The Middle East Channel’s Best of 2013

The essential books, articles, posts -- and hip hop performances -- of the year.

It's that time of year again: my annual picks for the best books, articles, Middle East Channel posts, and -- of course -- hip hop albums of the year. While my distaste for lists is well documented, I love this opportunity each year to recognize the high quality work of so many of my colleagues.

In past years, my year-end awards have been a purely solo enterprise, but this year I reached out to a group of 40 Middle East politics specialists for nominations. Ultimately, though, what you'll find below are just my opinions: books and articles that I read and liked, on topics that I find interesting, evaluated by my own idiosyncratic criteria. And so, without further ado, here are my selections for the best of 2013 in four exciting categories: Best Books, Best Academic Journal Articles, Best Middle East Channel Articles ... and Best Hip Hop Albums.

Best Books on the Middle East

This year, I read all or part of about 65 books that could potentially qualify for this award. My criteria here are fairly straightforward: I lean strongly toward books from university presses; my personal interests incline toward the Arab world rather than Iran, Turkey, or Israel; and I tend to approach books from the perspective of my home discipline of political science.

This year's top five books:

1. Carrie Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood (Princeton University Press). Wickham's examination of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood received the most votes from the panel of experts, and I agree. Wickham's earlier book, Mobilizing Islam (2001), had perhaps the best-published analysis of the Brotherhood's recruitment and mobilization strategies. The Muslim Brotherhood presents an authoritative, deeply informed analysis of the organization's political strategies, internal cleavages, and ideological debates. It is strongest on the decades of political engagement from the 1970s through the 2000s, but struggles to explain the Brotherhood's failure in power over the last few years. Here, you can read my extended review, where I termed Wickham's book an "epitaph for the Brotherhood which might have been."

2. Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Oxford University Press). Lefevre has produced a richly detailed, well-written, and sober analytical account of the history of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. He does an outstanding job of bringing together a wide range of English, French, and Arabic sources to convincingly place the Syrian Brotherhood within its local political context. Ashes of Hama is without question the best available comprehensive English-language work on Syrian Islamist politics.

3. Madawi al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press). I thoroughly enjoyed A Most Masculine State's eclectic but comprehensive reading of gender politics in Saudi Arabia. Rasheed moves comfortably across literature, politics, education, religion, economics, and social issues to provide a masterful overview of her subject.

4. Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf (Columbia University Press). Wehrey's new book offers a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich overview of the politics of Sunni-Shiite relations across the Gulf. His extensive research on the ground across the Gulf comes through powerfully, as does his balanced analytical sensibility. It should be required reading for anyone interested in Sunni-Shiite relations or in the regional politics of the Gulf. (Full disclosure: Sectarian Politics in the Gulf was published in the series Columbia Studies in Middle East Politics, which I edit.)

5. Adria Lawrence, Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism: Anti-Colonial Protest in the French Empire (Cambridge University Press).  Lawrence does a fascinating job of unpacking the emergence of nationalism as a unifying form of protest in the French Empire, with a particular focus on Morocco and Algeria. This is historical comparative political science done right -- an engaging read, extremely well researched, and both poses and answers a question which few would even think to ask.

Online-Only Bonus EP: Nicholas Seeley, "A Syrian Wedding." Seeley, an Amman-based journalist with long experience reporting on refugees in Jordan, has written a short, sharply observed, and beautifully written account of everyday life in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan.

The Best Academic Journal Articles

This year, for the first time, I want to acknowledge the best academic journal articles on the Middle East, even if they are too often locked behind pay walls. (Hey publishers: this would be a good time to ungate them!)

1. Lisa Wedeen, "Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria" (Critical Inquiry). Wedeen, author of the highly influential book about the former Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad's cult of personality, Ambiguities of Domination, was living in Damascus researching a new book when the Arab uprisings broke out. "Ideology and Humor in Dark Times," the first article from that project, dissects Syria's public culture and the regime's ideological project during the early uprisings. It received the most votes from the expert panel for this category, and deservedly so. Theoretically incisive and brilliantly written, from the opening bars this is clearly a Lisa Wedeen joint.

2. Salwa Ismail, "Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective" (Comparative Studies in Society and History). Ismail draws on her years of research on the popular quarters of both Cairo and Damascus to explain the variation in participation in the uprisings in the two contexts. She does an outstanding job of presenting the everyday concerns of the marginalized populations of these informal sectors without romanticizing them.

3. Hesham Sallam, "The Egyptian Revolution and the Politics of Histories" (PS: Political Science and Politics). In this short essay, Sallem lays out the wildly divergent historical narratives about the Egyptian uprising. While political scientists might want a single, clear coding of the case, Sallem shows that the data most certainly does not speak for itself. The article has become only more relevant with the escalating public political battle over the legacy of the revolution following Egypt's military coup.

4. Wendy Pearlman, "Emotions and Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings" (Perspectives on Politics). Pearlman challenges prevailing rationalist theoretical accounts of the Arab uprisings by focusing on the role of emotions in political mobilization. This well-written and theoretically innovative essay pushes political scientists to rethink the tiny building blocks of political behavior, and helps us to understand both the early surge of political mobilization in 2011 and the subsequent disillusionment, polarization, and turn to the dark side.

5. Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds, "Tracking the Arab Spring: Why the Modest Harvest?"(Journal of Democracy). This broad analytical overview seeks to explain the provisional outcomes of the Arab uprisings, with access to oil wealth and hereditary succession as the key explanatory variables. Their argument won't convince every scholar of the region, but it's a very useful opening gambit for the important theoretical arguments soon to unfold in the political science journals.

Best Middle East Channel articles

It's always a pleasure to go back and read through a year's worth of Middle East Channel articles. I'm proud of the consistently high quality, diversity of perspectives, rich empirical detail, and theoretical sophistication of the contributors. I'd also like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Mary Casey, MEC's assistant editor, who has done an extraordinary job both editing these essays and producing the widely-read Middle East Channel Daily Brief.

Egypt and Syria were the dominant stories of the year, naturally, and the Middle East Channel published more than 50 articles on Egypt and more than 40 on Syria. We significantly expanded our coverage of Turkey this year, with 14 articles on Turkish politics. We kept a close eye on Iran (17 articles) Iraq (15), Yemen (13), and Tunisia (10) -- and ran at least five pieces each on Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. (Next year, like every year, we hope to get more on Morocco and Algeria.)

I'm also very proud of several special projects which the Middle East Channel and the Project on Middle East Political Science produced this year. Last week, I wrote about "The Political Science of Syria's War," a collection of 18 short memos by leading civil war and insurgency scholars based on a workshop at George Washington University (download the collection here). And back in March, we put together the "Egypt Policy Challenge" (download it here) asking a range of scholars and policy analysts for suggestions about how to deal with difficult pre-coup Cairo.

It was hard to choose 10 articles out of some 200 high-quality contributions this year. I based my choices on a highly scientific methodology combining page views, social media shares, originality, quality of writing, enduring value, and other sciency things.

1. Nathan Brown, "Egypt's Wide State Reassembles Itself" (July 17) and Daniel Brumberg "Resurgence of Egypt's state" (July 8). Amid the enormous number of great articles about Egypt this year, Brown and Brumberg's pieces stood out for how clearly and quickly each understood the role of the Egyptian state in the military coup.

2. Charles Lister, "Syria's Opposition Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys" (Sept. 9). Lister's sharply observed, no-nonsense look at the distribution of military power among the various Syrian opposition factions came at a particularly crucial time in the policy debate.

3. Elizabeth Dickinson, "Syria's Gulf Brigades" (Dec. 8) and "Shaping the Syrian Conflict from Kuwait" (Dec. 4). This series of articles, co-sponsored by MEC and the Brookings Institution, broke important new ground in reporting the role of private groups and individuals in the Gulf in financing the Syrian insurgency.

4. Toby Mathiessen, "Sectarian Gulf vs. the Arab Spring" (Oct. 8). This article, based on Mathiessen's excellent short book, Sectarian Gulf, sharply analyzed the place of sectarianism in the survival strategies of the Gulf monarchies.

5. Jeremy Shapiro, "The Qatar Problem" (Aug. 28) and "How the U.S. Saw Syria's War" (with Miriam Estrin, Dec. 8). Since leaving the State Department for Brookings, Shapiro has written some really outstanding analytical pieces for the Middle East Channel. "The Qatar Problem", a remarkably frank critique of Doha's ambiguous policies, was the single most read MEC article this year. Meanwhile, "How the U.S. Saw Syria's War" concludes with perhaps the best advice I've seen in a while for academics hoping to influence policy debates.

6. Fanar Haddad, "The language of anti-Shi'ism" (Aug. 9). Haddad, author of the outstanding book, Sectarianism in Iraq, masterfully laid out here the historical evolution of sectarian language in Iraq and across the region. A highly original and really compelling essay.

7. Lisel Hintz, "The Might of the Pen(guin) in Turkey's Protests" (June 10). Hintz's discussion of the political culture of the Turkish protests this summer was one of the most entertaining and informative of all the fascinating pieces I read about the Gezi Park clashes.

8. Stacey Philbrick Yadav, "Best Friends Forever for Yemen's Revolutionaries?" (March 19). Yadav's essay offered a really fascinating discussion of the changing perspectives, relationships, and experiences of Yemen's young protestors.

9. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, "Iran's Pragmatic Turn" (Sept. 12). Tabaar does one of the best jobs I've seen of linking Iran's fluid domestic political scene with President Hassan Rouhani's foreign policy gambits.

10. Alanna van Antwerp, "Post-Soviet Lessons for Egypt" (July 2). At a time when many Egyptians insisted that their experience was unique and defied comparison, van Antwerp demonstrated the value of cross-regional comparison by considering which of the Color Revolutions Egypt most resembled ... and how those cases turned out (hint: not well).

Hip Hop Performances of the Year

And finally, for those who care, every year I take this opportunity to step out of my Middle East politics lane and offer my thoughts on the year in hip hop. Kendrick Lamar indisputably owned 2013, with his year-defining verse on "Control," his BET Cypher follow-up slap tucking a certain sensitive rapper back into his pajama clothes, and his commanding series of guest spots showing up everybody from A$AP Rocky and Big Sean to Eminem and Jay-Z. As promised, Kendrick raised the bar high and murdered his competition. He did not, however, release an album this year (a chronological misfortune which the Grammy Awards happily decided to ignore, but I can't).

If not King Kendrick, then who earns album of the year? A lot of the highly anticipated albums by the heavyweights disappointed: Kanye West's Yeezus made a brash, original statement but was just too abrasive and ultimately just not very good; Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail was better than most reviewers allowed, but had a "by the numbers" feel to it; Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP II felt stale despite its entertaining wordplay (I prefer his competitive guest spots with Slaughterhouse). Nor did the next tier do much better: Drake's Nothing Was the Same was actually exactly the same as his other work, instantly forgettable; Lil Wayne's I Am Not a Human Being II mercifully disappeared without a trace; Big Sean's sophomore effort Hall of Fame only showed how little he has to say at this point; and I'm not interested in trying to learn what a Macklemore is.

There were a few decent albums that I wanted to like more than I did. A$AP Rocky's Long Live A$AP just slipped into the 2013 window, and had two of the year's standout tracks ("Train" and "F***ing Problem"), but tellingly both of those songs were made by the guests. Prisoner of Conscious by Talib Kweli and The Gifted by Wale were smart but inconsistent, and I had a hard time remembering a single distinct track or turn of phrase five minutes after listening to them. I was excited about B.o.B's Underground Luxury when he promised on "Paper Route" to get political and say things which might piss off his publicist and get him in trouble with the government ... but instead he spends most of the album treading water with endless love letters to his money.

J. Cole's Born Sinner therefore beats out those three contenders out to be my 2013 runner-up. Born Sinner was an improvement over his rookie album, and had flashes of real brilliance. It had too many tedious stretches, though, and would have done better to replace some of the filler with tracks he offloaded to the mixtapes (plus, he messed up big time by not giving Kendrick a verse on "Forbidden Fruit"). Cole did provide the best non-Kendrick moment of the year, though, when Nas jumped onto his "Let Nas Down" beat to offer some career advice and a strong co-sign. He also pulled off a near-perfect head fake by dropping an agonizing "Control" response track which seemed to threaten war against Kendrick ... only to show up in L.A. a few days later joking around backstage with his buddy.

And so, somehow, my choice for the best overall album of the year goes to Pusha T for My Name is My Name. Pusha T has been a monster for years, from the early years with the Clipse to his emergence as the ace in Kanye's GOOD Music posse. My Name is My Name took a long time to complete, like seemingly all of his projects, and not every track worked. But My Name is My Name stood out from the competition this year with its consistency, intensity, and sharp lyrics. It featured really standout tracks like "Numbers on the Boards" and "King Push." Plus, on Nosetalgia he became the only rapper all year to hold his own on a track with Kendrick. Congratulations, King Push!

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for AEG


The Year of Living Hegemonically

How can the world be getting so much better when U.S. power is waning?

As 2013 draws to a close, it is not hard to find epitaphs for American hegemony. Perhaps the most recent and most articulate was Walter Russell Mead's claim that the "Central Powers" -- China, Iran, and Russia -- were acting like an "Axis of Weevils," burrowing in and hollowing out the U.S.-created order that has been in place for decades.

Mead is not drawing this kind of conclusion from thin air. What he's saying matches what many Americans and non-Americans believe. All of the public polling in 2013 confirms the trend: more people think the United States is less powerful than it used to be. More than ever, Americans want to focus on domestic problems and leave the rest of the world alone.

A quick glance at the 2013 headlines suggests that the Obama administration has been leading U.S. public opinion from behind. On Syria, for example, President Obama first came out in favor of using force against the Assad regime. As the American public made clear their strong aversion to that policy, the administration switched course twice, first seeking a congressional resolution and then accepting a deal that preserved the Bashar al-Assad regime. A single NSA contractor has wreaked havoc on U.S. intelligence capabilities, badly strained relations with Germany and Brazil, and tarnished America's image abroad. And allies in Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim have grown exasperated with the Obama administration's mangled foreign policy process. Everywhere, the United States seemed to be in retreat.

Meanwhile, America's rivals have had an industrious 2013. China is busy buying access to the Caribbean, bullying its ASEAN neighbors, and expanding its air defense zones in the East China Sea. Vladimir Putin has done his darnedest to be a thorn in America's side. He granted Edward Snowden asylum, bolstered Assad's regime in Syria, and most importantly, coerced its allies in the near abroad to stay in Russia's economic orbit. Meanwhile, Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, has launched a public relations blitz designed to re-ingratiate the Islamic republic back into the good graces of the international community. At the same time, Tehran is ruthlessly prosecuting the war in Syria while launching cyberattacks in Saudi Arabia.

These sorts of trends tend to give U.S. strategists the heebie-jeebies. A staple of international relations thinking for decades has been that U.S. hegemony is the mainstay of global order. According to this "theory of hegemonic stability," peace and prosperity are only likely to persist when a liberal superpower is prepared to act to keep markets open and stamp out brewing conflict. If Mead or Robert Kagan are correct, then a United States that is both unwilling and unable to stabilize the rest of the world really should be a source of concern.

Here's the thing, though: at the same time that commentators were bemoaning U.S. decline, the world was looking up. I suspect that ThinkProgress and Britain's Spectator magazine would agree on very little in politics, but this month they both ran features pointing out something important: 2013 was "the best year in human history." Their data is incontrovertible. If you look at human development indicators, all of the key metrics -- infant mortality, infectious diseases, per capital income -- are trending in the right direction. By the end of 2013, the smallest fraction of the world's population will be living in poverty. Both traditional and human security measures reveal the same trend. Whether it's violent crime, discrimination, civil or interstate war, the aggregate data shows a more peaceable world. Or, as the Spectator put it: "Every day in every way, the world grows richer, safer and smarter." If you don't believe political partisans, then buy Angus Deaton's The Great Escape and you'll discover the same message. Despite the post-2008 trend of predicting that the global order is crumbling and the world is going to hell, the opposite is transpiring.

How and why can this be happening when American power is on the wane? Those fearful of disorder have made two fundamental errors in judgment. First, they assume that China, Iran, and others want to rewrite the global rules of the game. Not so. To be sure, these countries want to preserve their sovereignty and expand their sphere of influence -- and on these issues, they will clash with the United States. On the other hand, contra Mead, they will also clash with each other as well. Furthermore, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran very much want to participate in the global economy. Indeed, the reason Rouhani is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal is to get Iran out from under the dead weight of crippling economic sanctions. And contra what everyone expected in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, emerging markets are not eager to topple the existing global order. Indeed, the recent trade deal in Bali suggests that, if anything, they want to reinforce the existing rules of the game.

The bigger error, however, has come from analysts confusing a U.S. reluctance to use military force in the Middle East with a decline in American power and influence. The truth is that the United States still wields considerable power, which is one reason why 2013 turned out to be such a good year. Whether one looks at global capital flows or the use of the dollar as a reserve currency, the data point in the same direction: the resilience of American economic power. And even as the sequester hits, the United States also continues to possess an unparalleled edge in military capabilities. It is true that Syria continues to hemorrhage lives and livelihoods. Even there, however, it was the threat of American force that triggered an agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons. U.S. military power has also helped to tamp down conflict in the Central African Republic, as well as deliver massive humanitarian relief to the Philippines.

Indeed, given the depths of its domestic political dysfunction, one can only imagine what America's rivals must think. In 2013 alone, the federal government couldn't evade a stupid, counterproductive budget sequester, a government shutdown, and brinksmanship with the debt ceiling. There was no agreement on immigration reform, much less on policies such as climate change, education, or infrastructure. Despite mounting gridlock and policy own goals, however, the United States ends 2013 with a rapidly declining federal budget deficit, a surging energy sector, and accelerating growth in the economy and employment. President Obama was justified in noting that 2014 could be a breakthrough year for the United States. The most brilliant strategists living in Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran can't displace the structural strengths of the United States. Which means that for those capitals, 2014 will prove to be a very frustrating year.