“We should make it up to the peasants,” Muhsin al-Batran, erstwhile head of the economic affairs unit in Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, told the official daily al-Ahram two months after the toppling of Husni Mubarak in 2011. “Make it up” — why? And what is it that needs to be made up?
Raise the subject of Arab military-industrial production and the country that springs to mind is Egypt. A historian might recall Iraq’s early arms industry; a Gulf analyst might think of the weapons development projects being financed by the United Arab Emirates. Few would think of Jordan. But according to promotional literature, Jordan’s armed forces have entered joint venture partnerships with at least 26 foreign defense companies,  to produce everything from pre-packaged field rations and boots to backpack-portable drones and armored vehicles.
On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian itinerant seller named Mohamed Bouazizi had a minor run-in with the cops. It was just another of many, but at this last indignity, the now world-famous produce vendor snapped. Later that day, in protest against his interminable humiliation at the hands of the police, he set himself on fire in front of the local police station. The rest is history.
Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb, eds. Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt (London: Zed Books, 2012).
Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt is an insightful volume addressing the various forms of inequality that plague Egyptian society, with particular focus on the poor and working classes. With few exceptions, the chapters have a strong structuralist undertone; many use a political economy approach to describe class conflict. The volume’s title notwithstanding, most chapters treat the concepts of marginality and exclusion as afterthoughts, and only a few grapple with marginality as a theory.
Interpreting a revolutionary event is a contentious undertaking. Why it began, how it unfolded, to whom its legacy belongs — these are questions of enduring debate. The mass protests in Egypt that deposed Husni Mubarak and continued for months in 2011-2012 still generate divergent narratives and competing claims. In the struggle over meaning, reality and possibility are continuously measured against one another. Questions abound as to how much the country should change, and how much it actually has. A tension between continuity and change occupies a central place in political discourse and is manifest in the simple use of language.
The November 13 withdrawal of fuel and electricity subsidies has sparked vigorous demonstrations in Jordan, prompting renewed speculation about whether the wave of Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 has finally arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, amidst the rush of scholarly attempts to explain why uprisings did or did not occur in various Arab countries in 2011, Jordan is proving a stubborn case. Jordan fits nearly all the criteria for an uprising, but sustained protest has yet to take root.
During one of my regular visits to Syria, I was with a group of friends at one of the bustling new restaurant-bars that dotted Damascus’ old city, around Bab Touma. Some places were more popular than others, frequented by internationals and a particular stratum of Damascene society that included some people who were pro-regime and others who were opposed. By the mid-2000s, one’s opinion of the regime did not matter much, in and of itself. What brought these Damascenes together was their common benefit from President Bashar al-Asad’s “economic reform” policies and the social stratification they had produced. In these circles, criticism of the regime was no longer taboo — so long as it was presented in a pleasant and “reasonable” manner.
Adam Hanieh, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
Despite sharing some of the socio-economic and political problems that propelled uprisings in other Arab countries, Jordan remains an exception to the trend. And if it can be kept that way, much of the world inside the Beltway will celebrate.
Shir Hever, The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation (Pluto, 2010).
There is a latter-day tendency to see the 44-year Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories as the organic outward growth of the Zionist idea — as though the aspiration to hold the entirety of the land, embedded in Labor Zionist doctrine, was in fact a certainty, simply waiting for time to catch up. With the occupation deepened since the 1993 Oslo accord, and the remainder of the Palestinian populace crowded into a scattering of bantustans in the West Bank and one big one in Gaza, one can understand the diffusion of this way of thinking. It appears that the Zionist drive to dominion has neared completion.
Nearly one year into the Syrian uprising, with more than 7,500 Syrians dead, the protracted conflict is not very well understood or reported despite a deluge of writings. Most track fast-moving events without pausing for sober analysis of Syrian politics and society. Early on, the dominant argument was that the regime would quickly collapse; later, it has been that the regime is durable. The long view rarely appears. When it does, alas, it most commonly adduces timeless cultural factors, chiefly sectarianism, to explain the apparent stalemate.
The revolts sweeping the Arab Middle East and North Africa in early 2011 have been characterized as uprisings against neoliberal economic policies as well as authoritarian rule. But while there is widespread agreement on the political dimension of the revolts, there has been some confusion regarding the role played by economic grievances. The confusion is due not merely to the pace of events, but also to the fact that the region’s actual economic record is somewhat contested.
In mid-February, with autocratic rulers deposed in Tunisia and Egypt, and another tottering in Libya, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy took to the streets in the capital of Algeria. The organization, which was created on January 21, following a series of riots in several cities across the country, is led by the Rally for Democracy and Culture (RCD), an opposition party whose narrow constituency includes mainly Berber-speaking people in Algiers and the nearby Kabylia region. The Coordination includes other small political parties, as well as the National League for the Defense of Human Rights, the National Association of Families of Missing Persons (those who “disappeared” during the internal war of the 1990s), an association of the unemployed and many other groups. It called for “change and democracy, the lifting of the state of emergency, the liberalization of the political and media fields, and the release of people who were jailed for having protested or for their opinions.”
When anti-monarchical revolution swept the Middle East in the 1950s, Jordan was one of the few populous Arab states to keep its king. King ‘Abdallah II, son of Hussein, the sole Hashemite royal to ride out the republican wave, has all the credentials to perform a similar balancing act. Aged 49, he has been in charge for a dozen years, unlike his father, who was just 17 and only a few months into his reign when the Egyptian potentate abdicated in 1952. And the son has grown accustomed to weathering storms on the borders, whether the Palestinian intifada to the west or the US invasion of Iraq to the east.
The Iran-Iraq war was fought entirely within the boundaries of the two combatant nations, but it was nonetheless a regional war. The war machine of Saddam Hussein’s regime was lubricated with billions of dollars in loans from the Arab oil monarchies, which were anxious to see the revolutionary state in Tehran defeated, or at least bloodied. Iraqi warplanes harried ships seeking to load Iranian oil at the Kharg island terminal and points south on the Persian Gulf coast. In 1987, the US Navy intervened to protect tankers and other commercial traffic from Iranian reprisals. These heated entanglements presaged the degree to which the war was to transform the political economies of many countries in the vicinity.
Shoes and pants soaked with rain, I tagged along with a journalist from the popular Arabic daily Echorouk—his paper my umbrella—while he visited polling stations in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers on the day of local elections in November 2007. At the first site, disgruntled party officials quickly ejected us. We did not have the right papers, they said, and the police who looked on bored were inclined to agree. At the second station, we kept our distance. Watching for half an hour, we could count the voters who entered on two hands. Next to us stood four youths, escaping the rain under a shop awning. They laughed at us when we asked if they were going to vote. Down the road we saw an older gentleman on his way back from voting.