to secure Israeli regional dominance. The Arab Spring is partly a reaction to their plans, not a result of it. Abrams might be credited with being more consistent than Satloff, though, but he's also more cynical. 

A more radical, and barely coherent rumination on the Arab Spring can be found in this long TNR essay by Marty Peretz, who in any case doesn't like Arabs much. Peretz has rejoined the ranks of the essentialist theorists of the Arab world like Lee Smith – in other words, he's dropped the politically correct niceties he would adopt when he was closely involved with his magazine's liberal (on everything except Palestine!) writers. The piece is so meandering, so pettily sullen about the rise of Islamists (and, although he does not acknowledge it, secularists) who don't like Israel, or ignorant of the realities of the region's history (it's full of mistakes about what women wear in the region, confuses the UAR and UAE, etc.) that I won't even excerpt it. One of the early commenters has it right:

People who want an informed opinion about Arabs and seek out Martin Peretz must be the same people who seek out David Duke for his views on African-Americans.

Peretz calls his piece "The failure of the Arab Spring" – but he never considers to ask: failure by whose standards? Those Zionists who initially cheered for the Arab Spring were so caught up in their illusions – to borrow from Fouad Ajami their "dream-palace".  They never stop to try to see things from an Arab perspective.

The world has entered a dangerous transition, which the Arab Spring is part of. There are many risks ahead, for the possibility of Arab democracy, for American policy and interests in the region, and the possibility of a regional conflict. The biggest mistake, the biggest delusion, outsiders can make is to think that, even as everything around them is changing, that they can stay the same. The Status Quo Lobby and the Zionist Lobby are the biggest problem for American foreign policy because they will create friction by resisting change.

Overdoing Islamist panic

John Bradley, a British journalist who has written books about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has a new book out. And it's all about how the Arab uprisings were the most horrible thing ever to happen, how the Islamists have taken over everything, and everyone is stupid for hoping that some form of democracy might finally come to the Arab world.

Bradley's book on Egypt captured well the sense that things were coming to an end, and being subtitled "The land of the pharaohs on the brink of a revolution," he can claim uncanny prescience. But in fact, the book did not really predict anything specific other than the exhaustion of the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime, and had other problems. One of them was a very hostile treatment of Islamists — not that they don't deserve a cautious approach, but it was very much over the top — I remember for instance an odd passage in which Bradley gets pissed off with the then Deputy General Guide of the Muslim Brothers, Muhammad Habib, for speaking polished fusha rather than aamiya.

Since the Arab Spring — which Bradley has taken to calling the Salafi Spring — he has been resoundly negative and pessimistic, and often alarmist about the electoral victories of Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt. I downloaded the first chapter of his new book, After the Arab Spring: How Islamist have hijacked the Middle East revolts and found him resolutely negative about Tunisia (Tunisia for Pete's sake!), only citing Tunisians who worry about the victory of Ennahda (in my experience a minority) and taking incidents that were likely political manipulations like the whole Persepolis affair of last summer as signs of an impending totalitarian imposition of Sharia law. He almost sounds nostalgic about the supposed liberalism of Ben Ali! 

There is good reason to be cautious about what Islamists will do once in power, and the negative impact they may have on women's rights and other matters. But surely it is both too early to condemn them for anti-democratic behavior or to regret that democratic elections have been held that freely and fairly brought Islamists to power. The key issue Bradley seems to have is that the Islamists are neither secular nor liberal. At this point, it's a philosophical problem: it seems Bradley is unwilling to recognize that democratic processes who bring conservative religious forces to power as democratic. But would he say the same about a Republican president elected from the religious right in America (like George W. Bush) or indeed, the way that all presidential candidates must make references to God in their speeches?

From the introduction of the book, this is the way Bradley sees things:

It's perfectly legitmate to worrry about an Islamist-military alliance in Egypt (although this is not applicable to Tunisia) or of a Saudi-backed counter-revolution. But there are also wider demands for democratic accountability and good governance that remain strong whether the public backs Islamists or not. In other words, so what if there will be policies that are neither secular nor liberal/progressive? Many made the mistake before of giving Ben Ali or Mubarak the benefit of the doubt as a bulwark against Islamists (here Bradley treads a path followed by Christopher Hitchens and many French commentators). But these were not champions of women's rights (little progress was made in Egypt under Mubarak while Ben Ali simply manipulated the legacy of genuine female empowerment left by Bourguiba) or indeed democracy. The Islamists have come in to run government after elections, not by coup or through a revolutionary process. They may be conservative, but I'm not sure that even if they have retrograde ideas, they should be considered undemocratic.

Or at least, it's too early to tell.

Parsing the EIU's Democracy Index

Just took a look at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index [PDF] to see how things had changed in MENA. First off, they note:

Despite the pro-democracy upheavals in the region and improvement in the region’s average democracy score in 2011, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains the most repressive region in the world—15 out of 20 countries in the region are categorised as authoritarian. Only in Tunisia has the Arab spring thus far resulted in significant democratisation, although some progress has been recorded in Egypt, Libya and a few Gulf states. Elsewhere there has even been regression in reaction to popular protests—notably in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

I picked out the scores for the countries were the most significant upheavals and/or political change took place in 2011:

A few notes on this:

  • I am not sure what their methodology is, but I suspect that once the institutional setup stabilizes Tunisia is set to pass into the second category, “flawed democracy”, rather than where it is now at “hybrid regime”. This just highlights once again what a fantastic success Tunisia has been thus far.
  • I am not sure Egypt deserves a lowering of its score considering the prevalence of martial law and media control that still exists. Not to mention the whole killing protestors thing.
  • It must have been very difficult to give Libya a score, considering that civil war prevailed for most of the year and chaos continues. Still, I suppose there’s no doubt it’s better than under Qadhafi.
  • Big jump backwards for Bahrain.
  • Interesting downgrade for Morocco. Not sure it’s entirely fair, but it may be related to other countries’ advance rather than Morocco’s fairly static situation despite the constitutional change and new government. The bottom line is that the score is still high — if the regime is even serious, we have to wait for implementation.
Towards a second revolution?

Activists' efforts towards organizing a "second revolution" on the anniversary of the 25 January uprising are underway. The above video, titled "The confessions of Omar Suleiman", is the latest attempt to create a viral campaign. Below is the full press release about it, but do watch it.

Cairo, Egypt, January 3rd 2012

A video compiling the works and testimonies of numbers of activists has been released on January 1st 2012 on Youtube. It calls for a second revolution on January 25th 2012, and has gone viral.

Reception of the video

- The video encountered an instantaneous viral success, especially on Facebook (45,000 shares in the last 48 hours), on Twitter and blogs.

- It was reviewed and posted the day of its release by 3 national newspapers El Wafd, El Badil and Al Youm el 7.

- Youtube stats indicate it has been viewed over 100,000 times to this date.

- Comments and likes are in favor of a new mobilization of Egyptians on January 25th 2012 (1100 likes, 60 dislikes) 

Content and description of the video: "Omar Soliman's Confessions"

Mimicking the style of spoof viral videos, the video's contents are real, iconic and have been broadcast by local and international media.

The video begins with archival footage of Omar Soliman's famous February 11th speech in which he announced Mubarak's stepping down, and the transfer of power to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces "for the management of Egypt's national affairs". Initially, these words concluded Omar Soliman's original speech. In the attached video, a voice over, impersonating Soliman, begins a detailed account of what Egyptians endured since SCAF's take over.

Particularities of this story - Fighting State controlled media: from the street to the Web, and back

This video reflects how -- without formal concertation, organization or funding -- citizens, activists and collectives put their efforts in common to combat State controlled media and sustained anti-democracy propaganda. Both amateurs and professionals act as footage producers or footage collectors while other proxies — mainly popular individuals in social networks -- act as authoritative professionals in their fields, information providers and disseminators. Independent collectives such as Mosireen ( are committed to systematically cover, archive and disseminate the information that State media censors and hides. Both Mosireen and, recently, the Askar Kazeboon Campaign also organize regular street projections, exposing eye-opening material to an often dumbfounded audience.

The video focuses on:

- Military violence and killing of peaceful protesters at the very early stages of the revolution and all through out 2011.

- The infamous "virginity tests" and Samira Ibrahim's lonely legal battle against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces.

- The corruption of the judicial system (Mubarak family trial, acquittal of officers accused of murdering protestors).

- Smear campaigns and crackdowns on Human rights NGOs and youth movements.

- The military trials of over 12,000 civilians, mostly protestors, accused of "thuggery" or "spreading lies", such as Maikel Nabil.

- Full empowerment of islamist movements and systematic destruction of pro-democracy movements and public figures.

- Sustained media propaganda, intimidation, and disinformation campaigns.

- Hideous beating and stomping of female protestors.

- Televised instigation of sectarian strifes.


Link to the original video in Arabic

Link to the video with English subtitles

Egypt was not Tunisia after all

Remember how, in early January, Egyptian officials and many a pundit warned that "Egypt is not Tunisia," suggesting an uprising against Mubarak was unlikely? I wrote about this in one of my first long pieces on the uprisings in the LRB, before Mubarak was toppled, and have thought about it a lot since. I take to task the centrality of the Egyptian uprising in a new piece in The National (part of a series of three looking at the Arab uprisings), and argue that Tunisia must be given its due. To me, the Tunisian revolution (because it is that, a revolution) was the most remarkable event of 2011, and I'm glad I got a chance to witness key parts of it.

It has often been written in the past year that the beating heart of the Arab uprisings is Cairo's Tahrir Square. In this view, the events that took place the month before in Tunisia were a mere precursor to the real deal - the Egyptian revolution - as if the Tunisians were simply the warm-up act for the star of the show.

The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after all, was the most unexpected and counterintuitive of events: Ben Ali's Tunisia had been a well-run, orderly little place with its share of social problems and a pervasive police state, but no real political fissure on the horizon. Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, on the other hand, was a disaster waiting to happen, in which an elderly president, his ineffectual son and a divided regime were gearing for battle as a leadership succession loomed.

In other words - from this perspective - tiny Tunisia was an uprising that could have easily ended differently if, during a few hours of panic on January 14, the president had not caved into the advice of his security chief and decided to leave the country. In expansive Egypt, long a gravity well of the Arab world, the spark of Ben Ali's downfall found ready kindle to unleash a much larger revolt that spread like wildfire.

I beg to differ with this analysis, which puts the horse before the cart. It is true that few saw the Tunisian uprising coming, despite waves of social unrest in the country's poor hinterlands in 2008 and the unceasing and dull brutality of Ben Ali's security forces. And it is true that the Tunisian revolt was less filled with tension and drama than the Egyptian one, which had the world's cameras perched above Tahrir Square and a people given to dramatic performances to enchant them. But we should not confuse the spectacular nature of the "Arab Spring", as brought to you by CNN and Al Jazeera, with its reality.