A Blog on Middle East Transformation
One of the important byproducts of the ongoing Arab uprisings, regime changes and national reconfigurations is the increased ability of many people around the world to view Arabs in their full, normal, dynamic human complexity and nuance, rather than the one-dimensional, static, essentialist caricatures of Arabs and Muslims that have long dominated many Western views of our region and its people.
Egypt’s post-revolutionary environment—and especially its constitutional process—has touched off debates within the country and confusion outside of it regarding the role of the Islamic sharia in the emerging legal and political order. In a Q&A, Nathan J. Brown explains what the Islamic sharia is—and is not—and how it might be interpreted in Egypt’s new political system. In explaining the complexity of the Islamic sharia, Brown warns that one of the most striking features of the debate is the flexibility of key concepts and positions. Therefore it is far more important to understand who is to be entrusted with interpreting and applying sharia-based rules than it is to search for the precise meaning of the sharia.
Our “must-read” list of Egyptian presidential election coverage.
The state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram did the unthinkable for the official Arab press in its 12 February 2011 issue: its huge front-page headline declared: “The People Overthrow the Regime.” The thick red text, above Al-Ahram’s logo of three pyramids, hinted at the symbolism of the moment; Egypt’s most widely read newspaper was not only acknowledging but also wholeheartedly endorsing the people’s decision.
Candidates in the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Election.
The phrase “Egyptian transition process” has become tragicomically oxymoronic in light of the dizzying series of developments over the past month. More metaphorically, events have driven entire herds of elephants stampeding through every legal and constitutional loophole in Egypt’s makeshift interim political system.
The future of Egypt is on the brink of an Islamist abyss. The Freedom and Justice Party’s tattered poker-faced mask has finally fallen, revealing the bloody fangs of a power hungry vampire, intent on destroying anything that stands between it and its evil, Quran-wielding project to turn Egypt into medieval Afghanistan.
The year-long anniversary of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria this week reveals why such regimes have persisted for so many decades in the Arab world, and also why they are doomed to collapse. We now see more clearly the four trends that have defined Syria since March 2011: the continued expansion, intensity and sophistication of the domestic populist uprising against the regime; the regime’s sustained use of brutal force against the nonviolent demonstrators and the militants who are trying to topple it; the erratic nature and impact of the political opposition abroad; and, the perplexity of the outside world about how to react to the events in the country.
The reality for most Saudis is far-removed from the Kingdom’s reputation for extravagance. Official unemployment stands at 10 percent, but unofficial estimates place it as high as 20 percent. The latest official figures reveal that 670,000 families—approximately 3 million out of a total population of 18 million—live in poverty. Nor is hardship restricted to rural areas: a recent documentary on poverty in Riyadh, Maloub Alayna (The Joke’s on Us) recorded testimonies of families living on one meal a day, with as many as twenty people living in the same home.
What is it that drives ordinary Arab men and women to do extraordinary things, like demonstrate against their government for 12 months non-stop, at the risk of being killed every day? I have heard many explanations for the ongoing Arab uprisings, but one of the best and most succinct explanations I heard at a seminar on Arab youth unemployment this week in Beirut, co-sponsored by the International Labor Organization (ILO) regional office and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany.
The Coptic Orthodox community occupies a paradoxical space in Egypt’s imagination; both Muslim and Christian religious elites insist that the Copts are no mere “minority,” but rather an integral component of the national fabric. Yet many Christians—especially working class and rural Copts—face documented and institutionalized discrimination. Over the last few decades, the church tried to manage these contradictions by monopolizing the community’s political expression within the papacy and its hierarchy—a monopoly made possible through the church’s close bonds with the Mubarak regime and its exhortation of adherents to refrain from dissent. But since Mubarak’s ouster, young Coptic activists have been working to fundamentally change the way the community engages politically.
Three developments in the past few days suggest that the coming weeks could mark a decisive moment in the struggle for power in Syria, and the tug-of-war between pressure to bring down the Bashar Assad regime and the regime’s use of military force to beat the demonstrators into submission. The three critical developments are the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia last Friday; the appointment of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as the joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria; and, a UN report that essentially accuses Syrian senior officials of crimes against humanity, moving closer to international indictments against them.
When special people depart this world for another, as New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid did earlier this week, those of us who are left behind feel like a rowboat bobbing in the rolling waves of a large luxury yacht or ocean liner that has left us in its wake. We are slightly disoriented, momentarily losing our balance and direction, focused only on regaining equilibrium, and later anchorage, in a suddenly turbulent and frightening world. Acids that are only occasionally activated for special assignments go to work in the pit of our stomach. They generate sadness at the passing of his life, fear because we have been alerted to the fragility of our own lives, and also small jolts of confidence and hope — because his life and death remind us that our world was, and remains, full of gifted people like him.
Well, reviewing events in Syria this week, I guess the uni-polar world, the looming American century, and the end of history that were simultaneously announced by assorted American chauvinists and crackpots at the end of the Cold War around 1990 can be discarded for now. The continuing killings in Syria, and the energized global diplomacy that is trying to wind it down and/or evict President Bashar el-Assad and his family from power, should be seen as two distinct dynamics that converge now for a moment.
The massacre committed in Port Said on Wednesday night when thousands of fans of the home team Al-Masry, which had secured a rare 3-1 victory over Al-Ahly, stormed the pitch and launched a deadly attack on Ahly fans in the bleachers, was no spur-of-the-moment act of mob behavior. It was a carefully premeditated counter-revolutionary plot to sow sedition and set Egyptians against each other to eventually justify the continued presence in power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Since the release of the result of parliamentary elections, all of the attention has been on Egypt’s Islamist parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafi al-Nour Party, which gained the majority of seats in Egypt’s People’s Assembly. Nevertheless, the presence of non-Islamist, or secular, parties is important in assessing Egypt’s new parliament especially with regards to their potential as a counterweight to the Islamists.
First there was Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, then came Libya’s bloody war, Syria’s ongoing crimes against humanity, Yemen’s forgotten struggle. And somewhere in between there was and continues to be Egypt’s so-called “revolution.”
The headline “Islamists win 70% of Egyptian Parliament list seats” was ubiquitous, even though we already knew that result was brewing since November and throughout the elections’ preliminary vote counts. Accompanying the historic headline was a significant frenzy of anger and despair.
The continuing deterioration of the political situation inside Syria last week led the emir of Qatar to suggest that it would be appropriate to send in Arab troops to stop the killing. How seriously he meant this suggestion remains unclear. He may have been offering this as a practical proposal or merely sending a political message that the Arab world could not wait forever as Syrians are killed by the dozen every day.