The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links 15-22 March 2017

Recently on the blog:

And this week's links:

LinksThe EditorsComment
Saudi Arabia and Egypt warm up again

Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr, writing in the FT:

Analysts said the election of Donald Trump in the US, who considers Egypt and Saudi Arabia as important allies in his anti-Isis strategy, had focused minds on a rapprochement. Saudi Arabia is also keen to rally Sunni Arab support in its efforts to counter Iran’s influence across the Middle East, and believes it can benefit from reasserting a strong axis with Cairo, analysts said.
“Because of the Trump factor and the new Saudi strategy to counter Iran, we are back into a ‘forgive and forget policy,’” said Abdullah Alshammri, a former Saudi diplomat. “Riyadh’s policy towards Egypt can be described as emergency diplomacy — it is time to work only against Iran, and we need Cairo.”

This is an interesting take and always one of the major reasons that any chill in Saudi-Egyptian relations was going to be temporary. However, this likely does not mean it's all hunky dory from here on. There are limits to how anti-Iran Egypt will want to be, especially in light of its improved relations with Hamas, which is once again warming to Tehran. Like it or not Tehran has leverage with Hamas, which has leverage on the situation in Sinai. This is one of the ways in which the emergent MENA geopolitics are tangled and complicated. The Trump administration could arguably get on board with an anti-Iran policy that would please most (but not all) GCC countries and that would structure a major aspect of power politics in the region. And some are calling for this (surprise: it involved members of the Kagan family of neocon grandees) – specifically a Middle East strategy focused around Iran rather than Sunni radicals, including empowering a Sunni ally against Iran and (if you read between the lines) embracing anti-Shia sectarianism. Ironically, they are doing so when Saudi Arabia may to be shifting emphasis from a sectarian to a more ethnic framework for containing Iran.

Yet a country like Egypt has far more complicated interests: anti-Islamism (which brings it closer to the Assad regime and hence Russia and Iran), maintaining its strong relations with the GCC (solidarity on Yemen etc.) and the Nile water issue with Ethiopia and the Sudans (which is a theater where you have a strong local actor in Ethiopia but also much external influence from Western countries, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China). So I would not fall for an "all is fine" narrative: as in the past, the Egyptian-Saudi relationship is likely to have its ups and downs because of regional developments that are hard to predict and where their interests diverge. 

Sloppy scholarship and the Arab uprisings

Bassam Haddad, in Jadaliyya:

Much of the writing on the Arab uprisings continues to suffer from the new think-tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual, sloppy-analysis syndromes. It is as if having a platform and a mandate are sufficient to produce sound knowledge. For the most part, the proof is in the pudding. Follow platforms and individuals across time and space and this becomes clear: zigzagging and pendulum-swing judgments and analysis, driven more by events and politics than by historical and analytical depth. Worse still, this sloppiness has extended to scholars who frequently opine on social media and electronic publication platforms that seek content quantity over quality in a mutually beneficial exercise. Rigorous analysis that stands the test of time suffers.

Extending beyond quick platforms, the deluge of books on the uprisings is staggering and qualitatively inconsistent across publications, with some coming out within the first year of these protracted events, yet they do not consciously address their own temporal (premature?) shortcomings. Other books are published within months of the emergence of new phenomena (e.g., ISIS) and extrapolate from that particular phenomenon to all cases that experienced an uprising. Finally, as I already shared, a continuing trend of erroneously addressing the uprisings, or the odd title “Arab Spring," as one event lingers, with insufficient attention to the vast variance across cases. For the most part, the best work on the uprisings has not been written yet, and for good reason.

I suspect we will see really good literature about the uprisings before we see really good non-fiction. I don't think anyone has really put their finger on the real story here yet.

The Anti-Cairo
The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

The planned government sector of the new city, featuring a People's Gateway, People's Piazza, decorative obelisk, Parliament and Presidential Palace [5+ UDC]

Like many who have lived in Cairo, I remain obsessed with the city -- its squandered potential, its exhausting dysfunction, its liveliness and its charm. I've written something for the excellent Places Journal about the Egyptian government's proposal to move the country's capital to a new administrative city in the desert 45 Kilometers outside Cairo. I'm still not sure how seriously to take the fantastical announcements and graphic renderings of this future city (the authorities in Egypt are not exactly reliable, and the project seems preposterous) but something is already definitely being built. I analyzed the plans for the city as a key to understanding how the Sisi regime views the real, existing capital and public space. I also took a look back at Cairo's history and at the few years after Mubarak's ouster when activists, urbanists and citizens shared so many initiatives and proposals to make Cairo the city it should be. 

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

One of the densest cities in the world. Informal housing in Cairo and protesters praying in Tahrir. Photo courtesy of Fady El Sadek.

Links 1-14 March 2017
LinksThe EditorsComment
Colin Kahl: Trump's "upside down duck"

This is the first in an interesting series of tweets (see the rest here) by former Obama and Biden advisor Colin Kahl, basically arguing that the best one can hope is that while Trump says crazy things in foreign policy, more responsible officials will ensure he and the Bannon types get nothing done. In other words, that a kind of "adults in the room" deep state ensure that a minimally functional US foreign policy continues till the next election.

Trump faces the same question as Bush and Obama in Afghanistan

From today's New York Times' editorial:

Before he agrees to increased troop numbers, Mr. Trump would be wise to order a full assessment of the war to consider whether sending in more Americans can reasonably be expected to succeed in weakening an insurgency that has sprung back after earlier increases of American force.

Unless the Pentagon delivers a strategy that is significantly different from previous ones, Mr. Trump would be sending more men and women into a deadly war zone while, at best, only temporarily delaying Afghanistan’s descent into further chaos and violence.

Actually the question Trump has to answer is bigger than this – one that neither Bush nor Obama ever really answered: what is the mission in Afghanistan? What are the criteria of success and, ultimately, exit? I don't think we've ever had answers to these questions.

Links 14-28 February 2017
LinksIssandr El Amrani
In Translation: Nationalism is the new sectarianism

While we await what the era of the Trump presidency will bring for the Middle East, local actors are not wasting time and trying to create their own realities. For Saudi Arabia, the setback faced in Syria (now ever more firmly in an Iranian-Russian sphere of influence) means a refocus on Iraq - arguably more important in its regional rivalry with Iran than a ravaged Syria. In the piece below, a writer for the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbollah, anti-imperalist, anti-Saudi and pro-Iran) argues that this shift underscores a new Saudi strategy based of reviving Arab nationalism to replace the Sunni-Shia sectaranism (or, as a new book argues, sectarianization) that is so often condemned and linked with jihadist extremism.

This article was translated by our partners at Industry Arabic – hire them for your translation needs.

Saudi Arabia’s Enticements: “Arabism” vs. the Resistance

Khalil Kawtharani, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 9 February 2017

Now that the plan to sow Sunni-Shia strife has failed and the weakness of the forces that Washington and Riyadh relied upon has become evident, and now that ISIS’ regional influence has declined sharply as the world has moved decisively against takfiri extremism, it seems that the new plan is in need of a different polarizing element — one based on focusing solely on Iran and portraying its regional allies as mere client actors. This means that the confrontation needs new labels, and Saudi Arabia could find no better banner to raise than “Arabism against Persianism,” which opens a path for the country to work among Shia and allows it to hope for political breakthroughs that had been impossible when it raised the banner of opposing the expansion of Shia influence.

About a year ago, Saudi Arabia returned to Iraq in formal garb. With the opening of its embassy in Baghdad, Riyadh ended a two decade-long era in which its presence there had been restricted to security channels.

However, the evolution represented by this diplomatic opening toward its northern neighbor — which followed the removal of Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival there, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — soon revealed that the kingdom’s intentions toward Iraq had not changed, intentions which Iraqis say have been characterized by negativity all along. It did not take long until the whole spectrum of Baghdad’s ruling coalition converged upon the need for the new ambassador to be withdrawn, accusing him of overstepping his diplomatic role and issuing statements which went beyond that which everyone considered acceptable, including those advocating for engagement with the kingdom. Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan — who had a security background — was removed, leaving the embassy to the chargé d’affaires, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, who is still managing the embassy because Saudi Arabia has not yet appointed a successor to Sabhan.

Sabhan was recently appointed Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, and he now seems to be a minister for practically everything save that which his title refers to. These days he monitors multiple regional issues (including Lebanon), none of which are related to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This can be explained by Riyadh’s insistence that he play his previous role (that of restructuring the “Sunni street”) with the matter no longer limited to Iraq.

Amid all these changes, one thing is still guaranteed: Saudi Arabia does not want the clock to be turned back with its northern neighbor, and it wants to leverage the divided Iraqi home front to achieve a breakthrough and prevent its Iranian adversary from gaining a complete hold over Iraqi decision-making. For all this, the Saudis believe it was still within their abilities to reserve a seat in the lineup of influential players in formulating the “new Iraq,” or, “post-ISIS Iraq.”

“Arabism” instead of “sectarianism”?

This being said, decision-makers in the palaces of Jeddah and Riyadh have become fully convinced of the need to change the region’s modus operandi in general and in Iraq in particular, given that it is such an important regional testing ground. The new approach, established silently, can be summed up in the idea of leveraging the nationalist rhetoric of Arabism as an alternative to a sectarian and religious discourse focused on the necessity of “defending the Sunni people against Safavid expansion.” The “expansion” Saudi Arabia wants to stand against will now be primarily “Persian,” after having previously been portrayed largely as “Magian Safavid.” Two factors have brought the Saudis to the aforementioned conclusion: First, the sectarian card is now played out after the spread of the terrorism phenomenon and after receiving international messages that this issue will soon wind down. Second, it now senses the need to attract a larger segment of Shias in Iraq, which there is no way to do through its previous sectarian discourse.

Beirut embassy

For some time, Saudis working on the Iraqi issue have been trying to prepare an expanded lineup including Iraqi figures with a nationalist background or who are inclined toward the rhetoric of Arabism. What they are seeking is to attract a larger spectrum of these figures, open up to them, and open permanent channels of communication with them — especially Shias and those who view Iranian policies in the region with suspicion. Indeed, the Saudi embassies in both Baghdad and Beirut have already seen a series of meetings with a number of Iraqi figures, some of whom have not been known to have previous ties to Saudi policy in Iraq. All of this has been conducted under the notable supervision of Thamer al-Sabhan. In his latest two visits to Beirut, he has spoken clearly and explicitly with those he met about the kingdom’s new approach in Iraq. Perhaps the Saudis chose Beirut to hold a portion of these meetings as a way of operating away from the embarrassment that could be caused by holding similar meetings in the Baghdad embassy.

“Free market” at the Iraqi borders

In this context, arrangements are underway to establish a free trade zone in the Saudi city of Arar, which is near the Iraqi border. Riyadh expects this project will provide cover for more dynamic action with various collaborators inside Iraq, far away from the security and logistical complications in Baghdad. The new market is to be a camouflaged platform for the new Saudi operations, which will require broader and more comprehensive action than was previously exerted. This project was preceded by Saudi activity in this area, however it had been at a different level. The volume of Saudi communication with the sheikhs of clans and tribes in Iraq’s southernmost area — which overlap with Saudi Arabia geographically — has become notable. Indeed, the Saudis have succeeded in winning the friendship of some of the sheikhs of the tribes present inside Iraqi territory.

This has intersected with the appearance, a few days ago, of a number of Iraqi guests at the Al-Jenadriyah festival held annually in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is keen to invite new names to the festival, and those in the know say the guest list is not selected arbitrarily. Additionally, other conferences have been arranged by Saudi circles, outside of the spotlight, to discuss “Iraqi national issues,” the means of confronting “Persian ambitions,” and how to present a new discourse in the media.

Upcoming parliamentary elections

How does Riyadh translate its new approach into tangible progress? Decision-makers in the kingdom believe that entry into the Iraqi arena involves passing through the gates of elections — the sole matter that ensures continued Saudi efforts to network inside decision-making circles in Baghdad. This can explain the Saudi focus on expanding extensive contacts with Iraqi movements and figures: for Riyadh, the matter is no more than a preliminary to leveraging the parliamentary elections.

However, these Saudi initiatives still face one obstacle – the electoral law, which controls who the potential winners will be in any electoral round. Because Riyadh suffers from having cut communication links with most political parties active in Baghdad, there is nothing left for it but to resort to finding counterbalancing independent figures and working to prop them up to benefit from them. There is no other way to achieve this aim than an electoral law that involves independent candidate electoral districts and a first-past-the-post system. If the system is approved, Riyadh hopes it will result in about 200 lawmakers in the new parliament who either affiliated with it or at least not suspected of being pro-Tehran, once the power of the political parties is broken — an issue which the political and religious authorities in Iraq have begun to pay attention to. Despite the calls to adopt a system of single-member districts — which some hope would inject new blood into ruling circles — the proposal will likely be withdrawn from discussion in the coming days.

Over the past two weeks, Riyadh has felt more comfortable in its operations in Iraq since the installation of the new American administration. In the statements of Donald Trump, the Saudis sense a wider margin for their activity in Baghdad, especially since the new president complains about Iran’s role in Iraq at every opportunity. The new era of Saudi-American convergence was confirmed with a question posed by an American official a few days ago to an Iraqi official about the possibility that Baghdad would abandon Washington for the sake of “others” after “all it had done to assist them in the war on terror” — a reference to the fear that Iraq will continue to draw closer to Tehran. Under the previous administration, Saudi rulers pleaded with former Vice President Joe Biden to strike Iran, only to find that their pleas fell on deaf ears. Now they finally sense that those days are gone forever, and a new age has begun.

Links 7-13 February 2017

Recent posts:

And the links:

LinksIssandr El Amrani
The tradecraft of a political analyst

My friend Peter Harling – whose fantastic essays have appeared on this site before before they moved over to his new outfit, Synaps – has put together a wonderful collection of advice for people in our line of work, that is researchers, academics, policy writers, journalists and others who do fieldwork and then write about their findings. He's done so for Synaps, where he is training young researchers from the region, but has decided to make his advice open-source. It's a treasure trove of excellent recommendations derived, among many things, from his many years as director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at International Crisis Group. I saw how effective he was at training analysts there (and it's a demanding place to work). There's a lot in there, so here are a few examples.

On note-taking:

IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts. Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow.

Sharing with colleagues has value-added of its own. By trading meeting notes back and forth, everyone learns more and faster. You collectively build an institutional memory, which may be tedious to contribute to, but is a precious resource to benefit from. You help your manager keep up with the substance of your work, and therefore do a better job at supporting and mentoring you throughout the process of overcoming obstacles to fieldwork, framing topics, drafting your analysis and editing your output. And, finally, notes you circulate are usually more complete and structured than what you would keep to yourself – making for personal archives that you will find richer and easier to mine.

On interviews:

I think an interview, by nature, is a show that aims both to inform and to entertain. We often use the word “performance,” and that performance can be stronger or weaker at a certain moment. Doing an interview is like the theatre, or giving a concert: sometimes, you feel that your performance is flagging and that you are losing energy, and can only respond by intensifying your own efforts – your concentration surges. On TV or on the radio your audience is not in front of you, but you’re nonetheless in a struggle to retain its attention. You’re in competition with the remote control.

Finding the right melody and rhythm is also about working the vibes between you and your guest. If you really want to get at what’s interesting, you will have to use diplomacy, impatience, a more personal touch, and a mix of soft and tough questions.

You can find the whole collection here.

The last report from Egypt's El Nadeem Center

The El Nadeem Center is an extraordinary Egyptian NGO that documents police torture and counsels its victims. After a long period of groundless legal harassment, the center has now been forcibly closed by security forces. Just a few weeks ago it issued the following statement, alongside its annual report on torture -- which as its authors note is culled from media reports and statement on social media, and therefore under-estimates the phenomenon.   

"We release this Archive on the 6th anniversary of the 25th of January revolution, when the so called Police-Day turned into a day of revolution against that same police force and against all the atrocities it committed and continues to commit. We have no doubt that the news items we have managed to collect from the various media channels are but the tip of the iceberg.. below the surface or out of our reach and that of the media are many more crimes which we failed to access news about. For that we apologize for the people afflicted by them.

This archive begins with some official quotes made during 2016, beginning from the head of state to one of its main media spokespersons.. Most of which are quotes that deny and condemn those who oppose that denial.. According to those officials Egypt lives its best democratic eras, its prisons are akin to hotels to the extent that prisoners sometimes do not want to be released.. talk about forced disappearance is a lie that targets to defame Egypt's image in front of the work.. No torture is practiced in prisons or police stations.. and detainees are receiving the best medical care!!!

This media archive testifies to the opposite. The archive does not include testimonies taken by doctors working at El Nadim clinic, but includes only testimonies published on the various media channels, including social media. At the end of each testimony there is a link to the original publication for whoever would like to check.

We have classified statistics into killing (extrajudicial, although we oppose all killing even if ordained by law), death in detention, individual torture, collective maltreatment and torture, medical neglect in detention, forced disappearance, reappearance and finally acts of state violence outside places of detention.

Although we believe that every case of forced disappearance is most likely a victim of torture (for why else would security forces would deprive a detainee from every contact with the outside world if not to seize confessions under duress) the listed number of torture cases does not include those who have disappeared unless they have spoken about their torture after reappearing. In addition, we have also published the numbers of those who have reappeared according to the collected news. All of them reappeared in state institutions, none in Syria or with ISIS, as some claim.

The archive also has sections of letters sent from prisons, testimonies of former detainees as well as testimonies of their families during their time of detention. Those sections, we believe are the most valuable part of this archive. They testify to an era as well as to the resilience of individuals who, although deprived of their freedom, hold on to their humanity and belief in human values and solidarity.

2016 was a heavy year. At about this time in 2015 El Nadim released its 2015 archives of oppression, upon which the government made two attempts at its closure.. the only clinic - unfortunately - that provides psychological help to survivors of violence and torture. Some state institutions, in Egypt as well as some of our embassies abroad, claimed that the clinic is closed and that it no longer received clients. Despite the heaviness of the year and the challenges facing El Nadim and other civil society organizations and especially human rights organizations, we assure our constituency and supporters that the clinic has not closed, not for a single day. As long as there is a need for the service provided by the clinic it will continue providing it, even if it is forced to take other formulas and continue receiving survivors of violence and torture. Until then 3A Soliman el Halabi street, 2nd floor remains open.

This archive is not produced by the clinic. It is produced by an independent Egyptian NGO, El Nadim.

Let us hope that 2017 be more merciful to us all. "

PostsUrsula Lindseyegypt, torture
Taking a page from Cossery on Trump and Bannon

There are reports that Donald Trump is annoyed by Steve Bannon’s high profile (the jokes about #PresidentBannon, the SNL skit, the Time magazine cover etc.) 

The idea of our pathologically narcissistic president being troubled by the prominence of his lieutenant seems very plausible. It also reminded me of the plot of Albert Cossery’s La Violence et la derision (translated as The Jokers). Cossery was born in Cairo to a Greek Orthodox Levantine family. He left Egypt for Paris in 1945. But all of his brilliant, satirical novels — whose antiheroes are vagabonds, dandies, thieves and hashish smokers — are set in the Arab world (mostly in Egypt). 

InThe Jokers, a group of men in Alexandria, annoyed by the city’s stupid and incompetent governor, decide to undermine him by heaping inordinate praise on him, printing flyers that glorify him and writing letters to the newspaper full of over-the-top compliments. The idea is that such praise will render him ridiculous and that he will be forced to resign for seeming to aggrandize himself. 

There have been a number of comparisons between Trump and Arab dictators (the love of gilded fixtures, the contempt for the press, the allegations that all protesters are paid stooges). Another resemblance is the way he loathes being mocked and being upstaged. The Resistance should take a page from The Jokers and work to put Bannon on the cover of many more magazines.

A new look

I was messing around with the blog yesterday and accidentally clicked the wrong button, breaking the old design. Rather than recreating it the way it was, I thought it was an occasion to begin a redesign of the blog that I had long wanted to do – to make it more simple, more adapted to today's mobile devices and high-resolution screens, to improve the typography and countless other things. That means that the old banner (in place, if I remember correctly, since the second redesign around 2005) has gone, or rather has been replaced with the fez logo above left. I know some readers will miss it, but it does not really make sense in an era of tiny vertically-oriented screens.

So I am starting slowly with this sparse look and will gradually refine it over the next few weeks. I hope that at the very least it will load faster, be more pleasant to read, and will have fewer distractions now that the sidebar is no longer there. Some elements will gradually come back. Some older posts that worked well with the previous design might be a little broken. But I am taking this as an incentive to start blogging a little more often, and perhaps a little differently, than before. 

Also – more news soon to come, something that many of you have asked for in the last few years. Stay tuned.