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The Middle East Channel's Greatest Hits (2012)

2012 has been a difficult year in the Middle East in many, painfully familiar ways: descent into civil war in Syria, political polarization and frustration in Egypt, unrepentant repression in Bahrain, war in Gaza, the U.S. Ambassador's death in Libya, stalemate and backsliding in many other countries in the region.  But it's been a great year for the Middle East Channel!  

Over the last twelve months, we have published more than 250 essays by an impressive range of scholars, journalists and analysts, and introduced or expanded a number of new initiatives.   Subscriptions to our outstanding Daily Brief have almost doubled in the last year.  I am delighted with the continuing evolution of the Middle East Channel's role as a premiere source of informed, high-quality analysis of the region's turbulent politics.

We aim for both breadth and depth on the Middle East Channel.  The top two topics on the Channel this year, unsurprisingly, were Egypt (20% of all posts) and Syria (15%). We ran more than ten articles each on Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, along with extensive commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran.  We also published outstanding essays on countries which don't often get attention, such as the fate of activists in Oman, the ongoing mobilization in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the battle over a Turkish soap opera, and "Morocco's Resilient Protest Movement."

We also aimed to dive deeper into particular issues this year by commissioning multiple articles on a similar theme and then collecting them in the free PDF "POMEPS Briefing" collections. We released a dozen of these collections in 2012, including "Breaking Bahrain", "Kuwait's Moment of Truth", "The New Salafi Politics", "Morsi's Egypt", "Jordan, Forever on the Brink", and "The Arab Monarchy Debate."  We also published an eBook, Islamists in a Changing Middle East.

We also moved into multimedia by introducing a new series of (mostly) weekly "POMEPS Conversations" with leading Middle East scholars to the video box on the top of the Channel's home page.   Those fifteen minute chats have been enormously interesting (to me, anyway), with some focusing tightly on a single political current issue and others ranging widely across themes, regional trends, or academic debates.  The scholars who have joined me for these conversations recently include Nathan Brown, Greg Gause, Wendy Pearlman, Curt Ryan, Jillian Schwedler, Michael Willis and many others.  Subscribe to the podcast here and don't miss a convo!

And now, since tradition demands it, a list.  Here are the top posts on the Middle East Channel this year, based on a highly scientific formula combining traffic and personal taste.  It's hard to choose, since of course all the pieces we published were my favorite, so when in doubt I let pageviews and Facebook likes break the ties. Keep in mind that these articles are drawn only from articles published on the Middle East Channel, not from the huge variety of great content on the region published directly by Foreign Policy or on other channels. 

 The Israeli Debate on Attacking Iran is Over, by Shai Feldman (August 20).   Foreign Policy and the Channel ran a lot of articles about the challenges surrounding the Iranian nuclear program this year.   Feldman intervened at the height of the Iran war fever with this sober and important analysis of Israel's internal debate, explaining why the Israelis would not take advantage of the American electoral calendar to strike.   Fortunately, he turned out to be right.

Islamism and the Syrian Uprising, by Nir Rosen (March 8).  Well before anxieties over the rise of Jubhat al-Nusra permeated Western discourse on Syria, Nir Rosen wrote this powerful dispatch about the emerging Islamist role in the uprising.  Rosen provided important reporting at a time when few journalists were able to get access on the ground, pointing to uncomfortable trends which cut against then-prevailing narratives.  The Middle East Channel ran a lot of really great analysis of the Syrian crisis this year, but Rosen's reported piece stood out.

Jordan is not about to collapse, by Nick Seeley (November 14).  Jordanian politics have been moving backward for years, with the Palace stubbornly refusing to make significant political concessions to a rapidly growing protest movement. (When protestors took to downtown Amman in response to fuel price hikes, with some chanting for the overthrow of the regime,  a flurry of commentary suddenly saw the monarchy on the brink of collapse.  Seeley, former editor of JO Magazine and a long-time Amman-based journalist, thought this was a bit much and explained exactly why the monarchy was unlikely to rapidly collapse even as it failed to address its grinding and growing problems.  For now, he was right.

Jordan's New Politics of Tribal Dissent",  by Sean Yom and Wael al-Khatib (August 7) and "Identity and Corruption in Jordan's Politics," by Curt Ryan (February 9). It was difficult to decide which of the many other fantastic articles on Jordan to include, but these two stood out by identifying vital developments beneath the headlines which have been reshaping the contours of Jordan's politics. They avoided the sensationalism of impending collapse in favor of digging deep into the real changes in Jordan's political scene.  Richly detailed and analytically pathbreaking, these articles should be required reading for students of Jordanian politics this year.

Yes, the Gulf monarchs are in trouble, by Christopher Davidson (November 13).  Based on his recently published book After the Sheikhs, Davidson's article anchored our "The Arab Monarchy Debate" collection.  As a group, those articles underscored the limitations of monarchy as an explanation for the patterns of protest and regime survival of the last two years.  Whether or not his predictions pan out, Davidson has been at the leading edge of identifying the converging problems facing the Gulf monarchies.

Why the U.S. won't cut military aid to Egypt, by Shana Marshall (February 29). At a time when many policy analysts were calling on the Obama administration to use its military aid to Egypt as leverage over its military leaders, Marshall pointed out exactly why it wouldn't likely happen:  most of the money involved went not to Egyptian generals but to American corporations.   This detailed explanation of the unglamorous realities of such aid programs should have put into sharp perspective the easy talk of leveraging aid.

The Libyan Rorschach, by Sean Kane; "Militia politics in Libya's elections" by Jacob Mundy; and "Libya's volunteer peacekeepers" by William Lawrence. 

After the horrible death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, "Benghazi" became the most important place and issue in the entire Middle East for certain American political trends.   But what happened on that dreadful day only revealed a small part of the story of post-Qaddafi Libya.  A country being rebuilt from a virtual tabula rasa, full of contradicitons and aspirations, deserves far more careful attention than the politicized glances which it usually receives.  The Middle East Channel has remained committed to offering ongoing coverage of the new Libya, and these three articles struck us as among the best surveys published this year. 

The Egyptian Republic of Retired Generals, by Zeinab Abul Magd (May 8).   The real interests and intentions of the leaders of Egypt's military dominated Egyptian political debate for over a year.   Abu Magd's post offered a full, rich account of the economic interests and social place of Egyptian officers and how they might conceive of their place in a post-SCAF Egypt.  Her essay nicely complements two outstanding essays by Robert Springborg also published this year:  "Egypt's Cobra and Mongoose" and"Egypt's cobra and mongoose become lion and lamb".

Rethinking the Muslim Brotherhood and Old Habits Die Hard, by Khalil el-Anani.  The intentions and the nature of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have become an all-consuming question for many Egyptians and analysts over the last year.  Anani, who has been studying the Brotherhood intensely for over a decade, offers some of the best perspective on the internal battles and ideological debates inside Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. 

Monopolizing power in Egypt and Morsi's Majoritarian Mindset by Michael Wahid Hanna.  These two essays struck me and our readers as particularly incisive accounts of the deeper problems with Egypt's transition, laying bare some of the significant problems with the Muslim Brotherhood's majoritarian approach to democratic rule.  Among the many other superb essays on Egypt (more than 20% of the total, remember), I would also recommend  "Contesting Egypt's Future" by Elijah Zarwan; "Cairo's Judicial Coup" and "Egypt's State Constitutes Itself" by Nathan Brown; "Can Egypt Unite?" by Daniel Brumberg;  "The battle for al-Azhar" and "A better Egyptian constitution" by H.A. Hellyer.

Building a Yemeni State at the Loss of a Nation by Silvana Toska (October 28).  Of the many articles published by the Middle East Channel on Yemen this year, Toska's stood out for its panoramic view of the emerging Yemeni state and nation.   I also quite liked Madeleine Wells "Yemen's Houthi Movement and the Revolution" for its in-depth, on the ground look at a little understood part of that emerging political landscape.  

Calvinball in Cairo by Marc Lynch.   I didn't plan on including any of my own articles in this list -- and might have preferred this one on the fizzling of Muslim protests against the YouTube video - , but if rules are going to be broken then Calvinball is the time and place for it!   Calvinball was by far the most read article on the Channel in 2012, I'm happy to say, and remained relevant all the way up to the end of the year.  The absence of fixed rules plagued Egypt's political transition, driving uncertainty and fear while too often rendering Cairo's political game absurd.   

Why Won't Saudi Arabia Write Down its Laws? By Nathan Brown (January 23).  I have no idea why this seemingly obscure topic proved so irresistable, but Brown's essay on the Saudi legal system remained among the highest pageviews of any article over the course of the entire year.  Go figure. 

Thanks to everyone - authors, readers, tweeters and retweeters, FP editors, Kanye West and all the rest - for contributing to another great year for the Middle East Channel.  We're looking forward to another great year in 2013!

-- Marc Lynch and Mary Casey

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!

 

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