A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 30, 2015

Fatema Mernissi, 1940-2015

Fatema Mernissi, renowned sociologist, memoirist, and feminist icon, author of Beyond the Veil and dozrns of of other books dealing with the role of women in Islam, has died at the age of 75 in Rabat

The Moroccan scholar, educated at te Sorbonne and Brandeis, spent most of her career teachig at Mohammed V University in Morocco. Her body of work is likely to remain a mainstay of reading lists on the role of women in Islam for years to come.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Break

Today is the Thanksgiving  holiday in the US and the beginning of a four-day weekend. I probably won't be blogging until Monday.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

November 22-23, 1915: The Battle of Ctesiphon, Part II

As noted in Part I of this post, the Turkish position at Ctesiphon was a strong one. General Townshend arrived before the Turkish position late on November 21,  planning to attack at dawn on the 22nd.

We discussed the numbers and units involved in Part I. Nureddin had the 35th division deployed on the west (right) bank of the Tigris, the 38th division on the east bank in an L-shape, with the inexperienced 45th division refusing the flank in the short leg of he L. The 51st division was the reserve, with Arab units in support.

Both sides had poor intelligence. The Turks overestimated the size of Townshend's force, and he British underestimated Nureddin's numbers.

Townshend divided his 6th (Poona) Division into three infantry columns plus a "Flying Column" of cavalry and some infantry with transports.. He labeled the infantry columns A, B, and C, each consisting of several battalions with artillery and sapper support.

Column C was intended to attack the Turkish forces west of the river, B and the Flying Column were to carry out a turning movement against the Ottoman left flank, and A was intended to attack the center. The river flotilla was intended to support the attack.

General Nixon, the overall Mesopotamia Commander, was presen with the Army but left the tactical command to Townshend.

But he British found ground conditions on the west bank unsuitable so all the columns attacked east of te river, with C along the riverbank. The flotilla, meanwhile, came under artillery fire from the Turkish guns and also discovered the Tigris was heavily mined, so the boats provided little support.

In the attack, C and A encountered strong resistance but Colmn B, on the right, successfully carried the forward Turkish trench line. Nureddin fell back to his second defense line and committed his reserves and brought the 35th division from the west bank. The Flying Column encountered resistance from  Turkish and Arab cavalry and failed to turn the Turkish flank.

By the end of November 22, the British held the first line of Ottoman trenches but both sides.had suffered heavy casualties. On November 23, the Turks counterattacked. Casualties continued to mount with the British unable to make a decisive breakthrough.

British-Indian forces lost over 4600 dead and wounded; the Turks over 6000; in both cases nearly a third of their strength. Townshend who had complained of insufficient strengt all along realized he could ot hope to take Baghdad and decided to withdraw to Kut a decision that would prove fateful. Ironically, Nureddin also planned to fall back due to his losses but changed his mind when he realized the British were withdrawing.

The battle was essentially a draw, but it ended the first British attempt to take Baghdad.
Official History, Campaign in Mesopotamia, Volume II

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Russian-Turkish Clash: A Map

I'll refrain from editorial comment until we know more about the circumstances of the Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24, since Turkey says it was in Turkish airspace and Russia says it was inside Syria. But Turkey says it was near Yayladağı in the Hatay, and here's the border region around Yayladağı:
Tactical Pilotage Chart Sheet ONC G-4D
That is one tricky border.

UPDATE: If this story is true, some Su-24s are relying on commercially purchased GPS receivers. If that's true, and given that border, would you trust a store-bought GPS. It was probably saying "recalculating . . ."

Also the Turkish complaint to the UNSC says the intruders spent 17 seconds in Turkish airspace. 17 seconds? Whatever happened to signaling "follow me" and escorting the intruder out of your airspace?

The #1in5Muslims Internet Meme: Once Again, the Best Response to Ignorance is Ridicule

Amid all the deeply depressing news: a ray of humor;

The Sun, Rupert Murdoch's British tabloid that until fairly recently was best known for its "Page 3 Girls," bare-breasted models who must have been a major support of Britain's silicon industry based on their improbably ample attributes, is not generally known for its news quality, which at times makes The Daily Mail look reliable. (Page 3 girls have apparently put tops on after years of feminist protest.) In the present Islamophobic hysteria gripping all US Republican candidates and some Europeans, it featured this front page splash:
While still managing to keep its audience by getting female breasts on the front page (though covered with a bikini), it also sensationalized and apparently misstated a poll result.

Longtime readers may recall that back in 2012, Newsweek ran a cover story on "Muslim Rage" that provoked a hilarious response on Twitter as I duly reported then.

Well the hashtag #1in5Muslims is replicating that with posters posting made-up "factoids" thst are often funny. (Warning: there are hostile posts under the hashtag, too.) A selection:

Nor were the Page 3 Girls forgotten:

And finally at least for now:
That's Murdoch of course. I  think he should go back to Page 3 Girls. Bare boobs may be sexist but don't provoke hate crimes and racism.

Monday, November 23, 2015

November 22-23, 1915: The Battle of Ctesiphon, Part I

We last left the Mesopotamian Campaign a century ago in October, with the British decision to advance to Baghdad, which I dealt with at length in six posts: Part I. Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI.

As we saw, there were major differences  in perception between London, India, and the generals on the ground, and differences between the Regional Commander General Nixon and the commander of the advance, General Townshend. All are introduced in some detail in the earlier series.

Townshend made his way slowly as he advanced from Kut al-‘Amara to Baghdad. He had reached ‘Aziziyya in October.

Some 40 miles up he Tigris from Kut, and some 20 miles southeast of Baghdad, the Turkish forces under Nur al-Din Pasha (later known as Sakallı Nurettin Paşa) were solidly entrenched on both sides of the Tigris at the old Parhian and Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon (Arabic Al-Mada'in), where a loop in the Tigris makes for a good defensive position.

The British had fought against Nureddin  several times during the advance up the Tigris and had a low of his military skills. What they did not appreciate was that Nureddin reported to the Governor of Baghdad Khalil Pasha (known postwar as Halil Kut) and, as of mid-October the the new Commander of the Ottoman Sixth Army, the aging Prussian Field Marshal Baron von der Goltz though he had yet to take the field.

Furthermore when the decision to advance was made in mid-October The War Committee estimated that for at least the next few months Nixon would face no more than 9,000 Turkish infantry. In fact, at Ctesiphon Nureddin had four divisions, under strength but still numbering 18,000 men to Townshend's reinforced single division with about 11,000. But the Turks had been entrenched for weeks behind two lines of trenches, and south of that a 20-foot-high ancient wall. They also had 52 artillery pieces situated to cover the river.

Nureddin's four divisions were the 35th, based in Mosul before the war and amix of Arab, Kurdish, and other ethnicities; the 38th, based in Basra and mostly Arab; the newly formed 45th, raised around Pozanti near Adana;  and the 51st, a veteran regiment that had served in the Caucasus and at Gallipoli.

Townshend's force consisted of the 6th (Poona) Division with supporting troops, consisting of four infantry brigades and one of cavalry,and two river gunboats, HM Gunboat Firefly and an older gunboat, the Comet. Firefly was the first of a new class of riverboats known to history as the Tigris Flotilla but called at the time "Small China Gunboats" to conceal their intended use in Mesopotamia. With them were two small river launches, Shaitan and Sumana. The stern-wheeler riverboats Shushan and Messoudieh were towing boats with 4.7 inch naval guns. The problem was that this small flotilla and its guns were on the river, and the powerful Ottoman artillery controlled the river.
Official History, Campaign in Mesopotamia, Volume II
If you're thinking that's a pretty formidable position, a superior force with superior artillery barring the river and he route to Baghdad, you're right.

Part II will discuss the battle itself, The most visible landmark of the battlefield was the Great Arch of Ctesiphon,in the nearby town of Salman Pak, remnant of a Sasanian Palace. In Part II, we'll discuss the battle itself.
Official History, Campaign in Mesopotamia, Volume II

Egypt Votes in Second Phase

Today was the second day of the second phase of Egypt's parliamentary elections with voting in the 14 governorates that did not vote last month, including Cairo. Early indications are that turnout is still low though perhaps somewhat higher than in the first round, which saw a 26% turnout.

Runoffs where needed will occur in early December.

President Sisi voted in Heliopolis:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Let's Not Give ISIS What it Wants

I've been quiet about the debate over ISIS since Paris. I was going to do a links dump of some of the saner essays out there, but Donald Trump's suggestion today that he might consider a special ID for American Muslims sent me over the edge. (Yes, and Jews could wear yellow Stars of David. Oh, wait, that's been done.)

The US has an unfortunate record of waves of xenophobic nativism, odd for a country that once prided itself as a haven for refugees (Give me,your tired, your poor your weak, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...) But more than in most cases, this is precisely the reaction the Islamic State hopes to provoke. It considers Muslims living in the West as a danger, and seeks to provoke anti-Islamic sentiment in the West to increase the number of potentially alienated young recruits.

Remember ISIS' preoccupation with Dabiq, an apocalyptic end-times battle mentioned in a hadith attributed to the Prophet. They actually want to provoke Armageddon. Let's not help them along.

Demagoguing the refugee crisis for political gain is not just sleazy; it's dangerous. Creating suspicions about your neighbors can lead to the worst kinds of fear, fear of an enemy that may barely exist. The internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II (most of them citizens) has actually been cited by some of the worst sort of politicians as a model.

What is the purpose of terror? By definition, it's to terrorize, to incite fear. Within days of the carnage in Paris all it took was a warning to evacuate the stadium in Hannover. Of course one should take precautions, but if all it takes is a phone call to evacuate a stadium, why should ISIS spend money making bombs. They've created terror with little effort.

An ISIS video that shows a man with an explosive device interspersed with stock footage of New York is getting a lot of attention, but it could have been made anywhere and the NYC scenes spliced in. Of course New York should ramp up security, and it can never forget 9/11, but it shouldn't cower in fear. A better response might be Rick's dialogue with the Nazis in Casablanca:
Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It's not particularly my beloved Paris.
Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
Rick: When you get there, ask me!
Captain Renault: Hmmh! Diplomatist!
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.
Don't give them what they want.The best way to combat them on the ground  is something that can be debated, but action should not be undertaken without clearly defined objectives and the realistic means to achieve them. That's basic Clausewitz.

Four Years Since the "Battle" of Mohamed Mahmoud

Daily News Egypt marks the fourth anniversary of the "Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud" in November of 2011, one of the more violent confrontations between young revolutionaries and the military in Cairo in the months after the fall of Mubarak. As I noted at the time, it had special resonance for me since, decades earlier, I had lived at the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud and Yusuf al-Gindi Streets, right at the center of the "battle."

Mohamed Mahmoud became one of the symbols of that era (along with "blue-bra woman" and other outrages) and later became the site of the Revolution's most famous graffiti walls along the American University in Cairo's Downtown Campus.

Mohamed Mahmoud Street runs from Tahrir Square, the Revolutionaries' iconic headquarters, past the Interior Ministry. The several days of fighting were sparked by the demonstrators' attempts to march on the Interior Ministry, headquarters of State Security. Several died in he attempt and others were beaten or blinded when hit by tear gas canisters. The beating of well-known commentator Mona El Tahawy drew considerable attention.

Though the street became famous, for the Battle and the graffiti, I don't seem to have ever explained how it got its name. Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha (1878-1941)(link is in Arabic), an early Wafdist who had been imprisoned by the British along with Saad Zaghloul during the 1919 Revolution, but later split with the Wafd and joined he Liberal Constitutional Party. He served stints as Prime Minister in 1928-29 and again in 1937-1939.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mary Ann Tetrault

Word is circulating that Mary Ann Tetrault has passed away. A renowned scholar who wrote widely on the Gulf States and women in the Middle East, she was Distinguished Professor Emerita at Trinity University. Though I knew her primarily rough correspondence, it is a loss to the field.

Monday, November 16, 2015

November 1915: Britain Decides to Evacuate Gallipoli

Lord Kitchener visits the trenches at Gallipoli, November 1915
Late last month in our continuing discussion of events a century ago, we noted the replacement of General Sir Ian Hamilton as overall commander of the Dardanelles expedition with General Sir Charles Monro, a Western Front general.

Following the failure of the Suvla  landings and the August offensive to alter the status quo on he Gallipoli Peninsula, and with Turkish defenses strengthened under new commander Mustafa Kemal, much of the British Government was eager to disengage from Gallipoli, feeling the troops would be better used in the West or the Salonika Front in the Balkans. At the end of October the Dardanelles Committee of the Cabinet was disbanded, and with it went the most pro-Gallipoli voice, Winston Churchill's. He had lost the Admiralty earlier in the year when the coalition government was formed, but had remained on the Dardanelles Committee. The War Committee that replaced it did not include him, and Churchill would quit the government to rejoin the Army.

The Gallipoli adventure still had an advocate: Lord Kitchener at the War Office. The hero of Khartoum and veteran of India and Egypt still favored an Eastern Strategy, but despite his popularity with the troops and the public, Kitchener had few fans in the Asquith Government, nd dispatched Monro to assess the situation in his new command, and also resolved to visit the battlefield himself.

Gen. Sir Charles Monro
In March of 1916, months after the last troops had been evacuated, Monro issued a sort of final report on his mission, and he remembered his instructions as follows:
To the Secretary of State for War, War Office, London, S.W.
Headquarters, 1st Army, France, 6th March, 1916.

MY LORD,- I have the honour to submit herewith a brief account of the operations in the Eastern Mediterranean from the 28th October, 1915, on which date I assumed command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, until the 9th January, 1916, when in compliance with your directions, I handed over charge at Cairo to Lieut.-General Sir Archibald Murray, K.C.B., C.V.O., D.S.O.
On the 20th October in London, I received your Lordship's instructions to proceed as soon as possible to the near East and take over the command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, My duty on arrival was in broad outline: -
(a) To report on the military situation on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
(b) To express an opinion whether on purely military grounds the Peninsula should be evacuated, or another attempt made to carry it.
(c) The number of troops that would be required, (1) to carry the Peninsula, (2) to keep the Straits open, and (3) to take Constantinople. Two days after my arrival at Imbros, where the headquarters of the M.E.F. was established, I proceeded to the Peninsula to investigate the military situation.
Monro arrived at Imbros on October 28 and reached Gallipoli on October 30. Monro was already dubious about the prospects and saw nothing to change his mind:
The impressions I gathered are summarised very shortly as follows: - The positions occupied by our troops presented a military situation unique in history. The mere fringe of the coast line had been secured. The beaches and piers upon which they depended for all requirements in personnel and material were exposed to registered and observed Artillery fire. Our entrenchments were dominated almost throughout by the Turks. The possible Artillery positions were insufficient and defective. The Force, in short, held a line possessing every possible military defect. The position was without depth, the communications were insecure and dependent on the weather. No means existed for the concealment and deployment of fresh troops destined for the offensive-whilst the Turks enjoyed full powers of observation, abundant Artillery positions, and they had been given the time to supplement the natural advantages which the position presented by all the devices at the disposal of the Field Engineer.
Another material factor came prominently before me. The troops on the Peninsula had suffered much from various causes.
(a) It was not in the first place possible to withdraw them from the shell-swept area as is done when necessary in France, for every corner on the Peninsula is exposed to hostile fire.
(b) They were much enervated from the diseases which are endemic in that part of Europe in the summer.
(c) In consequence of the losses which they had suffered in earlier battles, there was a very grave dearth of officers competent to take command of men.
(d) In order to maintain the numbers needed to hold the front, the Territorial Divisions had been augmented by the attachment of Yeomanry and Mounted Brigades. Makeshifts of this nature very obviously did not tend to create efficiency.
Other arguments, irrefutable in their conclusions, convinced me that a complete evacuation was the only wise course to pursue.
(a) It was obvious that the Turks could hold us in front with a small force and prosecute their designs on Baghdad or Egypt, or both.
(b) An advance from the positions we held could not be regarded as a reasonable military operation to expect.
(c) Even had we been able to make an advance in the Peninsula, our position would not have been ameliorated to any marked degree, and an advance on Constantinople was quite out of the question.
(d) Since we could not hope to achieve any purpose by remaining on the Peninsula, the appalling cost to the nation involved in consequence of embarking on an Overseas Expedition with no base available for the rapid transit of stores, supplies and personnel, made it urgent that we should divert the troops locked up on the Peninsula to a more useful theatre. Since therefore I could see no military advantage in our continued occupation of positions on the Peninsula, I telegraphed to your Lordship that in my opinion the evacuation of the Peninsula should be taken in hand.
The Asquith Cabinet was mostly eager for disengagement but decided to send Kitchener himself to investigate. Meanwhile Kitchener on November 4 dismissed Monro as Commander of the whole Mediterranean Expedition and named him to command the Salonika Expedition, with General William Birdwood, whom we've met before, taking over at Gallipoli.  Kitchener left England on November 5, but en route changed his mind about removing Monro before his visit, and canceled it, reaching Mudros November 10. As Monro recalled:
Subsequently I proceeded to Egypt to confer with Colonel Sir H. McMahon, the High Commissioner, and Lieut.-General Sir J. Maxwell, Commanding the Forces in Egypt, over the situation which might be created in Egypt and the Arab world by the evacuation of the Peninsula. Whilst in Egypt I was ordered by a telegram the War Office to take command of the troops at Salonika. The purport of this telegram was subsequently cancelled by your Lordship on your arrival at Mudros, and I was then ordered to assume Command of the Forces in the Mediterranean, east of Malta, and exclusive of Egypt.
Kitchener & Birdwood at Mudros, Nov.  10
Monro proceeded to Mudros, along with McMahon and Maxwell from Egypt,  and met with Kitchener aboard the troopship Aragon, which housed the Headquarters Staff of the campaign, at Mudros. Monro and the Army generals favored withdrawal, while Kitchener and the Navy favored operating through the winter.

Kitchener wanted to see the Front himself, and on November 12, 13, and 14 he visited the landing sites at Cape Helles,/Sudal-Bahr (Nov. 12), Anzac (Nov. 13), and Suvla (Nov. 14). He was well received by the troops.

The question of whether a winter campaign was possible was soon given new evidence from winter itself. On November 17 a gale mashed piers at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove.

The designation of Monro as Commander in the Mediterranean eat of Malta and excluding Egypt was clarified as follows, again quoting Monro:
Consequent on these instructions,
I received approval that the two Forces in the Mediterranean should be designated as follows: -
(a) The original Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, which comprised the Forces operating on the Gallipoli Peninsula and those employed at Mudros and Imbros as the "Dardanelles Army," under Lieut.-General Sir W. Birdwood, K.C.B., etc., with headquarters at Imbros.
(b) The troops destined for Salonika as the "Salonika Army," under Lieut.-General Sir B. Mahon, K.C.B., with headquarters at Salonika. The Staff of the original M.E.F. was left in part to form the Dardanelles Army, and the remainder were taken to make a General Headquarter Staff for the increased responsibilities now assumed. Other officers doing duty in this theatre with the necessary qualifications were selected, and, with no difficulty or demands on home resources, a thoroughly efficient and adequate Staff was created. Mudros was selected as being the most suitable site for the establishment of headquarters, as affording an opportunity, in addition to other advantages, of daily consultation with the Inspector General, Line of Communications. The working of the services of the Line of Communications presented difficulties of an unique character, mainly owing to (a) the absence of pier and wharfage accommodation at Mudros and the necessity of transferring all Ordnance and Engineer Stores from one ship to another; (b) the submarine danger; (c) the delay caused by rough weather. Close association with General Altham was therefore most imperative, and by this means many important changes were made which conduced to greater efficiency and more prompt response to the demands of fighting units.
In the meantime Winston Churchill, the unapologetic architect of the campaign,  resigned his remaining governmen position as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in order to join the Army on the Western Front. He made a last defense of Gallipoli on the floor of Parliament.

On November 22, Kitchener himself recommended withdrawal from Gallipoli.

Kitchener, after his visit to Gallipoli, visited the Salonika Front and Italy, and returned to England November 30.

If there were any lingering doubts, on November 27 a fierce Mediterranean storm hit Gallipoli from the southwest, driving small boats ashore, flooding the trenches, and crumbling fortifications. Then the wind shifted to the north and a fierce blizzard devastated the battlefield for days. Turkish and Allied troops were immobilized, hundreds died and thousands took ill. Snow at Anzac Cove:
On December 8, 1915, General Monro ordered Admiral Birdwood and the Navy to withdraw the troops from Gallipoli.

There were some 93,000 men, 200 guns, thousands of horses and mules and other equipment to withdraw from under the guns and in sight of Turkish forces only a few hundred yards away in every case.

The one great Allied success at Gallipoli would be the successful withdrawal, over several weeks, without a disaster on the beaches. But that's a story for another day.

James A. Bill Has Passed Away

UPDATE: Apparently reports of his passing were premature but he is clse to death.y apologies for a premature posting.

 James A. Bill, the Wendy and Emery Reves Professor of International Studies Emeritus for the Department of Government at William and Mary and one of the most respected scholars on Iran and US-Iranian relations, has passed away after a lengthy illness. The author of numerous books on Iran and on Middle East politics, Professor Bill was a giant in the field.

Remember Paris, But Also Beirut, Ankara, Baghdad, Sinai...

Amid the mourning over the Paris attacks, I think it is particularly important to remember that the overwhelming majority of victims of the Islamic State have been in the Middle East. The 40+ dead in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks were innocent civilians as well. Sunnis and Shi‘a, Kurds and Assyrians and Yazidis, have died in the thousands, without everyone changing their Facebook profile pictures to the colors of the Lebanese or Syrian or Iraqi flag. Mourn for Paris to be sure,  but also for all victims.

Friday, November 13, 2015

MEI Annual Conference Today

I'll be spending all day Friday at the MEI Annual Conference, so no blogposts likely.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Burj al-Barajineh Bombings

Today's bombings in Beirut's Burj al-Burajineh neighborhood,which killed at least 41 and wounded 200 or more, is the worst bombing attack in terms of its human toll since the Lebanese Civil War.And the Islamic State is reportedly claiming credit. This appears to be the worst blowback yet in Beirut from Syria's civil war and an ill omen for Lebanon.

Several headlines I've seen in Western media refer to the attacks as being in a "Hizbullah stronghold." I think that's an unfortunate choice of words, as it suggests Hizbullah was the target. One bomb went off near a a Shi‘ite mosque and the other at a bakery: civilians were the target, in one of the most densely populated areas of the city. The civilians may have been targeted because they are Shi‘ites, but referring to it as a "Hizbullah stronghold" distracts from the reality that the victims are civilians, not Hizbullah fighters.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Steven Cook on Egypt

If you haven't seen Steven Cook's piece on Egypt a couple of days ago, it's a fairly grim assessment. Take a look. (Note that since it appeared, Hossam Bahgat has been released.)

For Veteran's Day/Armistice Day/Remembrance Day

While today in the US Veteran's Day honors all military veterans, the date originally marked the moment, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns fell silent 97 years ago today. My parents' generation still called November 11 "Armistice Day," even after they had witnessed an even greater war than the Great War.

It is a cliche to say that World War I created the modern Middle East, but it is also true. Westerners often forget just how bloody the war was in the Middle East, not just for Armenians and Assyrians but for Turks as well. As we have been going through the 100th anniversaries of the war in our region, I've tried to call attention to some of the forgotten fronts in that war. This will continue. Although the Ottoman Empire signed an Armistice in October at Mudros, it is worth using this day to remember all who fought on both sides in that war, not forgetting the ANZACs and Indians fighting for the British Empire (or the Moroccan and Algerian spahis and goumiers who fought for France).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Denial Is Still a River in Egypt: Media Sees Western Conspiracy on Metrojet

It's a nervous time for Egypt in the wake of the crash of the Metrojet flight in Sinai: an already much-reduced level of tourism is in danger just as the winter months arrive (when Sharm al-Sheikh and Hurghada cater to sun-starved northern Europeans; but Britain and Russia have canceled flights. President Sisi's big tip to London was overshadowed by the attempts to evacuate British tourists from Egypt. The stock market dropped on Monday, and there was sharp international criticism over the arrest of journalist/activist Hossam Bahgat by the military prosecution. (He has since been released, but may still face charges.)

I'm sorry to say that when things are going badly, the Egyptian media, especially the more sensational newspapers (state-run and private) and the often irresponsible TV talk-show hosts, start looking for conspiracies. Israel, the US, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and he Freemasons are the usual suspects, often in improbable combinations (Iran and the US together; Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood).

While most of the rest of the world is convinced the plane was brought down by a bomb, and even the Egyptian investigators do not rule that out, the media is seeing an international conspiracy to subvert Egypt. Al-Watan on Sunday had a banner headline, "Egypt Defies Terrorism of the West." (Link is to the story in Arabic.) I would note that the most draconian step so far was Russia's decision to cancel all flights to Egypt, and Russia is usually not considered "the West," but never mind.

Associated Press
The Associated Press has done a story on this, showing the headlines (right) of the aforementioned Al-Watan as well as Sunday's Al-Gomhuriya, a state-owned paper but the most sensational of the state-owned papers: "The People Defy the Conspiracy."

There remains a possibility it was not a bomb. But the media, including the state media (perhaps with government sanction) is reacting in a prickly, defensive way that could make things worse if indeed it was a bomb. (Conversely, the US and Britain could look very bad if it wasn't.)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Yitzhak Navon, 1921-2015, Fifth President of Israel

Yitzhak Navon died November 7 at the age of 94. He served as Israel's fifth President, holding that ceremonial position from 1978 to 1983, but had a long career as well in diplomacy and politics. A descendant of Jews from Spain, Turkey, and Morocco, he was the first Sephardi (Mizrahi) to occupy the Presidency. Fluent in multiple languages, he worked in Haganah intelligence before independence and then entered he Foreign Service. In 1951 he became Political Secretary and then Chief of Staff to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, continuing in the same capacity under Moshe Sharett. After holding a post in the Education Ministry, he entered the Knesset representing Ben-Gurion's Rafi faction, He chaired the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

After his five-year term as President, he returned to politics, declining an offer to run for the Labor Party leadership, but serving as Minister of Education and in other capacities. He was a dovish figure within the party.

‘Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Former Yemeni PM, 1934-2015

‘Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, former Yemeni (and before that, North Yemeni) Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, died November 8. The US-educated (Georgia and Yale) Dr. Iryani served in many posts during his career, including Prime Minister of the Yemen Arab Republic from 1980-83, then as Foreign Minister from 1984 to unification in 1990, continuing as Foreign Minister of united Yemen until 1993, and served as Prime Minister again in 1998-2001.

Professor Mark Katz of George Mason University shares memories of Dr. Iryani here.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Forty Years Since the Green March

The Green March, 1975. Portrait is King Hasan II
On November 6, 1975, with Francisco Franco on his deathbed, thousands of Moroccan civilians and units of the Moroccan Army gathered at Tarfaya in southern Morocco and prepared to cross into the Spanish colony of Spanish Sahara. The "Green March" was not resisted by Spain, but led to a war between Morocco and the POLISARIO Front (and for the first few years, Mauritania, allied with Morocco).

The war ended with a ceasefire in 1991 and an agreement to hold a referendum on Independence, Moroccan rule, or autonomy. Twenty-four years later the issue remains unresolved, and Morocco controls the bulk of the territory behind a defensive berm, while POLISARIO controls the eastern desert area, which has access to neither the phosphates nor the fisheries in the Moroccan zone. What in 1975 seemed to be the decolonization of one of Europe's last African colonies remains incomplete, with some Sahrawis seeing Spanish colonial rule as merely supplanted by Moroccan (though the Moroccan-occupied areas do vote in Moroccan elections).

The News Keeps Getting Worse for Egyptian Tourism

I haven't commented so far about the speculation around the downed Russian airliner because there seemed to be too little evidence and it seemed wise to wait until more was known, despite the various talking heads on all-news channels speculating wildly. But today was stunning. As recently as yesterday Russia, the most interested party, was urging caution and warning that speculation was premature. Egypt was clearly annoyed at Britain's suspension of flights from Sharm al-Sheikh, which coincided with President Sisi's visit to 10 Downing Street. But today Russia not only reversed field completely but raised the stakes: suspending all Russian flights not just to Sharm but to all of Egypt, once it evacuates some 50,000 Russian visitors. And it was the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian Intelligence, chief who urged Putin to do so. Clearly the US, Britain, and now Russian intelligence agencies are privy to information that, at least today, Egypt claimed had not been shard with them.

The sheer numbers mentioned (20,000+ Britons, 50,000+ Russians) give some sense of what's at stake. Though tourism in Egypt has never fully recovered from the 2011 Revolution, the resorts on Sinai and the Red Sea Coast have remained popular, especially for northern Europeans in the winter months. If it is confirmed that a bomb was used, i could be a body blow to tourism, at least for this season.

It's far from clear why Russia is cutting off all of Egypt and not just Sinai, but their dramatic reversal of position in just 24 hours clearly suggests they do not see this as an isolated incident. Egypt has promised a press conference for tomorrow: will it still be in denial?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Alexandria Didn't Expect the New Suez Canal Would Go Through Downtown

I'm not certain if this photo is from this week's Alexandria flooding or the previous one, but it's irresistible. The sign reads "The New Suez Canal: Egypt's Gift to the World" and presumably has been there since the opening celebrations this summer.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Alexandria Flooded Again, Much of Egypt's Delta as Well, as Yemen, Oman Get a Cyclone

Ahram Online
Even as the usually arid US states of Arizona and Texas (both rich in climate change deniers), have been underwater much of the week, Egypt's second city of Alexandria has flooded for the second time in recent weeks, sparking the trending Twitter hashtag
اسكندريه_بتغرق# (Alexandria is Drowning). But it's not just the coast; much of the northern Delta is under water, and photos from the inland city of Tanta and even the usually desert Wadi Natrun are facing flooding. And winter hasn't yet begun. Some Egyptian tweets are referencing the Ten Plagues of Moses.

I won't bring up Tropical Cyclone Chapala, which has been hitting Yemen and Oman with hurricane-levels of rainfall exceeding several years worth of the norm.

What's wrong with this picture? (Hint: That's not the coastal monsoon; Hadramaut and Dhofar are getting a decade's worth of rainfall all at once.)
If I didn't have US politicians assuring me climate change is a myth, I might start to get worried.

Ken Pollack on Ahmed Chalabi

I certainly haven't always agreed with Brookings' Ken Pollack on Iraq, though I respect him as an informed analyst. But I think his appreciation (or perhaps depreciation) of the late Ahmed Chalabi is right on target,

I will simply quote his lead and urge you to follow the link.
I first met him soon after the Persian Gulf War when I still worked for the CIA. I cannot remember if it was 1992 or 1993. I just remember that my immediate response after meeting him was that I wanted to take a shower. I could not believe that we were giving him money to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He was so unctuous, so obviously duplicitous and self-serving, I could not understand why anyone would buy what he was trying to sell.

Headline of the Day

Since my last three posts were essentially obituaries of one sort or another, here's a change of pace (though. still an obituary):


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Belated Memories of Muhammad Hakki, 1933-2015

With his daughter on his 80th birthday
As I wrote my earlier post about Ahmed Chalabi, a man of at best uncertain reputation, I realized that I had (mainly due to deadlines) failed to note the passing on October 24, at age 82,  of another figure worthy of note, who was also a friend since the Sadat era: veteran Egyptian Washington journalist Muhammad Hakki. Muhammad (or Mohamed) had served as a correspondent for Al-Ahram and, in the Sadat years, as the press spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy, the capacity in which I first got to know him.

In the last months of of Sadat's Presidency, Muhammad was recalled to Cairo to serve as Sadat's last Presidential press spokesman. But almost immediately after the assassination, Husni Mubarak replaced him, and Muhammad returned to Washington, spending the rest of his working career as Washington Bureau Chief for various Arab media outlets, but mostly not Egyptian in the Mubarak era.

He became a Washington institution but remained very plugged in to Egyptian affairs, of which he was a reliable interpreter. He had two great talents for which Egyptians are famous: humor and the ability to tell a great story; his were enhanced by being true.

One of the current generation of Egyptian Washington Bureau Chiefs, Al-Tahrir's Thomas Gorguissian, has published an appreciation of Hakki's career in English in Al-Ahram Weekly. Thomas is also the source of the photo above.

RIP, Hakki Basha. Yirhamuh Allah.

Ahmed Chalabi, 1944-2015

Ahmed Chalabi
Ahmed Chalabi has died at the age of 71, apparently from a heart attack. For several years before the launch of the Iraq War in 2003, Chalabi was the darling of the neocons, the liberator who would democratize Iraq. By the time he died yesterday, a Member of Parliament in Iraq and a Committee Chairman, some of his onetime champions had come to accuse him of being an Iranian agent.

Although like most Middle East hands in Washington I crossed paths with Chalabi a few times,  but never quite understood what so captivated his admirers. He was a well-spoken, well-dressed man, a persuasive speaker, but I could never really envision him as leading Iraq. And in the end, though he held Cabinet positions, he never gained he political traction in Iraq that he had enjoyed in George W. Bush's Washington.

Chalabi was also at pains to explain the fact that he was a wanted man in Jordan following the failure of the Petra Bank he had founded;  he insisted the prosecution was political, inspired by Saddam Hussein, and perhaps that was true.

Unlike some, I don't blame Chalabi for "causing" the US to invade Iraq; if I'd been an Iraqi Shi‘ite I'd have wanted a superpower to take out my enemy too. I blame the credulous neocons who believed everything Chalabi and the rest of his Iraqi National Congress said, and somehow mistook him for George Washington. The US is responsible for its own mistakes, and those who were surprised when he became a sectarian Shi‘ite politician instead of an author of the Iraqi version of the Federalist Papers, never understood Iraq or Chalabi, an Iraqi Shi‘ite from a wealthy background, married to a daughter of Lebanese Shi‘ite figure and Speaker of Parliament ‘Adel ‘Osseiran.

The "What Ifs?" of Yitzhak Rabin, 20 Years Later

Yitzhak Rabin, 1922-1995
Over the past several days Israeli and Western media have been full of appreciations of the late Yitzhak Rabin, shot down by fellow Israeli Yigal Amir 20 years ago tomorrow. Most of what needs to be said has already been said by others, but I want to add a few thoughts of my own.

Speculating about alternative histories, the "what ifs?", is one of the most tempting, but also most futile, of historical enterprises. But in the two decades since Rabin's death, an entire generation of young Israelis and Palestinians has grown up which never knew the heady first years after the Oslo Accords, when so many things seemed possible, even within reach; as opposed to now, when nothing does.

Rabin was an unlikely candidate for peacemaker, but like Richard Nixon going to China or Menachem Begin making peace with Egypt, that may have been an advantage.

Born in Jerusalem in 1922, he would be the first sabra (native-born) Prime Minister (unless one counts a few days Yigal Allon served in an acting capacity between the death of Levi Eshkol and the election of Golda Meir). Chief of Operations for the Palmach during the 1948 War, Rabin soon began to rise through the ranks of the IDF. As Chief of Staff at the outbreak of the 1967 War, an apparent health issue led to controversy, but he overcame it, He serve as Ambassador to Washington in 1968-1973, when, as a young grad student, I first saw him speak. In 1973 he was elected to the Knesset and within a year, after Golda Meir's resignation, he was elected leader of the Labor Alignment and found himself Prime Minister.

A religious dispute led to new elections being called in 1977 and a financial controversy saw the victory of Likud under Begin. He returned to office in the 1980s, as Defense Minister in several governments.

During the eighties I was writing on Middle Easter defense issues and found myself in Israel almost annually and sometimes more. I met Rabin a couple of times and attended several press conferences and may have asked him a question or two, though I surely never "knew" him. He came across as he did to many of his fellow-countrymen: smart and tough but with a rather abrasive personality; crusty, a chain-smoking, raspy-voiced soldier who didn't smile a lot. His personality was a sharp contrast to his longtime Labor rival Shimon Peres, who came across a a nice guy but not that effective, while Rabin was the tough cop who got things done. That may be unfair, but it is how he came across to his audiences.

Rabin won his second term as Prime Minister in 1992 and the following year came the Oslo Accords. The famous handshake between Rabin and Yasser Arafat at the White House says a lot:
Rabin is rather visibly uncomfortable.  In 2013 I compared it to two other uncomfortable Middle Eastern handshakes: that between Generals Giraud and de Gaulle at Casablanca in 1943 and that between Obama and Qadhafi in Italy in 2009.

Oslo seems distant now. The failures which followed, especially the Camp David II collapse, was not one-sided; Arafat and Ehud Barak were both being asked to agree to something neither was ready to do.

What if Rabin had lived? We'll never know. If John F. Kennedy had lived, would he have pulled out of Vietnam as Oliver Stone but few others believe? If Lincoln had lived, would Reconstruction have been different and Jim Crow avoided? If Rabin had, lived, would we have a two-state solution? Thanks to the bullets of Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, and Yigal Amir, we're never going to know.

Rabin died 20 years ago tomorrow. Oslo died more recently, and many think it's time to take the two-state solution off life support. Would things have been different had he lived? We'll never know, but I want those born or who have come of age since then to know what once, however improbable, once seemed at least possible and even within our grasp. I still want to believe it might have been so.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Apparently Cairo's Famous Cafe Riche Has Reopened

Photo: https://www.facebook.com/Cafe-Richeeg-175557732650867/?fref=ts
I've posted about Cairo's famous Cafe Riche more than once, last spring when the owner's death led to its closure, perhaps permanently, and a discussion back in 2011 as to whether today's Riche was living off its historical reputation as opposed to the genuinely authentic place I frequented in the 70s and 80s.

It's now reported that the Riche has reopened, under the late owner's brother. That's good news for Cairo nostalgia fans, and the mandatory interview with Felfel, a waiter now said to be in his 80s; the article calls him Aam Felfel, so I'm pleased to learn he's now acquired the venerable appellation of "Uncle" in the 30 years or so since I saw him almost daily; I hope a raise or two came with it.

My earlier postings on the Riche dealt with its legendary past, and when I lived in downtown Cairo in 1977-1978  I was a patron almost daily, and again on periodic visits throughout the 1980s. The 1992 earthquake severely damaged the cafe and it was closed for several years.

One passage in the  Al-Monitor article did give me pause:
Café Riche’s vibrant political history led to its closure during the rule of Anwar al-Sadat. Although the late president was himself a patron of the café, he had it closed after he witnessed heated discussion and debates over his rule and the peace treaty with Israel taking place within its walls.
I question the accuracy here because  I know it was open in 1977-1978 and that it was also open when I returned to Cairo only two weeks after the Sadat assassination in October 1981. (And Anwar Sadat, a most imperially aloof President, would not have "witnessed" those discussions; his mukhabarat would have.) After some sanity checks, I believe if Sadat ever closed the Riche entirely it must have been in 1979 and fairly brief, but that government pressure may have already led to the Riche closing on Fridays, which was already standard practice in 1977 even before Sadat went to Jerusalem.(Naguib Mahfouz' translator/biographer Raymond Stock suggests to me this was to shut down Mahfouz' regular Friday nadwa or salon, which then moved elsewhere.)

Even if the Riche is still dining out on its onetime reputation, it's good to hear that it has reopened.
Photo: https://www.facebook.com/Cafe-Richeeg-175557732650867/?fref=ts