Best Books on the Middle East, 2011

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:

Book of the Year

Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, by Stephane LaCroix (Harvard University Press). Awakening Islam is an astonishingly rich, detailed analysis of the fascinating world of Saudi Islamism. The young French scholar Stephane LaCroix spent significant time in Saudi Arabia, and got deep inside the competing networks that have shaped Saudi Arabia's distinctive Islamist milieu. He unpacks the role of Muslim Brothers and Salafis and their sometimes-uneasy relationship with the state. He carefully traces the evolution of the Sahwa (Awakening) networks, and how they both carried political dissent and re-structured the pathways of political mobilization. And while he certainly pays attention to militant jihadism and the worldview which helped spawn al-Qaeda, that does not overwhelm his broader analytical mission.  This book is simply an extraordinary accomplishment, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the politics of Islam. Read LaCroix on the Middle East Channel: "Saudi Islamists and the Potential for Protest" (June 2, 2011).

Runner Up

Violence, Non-Violence and the Palestinian National Movement, by Wendy Pearlman (Cambridge University Press). Pearlman has produced a beautifully written, deeply researched, and theoretically sophisticated overview of a century of Palestinian political mobilization. She goes deep inside the political opportunities and obstacles which have shaped Palestinian decisions about violence and non-violent mobilization, with a particularly rich and insightful reading of both of the Intifadas.  Nobody should ever again dare ask "where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" before reading her book.  This is the best kind of scholarship, and deserves a wide readership -- which I fear it will not get, unless Cambridge decides to quickly issue it in an affordable paperback version instead of as an absurdly expensive $99 hardcover. Read Pearlman on the Middle East Channel: "A New Palestinian Intifada?" (Oct. 10, 2011).

Honorable Mentions

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell (Verso). Mitchell offers an alternative reading of the political and economic history of the Middle East that offers new interpretations of the impact of the struggle for the control of oil. Carbon Democracy ranges widely over the 20th century, placing oil not only at the center of U.S. foreign policy and the evolution of state structures and popular protest in the Middle East but also at the evolution of the disciplines of economics and political theory. Like many such alternative readings, Mitchell sometimes pushes his argument too far and produces contestable historical interpretations. But Carbon Democracy is a challenging, sophisticated, and important book that undermines expectations in the best kind of intellectual provocation. Read Mitchell on the Middle East Channel...next year!

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, by Steven Cook (Oxford University Press). Cook's timely, well-written history offers the best up to date review of Egypt's modern political history through the opening months of the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak. His account of how the 1952 Egyptian revolution produced the Nasserist authoritarian regime is more relevant today than ever, as is his discussion of the final years of the decaying Mubarak regime -- including intriguing new evidence about Gamal Mubarak's activities.  I'm still just glad that he didn't go with his editor's original suggested title, "Why the Mubaraks Will Never Ever Fall No Matter What Even If Martians Attack and Eat the Pyramids." Read Cook on the Middle East Channel: "The Frankenstein of Tahrir Square" (Dec. 19, 2011).

Finally, I found a huge number of books about other regions of the world to be critically important in shaping my thinking about the unfolding events in the Arab world this year. Of those, I'd like to recommend one in particular: The Justice Cascade, by Kathryn Sikkink (Norton). Sikkink, a leading IR scholar and Latin America specialist, details the growth of the norm of human rights prosecutions for regime officials responsible for atrocities against their own people. Whether such a norm can take hold in a changing Arab world strikes me as one of the most interesting and important questions out there -- I'm developing an academic research project on it, at any rate, so I hope so!  Sikkink presents an invaluable guide to the possibilities of normative and political change in world politics.

Congratulations to all the winning authors -- we hope that the honor and prestige and Aardvark love compensates for the complete absence of any cash prize.

And then, tradition demands.... 

Tradition demands that I also present here my picks for the top hip-hop albums of the year. And so I shall. Top of the list is Watch the Throne, by Jay-Z and Kanye West. I wasn't blown away by this one at first, especially after the ridiculously high bar set by the first single Otis.  But this adventurous, playful, and surprisingly mature album really grew on me over repeated listenings and after seeing them perform at the Verizon Center in DC. See Jay-Z and Kanye on the Middle East Channel here: Jay-Z's Hegemony in the Age of Kanye.

Next comes J. Cole's wonderful, smart debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, which finally brought one of my favorite rappers from the mixtapes to a wider public. Pusha T's Fear of God II EP was wicked (I think I played the first verse of Trouble on My Mind 17 times in a row at one point). I liked Kendrick Lamar's Section 80, and Monumental by Pete Rock and Smif n Wessum. I wanted to like the new albums by Wale, Big Sean, Game, the Roots, Talib Kweli and especially Lupe Fiasco but I just didn't really feel them.   And I really liked the various collections of revolutionary Arab rap that everyone kept sending me this year, and I hope y'all will keep sending them. I'm still bummed that Lauren Bohn managed to track down El General in the south of Tunisia for an FP interview while I had to settle for seekng J.Cole, Jay Z and Kanye in DC.

Thanks for a great 2011, everyone -- and get on those great books and great albums which might earn you an Aardvark Award of your own in 2012!

Marc Lynch

Egypt's Transition Can't Wait


The call to accelerate the transition to civilian rule in Egypt has taken on a new urgency this week.  A wide range of political forces are calling for the SCAF to cede power to an elected leadership by February 2012.  There are many different ideas about how to do this, perhaps through the new Parliament selecting an interim Prime Minister or perhaps by holding Presidential elections at the end of January.  All of the ideas have their problems. But those problems pale against the threat to the Egyptian democratic transition posed by the continuing misrule of and escalating resort to violence by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. I believe that the calls for a new President by February should be taken very seriously indeed. 

This weekend's anomic violence on Qasr el-Aini Street does not likely augur the rekindling of popular revolution, as the protests were almost completely contained to a few blocks and seem to have attracted little popular sympathy.  But the wildly disproportionate, undisciplined, and frankly brutal response by the army does show graphically why the SCAF is rapidly losing its legitimacy to rule among the political elite.  It really doesn't matter whether it ordered the violent crackdown against the Cabinet sit-in or undisciplined troops began the violence on their own, since both point to something deeply problematic.  Such crises will continue to recur and intensify as long as the underlying problem of military rule remains unresolved. 

The greatest political accomplishment during the last bout of violence in November was that the SCAF agreed to to hold Presidential elections and the transfer of power by June.  But as one of Cairo's savviest political analysts told me yesterday, "we can't take six more months of this." 

The same arguments about the need for a transfer to civilian rule circulated after the horrifying violence which broke out November 19, when the images of tear gas and police brutality shocked Egyptians and the world.  That violence outraged Egypt's political elite and ordinary people alike, suddenly bringing back the massive crowds to Tahrir which months of efforts by activists had failed to generate.  The Obama administration released a rare public criticism of the SCAF which called for "the full transfer of power to a civilian government must take place in a just and inclusive manner that responds to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people, as soon as possible." Under that pressure, the SCAF replaced Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, formed a largely powerless but determined civilian Advisory Council, and -- most importantly -- agreed to hold the Presidential elections by June 2012 rather than the vague suggestions of some time in 2013. 

The success of the first round of Parliamentary elections blunted the momentum that had been building for such an accelerated transition.  The high turnout and orderly procedures in the first round of elections had left the SCAF feeling clearly vindicated.  The SCAF was reportedly furious with the unprecedented public American criticism.  They were also, I am told, very unhappy with the November 30 NYT/IHT op-ed in which Steve Cook and I argued that the SCAF was fomenting instability and should be held accountable for their use of violence against civilians, and urged the U.S. to throw its weight behind early Presidential elections.  

Instead of getting angry, they should have listened. This weekend's renewed violence has shattered the illusion of their successful management and left their measures in tatters.  At least 10 members have resigned the Advisory Council in protest, including the ones who were trying to draft a constitutional framework. The silence of Prime Minister Ghanzoury has painfully illustrated his irrelevance. And the elections -- while vital -- are not alone enough.  This week's violence shows yet again the urgent need for an accelerated transition to civilian rule and rebuilding of a national political consensus, before events spin wildly out of control. 

The response to the crisis absolutely must not include canceling the Parliamentary elections.  Holding those elections in the face of activist opposition, major administrative hurdles, and multiple opportunities to postpone them is the one thing which the SCAF has done right. Elections and the building of democratic institutions are the only way to forge a genuinely legitimate alternative to military rule. Indeed, the next big battle to consume Egyptian politics is still almost certainly going to be the struggle between a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled elected Parliament and the SCAF over political authority.  Canceling elections which the Islamists are poised to win is perhaps the only thing which could move Egypt towards the feared scenario of Algeria 1991.  Completing the Parliamentary elections and seating the new elected body is an essential part of the political transition. I fundamentally disagree with those who see the elections and the protests as opposed, rather than complementary, means to force the SCAF to surrender power.

But it's not enough.  There are a number of different proposals now being discussed in Cairo for how to proceed.  One proposal is for the immediate transfer of executive power to the Parliament upon completion of the elections.  Another is for the Parliament to select an interim President. Yet another is for Presidential elections to be moved up to January 25.  These calls have gained the support of an impressive range of political trends, from leading Muslim Brotherhood figures to liberal icons Amr Hamzawy and Ayman Nour to former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to Presidential candidate Abd el-Moneim Abou el-Fattouh to revolutionary youth groups to former members of the SCAF's Advisory Council (see this Facebook page for more).

The problems with such an accelerated Presidential election are of course daunting, as the incivise analyst Hassan Nafaa emphasizes today.  It would require the junking of the SCAF's transition timeline, creating a new wave of uncertainty.  It would mean the cancelation of the elections to the (largely irrelevant) upper house, though I doubt anyone would notice or care.   More worrying, it would mean that both the executive and the legislative branches would be seated without a new constitution delineating their powers -- though this is also a potential positive, since there would then be time for an extended period of drafting a new Constitution, rather than a frantic rush to write and ratify one before June.  There would be little time for Presidential candidates to campaign, giving a huge advantage to those such as Amr Moussa who have been building an electoral machine for many months.  The Parliamentary selection alternative would galvanize fears of Islamist domination, since the likely Muslim Brotherhood Parliamentary majority would be in a position to select the President (even if it would likely opt for a consensus candidate for strategic reasons). 

But for all those obstacles, accelerating the transition to civilian rule is the best way forward. The recurrent political crises and outbursts of horrifying violence by regime security forces demonstrate clearly the existential costs of the SCAF's mishandling of the transition. The Parliamentary elections should continue, the upper house elections should be canceled, a civilian President should be elected by February (though I'm unsure as to whether the Parliamentary or electoral route makes the most sense), and full executive and legislative authority should then be transferred from the SCAF to these democratically legitimate bodies.  The constitution should then be drafted over the course of a year, followed perhaps by new elections. 

I don't expect the SCAF to willingly agree to this plan, or even to agree with the diagnosis of its failures, given its confrontational response to the Cabinet violence crisis and aggressive use of state media to shape Egyptian opinion.  But it is ever more clear that the SCAF is not capable of overseeing a genuine democratic transition, and that its recurrent resort to violence against its own people should badly undermine its legitimacy.  The protest-violence dynamic is turning uglier with every iteration.  It needs to be short-circuited in favor of a bold new transition plan before it's too late.