Marc Lynch

The Middle East Channel’s Greatest Hits (2012)

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