The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s constitution wins narrow approval amid accusations of polling violations

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is declaring a narrow victory in the first round of a polarizing constitutional referendum, while opposition members are complaining of polling violations. Unofficial results from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party show 56.5 percent approval for the new draft constitution with 43 percent of Egyptians' voting against it. However, voter turnout was low, estimated at between 31 and 33 percent. Egyptian human rights groups reported widespread irregularities at polling stations, including preventing some women and Christians from voting, early closure of some polling centers, and incidences of people misrepresenting themselves as judges. Egypt's main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, has called for massive protests Tuesday against "large scale fraud" in the referendum. There were some instances of violence over the weekend, however, not nearing the degree of clashes leading up to the contentious referendum. Voting was held in Cairo, Alexandria, and eight other Egyptian provinces on Saturday. Results will not be released until after the rest of the country votes on December 22.

Syria

In a rare interview, Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said that neither the government nor the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad would win the war in Syria. Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim, has rarely been seen since the uprising began in March 2011, and is not part of the Alawite president's inner circle. Nonetheless, he is the highest official to publically state that Assad will not win. In the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, Sharaa appealed for a "historic settlement" involving the U.N. Security Council and the formation of a national unity government. Additionally, the foreign ministry of Iran, Assad's closest Ally, has indicated that support for Assad is not unconditional, calling for an end to violence as well as parliamentary and presidential elections. In past weeks the conflict has hit the capital city of Damascus with the opposition making territorial gains in an arc around the capital. In part of a campaign to rid the area of opposition forces, government warplanes bombed the Damascus Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on Sunday. According to opposition activists, rocket fire killed at least 25 people sheltering in a mosque. The bombings sparked clashes within the camp between opposition fighters including some Palestinians and pro-Assad fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Five other attacks were reported in the embattled districts of southern Damascus on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Islamist Tawheed Brigade reported it seized a military installation near the northern city of Aleppo, taking "at least" 100 prisoners. If confirmed, the capture would add to several bases recently overtaken by opposition forces in a set back to the Syrian regime.

Headlines  

  • Bombings killed 12 people in ethnically mixed towns in the disputed territory of northern Iraq near the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, a day after 11 people were killed in attacks in Kirkuk.
  • Libya has temporarily closed its southern borders and declared emergency law in seven southern regions due to an "upsurge in violence and drug trafficking, and the presence of armed groups."
  • Two gunmen on a motorcycle killed Yemeni military intelligence officer Shaker al-Bani on Sunday adding to a number of recent targeted killings.

Arguments and Analysis

Story of a massacre tells of the Alawites caught in the middle (Hassan Hassan, The National)

"On December 9, nearly 200 people were killed in the small Syrian village of Aqrab, which is about 40 kilometres west of Hama. The village has a population of 13,000 people, most of whom are Sunnis, with a minority of about 3,000 Alawites.

The causes of this massacre still need to be independently investigated, but what evidence exists has grim lessons for minority groups and the area as a whole.

The region around the village - a triangle between Hama, Homs and Tartus - represents an explosive sectarian mix. This is where Alawites, Sunnis and Ismailis have lived side by side for hundreds of years, but the regime has successfully pitted groups against each other since the start of the uprising, recruiting thousands of Alawite villagers into the Shabbiha militias."

Getting back out there (The Economist)

THE annual mourning for Zein al-Abdin al-Sajjad, an eighth century martyred Shia Imam, is a relatively minor event, even in Iran where Shias hold power. But in the little island kingdom of Bahrain, where the Shia majority chafes at their subjugation under a Sunni ruling family, the Al Khalifas, it has become another excuse to reclaim the streets. "We celebrate the most minor festivals now, even more than Iran," says Jasim Hussein, a former parliamentarian of Wefaq, a Shia party seeking a negotiated end to the pro-democracy uprising that erupted in February 2011.

The political process has been frozen for the 22 months since the government launched a ferocious clamp-down, backed by troops borrowed from across the causeway to Saudi Arabia, that has left some 90 people dead-a grim total given that native Bahrainis number just 600,000, out of an overall population of 1.3m. Mass arrests, show trials, harsh sentences and incitement to sectarian hatred have blunted the opposition's momentum. Crucial support from liberal-leaning Sunnis has waned, and much of the business community would like to forget the troubles and move on.

But Shia religious activism is more visible than ever. On a balmy night in the old souks of Manama, Bahrain's capital, muscular, black-clad youths chant dirges and chest-thump past shrines adorned with dramatic tableaux of Shia saints. Yet the spirit is festive. Men feast on sweetmeats and hot, saffron-infused sheep's milk freely distributed in stalls. Not a policeman is in sight. "What's there to mourn about," asks a civil servant, who covertly supports Amal, an anti-monarchy group, "when time is on our side."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

The 2012 Abu Aardvark Awards

It's time for the 2012 version of my annual list of the Middle East Channel's best books of the year on the Middle East... and, of course, the year's best hip hop albums!  Each year, I read through as many books about the Middle East as I can with an eye towards recommending the most thought-provoking, interesting and useful publications of the year (2010 winners here, 2011 here).  My own book, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the Middle East, is of course ineligible (but for those who care, the paperback is now available and here's a bunch of reviews).  Unfortunately for the winners, there's no grandly named award and no cash prize, but at least there's the glory.

A few words on the process. As always, it's just me making the list -- no committee, no free books, nobody screening submissions. That means that the selections tend to follow my own interests, and I probably overlooked or just didn't get into some outstanding books. I made every effort I could to look at as many potential candidates as possible, and ended up reading more than fifty eligible books (here's a mostly complete list, though I may have forgotten some or left off those which I only skimmed; really good late 2012 books which didn't make it onto the pile in time this year will be eligible for next year's).   Reading and rereading them (along with grading) is why I haven't been posting much the last week.

I have a slight bias towards university press books, though I'm entirely open to well-written and serious books from other presses.  I pay more attention to the Arab parts of the Middle East than to Iran, Israel or Turkey, and hope somebody else digs into books on those areas.  And I tend to like books which make me feel that I've actually learned something new --- rich and unique empirical detail, novel theoretical approaches, unexpected comparisons.   I don't agree with everything in every b0ok, and none is without flaws. But all provoked me to think in new ways, taught me new things, held my interest against the allure of Twitter, and challenged my interpretive frames.   

Last year I named two top winners: Stephane Lacroix's Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia and Wendy Pearlman's Violence, Non-Violence and the Palestinian National Movement, along with a few honorable mentions.  There were a lot of really good books this year, but I didn't think any stood head and shoulders above the others like in 2011.   So instead, this year I have decided to list ten books in alphabetical order.  All are impressive in their own ways.   And so, without further ado, the Middle East Channel's Top Ten Middle East Books for 2012:

Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago). At a time when Egypt is consumed with debates about the role of Islam in the constitution and the role of the courts, Agrama's book offers unique and fascinating insight into the actual operation of Islamic laws in Egyptian society.  While at times a bit distracted by the  jargon of his field, the book finds its stride with a deep reading of the Nasir Hamid Abu Zayd hisba trial and then breaks genuinely new ground with its ethnographic examination of the Fatwa Council al-Azhar and Egypt's personal status courts.   Simply fascinating.

Nathan Brown, When Victory is Not an Option (Cornell).  How did political competition with the certainty of defeat shape the strategies and ideologies of Muslim Brotherhood political parties?   Completed shortly before victory actually became an option for a number of Arab Islamist political parties, Brown's comparative study will stand as one of the very best examinations of an era which has passed.  He places Islamist political parties into an effective comparative and historical perspective, showing well what is unique and what is common among such political parties.   And he shows well how Muslim Brotherhood political parties have adapted to their particular political environments... and anticipates the problems they would face when those political horizons suddenly and dramatically changed.  See Brown give a talk about his book here, and my conversation with him about the Egyptian constitution here;  among his many Middle East Channel articles are "Egypt's State Constitutes Itself" (November 2012), "Cairo's Judicial Coup" (June 2012) and "Egypt's Transition Imbrogliu" (April 2012).

Christopher Davidson, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies (Columbia/Hurst).  Davidson digs deep into the ruling bargain which sustains the Arab monarchies of the Gulf and shows powerfully the mounting challenges they face.  It would be easy to get distracted by Davidson's provocative prediction of impending turbulence in the states of the Gulf and miss his careful, rigorous dissection of their historical evolution and mounting internal and external challenges.  This book should be widely debated among those interested in the future stability of these wealthy Gulf states.   For Christopher Davidson on the Middle East Channel, see "Gulf Autocracy in Question" (November 2012)

Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture (Stanford).   Fahmy's account of the emergence of the Egyptian public sphere from the 1870s through 1919 is richly detailed, theoretically sophisticated, and beautifully written.   While carefully attuned to the broader theoretical and historical literature on the public sphere, Fahmy very effectively shows the contours of a distinctively Egyptian public sphere and its contribution to the emergence of modern Egypt.  This isn't an era of Egyptian cultural history which I knew well, and I roundly appreciated Fahmy's rich and evocative discussion of the changing media landscape and the fields of cultural production. 

 

Bassam Haddad, Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford).   The uprising of the last two years has exposed the relatively thin state of contemporary scholarship on Syria.  In this useful book, Bassam Haddad carefully traces the political and economic networks which underpinned the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and the changing political economy of that regime in the decade leading up to the uprisings.  He shows effectively the real distributional and political impact of economic reforms, the impact of trust deficits and corruption, and the terrain of competing power centers within Baathist Syria.   See Haddad discuss his book at GW here.

Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia (W.W. Norton).   I've read far too many accounts over the years of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the war on terror -- some excellent, but too many covering the same familiar ground from a primarily American perspective.  Johnsen has produced one of the few such books to fully incorporate the local into that story by focusing on Yemen without losing sight of Washington.  His Yemeni focus decenters the familiar narratives about al-Qaeda.  He has drawn most attention for his criticism of American reliance on drone strikes, but his book ranges far more broadly to situate what we now call Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula into the history of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the broader Middle East.  For Gregory Johnsen on Foreign Policy, see "Ignoring Yemen at Our Peril" (December 2010) and "Losing Yemen" (November 2012).

Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt (Verso).  An entertaining and challenging historical narrative of Egypt from Nasser's revolution to the year following the January 25 revolution.  Kandil gives an often gripping historical narrative which is both theoretically informed and full of fascinating details drawn from a wide range of Egyptian and archival sources.  Some of the historical judgments could be challenged, but the debate would surely be an informative one.  Refreshingly, his account focuses more on the machinations of the officer corps and the political class, and on a changing political economy, than on the Muslim Brotherhood.  The dissection of the institutional battles between the military, security services, state institutions, Presidency and political class offer fascinating perspective on today's tortuous Cairo politics.

Daniel Kurtzer, Scott Lasensky, Steven Spiegel, Shibley Telhami and William QuandtThe Peace Puzzle: America's Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011 (Cornell).  Close to the final word on the American perspective on the diplomatic history of the peace process, with five deeply experienced authors who conducted hundreds of interviews with nearly all the participants.   The Peace Puzzle corrects the historical record repeatedly, particularly the distortions which have emerged through memoirs and entrenched journalistic narratives.  While it will not satisfy those who would prefer to see more attention to the lived experience of Israelis, Palestinians or other Arabs, it covers its chosen terrain of diplomatic history extremely well.  I only wish I could share the optimistic view of the authors that a record of nearly constant failure over multiple administrations suggests only that different tactics might have succeeded.. or might yet succeed. 

Laurence Louer, Shiism and Politics in the Middle East (Columbia/Hurst).  An extremely useful guide to the politics of Shia networks in today's Middle East.  This slim volume could use a bit more focus and a bit more depth (of the sort found in 2008's Transnational Shia Politics, by the same author).  But its sharp explanation of the role of specific Shia networks across the Middle East offers genuinely eye-opening insights into the nature of political and intellectual influence across these Shia communities.  It helps to make sense not only of Bahrain, but of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and beyond. 

Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge). Sassoon draws on enormous volumes of Iraqi documents and audiotapes seized after 2003 to reconstruct the organization of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.   The result of this unprecedented archival research is a painstaking, understated but powerful demonstration of the logic of an authoritarian state from the inside.  With this new documentary access into the inner workings of the Iraqi security state, Sassoon' book begins to fill in one of the massive missing pieces in the historiography and analysis of the politics of the Middle East.  

Congratulations to all of these outstanding colleagues for writing such outstanding books.   Reading work like this reminds me of why I'm so proud to be part of the Middle East Studies intellectual community. 

And.... there's of course another tradition here:  the best hip hop albums of the year!  And for the first year in the history of the awards, the winner isn't going to include Kanye West or Jay-Z. Cruel Summer had some truly great songs (including "New God Flow", with Pusha T and Ghostface Killah, my nominee for song of the year), but just didn't add up to a complete album.  A number of other albums with great potential had bright flashes but ultimatedly didn't quite cut it:  Nas, Life is Good (can't get past the Jay Electronica ghostwriting allegations); Lupe Fiasco, Food and Liquor II (amazing in places but too preachy); Slaughterhouse, Welcome to Our House (brilliant at times, but repetitive and too many dud tracks); Game's Jesus Piece (too erratic); Big Boi's Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (great fun though).  

Two albums were simply brilliant, and probably would have won in another year. Kendrick Lamar's good kid, MAAD city and Big KRIT's Live from the Underground were each lyrically complex, musically distinctive, and true to a unique musical vision.  These two intelligent, spirited and experimental young rappers, like J.Cole last year (hear all three together here), point to the bright future of hip hop beyond the exhausted gangsters and the tiresome club bangers.  I loved these two albums and can't wait to hear more from these two incredibly talented young lyricists. 

But the album of the year is the one that has stayed on the top of my iPod since the spring:  Strange Clouds by B.o.B.  Nothing else out there could match it for its insane energy, lyrical wordplay, sheer fun, honesty, and dazzling motion.   Watch "Play for Keeps", "Both of Us" (with Taylor Swift), and "So Good", but stay away from the Nicki Minaj trainwreck "Out of My Mind," the album's only dud.

 

And so there you have it:  B.o.B. not only got to perform for President Obama, open for Jay-Z and Eminem, and win the 2012 People's Choice Awards -- he also gets this year's nod for the coveted Abu Aardvark's 2012 Album of the  Year. Way to go Bobby Ray!

 

JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images