Happy New Year! It's been four years since I moved my Abu Aardvark blog over to Foreign Policy as part of a relaunch which has succeeded beyond anyone's projections (thanks Dan, Susan and Blake!). And it's been about two years since I launched the Middle East Channel. So this seems to be time for a change. As Laura Rozen reported last week, I will be joining the admini.... just kidding! [*] No, instead I'm thrilled to announce that tomorrow will be the launch of my new weekly FP column on the Middle East and U.S. policy.
The column will cover the same basic turf as the blog. It may have slightly more emphasis on the Washington dimension, but don't expect any radical changes. I'll still be writing about Arab politics, reporting on developments across the region and offering up my own analysis of the big issues, and working in Jay-Z, Phineas & Ferb and Calvin & Hobbes references as often as possible. I see the new column as an opportunity to make a regular, more formal weekly contribution to the broader foreign policy debate, engaging with a wider audience and set of issues.
Don't worry, though -- Abu Aardvark and the Middle East Channel aren't going anywhere. In fact, for now I see this as something of an Abu Aardvark 4.0 relaunch. Over the last year, mostly because of the time I spend editing the Middle East Channel, Abu Aardvark evolved into one column-length piece a week. I mostly posted shorter pieces, videos, and the release of our Briefs over in the "Middle East Channel Editor's Blog."
At a certain point, though, I began to find this arrangement overly confining. The expectation that every post would be a fully developed analytical column didn't leave much room for the quicker, less formal blogging that I used to do more regularly. So with the launch of my column, you'll still see those longer analysis pieces here, but I plan to also begin using Abu Aardvark again for shorter hits, for discussion and development of the columns, and for more of the kind of material which had been going into the Editor's Blog.
I'm excited about the new column and the chance to return to some old school blogging here. Thanks to everyone for your support, readership, feedback and interest over the last four years (or more than ten, if you count the pre-FP blog) --- I hope that you'll enjoy the new column and blog. Stay tuned for tomorrow's launch!
[*] Actually, while it's flattering to be included in the DC buzz, it's not going to happen. Yes, I advised the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012, but it wasn't to get a job. I've just agreed to stay on as director of the Middle East program at GW for another two years, and I take that commitment to my students and colleagues very seriously. The fact is, I love what I do. I love teaching, I love writing, I love independence, I love being able to engage with policy issues from the outside, and I really really really love seeing my kids (note to Anne-Marie: not just a women's thing!).
Top image: a friend found what is clearly an Aardvark in the newly reopened Islamic art wing of the Louvre. What would Dave Sim say?
or... a requiem for Calvinball
With the passage of its controversial constitution through a referendum marred by low turnout, a deeply dysfunctional process, and bitter recriminations on all sides, Egypt's latest crisis has finally moved on to a new stage. This offers an opportunity to take a step back from the intensity of crisis, the polarized rhetoric, mutual dehumanization and feverish speculation which has dominated the last month. What has unfolded in Egypt is not a morality play, with good and evil clashing by night. Nor was it the unfolding of an Islamist master plan. This was the worst kind of Calvinball politics: hardball, strategic power plays by sometimes obtuse and occasionally shrewd actors in a polarized political environment with no clear rules, unsettled institutions, high stakes, intense mutual mistrust and extremely imperfect information.
As bad as the last few weeks in Egypt have been, there is a somewhat optimistic counter-narrative to be told. I have the same sense now that I did this May in my "Egypt's Brilliant Mistakes" post: for all the horrible political decisions on all sides, the stunningly mismanaged transition, and the mandatory mass panic of the analytical community, Egypt still has a chance to muddle through and end up in a pretty decent place by this coming spring. It would not be the worst outcome for a chaotic transition if Egypt emerges in March with a constitution establishing institutional powers and limiting the powers of the Presidency, a democratically elected but weakened President, a Muslim Brotherhood in power but facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny and political opposition, the military back in the barracks, a mobilized and newly relevant political opposition, and a legitimately elected Parliament with a strong opposition bloc. The costs may have been too high and the process a horror movie, but getting a Constitution in place and Parliamentary elections on the books puts Egypt just a bit closer to that vision.
Professor Emeritus of Egypt Studies Bill Watterson
2012 has been a difficult year in the Middle East in many, painfully familiar ways: descent into civil war in Syria, political polarization and frustration in Egypt, unrepentant repression in Bahrain, war in Gaza, the U.S. Ambassador's death in Libya, stalemate and backsliding in many other countries in the region. But it's been a great year for the Middle East Channel!
It's time for the 2012 version of my annual list of the Middle East Channel's best books of the year on the Middle East... and, of course, the year's best hip hop albums! Each year, I read through as many books about the Middle East as I can with an eye towards recommending the most thought-provoking, interesting and useful publications of the year (2010 winners here, 2011 here). My own book, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the Middle East, is of course ineligible (but for those who care, the paperback is now available and here's a bunch of reviews). Unfortunately for the winners, there's no grandly named award and no cash prize, but at least there's the glory.
JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images
It has been widely noted that monarchies have done better at surviving the Arab uprisings that began two years ago. Three Presidents (Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh) have fallen, along with Muammar al-Qaddafi's unique Jamahiriaya, while Bashar al-Assad's Baathist presidential regime faces a mortal threat. No Arab monarch has yet lost his throne. For some analysts and academics, this pattern suggests a fairly obvious "monarchical exception" which demands explanation.
In August, I launched a debate on Foreign Policy about whether and how monarchy matters in explaining the resilience of Arab regimes. I was not impressed. Against arguments that monarchies possess some kind of unique legitimacy commanding the loyalty of their people, I noted that Arab monarchies have in fact faced significant popular mobilization over the last two years: Bahrain has had one of the most intense and protracted uprisings anywhere; Kuwait is facing the deepest political crisis in its post-occupation history; Jordan experienced unprecedented protests; Saudi Arabia has had a protracted challenge in its Eastern Province; Oman experienced unusual levels of protest; Morocco's protest movement drove the king to adopt a significant (if underwhelming) constitutional initiative. I concluded, "the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths."
The responses I got over email, over Twitter, across blogs, and at various academic conferences convinced me that the monarchy question remains an open one, however. It is an important debate for political scientists and analysts, with a wide range of arguments and evidence to consider. Over the last few months, I have reached out to a number of leading scholars to weigh in on the question of Arab monarchy. I asked them to move beyond simple binaries ("monarchy does or doesn't matter") to explore the specific mechanisms by which it might matter, to weigh them against competing explanations, and to show how monarchy operated in particular cases which they knew well. Those articles, along with some particularly relevant older Middle East Channel essays, are now collected in today's new POMEPS Brief, "The Arab Monarchy Debate."
Kim Kardashian's December 1 trip to Bahrain to promote milkshakes brought all the Middle East tweeps to the yard. Her visit attracted both delerious young fans and a raucous protest (reportedly cleared away by the time she arrived), with conflicting accounts as to whether she actually ended up mixing a tear gas flavored milkshake. The Middle East twitterati had a field day of outrage and humor over the news, with pretty much my entire Twitter feed (and Bahrain's Foreign Minister) retweeting her now deleted "OMG can I move here please?" tweet. It's easy to poke fun at Kardashian. But did Kanye's girlfriend really do anything different than those foreign policy wonks willing to participate in Friday's 2012 Manama Dialogue?
YouTube Screen Capture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE36X2lV85o
-- The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog --
There are plenty of strong reasons for the United States and the international community to remain deeply cautious about taking a deeper role in Syria's internal war. Concerns about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the unintended effects of arming them, fears of a slippery slope from limited to direct military involvement, and questions about international legitimacy remain as urgent as ever. But what could possibly justify the failure to adequately address the humanitarian needs of the expanding Syrian refugee population?
Nobody can seriously question the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are now more than 465,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. By past experience, this likely dramatically undercounts the real number as many refugees shy away from registering with official organizations. That does not count the internally displaced, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. Most of the refugees are living in harsh conditions, inside or outside of camps.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt has had quite a week, even by its inimitable standards. President Mohamed Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, returning Egypt to the regional political balance and proving to be the pragmatic, realistic leader for which many had hoped. Almost immediately afterward, his government announced a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund for a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan. But then, just as Morsi stood poised to bask in the international acclaim, he suddenly released a presidential decree granting himself extraordinary powers and triggering a surge of popular mobilization protesting his decisions.
Morsi's move should be seen in the context of Cairo's intensely polarized, gridlocked politics rather than as some pure expression of Islamist intent. His power is more impressive on paper than in reality. But there is no real question that Morsi went too far: decrees changing the rules of the game and placing the executive above any appeal were dangerous and wrong when done by the SCAF, would have been dangerous and wrong if done by a President Shafiq, and they are dangerous and wrong when done by Morsi. They should be reversed. But that will no more solve the underlying problems than last week's Israel-Hamas ceasefire will solve the enduring problems of Gaza.
AHMED MAHMOUD/AFP/Getty Images
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.