Khoury: ‘Winter or Spring for Syrian Christians?’

Doreen Khoury of Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Beirut has an interesting article titled ‘Is it Winter or Spring for Christians in Syria?’ It provides an interesting of institutions and political views and responses to Arab uprisings among Levantine Christians and in light of the Maspero atrocity. It manages to avoid the sectarian and communalist overtones of much of the western and politically vested commentary on the issue and is worth considering.

The abstract:

In recent months, there has been much debate on the future of minority Christians sects in the Arab world followingthe popular uprisings. The Maspero tragedy in Egypt, during which Coptic Christians were attacked and killed by thearmy, and the resurgence of Islamic parties in the region has led many Christians, especially in Syria and Lebanon,to question whether they will survive the Arab Spring. Many have also questioned the wisdom of regime change inSyria, arguing that the downfall of the Assad regime, long perceived as a protector of minorities, threatens the existence of Christians. But the question is to what extent is the Arab world hostile to Christians? And how wise is it forthem to support the Assad regime?

Read the whole thing here. What do readers think?

A Rant in Exasperation

On 20 October Tyler Roylance took issue with a piece by Ross Douthat on the effects of ‘democracy’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ on Copts in Egypt in the wake of the Maspero events. Roylance’s rebuttal is worth reading as it tackles Mr. Douthat’s contradictions and errors very clearly. As readers may know, this blogger has taken issue with Mr. Douthat’s writing about Islam and Muslims and the Middle East before — especially his indulgence and promotion of Eurabian conspiracy theories. This blogger would like to write a diatribe against Mr. Douthat; and he intends to at some point in the near future, though this will likely prove a waste of time. This post is a rant on his column from last week, which demonstrates his inability to comprehend problems facing minorities in any nuanced or clear way, or his tendency to force-fit complex issues into a sectarian and partisan narrative built on a questionable understanding of the facts involved. Continue reading

Vague Thoughts on Arab Uprisings (III)

It is worthwhile to put down some thoughts several months out from the winter events that began in Tunisia and became what some call the “Arab Spring” or “awakening”. This blog does not write about “Arab revolutions”; no such thing has taken place in the Arab countries from a results-oriented stand point. Important and substantive political change came to a number of Arab countries in 2011. But nothing as of yet can be called a revolution, socially, economically, culturally or politically in the Arab region. There are multiple transitions and unresolved conflicts playing out. The Libyan and Syrian uprisings of yet have the greatest potential for fundamental reordering of politics and society of the all the Arab revolts. Tunisia comes in a sturdy third; Egypt and Yemen perhaps lag the farthest behind of those countries having seen mass movements this year. There is as much ground pessimism and skepticism regarding the Arab uprisings as optimism and gleeful excitement. So this is a “thought dump” following that line of thinking. 1900 words are probably too much but the word count here is unlimited.  Continue reading

Fisher’s Comparisons RE: the Ikhwan

Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and an-Nahda are often well organized and popular. They enjoy numerous advantages over secular parties in being able to tap into religious networks and other, secular parties have often been crippled and divided by years of successful politicking at the hands of repressive regimes. Conventional wisdom says Islamist parties will out do all others in free elections in Tunisia or Egypt, or even most Arab countries. This is not certain, but it is likely. Other scenarios are possible, if not probable as well.

The obsession with religious parties is at times almost humorous. In popular outlets, sensationalism and exaggeration are the rule, this is especially true. This being said, Max Fisher writes: Continue reading


One of this blogger’s favorite Arab poets is Mutran Khalil Mutran. Mutran was also famous for translating several of Shakespeare’s plays into Arabic He was born in Ottoman Syria but moved to Egypt where he did much of his work. His peers included Ahmed Shawqi, Mahmoud El-Barudi and others. He was one of many fine Arab poets in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“Boycott”  مقاطعة , written in a tone of exceptional defiance, is worth reproducing given recent events.

شـرّدوا أخيارها بحراً وبــرا

واقتلوا أحـرارها حراً فحرا

إنما الصـالح يبقى صالحاً

آخر الدهـر ويبقى الشر شرا

كسروا الأقلام هل تكسيرها

يمنع الأيدي أن تنفش الصخرا

قطعوا الأيدي هل تقطيعها

يمنع الأعين أن تنظـر شزرا

اطفئوا الأعين هل إطفاؤها

يمنع الأنفاس أن تصعد زفرا

أخمدوا الأنفاس ، هذا جهدكم

وبه منجاتنا منكم…فشكرا

A quick and crude translation:

Displace our best by land and by sea!

And kill our free, freedman after freedman [one by one]!

But in the long run good will remain good

And evil will remain evil.

Snap our pens! Will breaking them

Stop our hands from carving into stones?

Cut off our hands! Will hacking them off

Keep our eyes from casting our glare upon you?

Poke out our eyes! Will blinding us

Stop our chest(s) from breathing exasperated sighs?

Smother our breathing!

For that is the extent of your powers [For that is your effort or power] –

And in it lays our salvation. Thank you.

Forgive excesses and erors in the translation.

Uprisings and western perspectives

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the Oval Office, Jan. 28, 2011. Vice President Joe Biden listens at left, and the President’s National Security team confer in the background. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)  Two complexes afflict western, especially American and French, policy in the Middle East and the Muslim countries generally: 1) the Tehran ’79 Syndrome; and 2) the Algiers ’92 Syndrome. In both cases Islamist factions effectively co-opted popular unrest in the first case turning a generalized revolt against a particular pro-western dictator into an “Islamic Revolution” that torpedoed a presidential re-election campaign and tanked a major American ally and in the second a predominantly Muslim polity held free elections in which an Islamist party won the overwhelming majority of votes and then devolved into a decade long Civil War. In the first case, the lesson was to stand by allies in times of crisis for strategic as well as domestic political reasons. No American president, especially no Democratic president, wants to end a first term like Jimmy Carter did. In the second, the lesson as that democratic processes in Muslim polities, especially in Arab ones, lead to Islamist victories which drastically increases the risk factor associated with political reform or popular protest. The emergency laws so popular in many Arab states (and which usually ban demonstrations or significantly the activities of political parties) therefore seem easily justifiable from the standpoint of western interests. In both cases, the country put at risk was a major oil or gas producer. Both countries were strategically positioned in terms of either Eurasian or European geopolitics, though one less than the other (Iran in relation to the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Union; Algeria in terms of southern Europe, particularly in terms of immigration and Mediterranean shipping and energy). The Iranian problem cast its shadow over the Algerian one; and the Algerian experience has loomed over other Arab-Muslim experiments with democracy in America, Europe and the Arab countries. Iran looms more heavily in the American psyche — with the hostage crisis the Iranian revolution was an enormous humiliation and geopolitical shake up. The Algerian crisis was more serious in the French mind, but has been prominent in American analysis and thinking about Islamists and elections. It is key to notice that most American writing on Algeria is preoccupied with two phases of the country’s history and one dimension of its politics after 1980: the War of Independence, the 1990/1992 elections and coup and the role of Islamists until about 1999 when material dries up and becomes more narrowly specialized. This abridged and (over)simplified for brevity’s sake but the basic point is here (and this is meant to describe of all official or academic view points on the region). Continue reading

Vague thoughts on the Arab Winter Uprisings

The Winter Uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen have shaken western and Arab confidence in the sustainability of the current models of “competitive” authoritarianism. These were not bread riots; they were illustrations of political gangrene. Tunisia’s strong man fled his fort; the Mubarak family is said to have gone on holiday to London in light of massive protests over days (these cannot be call riots in the way the Algerian or Tunisian ones were at some stages; these are political protests, demonstrations of plain dissatisfaction); rumors are circulating rampantly that Algeria’s president will announce a cabinet reshuffle that may replace the prominent Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia (see here for background). It seems clear that the old calculations for political succession in the polities hit by the Winter Uprisings must be revised. Jamal Mubarak seems ever less likely of a candidate to succeed his father. Ahmed Ouyahia’s close association with the economic reforms and policies blamed for unrest this winter (and in the last two years one might add) have severely damaged his public credibility and viability as a presidential candidate for the time being. Tunisia’s interim government, previously made up of Ben Ali’s old friends, was forced to re-organize after popular protests questioned their legitimacy — and then set the security forces on demonstrators. The likelihood of Said Bouteflika becoming president was, in this blogger’s opinion, always low. After the regime squabbles following the 2009 presidential election, it seems much less likely that Algiers will follow Damascus’s lead. The Egyptian uprising puts the younger Mubarak’s political career in serious jeopardy. The first Arab regime where this winter’s events torpedoed a rising “star’s” political career was Tunisia: it may be said with some safety that Sakhr el-Materi will never be president of Tunisia without dear struggle.

Ahmed Ouyahia may be replaced as Prime Minister in the weeks ahead: some say the recently-appointed Minister of Energy, Youcef Yousfi might take the post others throw in Ahmed Benbitour (ex-PM in 1999 and a former finance minister) or Mouloud Hamrouche. These are personalities whose elevation to Prime Minister would serve the same purpose as Ouyahia’s: balancing the power of Bouteflika and ensuring collegiality in decision-making. There may be a cosmetic response to the Winter Uprisings from the men that lead the major political networks in Algeria. One should look carefully at the personalities that emerge in the next few weeks. Given the tendency of the main factions (those linked to military intelligence (DRS) and those linked to Bouteflika) to use popular crises as opportunities to undermine the reputation of one another, rather than focus on the resolution of socio-economic pressures (which are seen as sustainable in any case), cabinet reshuffles are unlikely to satisfy the demands of the Algerians planning protests in the capital or rioting in the towns and villages. Continue reading

More on Riots, Protests in North Africa: Notes

Algeria and Tunisia have seen wide scale youth rioting in the last three weeks. Algeria’s picked up particularly in the last three days as consumer prices have skyrocketed, especially for foods like sugar, cooking oil, flour and related items. Previous riots had erupted over the well known housing shortage east of the capital. This post consists of a series of random thoughts on the Algerian and Tunisian riots. That they have occurred so close to each other is probably more circumstantial — the Algerian riots are the result of poor policies and market troubles that happened to occur at the same time the Tunisian uprising has. But there is some inter-textuality between them in that Algerians have made appeals of solidarity with the Tunisians even if the bulk of what is happening in Algeria seems idiosyncratic. Furthermore, the regime response seems to bear the Tunisian upheaval in mind by trying to block news about them; additionally, that news on satellite television has covered the Tunisian event probably has had some impact in emboldening determined rioters. Newspapers in Algeria have focused on local events, though, rather than those in Jordan, Egypt or Tunisia especially in the last week, though they initially gave some prominent coverage to the Sidi Bouzid events.

Note that: 1) this post uses riots and protests somewhat interchangeably, which is likely inappropriate but is probably sufficient for now and; 2) while it is not comprehensive or totally coherent it is long and made up of various notes taken down over the last two weeks. Point one is about Tunisia; 2-3 about the background on which youth rioting takes place in Algeria; 4-5 look at a few Anglophone assessments of the Sidi Bouzid events and the aftermath in terms of both Tunisia and Algeria.  Continue reading

Re: The Geopolitics of Emotion

Dominique Moïsi has written a well-read and generally well received book titled The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World (Doubleday, 2009). It argues emotions can and do drive world politics in much a similar way that culture, religion, nationalism and “civilizations”. It sits as a challenge to Samuel Huntington’s frequently maligned “clash of civilizations” theory. It is a book worth reading, generally; it accurately describes many trends in world politics through a lens that is somewhat original — especially the trembling that Asia’s (read: China’s) rise inspires in many westerners. Like many books of its kind, this is what it is good for: an interesting look at the world in broad, general terms. Here is a general overview of this blogger’s sense of the book followed by a brief nitpicking session (after the jump).

Moïsi’s overall argument regarding the “clash of emotions” (hope, humiliation and fear, each of which, he argues, characterizes important cultural and political trends in Asia, the Middle East and Euro-America respectively) is reasonable, though not wholly satisfactory because of its boringly simplistic treatment of Africa and Latin America. Like most traditional geo-politicians, Moïsi puts these regions in the periphery — Eurasia and North America are where the action is at. So Brazil (which gets more attention than all the rest of Latin America) and the African states get only the broadest generalities in The Geopolitics of Emotion. But Moïsi avoids writing in inherent great-power conflict or setting up these regions as testing grounds for future geopolitical ascendency. Still, overall paradigim is sometimes frustratingly simplistic and reductive but its core demand is for readers to mind “the Other,” to overcome Fear of the Yellow Peril or immanent decline. It allows for greater societal agency than many similar works and his focus on political psychology sets it apart from much of the declineist literature circulating today. The psychological perspective on world politics and proper respect for agency are often missing in popular writing and Moïsi provides this in his discussion of the great northern powers.

In this it is particularly effective, though one is still troubled by pronouncements such as: “Africans must create hope in their own homelands, not search for it elsewhere.” Moïsi praises Paul Kagame and other African leaders as potential African Le Kwan Yews, “benevolent autocrats,” “strong but humane” managers capable of mobilizing hope. Where Brazil is concerned there is “hope” — “energy, dynamism and optimism” but social cleavages are a hindrance (pg. 134). His view of the leftist tendency in Venezuela and Bolivia is dim; Chile and Brazil maintain hope as their “dominant emotion.” In his discussion of Africa and Latin America Moïsi’s vision is at its most limited.

This is, though, a blog about North Africa and its geopolitics in regional and global terms. Moïsi’s narrative with respect to North Africa, therefore, is of special interest. In a section titled “Arab Cultural Decline,” Moïsi writes: Continue reading

Review: The New Authoritarianism

Stephen J. King’s The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa (Indiana, 2009) is a frank and tremendously useful study of how privatization and cosmetic democratization has strengthened authoritarianism in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia over the last thirty years. Looking at economic and political reforms and their influence on political order in four important Arab states, two of which are drastically understudied in English. The author pulls few punches in examining doctrinaire economic liberalization and its role in tightening already entrenched political elites’ hold on power while effectively dissolving or fizzing out the influence of both civil society and organized labor. He tracks these developments carefully, academically and purposefully. Though its tone is in the drab  monotone of contemporary Anglo-Saxon political science, bits of indignation and outrage come through the narrative, especially where King rings out myths about organized labor in the countries in question. Unlike in some other academic accounts his tells the workers’ struggle with a somewhat obvious sympathy (separating them from their stooge secretary generals); he tries (and fails) to hold himself back when relating the story of how Syrian workers have tried to defy their regime-appointed bosses. His sections on Algeria are some of the most valuable written in the last ten years. They make excellent reading with Isabelle Werenfels‘s key Managing Instability in Algeria Elites and Political Change since 1995 (Routeledge, 2007). In that regard, however, at times he seems to overestimate the historical importance of the FLN in governing, though this is sometimes a problem of diction rather than analysis. (One might quibble with his repeated citation of Wikipedia for his tables on electoral results.)

King has written before on Tunisia with great success; he has also studied the discontents of economic liberalization in depth and has done political science a terrific service in this way. Too many analyses of North Africa (and the Arab states in general) rely on simplistic formulations, goading on economic “reform” without a critical take on its actual results in what remain mostly closed political and economic orders, but that is not King. In the Arab states, the expression “money is power” is often just as strong when reversed to “power is money” and this old fact of life is one of the powerful takeaways from The New Authoritarianism. The old authoritarianism was based on political domination, backed up by nationalist or socialist dogmas; the State controlled society by sucking up civil society and the economy formally. Unions were run by the States, women’s, religious and youth associations were run by the State, industry was owned by the State, natural resources were exploited (or strongly controlled) by the State, public services were run by the State. The new authoritarianism allows the same men to dominate society by free market dogma. The unions and civil-social organizations are dissolved or sidelined, public services, state industries, news media and all then rest goes off to the highest bidder. And the bidders are the old party bosses and military chiefs. Parties are allowed and elections take place  but substantive political change is illusive.

In each of his cases, King exposes the particularities and commonalities in the establishment of democratic and free market façades over dusty elite regimes. He does not make the mistake of imposing Mashreqi or Maghrebi schema on one or the other; each is in its own context while linking back to the wider narrative. King’s case studies ably shy from simplicity, evidencing his extensive familiarity with both the Arab east and west, a facility happily welcome. King does not claim to have all the answers, and the variables he examines are surely complemented by others but stand powerfully here. As he has it, economic reform has made authoritarianism stronger in the region not because it has not been accompanied by political reforms, but because it has a part of a devious sort of political reform. The situation is one of politicized economics, as corrupt and exclusive as it is unpopular. This new authoritarianism is dynamic and clever, leveraging social, political and economic relationships to keep power. King’s book offers a fascinating and much needed study of Arab authoritarianism in our time.

“General Motor”

An earlier post about the Mauritanian President’s visit to Iran wondered what kind of buses Iran would send to Mauritania; Azizibuses was one of the lines emailed to me. Nowadays, according to young people, President Ould Abdel Aziz has earned the name “General Motor” for his efforts at fixing the problem of transport in his country.

On a related note: Ould Abdel Aziz got into a little bit of a row with Egypt on his way back; having ordered his Communication Minister to boycott an Arab Satellite Communication Organization conference in Cairo, leading the Egyptians to deny his plane fly over rights. Ould Abdel Aziz did not want to take part in the meeting in case the Iranian Arabic channel al-Alem, were kicked out.

Algeria v. Egypt: the story of a distraction, written from Cairo

O you who believe, stand up as witnesses for God in all fairness, and do not let the hatred of a people deviate you from justice.

Qur’an, 5:8

Foot-ball is something akin to a religion in many countries. Whether in Liverpool or Algiers, Cairo or Freetown, the game can offer men otherwise without much to smile about a sense of mission and contentment. It can also lead to blind and irrational fanaticism. Thus it has been in struggle between Algeria and Egypt for a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. One can find numerous raps smashing Egypt and Algeria. A clever Algerian bit pledges that Algerians would fly to Cairo as a flock of birds, tunnel underneath the pyramids, swim with sharks and parade through Lebanon and Israel barreling through the Rafaa crossing to bring their national team to victory over the people of the Nile. The Egyptians responded to such disses with generally inferior raps on YouTube. Arab rap in general is in its infancy; the Algerian form is more skillful and developed than the Egyptian one, though. Amateur hip-hop, tour bus stoning, game-time fireworks, poisoned couscous and cellphone shop looting  aside, Antar Yahia put Egypt out of the Cup thirty-nine minutes in. An avalanche of conspiracy theories and indignation is already on its way on the Egyptian side. The Algerian government, headed by the miniature ex-Minister of Youth and Sports, will bask in the euphoria of having sent the national team to the first African World Cup. The Egyptians will be relieved that their people are too distracted with a foot-ball drama worthy of the most trashy serial to think about actual political and social issues. In either case, the cycle of despotism and vulgarity will continue and the ultimate winners are not the national teams or young men in the street, but rather their governments and them alone. Such are the “politics of sports” in the Arab countries.

The rivalry itself is of no great interest to this blog. The coverage it has received in English media is interesting to account for, though. Be they American or British, English news media wrote the qualifiers from Cairo. Continue reading

On Obama’s Cairo speech

Official and unoffficial reactions to Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University are out, and the minds of many have been made up. Here are this blogger’s reactions to some of its major points, thematically, with emphasis on criticism, not genuflection (for the former is more valuable than the latter). Continue reading

On Cairo negatives

Obama’s speech in Cairo on June will mark the third time he has addressed the Muslim world, seeking partnership and conciliation with Muslims jaded by George Bush’s unrelentingly belligerent and humiliating “war on terror” policies and his divisive, poisonous rhetoric.

In his first major interview to Al-Arabiya, Obama proclaimed: “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.”

Yet, Obama’s choice of Egypt is an implicit endorsement and validation of Mubarak’s dictatorship, and it reiterates the oft-spoken but albeit true cliché in the Muslim world that US merely covets selfish policy interests instead of democratization, autonomy and self determination by and for the Arab and Muslim people.

“Obama chooses a reliable dictatorship,” Wajahat Ali, Information Clearing House, 12 May, 2009.

I have written on the problems posed by an Obama visit to Cairo (though in a slightly different context); I maintain those reservations towards the “symbolism” and meaning of such an address in Cairo. Having heard embassy staff slobber about the “deep meaning” of such an address depending on its location and visual composition of his address, one is partly concerned that the visit has no strong meaning based on any of the actual stated principles the government would like, outside of reassuring the Egyptians that the US perceives it as among its strongest Arab allies and will support the Egyptian government in a more congenial way than the previous administration. An American official who works on what basically comes up to [rather crude] public relations told me: this will be important for our relations with European Muslims and Muslims everywhere. In the first place the notion that the US needs a special or enhanced relationship with European Muslims (unless this individual was referring to Kosovars, Albanians, Bosnians and the like) is rather strange.¹ Aside from that, the Cairo speech will offer significant insight into the administration’s intentions and circumstance vis-a-vis the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Very often, in this blogger’s view, the relevance such happenings have in the broader Muslim world are exaggerated. But the relevance it may have to how the administration approaches the Muslim world will be half-way significant, depending on the content of what Obama says and how he says it. But it will not, I repeat, will not show any Muslim or any Arab what the United States plans to do in the Arab or Muslim worlds. What has been seen recently, as the piece notes, is a continuation of material ties between the United States and Egypt. And it is well known that the Egyptians are most concerned that the Americans perceive them as the primary power in the Arab world and behave accordingly. Thus, the emphasis on the Arab-Israeli dispute, the possible resolution of which will not yield many positive results for anyone but those directly involved (and this does not include the average Egyptian or Algerian). Such efforts re-enforce pre-existing relations between the United States and the states in the region. What the administration says the “Muslim world” it means allied governments whose staff and populations are Muslim. Reference to much of anything else is diplospeak and represents half-measures, such is the heart of the American relationship with most countries and these especially. Unless real changes begin, outside of rhetoric, the administration’s actual policy remains obscure. If the president is bold enough to speak to the concerns of Egyptians and Muslims, beyond the ruling castes, it may signal change. But that much is unlikely.

Continue reading

From Cairo

Apologies to the readership for the scarce posting during the last few weeks. I have been in Cairo and will be for a few more weeks and will post soon on Louisa Hanoune, American Muslims and on some issues relating to my experience here. As the Arabist said to me: Cairo at times feels more African than Mediterranean and I believe that I am adjusting to its pace and its logistics in such a frame of reference.