Interrogating the NY Times’ Anthony Shadid

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

Anthony Shadid may have a hard time topping his last year’s adventures. The New York Times’ Beirut bureau chief and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for international reporting spent 2011 tracing the path of the Arab Spring. He traveled west from Egypt, where he covered the 18-day uprising that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak, to Libya, where demonstrations against dictator Moammar Qaddafi morphed into armed rebellion. During a battle last March in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, Shadid and three Times colleagues were captured by Libyan government forces. Over the course of a harrowing week, they were blindfolded, beaten, and threatened with execution before finally being released. Returning to Lebanon in August to report on the Assad regime’s intensifying crackdown on Syria’s protest movement, Shadid audaciously snuck across the Syrian border sans visa. For days he shuttled on motorcycle from one safe house to the next alongside some of the country’s most wanted dissidents, emerging with a rare firsthand glimpse of a nation cascading toward civil war.

Despite his renown for daredevil reporting—in 2002, Shadid was wounded by sniper fire in Ramallah—it’s his knack for penetrating the surface of rough-and-tumble conflict zones that makes him one of his generation’s preeminent foreign correspondents. In his more than six years covering the Iraq War, he routinely unearthed the conflict’s human faces with a lyricism that seemed to belie his prolificacy.

Shadid’s third book, House of Stone, due out in late March, demonstrates his uncanny ability to reclaim humanity from wreckage. It recounts Shadid’s return to his ancestral village in southern Lebanon from 2007 to 2008 to rebuild his great-grandfather’s abandoned home—and perhaps piece back together his own wayward life in the process. In an account infused with introspection, the Oklahoma-raised Shadid narrates a rich personal odyssey for community amid a war-torn region’s struggle to reclaim a modicum of its former identity. I spoke to Shadid about the Arab Spring, the perils of his profession, and the path forward in Syria.

Shadid holds forth
Shadid in Egypt, holding forth.

Mother Jones: What was it like growing up Lebanese in Oklahoma City?

Anthony Shadid: I had a great childhood. I think writers are always better off when they have more twisted childhoods, but I didn’t. There’s always a sense of community, of belonging to the Lebanese community, in Oklahoma. It’s remarkable, when I talk to other Arab-Americans, how closed and tight-knit the community was, everything from the church that everyone shared—they all came from the same town in Lebanon—to the food that was served on every holiday and almost every day. There was a sense of coming from someplace else and having to make it in the place they ended up, and there was a lot of pride in that. The one thing that shaped my life was when I was 15 or 16: I knew I wanted to be a journalist. And not just a journalist, but a journalist in the Middle East, and to go back to the Arab world and try to understand what it meant to be Lebanese.

MJ: What resonated with you the most as you researched your family’s history for the book?

AS: I didn’t know a lot about my great-grandfather who built the house, and I’d done interviews 20 years ago, even before I went to college. I started doing some interviews with elderly people in the family because I knew they would pass away and we would lose the power of their story. But I saw a certain resonance with my grandfather’s life and the decisions that he had to make in terms of his career and his family, in terms of sending his kids away. The more I learned about him, the more I understood him.

MJ: You write that some people in Marjayoun weren’t too happy about a past story you’d penned about the town. How do you think your book will be received?

AS: [Laughs.] I have no idea. I’m actually building a fence around the house right now because I’m worried the reception might not be all that great. I think people will understand what the town represents and what the town means, and be very proud of the book. I’ve tried to offer a memorial to what Marjayoun is and what it was and hopefully what it can still be. But, it’s a town, and a town is filled with gossip and rivalries and jealousies. I don’t think the reception is going to be universally the one I would’ve hoped for.

MJ: So how do you determine which stories are worth risking your life for?

AS: I’ve struggled with that question a lot. I don’t think there’s any story worth dying for, but I do think there are stories worth taking risks for. What’s so regrettable to me about Ajdabiya [where Shadid was kidnapped] was that I didn’t feel like that story was worth taking that risk for, and I was too late in understanding that, and at great cost: the cost of our driver’s life. That’s something that all four of us have to live with. I took great risks when I went into Syria illegally and without a visa. That was probably one of the greatest risks I’ve ever taken as a journalist, but that story felt as if it wouldn’t be told if I didn’t go there. That’s the arithmetic that I usually rely on. And those events in Syria over the summer were seismic. It’s a decision that’s a lot easier to make in hindsight. Emotion and, hopefully not, but ambition often get in the way of the judgment. But you go and hope you get it right.

MJ: Did your kidnapping just a few months earlier weigh heavily on your mind when you decided to sneak into Syria?

AS: It did. And I was scared, to be frank. In the back of my mind, I was wondering whether I was being foolish, whether I was being rash. In the end, it worked out all right, but I think any risk you’re going to take like that you need to have that in the back of your mind.

MJ: Speaking of Syria, the Arab League just announced a timetable for a transition, within months, to free elections. Will that change the calculus on the ground at all?

AS: There aren’t a lot of options out there. There aren’t a lot of mechanisms for diplomatic pressure. And I think this is a gesture that kind of highlights that. They’ve put this out there as another means of trying to force the situation. But how you deliver on something like this is very unclear.

MJ: Can you think of anything that might break the current stalemate between government and opposition forces?

AS: I think there are two trends out there that may shift the situation. One is the economy. You just have to look at the exchange rate right now of the Syrian pound. It’s shifting rapidly. I think it’s up to as much as 75 to the dollar when it used to be 47. That is very clearly going to create a lot of pressure on people first and foremost, but also on the government. The second thing is the balance of forces on the ground. If you look at towns like Zabadani or Duma—I don’t want to say it’s a situation like Hama last summer, where the city was in some ways liberated and Syrian forces were withdrawn—but I think you’re seeing instances today where local residents are able to keep the forces of the government out, however temporarily. And I think that’s something to watch very closely.

MJ: Is there an imminent possibility of full-blown civil war?

AS: Absolutely. Some things that suggest a civil war are well in place. But we have to consider where those forces would be aligned. I don’t think the sheer demographics of a sectarian conflict lend themselves to a prolonged civil war. In other words, the Alawites [Assad’s sect] are vastly outnumbered. They remain the backbone of this regime, but they just doesn’t have the numbers or, I think, the determination to fight a protracted civil war there.

MJ: What are some of the possible endgames?

AS: I think we’ll see something very bloody, very chaotic, with a fracturing of both opposition and the government, and a conflict that’s really hard to discern—a conflict in which it’s easy to see multiple parties rather than two parties trying to slug it out. Who knows? It’s always the unexpected that determines events. Just look at the way it’s played out up to this point.

MJ: Can you envision circumstances in which there’s a foreign intervention?

AS: It’s really hard to imagine for me. It’s going to be used as a form of pressure, as a warning, but I think foreign intervention would be a dramatic step in a region that’s very combustible. The very combustibility of this region makes that unlikely.

MJ: You said you went into Syria last year because you didn’t feel the story would be told otherwise. How much of it is getting told now?

AS: More now because more journalists are getting in. That’s for sure. Journalism is always the art of the incomplete. You get bits and pieces. And I think we’re getting more bits and pieces at this point than we were, say, a year ago.

MJ: Is it frustrating to be on the outside looking in?

AS: Yeah, absolutely. I’m desperately looking for a visa. It’s not coming. So far. As a reporter, you want to write about what’s happening in front of you and to not have it happen in front of you is frustrating.

MJ: So what do we know about the Middle East now that we didn’t know a year ago?

AS: I’m not sure we know anything, to be honest with you. It’s still so early. When we talk about the Arab Spring, we’re talking about a region that has for so long lived under the boot of dictatorship, in which civil societies have been obliterated, in which freedom of expression is subversive. And what I saw in Tahrir Square was the counterexample of that. And what I also saw in Syria, in Hama, where for a short period the security forces had withdrawn. Just for the span of a few weeks, in a society that had been ruled by dictatorship for four decades—where there’s hardly any civil society, where there’s no sense of opposition that’s viable—we saw an idea of self-determination as society began to rule itself. That was remarkable to me, just how resilient these societies actually are even after these incredibly withering few generations of oppression. What we’ve seen is the movement against, which is represented by the revolts, but what we’re beginning to see coalesce are the movements for. And what for represents is much more ambiguous.

MJ: So, should we fear the Islamists?

AS: I think what we’re starting to see is the fruition of those trends that began even as early as the 1980s with [Rached] Ghannouchi [in Tunisia], but also in the 1990s with the Wasat Party in Egypt and changes in the Muslim Brotherhood in the decade after. These societies are on the verge of trying to strike some deal in which political Islam forcefully enters the mainstream and becomes a part of the body politic. I think that will yield a healthier society even as the cleavages sharpen between secular and religious, between mainstream Islamists and Salafists. But I think this is going to be a process that all these societies are going have to go through. How the West deals with it, I think, is a much different question. The West’s reaction has tended much more toward anxiety, unease. And in some ways, for this reckoning between political Islam and these societies to succeed, you’re going to need a change in mind—almost a paradigm shift within the West—over how they look at political Islam and whether they can embrace political Islam to try to make this experiment succeed.

MJ: Your discussion of the Levant in House of Stone contains a sense of almost irreversible loss.

AS: In some ways, the history of the Middle East in the last century has been a history of borders—borders that were drawn on the map, often by imperial whim, but also borders in terms of mentalities, as our notions of identity have shrunk. Whatever we thought of those ideologies that held sway a generation ago—say Arab nationalism, communism, Syrian nationalism—they’ve lost their vitality. In their wake, they’ve left smaller identities where we identify ourselves first and foremost by religion and faith. You see a shift from inclusive ideologies to exclusive notions of identity. And that has made for a much smaller Arab world, a much less cosmopolitan Arab world. Marjayoun is a great example: The town itself, which was once very vibrant politically, has become much more affiliated with this simpler, almost visceral, notion of being Christian. And that’s a recurring theme you hear from people in Marjayoun and from other Christians in the Arab world—that when we identify ourselves first and foremost as a minority, we’re almost setting the stage for eventual extinction. Minorities in and of themselves become imbued with a sense of powerlessness.

MJ: Why do you think Lebanon hasn’t experienced the same upheaval as its neighbors?

AS: Proponents of the Lebanese system would say you have a greater degree of freedom of expression here. You have more a sense of individual rights—and that’s not necessarily because of an enlightened government but by virtue of a weak state. Critics, though, would say you’re not dealing with one dictator but many dictators, and these sectarian leaders who play on fears of insecurity keep a stranglehold over the political system in Lebanon. So because they’re so numerous it’s much harder to rally the country against one leader or one source of oppression. I don’t think Lebanon has avoided the Arab Spring because it’s an enlightened place; I think it’s avoided the Arab Spring because the critical mass of how you oppose such an ingrained system with power so diffuse remains unclear.

MJ: Are you more or less optimistic about the Middle East the more you report on it?

AS: I came out of Iraq very pessimistic and dejected in some ways. Egypt, I think, was an antidote; watching what happened with the revolution was quite inspirational. At least what you see now is that there’s a chance for redemption in the region, and that kind of keeps you going as a journalist. What I think you see in so many of these situations are the shades of gray. The more we get away from that either/or, the better I think we understand these countries and the region as a whole. It’s hard to get away from the fact that, whatever you call it—East versus West, America versus the Arab World—these two regions have been in conflict at least for my generation. So in any kind of conflict, you have a certain dehumanization that comes along with it. And it’s important as a reporter, a writer, a journalist, to try to restore humanity.

MJ: You’ve spent a lot of time documenting violent events in godforsaken places. How did you find writing this book, which is much more personal?

AS: I found it difficult. As a journalist, your job is to bear witness, and this book is in part a memoir. It wasn’t easy. It was definitely a different style of writing. On the flip side, I enjoy covering the Arab world, I’ve spent my entire career here in the Middle East, but I would never call myself a war correspondent. The region I want to cover is beset by conflict and that’s regrettable, but it forces me to cover it. Being in Marjayoun for a year, especially coming out of the war in Lebanon in 2006, I was doing what I wanted to do, and that was make sense of society, of people’s lives—very much with the threat of war but in a moment where war didn’t dictate everything that was going on.

MJ: You write in the book about the toll your job has taken on your personal life and your family. Do you have any regrets?

AS: There are a lot of careers you could say that about, but I think especially in journalism trying to balance your personal and professional life is endlessly frustrating. At the end of that war in 2006, I felt the cost of that more than I ever had. My marriage had fallen apart, I was away from my daughter, and I really didn’t have a sense of having a home. And that was what was so important about being in Marjayoun and rebuilding the home. At its most elemental, it was about trying to find home, and in the end, I did. It sounds like propaganda for the book, but it’s actually not. I now consider that house in Marjayoun—how do I put this?—it’s the place where I end up when I’m looking for home.


Egypt’s Revolution, 1 Year Later

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

One year ago, as plans for a mass demonstration against Hosni Mubarak’s regime circulated on the internet, Egyptians speculated about what might happen on January 25. Would it be yet another futile effort, easily quashed by security forces, or a legitimate challenge to the octogenarian kleptocrat’s rule? No one could’ve predicted, of course, what came next: an 18-day uprising culminating in the overthrow of one of the most powerful strongmen of the Middle East. Now, after a rocky year of military rule, marked by the country’s freest and fairest parliamentary elections in decades and frequent spasms of street violence, uncertainty is once again in the air. Here are five key things to watch for as massive crowds flood Egypt’s streets and squares on Wednesday:

1. How will the military respond?

Over the past year, the military—in particular, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—has gone from respected to reviled among revolutionaries. After promising to midwife a swift transition to civilian democracy, it has earned the ire of many Egyptians with its brutal crackdowns on dissent and glacial pace of reform. In Cairo and other major cities, anti-SCAF graffiti is plastered on alley walls and facades of government buildings. Even so, SCAF has announced plans for grandiose celebrations on the 25th to commemorate its role in the revolution, replete with martial displays, concerts, and ceremonies to honor officers. After a deadly showdown between military police and protesters killed at least a dozen civilians in December, the military has kept a low profile. An ostentatious return to the spotlight could trigger renewed violence.

2. Celebration, demonstration, instigation

The throngs in the streets will be driven by various agendas. Some will simply wish to celebrate the anniversary. But activist groups—many of whom are calling for a “second revolution”—plan to use the 25th to press their demands for an expedited transition to civilian rule. (As of now, the military leadership is slated to cede executive power by July 1, following the presidential election in June.) To draw any momentum from the day, they’ll have to walk a fine line—on the one hand preventing the day from becoming a military pageant show, on the other, suppressing the militant urges within their own ranks. Violent clashes in November and December cast a bad light on the revolutionary crowd for many Egyptians, who view

3. Turnout will be critical.

During the heady days of the revolution, up to 8 million Egyptians turned out to protest. Since then, activists have failed to muster a tenth of that. Near-daily protests in Cairo over the last month have tended to draw in the low hundreds. The paltry numbers have led military leaders to confidently claim that they enjoy the backing of the so-called silent majority of Egyptians. If January 25 is to precipitate meaningful concessions from the junta about the timing of the presidential election or the economic and political privileges it hopes to retain after the transition, activists will have to prove themselves capable of summoning numbers unseen since last February.

4. What about the Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood has kept its intentions for the 25th close to the vest. After dominating parliamentary elections—taking 47 percent of the seats in the lower house—it is reluctant to risk confrontation with the military, especially with Parliament having convened for the first time on Monday. In November, it sat out deadly clashes in Tahrir Square on the eve of the elections, wary of offering any pretext to postpone voting. In early January, it announced its support for the military’s six-month transition timetable. Still, the Brotherhood is reluctant to skip out on the action altogether lest it bolster the impression that it’s in the military’s pocket. Its leaders have indicated in recent days that it may take a more active role. They are reportedly debating whether to accept an invitation from a coalition of activists to partake in demonstrations; as Egypt’s largest and best-organized political organization, the Brotherhood would lend the protests a powerful shot in the arm.

5. It’s the economy, stupid?

Among Egyptian political analysts, the growing consensus is that economic factors will trigger the next big bout of unrest: 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent. While many analysts still believe that a major crisis is not imminent, mysterious fuel shortages in the last couple weeks—leading to long lines at gas stations—have raised the specter of an eruption sooner than later. It’s not likely to come on the 25th, but festering economic discontent may well fuel an already volatile situation.

Want to track the action as it happens? Al Jazeera English’s live stream and the Guardian‘s Middle East live blog are your best bets. Also follow the Twitter handles of reporters Bel Trew (@beltrew), Omneya el-Desouki (@omniaaldesouki), and Adam Makary (@adamakary) for updates from the ground.  The #Egypt, #Jan25, and #Tahrir hashtags should come in handy as well. And if you need a refresher on what the fuss is all about, check out our explainer from last winter, where you’ll find a blow-by-blow account of the uprising and its aftermath.

Carter still skeptical of Egypt military handover

Cross posted from Global Post.
Jimmy Carter Cairo
Former US President Jimmy Carter speaks about Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections in Cairo on Jan. 13, 2012. (Kurtis Sensenig/GlobalPost)

CAIRO — Former US President Jimmy Carter grew exasperated at a press conference in Cairo Friday, asked repeatedly about his comments to the New York Times earlier this week that Egypt’s military was unlikely to hand control of the country to a civilian government.

“If I get another identical question, I’m not going to answer it,” he sighed.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a statement refuting Carter’s opinion on Thursday, pledging again to yield power to elected civilians by June 30. Carter was pressed to square his earlier impressions of SCAF’s intentions with its new statement.

He stood by his comments but said he accepted “with equanimity” the military’s clarification. He also expressed satisfaction with the conduct of Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since last year’s revolution and the first free elections in decades.

“The will of the people has been adequately and accurately expressed in the results of the election,” Carter declared. “The democratic future of Egypt is going to be completely in the hands of the Egyptian people who participate in the democratic process.”

Carter arrived in Egypt on Monday to join 40 “witnesses” from his Atlanta-based Carter Center for the runoffs of the third and final round of voting. The delegation, one of the few groups permitted by the Egyptian government to monitor the elections, has observed the multi-stage process since it began in late November.

On Dec. 29, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of 10 pro-democracy and human rights NGOs, drawing international concern about SCAF’s role in a democratic Egypt following a series of bloody crackdowns on demonstrators.

In addition to paying visits to polling and counting centers earlier in the week, Carter has met with a range of political and civil society figures, including head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Prime Minster Kamal Ganzouri, and representatives from 11 political parties — among them the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is poised to claim nearly half the seats in parliament, and the more radical Salafist Al-Nour Party, which is expected to take about 20 percent.

Summarizing the findings of the delegation, Carter noted irregularities but characterized the elections as a success. Candidates representing a diversity of views participated, and voting generally took place free of interference and intimidation.

His assessment echoed those of most domestic and international observers, who have hailed the elections as Egypt’s freest and fairest in recent memory. In a country where, by some estimates, less than 10 percent of the population turned out for sham elections under Hosni Mubarak, average turnouts of over 60 percent have come as a welcome surprise.

The elections haven’t been without incident. Some 900 complaints have been filed with the High Judicial Elections Commission (HJEC), most revolving around illegal politicking outside polling places and the use of religious slogans. On Monday, the Free Egyptians Party, a liberal party co-founded by telecommunications tycoon Naguib Sawiris, announced it would boycott the upcoming Shura Council elections for the largely ceremonial upper house of parliament. The FEP, a member of the liberal Egyptian Bloc coalition, cited the chief prosecutor’s failure to investigate the almost 500 complaints it has lodged.

Other complaints have alleged voter intimidation, ballot tampering, and collusion between the military and certain political parties. Carter acknowledged several of these problems, pointing in addition to the chaotic, uncoordinated manner in which much of the voting was held. However, Carter insisted, his team had found no evidence that the irregularities favored any particular group.

In a preliminary summary of its findings released at the press conference, the Carter Center issued a series of recommendations to improve upcoming elections. They include clarifying the procedures surrounding complaints, better training officials at polling sites, and enforcing campaign finance laws.

The Carter Center will be observing Shura Council elections in late January and early February. Carter added that he hopes to receive accreditation for the spring referendum on the draft constitution and the June presidential election as well.

What Will #jan25 Bring?

As the first anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution draws near, the words “January 25th” are on just about everybody’s lips here. There are constant protests and marches in Cairo. Each day seems to bring word of some new campaign aimed at harnessing the protest movement’s energy heading into the 25th. Today’s was “Protect Your Revolution,” a campaign launched by revolutionary icon and former Google executive Wael Ghonim to reclaim the legacy of the 2011 uprising. Overall, there’s no clear sense of what’s going to go down in two weeks’ time, but the almost unanimous sentiment is that, whatever it is, it’s going to be big.

In reality, it’s almost impossible to say. The rallies, frequent as they are, tend to draw no more than a couple hundred. Tonight I attended one along Talaat Harb Street, ostensibly against the military trials. The protesters, who numbered I’d estimate somewhere between 100 and 150, definitely had the mechanics of protest down. During a stop in Talaat Harb Square, just down the street from Tahrir, organizers projected footage of the military beating defenseless protesters, including the so-called “blue bra girl” during December’s unrest outside the cabinet building, onto the base of the statue of Talaat Harb himself that presides over the middle of the square. Resting on his cap, a bullhorn blared dark Arabian themes. This is all part of a recent initiative by several activist groups to expose SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) lies about recent violence by bringing the unvarnished evidence to public spaces. The tactic has enjoyed mixed success. In some less sympathetic parts of town, pro-military demonstrators have torn down projector screens and chased away activists.

All in all, tonight’s march probably goes down as a success. The crowd chanted loudly and tirelessly. Shopkeepers and passerby in Downtown Cairo paused to watch the demonstration and footage projected onto Talaat Harb’s statue. The demonstrators, seemingly wary of pissing off Cairo’s fickle taxi drivers, even managed to contain the congestion they caused, simultaneously directing traffic as they marched and cordoning off about a third of the road for cars and motorcycles with a thin piece of rope that ran nearly the length of the parade.

After about an hour and a half, the march climaxed in front of the Supreme Court with chants of “Tantawi burnt my country. Tantawi stole my sons away” and “Erhal!” (Leave!), the same cry that echoed around Tahrir last winter against Hosni Mubarak.

But if the protest movement is going to realize its loftier goals—the field marshal’s downfall and true civilian rule—it’s a long way from achieving critical mass. The military seems more than content for now to pull the strings from behind the scenes—and its barricades just off Tahrir. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood indicated today that it would accept the military’s timetable to hold onto executive power for another six months. Unless January 25 sets off something truly seismic and unexpected, the chances of it being one giant exercise in futility, at least for those who hope it’ll catalyzes transformative change, are high.

That said, things could still explode at literally any moment. There is without question more than enough discontent coursing through the population—particularly over the economy—to bring down the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood and everyone else with a claim to power in one fell swoop. Over the weekend, I was talking to an activist who’s now been jailed at least a couple times in the last year. Unlike many of his peers, he wasn’t confident January 25 would amount to all that much. But, he said, “January 26, January 27, next month. That’s when I think something will happen—right when we don’t expect it.”

With all that’s happened in the last year, who would bet against him?

Tuesday’s Other Election

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

Tuesday is shaping up to be a big day in the world of politics. In Iowa, Republican caucus-goers officially kick off the 2012 presidential election cycle at 1,774 precincts across the state. In Egypt, voters in nine of the country’s 27 governorates head to the polls in the third and final round of elections for the first People’s Assembly to convene since last winter’s revolution.

At first glance, the contests couldn’t be more different. Egyptian voters will cast their ballots against a backdrop of continuing political instability and a volatile security environment. In Iowa’s gymnasiums, libraries, and churches, the greatest disruptions might well come from a handful of rowdy Ron Paul supporters.

But dig a little deeper, and one finds some uncanny parallels. If democracy really is God’s gift to the world, He’s infused it everywhere with His own quirky sense of humor. Here are a few to look out for as the first voting of the new year gets underway.

People saying crazy things.

Any campaign generates its fair share of outlandish statements. But the latest Egyptian and American elections might be breaking new ground. Taking the prize in Egypt is Salafist candidate Abdel Moneim al-Shahat of the ultra-religious al-Nour Party, who has called for covering the Giza pyramids’ idolatrous faces in wax. The Republican contest boasts many worthy contenders in the most outrageous statements category. But Newt Gingrich labeling child labor laws “truly stupid” and proposing outsourcing janitorial duty to inner-city schoolchildren probably edges out erstwhile candidate Herman Cain’s plan to build an electrified fence along the southern border.

Religion will be key.

The biggest story out of the first two rounds of Egypt’s elections has been the success of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Of the seats awarded so far, Islamist parties have claimed upwards of 70 percent. Of course, the GOP is not a “Christianist” party per se, though some of its rhetoric might have an outsider fooled. There was Rick Perry’s ad claiming that “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas.” Michele Bachmann attributed recent natural disasters to God’s wrath over the American government’s overspending.  And Rick Santorum has surged in the polls following an endorsement from a prominent Iowa evangelical who determined that Santorum “meets and exceeds the biblical qualifications.” With evangelical Christians making up some 60 percent of caucus-goers, biblical qualifications count for a heckuva lot.

Convoluted voting procedures.

Neither Egypt nor Iowa makes participating in the democratic process easy. Egypt’s election features arguably the most byzantine set of electoral procedures ever devised. Voters select two individual candidates on one ballot and a party list on the other, with two-thirds of the seats in the People’s Assembly allocated on the basis of party list results and one-third to individual candidates. (To complicate matters, the country is divided into 83 districts for individual candidate voting and 46 entirely different districts for party list voting.) Then there are the jumbo-sized ballots themselves, with hundreds of candidates and parties to choose from, each represented by a clip art image (soccer ball, tank, pyramid) for illiterate voters. By comparison, the notoriously elaborate system in Iowa is a piece of cake. Just brave freezing temperatures to arrive at your designated precinct by 7 pm, sign in at the door, say the Pledge of Allegiance, elect a caucus chairman and secretary to head up the meeting, listen to up to seven two-to-five minute speeches by representatives of the candidates, write down your preference, watch the votes get counted, hear the results announced, and voilá! Within a few hours, you’ll have taken part in American democracy at its purest.

Neither will matter.

For all the hype and hoopla, neither election tomorrow is likely to have much substantive impact. Egypt’s ruling junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has for months now been backtracking on its pledge to cede power to a civilian government. Just last Thursday, it raided 17 NGOs, mostly pro-democracy groups. Even in the best-case scenario, the new parliament’s purview will be severely limited. In Iowa, where there are no reported fears of a military coup, the first-in-the-nation contest isn’t likely to determine the Republican race. Since 1980, only two out of five non-incumbent winners in Iowa have gone on to win the GOP nomination. The New York Times’ Gail Collins helpfully explained why: “On Tuesday, there will be a contest to select the preferred candidate of a small group of people who are older, wealthier and whiter than American voters in general, and more politically extreme than the average Iowa Republican.”

So, on second thought, maybe it won’t be such a big day after all. It will almost certainly be an entertaining one.