In early 2011, the world watched as millions of people took to the streets across the Arab world to demand the fall of regimes, or at least substantial political reforms. As the weeks and then months unfolded, the broadcast media adopted split screens to show simultaneous live footage of crowds in multiple countries. Some regimes were toppled and many were seriously shaken, but no regime in the region was left untouched. The high visibility of the uprisings, together with massive street protests on nearly every continent, led Time to name “the protester” as the 2011 Person of the Year.
Nearly a year after Egypt’s first democratically elected president was overthrown by a military coup led by Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, a spokesperson for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) released a video statement that reserved harsh words for Muhammad Mursi. In the May 2014 video, ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani called the imprisoned Muslim Brother leader “a tyrant apostate,” charged Mursi with “fighting monotheists in Sinai” during his short-lived presidency and called for retribution against him.
As we witness today the escalating horrors across the Middle East—acute insecurity, combined with varying degrees of violence, death and destruction, from Libya and Egypt, to Syria, Iraq and now Yemen, we may want to recall the Algerian experience of the 1990s and consider some lessons to be drawn from it.
Algerians today have certainly not forgotten those “years of lead”: indeed, the absence of an Algerian “Arab spring” in 2011 had much to do with painful memories, weariness and disappointments from that recent past. But for the governments and peoples of the countries of the region currently in turmoil, Algeria, which is so near, appears so very far away. Let’s bring the Algerian experience back into focus.
Khalid Albaih is a political cartoonist “from the two countries of Sudan,” in his words, who is now based in Qatar. His drawings appear at his Facebook page, entitled Khartoon! in a play on the name of the Sudanese capital. Katy Kalemkerian and Khalid Medani spoke with him in Montreal on November 9, 2014, and conducted a follow-up interview by Skype after the January 2015 attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, notorious for its regular caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in degrading or humiliating poses.
It is easy to be rendered speechless, or cast into despair, by the sheer enormity of the conflagration in today’s Middle East. At year’s end in 2014, more than half of the countries this magazine covers were embroiled in wars within their borders or nearby. The Saudi-led assault on Yemen launched in March brings that proportion to over three quarters. The retrograde political forces in the region—authoritarianism, paranoid nationalism, ethno-religious chauvinism—are on the rise, while democrats and defenders of human rights are in prison or in exile.
Hugh Wilford, America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East (New York: Basic Books, 2013).
Middle East scholars have long been aware of the CIA’s power and swagger in the region, yet their studies rarely mention the Agency beyond passing references, and the CIA’s role in events is seldom the primary focus of academic works. There are several reasons for this lacuna, not the least of which are the methodological obstacles to studying secret activity.
In the current issue of Middle East Report, we write about the strategic logic of China’s increasing investment in teaching Middle Eastern languages, particularly Arabic, Persian and Turkish. A key goal of the push for Middle Eastern language competency is to help rebuild the Silk Road that China stood astride in centuries past.
In the forthcoming issue of Middle East Report, “China in the Middle East,” I write about the often forgotten history of political, intellectual and cultural ties between East Asia and West Asia (or the Middle East) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The September 11, 2001 attacks marked the beginning of large-scale trade between the Middle East and mainland China in the modern era. New visa restrictions in the United States — until then the number-one trading partner of Arab countries — forced Arab merchants to find business destinations in various Chinese cities. Statistics attest to the intensification of Sino-Arab trade: In 2004, the volume was less than $36 billion but in 2011 it reached nearly $200 billion. The Chinese government’s goal is to boost trade to $300 billion in 2014.
In 1998, a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Indonesia. It turned out to be the remains of an early ninth-century dhow from the Gulf that had been headed back from China with a cargo of over 70,000 items, primarily ceramics, produced in different Chinese regions. The goods varied in style and quality, and had clearly been custom-made for the different tastes of the major trading centers of the Gulf. Thousands of ceramic bowls and dishes had been neatly stacked into hundreds of large urns, which in turn had been arranged in several layers of rows along the bottom of the dhow.
Though the People’s Republic of China has extensive commercial ties in the Middle East, its three strategic partners in the region are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. It is not surprising, therefore, that the major Middle Eastern language programs in China today are Arabic, Persian and Turkish. The growth of Middle Eastern language and area studies in China has tracked with the changes in the political ties of the People’s Republic to the region.
In the autumn of 2011, as the international outcry against Bashar al-Asad intensified, it was impossible for the government of China to avoid being drawn into the conflict in Syria. After China joined Russia in October of that year in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning the brutality of the Asad regime, a series of demonstrations erupted throughout the Middle East. Many protesters reserved their strongest feelings for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had become the most visible opponent of international intervention in Syria. Yet China, which up to that point had rarely inflamed such passions in the Arab world, was also a target of the demonstrators.
East Asia’s relationship with the Middle East today is based mainly on economics and is devoid of grand political projects of solidarity and intellectual dialogue. Countries such as China, Japan and Korea present the Middle East with a model of neoliberal economic development. At the same time, the redemptive transformation of East Asia from a Western-dominated region to a globally powerful one offers a trajectory of development diverging from the Middle East, which struggles with political turbulence, regime crises and regional wars both cold and hot.
We at MERIP are excited about the issue of Middle East Report on China and the Middle East coming out next week, featuring the work of two of my mentors, Engseng Ho and MER editor Cemil Aydın. The issue will address linkages between China and the region, from trade in oil and manufactured consumer items to ideological exchanges under the signs of Marx, Mao and Islam.
A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).
The problems of Christians in the Middle East are often not discussed forthrightly, either in the region or in writings about it. One reason is that, in many ways, the problems of Christians are everyone’s problems — Israeli occupation hurts Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike, as does second-class citizenship for Palestinians inside the Green Line. In Egypt and Syria, Christians and Muslims alike have suffered the effects of authoritarian rule. The confessional system in Lebanon applies to everyone. And war and sanctions in Iraq respected no difference, religious or otherwise. Another reason for the reticence is the anti-Muslim hysteria that frequently attends the topic of Middle Eastern Christians in the Western media.
The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.
In his classic study, The Arab Cold War, Malcolm Kerr charted the machinations of inter-Arab politics during an era dominated by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In another renowned work, The Struggle for Syria, Patrick Seale documented the links between Syria’s tumultuous domestic politics and the broader contest for supremacy in the region, stemming from factors ranging from inter-Arab conflicts to the global cold war.  Today, amid the chaos in Syria and the transformations in the region, these texts, both originally published in 1965, seem all too contemporary. Once again, regional politics shows many signs of an Arab cold war and, once again, that broader conflict is manifesting itself in a struggle for Syria.
Are the upheavals in the Arab world revolutions? Uprisings? Revolts?
Perhaps all these terms are misnomers, because they imply an end point, a moment when the event will be over, its historical task finished, if not completed. It is increasingly apparent, however, that the Arab world is witnessing not discrete events, but the advent of a new era in which participatory politics has taken on much more immediate relevance. No end point has come into view — and none is necessary.