Recent Readings, links

Interesting articles and links from the last few months. See others on the @themoornextdoor Twitter feed.

1. “Quelques paradigmes obsolètes du regard portésur le monde arabe, selon le Pr Bichara Khader.” (3 April) Summary of Prof. Bichara Khader’s comments at a conference in Brussels on the Arab uprisings, Euro-Med issues and the “fizzling” of “Arab exceptionalism.” (JMed)

2. “A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution.” (20 May) Interview (in three parts) with Emmanuel Todd on demography, birthrates, literacy and other social factors that, Todd says, have contributed to the region’s youth uprisings. For those drawing comparisions with 1989, 1848 and other historic uprisings Todd has this:

SPIEGEL: The impression we have at the moment is of a breathtaking acceleration of history, similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989.

Todd: At this point, no one can say what the liberal movements in these countries will turn into. Revolutions often end up as something different from what their supporters proclaim at the beginning. Democracies are fragile systems that require deep historic roots. It took almost a century from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 until the democratic form of government, in the form of the Third Republic, finally took shape after France had lost a war against the Germans in 1871. In the interim, there was Napoleon, the royalist restoration and the Second Empire under Napoleon III, the “little one,” as Victor Hugo said derisively.

For those who are skeptical:

SPIEGEL: The statistics reveal considerable differences. Tunisia can’t be compared with Yemen. How is it that the spark of revolution still managed to jump to Yemen?

Todd: There is also an example of that in European history.

SPIEGEL: You mean the revolutions of 1848-49?

Todd: Yes. The Arab Spring resembles the European Spring of 1848 more closely than the fall of 1989, when communism collapsed. The initial spark in France triggered unrest in Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, Austria, Italy, Spain and Romania — a classic chain reaction, despite major regional differences.

SPIEGEL: If the Arab world now enters the modern age, will the universal Western values — such as freedom, equality, human rights and human dignity — triumph once and for all?

Todd: I would be cautious in that regard. Democratic movements can take on highly different forms, as we can see with the example of Eastern Europe after 1990. (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin undoubtedly has the support of the majority of the Russian people, but does that make Russia a flawless democracy?

Paul Pillar’s “Has the Arab Spring Peaked?” (2 June) briefly explores the 1848 comparison. There is much to debate in the three segments. (Der Spiegel)

3. “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (V): Making Sense of Libya.” (6 June) Executive summary of ICG report on Libya. It is understandably dark. It makes several sound recommendations. Zealous supporters of the revolt may object to some of its assessment particular bullet-point recommendations. Interesting segments:

[. . .] the prolonged military campaign and attendant instability present strategic threats to Libya’s neighbours. Besides fuelling a large-scale refugee crisis, they are raising the risk of infiltration by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose networks of activists are present in Algeria, Mali and Niger. All this, together with mounting bitterness on both sides, will constitute a heavy legacy for any post-Qaddafi government.

Thus the longer Libya’s military conflict persists, the more it risks undermining the anti-Qaddafi camp’s avowed objectives. Yet, to date, the latter’s leadership and their NATO supporters appear to be uninterested in resolving the conflict through negotiation. To insist, as they have done, on Qaddafi’s departure as a precondition for any political initiative is to prolong the military conflict and deepen the crisis. Instead, the priority should be to secure an immediate ceasefire and negotiations on a transition to a post-Qaddafi political order.

[. . .]

The revolt and its subsequent military efforts have been comparatively unorganised affairs. While the Interim Transitional National Council (TNC) – the institution designed to govern opposition-controlled territory – has been making some progress in developing political and military structures in the east, it is most improbable that it has or can soon acquire the capacity to take on the business of governing the country as a whole. The assumption that time is on the opposition’s side and that the regime will soon run out of ammunition or fuel or money (or will be decapitated by a lucky bomb or overthrown by a palace coup) similarly substitutes wishful thinking for serious policymaking. Although such predictions might turn out to be true – and it is difficult to assess in the absence of reliable estimates of Qaddafi’s resources – time almost certainly is not on the Libyan people’s side.

Given its mounting political and human costs, assessments that simply sustaining the present military campaign or increasing pressure will force Qaddafi out soon enough reflect a refusal to reconsider current strategy and envisage alternatives other than a major military escalation. But even if, in the event of such an escalation, the regime should soon suffer total military defeat, it would be reckless to ignore the possibility that the outcome may be not a transition to democracy but rather a potentially prolonged vacuum that could have grave political and security implications for Libya’s neighbours as well as aggravate an already serious humanitarian crisis.

Casualties and destruction mount, the country’s division deepens, and the risk of infiltration by jihadi militants increases as the military confrontation draws out. Economic and humanitarian conditions in those parts of Libya still under regime control will worsen, and the part of the unwelcome and undeserved economic as well as political and security burden borne by Libya’s neighbours will grow. The prospect for Libya, but also North Africa as a whole, is increasingly ominous, unless some way can be found to induce the two sides in the armed conflict to negotiate a compromise allowing for an orderly transition to a post-Qaddafi, post-Jamahiriya state that has legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan people.

[. . .] no breakthrough can happen without the leadership of the revolt and NATO rethinking their current stance.

Their repeatedly proclaimed demand that “Qaddafi must go” systematically confuses two quite different objectives. To insist that, ultimately, he can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go now, as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and so to maximise the prospect of continued armed conflict. To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting.

4. Amnesty International Report, 2011 (PDF). View the Mauritania (pg. 222), Mali (pg. 220), Niger (pg. 244), Algeria (pg. 60), Burkina Faso (pg. 89), Tunisia (pg. 325) and Morocco (pg. 231; including the Western Sahara) reports in the PDF. Also view the Mauritania report here and here.

5. “La double dynamique du conflit syrien.” (1 June) Peter Harling in Le Monde on the Syrian regime’s decay. It describes the alienation of the Damascus elite from its rural, provincial origins, the competition for control within the ruling Alawite and Sunni elite(s), the impact of privatization on ordinary Syrians and the power elite and broader social causes for the current unrest in Syria. Interestingly, Harling discusses how the current ruling elite has “forgotten its origins” in Syria’s rural peasantry; Hanna Batatu wrote about how Hafez al-As’ad was “Syria’s first ruler of peasant extraction” and how his regime interacted with the rural and urban populations as it consolidated its power. Stephen J. King’s The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa (2009; review here) discusses at length some of the issues Harling raises (in a whole section on Syria), especially in the context of privatization and liberalization. The changes in mentality and class among toward urbanity and bourgeoisie Syria’s ruling clique are a key factor contributing its decay.

6. “Is IR still an American social science?” (6 June) Stephen Walt asks why Anglo-Saxons dominate international relations scholarship and comes up with two general reasons:

My explanation for this anomaly has two parts. The first part is Hoffman’s original explanation: major powers inevitably spend a lot of time thinking about global affairs and the rest of the world pays a lot of attention to what thinkers in the major powers are saying because they worry about what the major powers are going to do. Given that Britain was a major world power for centuries and the United States has enjoyed a position of primacy for sixty years or more, it’s not surprising that Anglo-Saxon scholarship and commentary on world affairs has cast such a wide shadow.

The second part has to do with the politics and sociology of the scholarly community itself. Authoritarian societies like Russia or China or Saudi Arabia are not going to be very good at social science, for the obvious reason that these governments cannot permit wide-ranging thought and debate and must constantly channel discourse in politically permissive directions. You might have first-class mathematicians or doctors or engineers in such a society, but you aren’t going to generate many (any?) world-class social scientists. Furthermore, the United States, Canada, and to some extent Britain, have highly competitive academic markets: instead having a few big institutions and a few key gatekeepers who can determine who gets appointed or promoted, the academic world in the United States is much more wide-open. There are more than two thousand four-year colleges and universities in the United States, which makes it largely impossible to impose a single intellectual orthodoxy on any field of study. This is even true in fields like economics, which has a larger core of accepted principles but still features intense debates between monetarists, Keynesians, neo-Keynesians, and assorted other tribes.

One suspects there are other (better) reasons. The comments section is very interesting and Walt mentions some non-Anglo-Saxon IR scholars (and public intellectuals).

7. “Conflict in Yemen” (Bernard Haykel/Charles Schmitz; 5 June) and “Turkey and the Arab Spring” (Steven Cook/Mustafa Akyol; 1 June). Two interesting Bloggingheads worth watching.

8. “Libyan Limbo.” (2 June) Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman look at some of Qadhafi’s advantages over NATO and the TNC, offering six factors to “explain NATO’s difficulties — and why the Libya war could drag on for a long while longer.”

9. “The weak foundations of Arab democracy.” (28 May) Timur Kuran discusses the weakness of Arab civil society in socio-economic terms, in line with his recent book and writings on economics and shari’ah, corporations and other elements that, in Kuran’s view, have contributed current troubles Arab political culture. Surely controversial but well worth reading.


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