The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog
On December 26, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed off on a new constitution. It was not a cheerful occasion for many politically active Egyptians, following one of the most intensely, dangerously polarized months in recent Egyptian history. The bitterly controversial two-round referendum approving the constitution revealed the depth of the political and social chasm which had been torn through the political class. I offered my own thoughts on the meaning of these events late last month in my "Requiem for Calvinball," but that was only one part of the wide range of coverage on the Middle East Channel of coverage of the crisis. So I'm pleased to announce here the release of POMEPS Briefing #17: The Battle for Egypt's Constitution, collecting our articles on the constitution and the political landscape left in the wake of this explosive crisis.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
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
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's sudden move last week to oust the senior leadership of the Egyptian military broke a long period of political stagnation and began to bring into view the contours of the emerging political order. It reversed views of Morsi almost overnight. Only two weeks ago, most analysts had written Morsi off as a weak and ineffective executive boxed in by the ascendant military leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After his bold move against the SCAF and reversal of its constitutional decrees, many now fear that he and the Muslim Brotherhood stand at the brink of nigh-totalitarian domination.
I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World's Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn't ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.
This afternoon, a sizable Washington audience turned out to watch White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talk about American policy toward Yemen. Imagine that -- a large Washington audience turning out in the dead of summer to hear about Yemen! And even better, Brennan began by responding directly to the criticisms of U.S. policy toward Yemen expressed in a recent Atlantic Council-POMED letter to President Obama, which called for moving "beyond the narrow lens of counterterrorism." (I made similar criticisms in this space in January.)
Brennan's main goal was to push back against these criticisms. It is simply wrong, he argued, to claim that the U.S. views Yemen only from a security and counter-terrorism lens. He laid out the administration's "comprehensive" strategy for Yemen, including support for the political transition, humanitarian aid and economic development, and institutional reforms. He effusively praised President Hadi and his efforts at institutional reform and political transition, and he emphasized several times that more than half of the increased U.S. aid to Yemen went to the political transition and economic development, not to counterterrorism. Of course at the end he came to AQAP and mounted a spirited defense of drone strikes as ethical, legal, and effective, but the speech was structured to show that these efforts came within a broader political and developmental context. (He also, thankfully, didn't waste our time blaming Iran for Yemen's problems).
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
The uprisings that swept the Arab world following the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 represented a stunning moment in the region’s political history. For political scientists specializing in the region, the events of the last year and a half represented not just an exhilarating moment of potential change, but also an important opportunity to develop new research questions, engage in new comparisons, and exploit new data and information. The Arab uprisings challenged long-held theories dominant in the field, particularly about the resilience of authoritarian regimes, while opening up entirely new areas of legitimate social scientific inquiry.
The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) was created in 2010 in part to build the capacity of Middle East experts to engage and inform policy-makers, the public sphere, and other political scientists about the region. On May 29-30, 2012, POMEPS convened a group of leading political scientists who specialize in the Middle East for its third annual conference at George Washington University to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the Arab uprisings pose to the subfield. Participants were asked: “What new and innovative research questions do you think have become particularly urgent, feasible, or relevant? How would those research questions fit into wider debates in the field of political science?” I am thrilled to announce the publication of a new special POMEPS Briefing collecting nearly two dozen of the memos written for the conference (free PDF download here).
The authors are all academic political scientists and Middle East specialists who speak Arabic and have lived in and studied Arab countries for extended periods. They include scholars at all career levels, from senior faculty at top universities to advanced graduate students still writing their dissertations. The memos reflect on a wide range of debates and paradigms within political science, and taken together lay out an impressive set of marching orders for the subfield. Graduate students looking for dissertation topics and junior faculty looking for articles that might make a big splash take note.
The Social Science Research Council's Transformations of the Public Sphere Initiative has been publishing an outstanding series of reflections by leading academics on the transformative effects of the evolving public sphere. Some of the key contributions to the series thus far by political scientists include "Too Much Information," by Lisa Anderson; "Political Science and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century" and "The Public Responsibilities of Political Science," by Rogers Smith; "International Affairs and the Public Sphere," by Stephen Walt; and "Intellectuals and their Public," by Jurgen Habermas. I was honored to be invited to contribute to such a stellar series. My new essay in the series, "Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere," appears here with the permission of the SSRC.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
The United Nations should establish an investigation commission to collect evidence about war crimes in Syria to prepare the ground for any future investigation, leading Arab international law expert Cherif Bassiouni told Foreign Policy during a wide-ranging interview yesterday following his talk at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies [videos of both the interview and the talk will be posted shortly]. He warned that Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh should not count on his immunity deal holding up, discounted the ability of Libya's courts to try Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and blasted Egypt's post-revolutionary trials as focusing on flimsy, marginal cases which avoided dealing with systemic, institutionalized corruption.
Also, he explained that Moammar Qaddafi was a sex addict whose heavy use of Viagra badly affected his decision-making -- which could complicate the ICC's efforts to convict Saif al-Islam (FP's web editors wanted that to be the lead, for some reason).
Few international institutions have been more congenitally irrelevant than the League of Arab States. It's problems are structural: a Charter rooted in the protection of state sovereignty, an autocratic and inept membership, a façade of Arab unity hardly concealing the reality of deep political divisions. The Arab League for long decades has been little more than a punchline for sad jokes about the failed hopes of unified or effective Arab action.
Some believe that this began to change over the last year. Certainly, it was startling to see the Arab League suddenly acting on regional security issues. Its rapid, unified response to Muammar al-Qaddafi's brutal crackdown in Libya, likely tipped the balance at the United Nations in favor of NATO's military intervention. It has played an important role in the Syria crisis, from its suspension of Assad's Syria to its unprecedented (albeit failed) observer mission and (also failed) bid for to a Security Council resolution. Some of its steps were intriguingly novel, such as the unprecedented suspension of Libyan and Syrian membership over the killing of their own people. And the summit recently held in Baghdad may have finally prodded some baby steps towards Iraq's reintegration into the Arab world.
But this burst of activity was misleading. The revitalized Arab League was really a puppet show, as the GCC led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia used the conveniently empty vehicle of a moribund Arab League to pursue their agendas. The Arab League offered a more useful regional organization than the GCC for acting on Libya and Syria, especially at the United Nations. With traditional Arab powers like Egypt, Iraq and Syria flat on their backs there was nothing to block them from doing so on such issues. The focus of attention at the Security Council debate on Syria was Qatari Foreign Minster Hamed Bin Jassem, not Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi. The supposedly revitalized Arab League has shown little ability to act effectively on more contentious issues, to coordinate policies on Syria, to provide meaningful assistance to transitional member regimes, or to generate new ideas on the Palestinian issue. The GCC more often looked to non-Arab Turkey than to its Arab League partners for concrete support.
But this could change. Indeed, implausible as it sounds to long-time observers of the region, the Arab League may over the next few years emerge as a more interesting institution than it has ever before been -- and more consequential than the currently dominant GCC. The key GCC states only dominate today because of their wealth and general lack of internal problems, the unusual cooperation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the internal weakness of traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As those states get their acts together, and the inevitable conflicts within and between Gulf states reappear, the Arab League might actually become interesting.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
The Muslim Brotherhood resolved months of speculation this weekend by announcing its intention of nominating Deputy Supreme Guide Khairet al-Shater for Egypt's presidential election. It may not seem so surprising for a country's largest political force and the largest parliamentary faction to field a Presidential candidate. But it was. The announcement sent an earthquake through Cairo's already wildly careening political scene. I'm happy to admit that I was taken by surprise.
What was the Brotherhood thinking? The nomination of Shater seems to have been a response to threats and opportunities a rapidly changing political arena, rather than the hatching of a long-term plan. But many Egyptians would disagree, seeing it instead as the culmination of a long-hatching conspiracy with the SCAF. I think it will reveal itself to be a strategic blunder which has placed the Brotherhood in a no-win situation. But clearly they had their reasons for making such an uncharacteristically bold move. How will it affect the endlessly turbulent and contentious Egyptian political transition? And could Khairat al-Shater really replace Hosni Mubarak as the president of Egypt?
The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.
In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians packed Tahrir Square today demanding an end to military rule. Islamists and non-Islamist forces combined forces on the eve of Parliamentary elections in a show of popular strength demanding a real, rapid transition from military rule to democracy. The size of the turnout and the unity of the message will send a strong, and incredibly important, message to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: it should not delay a transition to civilian rule, it should back off from its proposed pro-military supra-constitutional document, and it should stop its abuses of military courts and emergency law.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is reportedly set to soon indict several top Hezbollah leaders for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The expected indictments have brought Lebanon to the brink of crisis, while the Obama administration has rushed to express its support for the STL and to deliver an additional $10 million to its investigation. Most of the commentary thus far has focused on the potential impact of its anticipated anti-Hezbollah ruling, whether it might lead to war or how it might affect Hezbollah's participation in the government. But lost in that admittedly quite important shuffle is a more basic question: Does the STL have any credibility at this point? If not, how does that lack of credibility shape the likely political fallout of its indictment? And should the Obama administration really be hitching its wagon to a Bush-era zombie which might drag Lebanon into an unnecessary crisis?
Most of the response to the WikiLeaks Afghanistan document release thus far has focused on the absence of major revelations, with most of the details reinforcing existing analysis rather than undermining official discourse about the war. A similar response is appropriate to a story making the rounds that the documents bolster the case for significant connections between Iran and al-Qaeda. Information in the documents, according to the Wall Street Journal, "appear to give new evidence of direct contacts between Iranian officials and the Taliban's and al Qaeda's senior leadership." What's more important in these stories than the details found in the documents about Iran's activities in Afghanistan is the attempt to spin them into a narrative of "Iranian ties to al-Qaeda" to bolster the weak case for an American attack on Iran.
The contours of the response to the Gaza flotilla fiasco are now coming into sharper public view: the Israeli government will significantly ease the blockade of Gaza in exchange for American support for a whitewash of the investigation of the flotilla incident. As I've said many times on Twitter, this is a good deal. No investigation was ever going to produce anything of any particular value, but easing the blockade of Gaza could have significant positive effects for the people of Gaza, the prospects of Palestinian reconciliation, the peace process, and American credibility in the region. None of those will happen on their own, of course. And nobody is likely to be fully satisfied with the new measures. I've been quite critical of how the Obama team has handled the Israeli-Palestinian track, and particularly the Gaza situation -- and if they had moved strongly to resolve the Gaza blockade a year ago, the issue wouldn't have been there now to exploit. But now, I think they deserve some real credit for nudging Israel towards finally making a move which could over time open up some real new possibilities for progress.
SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
"So the Arab core grows hollow," laments former Bush administration Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams in the Weekly Standard today. Most of the essay is an unexceptional restatement of neo-conservative tropes: Obama is weak, Arabs only respect power, Turkey has become a radical Islamist enemy... you can fill in the rest of the blanks. But the lament about the hollowness of the Arab core deserves more careful attention. Why has the Arab core grown so hollow? After all, the Arab core --- in his definition, mostly Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- has been closely aligned with the United States for many decades, and its leaders cooperated very closely with the Bush administration on virtually every issue. This points to a contradiction at the core of the approach favored by Abrams. The cooperation by these Arab leaders, in the face of widespread and deep hostility towards those policies among much of the Arab public, contributed immensely towards stripping away their legitimacy and driving them towards ever greater repression. The approach outlined so ably by Abrams isn't the solution to the problem of this "hollow Arab core." It is one of its causes. And the problem with Obama administration's regional diplomacy thus far has been that it has changed too little.. not too much.
One year ago today, President Obama delivered a much anticipated speech in Cairo, Egypt in which he pledged "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect." That new beginning seemed a long time ago this week, as Muslims expressed outrage over America's seeming support for Israel's naval commando attack on an aid convoy headed towards Gaza. It is no accident that the anniversary of Obama's speech has gone virtually unremarked in the Arab media this week, except for a few comments about unmet promises and some juxtaposition of that glorious moment with America's anemic response to Gaza.
The President's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told a press conference that he did not believe that the American position would have a great impact on Obama's relations with the Muslim communities of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Obama administration does not change its cautious approach quickly and forcefully address the blockade of Gaza which is the real heart of this week's scandal, it will confirm the crystallizing narrative of a President which either can not deliver on its promises or did not mean what he said. This would be a sad epitaph for the President's carefully nurtured outreach to the Muslim world.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.