Campus Freedoms, Gaza, and the One State Reality: A Conversation With Shibley Telhami
Plus, a really full MENA Academy Weekly Roundup #15 this week!
Good morning! Late last week, I recorded a conversation with Shibley Telhami for the final Middle East Political Science Podcast of the Fall 2023 season. We talked about the results of the Middle East Scholars Barometer and our article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about self-censorship by Middle East scholars in the wake of October 7 (if you are having issues with the paywall just let me know). It was a great opportunity to go beyond the numbers and the limitations of the article’s word count to really get into the toxic atmosphere facing so many Middle East scholars, the toll it takes on their teaching and public engagement, the often invisible ways that these pressures manifest within departments and institutions, and the failures of campus leadership to defend their faculty and their avowed ideals.
In my post last week, I mentioned that scholars in the survey expressed less concern about governmental oversight than I think is probably merited. Last week’s spectacle in Congress, with the Presidents of Penn, Harvard and MIT grilled about “antisemitism on campus” in a spectacularly disingenous way (no, “intifada” does not mean “genocide”), which led to the resignation of Penn’s President under pressure from her board, is almost certainly going to ramp up pressures to legislate regulations on permissible speech on Israel and Palestine across the board. This isn’t hypothetical. Rep. Elise Stefanik warned in a tweet that “universities can anticipate a robust and comprehensive Congressional investigation of all facets of their institutions negligent perpetration [sic] of antisemitism including administrative, faculty, funding, and overall leadership and governance.” What does that mean? Well, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution affirming (falsely, but in line with the controversial IHRA definition) that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” with only 11 opposing votes. Meanwhile, the assault on academic freedom in public universities in Florida and Texas, and SB.83 sputtering back to life here in Ohio, gives a template for actionable political interference and state control over higher education. It’s easy to see where this is going — and how wide ranging the implications for free speech and academic freedom will be beyond just Middle East Studies faculty and centers… and how little resistance most campus leaders are likely to offer. This will be a serious battle in the coming times which will make clear who seriously cares about academic freedom of speech and the integrity of higher education.
Telhami and I also talked about how the Gaza war and the suggestions of a “day after” involving a return to negotiations towards a two state solution fit within the “one state reality” framework which we laid out in our recent book and Foreign Affairs article. Since we are planning to write this up more systematically soon (and have some new data to share) I won’t go into it in more detail here — tl;dr I think the argument holds up depressingly well and that we are moving extremely quickly towards finalizing the one state reality based on systematic inequality, oppression, and dispossession of Palestinians; Shibley has a slightly different and potentially more optimistic take — but you can get something of a preview of it here in our conversation. I think the US, with its open ended support for Israel’s offensive on Gaza and veto of the UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, has destroyed whatever reputation it had in the region for the next generation (at least) for no evident payoff whatsover. It’s horrifying but obvious that what’s happening now in Gaza — and in the universities — is so much worse than anything that the (far worse in every other way) Trump administration managed. I feel bad for all the think tankers and staffers tasked with suggesting a path forward for the US in the Middle East or, god forbid, defending this disaster, but if it makes them feel any better they should know that any good advice they had will be ignored anyway.
Listen to my conversation with Shibley Telhami here:
And now for the 15th edition of the MENA Academy Weekly Roundup! There were a wealth of fascinating articles published last week (many of them which had been workshopped at some point in our POMEPS Virtual Research Workshop series, I’m always delighted to observe!); there must have been something in the review process water last month. We start with an evocative short piece assembling and discussing images from Sudan, from which the image on this week’s post is drawn, and then a fascinating discussion of the potential uses of video imagery in the prosecution of war crimes in Syria (a topic I used to work on quite a bit; I am less optimistic about now than I was back then, but quite persuaded that it’s intellectually interesting and politically important to consider).
We then spotlight articles on the coup-proofing strategies in Egypt following the 1952 Nasserist revolution, elite polarization in Tunisia, the role of municipal petitions in local political engagement in Morocco, the battles to capture rentier infrastructural institutions in Libya, the rentier dimensions of Saudi immigration policies, the climate crisis in Sudan, and Arab attitudes towards Iran. We conclude with a provocative re-reading of Mohammed Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” initiative which brought back warm memories of one of my very first academic publications a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Kylie Thomas, “Seeing Sudan: Visual Archives in a Time of War,” Sufundi (December 2023). ABSTRACT: This visual essay focuses on archival photographs from Sudan that form part of the Sudan Family Archives, a collection assembled and digitized by photographer Ala Kheir, in association with the Photography Legacy Project. The piece reflects on these images in the light of the war in Sudan that began on 15 April 2023.
Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, “Archives of/as resistance: On the justice potential of eyewitness image records documenting the Syrian conflict,” Media, Culture and Society (December 2023). ABSTRACT: What are the new possibilities of enacting justice through the vast archives of digital eyewitness images and self-representations produced since 2011 by the grassroots Syrian opposition movement amidst both a nascent revolution and a war entailing gross human rights violations? Based on in-depth interviews with 15 anti-regime Syrian video activists, my article considers how the image makers themselves narrate the role and meaning of these archival records in efforts to reckon with Syria’s tormented past and build a more just future. I thus seek to recognize the ongoing agency of the Syrian media activists who struggled, by centering them and their wishes in the current debate about the role that this new type of activist-fueled “human rights records” can play in helping to build roads to justice and healing in Syria.
Neil Ketchley and Gilad Wenig, “Purging to Transform the Post-Colonial State: Evidence From the 1952 Egyptian Revolution,” Comparative Political Studies (December 2023). ABSTRACT: The post-WWII era saw junior military officers launch revolutionary coups in a number of post-colonial states. How did these events transform colonial-era state elites? We theorize that the inexperienced leaders of revolutionary coups had to choose between purging threats and delivering ambitious projects of state-led transformation, leading to a threat-competence calculation that patterned elite turnover. To illustrate our argument, we trace the careers of 674 high-ranking officials in Egypt following the Free Officers’ seizure of power in July 1952. A multilevel survival analysis shows that officials connected to Egypt’s deposed monarch and very senior officials were most vulnerable to being purged. Experienced bureaucrats and those with university education were more likely to be retained. This threat-competence calculation also informed which ministries experienced more purging. Qualitative triangulation with biographies, memoirs, newspaper reports, and speeches corroborates the mechanism. The findings show why radical state-led change often requires a degree of elite-level continuity.
Adria Rivera-Escartin, “Elite polarization and democratic backsliding in Tunisia: tracing agency-driven mechanisms,” Democratization (December 2023). ABSTRACT: Recent research has identified a strong correlation between polarization and democratic backsliding. The creation of antithetical groups in society is a necessary element in this type of autocratization process. Nevertheless, the agency-driven mechanisms through which elite polarization becomes harmful for democracy have been less explored in the literature. By resorting to process tracing methodology, the article analyses how elite polarization contributed to derailing the democratization process in Tunisia. The article identifies three necessary mechanisms through which elite polarization became a risk for democracy: politicization reinforcing pre-existing party cleavages; exclusion politics based on ontological contestation (“either us or them”); and the systematic delegitimization of democratic institutions and processes. In Tunisia, Parti Destourien Libre’s (PDL) political campaign followed these steps creating the context in which President Saied could start a democratic backsliding process.
Francesco Colin, “Trajectories of depoliticization and re-politicization: Petitioning to Moroccan municipalities,” Mediterranean Politics (December 2023). ABSTRACT: Does the exercise of the right to petition allows citizens to act politically? This paper looks at the practice of presenting institutional petitions to Moroccan municipalities since the inception of this right. It inquires on the ways in which citizens and associations employ petitions to engage with their local government. By discussing the diverse trajectories of citizens’ exercise of the right to petition, this paper will highlight the interdependence of depoliticization and (re-)politicization at the local level. It is based on extensive qualitative and quantitative research on municipal petitions, the process that led to their presentation and their outcome, conducted over 20-months of presence in the field (February 2020 – December 2021). Reviewing the outputs of the petitions presented in the city of Tangier, this paper shows that the performance of the right to petition entails both dynamics of top-down de-politicization and pathways for re-politicization of citizens’ action. Further, the institutionalization of the right to petition and the limits to initiatives’ implementation curtail the political relevance of engagement through petitions. At the same time, it challenges local power balances by creating a frame that allows for further political engagement.
Erika Weinthal and Jeannie Sowers, “Targeting Libya’s rentier economy: The politics of energy, water, and infrastructural decay,” Environment and Security (December 2023). ABSTRACT: Libya’s fossil fuel wealth has dominated its political economy and state institutions since the 1960s and paid for large-scale, centralized water and energy infrastructures. Since the 2011 revolution, these infrastructures have been at the center of Libya’s protracted conflict. Unlike other protracted conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa in which water and energy were directly and extensively targeted, we find that warring parties in Libya have largely not sought to destroy but rather control and disrupt Libya’s rentier state institutions. The oil and gas infrastructure, along with the National Oil Company and the central bank that processes oil revenues, are at the heart of elite rivalries over political authority. We find relatively infrequent attacks on centralized water infrastructures. The toll of protracted conflict on water-energy systems has been cumulative, with looting, lack of repair and investment, and departure of qualified personnel. We draw upon an original dataset, qualitative interviews with humanitarian actors, policymakers, and Libyan experts, and a review of extant literature to show how and when local communities, armed militias, former army units, and aspiring warlords sought to capture and leverage water and energy infrastructures. The article highlights the consequences of infrastructure targeting for broader human security.
Helene Thiollet, “Immigration Rentier States,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (December 2023). ABSTRACT: Building on the notion of the migration state, this article introduces the concepts of ‘migration rent’ and ‘immigration rentier states’ to describe how states that rely heavily on immigration for their wealth derive unearned income from immigration. Both concepts contribute to better understand of the role of migration in the historical transformation of states and the relationship between state, market and society in rentier monarchies and non-rentier states. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative data, I show that the Gulf monarchies, and Saudi Arabia in particular, progressively governmentalized direct and indirect forms of migration rent through migration control and taxation of migrants, both of which were initially brokered by private actors, notably through the kafala or sponsorship system. In doing so, states institutionalise labour market segmentation and differential exclusion of migrants intersecting class, race, nationality, gender, and age. This produces a ‘skill-based order of things’. Rather than outliers, Saudi Arabia offers a magnifying glass that reveals global dynamics of state-led migration control and class-based differential exclusion. Beyond empirical findings, this article thus demonstrates the potential for theoretical innovation in the social sciences based on non-Western polities calling to test the notions of ‘migration rent’ and ‘immigration rentier states’ across contexts.
Mohamed Salah and Razaz Basheir, “(Un)Just transition in power generation: neoliberal reforms and climate crisis in Sudan,” Review of African Political Economy (December 2023). ABSTRACT: Given the undisputable reality of climate change, this article explores Sudan's power generation and its approach to the current climate crisis, focusing on the perspective of a just energy transition. It highlights how the power sector's plans remain centralised, favouring urban consumerism, cost-driven energy sources, and inadequate social and environmental evaluations with limited community involvement. Furthermore, the absence of timely adaptation measures has left off-grid populations and those displaced by hydroelectric dams disproportionately vulnerable to worsening climate conditions, loss of traditional livelihoods, and conflicts over dwindling natural resources. This exacerbates instability and regional development disparities. The article advocates for a just energy transition in Sudan that not only reduces CO2 emissions but also minimises adverse impacts on local ecosystems and livelihoods. It suggests a blend of distributed and utility-scale renewable energy sources alongside existing hydro-thermal capacity. It also calls for prioritising power supply to off-grid communities through socially driven financing mechanisms, countering the neoliberal push for privatisation and full-cost recovery.
Alireza Raisi, “Alliance and sectarian attitudes in the MENA: the case of Arab opinion towards Iran,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (December 2023). ABSTRACT: Despite a growing body of analyses on sectarian tensions in the MENA, few have examined the impact of sectarian attitudes on public opinion towards the regional powers. Drawing from a statistical analysis of public opinion polls and the case study of Egypt and Sudan, the paper examines determinants of public attitudes towards Iran in the post-Arab spring era. The analysis indicates that public attitudes towards the regional player, i.e. Iran influenced by the alliance in the MENA. Although the Arab spring fuelled the negative sentiments towards Iran in the allies of Saudi Arabia, strong ties between Iran and the Islamist rule shaped positive attitudes towards Iran in Sudan. The analysis further reveals the impact of Salafi’s anti-Iran campaigns in Egypt. This campaign utilizes negative symbolism and ethnoreligious myths to depict Shias as an enemy and construct an existential threat from Iran. In this environment, the symbolic politics and emotionally laden hatred in the Arab countries explain the sectarian attitudes towards Shias and Iran.
Shabnam Holliday and Edward Wastnidge, “Towards a post-imperial and Global IR?: Revisiting Khatami’s Dialogue among Civilisations,” Review of International Studies (November 2023). ABSTRACT: This article argues that Dialogue among Civilisations can be put forward as a crucial contribution to debates addressing IR’s Eurocentrism. It highlights the blurring of West/non-West, domestic/international, and imperial/post-imperial bifurcations. This is evident in three ways. First, Dialogue among Civilisations needs to be appreciated in Iran’s wider historical context and its multifaceted intellectual heritages. This demonstrates that the idea of the West as distinctly different from the East is problematic because of engagement between Iran and the so-called West. Second, Khatami’s intellectual endeavours are based on a simultaneous engagement with Western political thought, Islamic philosophy, and the idea of Ancient Iran. Finally, the notion itself reflects an internal dialogue whereby Western civilisation along with Islam and Iran’s pre-Islamic heritages are considered integral to Iranian political culture. Furthermore, it is an aspiration for how post-colonial Muslim societies can engage with colonial power while maintaining a post-colonial authenticity. Our contention is that an in-depth understanding of Iran alongside a revisiting of Khatami’s Dialogue among Civilisations can act as a means of bringing the perspective of the ‘other’ into debates on the international and our epistemological and ontological understanding of the West.