Fouad Mami

Two Book Reviews On The Muslim Brotherhood- by Fouad Mami

Victor, J. Willi, 2021. The Fourth Ordeal: A History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt 1968-2018. Cambridge University Press. Hardcover: $90.76; Paperback: $30.45; ISBN-10: ‎ 1108822452; ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1108822459; pp. 588.

Lorenzo Vidino, 2020. The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Brotherhood in the West. Columbia University Press. Hardcover: $80.51; Paperback: $30.00; ISBN-10: ‎ 023119367X; ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0231193672; pp. 296.

Can one emancipate with a structure that is largely non-emancipatory? And what is the exact role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the massive insurrections known as the Arab Spring? Several observers underline a situation where the revolution has been present, whereas the revolutionaries have been largely missing (Bayet 2017, Traboulsi 2014). Others note that both the revolutionaries and the revolution have been active, but the reversal of the Brotherhood’s fortunes indicates a cycle wherein the counterrevolution has gained the upper hand and that ascendency has not spared the Brotherhood, even when the latter has always “avoid[ed] revolutions and revolutionary change [as they are thought to] lead to unexpected consequences.” (al-Anani 2022, 2) Still, the predomination of the counterrevolution does not in any sensible way guarantee that history will work in favour of the counterrevolution indefinitely. Much has been at play, and the following review essay accelerates the magisterial findings in both books to go beyond what each one highlights.

To begin with, Willi’s The Fourth Ordeal presumes that the demise of the Brotherhood—its fall from grace—in the coup of July 2013 is a tactical error. Differently put, had the proponents of the Society’s fourth Guide (el-Tilmsani) prevailed, the Qutbists (a vanguard subgroup within the Society that follows the ideology put forth by the radical jihadist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)) would have little chance in fragmenting the Brotherhood both just before the surge of the Arab Spring and after the group’s victory in the presidential elections in June 2012. In what follows, I will show that rapid ascendency, while plausible, remains untenable in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, the demise of the Society could not have been avoided regardless of which competing wing within it had been in control. The demise of July 3rd, 2013 and the subsequent fragmentation had not been a tactical miscalculation. And rather, it has been the undistorted translation of the motoring principle within the soon-to-be a century-old movement.

My contention presupposes an unbridgeable methodological divide between strategies of and for reform and those of revolt. Since Egypt was caught amid a radically incendiary situation, the means and the mindset of reform subscribe more to the prerequisites of the counterrevolutionary moment and its demands. This is different from ascertaining that the Brotherhood is categorically (as a matter of principle) a regressive or restorative force like, say, the military. Rather, it is the Society’s pseudo-revolutionary dynamic, its political duplicity that borders on naivety, which is another facet of its theoretical poverty and distrust of radical youth forces that dictated its vulnerability to counterrevolutionary forces. The combination of all these shortcomings has dictated its fourth ordeal.

This review essay pleads for a radical distinction between the social means of a revolution, seeking a rupture with the manners of the past, and those tools aiming at reform, stressing gradualism and long-term change. Once this distinction serving a methodological axiom is set, the Brotherhood’s performance in the revolutionary situation put forth by the post-2011 situation cannot be mistaken. This distinction also serves in reading Vidino’s The Closed Circle as it zooms in on what he chooses to study: the Brotherhood’s international branch, meaning: the Brotherhood’s affiliates in Western Europe and the U.S. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, both the original/Egyptian Brotherhood and its structure in the West (Western Europe and North America) are reformist. And unlike Willi, Vidino seizes on the logical implications when opting for a reformist track, taking part in the political game and hence the reverse of fortunes coming with the impasse of its project in both Egypt, Tunisia as well as in France, Denmark, Sweden, the U.K. and, certainly, the U.S.

Both Willi and Vidino, from the start, embraced the method of oral history: conducting not a small number of interviews with rank-and-file members of the Brotherhood and certain leadership figures and dissenters both in Egypt and abroad. This method the authors contrast with the approach that reads the Brotherhood as a social movement. The advantages they advance are multiple. For interviews-based approach facilitates seeing the movement less like a solid structure and more as a social actor in the real world, combined with a heterogeneous pool of opinions across the movement’s hierarchal spectrum. In contrast with Vidino, the interviews Willi conducts are massive, and so are his readings of memoirs, brochures, and news updates on blogs and websites. Still, both authors’ command of Arabic boosts their grasp on the thematic they engage with. The result shows in a plethora of details that corroborate their thesis rooted—unfortunately in Willi’s case more than Vidino’s—more in speculation than in a solid historical reading of these facts they amassed.

In Chapter I: “The Society of the Muslim Brothers”, Willi stresses that the niche for his study lies in the lack of serious, reliable, and unbiased literature addressing the Brotherhood. Most of what exists is produced by attention-grabbing pseudo-scholars and think-tanks. Against a background rampant with simplistic studies and severely lacking in written archives, Victor’s project of doing oral history explains the importance of spelling out the details of the “great saga” (12). He does this by zooming in on al-Banna’s project of reviving the faith within a colonial context in which Egypt was a British protectorate. Contextualization is vital in beating up cliches. Willi then considers Banna’s precursors in the political revival of Islam: Mohammed’ Abduh, Jamal din Afghani and Mohammed Rachid Rida. The book does not overlook the Sufi elements in the Banna’s vision serving as a ‘pure’ fountain for the reactivation of the faith in the sociopolitical order of the 1920s and 1930s. Later, the reader encounters al-Banna’s organizational seven-step blueprint and the basic literature of the movement. He ends the chapter by reassuring Western audiences that al-Banna’s idea of the caliphate is more of a metaphor, “a catchphrase” (33) for founding a Muslim parallel to the European Union or the United States of America.

Chapter II: “The Second Founding (1968-1981)” invokes the post-1954 incarceration of the Brotherhood’s leadership under President Nacer. The latter almost cancelled the Society from existence. However, in the wake of the Arab defeat of 1967 in the war with Israel and the Student Protests of 1968, the leaders of the Brotherhood were freed from prisons and connived into Egyptian social life. But it was until President Sadaat’s tenure that Brotherhood members were grudgingly tolerated a political role. ‘Omar al-Tilmsani became the third Guide officially in 1973 and it was his gradualist approach as specified in his book, Preachers, Not Judges (1969), resonated with President Sadaat’s policy of appeasement on two levels. The first comes in the context of a rival group, Jama’at al-Muslimin (Society for Muslims). The latter aligns itself with a radical jihadi ideology as outlined by Sayyid Qutb, which was then on the rise and threatened to destabilize the country. The second, which is no less important but overlooked by Willi, is the prominence of socialist and communist parties, exerting pressure on the powers of the time. Thus, al-Tilmsani’s rendition of the Brotherhood and his balanced approach served Sadaat’s policy of personalist rule. Sadaat’s rapprochement with Tel Aviv and his eventual assassination in 1981 dictated that this arrangement with the state becomes now lacking.  

Chapter II: “The Rise of the Vanguard (1981-1991)” refers to how al-Tilmisani’s adherents (proponents of gradualism in dealing with the powers that be as well as in the decision-making structure inside the Brotherhood) started losing currency to the more radical elements. Instead, it is now the vanguardist approach, those followers of Sayyid Qutb’s ideology as specified in the latter book, Signposts on the Road (1964), who are gaining momentum. Other than the takfiri and jihadi articles of faith, the vanguardists trust in the Qutb’s philosophy of jahiliyyah or modern-day structural ignorance whose raison d’être explains Society’s need for the vanguards, those people “who engage with society while practising mental and emotional withdrawal from it.” (107) With the vanguards in charge, the Brotherhood expanded both nationally (to all governorates in Egypt) and internationally (literally, worldwide). Meanwhile, it expanded into all professional syndicates and won an important number of seats in parliament. 

Of capital interest in understanding the fourth ordeal of the Brotherhood is the section titled: “The Brotherhood’s Neoliberal Turn” in Chapter IV: “Brotherhood Incorporated (1991-2001).” The section traces the rise of the business-minded cadre in the Guidance Office, the likes of Khairat al-Shamir, who, while a vanguardist and jihadist, is similarly a business tycoon and strategist. The rise of al-Shamir and his cliques, Willi outlines, echoes the Brotherhood’s overall change of perspective where “Quranic ideals with newly acquired market economy concepts…the emerging Islamic discourse embraced the modern business corporation as a model through which one could articulate specifically Islamic policies and objectives.” (157)  A subsequent section bearing on the consequence of the seismic turn marks the “Transformation of the Social Base” within the several-decades long Brotherhood, ending in a quasi-class struggle within the movement. Therefore, the decade preceding 9/11 not only witnessed the break up between various Brotherhood national Chapters over the first Gulf War but a rupture with classical Brotherhood formation in Egypt itself.

Chapter V: “Struggle for Leadership (2001-2011)” carefully reads the decade spanning the period between 9/11 and the kick-off of the Arab Spring as it marked a further split between the gradualists and vanguardists groups within the Brotherhood. The denialist narrative of 9/11 by people introducing themselves as members of the Society complicated the relationship with the U.S., given how neoconservative orientalists branded political Islam. The Guidance Office started a public relations campaign denying allegations of its alleged static disposition and succeeded in establishing a rapprochement with the U.S. administration. On the eve of the January 25th Revolt, Willi specifies that the Brotherhood spearheaded by the vanguards was never in its best shape. The author lists several strategically fatal decisions paving the way for its fourth ordeal.

Chapter VI: “Revolution, Rise, and Fall (2011-2013)” enumerates several strategic miscalculations that resulted in the fourth ordeal of the Brotherhood. Chief among those several miscalculations, in Willi’s opinion, is the inability of the Vanguard group to register the steam and the scale of the real and unexpected change that the revolutionary situation of post-January 25th has made possible. Victor notes a mental lag between the old school activism that marked the leadership on the one hand and the Brotherhood’s youth revolutionary zeal and ardour. Against the specific warnings of the Brotherhood’s youth, the leadership harried toward a hasty and farfetched alliance with the Egyptian military, expecting to be rewarded for its allegiance with power (al-Aswany 2021). The fiasco illustrates not only how (contrary to its youth) the negotiating cadres of the Brotherhood showed a lack of imagination but deep-seated duplicity, as shown in incidents such as the Maspero and the Blue-Bra Girl. The race for power for its own sake sealed the Brotherhood’s unfortunate fate.

Chapter VII: “The Beginning of the Fourth Ordeal (2013-2018)” starts with how General Sissi’s cracked up on the Brotherhood sit-ins in both Rab’a and al-Nahda Squares in August 2013 instead of uniting the remaining leaders, those who managed to escape or go underground in time, had fragmented them further. The crack-up, Willi finds out, has been unprecedented in intensity since Nassers’ times in the 1950s and 1960s. Naturally, the second rank leadership had its chance in steering the Brotherhood. But the vanguard group, both from prison and exile, refused to secede important prerogatives, resulting in a feud, which, whether motivated by ego or by ideology, Willi does not specify. However, he specifies that a non-negligible section in the Egyptian leadership of the Brotherhood has propagated towards the necessity of the revolutionary path, including the armed struggle against General Sissi’s dictatorship. But with the execution of Mohammed Kamel in October 2016, the revolutionary path lost currency. Rivalry and division remain, however, endemic, marking the Brotherhood to this day (the first half of 2022) even when the book closed its study in 2018.  

Even if Vidino’s The Closed Circle approaches the Western chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, it does not substantially differ from Willi’s monumental gathering of facts and analysis. Eternalization of politics and duplicity in using it or the unprincipled deployment of religion rank supreme among Vidino’s critique of the Western Brotherhood. The seven testimonial chapters are sandwiched between two introductory chapters varying between definitions and hypothesizing and two concluding ones as they synthesize the findings and read those findings beyond the amassed evidence. Hence, concerning Vidino’s volume, I am saving the readers the middle chapters because all the seven testimonies (in the seven middle chapters) are squeezed into the synthesized findings and the methodological readings that go beyond the evidence. 

Chapter I, “What is the Muslim Brotherhood in the West?” starts with a methodological note regarding the sea of confusion in identifying Brotherhood organizations in the West. The reasons are multiple, but chief among which is the stigma the name recalls, given the 9/11 attacks and the steeped Orientalist portrayals that often present the movement outside space and time. Therefore, policymakers in the West are indeed in the dark, and Vidino’s volume sells its credentials to facilitate practical ways of dealing with not a small number of Brotherhood offshoots in the West. While invariably sharing the belief that Islam is complete in and for itself, the Brotherhood groups do not seek to Islamize Western societies, aiming to facilitate the integration of Muslim immigrants into these societies. Vidino identifies three major categories of Brotherhood organizations. He counts a- pure Brotherhood bodies, which prefer non-public or secretive networking; b- Brotherhood spawns where affiliated members maintain an emotional link with the original organization but are not structurally tied to it; c- there are those groups who are only distantly influenced. All the three varieties have a vested interest in being representative of Muslim communities and collaborating with governments bodies in a way that channels partnerships over funds and political capital in the countries where they are based.    

Vidino outlines in Chapter II: “Joining and Leaving the Brotherhood” the criteria for selection of members and subsequently the reasons for these recruits’ disillusionment which are inducive for parting ways with the movement. As to joining, the Brotherhood selects its cadres, not the other way around. No application in the classical sense is reported. The selection criteria have to do more on signs that promise piousness and obedience. Now, concerning leaving the movement, Vidino zooms in on two principal reasons. The first is disenchantment with the leadership and or dissatisfaction with the inner workings of the Society. The second specifies the group’s ideology, particularly the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and its political duplicity. At the end of the chapter, Vidino broaches upon the dissenters’ own life after leaving the Brotherhood, often reported as tough as the former members had had little, if at all, social life outside the movement.  

All the seven chapters from the III to the IX examine those moments of recruitment in detail. They contextualize both the joining and the leaving and provide reasons for each. The format used is a testimony that the author recomposes from face-to-face interviews and email correspondence. The common thread is the appeal or radiance that the Brotherhood holds, the enchantment of the early days and months, even years, and the expectations of serving in a larger-than-life cause in a movement whose name inspires owe and pride. No less common is the stifled dissatisfactions stamping the secretive nature of the Society’s inner working, which the dissenters find no solid reason for maintaining except perhaps due to greed for power and manipulation of the lower and mid-ranking brothers. Most of the common testimonies Vidino brings note how the penchant for secrets could be quite an in place when working under or dealing with autocratic governments such as Egypt, Jordon, or Syria but certainly out of context when operating in Western democracies. Likewise, the testimonies note that leading Brothers, those involved with the real decision-making, rarely bother to read the languages of the Western societies they live in, say little as to genuine attempts at understanding these societies’ histories and complex dynamics.     

Chapter X: “Joining and Leaving: What the Evidence Suggests” underlines a methodology in reading the problem of dissenting from the Brotherhood. Most dissenters left because they thought “current leaders have strayed from Hassan al-Banna’s original message.” (179). Others raised the concern of secrecy and doublespeak in the proceedings, which is thought to serve only “a small nomenklatura of interconnected activists, an aristocratic elite.” (179) Differently put, ideological convictions are hardly the reason. Only a tiny minority of the dissenters (Ahmed Akkari, Mohamed Louizi, and the American Brothers) zoom in on the motoring principle behind the various chapters of the Western Brotherhood and find it problematic. They list the leaders’ duplicity in playing politics with the powers that be. The face-saving infuriation concerning the Danish cartoons that featured Prophet Muhammed from 2003 to 2007 reveals how the key leaders can go in trading with their presumably principled defence of the faith. Other less fatal problems are listed in the chapter.

The last chapter: “The Western Brotherhood’s Future: From the Arab Spring and Beyond.” The video draws the picture of the Western Brotherhood transitioning toward post-Islamism. Contrary to Western governments’ lack of policy, Saudia Arabia and UAE cracked up on their local chapters and tagged the principal Brotherhood in Egypt (following the July 2013 coup) with its Western wing, a terrorist organization stipulating a major geostrategic turn. Adding salt to injury, as soon as the Arab Spring started, Western Brothers joined Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other places (their countries of origin) to assume leading positions there. Still, they left their former positions in the West empty. For converts and those Muslim staying behind in the West, that move, like Ghannouchi’s, dealt a serious blow to the image of the Western Brothers, pilling evidence of the opportunism of these leaders and the uncertain future of the Western Brotherhood as a whole. Vidino suggests that the scene is perhaps ready for post-Ikhawanism, like post-communism during the 1970s and the 1980s.  

The extensive details about the extremely divergent pool of opinions between the Brotherhood’s inner circle, the small group of decision-makers, and their contestants, as well as the dissatisfactions, even the dissenting voices of second rank leaders in the provinces, as brilliantly displayed in Willi’s study, however, are never a waste of time for the perceptive reader. Such details specify that Willi has actually spelt everything except the essential, or perhaps he has gradually broached upon that essential. For if they amount to anything, these extensive details remain food for thought because they confirm how a structure or movement founded for reform cannot by any stretch of the imagination propagate towards reform’s antithesis: revolution. Such a situation does not result because of the overblown narcissistic drives of certain leaders or the fact that an ageing leadership in the Guidance Office was cut off from rapidly evolving reality, the way Will tries to convince us.

With a rapidly evolving revolutionary situation or overblown egos, leaders’ out-of-touch are solid empirical factors. However, as the historical experience of the long durée shows, they remain marginal because each of Willi’s listed factors enjoys no autonomous scenario of its own. The fact that the radical Qutbists won over the al-Telemsani-influenced members of the Shura council or became dominant in the Guidance Office does not alter the situation that the Brotherhood remains marred in theoretical poverty as literally not a single figure among its presumed thinkers dares to question the bedrock of the world’s political economy. The Brotherhood’s early bidder for the presidency before Morsi was Khairat el-Shatir, a proponent of the Qutbist ultra-conservative approach but equally an ambitious business conglomerate with literally billions of dollars. As his asset! The contradiction in combining piety and worldly success in a world deemed by Qutbists corrupt to the marrow is worthy of a study all on its own. That study can explain how the Brotherhood has had no qualms over sending emissaries to Washington DC and freely giving assurances concerning Israel’s future security. Not a small number of observers mistake this Brotherhood’s maneuverer as realpolitik. It offers a death blow to ordinary Egyptians’ expectations for a substantial rupture from Mubarak’s era. This is an example of Willi’s impressive display of facts minutely scanned but are not pressed enough to yield and distil a solid historical reading showcasing that reform cannot befriend and accommodate revolt, in the sense that it cannot meet the people’s minimum expectations in the wake of ousting an enduring dictator such as Hosni Mubarek.     

The Brotherhood’s appeal to the U.S. establishment specifies two issues, not one. Apart from showcasing the leadership’s lust for political power (al-Anani 2022, 10), its readiness to play with the available-but-abusive so-called ‘rules of the game’ indicates the extent to which the movement suffers from a severe theoretical confusion. The stipulation of the theoretical clarity stands at odds with Willi’s broodings over tactical issues such as the Brotherhood’s decades of incarceration and overall underground work carried out as an opposition entity made the movement apathetic to, not just, unready to assume political rule. All these are true but theoretical muddiness made the Brotherhood it is own worst enemy because that muddiness renders it incapable of embracing its historical responsibility. Indeed, the shallowness of its theoretical foundation largely decides its incapacity of spotting an alternative to the post-1945 American order. The combination of putting people of the like of al-Shatir’s calibre in key positions in the movement illustrates that they take the laws of the market economy for granted. Similarly, their unconditional readiness to compromise on matters both delicate and of principle, such as the Palestinian Question, confirms those readings which trust in the Brotherhood as a radical alternative to Mubarek’s corrupt ways are not only slightly mistaken but fundamentally false.

Suffice it to note that ever since its inception in 1928, the Society has never introduced itself except as a fundamentally reformist movement. Why pity the Brotherhood against reformism, the reader legitimately asks? The short answer is that Islam is either revolutionary or it is not. In this context, it is worth noting that Prophet Muhammad did not rub shoulders with the Meccan capitalists of his own time, not because he was not capable or that the opportunity did not present itself. For historical accuracy, the Meccan lords pleaded with him to preside over them. And it is he who did not accept because he knew he would be serving their caravans and businesses, and he was looking for a world without caravans and businesses. In the case of the Brotherhood, as Willi’s succinct study brilliantly shows but rarely seizes on the fact that the Brotherhood had never been missing committed activists with exceptional talents and organizational skills. Therefore, to blame one faction or pity one subgroup against another is to participate in confusing, not elucidating, Egypt’s revolutionary/counterrevolutionary situation.

Vidino’s synthesis from the interviews and email exchanges puts its hand directly on the spot where it hurts the Western Brothers the most, that is, on the future of the movement as a whole. I learned how the multicultural Society envisioned by Western Brotherhood is exactly the opposite of what Western governments have in mind or plan for their nations. Pierre Durrani and Mohamed Louizi’s testimonies both note how the Brotherhood flouted multiculturalism to maintain its parallel societies or ghettos: anti-universal Muslims communicating with like-minded Muslims and cheating the hospitality extended by Western societies. For anti-universal Muslims nurse the illusion that they can conquer Rome from within one day. Rome here is that mythical Western capital in the prophetic tradition. Despite Vidino being bemoaning how Western governments lack a long-term and consistent approach to the Society, this very duplicity in bending laws and abusing multiculturalism could be behind the U.S. policy planners’ decision to let Morsi and his government down. Likely, U.S. planners did not want another heart-breaking Islamic republic, à la Iran. And in cutting the head of the mother movement in Egypt, its Western offshoots will be automatically powerless. In this context, we can read the ongoing feuds between Brotherhood leaders inside and outside Egypt, Ghannouchi’s statement in favour of post-Islamism, and the assassination of Mohamed Kamel, rendering the Brotherhood’s revolutionary bid into nought.   

The powerful point of the two books is how they allow Brotherhood members to speak and allow several voices and insiders’ informed opinions to sketch the readers’, not necessarily the authors’, final analysis. The fact that the two authors speak and read Arabic, along with other languages, is an asset and facilitates their intentions to translate their humility and patience (unlike attention-grabbing Orientalists carrying out pseudo-scholarly works) to learn from the materials and synthesize their learning in these two books. The two authors are likely to transform how Islamist movements are approached and understood through such studies. Willi’s study, in particular, highlights the role of functional social movements (in a similar vein to functional states) as the American establishment does not want to divulge the Brotherhood from a functional role, namely: quelling genuine revolutionary movements or those that can propagate toward upsetting the post-1945 world order. In The Fourth Ordeal, readers find that “U.S. strategic planners used an active and conscious policy of mobilizing political Islam to crush ideologies unfavourable to U.S. interests.” (117). Unfortunately, Willi overlooks this methodological thread where he has failed in his critical observation, for the Brotherhood was specifically founded to suppress the nationalistic aspirations that emerged in 1920 (Soueif 1999, 224).

Speaking of the number of ordeals and given the reformist agenda of the Brotherhood or, more precisely, its lust for power, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood will cease playing with fire from which it bitterly tasted four times so far. Other ordeals will follow suit because, at the moment of composing these lines, reliable news reports circulate that the Brotherhood has been repeatedly involved in direct talks with representatives of General Sissi’s government, the very person who caused the Brotherhood’s demise. The fact that the Brotherhood is even willing to sit and consider proposals by Sissi’s representatives is evidence of its political naivety. Many will rebut that aspiration to play a role in the future of their country. The number of ordeals, and the vocabulary itself, as the word mihnā or ordeal in Arabic stipulates a momentary but also necessary hardship from which a positive situation will eventually follow, expresses a willingness to impersonate the naïveté of an idiot and cancel ordinary Egyptians’ historical destiny.    


Al-Anani, Khalil. Ed. 2021. Islamism and Revolution Across the Middle East: Transformation of Ideology and Strategy after the Arab Spring. I.B. Tauris.

Al-Aswany, Alaa. 2021. The Republic of False Truths: A Novel. Knopf: New York and London. Trans. S. R. Fellowes

Bayat, Asef. 2021. Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England.

Bayat, Asef. 2017. Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford University Press.

Soueif, Ahdaf. 1999. The Map of Love. Bloomsbury Publishing, London and New York. 

Traboulsi, Fawwaz, 2014. thāwārt bilā thouwār. (Revolutions without Revolutionaries) Dar Riad al-Rais for Publication and Distribution, Beirut, Lebanon ISBN-139789953215723

A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa. By: Beinin, Joel. Haddad, Bassam and Seikaly, Sherene. Eds. 2021. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California. 2021; pp. 344; Paperback: $28.00

Joel Beini et al.’s volume is premised on the idea that ‘Rentier State Theory’ (RST) can no longer serve as an explanatory principle in analyzing state dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The editors presuppose that only a methodology rooted in critical political economy can explain the fortunes of MENA peoples in their respective polities. 

Class used to be swept under the carpet, but not anymore in this volume. A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa prides its credentials on reversing the trend put in place by RST. Given the neoliberal domineering order, marshaling the courage to discuss class is certainly an added value. Nevertheless, what is troublesome is the rejection of causality in this volume. The editors follow Louis Althusser’s structuralist approach where “…causes are simultaneous effects; all events are situated in a relational matrix; all social hierarchies are subject to contestations. (p. 1) The flattening of causes by equating them with effects and presupposing both as free-roaming enunciations explain the revival of classless for tracing classes’ role in deciding the destinies for emancipation and more towards stultifying the dynamics of social change.

The editors claim that developmentalism is a colonial and postcolonial paradigm par excellence. Developmentalism has been responsible for the reintegration of precapitalistic modes of production into global capitalism. The contributors show that indeed, postcolonial regimes share with their respective colonial antecedents more than the former are willing to admit. Applying units of measurements such as GPDs not only hides how measurements remain littered with ideological biases but that the sophistry of numbers can replace analysis. The oversight paves the way for what the editors seize as “the triumphalist account of the European Miracle” (p. 10) which is nothing but an ideological imposition of the imperial modes of production. Developmentalism sells the illusion that peoples of the MENA region may one day become the replica of Europe.

The book is divided into two uneven parts: Part I: “Categories of Analysis” has four chapters. Kristen Alff in Chapter One illustrates how diverse practices of land tenure under the Ottomans, and contrary to Orientalist allegations, have never been a hindrance to capital accumulation. Mercantile activities have been predominant in the region but the wide-ranging practices of Middle East elites have not been capitalistically-driven. The imperialists who came by the end of the nineteenth century and all through World War II coerced Egyptians and peoples of the Levant into capitalism (p. 26). But according to Alff, the imperialists simply pressed through various Oriental regimes such as the corvée system that was already there to enforce capitalism. The only violence that capitalism introduces in the Middle East, Alff finds, is the commodification of labor (p. 42).

Max Ajil, Bassam Haddad and Zeinab Abul-Magd in Chapter Two trace the fortunes of developmentalism in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. The 1967 defeat before Israel brought a coup de grace for Egypt and Syria’s developmental projects. But the coup de grace implies that subterranean forces, varying between class antagonism and cold war politics (stretching to the developmental policy of careless borrowings of Muhammad Ali’s successors, a century before) had been at work. Again, it is large-scale debts that were meant to fund development that decided the fate of Arab Socialism in Egypt and Syria. (p. 61) While Egypt succumbed immediately to the infitah policy, Syria resisted but not without a considerable cost to the material well-being of its population. Tunisia’s nationalist movement was only pitted against European settlers’ supremacy. The moment that supremacy was reversed, President Lahbib Bourguiba was happy with just replacing, not undoing, the colonial system (p. 51). The contributors explain the persistent infightings in Syria today on the ground that “…the war simply is too lucrative to dissolve.” (p. 67).

Chapter Three by Timothy Mitchell dispels roaming myths regarding the role of oil both in the MENA region and the world at large. Oil supply—readers find—is governed by conglomerates whose concern is not ensuring the supply of hydrocarbons but rather the control of production and circulation for the sake of cashing in monumental profits. Once ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron become the principal players in the market, their efforts are geared toward the orchestration of scarcity: maintaining the illusory combination of risk and rarity whereby “…earnings stretch far into the future” (p. 73). No less consequential is Mitchell’s observation that, unlike coal which helped to create mass democracies, oil accelerates regressions towards inegalitarian polities. Labor has not challenged oil conglomerates, only nation-states have. The unfortunate side of this equation is that these states become resistant to coups (p. 77). Perhaps it is better to underline how MENA states have become resistant to democratic change since by exempting populations from taxation, governments could elide the maxim of no taxation without representation. Again, RST is found to be reductive because states benefiting from oil revenues have integrated the newly generated wealth into other business ventures and created independent assets, spelling rapid growth.  

Shana Marshall in Chapter Four finds that the endurance of say, Egyptian, Syrian or Algerian militaries in power despite popular contestations can be explained through the latter’s congruent connections with the global military-industrial complex. Such regional militaries are not simple to state functionaries but form a powerful class whose interests explain the need for a powerful metropolitan class for growth through expanding arms sales. In recycling oil money in Western economies, the MENA militaries become indispensable, even, invincible for the world order as it is, making a radical change exceptionally challenging. Suffice it to know that “[m]ajor arms exporters and their host governments were often at the forefront of efforts to pressure the international financial institutions to rescind demands for sharp reductions in defense spending.” (p. 91)

Part II: Country/Regional Studies: comprises seven chapters of which I am zooming only on two as they best illustrate the editors’ stance vis-à-vis class. Adam Hanieh’s fifth chapter rejects Hossein Mahdavy’s RST whereby Gulf governments have been classically approached. Hanieh posits that state and class are phenomenologically interlinked. Therefore, reliance on oil may have initially served, even fueled, consumptive habits but in the long run, it has facilitated the diversification of Gulf economies, creating a wealth-generating class, not crooked elites. This position contradicts standard accounts of the Gulf. Meanwhile, Hanieh never undermines these economies’ heavy reliance on non-citizens as this labor regime can be fatal.

Chapter Eight by Muriam Haleh Davis follows Jacques Marseille’s presupposition that starting from 1930 onward France was overburdened by her colonies, and that the idea of metropolitan France enriching itself from the colonies is but a myth. Davis posits that no rupture exists when moving from colonial to postcolonial modes of production (p. 164). What can be considered as a rupture is between pre-colonial and colonial modes of production in which the appropriation of tribal lands not only explains the proletarianization of large sways of the Algerian population but the foundation of a system that systematically worked against the historical owners of the land.

Indeed, the importance of class is not news. Nevertheless, the book stays fixated on one class: a single-player; the one that is holding power at this point. Nowhere do readers see the strife that usually accompanies competing classes, a situation that leaves the same readers wondering if editors consider lesser classes unworthy of attention or whether attempts to alter the present configuration of classes in the region are simply naïve and wasteful. Such a stance explains a static account of class; an account divorced from regimes of land tenure, oil production and circulation, arms dealerships, state control, and the challenges facing labor. The integration of class in understanding the tapestry making the MENA political economy is not there yet. Various contributors, including the last one, zoom in on the role that the lesser classes or the subaltern may play in reshaping the political economy, but overall, the contributors treat the subaltern as an immobile category: only the imperialists, the capitalists are rendered as agents of history.   

Regarding the rising fortunes of capital in the Gulf, it remains a mystery how the emergence of the capitalistic class which the contributors claim to be independent of rent has neither flattened the state’s capacity for coercion nor forced it toward democratization. Such a state of affairs leaves interested audiences wondering how could such feudal monarchies maintain their grip on power if indeed there exists a solid capitalistic class, as Hanieh advances. Indeed, the crash of the real-estate sector in 2009 offers a reflective insight into how privately owned businesses could be after all a bubble as they cannot survive without state patronage because they are concentrated in non-productive sectors. The thesis of the state playing the role of “a midwife of capitalistic class formation …” (p.121) cannot stand up to scrutiny. Similarly, Chapter Eight makes it look that Algeria’s independence was a charity from the capitalists. This is no different from squeezing facts to meet a theory. All these untenable conclusions result from confusing causes with effects. 

While the book traces a progressivist line from Orientalism and modernization theories, the overall approach is non-emancipatory as it is geared toward justifying the triumphant status quo, the one that emerged after the 2011 popular uprisings. With this conservative outlook, it becomes unsurprising to find the three contributors of Chapter Two concluding that these uprisings subscribe to classical bourgeois revolutions (p. 66). They do, but only when flattening cause and effect, that is, when refusing to register that the uprisings initially started as incendiary but the revolutionary momentum was crushed in consequence of the counterrevolution coercive policies, the least of which has been physical violence. Thus, the book’s approach is geared towards confusing, not explaining what indeed took place. This underlines the extent to which a triumphant regime of political economy pretends to provide a critique by simply promoting capital’s counterrevolutionary moment.   

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)


Sneed, A. Roger. 2021. The Dreamer and the Dream: Afrofuturism and Black Religious Thought (New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality). Ohio State University Press. $ 99.95

Is it possible to rework a religion in order to serve emancipatory ends? From the outset, the project seems not only futile but self-defeating. But less one precipitates, Sneed’s proposal does not apply makeup on some old synthesis. For Black religious thought has been classically a contradiction in movement: a white God can only service white supremacy, exacerbating African-Americans’ extended slavery and misery. With science fiction (novels and films) and experimental music, there emerge promising conceptions of God and religion that are subversive to white supremacy. Artistically, Sneed qualifies these conceptions as Afrofuturism. The book does not claim that blueprints are ready or that meaningful liberation is imminent. Rather, Sneed claims Afrofuturism “disrupts pervasive marking of race and destructive coding of Black bodies and existence as inferior” (p. xii). It is a field of reflection that promises to propagate toward a revolution. 

The book lies in eight chapters. Chapters one and two are an expansion of the introduction. Chapters three to six are the blood-pumping parts of the argument. Seven and eight are an extension of the conclusion and the postscript. The first chapter examines how mainstream science fiction has built quite a reputation for avoiding Blackness, a metastasis of slavery and colonialism, and how Afrofuturism struggles to redress that avoidance. Sneed observes that the science fiction genre remains condescending to Black authors and audiences. And this repurposing functions in ways that are more than just reversals of white supremacy.

The second chapter clarifies the understanding that Black religious thought and Black popular culture are not mutually exclusive or simply different endeavours. It is precisely through Black popular culture that one can understand the evolving practice of Black religious thought. Differently put, Afrofuturism helps set a progressive Black religious thought. Ideologies such as Black liberation or womanist theologies should be viewed as Afrofuturist endeavours seeking to negotiate an empowering Black religious thought. Afrofuturism cannot be dubbed as naively utopian.   

The third chapter finds Octavia Butler, an architect of intersectional Afrofuturism. With the dystopian moments that her Parable series accentuate, women characters, like Olmania, ensure historical continuity and exasperation with heterosexual norms. According to Sneed, Butler galvanizes Black people through Earthseed, a holistic religion that dares to revise sedimented conceptualizations of God. The trickster God proposes openings for integrating Afrofuturism into humanism.

Queerness in chapter four operates as salvation. Janelle Monáe’s select albums and androids critically target misogyny, homophobia, racism, white supremacy, and classicism. The pansexuality that defines her dramatis personae Cindi Mayweather is her signature for reinventing the world so that pathologies damaging Black experiences are reversed through Afrofuturistic imageries. The disturbing recollections that viewers experience in slave auctioning her androids as in: “Many Moons” underline the commodification of bodies; queer dance becomes her blueprint to bypass prevalent instantiations of slavery.

Chapter five specifies how Deep Space Nine (DS9) alters the trajectory set by the Star Trek franchise. With Captain Benjamin Sisko, the protagonist of DS9, Black life is no longer unidimensional. Through his “encounter with the Prophets (or wormhole aliens)” (p. 78), Benny Russel or Sisko offers a sustained critique of Black religious lives who trust in a God who is not outside space and time.

Chapter six interrogates possibilities of emancipation in Black Panther, a 2018 film, where Africa and Africans, through the imaginary republic of Wakanda, have experienced neither slavery nor colonialism. Here, too, men lie beyond salvation while women are saviours. Like her name suggests in Arabic, Nakia stands for pure plentitude. Featuring Afrofuturistic films, western monotheism and toxic masculinity are the invisible enemies.

As with every sedimented concept is contested, Sneed examines in chapter seven those creative attempts by Black liberationists to cancel time in order to undo Christian eschatology. He notes how linear temporality sets Blackness for defeat. In projecting the mythological content of Ancient Egypt into space, Afrofuturists can conceive of an eschatology that targets the destruction of white supremacy. Chronological time coerces African Americans to embrace false history as the authentic ones. 

Chapter eight teases out the possibility of pressing Black science fiction to yield an Afrofuturist identity and an Afrofuturist religious identity outside the church to expand Black emancipation. The chapter reconnects the dots: Afrofuturism and Black religious thought, focusing on the Afrofuturist doing the job of bridging the gap. The conclusion showcases brief excursions into current development and productions to outline future directions for Afrofuturistic religious thought.

In stressing intersectionality (the rejection of hierarchization of oppressions) as the way forward for Afrofuturism, I am afraid that Sneed has not well registered Toni Morrison’s warning that racism functions as a distraction for the work ahead. One cannot miss the postmodernist stance of rejecting causality in intersectionality. Since equal preoccupation with gender or race flattens serious engagement with the class. Besides, it is unclear how readers process Butler’s mythical creation of Earthseed as intersectional and not as foundational. It is one way of claiming that God “…does not need to break into history, as it does not exist outside of history.” (p. 52) and is completely different to say that God is the embodiment of change or a trickster and where adherents have to develop an adaptive belief system literally. The first claim is that Butler sees nothing new under the sun because the core principle that defines humans is timeless. In the second, there is no core principle to begin with. Likewise, deeming “Monáe’s resistance to male consumption [as] not simultaneously resistant to capitalist consumption” (p. 66) questions the relevance of intersectionality as a tenable approach for Afrofuturism.

I cannot agree more with Sneed’s distinction between the erotic and pornographic in Monáe’s Dirty Computer since “Cindi is less Frankenstein’s monster and more the incarnation of the divine in cybernetic form.” (p. 68). Here, radical love becomes accessible through radical alterity à la Hegelian Christ. But while queerness is surely subversive, it cannot be revolutionary. When reading that capitalism is not the enemy, and only white supremacy and heterosexism are, then wonders if Monáe has truly seized why the capitalistic mode of production values estrangement in and for itself. This mode of production cannot stand heterosexual norms because it is precisely in heterosexuality where a real potential for bypassing capitalism lies. Historical continuity dictates the historical necessity to undo the über oppression and class exploitation. That is why eschatological destination, as elaborated in chapter seven, remains nowhere as nearly helpful. Sun Ra’s film points toward the posthuman. But restarting life on another planet is exactly what white supremacists want Blackness to do. This explains why Afrofuturism should avoid apocalyptic preoccupations and the celebration of estrangement lest it engages in half a revolution.  

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)


Ford, Joseph. 2021. Writing the Black Decade: Conflict and Criticism in Francophone Algerian Literature. Lexington Books: New York and London. Kindle $ 45.00

In studying Francophone Algerian Literature of the 1990s, a period otherwise known as the Black Decade or la Décennie Noire, Ford finds out that the literary outputs reify it instead of clarifying the conflict.  Indeed, literary outputs published by celebrity figures both during the 1990s and after not only stay neutral before the ideological struggle between the secular-and-military status quo on the one hand and their Islamist contestants on the other but deem it their mission to testify for posterity. 

That war was tagged cultural and simplified to the point of pitting progressivists against depressives. Such a binary portrayal gained currency during the post-Cold War context, where ideas of the clash of civilizations became the Modus Operandi. Generations of Algerian authors, Ford specifies, have uncritically fallen to that categorization less because they were complicit with the state’s narrative but more due to channels of reception in France. Often, those channels recourse to timeless portrayals that reactivated the spectacle (never the essence) of Algeria’s war of independence: enlightened Algerian democrats as Les pieds noirs against bearded medievalists, reactivating FLN recidivists. Only from February 2019 onward, the literary scene starts to disentangle this framing, counting some writers who dare to explore the black decade with less bias and a satisfying complexity.     

In discussing Francophone Algerian literature, Ford follows a chronological approach. Chapter One studies testimonial novels by authors such as Rachid Mimouni. Written in realism, Mimouni’s novels, like Rachid Boujedra’s, have been behind instituting the binary and reductive approach. To their credit, Assia Djebar and Maïssa Bey practised restraint, specifying that they prefer not to subscribe to either representation or testimony.  

Chapter Two explores the writings of Salim Bachi as the latter recourses to myth, a promising mode of writing that breaks with Mimouni’s testimonial fiction. The mythical undertaking registers his embrace for historical readings of the Black Decade. But 9/11 sees him falling on the trope of the clash of civilizations.    

Chapter Three focuses on imaginative outputs by Habib Ayoub. Here grotesque renditions of leaders deconstruct the ways ordinary Algerians become complicit in orchestrating their own apolitical lives. Both leaders and the subaltern equally evoke the language of heroism besetting the war of independence.  

Chapter Four examines Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête and finds that contrary to the nuanced approach besetting the work, the framing of the work and its reception by heavy French media and the polemics marking Daoud’s journalistic writings have been behind a resurgence of the old binary lenses.   

Chapter Five reviews Mustapha Benfodil’s Archéologie du chaos (amoureux). Fords find this work a bold statement elucidating its author’s dissatisfaction with the testimonial mode and his radical disentangling from simplistic reading. Ford assumes that conceptual experimentations such as ‘wild readings’ or les lectures sauvages do reverse political power because complicity with the powers that be is thought to be rooted in mistaken readings.     

The transition of the Algerian novel that addresses the Black Decade from the realist to the mythical to the grotesque to quasi-historical to the modernist mode of expression illustrates promising progress. Undoing the complicity of oppositional discourses with the status quo can only be possible through undoing the binary matrix that has stigmatized both the practices of power and society throughout the Black Decade and since.

Ford seems to be in awe of Benfodil’s experimentations and is somehow satisfied with the overall evolution of Francophone Algerian authors’ perception of what took place during the 1990s. Perhaps, he should read these experimentations for what they are: mere lexical excitations. Benfodil’s spectacled readings cannot allow him to fundamentally grasp the Black Decade or even the hirak of February 2019 as a class struggle. Grappling with Daoud’s fiction and journalism remains a promising path for approximating that struggle irrespective of media framings.    

Fouad Mami

Professor of English

University Ahmed Draia—Adrar, Algeria. 

Vitalis, Robert. 2020. Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security that Haunts U.S. Energy Policy. Stanford University Press; pp. ‎ 240 pages; Paperback: $22.00; Hardcover: $22.47; ISBN-10 :1503632598; ISBN-13: 978-1503632592

The premise of Vitalis’ book is that oil cannot be the bloodline of the U.S. economy, least of all, of U.S. national security. There are several minerals (a little over seventy) which the industrial world badly needs a constant and secured supply of and which civilization itself cannot do without, but they are not treated as important as oil. Such a state of affairs serves us in questioning contents spread by news cartels! At least, the average observer has never heard that this or that country has waged war or is willing to wage one to ensure reliable shipments of aluminium or copper. What is it so special, then, with oil? Precisely, what is at stake when it comes to oil?

According to Vitalis, oil is less the story of oil, the crude matter, and more the story of cooked data and produced-under-demand type of evidence. Powerful interest groups and lobbies inside the U.S. corridors of power steer such data and evidence toward selling the myth which nearly all people are born to embrace as self-evident. Indeed, the fear of failing to ensure a constant supply of oil (and strangely only) from the Persian Gulf is supposed to spell a trauma. The myth sits on another no less powerful and enduring myth. Both science and reason ensure that there has never been a dwindling supply of oil or any other natural resources. As technology advances, enough reserves of all types of minerals are constantly discovered. The only way to free the U.S. democracy, nay, the very political system and ensure a solid role model for the rest of the world is to shed off these myths. They cripple U.S. policy planners and ruin the U.S. reputation in the world.  

The book comprises five chapters wherein the first serves as an introduction and the last as a conclusion. Chapter One “Opening” sets the stage for revisiting President Bush’s conquest of Iraq in 2003. Since both then and now, the argument goes that the U.S. acted on behalf of large Oil conglomerates. If so, Vitalis rebuts. The proper and easiest way for the U.S. to access that oil was to lift its own 1990s sanctions on Iraqi exports. Like this, oil companies would have entered the market and the problem resolved. Besides, with the rise of prices in the early 2000s, the abundance of hydraulically-fractioned oil has made the U.S. a major producer of oil itself. The U.S. import of oil from the Middle East is around 18 per cent.

Nevertheless, “Junk social science” (p. 5) keeps the scary narrative aflame. In a context where luminaries and public intellectuals are fixated on their myth of ‘oil-as-power’, the term ‘oilcraft’ recalls witchcraft more than statecraft. Vitalis’ analogy is a call towards dispelling confusion and talismanic obsession by promoting a rationalized understanding of decisions about energy policy. When the only evidence ‘junk’ social scientists provide is the rising of prices, then one comes face to face with what Roger Stern ably calls ‘oil-scarcity ideology’ (p. 6). Vitalis stresses the method whereby every statement we encounter in the archive should be taken with a grain of salt.

To counter such an erroneous methodology, he proposes that readers must not overlook three facts: 1- the world is rich in minerals; anyone has access to raw materials. The possibility of oil-as-weapon is at best incorrect and a ‘chimaera’ (p. 14). Instead of embracing the confirmation bias, the abondance should incentivize us to question what lies beyond the phenomenal; 2- the imagined threats to oil supply—even when real—cannot be addressed militarily; 3- oil prices are dependent on other raw materials. A simple comparison of oil prices against other minerals in the long durée—as Roger Stern does—will conclude that oil cannot be the lifeblood of the American way of life.     

Chapter Two, “Raw Materialism”, posits that the idea of a single source being of critical importance for a given national economy is reductionist at best and misleading at worse. Vitalis brings to evidence proponents of the early twentieth century Columbia School (scholars like Edward Mead Earle and William S. Culbertson) wherein the latter notes that U.S. policy since 1918 has been rooted in “bogeys” ranging from rapid depletion of natural resources to British monopoly of these resources (pp. 26-7). Back then, like now, there existed an industry behind the studies fueling these bogeys, infuriating the public and policymakers alike about such imagined threats. Vitalis finds that the idea of ” ‘control’ of foreign oil fields” (p. 29) becoming a priority for the U.S. economy has been sown in Americans’ unconscious fairly recently, during the 1990s. Culbertson finds that wars do not emerge from the need to control or ensure extended supplies of raw materials but from the need for markets to commercialize industrialized commodities. (p. 32) That is how embracing mid-nineteen century protectionism triggers bouts of scarcity syndrome. But a generation or two later, these findings made during the 1920s were all forgotten. The Cold War context made it more likely that the Soviets could threaten U.S. access to Middle East oil. Vitalis adds that even Noam Chomsky falls into confirmation bias wherein “the progressives of the 1970s were a pale imitation of their 1920s ancestors.” (p. 55) as they just kept parroting criticism of American foreign policy without registering the immanent discourse on oil or where that criticism might be heading.

Chapter Three, “1973: A Time to Confuse”, rereads the much-mediated event of October 17, 1973, or the alleged OPEC oil embargo. Upon checking the evidence, Vitalis finds the event was anything but a spectacle. Under no stretch of the imagination, the event can be seriously called or even approximated to a threat of cutting supplies, let alone an embargo. Back then, “only 7 per cent of U.S. oil imports originated from the Middle East” (p. 57). Besides, Arab nationalists only expressed a half-hearted and face-saving gesture in the wake of their humiliating defeat against Isarel in June 1967—gestures meant for popular consumption at home only.

Nevertheless, the scarcity-thesis driven by media and the cult of trusting experts and intellectuals for gaining monopoly made it look as if scarcity is imminent and can usher at the end of the world. Vitalis discusses the five hundred pages report by David S. Freeman’s A Time to Choose, released when Americans were experiencing long lines in gas stations. The report makes it super easy to jump to the conclusion that the long queues were a reverberation from the much-publicized shock that spelt serious disruptions of supply and all presumably orchestrated by the Arab Embargo. In reality, though, OPEC “sought a fairer share of the windfall.” (p. 64) In its effort to protect local crude producers from the effects of the unstable market, the U.S. government used a preferential tariff with local crude producers. However, the Nixon Administration decided in 1971 to reverse the preferential tariff policy and open the U.S. market to non-American producers. This new policy, not OPEC’s action, explain the interruption in supply and long queues; the embargo was only a surrogate. Far from disrupting supply, Arabs were terrified of losing their market shares.

Chapter Four, “No Deal”, elaborates on the motoring principle behind the myth that stipulates the invisibility of oil for the American policymaker. It is the key chapter as it uncovers the motive behind portraying oil as the bloodline of the American economy. Vitalis notes that this myth could not become as intense as now without the fantasy-embraced-as-history. Given their nefarious stature in consequence of 9/11, the Saudis, or Al Saud, more exactly: the ruling oligarchs of Saudi Arabia, have invested heavily to paint themselves as peace-loving and reliable suppliers of oil for the U.S. economy. They invented a genesis for a presumed memorandum of understanding or a deal between King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt on board the destroyer U.S.S. Qunicy near the end of World War II. The presumed deal which the author finds no trace in the archives or the records hypothetically listed that the Saudis will ensure reliable shipments of crude and the U.S., on its part, will guarantee the protection of the king and his dynasty after him. Vitalis adds: “The only problem is that no account of U.S.-Saudi relation for the next fifty years said any such thing.” (p. 87), underscoring a situation that leads anyone to conclude that “The Saudis, the P.R. firms, and their many friends in Washington would milk the meeting with F.D.R. for all it was worth after 2001”. (p. 91) Indeed, Vitalis is aware that this Saudi fabrication counts among the latest in the arsenal of forgeries specifying the invisibility of oil. Differently put, the deceit and the fable could not go unnoticed without interest groups at home. These interest groups profit from recycling oil dollars in the U.S. economy through purchases of U.S. treasury bonds, consumer goods and, of course, armament bills with astronomical price tags attached to them. That is how it is for the long-term interest of the U.S. to distance itself from a retrogressive and degenerate monarchy. That proximity does considerable damage to the status of the U.S. as a superpower. The crumbling of the Saudis’ rule will be an event that will boost, not hinder, U.S. supremacy or at least its leadership credentials.

Chapter Five, “Breaking the Spell”, concludes Oilcraft by reclaiming each chapter’s key pieces of the argument. Vialis starts with underlying that “[p]opular and scholarly beliefs about oil-as-power also have no basis in fact” (p. 122). But the irony that the myth posits is that policymakers who sincerely want to break from this fixation can do little to break the immanent structure whereby oil is received as invisible. The assumptions are that powerful that any attempt to go against them ends in discrediting, if not ridiculing, the credible policymaker. Hence, the first step of leaving that fixation starts with getting the scholarship correct, never allowing unchecked opinions to go for knowledge. Knowledge starts by first making sure that crude producers have no choice but to sell their outputs. Before harming the U.S. economy, cutting supplies will strangle their economies and destabilize their hold on power. Second, one needs to be certain that besides the fact that deploying an army to protect crude supplies cannot be tenable and efficient, the deployment itself raises tensions and causes supply interruptions. Third, the Middle East is a volatile space, and it does not behove a superpower to be constantly dragged into the mess out there. Fourth, by the same depleted logic of scarcity, why does not the U.S. go and chase bauxite, tungsten, tin, rubber lest other powers appropriate them? Fifth, there lies the fallacy with which the degenerate left sells its credentials: as soon as the U.S. steps out of the Middle East, “the fossil-capital-led order” will fall all on its own hence an era of plenitude automatically emerge. In the end, Vitalis notes that “Oilcraft today [has] hijack[ed] the mind of the scientifically literate” (p.128), speaking less of the average person whereby oil passes as an explanation for almost every that is wrong with the world today. Sixth, Saudis’ money should not be allowed to finance studies. Funding (Vitalis rightly calls it “the paid-to-think-tanks” p. 131) will only bring about pseudo-science whose consequences are more confusion and befogged policies, but the propaganda which the funding generates will cover for the asphyxiation of liberties in the Middle East and the world at large. In the end, Vitalis rightly addresses the U.S. policymaker: “why fear an Arabia without Sultans?” (p. 133)

Vitalis finds that well-intentioned and respectful policymakers and advisers stay disabled in the face of the enduring myths. Over the decades, these myths have taken a larger dimension than life. He is correct that the journey to undo their effect starts with unbiased research. But there are instances where Vitalis’ reliance on Posen’s suspicion of the ideology that oil is all but powerful recalls the theory that colonies cost metropolitan centres more than what the latter could squeeze value out of them. But his subsequent elaboration that correlation does not necessarily lead to causation lifts the confusion.

Perhaps what remains missing in Vitalis’ discussion of Columbia scholars’ findings of the 1920s regarding those in favour of open trade and their opponents is how during the time where capital expansion needed nationalism, oil was treated (and for good reasons) as the lifeblood. Vitalis indirectly calls for updating sedimented thinking since capitalistic growth since the 1920s (exactly after WWI) is not conditioned on the old mystique view of oil-as-bloodline, given the abundance of supply. Producers cannot afford to withdraw crude from buyers lest they risk losing their share in a highly competitive market. Similarly, no major power can hinder access to oil because oil remains evenly available everywhere.

At play, there have been two temporalities of capital accumulation, not one: formal and real dominations. The two temporalities explain why Moon notes the necessity (which is, in fact, Karl Marx’s) that animate these temporalties wherein occupying a colony becomes financially inhibitive after WWI. Self-less or anonymous capital is self-regulating at an advanced stage of primitive accumulation. Differently put, during the era of real domination (post-1918), there cannot be a need for a class of bourgeois pioneers to intervene. That explains why the bourgeois class has disappeared. In its place, there emerged a capitalistic class who controlled nothing yet. They pretend they are in charge of managers/administrators (C.E.O.s) appointed by shareholders to speak on behalf of the latter interest. Hence in this context, we read of Parker T. Moon’s quote where “raw materials are colour-blind.” (p. 36) and that colonies are a burden to maintain.

Likewise, Vitalis’ analysis in Chapter Four dwells on the corruption of the Saudis, and their dizzying pace of change ‘from camels to Cadilliacs’ (p. 95) paid for by oil rent may sound racist stays inconsequential in the overreaching impact of oil wealth. For that, oil wealth decides less their conservative outlook but more significantly intensifies their adamant predisposition against the founding of the semblance of an egalitarian polity all over the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) region. The counter-revolution that quelled the uprisings of the Arab Spring both in 2011 and 2019 have been fueled and financed by their medieval outlook. On the aside, Vitalis notes that with recycled petrodollars, the Saudi acquired F-15 jets that have been since March 2015 bombing civilians in Yemen. But he could have pushed his liberal outlook a little further by noting that worse than the F-15s lies the regressive and ultra-conservative brand of the faith whose sole agenda appears to be the crashing all social movements that promised to propagate towards a lifestyle free from the dictatorship of oil.      

Overall, there are instances where Vitalis’ debunking of myths such as ‘oil-as-power’ falls into the right, and there are other instances where the same debunking falls more into the left. Still, sometimes he can be counted even as a devout communist. But the undecidability of classification is the quality of great scholarship, where he passionately elucidates his points regardless of class or ideology. Indeed, Vitalis embraces his mission to eradicate facile portrayals because masquerading beneath so-called ‘self-evident conclusions’ lies not only the perpetuation of mistaken decisions but the squandering of the U.S. taxpayers’ savings as well subaltern of the MENA chances for a future in dignity.   

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)


Moore, Wayétu. 2018. She Would be King: A Novel. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 311pp. Hardcover: $15.99. ISBN-10: 1555978177; ISBN-13: 978-1555978174

It is less of a tautology to claim that orthodox historians to this day have read the abolition of slavery, a step first taken by Britain in 1807 and followed later by other powers, as the event that ushered in a reversal of chattel slavery. Nevertheless, the end of chattel slavery for Wayétu Moore in She Would Be King (2018), underlies a regression towards wage labour, a policy deemed far worse than slavery, ensuring not only a second life of the nefarious institution but also the foundation of a system wherein workers prostitute themselves every single working day in contrast to slaves who were sold once or twice in a lifetime.

In the author’s eye, wage labour stands for that descent into the proletarization of people and communities, their systemic impoverishment through the appropriation of their labour time, amounting to civil wars and overall societal unrest. Readers may recall that Moore’s stated objective from writing the novel has been her attempt to specify the reasons that lead to Liberia’s civil war (1989-1997) during which she, a toddler (born in 1985), and her family were forced to flee the country and settle in the US. It is worth recalling that Liberia is the first nation-state in Africa. Its independence dates back to 1847, well before countries such as South Africa, Egypt or even Ethiopia. But the country has remained largely unstable and the advantage of Moore’s novel is that it promises to take its reader to the motoring principle behind that instability and violence, that is, to the foundation of wage labour system.

Moore’s early attempts in fiction writing is a children book titled: I Love Liberia (2011). She similarly champions a non-profit business adventure called ‘One Moore Book’. Note the pun in ‘Moore’, highlighting both the word ‘more’ and the author’s last name. The project aims at circulating “… culturally relevant books to children who are underrepresented and live in countries with low literacy rates.”(1) Besides, Moore’s faith in the universal extension of knowledge to unfortunate young minds underscores her initial cause of dispelling illusions and falsehoods, including those that have put Liberia on the road of misery, impoverishment and interminable wars.

Several observers and experts will keep reiterating that behind that generalized instability and descent into bloody civil wars lies the same people’s backwardness, incapacity to found an enduring social contract and endemic divisions between multiple social components. All these factors should perhaps be approached with a grain of salt because the listed ‘reasons’ subscribe more to the logics of justification, not explanations. Indeed, such arguments are culturalist in nature and all they succeed in achieving is to blame the victims and, in the meanwhile, lift the blame from the real harm-inflictors, both people and structures. The present essay underscores the need to consider the author’s approach and setting of the story, since taking that into consideration, I claim, can be conducive to register exactly what happened, and the way in which what indeed happened (not that which is fancied as what happened) had ushered in in the long term the civil war of the 1990s.

The differential between that which indeed happened and that which portends to have happened is a historiography that promises to propagate towards universal emancipation. Leaving that which triggered the author’s own exile unexamined is to remain stuck in superficialities-sold-as-histories, with the cost of ensuring that cycles of violence will not only keep emerging but those cycles’ rhythm will have to be confronted with a telling regularity.

Before detailing on wage labor, there exists the need to broach first on several social players of modern Liberia as traced by the author in She Would be King. We find at least two main components:  the first is the Vai and other indigenous communities as represented by Gbessa’s story in the early part of the novel, offering a window into precolonial life in an African village before European intrusion. Through the stigmatization of Gbessa on the ground of her ‘ill-fated’ birth date, Moore illustrates that precolonial life, that is, well before the incursion of European powers into the continent’s interiors, life in Africa was far from being either idyllic or perfect. Readers find that Gbessa is cursed simply because her birth date coincides with an event interpreted as a bad omen. Through no fault of her own, and at the age of eight, Gbessa is sentenced to die by abandoning her in the deep jungle. Her parents are ostracized for bringing a child on a ‘wrong’ day, overlooking how the wrong day is wrong only in the calendar of alienation!

The second category of social actors are returnees, victims of slavery but who found themselves obliged (like June Dey) or entreated (like Norman Aragon) to return and find peace in Monrovia. Let us recall that these last two characters are themselves descendants of enslaved Africans who do not necessarily come from Libera, or even nearby localities such as the Ivory Coast or Ghana. Throughout the decades and even the centuries, the first enslaved people died and their enslaved descendants simply retained “Africa” or its idea less as their place of origin and more as a place where they used to be free, their humanity round and unquestioned. It should be noted that places such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania or the Congo are recent inventions that come with colonial expansionist plans and labels since by the time chattel slavery become generalized, these appellations (not places) simply did not exist.

In She Would be King, we find this affinity with Africa, less as a geographical space or biological affiliation and more as an existential attachment to a promise for emancipation with Nanni, Norman’s mother. Despite having the choice to live among several Maroon communities in Jamaica, Nanni always feeds Norman, her son, the obligation to leave Jamaica and to re-join Africa. To seize on her steadfastness in bonding with Africa, readers cannot miss how she endures Callum’s pseudo-scientific whims, slavery and even rape, all for the sake of earning a boarding passage to Africa. Africa, she seizes, is both the physical territory and mental space conceptualized as existential freedom, a radical breach with the reductionism of one’s humanity that underlies her life as a slave. Nanni, Norman and June Dey, as elaborated below, are Pan-Africanists avant la lettre. Well before the foundation of the early to mid-twentieth century movement of Pan-Africanism, we read that slaves in the Americas entertained not only exalted dreams but elaborate plans to equally find and found freedom in Africa. Alternatively, freedom became synonymous with their idea of Africa. The two are intricately attached so much so that they serve as a prerogative for Africa-as-freedom and freedom-as-African.

The runaway slave June Dey similarly comes from a tobacco plantation in Virginia, named Emerson. His biological father is a slave from a neighbouring plantation who was cheaply sold to the Emersons in the hope of saving the crumbling plantation capital and helping it regain its former wealth and glory. We read that June Dey’s father, June, killed the overseer in his last incarcerating place because that overseer had killed his wife and baby. June is subsequently killed in Emerson because he dared to defend his second family, the one he founded after arriving at Emerson and from this union June Dey is born. June Dey’s biological mother, Charlottes, occupies a mixed space between a domestic and field hand. During the day she serves in the mansion but at night she sleeps in a shack with other field slaves. She too was brutally murdered soon after getting rid of June. Their baby christened Moses, was trusted to Darlene, a domestic slave and another victim of the infamous system. Even when no one dared to divulge a single word in respect to his father’s feats, June Dey or Moses truly stands to his biblical sake name. The insurrectionary spirit becomes contagious and is transferred from father to son nevertheless. He was raised as a domestic, but when Mr Emersons decides to dispense with some slaves in order to raise funds for a second nearby plantation that would plant cotton, June Dey leads the insurrection that brings the Emerson plantation and its expansionist plans all down.

Indeed, we read that the two June Dey and Norman Aragon are repatriated to Monrovia: Norman because that was his mother’s dying wish but for June Dey the trip was totally unplanned. After his spectacular fight against the masters of Emerson, the opportunity presented itself as the runway June Dey is knocked out of consciousness and finds himself in a ship, run by the famous American Colonization Society (ACS) and is bound for Africa. All over the 1840s, the ACS used to raise resources from the US Congress to secure the repatriation of both free and freed Africans to Liberia. Meanwhile, the ACS established a footing for US imperial planners during the heated race for colonies.

When knowing that even Gbessa too had been in exile as she was excommunicated from her village on the pretext of being cursed, the three characters conceive of Africa less as a place of origin and more as a promise for greater, that is, communal emancipation. This suggests how readers are invited to favour ideological affiliation, not biological association. Indeed, Norman and June Dey meet outside the Monrovia prison searching for ways of reaching Freetown which is much of a mythical land and which involves how it is less a physical territory and more of a life journey.

Why underlying the symbolic meaning of the land? Lest Africa is fetishized, the simple act of setting foot in Africa registers as just the beginning of the journey, the commencement of the arduous work, neither an end in itself nor a call for passive resignation. Moore’s vision for Africa serves the facilitation of encountering like-minded individuals to unite the efforts and beat up against intruders for collective and communal emancipation. Encountering Gbessa when she is literally on the verge of death (she has been beaten by a snake), Norman has been at that point looking for a medicinal herb (significantly, a living root—not one that is cut) to attend to June Dey’s terrible stomachache. Instead of caring for one, Norman has now to attend to two patients whom he barely knows. He could have simply abandoned them to their fate and carried out his journey alone. But he realized that a journey is meaningless without companions and fellow travellers. Once this initial task of caring for the physical well-being of committed Africans is successfully carried out, facing intruders both local and foreign is next on the agenda. The three face French soldiers as the latter are burning villages and driving the inhabitants into the slave market. Unparalleled feats of success are achieved as Norman and June Dey save the villagers and they all eventually mount a rebellion against the French enslavers. Historically, France was a latecomer in the slave trade and France grudgingly abolished slavery as late as 1848. French enslavers take Gbessa a prisoner; later, she is stabbed and is left bleeding. But Gbessa’s curse specifies that she cannot die. She stands for the undying spirit of insurrection, which explains why soon enough, we meet Gbessa in Mr Johnson’s mansion, taken care of by Maisy, a servant. Understandably, Mr Johnson plays a prominent role in the young and independent republic of Liberia.

By then, the narrative may look like it slides into insignificant preoccupations: Gbessa’s marriage with a prominent army lieutenant, Gerald Tubman, in the then newly founded Liberian army. The union starts as a marriage of convenience but eventually becomes rotating around love. The new elites of settlers badly desire peace. How else to achieve that peace and trust with the unruly tribes of the interior except through a marriage with Gbessa? The union stands as a pledge, not a testimony, that Liberia will hopefully remain a single and functional entity. June Dey and Norman are now mixing with the crowds. But the mixed marriage should not lend a superficial reading of the novel. Already, readers notice that within early Liberian high society, composed of individuals who themselves had been slaves or had experienced slavery at a close range in pre-civil war America have themselves resorted, however indirectly, to enslaving practices in the form of wage labour.

Maisy’s fate, when closely considered, speaks volumes. Kidnapped is one of the last enslaving raids, her entire tribe was annihilated. As a sole survivor, she is now a servant of Mr Johnson. The latter is presumably a popular leader of the young nation but in fact he is the spokesperson of the settlers, those now powerful people repatriated by the ACS. In a dialogue between prominent ladies, Miss. Ernestine raises the remark that in being a house servant Maisy brings unhappy reminiscences regarding the fate of domestic slaves on plantations in the antebellum United States. The snide remark is swiftly answered with a tinge of irony where Mrs Johnson points at the rumours which circulate how Miss. Ernestine could be abusing the native inhabitants in her coffee plantations, treating them like field slaves, implying that she perhaps should mind her own business before attending to others.

The conversation between the ladies, however calm in tone and seemingly casual, even friendly, remains eye-opening. What cannot be missed, however, is how these early founders of the Republic of Liberia were not only conscious of the cultural divisions between the inhabitants but were also aware of the long-term consequences of these divisions. The bombastic and celebrations attitudes of starting a social order that promises to be a rupture with the practices of the past and its institutions, such as slavery, is now increasingly challenged. The ladies, as the exchange illustrates, are in no way fooled by the promises of new or egalitarian beginnings, allowing us to fundamentally question the chances of new beginnings or how the idea of new beginnings serves as a strategy to fool idiots and simpletons. Engrossed in their thriving businesses, the founding elites were aware that they were leaving behind other social actors and that marginalization would be a time-bomb, which if not immediately addressed, social unrest and even generalized instability will transpire into the future. Nevertheless, each selfishly clanged to short term interests and business calculations. Interests and calculations turned out in the long run to be costly miscalculations.

The natives, non-educated members of the interior tribes, were treated by returnees from Jamaica, the US and other places (who were mostly enslaved) as second-class citizens. Reading the history of coups in Liberia, it is these two social players that constantly seek to undo and cancel each other. Even in the civil war that pushed the author’s own parents to leave for the US, it was Charles Tylor ousting Samuel Doe. The latter comes from the Krahn ethnic group, whereas Tylor is a descendant of the socially upscale minority, a descendant of nineteenth-century returnees from the US. The feud is more about who holds monopolies over-extraction licenses for foreign companies to mine gold and diamond. Still, the feud is exacerbated by the historical divide that goes back to Liberia’s unhappy foundation. This divide ushered in yet another cycle of violence and looting for diamonds and other valuables. Both Tylor and Doe met with a violent end and both were re-enacting the feud between on the one hand descendants of former slaves, who to this day think themselves more entitled to rule since they have been more civilized and on the other descendants of native inhabitants, who excel in selling their credentials as the eternal victims of the brain-washed former slaves!

 This brings readers back to She Would be King where lieutenant Gerald suggests at first and later instructs Gbessa not to manually work in the farm, and to call for the help of the plenty servants he is hiring so that she can lead a life of a lady. As the wife of a dignitary in the young republic, he wants her only to supervise the workers simply because Gbessa is now a society woman and her social manners should reflect the social pomp of members of the high class. Any other Gbessa’s reaction, Gerald reasons, reflects poorly on him, his social status as well as his chances of promotion. Naturally, his eye lies on more prominent roles in the leadership of the young nation. In his mind, he did not marry Gbessa to remain ‘stuck’ with a secondary role in the army or administrating the barracks. Readers may evoke how Gbessa reacts: despite the plentiful abundance of servants/slaves, she adamantly rejects and prefers to carry out domestic duties, both indoors, in the garden and the adjacent field, herself. Readers find out that Gbessa was particularly mindful not to charge the numerous servants and workers with any task, domestic or otherwise. For her, the practice however inadvertent summons slavery. No one can pretend that the fresh memory of the inhuman practice is not overshadowing people’s everyday interactions. Closely considered, the practice itself, not just its fresh memory, casts its gloomy footprints on wage labour, rendering the latter anti-egalitarian. Thus, wage labour sows the seeds of socio-political fragmentation and disharmony.

Bourgeois economics specifies that hiring aids and workers falls into the eternal norm of the division of labour where each individual works according to his or her skills set and fairly receives remuneration according to the tasks executed. Only the division of labour—through wage labour—found the basis of civilization, according to the same bourgeois theoreticians. 

But in line with Karl Marx’s elaborations on the division of labour in The German Ideology (1848), Gbessa categorically rejects this commonsensical presupposition and deems it in service of justification, not an explanation. Indeed, the system of labour does not consider the worker’s actual coercion to grudgingly accept a wage in exchange for the task performed. In addition to seeking excellent and skilled performances, the division of labour primarily shuts means of independent subsistence, of that genuine aspiration of making a living without being forced to work for some boss or a hiring institution. Thus, wage labor, Gbessa reasons fuels inequality and sows seeds of generalized instability. Readers of the novel note how Gbessa’s soulmate, Safua, raises a rebellion against the leaders of the new republic because of the communal values which the wage system has been busily destroying. The Vai community–like several in the pre-colonial setting—cherish communal freedom. The Vai resisted the appropriation of their grazing lands and fiercely rejected domestication through wage labour. Now it is Safua’s son who is in charge of resistance. 

Readers close reading Moore’s novel wherein Gbessa hopes against hope to stop the bloodbath, making sure not to pit the Vai against the settlers who are now the de facto rulers in Monrovia. Hence, the idea of Gbessa being king, as suggested in the title, should be taken as a pun: both a king and its negation, since Gbessa is a woman and the right expectation is rewarding her with the title of queen, not king, for active attempts to lift violence and foster the sense of citizenship among suspecting and uncooperative interior tribes. Indeed, Moore’s title squeezes her project as one that is radically egalitarian. In refusing to call the aid of workers and domestics, Gbessa rejects the title of king or queen. She views the title not only as the expression of an unearned or undeserved privilege but simply as the formalization of wage labour, the essence of slavery and disharmony.  

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)



Pornocracy Generalized: Fetishizing the Body and Selling the Process as Empowerment

Fouad Mami,
University Ahmed Draia Adrar (Algeria)

Abstract: Erin Louis’ latest book Expose Yourself: How to Take Risks, Question Everything, and Find Yourself claims the facilitation of youth empowerment by encouraging a confrontational stance vis-à-vis society and its pillars. In targeting the past (religion), it overlooks the sources of the ill of modern society which are largely attributed to the false omnipresent, capitalism. The rampant postmodernist biases in the book thrive on relativizing moral codes leading to a generalized pornocracy. This essay proceeds via presenting the central thesis of the book, offering a synopsis regarding the chapters’ overall content. Eventually, the discussion propounds a critique rooted in how misplaced attacks on the past remain counterproductive. The conclusion warns against the claims that champion critical thinking only to reverse critical thinking and permeate stupidity.    

Keywords: under-sexualization, pornocracy, fetishization, disempowerment, critical thinking

Erin Louis’ Expose Yourself: How to Take Risks, Question Everything, and Find Yourself promises to guide the youth out of their pampered self-enclosure, shed their lack of confidence all for the sake of becoming ever ready in facing the challenges of the real world. The author is a retired stripper and the present book reworks whatever “insights” she comes up with in: Dirty Money: Memoire of a Stripper (2017), soon followed by: Think You Want to be a Stripper? (2018). It teaches in accessible language (interspersed with profanities occasionally) and through twenty-three chapters the wisdom of not only surviving from day-to-day, but even thriving in the brave new world. The author has been an activist in a society called the “Freedom from Religion Foundation.”

Louis claims that her career in stripping and erotic dancing has somehow magically fostered an aura of sophistication and liberation from the inhibitions attributed to her birth into the Catholic faith. Hence, how she feels entitled to procure life-saving lessons (not just tips) in critical thinking via nursing the habit of questioning everything. Her basic argument is that religion and morality are codifications that end in slavery; and the more one sheds the faith (any faith), the better one enhances his or her chances for improved remunerations. The method is simple: Louis’ style is mostly anecdotal (though it can be sometimes serious) and it gravitates around the abundantly free, but doubtful, publicity that stripping as an economic activity pays handsomely. In a context where more and more people with shining qualifications do find it challenging to make a living, the magic formula comes from Louis: self-exposure, a byword for breaking all ethical standards, hence the title: Expose Yourself. The title has the music of an adage but the way it pertains to the questioning of everything remains a face-saving maneuver at best.

The book lies in twenty-three chapters. Chapters one and two begin rather boldly, loudly announcing that the wisdom the volume proffers is gathered from a career in the adult industry, exactly, from a lifetime in stripping, making it crystal clear that the wisdom correlates against what the author takes for granted as a morally-degenerate society. Louis capitalizes on the shock effect, insisting that the wisdom she is about to impart stands at odds with a society, which contrary to facile portrayals, remains lacking and degenerate. Such introductory announcements pave the argumentative line, and attentive readers cannot overlook how the author assumes the disbarment of audience members in order to be receptive to her message. Chapters three to five harden the initial resolve to challenge society by singing the praises of disconformity. Certain that members of the select audience have been won to the cause of exposure, Louis’ real focus in chapters six to twenty alternates between attacks on morality and the empowerment that presumably follow from those attacks. The last three chapters enforce the ‘wisdom’ gained by again relativizing society-sanctioned codes, drawing boundaries when socializing and enumerating the expected advantages from taking risks. The author’s line of reasoning suggests how difficult experiences follow logically from an uncritical fixation on the already dead past, usually emitting from one useless moral code or another. According to the author, the practical way (not a practical way) to surmount present challenges is to shed the ways of the past and adhere to the dictates of self-exposure by literally taking pride in breaking the old morality.  

Theoretically considered, and within the perspective of a peasants’ brand of Catholicism,[1] a stripper recalls the figure of la femme adultère or the adulteress who came under the protection of Christ from the morally condemning and degenerate Jews. As such, no one has the right to judge Louis or ask her to fix her own life before extending unsolicited advice that would tend to others. In suspecting the self-righteous’ sense of certainty, the figure of the prostitute becomes a practical reminder that no one has the monopoly over right and wrong. Therefore, her voluptuousness and eroticism are, in pure abstraction, a life-giving force and in any social entity that role has to be championed since it is revolutionary, and that is how it achieves freedom from restrictive and coercive religion. In theory still, a healthy community has to tolerate those members whose ethical standards remain diametrically opposed to those commonly held and practiced for the purpose of generating an open temporality: tarrying with the negative of the predominate ethical code generates the auto-movement of history. But in practice, Louis’ project, far from enflaming any subversive reverberations or revolutionary character, can only end in regression.

Methodologically considered, that liberal extension of Christian charity has limits. For the biblical femme adultère never brandishes her moral choices or seeks to monetize them in the form of a toolkit wisdom or philosophy. What is troublesome in the book is how Louis participates in a capitalistic drive that over-sexualizes less human desire as such, but the desire for desire. On the surface of the phenomenon of stripping, the world is formally over-sexualized. But as far as the essence of love goes, the world is substantially under-sexualized. Stripping and by extension exposing oneself testify that sex is no longer a multiplication of two souls seeking the infinite. Rather, the act of love—if indeed it can be qualified so—is an arithmetical annexation of two lost individuals seeking to distress, a force of thanatos in a generalized pornocracy. Always one recalls that stripping accelerates the fantasy less for copulation as such but – worse – for masturbation.  When closely examined, the oversexualization takes a horizontal level only. Because it is impaired, that is denied a vertical dimension, it remains an under-sexualization with regressive and exceptionally taxing consequences.

Behind a curtain in a VIP room, lap-dancing sells, little but the fantasy of freedom. At one point Louis feels obliged to state that she remains “faithful” to her husband and attached to family values, though under a secular banner. “In the course of a lap dance, I always have a choice. I can quit anytime I want to. But when money is at stake, it does not always feel like a choice” (141). In the name of basic human sensibility (no spirituality or religion involved), Louis stays evasive how she strips for a living and is still able to maintain self-respect and fidelity for family. Louise claims she loves her husband and that her husband perfectly understands and supports her choices taken under the pressure from the market economy. It does not need a lot of intelligence to note how such a narrative smack of gaps. Leaving aside her husband, one cannot engage in eros and still expects a pay as a result. Sexuality cannot be healthy when measured against the law of value. Tolerating that degradation for once simply eases the constant ontological fetishization of oneself. But Louis in this book engages in banalizing the depreciation claiming that in order to make ends meet, one still has to consider stripping, selling intimate pieces of oneself. Instead of uncovering the socio-economic mode of production and how that mode fetishizes human life, Louis sings the praises of the very system that strips her, and millions in her shoes, of the right of and destiny for dignity. There are moments near the end of the book (mostly in chapters 17 and 18) where stripping becomes a metaphor, specifying what the wretched of the earth—according to her circumlocutory logic—have to do if they want to survive.

That is the main reason why the repeated attempts at capitalizing on Nietzsche’s adage of “God is dead” becomes a cognitive dissonance. Insights such as “praying is found to be more of a positive thinking than divine intervention: a Placebo effect than a miraculous recovery” (145) certainly do not open the door for a world free from slavery. Quite the opposite, the reification of the body through stripping (both literal and metaphorical) just enforce slavery. Likewise, the apparent over-sexualization or that pretension to empower the youth (as with Chapter 19: where going topless in the strip club is supposed to leave lascivious eyes disarmed) via eroticizing social life horizontally simply pales in comparison with a vertical sexualization. The latter is a true encounter with the beloved, ensuring a radical luminosity and the gate towards true empowerment and universality. Nevertheless, turning people into objects for sadistic pleasure with an equally lost soul who happens to be consuming through masturbation his or her emptiness but paying handsomely in the VIP room, one will be intensifying pathology. The reduction of the body into flesh-for-sale fires back in terms of a disengagement from the world, thanatos, never eros. Even when they are never hard-pressed, Louis’ audiences are encouraged to approach their bodies as ITM machines, ever ready for consumption to the highest bidder.

For nowhere in the book does Louis acknowledge that she truly enjoys what she is doing as a stripper or that she will keep doing it even in the absence of a paycheck. By receiving her dubious “wisdom,” readers will be undergoing whatever it takes to make a living, all in consequence of the merciless dictates of the market economy. What else could the world’s capitalists want? Here, the project seeks engineering a slave, who never complains or resists his or her black misery. In Expose Yourself, one will never reflect back on these dictates of the market, and in consequence will stay condemned into slavery in the form of generalized prostitution. As to what cost that liberation from the moral code that religion, any religion, formalizes, Louis does not specify. Thoughtful readers will note that the cost is freedom from freedom which is a category of experience that tarries with the negativity that ontological slavery captures.

In closing and deep-down, Louis registers that no matter how much glamorized, stripping outlines an engagement at odds with even the ABCs of empowerment. Nevertheless, she insists on generalizing pornocracy so that she starts feeling a little better about her self-worth. 


Fouad Mami: is a scholar from Algeria. He teaches Contemporary African Literature and Literary Theory at the Department of English, University of Adrar. His works have appeared in several reputable academic journals such as Postcolonial Studies, The Journal of North African Studies, and Democratization among others. More on his reading can be found by clicking on:

[1] Please refer to Engels, The Peasant War in Germany.

Al-Aswany, Alaa. 2021. The Republic of False Truths: A Novel. Knopf: New York and London. Trans. S. R. Fellowes; pp. 416; Hardcover: $ 24.49; ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0307957221by Fouad Mami

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Theoretical Clarity and Revolutionary Change: The Arab Spring in Fiction

Alaa Al-Aswany’s fictional engagement with the events known as the Arab Spring may easily seem pointless, cliché or commonsensical given the tons of films, novels and studies on the topic. But it is exactly what the title underscores for English reading audiences in his recently translated novel, The Republic of False Truths (2021) that raises his work above the waters of cliché and commonsensicality. Unlike its Arabic title which connotes the farcical element in the quasi-republic, the English title zooms on the false omnipresent that applies uninterruptedly on everyone in that republic, irrespective of class or gender. Known internationally for The Yacoubian Building (2002), the recent addition explains (and never justifies) the existential need to grapple with precisely that which most people uphold as unmistakably self-evident. Indeed, when presumably unbiased research articles, speak less of private blogs or contents in either heavy or social media outlets, find the social uprisings that led to the decapitation of the likes of Mubarak “decisively deprived of traditional narratives and are haunted by the theme of death…”[1], then the self-evident is no longer that self-evident. More often than not, resorting to abstractions—as with this presumably research piece—is triggered by this author less for exploring the essence of the experience and more to evaporate that experience from the radar of the social field. Indeed, this academic facilitates the expulsion of reality from history by borrowing from a preexisting pool of vocabulary and set of thinking structures that masturbates endlessly on death, the limits of narrative’s agency or the Kantian sublime.  

In this connection, Al-Aswany’s The Republic of False Truths serves in reversing similar masturbations and lies. Lest they fall to collective amnesia, the novel recreates the events leading to the euphoria of Tahrir Square in 2011 and 2012, the decapitation of the dictatorship’s head and a few swirling events afterward. In answer to anyone doubting the relevance from synthesizing those events in a story, just ask that person: where is Tahrir Square today in the map of Cario? Of all seventy-three chapters comprising the novel, chapter thirty-one explicitly answers: “Tahrir Square has been transformed into a small independent republic—the first parcel of Egyptian land to be liberated from the dictator’s rule.” (184) Little wonder then how now it has become an interminable construction site with the specific objective of eradicating from collective memory the very possibility of massive gathering which may or may not propagate into a revolt. If a physical space has garnered such a monumental level of hatred and revenge, then unbiased rationalizations of historical reality, let alone activists’ narratives of the popular uprising, remains an unaffordable indulgence. Not for nothing, the early twentieth century French philosopher/ activist Simone Weil (1909-1943) finds: “Official history is a matter of believing murderers on their own words…”[2] For if events that unfolded in most readers’ own life time, that is, only the other day, are decreed disconcerting and are now being falsified, there is more reason to distrust official reporting of incidents that happened where we were less aware or not on this planet yet. It is never a tautology to underscore that history writing is thus no joke.

In this context, Al-Aswany’s novel does not shy from the task of setting things, events and people in their correct historical order. It measures these actors as variables in the scale of the experienced unfolding, not mythical or ideological unraveling. There will be people who may find that measurement missing in the scale of revolutionary ardor and passion, but what can be more radical and subversive than an honest elucidation of that which actually happened and happens. Understandably, there exists vested interests to report on that which took place in Tahrir from bourgeois’ perspective, and to justify the counterrevolutionary status quo of the present. Hence, the explanatory (never the justificatory) demand for a methodological axis serving also an existential matrix whereby falsity (false truths in the title) can be distinguished from truth. Al Aswany’s theoretical coordinates have been history’s inevitable ‘class struggle’.

The term ‘class struggle’ comes from a glossary that for better or for worse has been antinomic vi-à-vis the current counterrevolutionary climate of post 2011 Arab World. Let us recall that several Arab cities and capitals witnessed exhilarating agitations and marches in millions against dictators only to be disappointed in the following months and years. The term ‘class struggle’ is not just an ideological milestone for those activists of social movements on the left; it is a methodological eye-opener for registering and thus seizing the real movement of the world, according to the nineteenth century German philosopher Karl Marx[3]. The concept expresses a historical continuity with uprisings and revolutions of the oppressed from all over the world and from times both past and to come, and if enough oppressed people embrace the class struggle as a milestone for consciousness, the current world order will be not just shaken but redefined. Hence why the powers that be have always had a vested interest in sweeping the term ‘class struggle’, speak less of the concept, under the rug.

Through mostly written entries and dynamic interactions between a set of characters and via reading mostly their entries: Ashraf Wissa, General Alwany, Seikh Shamil, Asma Zanaty, Mazen Saqqa, Madam Nourhan and Essam Shaalan along with others readers will gain a solid understanding of what took place in Tahrir. Each character emerges from diametrically opposing backgrounds, and the novel reflects the class dimension of the uprising. Only when considered from the point of view of the class struggle, readers unveil how the counterrevolution justifies the present status quo in effusive abstractions and unabashed crusades for chasing smokescreens: death and the presumed wisdom of/in extinction!

Given this connection, The Republic of False Truths (2021) resuscitates the concept of the ‘class-struggle’ for purposes of underlying needed, if not urgent, theoretical clarity. Part of Al-Aswany’s demystification showcases that well before the restoration (July 2013) formally triumphed, most rank-and-file Egyptians expressed varying levels of exasperations at revolutionaries. Perhaps, apart from the heady eighteen days leading to the abdication of President Mubarak and which were marked by a euphoria and spectacle, the following weeks and months witnessed a steady decline in the supply of people living in impoverished and destitute neighborhoods since most of these people become disenchanted from the revolutionary project. Ironically, those people beset by black misery themselves turned hostile of the very process that promises the breaking of their chains. Counting as the evidence for this state of affairs is how the oppressed accuse the revolutionary youth of jeopardizing their security by conspiring against the country.

When Ashraf Wissa and his team display the atrocities of the military through a moving cinema project across impoverished Cairo neighborhoods, he and his tiny group of activists were attacked, their gadgets broken and themselves are accused of bringing disaster. Instead of despair, Al-Aswany’s unorthodox conclusion zooms on a needful theoretical clarity, the one that attributes the failure of the revolution less to coercion by the repressive forces and more to the oppressed own conservatism, nihilistic resignation and detachment from revolutionary agitation. In the interest of fairness, Al-Aswany shows that the military intervened only when the majority were fed up; repression came to formalize what the oppressed themselves desired to restore: security. Without a precise reading regarding the role of various actors, revolutionaries will remain befogged with myths and self-pity. Even if repression has been behind the resignation of the oppressed, and not the other way around, a legalistic and procedural response will be still inconsequential. By pushing for an unsubstantiated narrative (confusing cause with effect), Al-Aswany unveils the plans of counterrevolution. Once activists’ attention is sidetracked toward the legalistic, as when denouncing human rights abuses, the revolutionaries pronounced their own death sentence. No one else did.

Still, mounting criticism in regard to the ways in which the revolutionaries responded does not mean that Al-Aswany favors the culturalist approach, whereby the oppressed are blamed for their own misery. The Republic of False Truths hinges its revolutionary project on a deeply entrenched historicist approach. The narrative has been careful with its vocabulary and plot details lest it embarks on blaming the victims, and thus falling into justification, not explanation. Little wonder how this revolutionary-counterrevolutionary arch spells the fortunes and misfortunes of not only the Egyptian revolution but nearly of all Arab socialist uprisings. Certainly, Al-Aswany’s remarks connect directly with the Egyptian scenario, but in essence his remarks mirror most, if not all, Arab revolutions post 2011.

Pushing for a culturalist approximation of events counts among the reactionaries’ toolkit in a preexisting arsenal to regain hegemony. Given the brutal violence that marked the Egyptian revolution, the one which many activists fail to register as formalization of the subaltern’s dissatisfaction with the revolution, it is not surprising to mistake The Republic of False Truths as an exercise in oriental despotism. Female activists, like Asma, and after experiencing beatings and sexual abuse, utters statements that read more like self-pity. For her, it is hopeless to count on ordinary people as Egyptians are submissive by nature. Other characters too do not restrain themselves from drawing similar generalizations outside space and time as they express doubts vis-à-vis revolutionary change in a country where large sways of the populations are doubtful in the betterment of their lot. Asma’s letter to Mazen, sent from London after the former’s exile is probably the type of ranting that every revolutionary succumbs to in the face of adverse situations. Such despair risks eternalizing oriental despotism because it overlooks the dynamic of history. Despaired readings find the cliché of Oriental despotism comforting.

Al Aswany, not only rejects timeless generalizations. His spokesperson is Mazen who from beginning to end underlines a historicist approximation as to why ordinary Egyptians—even well before instantiations of violence—traded security for freedom. Nevertheless, the heavy investment in media and the latter capacity for brainwashing rank-and-file Egyptian and demonizing the revolutionary youth—as specified by General Alwany’s explicit instructions—have simply born its fruits. In an exchange with the Interior Minister, General Alwany explicitly outlines his strategy: “Our goal is to tell the ordinary citizen, ‘Either you side with the demonstrations and lose your security, or you side with the state, in which case, it will protect you.” (142) Readers find that the business tycoon and media mogul, Hag Muhammad Shanawany, as per request of the Security Apparatus, have invested enormous funds and resources to ‘redirect Egyptians towards ‘the right path’: family values and the wisdom of the tested and tried’. His media prodigies go as far as uncovering imagined CIA plots of destabilizing the country and creating chaos! Readers registers how Madam Nourhan, the celebrity broadcaster, has been hailed by Apparatus not only for literally abiding by the instructions set by the supervising army officer (set in the premises of every TV and radio station), but for her ‘innovative’ ways and quasi-effortless commitment in defaming revolutionaries, presenting fabricated testimonies that cast democracy activists as spies on the pay roll of foreign secret services. Through no fault of their own, the revolutionary committee realizes never without a cost that exclusive campaigning through Facebook and Twitter has its limits as large sways of Egyptians remain hooked up to newspapers and TV. By the time revolutionaries such as Ashraf started touring neighborhoods and featuring human right abuses committed by the military, it has become crystal clear that it was too late. Therefore, any sensible reading cannot overlook that the triumph of the counterrevolution has been the result of steady and deliberate effort to rewrite history in favor of the counterrevolutionaries since they can afford this rewriting.

The final scene Madany (literally signifying passivism in Arabic) or Khaled father’s, takes revenge from the police officer who killed Khaled. Al-Aswany through that scene kills two birds with one stone. On the first level, he breaks away with the liberal stance of situating revolutionary work entirely in passivist forms of agitation. His stance corroborates, however, with the inevitability of the class struggle, demonstrating affinity with Frantz Fanon’s ideas on the necessity of violence: where history simply takes its own course and classes become involved in a dynamic of cancelling each other. On the second, a milestone of theoretical clarity is gained from the failure of legalistic and procedural path and where justice fails to see the day of light. The crooked justice system in Egypt facilitates regaining that incendiary form of clarity. Not only the bereaved father refuses religious authority personified in Sheikh Shamil’s mediation as when the Sheikh visits Madany with a sack of cash in exchange for closing the case in court. Madany similarly indulges Khaled’s university colleagues for a while, agreeing with their plan of taking the murder case to court. Danaya, General Alwany’s daughter and Khaled’s close classmate and eye witness to the murder, asks Madany to relieve her from witnessing in court. Despite enamored admiration of and attachment to Khaled and his ideals, in the end, her admiration and attachment could not expand toward a revolutionary consciousness in the sense of a rupture with undeserved social status and privilege. That is how we read in the ultimate scene that the father hires thugs to kill the police officer. And that is how readers are not surprised as Madany successfully reverses the crooked justice system by taking justice (not just trying to) in his own hands.

The message from that scene helps readers seize the realization that revolutionary work cannot be a cerebral undertaking. It is and remains a spontaneous eruption and, in his circumstances, no one can convince Madany not to recourse to violence. He spontaneously takes that road not because he thinks only violence brings him a satisfying closure, but despite all rationalizations to the contrary. Readers find Madany has lived his entire life as a slave, literally from hand to mouth. But that dreadful experience subscribes in direct opposition to appearances. Galvanized by his prodigy, Danya asks Khaled: “When did you read all these books?” Khaled answers: “The credit should go to my father who noticed that I liked to read when I was small, so he gave me a subscription to the palace of culture. I began borrowing books, reading and returning them. Imagine that a simple, uneducated man could value reading so much!” (83) If there exists one hero in this novel, it is Madany because when catastrophe hits, he rationalizes light years better than university professors! As will be developed below, Madany deserves the title of Spartacus defying the decadent Roman empire.    

Madany’s decision is different from poetic justice in the sense that the latter is bourgeois whereas the former is prehistoric and can only be embraced by the subaltern. Both religious and civic authorities scold individuals from taking justice in their own hands, and thus encourage people stripped of their basic rights to aggravate servitude by seeking institutional mitigation of justice. In line with Hegel’s reference to deep history whereby he relativizes political and cultural time[4], Al-Aswany shows that institutional mitigation other than being essentially pointless, given how justice is administered under dictatorships, remains counterrevolutionary. Not only the police officer was not arrested in preparation of the trial, he wasn’t even suspended from work or put on probation during the months leading to the final sentence which unsurprisingly finds him not guilty. For the benefits of theoretical clarity again, Al-Aswany illustrates that Khaled’s killer’s show trial has to be read specifically not as a dysfunctionality of the justice system either in Egypt or elsewhere. Rather, it has to be read as part of an immanent logic of dictatorships, and which Khaled’s father clearly registers, acts upon and professionally executes.

Indeed, that last scene can be disturbing because Al-Aswany masterfully positions it in gothic aesthetics. In displaying the inevitability of violence, Al-Aswany brings a satisfying closure from the perspective of the class struggle to that other gothic scene that triggered the finale. In chapter forty, we read how Madany in his own hands puts pieces of Khaled’s brain back in the hole caused by the pistol shot. Khaled has been a principal organizer of a field hospital near Tahrir Square charged of providing first aid to demonstrators. The officer aims to kill because Khaled dares (note the word dare in Kant’s definition of the Enlightenment) to reject the officer’s insult. It is a scene which comes to shake passive readers from their reifying experience and keep these audiences forever invested. That gothic structure generates a movement within the consciousness of individuals of the middle class or who identify as middle class. It is a movement which renders that consciousness receptive (hospitable) to a prehistoric form and logic of justice, the primitive law: an eye for eye! All else becomes synthesized by the same invested audiences as alienation, domestication and obviously, counterrevolution.

The way Fanon theorizes revolutionary violence suggests how Al-Aswany cannot be stigmatized by calls that organically propagate beyond the accepted perimeters of passive resistance. By raising a credible threat over life, speaking and executing a language that truly hurts the ruling classes, the revolutionary ardor of Tahrir Square reaches the tipping point in the Hegelian system, whereby quantity metamorphizes to quality. Violence, Fanon specifies, remains purifying in the sense of ridding oneself of hesitations and doubts, thus crystallizing practical predispositions to register false truths for what they are. What else today’s revolutionaries hope to gain?   

[1] Walid El Khachab, (2021) “Death of the Revolution, Death of the Event: Cinema and Politics in the Aftermath of the Egyptian Spring.” Journal of the African Literature Association, 15:3, p. 525.

[2] Simon Weil, An Anthology. Penguin Modern Classics. 2005. p.105

[3] Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore. The Merlin Press (2015), p. 3

[4] Hegel, Philosophy of Right.