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Unpaywalled: On Futility and Hopelessness
As the prophetic hadith goes, 'Tie your camel and trust in God'
As a way of saying thank you for following my work on Substack, I wanted to un-paywall this post, which outlines some of the recent changes in my own writing and thinking. If this resonates with you, please feel free to share.
Some of you may have noticed a more reflective and philosophical bent in my recent posts. I just came out with an essay on suicide, which isn’t something I ever expected to write about until the Washington Examiner’s Nick Clairmont randomly suggested it on Twitter. I was intrigued, so I said yes. It was also an opportunity for learning.
The intersection of depression, futility, and the Arab Spring have been on mind. A number of my friends who covered the uprisings from 2011-2013 had to stop. Egypt wasn’t exactly ever in a state of civil war, but to experience a coup and a massacre inevitably had an effect on the American journalists who were living in Cairo at the time.
I think it also really bothered them (in a way that was impossible to resolve) that they seemed to care about Egyptian democracy more than many Egyptians themselves. What to make of that? And what to make of the fact that Americans seemed to value the lives of Egyptians more than their Egyptian friends? I have my own views on the latter question, and they’re probably too unpopular for me to write or tweet about them without including some broader context about my starting premises regarding subjectivity and “lived experience” (for a long-form conversation on that, see my exchange with Damir Marusic at Wisdom of Crowds).
Sometimes, I feel like I’m quite close to thinking that democracy in the Middle East is futile—or to be more precise that the U.S. genuinely supporting democracy in the Middle East is futile (since, for me, the two are inextricably intertwined). I do believe that external factors can be decisive and that in these fraught cases there’s relatively little margin for error. That’s one of the reasons I decided to write an entire book outlining what an ideal type, full full-fledged democracy promotion policy in the Arab world could actually look like in practice. As my doctoral advisor, Laurence Whitehead, noted in International Dimensions of Democratization, close to two-thirds of democracies existing in 1990 “owed their origins, at least in part, to deliberate acts of imposition of intervention from without.” So, sure, it’s about “them” but it’s also about “us.”
I’m not Tunisian and I’m not (exactly) Egyptian, so I tend to be more focused on the “us” part of equation, i.e. America and Americans. I published an article in Foreign Affairs last week which attempted to do narrow the focus even further to a specific lever that the U.S. with Tunisia, which is in the process of becoming a full-blown dictatorship. It’s late, but it’s not too late. (Is it ever too late?).
In response to the piece, a scholar of North Africa who I respect deeply but don’t know particularly well—I was honored that he even took the time to respond—wrote “excellent article, unlikely to make a positive response emerge. Then what? It's hard to think of a future when there is no future.” Fair enough, I thought to myself. As another friend put it somewhat more sharply, “Realistically, I think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of this happening.”
Yes, it's wholly possible that our last-ditch efforts on Tunisia will be futile. And if it’s futile, perhaps I shouldn't even bother. Our time is finite and, on average, we have only about 4,000 weeks to live. I disagree. Or to put it differently: we do the best we can do and then the rest is up to God. I mentioned in my previous post on Trump’s indictment the prophetic hadith that says: "Tie your camel and trust in God." It’s a bit 7th century in Arabia specific, but you probably get the gist. I'm tying the camel to the best of my ability. And I hope that everyone else who cares about Tunisia will do the same. Ultimately, the final outcome is out of our hands.
So is my advice to the Biden administration—that they attach political conditions to the still-pending IMF bailout and put serious pressure on Tunisia—implausible? Perhaps. But most things in life (and politics) are unrealistic until they become realistic. It's our job to make them possible.
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