Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Here’s to wishing a happy and peaceful holiday to all, including our fellow Shiite Muslims, who just this past week have been celebrating the observance of Ashura, or commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein. While the day is intended for Shiites to pay their respects to the fallen son of Ali at Karbala and consequently one of the most important moments in the history of Islam, this year it has also been the backdrop of a number of contemporary developments in Middle East. In both Iraq and Iran, one finds both positive and negative events surrounding this profoundly religious holiday, and the ways in which its symbolism is utilized in the modern context.
Beginning first with the place of Hussein’s death, Karbala has seen its fair share of difficult days during past Ashura celebrations. Since 2003, the events of the Iraq War have made it a bit complicated for Shiite citizens to observe holidays peacefully and a quiet end to this particular week-long celebration has been something elusive. Enter the Iraqi government of late 2009: a government now faced with an impending withdrawal of foreign troops who have provided support for that same government’s security since its inception (the reasons behind that support and troop presence, I’m not touching with a ten-foot pole; suffice it to say that the fledgling government has relied significantly on that troop presence). Thus, it is now critically important for the government to demonstrate a measure of control and self-sufficiency in the face of near complete autonomy. In several of the articles I read this past weekend, one addressed just this issue (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8432114.stm). Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki praised a substantial police presence of 20,000 in Karbala this past weekend who defused nine bombs presumed to have been set as an attack on Shiite worshippers in the holy city. Ultimately, the festivities passed without any incident and, minus other acts of violence and instability elsewhere in the country going on at the time, painted government forces in a positive light.
In neighboring Iran, Ashura ended on a much different note. According to a Washington Post article, the holiday was intended to set the stage for several anti-government protests, reigniting the voices of dissent against the result of the June election for president in the Islamic Republic (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/12/27/ST2009122701517.html). In response, the government has allegedly used brutal tactics to subdue the protests; tactics which resulted in the deaths of five people and the arrests of hundreds. Now I personally have trouble wrapping my head around all of the international media’s reports on Iran. From the negotiations with the U.N. and western countries over the nuclear program, to the takeover of oil fields within the borders of Iraq, to this latest story, I have no idea what to make of the actions of the Iranian government. That’s not my point though. What is my point is that Ashura, for these protestors, was a symbol which they utilized for a modern conflict in Iranian politics. It’s interesting to examine the ways in which Islamic symbols are used and manipulated throughout history for a variety of ends (legitimacy, popular support, etc.). Obviously, this past weekend isn’t the only time this has happened and it’s something worth noticing whenever we look to contemporary developments. Regardless, religious symbols are always important to consider, especially during this time of so many religious holidays. Just some food for thought.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Turks/Saudis are coming!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Open Doors Report, a survey which tracks the number of students of foreign origin studying in America and American students who study abroad. The report contains two sections: one which discusses trends in foreign enrollment in the United States and another which lists common destinations for American students studying abroad. After combing the statistics tables for data about the Middle East, I discovered that two Middle Eastern countries make the list of the top twenty-five countries of origin for foreign students studying in the United States. Turkey and Saudi Arabia both qualified as top destinations with Turkey sending over 13,000 students a year to American universities and Saudi Arabia sending slightly less at 12,600 in the most recent documented year. The report notes that the government of Saudi Arabia has boosted its scholarship program and that this increase in funding has resulted in a dramatic increase in enrollments (a 28% increase in the last year alone). The majority of Saudis are studying at the undergraduate level (62 %) whereas most Turks (52%) who study in the United States are pursuing graduate studies. No other Middle Eastern country appears on the list of top countries of origin which is led by India, China and South Korea.

As I suggested in my last post on Open Doors, I think some of us who have experience in regional studies may have a skewed perspective on how many students of Middle Eastern origin are in the States. Open Doors reminds us that the number of students of Middle Eastern origin pales in comparison to the number of students coming from Asian and Latin American countries. Another interesting statistic that appears in the report concerns our own institution. New York University is second on the list of universities that have the largest international student body with a population of 6,671 internationals out of a total enrollment of 50,917 students. N.Y.U’s achievement, while laudable, seems less impressive when you look at graduate students as a percentage of the entire student body. For example, Columbia’s total student body is half the size of N.Y.U’s but the number of international students is roughly the same as N.Y.U.’s. , implying that international students comprise roughly a fourth of Columbia’s total student body.

You may view the report here. http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/?p=150817

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Egypt: State of the Nation

On Thursday, the Financial Times ran a 12 page special report on Egypt, which I recommend to all those who are interested in contemporary economic, political, and social trends in the country.

The FT is one of those newspapers with a certain bent: it focuses on economics and financial markets, and has a leaning towards free-market liberalism. True to form, the report has a number of articles on the Egyptian economy. But it also has some interesting analysis of the state of Egypt's higher education, its environmental problems, its agriculture sector, and the publishing industry (it also includes the same tired guessing games of who will succeed Mubarak). For those interested in something of a snapshot of where Egypt stands at the end of 2009, it is worth a read. I thought I'd lay out some of the more interesting statistics from this piece, as well as my responses to them:

70% of Egypt's GDP is made up of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), and they employ more than half the population. Yet, despite the importance of these businesses to the economy, they have low access to credit and receive little support from the government. Egypt's banks remain relatively well-capitalized; they avoided the worst pangs of the credit crisis as they were largely disconnected from global financial markets. But they are also extremely risk averse and prefer to loan money to the government and to large companies. The result is that SMEs struggle to gain loans and to scale up their operations when they need to, making it very difficult for the sector to grow or flourish.

The Egyptian stock exchange is capitalized at $90 billion and many analysts said it was better positioned than any other stock market in the region to have high growth next year. This in many ways struck me as the flip side of the previous point. As SMEs remain starved for capital, unable to grow or prosper, Egypt's large companies are earning record profits and are set to take off next year. The FT also points out that much of this strength has come from a government stimulus package of over $2.7 billion -- I wonder why they couldn't have directed more of this money to helping the little guys?

9.6% of Egyptians are unemployed but 40% live in poverty. That means that although the country's unemployment rate is lower than the United States', its poverty rate is almost three times as high. It also means that there are a lot of Egyptians out there with jobs who still do not earn enough to support themselves and their families. For a country growing at 4.7% (this year's GDP growth), this strikes me as unacceptable. Governments tend to focus on the absolute number of jobs in the marketplace. The FT interviewed Egypt's finance minister, Youssef Boutrous Ghali, who bragged that the government had created 3.5 million new jobs with its stimulus package. The two problems with this kind of job creation is that a) it may not be sustainable, as those jobs will disappear when the infrastructure projects are completed and b) there is no explanation of what those jobs are paying or how the workers are treated. There was no discussion in this interview or any of the other articles of how Egypt plans to tackle the poverty rate -- a striking oversight, in my opinion.

12.6% of Egyptian workers are employed in the tourism industry, which seems a bit precarious to me. Tourism is one of those industries that can disappear in the blink of an eye. This happened in 1997 when the Luxor terror bombings scared away Western tourists for years. This is not to suggest that such attacks will happen again; in fact I'm inclined to think that the threat to tourists from violent extremism is pretty low. But tourism can be volatile and I worry that Egypt may be staking too much of its economy on an industry that can dry up overnight.

Egypt's food exports could reach $20 billion by 2020, making it a net food exporter, rather than a food importer. This strikes me as very good news for a country that has faced troubling food shortages and food riots in the past. The report has a fascinating article about the rising investment in farming in Egypt, as developers reclaim desert land and turn it into arable fields for growing fruit and vegetables for domestic consumption and export to Europe. In fact, many of the new farms have adopted cutting edge drip-irrigation technology, which provides plants with precisely the amount of water that they need to grow. For a country with a discrete supply of water (the flow of water from the Nile is predetermined through international treaties), such high-tech irrigation techniques are necessary to increase the supply of food, feed a growing population, and continue to develop a valuable export good.

270 Turkish companies invest in Egypt
, many in the textile sector. I have always though that intra-Middle East trade and investment can help the region grow and can allow some of the poorer countries to capitalize on the growth of richer ones. Moreover, drawing investment from countries in the 'near abroad' can be a good step toward proving that a market's investment climate is favorable and can further attract investment from places farther afield, like Europe or North America.

There are 180,000 undergraduates at Cairo University
. The current higher education system in Egypt faces a number of problems, most of which boil down to the difficulty of offering free education to too many students with not enough resources. The system needs more facilities, more professors, and more jobs for graduates once they leave. I think that eventually Egypt is going to have to start charging tuition on a tiered basis (by income level) if it wants to maintain a robust university system. And the government is going to need to set aside a good chunk of its future budgets to investment in education. Otherwise Egypt is no longer going to be able to brag of having one of the best educated workforces in the region.

The Egyptian government killed 200,000 pigs this year, when the swine flu epidemic broke out. Those pigs used to eat 60% of the garbage collected by the zabaleen community of Coptic Christians. I have already blogged about how tragic this was for the zabaleen community, who are now facing incomes (which were already miniscule) at half their former levels and a mountain of trash building up with nowhere to go.

In my opinion this last statistic brought the whole report to an ironic conclusion. All indicators point to a country that is ripe for economic growth, with great potential in a number of sectors, including small and medium-sized businesses. But a largely corrupt and incompetent government continues to make self-serving, rash, and misguided policy decisions designed to curb political opposition and maintain stability. Hard to imagine what is currently holding Egypt back...

The question of gender

Perhaps the most sensitive issue in public discourse about the Middle East is the political, economic, and social position of women in Arab and non-Arab societies. As Leila Abu Lughod and others have argued (http://www.smi.uib.no/seminars/Pensum/Abu-Lughod.pdf), Western discourse about Middle Eastern, and specifically Muslim women has been formulated in a particular way which while disregarding or downplaying the West’s own problems with gender relations, also provides a compelling justification for military intervention. On the other hand, an extreme sensitivity to the “hegemonizing” Western discourse sometimes results in a defensive, culturalist argument which argues that problems of gender have been grossly misunderstood by Westerners, who need only to take a closer look at the actions of Middle Eastern women to discover that they are powerful cultural and political agents (thus the focus on “agency” in some contemporary social scientific literature). In my opinion, this perspective obfuscates the stark political and economic reality of gender in the Middle East.

Sometimes the culturalists attempt to resituate or transform tradition through a reinterpretation of religious texts in order to reassert a fundamental, inherent precept of a culture which, if universally adopted, would have a profound equalizing effect on gender relations. This is one way I can explain the burgeoning interest and investment of Middle Eastern Studies students in shari’a- the prevailing belief among many of them being that a new ijtihad would result in a more equitable indigenous legal structure (that would better protect the rights of minorities, women, etc). Professors and students with Islamist sympathies find this type of liberal exegesis especially appealing because it affirms a priori beliefs about the inherently, progressive nature of Islam and counters the secularist argument for a wholesale adoption of Western legal and social categories. In the complex postcolonial configuration of the Middle East and of Middle Eastern studies, an approach based on a revisionist historical framework is certainly appealing because of the way in which it exonerates culture and instrumentalizes it for an eschatological end. I find the logical presuppositions of such an overtly political project to be questionable at best because the approach places an extraordinary amount of hope in “tradition” (however dynamic that tradition may be) and perhaps, implicitly, attributes a certain primacy to culture as a catalyst for social change. In general, I find that there is an overreliance on cultural approaches to explain the condition or status of women as well as to prescribe a new way forward. Rather, I think what is needed in addition to cultural studies work is a better understanding of the economic and political dimensions of gender disparity in the Middle East.

My point here is that a micro approach which neglects issues of workforce participation and economic achievement is fundamentally inadequate because it disregards potentially important mechanisms of change. If we look closer at gender disparity in this way, there are a number of potential solutions to gender inequity that lie firmly outside the cultural studies framework. Some may say that this approach is reductive because it explains gender as a politico-economic position and posits “economics” and “politics” as monolithic categories without addressing how cultural norms give rise to particular political and economic preferences, but I think the question needs to be examined from multiple angles in order to produce a more nuanced understanding of persistent, pernicious structural inequalities. For now, the cultural approach seems to dominate academic circles where many are (for reasons of political correctness, ideological investment, and disciplinary training) more comfortable talking about constructions of masculinity in medieval times than for example, wage disparities between men and women in modern day Egypt.

Iraqi Oil Issues

This past week has marked quite a flurry of activity for the Iraqi Oil ministry, as foreign militant forces allegedly took control of one eastern oil field, another group sabotaged a western pipeline and all throughout new deals were being struck with foreign companies for the rights to Iraq’s abundant black resource. While reports on the three events are still coming in, it appears as though the recent contract negotiations with foreign companies have precipitated the other violent acts. Let’s take a closer look at each incident below.
Along the eastern border of Iraq in the Maysan Province, there exists the Fakka oil field. This past week, the oil field was taken by what Iraqi officials described as an armed Iranian group, who subsequently raised the Iranian flag above the oil field’s tallest tower. Clearly a matter of disputed territory, many have attributed the events to the unclearly defined border between Iraq and Iran. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the border both countries share and its lack of definition has been a matter of continuous tension. On Friday, CNN reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki publicly denounced the incident and headed to a meeting with his National Security Council to determine the next course of action (http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/12/19/iran.iraq.oil.well/index.html). As of Sunday morning, the seizure was still taking place, but a committee had been established by the Iraqi government to facilitate negotiations with the armed group.
As for the sabotage issue: despite an eighteen month furlough on attacks (which had been common since the beginning of the war in 2003), attacks against Iraqi pipelines resumed this past autumn, according to a report by al-Jazeera (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/12/2009122013166878529.html). Regardless, the most recent attack occurred just this past week against a pipeline controlled by the Northern Oil Company which leads to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan. Currently, the investigation is still pending on the attack, but it was released that a 55km section of the pipe was damaged and that it took place approximately 325km north of Baghdad.
What’s the point of citing these events? Well I doubt its mere coincidence that both of these incidents occurred on the same week as the finalization of ten oil deals with foreign companies to begin their extraction of Iraqi oil. The influence of the new companies on Iraqi exports will be massive. Reports have stated that the foreign companies, including Europe’s Royal Dutch Shell, will increase the production of oil from 2.5 million bpd (barrels per day) to 12 million bpd, rivaling Saudi Arabia’s production. However, as al-Jazeera notes, not everyone has endorsed the deals and even former Iraqi oil minister, Issam al-Chalabi, has stated that the deals may not be entirely legal since Iraq law requires parliamentary consent on such contracts that was not obtained. So is it possible that many people this week viewed the deals as an exercise in selling out to foreign exploitation, and consequently carried out the incidents above in protest? Maybe; of course they could also be totally unrelated. Not enough is known yet to say with any certainty. But the potential for protest of these deals is something worth considering, for us as students and for the Iraqi government alike.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Celebrate the End of the Semester with Some Old World Wine

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I finally sent out my last term paper this week, I felt like I both needed and deserved a good drink. So how ironic was it that during my post-semester celebration, I stumbled upon an article on CNN entitled “’Very Old World’ Wine Makes a Comeback in Lebanon and Syria” (http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/12/17/middle.east.wine/index.html). That got me thinking about this blog entry. In addition, I took a good long look at our blog recently, and I realized that there is a significant lack of positive entries on it. True, in following current events through international media, which seems to be the inspiration for many blog entries (myself largely included), there tends to be three main themes: 1) war, 2) potential war, and 3) terrorism. Yeah, I know, that’s a gross simplification, considering I’m writing this based on a news article I just read, but the point I’m trying to make is that we could use some more fun on here. Thus, in the spirit of my jubilation (and hopefully yours as well), let’s talk about wine for a little while.
The article I read discussed a recent reemergence in wine production within the countries of Lebanon and Syria. While wine production in the region dates back thousands of years and is not unheard of, the current growth rate of the industry along with its popularity among the local population is certainly interesting. According to Mr. Michael Karam, author of a regional guide to wine in Lebanon, the number of vineyards has more than doubled in the past five years. While Christians in Lebanon have always been reliable wine consumers, current studies have shown that Muslims are also taking part in the trend. Wine consumption generally, says the reporter, has been on the rise since the end of the Civil War in 1991. Furthermore, psychologists studying alcohol in the region claim that another variable is the return of people who have lived abroad in Europe and the United States, and been exposed to good wines, to Lebanon.
In neighboring Syria, the wine production industry is growing, albeit, much slower. While the largely Muslim population is much less liberal when it comes to wine consumption, a successful Lebanese-vineyard owning family known as the Saade’s have just opened the first private vineyard in that country. One Saade brother is quoted in the article as saying that it is the region’s “rich limestone”, “weather” and “high altitude” that contribute to the success of the local vineyards. The statistics cited do make one curious, as roughly three-quarters of their wine is consumed abroad and is not low-end. Apparently, a bottle of the Syrian wine produced by the Saade family will run about $58 for a bottle.
You know what? In spite of that pricetag, they’ve sold me. I now know what I’ll be toasting with for the rest of the week. But all kidding aside, as far as a potential research project goes, there may be a lot here to consider. The sociological/historical impact of a flourishing wine industry in Muslim countries poses some very curious questions, even if they need a bit more time to be objectively posed. Regardless, the field research would be a great time. Cheers, everybody.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nouri al-Maliki's Political Posturing

In a press conference a few days ago in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki addressed reports indicating that US officials were preparing a conference to meet with Bathists at the end of the month in an attempt to bring them into the political process.

This didn't sit too well with the prime minister, who said it was a blatant breach of the Status of Forces Agreement reached with the US last year. He also said that such a conference between the US and the "outlawed, racist party" would "torpedo" US-Iraqi relations.

I get the feeling that much of this is political posturing on the part of Maliki. Lately, he has been trying to blame everything imaginable on the outlawed Bath party, especially the blasts in the capital that left over a 100 people dead last week. Though independent reports indicate that 'the Islamic State of Iraq' claimed responsibility for the attacks, Maliki is still trying to pin them on Bathists bent on sabotaging his chances for re-election in March.

Maliki's main competitor in the March national elections will be the main Shi'i coalition that includes ISCI and the Sadrists. So in order to appeal to Shi'i voters, he seems to be trying to show how much he really doesn't like those Bathists. He's been accused of being soft in this regard in the past, especially when he was trying to reach out to former Bathists like Saleh al-Mutlaq.

Another reason why there is cause for Maliki to be concerned is that the Hashimi-Mutlaq-Allawi alliance (Allawi is a secular Shi'i and a former Bathist-turned-CIA-informer) may make a particularly strong showing in the Sunni community. Maliki may believe that if he can somehow tarnish the Bathi brand by pinning these car bomb attacks on 'Bathists', he can limit the success of this emerging Sunni coalition in March's election (as mentioned previously, Mutlaq is an ex-Bathist as well). This is probably not a winning strategy for Maliki. Rightly or wrongly, he's taking the fallout for these massive security lapses in the capital which will have consequences for his electoral chances come March.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dear America, I miss you. Love, Central Asia

The Middle East has taken center stage as the primary region in which the world’s superpowers (America, China, Russia) vie for power and influence. Many commentators have written about a decline in American hard and soft power in the region as the inevitable result of military overstretch, botched diplomacy, and Tiger Wood’s zealous promotion of Hedonism as an alternative to fundamentalist Islam. Meanwhile, Maoist China has taken advantage of our follies by engaging in a nefarious, godless campaign to court Middle Eastern governments by providing them with low-cost hummus containers and hand-stitched silk dragon hijabs. (For another sign of the shifting landscape in the Middle East, one need only look at Ahmadnejad’s insistence on using Mandarin Chinese for all official negotiations conducted between him and the Hidden Imam.)

This new unstable geopolitical configuration has been welcomed by Middle Eastern dictators, FLAS-funded graduate students, CNN commentator and token Muslim Fareed Zakaria (for tokenism, see: Iraqi Vice President Tarik al Hashemi), and others who benefit indirectly or directly from continuing turmoil in the region. While we can certainly appreciate the high level of geopolitical importance assigned to our favorite region, we must also remember that there are those who continue to suffer because the United States’ narrow foreign policy focus on the Middle East. A great injustice has been done to another integral part of the Arabo-Islamo-Turkic world, Central Asia.

The Central Asian nation states, whose boundaries were drawn up in 1989 during a drunken game of Risk at the Kremlin, are pleading for more direct U.S. engagement. While we have been attentive to the pleas of the Saudi government for a dozen gold-plated life-size replicas of the Ka’aba and Israel’s request for more Palestinian-Civilian-guided White Phosphorus bombs, we have been neglecting Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and most importantly, Tajikistan.

The Central Asian states, whose entreaties and overtures are more modest than those of our Middle Eastern partners, are like a gentle, loyal lover that the United States has abandoned in favor of another more violent, passionate mashuq- the Middle East. The mostly Turkic-speaking nations still embody the bizzare counterfactual scenario of what could have been if the Soviet Union had not collapsed (for counterfactual scenarios see: O.J. Simpson’s book, If I Did It)- and sadly, they have been unable to unleash their economic and political potential because America has been reluctant to vigorously push the freedom agenda through military force and neoliberal financial institutions.

The Central Asian states are tired of having an increasingly irrelevant country like Russia as their main patron and their startlingly unattractive, eccentric leaders are looking for another superpower to bolster and legitimize their repressive regimes. The United States, which has proven its commitment to liberal democracy through its support for Hosni Mubarak and the Al-Saud family, will not be that type of partner in Central Asia. We will, instead, use a carrot and stick policy to convince Central Asian leaders that allowing a nominal, weak opposition party to compete in a national game of goat-head polo (buzkashi) is the only sensible path for a secular repressive regime looking to increase its domestic and international legitimacy. While they work towards perfecting this critical element of democratic governance, we will increase trade with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan so that average Americans will have access to their most valuable exports: obedient women with unibrows and uranium, respectively. American and European banks will capitalize on the opportunity to finance the rise of a new Central Asian Dubai in Almaty or Bishkek by lending out large amounts of money to be invested in yurt speculation and goat herding . Meanwhile, the Christian right would be thrilled at the possibility that their ministries would have direct access to millions of confused, liberal-enough-to- drink Muslims.

In sum, the good news is that the United States would be able to increase its influence in these strange, natural-resource rich post-Soviet nations , which are, coincidentally, close in geographical proximity to our new colonial possession, Afghanistan. The bad news is that Middle East Studies would wane in importance to such an extent that MESA would be forced to hold its annual convention in the lower levels of Bobst.

How do we comfort ourselves about the unintended consequences of renewed engagement in Central Asia? We must look to the wisdom of that oft-repeated quote from the Bush years, which can help us understand why Middle Eastern Studies will eventually have to play second-fiddle to post-Soviet studies. Freedom isn’t free.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Iraqi Election Date Set as Four Bombs Strike Baghdad

Two significant events occured in Iraq over the last few days. The good news first: the Iraqi Executive Council at long last approved an election law passed by Parliament. The law had been stalled in Parliament for weeks since vice president Tariq al-Hashimi vetoed it twice, and theatened to veto it a third time unless the law was amended to give predominantly Sunni refugees outside of Iraq greater representation in the next parliament. Over the weekend a compromise was reached that mollified the concerns of the previously unsatisfied main Sunni coalition.

Yet the pleasant mood that resulted from finally passing an election law (which mandates that elections be held on 7 March 2010) was broken by four explosions in central Baghdad - all during the morning rush hour - that killed 121 people. Tuesday morning's bombings mark the latest explosions in what is now becoming a pattern. Violence has declined drastically in Baghdad during 2009, but massive bombings have rocked Baghdad every six weeks or so since August. On August 19th, two suicide car bombs struck the Finance and Foreign Ministries, killing 122. On October 25th, twin suicide car bombings struck three government ministries, killing 155.

These bombings have been politically disastrous for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He's been running on a platform of law, order and security. He's tried to take credit for the improvements Iraq has seen during the last year or two concerning these aspects of everyday life, but with every massive car bomb that goes off in the middle of the capital, his election fortunes for March dwindle. In addition to firing the chief military official responsible for security in Baghdad, he's tried to blame the bombings on remnants of the Ba'th party and Al-Qaeda in Iraq without offering any convicing evidence. One woman quoted by the Washington Post says she just wants a leader who can bring stability and order "even if its an Israeli, as long as he's a good person." And right now that isn't the current Prime Minister.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

President Baradei?

Speculation on Egypt's impending presidential election returned to a fevered level this week as Mohamad el Baradei, now-former Director-General of the IAEA, commented on the possibility of running for the position in the 2011 race. The question of who will run has been the subject of increasingly pitched debates over the last year, but the addition of Baradei's name to the standard list of contenders adds an extra layer of complexity to this divination game. Baradei's statement on CNN three days ago was the catalyst for this new round of speculation:

"I've been closely following calls for me to run in the next presidential elections. Though I deeply appreciate people's trust in my abilities, I'd like to make it clear that my final position will be determined upon a number of fundamental issues. Elections must be under the full supervision of the judiciary and in the presence of international observers from the United Nations to ensure transparency."

Hardly an iron-clad statement of purpose.

Still, the addition of Baradei into the mix -- which currently includes Hosni Mubarak, his son, Gamal Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt's security services, and Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League -- has led some to suggest that he might present new hope for a united opposition front to whomever is the NDP candidate (most likely to be one of the two Mubarakas).

Indeed, many independent and opposition groups hailed Baradei's statement and suggested that they might support him if he tried to run. The Wafd Party has suggested nominating him as their candidate and opposition groups like Kefaya and the 6th of April Movement released endorsements of his potential candidacy.

Of course this is all mostly meaningless, since any Baradei candidacy is likely to be de-railed before it ever gets off the ground, simply due to Egypt's draconian election laws (more details on this here).

But for the sake of argument, let's consider the potential for Baradei to be a truly unifying opposition candidate. I see three reasons that this is unlikely:

First, Baradei has little connection to Egypt. He has spent only six years living in the country since 1964 (a fact pointed out by the independent columnist Omar Taher in the opposition newspaper Al Dostoor). He is already being accused for being out-of-touch with concrete Egyptian issues and Egyptians are little familiar with his background, beliefs, or vision for the country.

Second, he is too close to a Western foreign policy establishment that the Egyptian opposition has come to deeply distrust. Ultimately I think the opposition would fracture over whether or not to support a figure who has spent so much time working with and for states and organizations that are often criticized for exercising neo-imperialism and paternalism (the UN, the United States, and Israel).

Finally, and most importantly, I don't think Baradei has the breadth of appeal to attract the many different camps in Egypt's opposition, including the most important one -- the Islamists. Frankly, no opposition candidate who runs for President without the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood can be taken seriously. The rest of the opposition is too weak and divided to present the kind of grassroots foundation that would make a candidate viable. The organizations that have endorsed Baradei are primarily secular and liberal, while organizations and parties aligned with other ideologies (including Nasserists, socialists, and Islamists), have given, at best, tepid responses. An independent who runs with an MB endorsement (and who can also appeal to some of these other ideological groups) is probably the best shot the opposition has at presenting a real alternative to the NDP's selection.

Who might that be? We can only speculate.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Open Doors Report

In November, the Institute for International Education released its Open Doors report, a study which aggregates statistics and trends related to study abroad. The report contains some interesting statistics regarding the Middle East as a destination for American students studying abroad. For many of us in Middle Eastern Studies, the numbers can be shocking since many of us have either studied abroad or worked in the Middle East before matriculating at N.Y.U. Our social circles also tend to include people with similar interests and study abroad experiences so we perceive the numbers of American students in the Middle East to be much higher than they are in reality. For example, the institute’s press release notes http://opendoors.iienetwork.org/?p=150651 that the number of American students who study abroad in the Middle East remains dismally low:

“The number of American students studying in the Middle East increased by 22%, though the region is host to a little more than 1% of the total number of students studying abroad. The report shows the number of U.S. students rising dramatically in such countries as Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, although the total numbers are still very low. Israel still hosts the largest number of students in the region by far, with a 4% increase over the previous year.” (Open Doors Report)

Even Israel barely qualifies as a top twenty five destination for American students studying abroad. These numbers reveal that first-hand knowledge of the Middle East is still limited to an extraordinarily small number of students who venture off the beaten path. Despite a large increase in enrollments in the Middle Eastern languages at American colleges, very few American students make it over to the region where they would be able to practice their language skills and enhance their understanding of Middle Eastern cultures and societies.

I do not think more students should study abroad in the Middle East because it will serve some perceived national security interest, rather; I think it is imperative that Americans be exposed to native Middle Eastern perspectives given our current and past military involvement in the area, the importance of the region in the new world economic order and the centrality of the Middle East to debates about culture and politics. Students who travel to the region are able to offer a more nuanced and informed perspective than television commentators or senators who stay in military bunkers. Given the extremely low percentage of students who study abroad in the Middle East, I shudder when I think about the number of students who are studying in less well-known regions of the world such as Central Asia. One thing is for sure: a larger number of students with first-hand knowledge of the Middle East would yield a correspondingly bigger number of professionals with cultural and political knowledge about this dynamic and fast-changing region.

Settlers/Palestinians Vexation

A recent report from CNN News indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood up for his new initiative to halt settlement activities in the West Bank this week by meeting with 25 municipal leaders from those settlements in Tel Aviv (http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/12/03/israel.settlements/index.html). The meeting was intended to field the complaints and grievances of settlers due to the new plan. The settler leaders hinted that despite their government’s enforcement of the new initiative, they would be unwilling to slow or even stop any development in the West Bank for the during of the 10-month building freeze. Settlement developers have even been accused of refusing to cooperate with Israeli government inspectors who come to their sites to make sure activities are ceased. All of this has come amidst the claims by the Palestinian Authority that the building-freeze is not expansive enough to reignite negotiations between themselves and the Israelis, given that it both does not include east Jerusalem and is temporary.
While one has to give Netanyahu credit from trying such a bold program given his right-winged affiliation, it appears as though this project has nowhere to go but failure. Settlers seem determined to continue and do not appear to take seriously the Israeli government’s resolve to see their plan come to fruition. Combined with the feelings of the PA that the effort overall will ultimately prove ineffective, I have a hard time seeing what will be gained from this situation for either Palestinians or Israelis.
Now many of you may be thinking that any effort to get talks going again is at least something, given that negotiations between Zionists and Palestinians has proven to be the ultimately stalemate of the last sixty years. Generally speaking, Israel, the PA or Hamas’ attempts to get things moving can never stem from a temporary fix if they are actually interested in developing a lasting solution to the crisis. And, unfortunately, that is all this latest chapter really is, and its failings are already readily apparent. The problem with only going halfway on a concession, as Netanyahu is by offering a temporary building-freeze is that not only do you upset the Palestinians with a superficial offering, but you upset your own people by limiting their abilities too. Obviously, by its very definition someone would be upset if a compromise is ever reached, but (and this goes for all parties involved) you can’t ride the proverbial fence. You need to commit fully, one way or the other. Now Netanyahu faces public opposition from the PA and will have settlers and their supporters picketing outside of his residence until the freeze is lifted. So I ask once more, what was gained from this? If the parties want to develop real solutions, than they need to offer real initiatives, not just what this project appears to be: a half-hearted political side-step.

The Bin Laden Question

So in scanning the news this past week for a good topic to write on, I found a number of different items. Some were interesting and some were less so, but all were viable blog-able stories. Then I saw a short commentary pop up this morning on U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ comments on ABC’s This Week news program regarding the American hunt for the world’s most infamous jihadist, Osama Bin Laden. Now forgive me for choosing what a certain professor of mine may refer to as the “sexy” story of the week, but like the rest of you I have a wealth of term papers due in the next week and a half and I wanted to choose something flashier to write on. Anyway, with that aside, Secretary Gates summed up the pursuit of Bin Laden simply by saying, "Well, we don't know for a fact where Osama Bin Laden is. If we did, we'd go get him." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8397684.stm). Well, yeah, ok. That makes sense. But what are the prospects like for finding this man in the near future? When asked about when the U.S. last had any strong intelligence on the matter, Gates’ replied that it had been years. So it’s not looking too good, huh?
Actually, I’m citing this story to draw attention to an interesting discussion in which I took part in my Islam and Politics class this past Friday. Since September 11th, the goal of the United States and its allies has been the apprehension of this one man, and perhaps his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Obviously, the importance of an individual like Bin Laden stems from his image as the international face of al-Qaeda. But when one really stops to consider all of the facts of the matter, it becomes clear that not only is Bin Laden not the only jihadist who presents a threat to western countries, but his own role in global jihad in the last decade has been less operative more symbolic than anything else. So really, what is it about this one man that makes him the pinnacle of global jihad as it is understood by the West?
I don’t mean to sound in anyway insensitive to the significance of September 11th. I hail from a Jersey town that had nearly forty families with a family member killed in the attacks on the towers and I personally would never marginalize the suffering of even a single individual. But with that in mind, how much of the near decade-old pursuit of Osama Bin Laden merely about avenging that day than it is about prevent another such attack on innocent civilians? Also featured in our discussion in class on Friday was the notion that Bin Laden himself actually initially rejected the plan to use planes to attack American landmarks, a plan devised by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. It was only later that he returned to the idea, but he had little to do with its initial inception. And throughout the world today there are undoubtedly thousands of men who are becoming radicalized Muslims through the horrors and war and persecution. And there are also undoubtedly those who are hatching new plans to attack targets throughout the Western world, possibly with an even greater loss of life than 9/11. So that leaves us with the question: what is gained by capturing/killing Bin Laden? Personal satisfaction, the feeling of justice, and the gratification of going after a symbol of global jihad as jihadists went after symbols of American capitalism are all answers to that question. But I have a nagging feeling that the capture of Bin Laden is seen by many as an endgame to this war between the West and Jihadists that has seen collateral damage in the form of civilian causalities throughout the world. And it simply isn’t. Al-Qaeda would continue without him or even al-Zawahiri, and new groups will continue to rise in place of the old ones. So why, above all of this, is Osama Bin Laden so valuable at the end of the day? I honestly don’t know. That is the Bin Laden question.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Biggest Loser: Middle East Version

Some of you may have seen NBC’s reality television show, The Biggest Loser, where overweight contestants attempt to shed pounds with the help of personal trainers in front of a national audience. I think that this game should be adapted for ethnic minorities in the Middle East; specifically groups with laughably unrealistic national aspirations. Though the Palestinians and the Kurds would qualify as the main contenders for this title, there are a number of smaller players such as the Baloch and the Copts who would keep the competition interesting. However, my guess is that the small size and obscurity of the Baloch nation would force them to demonstrate the viability of their cause through an elaborate, coordinated tribal dance on the Pakistan-Iran border. (Given reports that the CIA and Indian intelligence agencies have been supporting the Baloch separatist movement Jundollah, the dance would have to include a hybrid bhangra/square dance sequence).

Though the main competition would not involve an official declaration of independence or a pathetic exhibition of whatever conventional/unconventional military force these groups maintain, the competition for the least viable national cause would instead be based on current lack of progress towards recognition and would adjudicated by veteran Middle East analysts such as Thomas Friedman (author: The Palestinian and his Olive Tree, The Kurdish Cause is Flat) and Jimmy Carter (author:, How to Love America’s Enemies: A Primer, Jesus loved Palestine: Therefore, So Do I ). In such a competition, each ethnic minority group would be paired with a viability trainer who would be able to coach the groups on how they can shed their ideological weight (read: Hamas) and promote their cause without relapsing into an abysmal state of loserness (read: the Palestinians). The winner would be the group that best demonstrates its ability to forfeit opportunities for national recognition through mismanagement, corruption, and the use of violence directed towards states that could possibly grant them the aforementioned recognition. Let us take a closer look at the potential contestants in order to get a sense of the challenges that face each participant as they compete for the title of the Middle East’s Biggest Loser:

The Kurds: Widely known as conniving enemies of the Turkish state who speak a strange, dangerously-close-to-Persian-sounding language, the Kurds have placed their hopes in the likes of Jalal Talabani and the PKK. Their national aspirations have to some extent been realized thanks to American patronage in northern Iraqistan and the proven ability of their leaders to influence Iraqi politics. Thankfully, for the purposes of our competition, the Kurds still qualify as losers because of the dismal state of their cause in Iran and more importantly, Turkey. In reality, there is a larger chance of Turkey Islamist prime minister Receyyip Erdogan going on a Birth Right trip to Israel and praying at the Wailing Wall with an IDF commander than there is of an independent, viable Kurdistan coming into existence. Perhaps the most obvious sign that the Kurdish cause is faltering is the fact that they have been more successful in organizing film festivals at N.Y.U. than in seriously threatening the Turkish state. The Kurds are so rife with division it makes their claim to the title of least viable national cause almost as competitive as the Palestinians'.

The Palestinians: The Palestinians are shoe-ins for the title of the Middle East’s biggest losers. In some ways, it is unfair that the Palestinians be allowed to compete for this title since the odds are so stacked in their favor. The loserness of the Palestinians is manifest in every futile attempt to bring attention to their national cause. If you could build a nation by throwing rocks, cursing Israel, making shoddy jihadist Youtube videos, and by talking about fuzzy concepts like “solidarity”, most Middle East Studies departments in the United States would be viable free-standing nation states. My guess is that the Palestinians would exceed expectations in all categories of loserness including lack of territorial contiguity (thank you Mr. Wall), belief in Islamism as a viable political and emancipatory ideology, fashion (the green headband is so passé) and least sexy leader (Abbas.Though admittedly, Ismail Haniya is quite the looker). It’s hard to imagine who could top the disunity of the Palestinians, their level of geographic dispersion, and steadfast refusal to accept benign Israeli stewardship of the West Bank.

There is no doubt in my mind that there would be stiff competition for the Middle East’ Biggest Loser, but only for the second and third place slots. As for the number one slot, the Palestinans are slated to be the perennial champions, at least for the near future.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Vomit on Paper

That dreaded time of year is just around the corner. Well, for the responsible among us, it’s already here. For the brilliant among us, it ended weeks ago. It’s term-paper-writing time.

With one ten-pager under my belt and another 40-50 pages to go, I’d like to think I sit somewhere near “responsible” on the above spectrum. I had great intentions of finishing my papers early, giving myself lots of time to edit and rethink and write again. I had all my topics picked out by early October. But something always gets in the way: sleep, dating, work, visitors, reading for other classes. The distractions just keep coming. At the end of every week I tell myself, “Next week I’ll get into a routine”; I’m still going to bed at 2am, setting my alarm for 7, and staying in bed until 9.

Because I have no intention to continue in academia after my Master’s degree, 25 pages is likely the maximum I will ever have to write. Even the idea of crafting 6000 words on the study of Sayyid Qutb is terrifying for me – 6000 words of writing is the product of approximately 7 bajillion words of reading. I can’t even count to 7 bajillion, so how can I read that much?

More haunting than the research reading, though, is sitting down in front of your computer and actually having to produce something of your own. We’re all tempted to choose bold theses that will impress our professors, or to try to find a topic that suits our specific interest, or to write a flawless paper in the first draft the night before it’s due. We all want the A.

It’s a trap. And a useless one.

On Monday, I heard some of the best advice in my life on this very topic. “Vomit on paper,” my Reporting the Middle East professor, Shahan Mufti, said. “ Write about what you’re drawn to. Then look at your ideas and mold them into something readable.”

I like it. If I’m going to symbolically purge the paper, does that mean I get to binge eat while I study?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Need Somewhere to do your Christmas Shopping...?

This season, consider buying a piece of trash.

Today the NYT ran a story about a pair of women in New York who sell handicrafts made by the Egyptian zabaleen. The zabaleen are an extremely poor community of Coptic Christians who live in Cairo and make a living collecting, selling, and recycling the city's trash. Fifteen years ago the two Egyptian-American women who sell the merchandise stumbled on a workshop of zabaleen women who were turning the trash they collected into handicrafts. They began bringing these goods back to America and selling them at craft fairs.

The zabaleen are a remarkable community, who have somehow managed to figure out a way to scrape together a living in both a hostile and squalid environment. They had a particularly rough year in 2009, when the Egyptian government (in all of its wisdom) decided the best way to combat swine flu was to kill off all the country's pigs -- many of which are used by the zabaleen to dispose of trash (Michael Slackman wrote a good article about this here).

If history serves as a guide, the community will figure out a way to survive, despite their recent hardship. Still, it sounds like the zabaleen could use a little boost from some socially-conscious, Middle East grad students (it is, after all, a down economy and demand is sagging). The article says they'll be selling the merchandise at the Calvary Church next to Gramercy Park until Saturday. Might be the year to finally buy Mom her first rug made of trash...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Accessibility Controls Policy

My father has long questioned my interest in the Middle East in terms of the popular perception of women’s status there: “Sarah, I can’t understand how an independent, stubborn woman like you wants to study and promote a culture that treats their women so badly? Are you going to have to travel to Afghanistan and shuffle around in a burka?” (Ok, he’s from New Hampshire; it’s a little cut-off from the real world.)

My response over the last several years had been something like, “I’m not a feminist, Dad. I think there are bigger issues to look at in Middle Eastern Studies than the treatment of women.”

My perception changed today after hearing Master’s Program Director of Graduate Studies Nadia Guessous speak about the study of gender and sexuality in MES and the discussion that followed. I had never considered, as Professor Guessous suggested, the implications that deconstruction of false perception of women’s roles (and gender roles, generally) in the Middle East could have on popular discourses in the field: Orientalism, Modernization, Islamism, etc.

Given these implications, the class discussion turned to how this scholarship ought to be used when a student asked, “How are these studies challenged by the reinstatement of the Taliban in Afghanistan and their overt oppression of women?” Professor Guessous’s response, that it was a challenge to all the deconstruction work done so far by scholars, caused excitement in the classroom that played itself out in my head at a million miles a minute. Had this “deconstruction” ever made its way to the people like my father, a well-educated news-watching American, who are being bombarded daily with images of oppression of women in the Middle East? How valuable is this scholarship if it doesn’t make its way to those who use Orientalist concepts of gender roles in the Middle East to justify the current occupation?

Another classmate (whom I lauded heavily after class) posited that the scholarship on women and gender in the Middle East was not accessible to the popular audience – the deconstruction of gender roles was never articulated in laymen’s terms, in the nightly news or the New York Times. Thus the average American reflects back to popular articles like Lewis’ “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990) and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993), who’s Orientalist bias informs the popular understanding of the Middle East in general and Arab women in particular. As a student trained not in academia but rather media, I place a high value on the accessibility of knowledge for its power to inform policy.

Given this argument, I ponder the effects that the popular accessibility of this scholarship might have not only on policy, but on our Western conceptions of knowledge, modernization, and feminism. I leave you to do the same with these questions:

1. How does popular American feminist reaction to the state of women in Afghanistan reflect and challenge our own ideas of feminism? How does the fact that we use (or oppose) as justification the “American heroes liberating the oppressed women of Afghanistan” reflect our own conception of gender roles?
2. How does U.S. media coverage of Arab and Muslim women reflect our own feminism and views of Middle East? Does it reflect a de-valuation of some roles in society?

For further reading, I encourage you to look at:

Code Pink: Women for Peace (http://www.codepinkalert.org/)

“Saving The World’s Women” in the New York Times Magazine (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/magazine/23Women-t.html)

Abu Dhabi's Big Gamble

Although Shardul already discussed a little the financial mess that Dubai World seems to have created for itself, I wanted to probe this development a little bit further. Although it certainly has been interesting to watch Dubai slowly sink into a bog of debt (in my opinion, portending a much more modest decade for Dubai than the current one has been), I have been more intrigued by the response from the Emirate's smaller but far richer neighbor to the South -- Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is not only the political capital of the UAE but (more importantly) controls the majority of the country's oil and gas production. Revenues from sales of these resources has allowed the city to accumulate a massive amount of wealth, estimated by some to be close to $500bn. Dubai, on the other hand, has no oil and so has had to base its frantic growth primarily on debt raised in international markets.

The question that has puzzled me is why Abu Dhabi (or the UAE central government, which is essentially the same thing) does not step up and bail out its sinking twin sister. While the government made a weak statement saying they would "pick and choose" which debts to underwrite, the real news was what it didn't say -- it did not guarantee Dubai World's total debt, nor did it offer to extend an emergency line of credit (as it did earlier this year). Is there no sense of national solidarity in the UAE whereby one Emirate is expected to help out its neighbors? And even if there isn't, certainly there are reasons grounded in self-interest for Abu Dhabi to step up to the plate. Abu Dhabi's stock market opened 8% down today and surely the press has been bad enough already to scare creditors away for months to come or even longer. Abu Dhabi should not so much be worried about saving Dubai World...it should be worried about saving itself.

So here are the three best explanations I have heard for why Abu Dhabi has been so reticent thus far:

Glee. Frankly I think it is very likely that the Nahyans and the rest of the Abu Dhabi elite are watching all this with something of a twinkle in their eyes. For years they have watched grouchily as Dubai grew and grew and grew some more, catching headlines, drawing in foreigners, and projecting its glitzy image around the world. Pithy sayings like "Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai, or goodbye" infuriated those in Abu Dhabi, who thought that Dubai was gaining undeserved credit and recognition, when they were the ones with all the oil and wealth. Now, the tables have turned quite abruptly and Abu Dhabi might just want to savor the moment for a little; the more the image of Dubai as a high-flying city of superlatives is undermined, the more Abu Dhabi can hope to be able to appropriate some of that sexiness for itself.

Political control.
Another rationale, somewhat connected to the one above, is that Abu Dhabi may be using the occasion to consolidate its political hold over the UAE. The country is remarkably decentralized and much of its recent development has been characterized by both economic and political competition between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. While the Nahyans have explicitly denied that there is any bad political blood between themselves and Sheikh Mo (Dubai's enigmatic ruler), there is much historical evidence of tension between the two camps. Abu Dhabi may therefore use this opportunity to beef up the authority of the UAE central government and permanently rein in Dubai.

Moral hazard. In addition to the base calculations of power and politics, there is a relatively sound economic argument to be made for not bailing out Dubai World. The issue is one of moral hazard. Abu Dhabi has already bailed out Dubai to the sum of $10bn and guaranteeing Dubai World's debt could potentially put it on the hook for $35bn more. Even for Abu Dhabi, that is a lot of money. The greater problem, though, is if Dubai starts to get the impression that Abu Dhabi will always be there to watch its back when it behaves irresponsibly. If Abu Dhabi cannot make Dubai feel the pain now, there is no reason to expect that during the next boom-cycle Dubai will not ramp up its leverage once again and get itself mired in another debt quagmire. If Abu Dhabi cannot convince Dubai (and foreign investors) that it has no appetite for underwriting its debt (either explicitly or tacitly) then it could end up backing even more than $35bn sometime in the future.

"Nothing in Iraq is very legitimate"

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I came across an article in the New York Times about the problems with passing an electoral law in Iraq. The issue is that due to the delay in getting an electoral law passed, national elections will not be held by the constitutional deadline of January 30th. How did one Kurdish lawmaker respond when asked about the legitimacy risks of holding the election later than the Constitution demands? "So what? Nothing in Iraq is very legitimate."

This comment could be glossed over and explained as just one frustrated Kurdish lawmaker being overly glib. The problem is this: he has a point. The way in which Iraq's Constitution was drafted back in 2005 raises questions of legitimacy.

Notables from the Sunni community were purposefully excluded by the United States and the 'powers that be' in Iraq (ISCI-Da'wa alliance, PUK-KDP alliance). Significant power brokers deemed too close to the insurgency or too close to the previous Ba'thist regime were excluded from the table. So were grass roots Shi'i power brokers like Muqtada al-Sadr. The result was a Constitution that lacked legitimacy since it was mainly crafted by people who had good relations with the US and who often had little grass roots support. Moreover, major issues like the role of federalism and the relationship between religion and state had already been hammered out in the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) of March 2004 (which had even less legitimacy) and were not amendable. The point is that the legal and normative parameters outlined by the Constitution are not seen as set in stone. They're seen by large parts of the population as illegitimate because they were included in the Constitution under pressure from the Bush administration and in consultation with unrepresentative delegates.

"But the crafters of the Constitution in 2005 were elected representatives," you say. They may have been technically elected, but the whole process was put in motion by an unelected body that had severe legitimacy problems from the very beginning (the Iraqi Governing Council). Moreover, TAL had put so many of the highly contentious issues in such a straightjacket, there was hardly anything left to hammer out by the 'elected' representatives in 2005. Even the highly toxic issue of Kirkuk was kicked down the road.

The point is that the government of Iraq still faces significant legitimacy issues. The Constitution is not taken seriously - even by the Kurds, to whom the Constitution is rather generous. Many major players - including the Prime Minister - want significant parts of it amended, which opens up a big can of worms because of the super-majority required to do any such thing. The electoral law crisis is exposing what the Kirkuk crisis has already exposed: the Iraqi Constitution is not capable of solving Iraq's thorniest of issues.