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With turmoil in the Middle East, from Egypt’s changing government to the emergence of the Isalmic State, we recently sat down with Shadi Hamid, author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, to discuss about his research before and during the Arab Spring, working with Islamists across the Middle East, and his thoughts on the future of the region.
In your recent New York Times essay “The Brotherhood Will Be Back,” you argue that there is still support for the mixing of religion and politics, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent failure in power. So do you see a way for Egypt to achieve stability in the years ahead? Can they look toward their neighbors (Jordan, Tunisia?) for a positive example?
Cultural attitudes toward religion do not change overnight, particularly when they’ve been entrenched for decades. Even if a growing number of Egyptians are disillusioned with the way Islam is “used” for political gain, this does not necessarily translated into support for “secularism,” a word which is still anathema in Egyptian public discourse. One of my book’s arguments I is that democratization not only pushes Islamists toward greater conservatism but that it also skews the entire political spectrum rightwards.
In Chapter 3, for instance, I look at the Arab world’s “forgotten decade,” when there were several intriguing but ultimately short-lived democratic experiments. Here, the ostensibly secular Wafd party, sensing the shift in the country toward greater piety, opted to Islamize its political program, something which was all too obvious (perhaps even a bit too obvious) in its 1984 program. It devoted an entire section to the application of Islamic law, in which the Wafd stated that Islam was both “religion and state.” The program also called for combating moral “deviation” in society and purifying the media of anything contradicting the sharia and general morals. The Wafd party also supported the supposedly secular regime of Anwar Sadat’s ambitious effort in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reconcile Egyptian law with Islamic law. Led by speaker of parliament and close Sadat confidant Sufi Abu Talib, the initiative wasn’t just mere rhetoric; Abu Talib’s committees painstakingly produced hundreds of pages of detailed legislation, covering civil transactions, tort reform, criminal punishments, as well as the maritime code.
The point here is that the Islamization of society (itself pushed ahead by Islamists) doesn’t just affect Islamists. Even Egypt’s president, former general Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, cannot escape these deeply embedded social realities.
Egypt is de-democratizing right now, but the Sissi regime, unlike Mubarak’s, is a popular autocracy where the brutal suppression of one particular group — the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — is cheered on by millions of Egyptians. Sissi, then, is not immune from mass sentiment. A populist in the classic vein, Sissi seems to understand this and, like the Brotherhood, instrumentalizes religion for partisan ends. In many ways, Sissi’s efforts surpass those of Islamists before him, asserting great control over al-Azhar, the premier seat of Sunni scholarship in the region, and using the clerical establishment to shore up his regime’s legitimacy. Sissi has said that it’s the president’s role to promote a “correct understanding” of Islam. His regime has also been politically ostentatious with religion in its crackdown against the Gay community, leading one observer to note that
Religion is a powerful tool in a deeply religious society and Sissi, whatever his personal inclinations, can’t escape that basic fact, particularly with a mobilized citizenry.
Looking at the region more broadly, there are really no successful models of reconciling democracy with Islamism, at least not yet, and this failure is likely to have long-term consequences on the region’s trajectory. Turkish Islamists had to effectively concede who they were and become something else — “conservative democrats” — in order to be fully incorporated in Turkish politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party, threatened with Egypt-style mass protests and with the secular opposition calling for the dissolution of parliament and government, opted to step down from power. The true test for Tunisia, then, is still to come: what happens if Ennahda wins the next scheduled elections, and the elections after that, and feels the need to be more responsive to its conservative base? Will this lead, again, to a breakdown in political order, with secular parties unwilling to live with greater “Islamization”?
You began your research on Islamist movements before the start of the Arab Spring. How did your project change after the unrest in 2011? What book did you think you would write when you began living in the region — and what did it become after the revolutions?
I began my research on Islamist movements in 2004-5, when I was living in Jordan as a Fulbright fellow. These were movements that displayed an ambivalence toward power, to the extent that they even lost elections on purpose (an odd phenomenon that was particularly evident in Jordan). Power, and its responsibilities, were dangerous. After the Islamic Salvation Front dominated the first round of the 1991 Algerian elections, and with the military preparing to intervene, the Algerian Islamist Abdelkader Hachani warned a crowd of supporters: “Victory is more dangerous than defeat.” In a sense, then, I was lucky to be able to expand the book’s scope to cover the tumultuous events of 2011-3, allowing me to explore evolving, and increasingly contradictory, attitudes toward power. Because if power was dangerous, it was also tempting, and so this became a recurring theme in the book: the potentially corrupting effects of political power, a problem which was particularly pronounced with groups that claimed a kind of religious purity that transcended politics. The book became about these two phases in the Islamist narrative, in opposition and under repression, on one hand, and during democratic openings, on the other. And then, of course, back again. I knew the military coup of 3 July 2013 and then the Rabaa massacre of 14 August — a dark, tragic blot on Egypt’s history — provided the appropriate bookend. The Brotherhood had returned to its original, purer state of opposition.
The Arab Spring also provided an opportunity to think more seriously and carefully about the effects of democratization. Would democratization have a moderating effect on mainstream Islamist movements, as the academic and conventional wisdom would suggest? Or was there a darker undercurrent, with democratization unleashing ideological polarization and pushing Islamists further to the right? I wanted to challenge a kind of cultural essentialism in reverse: that Islamists, like its ideological counterparts in Latin America or Western Europe, would be no match for “liberal democracy,” history’s apparent end state. Any kind of determinism, even the liberal variety, would prove problematic, especially for us as Americans with our tendency to believe that the process of history would overwhelm the whims of ideology. In a way, I wanted to believe it too, and for many years I did. As someone who has long been a proponent of supporting democracy in the Middle East, this puts me in a bit of a bind: In the Middle East, democracy is simply less attractive. Yes. And now, since the book has come out, I’ve been challenged along these very lines: “Maybe democracy isn’t so good after all… Maybe the dictators were right.” Well, in a sense, they were right. But this is only a problem if we conceive of democracy as some sort of panacea or short-term fix. Democracy is supposed to be difficult, and this is perhaps where the comparisons to the third-wave democracies of the 1980s and 1990s were misleading. The divides of Arab countries were “foundational,” meaning that they weren’t primarily “policy” problems; they were the more basic problems of the State, its meaning, its purpose, and, of course, the role of religion in public life, which inevitably brings us back to the identity of the State. What kind of conception of the Good should the Egyptian or Tunisian states be promoting? Should the state be neutral or should it be a state with a moral or religious mission? These are raw, existential divides that hearken back more to 1848 than 1989.
You conducted many interviews to research Temptations of Power. How did the interviews craft your argument — whether you were speaking with political leaders, activists, students, or citizens? Feel free to mention some examples.
Spending so much time with Islamist activists and leaders over the course of a decade, some of whom I got to know quite well, was absolutely critical. And this book — and pretty much every thing I know and think about Islamist movements — has been informed and shaped by those discussions. I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned that way; that to understand Islamists, you have to sit with them, talk to them, and get to know them as individuals with their own fears and aspirations. This is where I think it’s important for scholars of political Islam to cordon off their own beliefs and political commitments. Just because I’m an American and a small-l liberal (and those two, in my case, are intertwined), doesn’t mean that Egyptians or Jordanians should be subject to my ideological preferences. If you go into the study of Islamism trying to compare Islamists to some liberal ideal, then that’s distorting. Islamists, after all, are products of their own political context, and not ours. So that’s the first thing.
Second, as a political scientist, my tendency has always been to put the focus on political structures, and the first half of my book does quite a bit of that. In other words, context takes precedence: that Islamists — or, for that matter, Islam — are best understood as products of various political variables. This is true, but only up to a point and I worry that we as academics have gone too much in this direction, perhaps over-correcting for what, decades ago, was a seeming obsession with belief and doctrine.
When religion is less relevant in our own lives, it can be difficult to make that jump, to not just understand — but to relate — to its meaning and power for believers, and for those, in particular, who believe they have a cause beyond this life. But I think that outsiders have to make an extra effort to close that gap. And that, in some ways, is the most challenging, and ultimately rewarding, aspect of my work: to be exposed to something fundamentally different. I think, at this point, I feel like I have a good grasp on how mainstream Islamists see the world around them. What I still struggle with is the willingness to die. If I was at a sit-in and the army was coming in with live fire, I’d run for the hills. And that’s why my time interviewing Brotherhood members in Rabaa — before the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history — was so fascinating and forced me to at least try and transcend my own limitations as an analyst. Gehad al-Haddad — who had given up a successful business career in England to return to Egypt — told me was “very much at peace.” He was ready to die, and I knew that he, and so many others, weren’t just saying it. Because many of them — more than 600 — did, in fact, die.
Where does this willingness to die come from? I found myself pondering this same question just a few weeks ago when I was in London. One Brotherhood activist, now unable to return to Egypt, relayed the story of a protester standing at the front line, when the military moved in to “disperse” the sit-in. A bullet grazed his shoulder. Behind him, a man fell to the ground. He had been shot to death. He looked over and began to cry. He could have died a martyr. He knew the man behind him had gone to heaven, in God’s great glory. This is what he longed for. As I heard this story, it couldn’t have been any more clear: this wasn’t politics in any normal sense. Purity, absolution. This was the language of religion, the language of certainties. Where politics, in a sense, is about accepting, or at least coming to terms, with impossibility of purity.
Are you working on any new publications at the moment?
I’m hoping to build on the main arguments in my book and look more closely at how the inherent tensions between religion and mundane politics are expressed in various contexts. This, I think, is at least part of what makes Islamists so important to our understanding of the Middle East. Because their story is, in some ways, the story of a region that is breaking apart because of the inability to answer the fundamental questions of identity, religion, God, citizenship, and State-ness. One project will look at how various Islamist movements have responded to a defining moment in the Islamist narrative — the military coup of July 3, 2013, which has quickly replaced the Algerian coup of 1992 as the thing that always inevitably comes up when you talk to an Islamist. In some ways, I suspect it will prove even more defining in the long-run. Algeria, as devastating as it was, was still somehow remote (and, ironically enough, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Algerian offshoot allowed itself to be co-opted by the military government throughout most of Algeria’s “black decade”).
This time around, there are any number of lessons to be learned. One response among Islamists is that the Brotherhood should have been more confrontational, moving more aggressively against the “deep state” instead of seeking temporary accommodation. While others fault the Brotherhood for not being inclusive enough, and alienating the very allies who had helped bring it to power. But, of course, these two “lessons” are not mutually exclusive, with many believing that the Brotherhood — although it’s not entirely clear how exactly this would work in practice — should have been both more aggressive and more inclusive.
You recently went on a US tour to promote and discuss Temptations of Power — any recent discussion items, comments or questions which supported your conclusions or refined your thinking that you would like to share?
During the tour, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the more philosophical aspects of the book, including the “nature” of Islam, liberalism, and democracy. These are contested terms; Islam, for instance, can mean very different things to different people. A number of people would ask about Narendra Modi, India’s democratically-elected prime minister and somewhat notorious Hindu nationalist. Here’s someone who, in addition to being illiberal, was complicit in genocidal acts against the Muslim minority in Gujarat. But an overwhelming number of Indians voted for him in a free, democratic process. There’s something inspiring about accepting electoral outcomes that might very well be personally threatening to you. Another allied country, Israel, is a democracy with strong (and seemingly stronger) illiberal tendencies. Popular majorities
In some sense, the tensions between liberalism and democracy are universal and trying to find the right balance is an ongoing struggle (although it’s more pronounced and more difficult to address in the Middle Eastern context). So it makes little sense to expect a given Arab country to become anything resembling a liberal democracy in two or three years, when, even in our own history as Americans, our liberalism as well as our democracy were very much in doubt at any number of key points. (I just read this excellent Peter Beinart piece on our descent into populary-backed illiberalism during World War I. Cincinnati actually banned pretzels).
At the same time, looking at other cases has helped me better grasp what, exactly, makes the Middle East different. For example, as illiberal as Modi and the BJP might be, the ideological distance between them and the Congress Party isn’t as much as we might think. In part, this is because the Hindu tradition, to use Michael Cook’s framing, is simply less relevant to modern politics. As Cook writes, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Islamists, on the other hand, do have a law and it’s a law that’s taken seriously by large majorities in much of the region. The distinctive nature of “law” — and its continued relevance — in today’s Middle East does add a layer of complexity to the problem of pluralism. This gets us into some uncomfortable territory but I think to ignore it would be a mistake. Islam is distinctive in how it relates to modern politics, at least relative to other major religions. This isn’t bad or good. It just is, and I think this is worth grappling with. As the region plunges into ever greater violence, with questions of religion at the fore, we will need to be more honest about this, even if it’s uncomfortable. This, sometimes, can be as simple as taking religion, and “Islam” in particular, more seriously in an age of secularism. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, which I cite in the book, from the great historian of the Muslim Brotherhood, Richard Mitchell. The Islamic movement, he said, “would not be a serious movement worthy of our attention were it not, above all, an idea and a personal commitment honestly felt.”
Heading image: Protesters fests toward Pearl roundabout. By Bahrain in pictures, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Nationalist, conservative, and anti-immigration parties as well as political movements have risen or become stronger all over Europe in the aftermath of EU’s financial crisis and its alleged solution, the politics of austerity. This development has been similar in countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain where radical cuts to public services such as social security and health care have been implemented as a precondition for the bail out loans arranged by the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, and in countries such as Finland, France, and the Netherlands that have contributed to the bailout while struggling with the crisis themselves. Together, the downturn that was initiated by the crisis and its management with austerity politics have created an enormous potential of discontent, despair, and anger among Europeans. These collective emotions have fueled protests against governments held responsible for unpopular decisions.
Protests in Greece after austerity cuts in 2008
However, the financial crisis alone cannot fully explain these developments, since they have also gained momentum in countries like Britain, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that do not belong to the Eurozone and have not directly participated in the bailout programs. Another unresolved question is why protests channel (once again) through the political right, rather than the left that has benefited from dissatisfaction for the last decades? And how is it that political debate across Europe makes increasing use of stereotypes and populist arguments, fueling nationalist resentments?
A protester with Occupy Wall Street
One way to look at these issues is through the complex affective processes intertwining with personal and collective identities as well as with fundamental social change. A particularly obvious building block consists of fear and insecurity regarding environmental, economic, cultural, or social changes. At the collective level, both are constructed and shaped in discourse with political parties and various interest groups strategically stirring the emotions of millions of citizens. At the individual level, insecurities manifest themselves as fear of not being able to live up to salient social identities and their inherent values, many of which originate from more secure and affluent times, and as shame about this anticipated or actual inability, especially in competitive market societies where responsibility for success and failure is attributed primarily to the individual. Under these conditions, many tend to emotionally distance themselves from the social identities that inflict shame and other negative feelings, instead seeking meaning and self-esteem from those aspects of identity perceived to be stable and immune to transformation, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, and traditional gender roles – many of which are emphasized by populist and nationalist parties.
The urgent need to better understand the various kinds of collective emotions and their psychological and social repercussions is not only evident by looking at the European crisis and the re-emergence of nationalist movements throughout Europe. Across the globe, collective emotions have been at the center of major social movements and political transformations, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring just being two further vivid examples. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the collective emotional processes underlying these developments is yet sparse. This is in part so because the social and behavioral sciences have only recently begun to systematically address collective emotions in both individual and social terms. The relevance of collective emotions in recent political developments both in Europe and around the globe suggests that it is time to expand the “emotional turn” of sciences to these affective phenomena as well.
Christian von Scheve is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Freie Universität Berlin, where he heads the Research Area Sociology of Emotion at the Institute of Sociology. Mikko Salmela is an Academy Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and a member of Finnish Center of Excellence in the Philosophy of Social Sciences. Together they are the authors of Collective Emotions published by Oxford University Press.
As the world wrings its hands at the slaughter in Syria and ponders what, if anything, it can do, the precedent of intervention in Libya constantly raises its head. Why was it right and proper for us to intervene in Libya to prevent humanitarian catastrophe, but we are choosing not to do so now in Syria? The most readily available response is that “Syria is much more complicated than Libya”, but this hardly seems to help our understanding.
For a country such as the UK, these are not only tricky questions of foreign policy; they also serve to throw into the spotlight that most tricky question of all: what sort of player should Britain be on the international stage in the twenty-first century? Are we at the vanguard of the free world, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our American cousins in spreading democracy, liberal values and universal human rights around the world (a process that the UK government calls “Shaping a Stable World”), or are we – realistically – just a medium-sized European power with fairly limited military capabilities? As a Conservative back-bencher described it, in rather discourteous terms, is Britain fast becoming just a “Belgium with nukes”?
Prime Minister David Cameron. Source: number10.gov.uk.
When David Cameron came to power in 2010, one of the first things he did was to set up a National Security Council. This was the first time in British history that such as institution – at least under this name – has been at the centre of foreign policy-making. The origins of the idea date back to the political aftermath of the Iraq War and Tony Blair’s much-derided “sofa politics” style of government, where big decisions (such as committing Britain’s military to a major conflict) were seen to be made as much by unelected special advisers as by cabinet members and Parliament, and the decision-making presented in Dodgy Dossiers. This, claimed Cameron, was no way to deal with major decisions affecting national security, and he pledged to change it as soon as he was in power.
Cameron made good on his promise. He linked the publication of a new National Security Strategy at the end of 2010, with the announcement of the findings of a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). With the bitter recriminations from the Armed Forces ringing in his ears in the face of the substantial defence cuts announced in the SDSR, the new National Security Council was almost immediately thrown into overdrive as the Arab Spring swept like a tsunami across North Africa and the Middle East. It was time to put the new policy-making process into practice. Within weeks, British fighter jets found themselves operating alongside French and other NATO partners in the skies over Libya. No-one in government would have predicted such a turn of events, and it suggested that Britain does see itself as an essentially interventionist power, at least in some cases.
By Nathan Schneider
Not long after his return from Cairo, where he was doing fieldwork, I spoke with Talal Asad at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology. Distinguished indeed: with books like Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, as well as numerous articles,Asad’s work has been formative for current scholarly conversation about religion and secularity, stressing both
2011 will certainly be remembered as a year of uprisings and protest. Consider the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Complacency has no place in the present, but nor does violence, hopefully. From the 494 B.C. plebeians’ march out of Rome to gain improved status, to Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns in India, to the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 80s and uprisings and protests of 2011, nonviolent struggles have played pivotal roles in world events for centuries. Around each of these events a vocabulary, a lexicon, of power and struggle emerged. And Gene Sharp, the “godfather of nonviolent resistance” has been “one of the great pioneers of nonviolent theory,” according to Joseph Nye. “His writings have affected nonviolent resistance tactics around the world, most recently in Egypt. He distills…wisdom…readily accessible to activists, journalists, and researchers alike.” Below is some of that wisdom, an essay by Sharp from the recently published Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle. Let’s hope the lines of communication stay open and all parties keep it real. -Purdy, publicity
Our world is filled with conflicts. They often cause us grave problems. However, conflicts themselves are not the real problem. Conflicts are often positive and a given conflict can have meritorious purposes. Problems arise principally from the means by which conflicts are often waged: through violence.
Many political groups and virtually all governments operate on the unexamined assumption that the means of last resort and greatest effectiveness is violence, especially in a military capacity. Violence is certainly necessary to support certain objectives, among them oppression, dictatorship, and mass killings. If we oppose those objectives we need to think about how otherwise to act so that our actions truly weaken the possibility of oppression, dictatorship, or mass killings, and do not unintentionally contribute to their growth.
The choice to use violence is determined by our understanding of the nature of political power. We need to understand better both the power possessed by our opponents and the power available to those who reject their opponents’ objectives. Opponents in “no-compromise conflicts” are understood to be able to wield massive power. We know that the power they use for hostile purposes must be counteracted by equal or greater power. If it is not, the opponents’ objectives will likely be achieved.
Our opponents’ power is often understood to be strong, solid, and long-lasting. If we choose to act against our opponents with violence, it is because we believe that our capacity to wage violent conflict is needed—that is, our opponents’ power for hostile purposes cannot be successfully defeated without violence. But in choosing to fight with violence we have agreed to fight with our opponents’ best weapons. We think that extreme risks are justified because our opponents’ power is likely to triumph unless it is confronted by greater violence. We do not examine whether our understanding of power is accurate.
POLITICAL POWER DEFINED
In our quest for better understanding of what is possible in extreme conflicts, we must start by asking a fundamental question: What is “political power”?
Drawing on the insights of respected political theorists and analysts, we unders
With the recent end of the NATO mission in Libya, it is an opportune moment to reflect on what took place and what it may mean for global efforts to prevent mass atrocities. Protests demanding an end to Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year reign began on February 14th and spread across the country. The Libyan government immediately dispatched the army to crush the unrest. In a speech a week later, Gaddafi said he would rather die a martyr than to step down, and called on his supporters to attack and “cleanse Libya house by house” until protestors surrender. Some six months later, Gaddafi’s response to the contagion from the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt triggered a series of measures being imposed by the UN Security Council, including what became a NATO-sponsored “no-fly” zone. These measures ultimately resulted in Gaddafi’s ousting from power.
The overarching justification for the international intervention was the “responsibility to protect” (RtoP), a still-evolving doctrine which says all states have an obligation to prevent mass atrocities, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. In the wake of the Libya action, however, a fierce debate has raged over whether its use in this case will help or hurt this approach from being used to help future victims of mass atrocities.
Since its adoption, the doctrine has most notably applied in the case of Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-2008 and as justification for lesser action in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kyrgyzstan, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. Its application in Libya, however, was only the second time it has been explicitly invoked by the Security Council regarding the situation in a specific country.
In response to Gaddafi’s unyielding assaults on civilians in Libya, the Security Council adopted a unanimous resolution which imposed an arms embargo on Libya, targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against Gaddafi, his family members, and senior regime officials, and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation of those involved in what was referred to as possible crimes against humanity. In the subsequent six weeks, while the international community debated how to proceed, Gaddafi moved relentlessly moved to quell the uprising, reportedly killing thousands of unarmed civilians.
With the urgency created by Gaddafi’s threats, the presence of his troops just outside Benghazi and a critical public statement by the Arab League urging the immediate imposition of a no-fly zone on Libya, the Security Council adopted a new resolution. Among other actions, it authorized UN member states to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, created a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace, and urged enforcement of an arms embargo and asset freeze on Libyan government as well as on key officials and their families.
It was these efforts, after substantial success and failure, which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of Gaddafi many months later. It is in that context there have been a range of perspectives regarding the Libyan intervention which will ultimately shape its legacy.
First, there is a concern that in the name of civilian protection, RtoP was used to justify a regime-change agenda, which was never the purpose of the doctrine. Second, there has been a global focus on the “sharp end” of RtoP being deployed in Libya. This broader agenda of atrocity prevention can easily be lost when an exception of military intervention, at one extreme of a possible response, swallows the entire doctrine, which is much more comprehensive. And third, there is a conc
I had learned from Kholoud that Aly would be in Cairo this week. So, as soon as I arrived on Monday night I called while walking through Tahrir Square. He picked up but the reception wasn’t good. He said he was also in the Square, that he was headed to drop off his bags, and would call later. I didn’t hear back from him.
Several calls and SMSs went unanswered. I figured that he was simply busy and that we would eventually meet this week for the next in our series of interviews that we’ve held since I first met him in early March this year.
Aly, tall and burly with a handsome face, has shared passionately in these interviews his commitment to the revolution. He, along with Kholoud and so many others in Alexandria were direct participants in the events of January 25th and beyond. (The coverage of Alexandria’s role in the revolution has been pitifully inadequate). When I first met him, Aly had just been injured in his hand and shoulder in a battle with security forces as they attempted to destroy incriminating documents.
Over the months, he, like all other activists, expressed increasing disappointment with the lack of substantive change. Aly’s narrative was unique among those I’ve talked intensively with, however, in his growing conviction that real change would require an escalation in violence on the part of the protesters. In July, he labored heavily with his own growing awareness that the regime’s corruption extended far beyond its recently deposed leader. But, rather, the violence, exploitation, and abuses of power are endemic throughout all sectors of society. He articulated that one grave implication of that for him might be that he would end up having to fight those he knows and is close to, perhaps even his family members.
Just a few weeks ago he wrote in an email, “The situation is getting more complicated and I am not optimistic at all with the coming elections. . . I am wondering . . . how could we break this system, what else is needed? I am believing that we need more violence against these structures and those leading it.”
Then, two days ago here in Cairo, in classic revolutionary form he posted on Facebook: “It is by all means the time of revolution, emancipation(s), and …love. SO For God Sake Revolt or die in Shame. It is the correction of the Egyptian Revolution Path; from War/revolution to politics and Again in the correct road from politics of the coward elites to the WAR/REVOLUTION of brave young generation who fights in the first lines, behind the enemy lines and in front and against the heavy machines of war and suppression. They shoot by their heavy equipment and we shoot by faith, believe and anger. Tomorrow we will not die, tomorrow we will be emancipation from who we had been, a new life is going to born from the heart and mud of the battle field of our revolution.
I had an immediate sense that Aly would be acting out this admonition himself, and even wrote to a colleague that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he would soon be a casualty of this newly reenergized revolution.
Last night at about 10pm I thought to try one more time to reach him. A voice picked up and identified himself as Aly’s friend. I could hear Aly in the background overruling his friend’s decision to turn me away and he took the phone. He was excited to talk, as was I to hear his voice. It wasn’t a surprise, but no less difficult, to hear from him that he lay in the hospital with bullet wounds to his head and body. He said that he “would love so much” a visit and, getting directions from Ayman, I hastened to
Frantz Fanon died of leukaemia on 6 December 1961 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, USA where he had sought treatment for his cancer. At Fanon’s request, his body was returned to Algeria and buried with full military honours by the Algerian National Army of Liberation, shortly after the publication of his most influential work, The Wretched of the Earth. As a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which had been engaged in a war against French colonial rule in Algeria since November 1954, Fanon had made his mark as a journalist for the FLN newspaper El-Moudjahid. Writing in an angry and confrontational style, Fanon justified FLN violence as mirror violence: a liberational act against the inherent violence of colonial rule. This in turn became the core of his argument in The Wretched of the Earth. Expanding outwards from Algeria to the rest of Africa and Asia, Fanon talked of violence in mystical terms – a necessary stage in the forward march of history that would purge Africans and Asians of any inferiority complex in regard to European colonial powers.
Born in 1925 in Fort-de-France on the French-ruled Caribbean island of Martinique, Frantz Fanon opposed the right-wing anti-Semitic Vichy Regime which was established in the wake of the Third Republic’s defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940. Horrified by the widespread support for Vichy amongst the island’s colonial authorities, Fanon took flight in 1943 and made his way to French Algeria, which had passed into Free French hands after the USA and British landings in November 1942. There he joined the Free French forces, fighting in Italy and then Germany where he was wounded in the back during the Alsace campaign. Decorated for bravery, Fanon stayed on in France to study psychiatry and medicine at Lyon University.
Living in France confronted Fanon with the racial contradictions of French republican ideology. It made him realise that for all the talk of liberty, equality, fraternity espoused by the Fourth Republic, a French Caribbean man like himself would never be seen as a true citizen. The Republic might claim to be universal but in reality his presence was unnerving for a French society where whiteness was the norm and blackness was equated with evil. It was a painful experience that led him to write his first book, Black Skins, White Masks, in 1952. Published by Seuil, this was a pioneering study of racism as a psychological system where, Fanon argued, black people were forced to adopt white masks to survive in a white society.
In October 1953 Fanon began working as psychiatrist in a hospital in Blida just south of Algiers. At this point French Algeria was fraught with racial tension. Nine million Algerians co-existed uneasily with one million European settlers. France had invaded Algeria in 1830 and annexed the country not as a colony but an integral part of France. On 8 May 1945, just as Nazi Germany was defeated, mass nationalist demonstrations across Algeria had called for the establishment of an independent Algerian state. In the town of Sétif in the east of the country, these demonstrations produced violent clashes that led to the death of twenty-one Europeans and ignited an Algerian uprising. However, the French response was brutal and throughout May eastern Algerian was subjected to systematic repression. Yet, although French order was restored, fear and mistrust was everywhere. More than ever the settlers were determined to thwart any concessions to the Algerian majority and the result was a blocked society. Frustrated at their lack of political rights, a small number of Algerians formed the FLN in October 1954 which, through a series of coordinated attacks across Algeria on 1 November, sought to overthrow colonialism through violence.
As Algeria slid into war, Fanon saw the psychological impact of French rule at first hand. Struck by the number of Algerian patients s
Nearly a year has passed since the huge crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square rallied to overthrow former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Yet, the Egyptian public remains loathe to articulate a coherent vision for Egypt, and “that is the challenge going forward,” says Steven A. Cook, CFR’s top Egypt expert. He says that the next crucial step will be choosing a hundred-person group to write a new constitution, which could to lead to a crisis between the interim military-led government and the newly elected Islamist parliament. Meanwhile, the United States, which has been a close ally of Egypt for decades, finds itself having to deal with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and as a result, Cook says, “there’s going to be a divergence between Egypt and the United States over time.”
Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
With the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution [January 25] only a couple of weeks away, do Egyptians think they are better off now than they were when Mubarak was in charge? What about U.S. officials, are they happier or more worried?
For the most part, Egyptians are happy to see the end of the Mubarak era, which was not an era of prosperity. It was not an era in which they could participate. It was an era of corruption and authoritarian politics. There remain supporters of the old regime, although they are a relatively small minority. The big question is what does the so-called silent majority–that the Egyptian Armed Forces consistently looks to–want? It’s unclear without major nationwide polling, but you do get a sense that what these people want is change. They came out in large numbers to vote in the now-concluded parliamentary elections. They want change. They want prosperity. They do not want the authoritarianism of the previous regime, but beyond that, it’s entirely unclear what Egyptians want. And I think that that is the challenge going forward.
There is supposed to be a hundred-person constitutional assembly created to write a new Egyptian constitution, which is to be followed by a presidential election. Is that going to be easy?
The challenge in the constitution-writing period is divining a vision for Egypt that the vast majority of Egyptians agree upon. And I think that that’s been and remains a problem.
Is Washington content to watch this uncertainty unfold?
The challenge in the constitution-writing period is divining a vision for Egypt that the vast majority of Egyptians agree upon.
U.S. policymakers find themselves in an unknown environment. Egyptian politics have been quite scrambled. The party of the Muslim Brotherhood–the Freedom and Justice Party–is slated to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent of the seats in the new People’s Assembly, followed by the Salafist al-Nour Party, with some 25 percent. Neither of these groups has historically held worldviews that conform to American interests in the region. So there’s going to be a divergence between Egypt and the United States over time. And that’s due not only to Islamist politics. People associate Egypt’s strategic relationship with the United States with Hosni Mubarak, even though it began before him, and people don’t believe that it served Egypt very well. As a result, I think there are going to be changes, and I think that that is certainly cause for concern. American policy makers are aware of the changes in Egypt, and they’re struggling to find a poli
In a rousing speech before Congress on May 24, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected peace talks with the newly unified Palestinian government because it now includes — on paper at least — officials from the terrorist (or, in its own eyes, “resistance”) group Hamas. In a striking moment, Netanyahu defiantly declared, “Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda,” a statement greeted with resounding applause from the assembled members of Congress.
But hold on a minute. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, is an Islamist group that uses terrorism as a strategic tool to achieve political aims. Yes, Hamas, like al Qaeda, rejects Israel and has opposed the peace talks that moderate Palestinians have tried to move forward. And sure, the Hamas charter uses language that parallels the worst anti-Semitism of al Qaeda, enjoining believers to fight Jews wherever they may be found and accusing Jews of numerous conspiracies against Muslims, ranging from the drug trade to creating “sabotage” groups like, apparently, violent versions of Rotary and Lions clubs.
But the differences between Hamas and al Qaeda often outweigh the similarities. And ignoring these differences underestimates Hamas’s power and influence — and risks missing opportunities to push Hamas into accepting a peace deal.
While Congress was quick to applaud Bibi’s fiery analogy, U.S. counterterrorism officials know that one of the biggest differences is that Hamas has a regional focus, while al Qaeda’s is global. Hamas bears no love for the United States, but it has not deliberately targeted Americans. Al Qaeda, of course, sees the United States as its primary enemy, and it doesn’t stop there. European countries, supposed enemies of Islam such as Russia and India, and Arab regimes of all stripes are on their hit list. Other components of the “Salafi-jihadist” movement (of which al Qaeda is a part) focus operations on killing Shiite Muslims, whom they view as apostates. Hamas, in contrast, does not call for the overthrow of Arab regimes and works with Shiite Iran and the Alawite-dominated secular regime in Damascus, pragmatically preferring weapons, money, and assistance in training to ideological consistency.
Hamas, like its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, also devotes much of its attention to education, health care, and social services. Like it or not, by caring for the poor and teaching the next generation of Muslims about its view of the world, Hamas is fundamentally reshaping Palestinian society. Thus, many Palestinians who do not share Hamas’s worldview nonetheless respect it; in part because the Palestinian moderates so beloved of the West have often failed to deliver on basic government functions. The old Arab nationalist visions of the 1950s and 1960s that animated the moderate Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas and his mentor Yasir Arafat have less appeal to Palestinians today.
One of the greatest differences today, as the Arab spring raises the hope that democracy will take seed across the Middle East, is that Hamas accepts elections (and, in fact, took power in Gaza in part because of them) while al Qaeda vehemently rejects them. For Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin’s deputy and presumed heir-apparent, elections put man’s (and, even worse, woman’s) wishes above God’s. A democratic government could allow the sale of alcohol, cooperate militarily with the United States, permit women to dress immodestly, or a condone a host of other practices that extremists see as for