August 2013 Reading List: Arab Spring Meltdown Edition

Saturday, August 31, 2013

After its rosy beginnings, there were never any guarantees that the Arab Spring would stay pretty, and in August it has seen a strong turn for the worse. Egypt's military, content with America's (complete lack of) reaction to their bald-faced coup d'├ętat in July, decided to up the ante with a thuggish and bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Much ink was spilled on the growing Algeria parallels there before the Asad regime wrenched the world's attention back toward Syria with an apparent chemical weapons that is forcing governments worldwide to make some very difficult decisions. Recommended reads from this month on these weighty subjects and more:

A Short Guide to the Middle East (K.N. Al-Sabah, Financial Times)
In a month where the comedians sometimes seemed to offer more insight than the pundits, this ultra-brief letter to the editor put the absurdity of the modern Middle East conflicts and alliances into much-needed perspective.

9 Questions About Egypt You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask (Max Fisher, Washington Post)
A solid guide for the uninitiated. (Also, don't miss Fisher's 40 Maps That Explain the World.)

The Liberal Dark Side (James Traub, Foreign Policy)
Ominous: "Morsy's single greatest mistake, in retrospect, was failing to put those fears to rest by ruling with the forces he had politically defeated. He was a bad president, and an increasingly unpopular one. But nations with no historical experience of democracy do not usually get an effective or liberal-minded ruler the first time around. Elections give citizens a chance to try again. With a little bit of patience, the opposition could have defeated Morsy peacefully. Instead, by colluding in the banishment of the Brotherhood from political life, they are about to replace one tyranny of the majority with another. And since many Islamists, now profoundly embittered, will not accept that new rule, the new tyranny of the majority will have to be more brutally enforced than the old one."

Will Egypt's Agony Save the Arab Spring? (Daniel Brumberg, Foreign Policy)
If only it were that easy. Nonetheless, a great analytical effort to extract lessons from Egypt's democratic meltdown.

Recent analysis of the Syria conflict has fallen out of date almost as soon as it has been published, so most links aren't of much use. Nonetheless, remembering a certain recent war into which the US rushed headlong without sufficient justification, I hope public opinion considers the questions raised by George Packer, John Cassidy, Michael Collins Dunn, and other cool heads (including even The Onion). If we can't even express in plain language what we hope to accomplish by striking Syria, we definitely shouldn't do it, however touched we all are by the latest tragedy or the larger conflict.

Reunited After 50 Years, An Algerian Buena Vista Social Club Makes Its U.S. Debut (Anastasia Tsioulcas, National Public Radio)
Finally, an uplifting story! A nice overview of Algeria's talented El Gusto orchestra.

Slow Ideas (Atul Gawande, The New Yorker)
From India, a useful reminder that there are no shortcuts when it comes to the hard work of changing human behavior.

Air Travel, Like Other Facets of American Life, Is Not What It Used To Be (Anand Giridharadas, New York Times)
On the growing "class divide" in flying, reflecting broader trends in our society.

FDA Issues Its Strongest Warning on Malaria Drug Lariam (Traci Tong, PRI's The World)
I've been saying it for years: this stuff is poison, and someday soon we're going to look back and wonder how doctors ever prescribed it. (Think bloodletting.) I'm done with it.

Is Elon Musk's Hyperloop a Pipe Dream? (Tad Friend, The New Yorker)
Maybe, but anything that might revolutionize transport in our lifetimes is still tantalizingly cool, especially when someone as dynamic as Musk is behind it.

The High Costs of Travel Visas (Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution)
Mathematical proof of the idiocy of visas: requiring a visa for travelers from a given country is "associated with a 70% reduction in inbound travel from that country".

Mauritania, The Most Amazing Place You'll Probably Never Visit (Mitchell Kanashkevitch, mitchellkphotos.com)
I have visited, though I didn't have as much fun as this guy did there! An enjoyable photo essay.

Loving Lamu, If Not At First Sight

Friday, August 30, 2013 | Lamu, Kenya (map)

Catching a ride from Lamu, the island's main settlement that dates back to the early days of the Swahili coast's booming trade routes, to Shela town, a more modern expansion (pictured).
After four days of hopping through at least that many countries, I still wasn't quite in a vacation frame of mind when the lady friend and I left Burundi and flew to the Kenyan coast to visit the isle of Lamu. There I received a much-needed reminder for the nth time that "Travel is what you make of it."

Lamu is second only to Zanzibar among the most famous destinations along the Swahili coast, probably my favorite part of the world. So I arrived there excited, but still quite uptight after months of too much desk time and too little sunshine. It showed in those first few days, which we spent exploring the museums and restaurants of Lamu town and the shops and beaches of nearby Shela town.

The only motorized vehicles on Lamu are a police car and an ambulance; donkeys remain the preferred mode of transport, and their droppings are consequently scattered throughout Lamu's many alleyways. Naturally, being the grumpiest man on the island, I seemed to step unwittingly in

Uvira: "Stunning" in More Ways than One

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 | Uvira, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

Uvira, in all its glory: This is the main road through town.
While in Bujumbura, Rebecca and I drove right across the Burundi-Congo border to Uvira, the town where she is posted for the next year for work. Her move to Uvira coincided with my own to Algeria earlier this summer, so like me she is working to carve out a new home for herself—though in an environment that is considerably more challenging than my own.

I have visited the eastern DRC before, and Rebecca had already given me a sense of what Uvira looked like ("Get ready for it. It's a shithole."), so I felt like I had a good mental picture in advance of what awaited there. It did not disappoint.

Dusty, potholed, and spectacularly rundown, Uvira is what human civilization looks like in the total absence of government. And that is effectively what it is, being a backwater town in a neglected region in one of the world's most dysfunctional and corrupt countries. Signs of public works or public services are hard to recognize.

Smile, You're In... Burundi!

Saturday, August 17, 2013 | Bujumbura, Burundi (map)

At Blue Bay, Burundi, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika
The rumors are true: Burundi is indeed a happy little corner of central Africa.

Many friends—Rebecca most of all—had told me so, and I felt it the moment she and I arrived from Kigali for the second stop of our East Africa vacation. Everyone from immigration officials to porters flashed smiles and offered cheery greetings. Even Bujumbura's airport itself gives off a sunny vibe. Though perhaps in need of a fresh coat of paint, the modernist building with its mushroomed rooftops reminded me of images from Africa's golden years. Standing before it, you can almost picture what must have been a joyful ribbon-cutting ceremony in that happy post-independence decade long before my time, when fresh optimism was in the air.

A pleasant glow is still in the air in Bujumbura, Burundi's charming little capital city, which wraps tightly around the northeast corner of Lake Tanganyika. We spent the weekend there at the Hotel Club du Lac, one of many beach resorts that extend along the city's western edge toward the nearby Congolese border. Bujumbura's families love to spend their free time here at the beach, relaxing by

A Rwanda Reunion to Start an East African Tour

Monday, August 12, 2013 | Kigali, Rwanda (map)

Left to right: Sylvestre, myself, Rebecca, and Frank swapping new and old stories in Kigali. (Photo courtesy of F. Mugisha)
When the lady friend moved to eastern DR Congo earlier this summer, the same week I moved to Algiers, we made plans to reconvene periodically in our respective new homes or somewhere fun nearby. (Notice I didn't say somewhere in between—the 3,200 miles / 5,200 km of Niger, Chad, and Central African Republic that lie between us aren't known to hold much of interest. And to answer the other question we've heard a lot, no, sadly there are no direct flights.)

For our first meetup, Rebecca and I sketched out an ambitious two-week sweep through East Africa, to include time relaxing on the beach, exploring new places, eating well, and also shopping for many of the random items we can't find in our new homes.

We started in Rwanda, with a quick 24-hour stay in the capital, Kigali, to see friends and former colleagues. Kigali itself has continued to blossom since we last visited, with ever cleaner and better-paved streets, taller buildings and abundant construction, and new businesses sprouting up all around town. Starting with the usual beers and grilled goat at Car Wash (excellent name for a bar, by the way), we bounced among Kigali's many nighttime hangouts, catching up with friends along