What should you be reading about the politics of today's Middle East, beyond (of course) the outstanding daily content on the Middle East Channel and the news and analysis featured in the MEC Daily Brief? The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader -- or, "Abu Aardvark's guide to good reads on the Middle East" -- is a new regular feature which will highlight what I consider to be the best of the academic journal articles, long-form magazine articles, policy reports and books which come across my desktop.
The MEC Editor's Reader will reflect what I'm actually reading and think merits your attention. Some weeks that might mean an extended book review, others a selection of journal articles. I may write about a ten year old book if it's what I'm currently reading, or I may write about forthcoming academic research. I will particularly highlight publications by the talented academic members of the Project on Middle East Political Science, which I direct, but I will try to not neglect writers from other fields. I can't promise to even try to be comprehensive -- which you'd thank me for if you actually saw my desktop. This will be a selective guide to work I found interesting for some reason, reflecting my own ideosyncratic interests and reading habits. But please do send me your articles and books if you want me to consider them. And with that, welcome to...
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #1 (May 16, 2012)
The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen. (Harvard University Press 2012).
Harvard historian Roger Owen had almost completed a book on "Arab Presidents for Life" in late 2010, just as several of those Presidents suddenly faced mortal challenges. Rather than simply insert "and Fall" into the title, Owen chose to integrate the new developments into a thoughtful and incisive evaluation of Arab political authoritarianism in all its components. Owen points out the many ways in which Arab Presidents and Kings imitated one another, with Presidential sons following - or attempting to follow - their fathers, and all relying on extensive security services and webs of patronage. His analysis of the personalization of power challenges recent efforts to distinguish Arab monarchies from their Presidential counterparts, and lays bare the internal logic of such personalized security states. As an historian, Owen is sensitive, and admirably transparent, about the limits of our knowledge about the inner workings of these regimes. But his brief discussions of each country effectively convey both the commonalities and differences across the cases. Owen's highly readable book serves as a fitting requiem for a system of rule which long seemed immovable, has now been exposed in all of its flawed brutality, but seems likely to adapt to new structural conditions rather than simply fade away.
My PDF Reader:
Voting for Change: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of First Elections in Arab Transitions, by Ellen Lust (Brookings Doha). Yale University Political Scientist Ellen Lust, who has written widely on political parties and elections in authoritarian Arab regimes, lays out the challenges and opportunities in the foundational elections in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond. First elections, she warns, should be treated differently from subsequent elections, with different objectives and obstacles, with priority given to building a strong democratic system and addressing the fears and uncertainty which plague any transition rather than on managing a particular political outcome. Lust wrote about Syria's recent pre-transitional Parliamentary election for the MEC here.
The Rise of Islamist Actors: Formulating a Strategy for Engagement, by Quinn Mecham (POMED). Middlebury College Political Scientist and former State Department Policy Planning staffer Quinn Mecham argues for a more systematic strategy for engagement with Islamist political parties. It should surprise nobody that Islamist parties do well in Arab elections or more open political arenas. Mecham expertly lays out the benefits and risks of engagement, and urges the U.S. to engage broadly in order to build understanding on both sides ---but to neither compromise on core value commitments or to exaggerate their likely power.
Tunisia's Transition and the Twin Tolerations, by Alfred Stepan (Journal of Democracy). Columbia University Political Scientist Alfred Stepan, one of the leading figures in the study of democratic transitions globally, examines the relatively successful Tunisian experience since 2011. "With secularists agreeing that Islamists could participate fully in democratic politics, and Islamists agreeing that popular sovereignty is the only source of legitimacy," he writes, Tunisia has been able to avoid the violence and polarization found in some other cases. Egyptians and others should take note.
Networks of Third-Party Interveners and Civil War Duration. Asyegul Aydin and Patrick Regan (European Journal of International Relations, 2011). What is the likely impact of military assistance to the opposition on the duration of Syria's civil war? Aydin and Regan's 2011 article doesn't talk about Syria directly, but it does focus on the logic and historical record of external interventions in such conflicts. The network analysis suggests that such interventions are likely to increase civil war duration and encourage opportunistic, rent-seeking behavior among the combatants unless there is a high degree of unity of purpose and shared interest among the intervening parties. Well worth a read, even if you have a low tolerance for math, for trying to think through the likely implications of supporting armed opposition in Syria.
... and don't miss these from the Project on Middle East Political Science:
Jordan, Forever on the Brink. Collection of essays on the shortcomings of political reform and growing instability in Jordan.
Breaking Bahrain. Collection of essays on the political stalemate in Bahrain.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.