A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 31, 2009

Weekend Roundup

Some weekend diversions:

New Book on Egypt With a Great Title

I know nothing more about this book than what's in this post, but the title, The Original Inhabitants of Egypt: Stories about the Genius of the Place, the Idiocy of the Rulers, and the Indifference of the People is enough to make me want to read it, though it takes me a while to get through a book in Arabic these days. And I know sometimes authors expend more on the title than the content, but the title is inviting.

Alexandria Train Wreck

I'm not trying to call attention to disasters, but a blogger based in Egypt has some firsthand photos of a train wreck inside the Alexandria main train station. Apparently no fatalities as the train was supposedly empty, though the engine apparently was destroyed which may mean the crew are in question, but dramatic pictures; earlier there had been some speculation of a major disaster: "hundreds feared dead." I haven't yet seen an official report.

UPDATE: For more see the links in the comment.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

40 Days

Confrontations in the streets of Tehran re-erupted today as mourners sought to mark 40 days since the death of Neda Agha Sultan. This was expected — marking 40 days of mourning is traditional, and demonstrators and police both knew it was coming — but it also reminds us that the anger of the protesters is still present below the surface.

It's been pointed out before that a similar pattern preceded the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Protests began a full year before the fall of the Shah; demonstrators were killed, and 40 days later mourners would turn out, there would be more repression, and so on. It was not some sudden instance of storming the Bastille.

I'm not saying that's what's going to happen this time, but it's worth keeping in mind.

Major Tectonic Shift

We at the Middle East Institute have been trying to increase knowledge of the region for over 60 years. Apparently, based on this map that Fox news reportedly put up on July 27, we still have some work to do:
Either that, or there's been a major shift in the tectonic plates, and Egypt has ended up in Iraq.

Thanks to The Arabist for this one. It looks legit, but if it is somebody's Photoshop I hope to hear about it.

China and the Middle East

Occasionally, commentary and events seem to coalesce to make a theme particularly timely. Sometimes, they seem to be almost insistent because a whole lot of postings/links/comments seem to center on a single theme. Current case in point: China and the Middle East.

In June MEI published my colleague and MEJ Book Review Editor John Calabrese's Policy Brief, "The Consolidation of Gulf-Asia Relations: US Tuned in or Out of Touch?", which I plugged previously. This is, if not John's primary scholarly focus, certainly one of them. He knows it as well as anybody, I think.

This week, China launched its first Arabic-language television news service, which, since already on Monday Marc Lynch posted a good summary on the subject, I didn't note specifically, figuring if you're reading me, you've been reading Marc Lynch a lot longer. And Lynch alluded to a lot of other issues relating to this, including the whole Uighur/Central Asian issue, in passing.

Then, synchronicity and coincidence being what they are, an old acquaintance from a long time back — who, since he hasn't authorized me to quote him, I will simply call "Larry," since that's his name — and who spent a career in international banking mostly in Bahrain and Hong Kong, and thus might be considered informed on the subject, sent me a message saying:
I hope the appearance of John's article on the website is a harbinger of the Institute focusing on this issue - perhaps with a speech (maybe at the annual conference) and maybe with a focus in the Journal.
Okay, I'm starting to feel like there's an emerging theme. Over at the Blog Jihadica there's a post on a new issue of the "Islamic Turkistan Journal" on events in Chinese Turkistan. (Excuse me, Xinjiang.)

Then I got a submission for the Middle East Journal on the subject of Kuwait's relations with the Far East. Confidentiality means I can't identify the author.

Then, yesterday, my wife sends me a link to this article, "The Rise of a New Silk Road," dealing with China and the Middle East.

Okay, Okay, I get it. China and the Middle East is a major issue. As it happens, China and the Middle East are intertwined in my own life as well: my daughter is Chinese; and as you've already figured out I've spent a little time around the Middle East.

So I've done the post. Whatever higher power is loading me down with input on East Asia and the Middle East, here it is.

UPDATE: Don't miss comment #1 below, which is extended, anecdotal, and far more informed on the subject than I am.

Tisha B'Av

Early in this blog I established a tradition of noting the major holidays — both religious and secular — of the region. I may have missed an odd Yazidi or Mandaean celebration, but I think I've kept up pretty well with the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian feasts (though I haven't hit every Shi‘ite feast, mostly because the 12 Imams and the birth and death dates of themselves and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts is hard to keep track of).

But today is a major Jewish holiday, Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of the Month of Av. It is, by Jewish tradition, the date of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem. And it seems to have been a really bad day in other times too. Here's a Wikipedia quote and the link to the fuller article:

The five calamities

According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6), five specific events occurred on the ninth of Av that warrant fasting:

  1. The twelve scouts sent by Moses to observe the land of Canaan returned from their mission. Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, brought a positive report, but the others spoke disparagingly about the land which caused the Children of Israel to cry, panic and despair of ever entering the "Promised Land". For this, they were punished by God that their generation would not enter the land. Because of the Israelites' lack of faith, God decreed that for all generations this date would become one of crying and misfortune for their descendants, the Jewish people. (See Numbers Ch. 13–14)
  2. The First Temple built by King Solomon and the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the Judeans were sent into the Babylonian exile.
  3. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, scattering the people of Judea and commencing the Jewish exile from the Holy Land.
  4. Bar Kokhba's revolt against Rome failed in 135 CE. Simon bar Kokhba was killed, and the city of Betar was destroyed.
  5. Following the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the razing of Jerusalem occurred the next year. A Temple was built in its stead to an idol.

According to the Talmud in tractate Taanit, the destruction of the Second Temple began on the ninth and was finally consumed by the flames the next day on the Tenth of Av.

I'm pretty sure the proper greeting is not "Happy Tisha B'Av," but I hope Jewish readers will understand that I acknowledge the centrality of this holiday in Jewish, and particularly, Zionist, understanding of the present Israeli state.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Coptic Pope Says Something About Presidential Succession, Maybe

Coptic Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church and one of three religious figures traditionally accorded the title of "Pope" (extra credit for the commenter who knows the third: Rome's a given [ANSWER BELOW*]), has given an interview to the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat. (English here.)The Pope takes some not particularly daring positions, such as noting that a Copt probably won't be elected President of Egypt anytime soon, and that while he gets on fine with the Shaykh al-Azhar there are some rough spots in Christian-Muslim relations, he also, in the original interview, seems to dismiss in passing the idea of a hereditary succession to the Egyptian Presidency. But the reportage of this in Egypt has picked up an additional comment worth noting. Here's an excerpt from Al-Masry al-Youm's English summation of the interview:
In other statements to ON TV channel, Pope Shenouda said that the presidency is not a position to be inherited. He also said, however, that there is no person en Egypt sufficiently qualified to run against Gamal Mubarak for presidency.
Now, I can't find another reference to the "ON-TV" interview. Certainly neither the Arabic interview in Al-Sharq al-Awsat or Al-Sharq al-Awsat's English version of the interview mention Gamal by name, though he does say the post should not be inherited.. Maybe the Pope did say something more to a television station on some other occasion. But it's interesting to note that it's been interpolated into a report of the Al-Sharq al-Awsat interview, where he said nothing of the kind.

Pope Shenouda has an interesting history and I must post more about it sometime. He was a real lightning rod during the rough summer of 1981 when Anwar Sadat deposed him and sent him into internal exile for some years. He's been a staunch supporter of Mubarak, and now in his 80s is unlikely to oppose Gamal, but I find it interesting that his negative remark about hereditary succession in the interview has been counterbalanced by finding a differing statement he made elsewhere. (And this in an independent, not a government, newspaper.)

*Update and Note on the trivia question: commenter Michal got it within about 90 minutes of the posting (See comments): it's the Chalcedonian (Greek Orthodox) Patriarch of Alexandria. Those two Patriarchs of Alexandria have been called Pope from antiquity, as has the Pope of Rome. (There's also a Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, who's also Chalcedonian, but since he's in communion with Rome, he doesn't pretend to the title of Pope.) (And, to make things clearer, the "Patriarchs of Alexandria" reside in Cairo most of the time, just as the multiple "Patriarchs of Antioch" reside in Damascus, Beirut, or Bkirke, Lebanon. If you want to be more confused, check out this post from back in February.)

Tensions on Israel-Lebanon Border

I haven't posted about it, but there've been a number of tense moments along the Israeli-Lebanese border in recent weeks. A recent explosion in the border region, apparently in a Hizbullah arsenal, and some rockets fired (Al-Qa‘ida claimed responsibility) have raised the temperature.

Israel has reinforced the area of the Kfar Shuba hills (the Israeli reports refer to Har Dov: both names refer to areas in and adjacent to the "Shab‘a Farms" region in dispute, and the "Hassan Gate" referred to in the accounts is the edge of the Shab‘a Farms) and the deployment of four Merkava tanks there — yes, four — has raised the level of jitters. Here's the Daily Star on the latest events; the UN is said to be worried; Here's an Israeli view, trying to downplay things a bit.

The whole Sheb‘a Farms/Ghajar/border issue is the most explosive outstanding issue on Israel's Lebanese border (or, except for Gaza, any of its borders) at the moment, and with George Mitchell and his team in the region both sides may have some motivation for raising the urgency level a bit. The trouble, of course, is if you calibrate wrong and end up in a shooting war.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Six Months On: Thanks to My Readers

I almost let this slip past: my first Blog post of any substance went up on January 28, so the Blog is now six months old. (I'd put a "Watch this space" placeholder up the day before, but won't count that.)

According to the counter in the archive column over there on the right, this should be the 439th post. I currently seem to have 132 subscribers to the RSS feed, usually have the most pageviews in mid-week (my high to date is 334), and comments are slowly beginning to grow. I'm not one of the big dogs yet, but I thank those who keep coming back here, and especially those who link or blogroll me.

My most popular posting remains about the Marwa al-Sherbini case (over 1600 page views to date); my second most often visited is my post on Arabic transliteration.

I'm having fun. I'm even going to post while on vacation next week, though perhaps not as frequently.

The Growing Succession Speculation in and Outside Egypt

Sometimes the level of coffeehouse speculation and buzz reaches a point where the media starts generating think pieces on a subject for reasons not always immediately obvious. So we seem to be enjoying a new flavor of the week in the commentary world: the possibility of an early succession in Egypt. The Guardian has weighed in; so has The Economist; there's an article in Middle East Forum; it's been a theme for the Egyptian independent press for some time now, and Egyptian bloggers regularly follow it. Having already brought this up on July 9, I'm not exactly joining the bandwagon late, but perhaps it's time to take another look at it.

My earlier posting and the other links mostly echo the rumors, supposedly leaks from Israeli intelligence or Saudi press speculation about what Mubarak may have told King ‘Abdullah, the common theme of which is that Husni Mubarak was so moved by the death of his young grandson recently that he plans to give up power early. Some reports hint at a health setback, perhaps a stroke. Mubarak's health has been subject to rumor for quite some time. Officially there have been denials of any early resignation plans.

On top of this there is the press speculation about the website and Facebook groups promoting the potential candidacy of Intelligence Chief ‘Omar Suleiman as an alternative to Gamal Mubarak; while the independent press is fascinated by this, the state media continues to promote Gamal. Neither Gamal nor Suleiman is an official candidate, at this stage, though as head of the National Democratic Party's Policy Bureau Gamal is well-placed to become the ruling party's nominee through the party's own structure, which he has been making his own for some years.

There has also been speculation that the People's Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, might be dissolved early and new elections held this year. (The next Parliamentary elections are due in October 2010; the Presidential term expires in 2011.)

And adding to the speculation, there's a new head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, a man with relatively limited judicial experience apparently, but with everyone noting that the holder of the post also holds ex officio the oversight of the Presidential elections. Any challenges to the elections or candidacies would go through him.

A few words of caution here: Husni Mubarak has always played the succession issue close to the chest, declining to name a Vice President, not making Gamal General Secretary of the NDP when many expected him to, etc. The whole ‘Omar Suleiman flutter may be a false flag operation or an attempt to create a sense of competitiveness, or it may be the Armed Forces' way of reminding the NDP that they have a say. (And it's far from clear if the Army brass would favor the Intel chief.)

For Egyptian succession issues I would invoke the same rule I generally raise when it comes to Saudi succession speculation: the more confident the assertion made by someone claiming to be in the know, the less likely they are to really know anything.

With that said, however, and keeping in mind the fact that for years succession talk was pretty much taboo among Egyptians, there is clearly a lot of speculation, and much of it suggesting something may happen sooner than 2011. I'm still cautious about whether there's any fire behind all the smoke, but given Mubarak's increasing age and seeming listlessness and absences from the public eye, it's worth keeping an eye on. I'll try to flag any further developments that may conifrm or debunk the various waves of speulation.

The Gulf's Quiet Ties with Israel

In today's Daily Star there's an interesting opinion piece by Sultan al-Qassemi on Israel's quiet commercial and other ties with the Arab Gulf states, something most people are vaguely aware of but that receives very little publicity. Read the piece, which is a reminder that Israel's ties with many Arab countries are still a bit under the official radar, but do exist.

In the summer issue of The Middle East Journal, Professor Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University offered an analysis of Qatar's ties with Israel, if you haven't seen it already.

Nile Basin Initiative Meeting in Danger of Collapse

A meeting of countries that share the waters of the Nile has hit snags in Alexandria. Egypt is holdingy firm on not yielding its traditional level of usage of Nile waters.

This is one of those relatively obscure issues that rarely captures attention, since it lacks the sizzle of Israeli settlements or the price of oil, but in an arid region, water is a critical commodity. And with growing populations and a finite supply of potable water, the Middle East is likely to face more and more disputes over water resources with the passage of time.

Herodotus famously said that Egypt is the Gift of the River, and it appears that Egypt and Sudan are intent on maintaining their water usage levels despite pressure from the upriver states to consume less. This sort of dispute is going to be more and more frequent, I suspect.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Marc Lynch on Khanfar at MEI

Marc Lynch has a posting up about a small gathering held today with Al-Jazeera Director Wadah Khanfar here at MEI. I didn't attend so I'll let his commentary do the job.

Fred Hof and the Israeli Press

In an earlier post, I noted that the Israeli press keeps spelling Fred Hof's name as "Hoff," and that it wasn't "Frederick Hoff" but "Frederic Hof."

Now there's a Jerusalem Post piece that has gotten the "Hof" part right, but spells the first name "Fredd."

Fred, (or Fredd), if you find this post, please believe I'm trying to get it right. And good luck out there.

Some Weekend Links

A few things published (or belatedly found by me) over the weekend:

  • Ahmadinejad is skating on thin ice: firing the intelligence minister was daring, but by firing a second minister he may have forced a confidence vote on his Cabinet even before he's inaugurated for his second term. This Iranian drama isn't finished yet.
More as the day proceeds.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Weekend Reading

Weekend reading's a bit light again; I think everyone's on vacation but me:

The Escalating Settlements Feud

I've left the escalating feud over Israeli settlements uncommented upon so far, but the US has now warned Israel that any attempt to expand settlement activity in the so-called E--1 corridor (between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim) would be "extremely damaging" and "corrosive." This follows by less than a week US warnings against construction of apartments on the site of the Shepherd Hotel in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah district, a move which led to sharp reactions on the part of Bibi Netanyahu and the rather odd idea on the part of Avigdor Lieberman to have Israeli embassies abroad circulate a photo of Adolf Hitler. The reasons for the latter: it's a photo of Hitler with Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the deposed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, taken in 1941; the Mufti was the Palestinian nationalist the British first made and later unmade Mufti, and he was associated, apparently, with the property under debate.

Now, as Marc Lynch noted a couple of days ago in a catalog of commentary by Israel's supporters declaring Obama's policy on settlements a failure, what he calls "concern trolling on the settlements," the rush to declare the policy a failure suggests that in fact the policy has hit a nerve. For those who came in late or aren't totally immersed in the issue, I'd like to suggest just why these two issues are striking so close to the nerve.

First, Sheikh Jarrah. Israel has long insisted that East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967 and that it has the right to build Jewish housing anywhere. As many commentators have noted, Netanyahu's comments that Arabs could freely buy land in West Jerusalem was simply not true, either through deliberate misstatement, ignorance, or a highly technical reading of the law. (Non-Jews cannot buy state land and most of the land in pre-1967 Israel is technically state land. But the fact of the matter is that except for a few rare cases where the building was in particularly sensitive areas (the Muslim quarter of the Old City, the Arab village of Silwan), the US has generally looked the other way on Jerusalem construction. But Sheikh Jarrah is a middle class, rather up-market section of mostly Arab East Jerusalem. As the US has noted, it would change the demographic makeup of the area; it is also the case that if there ever is a decision to create the capital of a Palestinian state in part of Arab Jerusalem, the general area north of the Old City extending up to Sheikh Jarrah would be the logical place. So the US is crying foul because of the potential for changing the bargaining table for future end-status negotiations.

The E-1 corridor is explosive in other ways. Beginning in 1967, Israel began building up Jewish suburbs over the Green Line and in the former no-man's lands, first on the north and west, then to the south. In Netanyahu's previous term as Prime Minister he authorized the building of Har Homa, which filled in the southeastern flank. The big settlement bloc at Maaleh Adumim east of Jerusalem is still separated from other Jewish suburbs by Arab suburbs and villages. Filling in the E-1 corridor would complete the jigsaw puzzle and surround Arab East Jerusalem and its outlier villages with Jewish suburbs, and would place a large Israeli population astride the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It's a classic effort to change facts on the ground, foreclosing possible future compromises, and the US recognizes it for what it is.

The fact that the US has seemingly decided to lay down the law on these two critical issues and has also made clear that it considers East Jerusalem occupied territory is what seems to have surprised Netanyahu and set off much criticism domestically here of Obama's policies. But it really amounts to actually insisting on what US policy has long been: that the settlements change facts on the ground that should be left for a final settlement.

For map lovers, by the way, I should mention our colleagues at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, who share our building at MEI though they are not organically linked with us; it's led by Ambassador Phil Wilcox and publishes the Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, edited by the redoubtable Geoffrey Aronson. They produce some of the most detailed maps around, and make them available for viewing online.

New Blog from Damascus

There's a relatively new blog I became aware of over the past few days, Dispatch from Damascus, by a blogger using the name Al-Farabi. Not, presumably, a reincarnation of the medieval polymath and faylasuf, since he/she is identified as an American living in Damascus, and while there's some dispute about the other Al-Farabi's place of birth, it pretty clearly wasn't America. The early posts look promising, and I've added it to the Blogroll.

Actually, Al-Farabi in a comment on my post last night expressed an interest in hearing me comment on the apparent revival of the Turkish mediation between Israel and Syria. I'll give it some thought, but Al-Farabi's own post on the subject is worth looking at in the meantime.

Arabic Books in Israel

"Want to Read Harry Potter in Arabic? Not in Israel": An interesting recent article in Haaretz about border officials confiscating books published in Beirut or Damascus when Israeli Arabs try to bring them in from Jordan or Egypt.

This may just be bureaucratic inefficiency, and as it notes there are importers who are licensed to import. I know I have at least one book in Arabic on my shelf published in Beirut and bought in a bookshop in East Jersualem, and it's on a political subject to boot. And I know that some Arab countries still bar anything published in Israel. But if a book is bought legally in Jordan or Egypt, countries which have relations with Israel, and is bought by an Israeli citizen, and isn't objectionable for some other reason (Israel does still have military censorship), then I'm a bit surprised it's being confiscated. Perhaps I'm holding Israel to a higher standard than I do many Arab countries, but it does seem odd to block your own Arabic-speaking citizens (a fifth of the Israeli population) from reading a bestseller just because it was published in the center of Arabic book publishing, Beirut.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Egypt Arresting Islamist Bloggers

Happy Egyptian National Day. The major news has been the arrest of at least three well-known, moderate bloggers associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Since this has already been covered extensively by Menassat, commented upon at some length by Marc Lynch and by The Arabist, Global Voices, and a lot of other sites, I'll only comment briefly: this is going after the younger, moderate wing of the Brotherhood that, in fact, is seeking to provide a more mainstream and reformist face to the organization. Perhaps that's why the government considers them threatening. It also comes in the wake of the arrest earlier, as these links note, of ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Fattouh, a senior Brotherhood moderate. For those who read Arabic an interesting interpretation by ‘Amr Choubki here. And, though it precedes the arrests of the bloggers, this piece in English by Khalil Anani offers some important reflections.

This adds to the sense of growing tension in Egypt. I understand many people did turn out for the Mulid of Sayyida Zaynab despite the government ban on religious festivals due to swine flu. Strikes in all kinds of industries have been increasingly frequent and confrontational. The crackdown on the Brotherhood's younger and more forward-looking bloggers isn't a good sign.

July 23, 1952

Fifty-seven years ago today, at about 7:00 in tbe morning Cairo time, Lieutenant Colonel Anwar Sadat went to Egypt's Broadcast House and read communiqué number one in the name of General Muhammad Naguib and the Free Officers Movement: [Added months later: here's the actual audio in Arabic]
To the People of Egypt:

Egypt has passed through a critical period in her recent history characterized by bribery, mischief, and the absence of governmental stability. All of these were factors that had a large influence on the army. Those who accepted bribes and were thus influenced caused our defeat in the Palestine War. As for the period following the war, the mischief-making elements have been assisting one another, and traitors have been commanding the army. They appointed a commander who is either ignorant or corrupt. Egypt has reached the point, therefore, of having no army to defend it. Accordingly, we have undertaken to clean ourselves up and have appointed to command us men from within the army whom we trust in their ability, their character, and their patriotism. It is certain that all Egypt will meet this news with enthusiasm and will welcome it.
The coup launched by the Egyptian Free Officers on the night of July 22-23, 1952, was neither the first military coup in the Arab world (Iraq had its first coup in 1936; Syria began a string of coups in 1949) nor the last, but many of those to come after it would consciously model themselves on Egypt's, even to calling their movement the Free Officers or naming a Revolutionary Command Council. And while Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Yemen have seen a number of coups each, Egypt's remains unique in its contemporary history: there has been none since. The emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser created a pan-Arab hero for many Arabs who never set foot in Egypt, and the Egyptian government of today is, despite enormous changes in ideology, organization, and international orientation, the direct heir of the military intervention of 1952. Whatever one may think of its results, it dominates the subsequent history of the Arab world.

So, while wishing my Egyptian readers a happy National Day, it may be worth meditating a bit on the legacy of the Thawra of 1952.

There has long been a debate in Egypt over whether the "Revolution of 1952" was really a Revolution (thawra) or merely another military putsch like Bakr Sidqi in Iraq or Husni Za‘im in Syria. The answer, I think, is that it began as a sort of ad hoc coup launched to forestall a move to arrest the Free Officers; at first it was uncertain of its direction, naming a civilian government under old-guard political figure ‘Ali Maher, and deposing the King (on July 26, another date for which streets, bridges etc. are named), but appointing a Regency Council to rule in the name of Farouq's infant son Ahmad Fuad II, technically the last King of Egypt. (He's still around by the way, in his late 50s and looking more and more like his father, living in Switzerland. He gave an interview a while back to Al-‘Arabiya, but spoke in French, presumably because he's not comfortable in Arabic. Actually, of the whole Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty, the only khedive/sultan/king who spoke Arabic natively was Farouq. Don't bet on a restoration. Ahmad Fuad II's ex-wife was Jewish and there are even rumors his kids — including the pretender "Prince of the Sa‘id" or heir apparent, Prince Muhammad ‘Ali — might even have Israeli citizenship, which makes restoration pretty unlikely indeed, though these rumors are officially denied.) In any event, there is no serious monarchical movement in Egypt. The dynasty was foreign in origin and, oddly enough, the only popular King was (for a while) Farouq.

When Ahmad Maher proved unsatisfactory Naguib was made head of the Revolutionary Command Council; when finally the monarchy was scrapped in 1953 Naguib became President and Nasser Prime Minister, but the two soon fell out themselves. Not until Nasser emerged as the clear leader did the coup begin to look a bit more revolutionary, with both genuine reforms (land reform, nationalizations) and some less encouraging signs (banning political parties, widespread arrests). Only a bit later did Arab nationalism become the dominant ideology of the regime, and confrontation with Israel really emerged in the midst of the crisis of the mid-50's over the Aswan Dam, the Czech arms deal, etc., but then I suspect most of my readers have studied Modern Middle East 101 and know this.

Egypt was ripe for revolution; the "Black Saturday" fires of early 1952 showed that, as did the multiple plots Western intelligence agencies kept hearing about: Communists, Muslim Brothers, various right- and left-wing Egyptian movements. Even King Farouq said that soon there would be only five Kings: the King of England and the four in the pack of cards. It was the Army that moved first.

The coup had its misfires. It was scheduled for August, but when the Free Officers won the elections to the Army Officer's Club, the King moved to overturn the results and the officers feared he was moving against them. Moving the coup forward encountered the problem that the officer in charge of signals, Sadat, had been in Sinai and only returned to Cairo the night of the 22nd, and then promptly went to the movies with his family. Though they started the Revolution without him, he recovered in time to read the communiqué.

Various accounts of the organization of the Free Officers differ in the memoirs of the various members. Sadat does not even agree with himself: he wrote two accounts in the 1950s, another in the late 1970s, and was working on more rewrites when he died. On his last visit to Washington in 1981 he told Ronald Reagan that the movie he went to on the night of the Revolution was a Reagan flick, but I don't think anyone has confirmed that, and by then Sadat was revising his personal autobiography so frequently I'm not sure even he was sure what was true.

They are almost all gone now. With the death of Zakariyya Muhieddin earlier this year, and that of Hussein al-Shaf‘i in 2005, I believe the only surviving Free Officer is Khalid Muhieddin, Zakariyya's younger brother and longtime head of the Tagammu‘ Party. Khalid — once the leftist "Red Major" of the RCC — is, I believe, about 87 now, but still around the last I heard.

But even when the last of the Free Officers leaves the scene, Husni Mubarak, though not a Free Officer, is, as the heir of Anwar Sadat, very much a son of the Revolution. If he passes the baton to his son Gamal — and Mubarak's generation often named sons Gamal after Nasser, which may be the case here as well — the legacy will still continue, even if the freewheeling pro-American capitalism of Gamal Mubarak is a far cry from the "Arab socialism" of Nasser. (An Egyptian joke from the 1970s, when Sadat was liberalizing the economy and turning to the US, was that he kept the Nasser era title for the state prosecutor of "Socialist Prosecutor General" because now the man's primary job was to prosecute socialists.)

The legacy of July 23, 1952 will, I think, be a mixed one. It inaugurated a long era of military rule not only in Egypt but in the Arab world; Nasser's frustrations with his efforts at reform led to an authoritarian legacy that dominates throughout the region still today, and the legacy of the mukhabarat security state is also a contribution of the Nasser era. But it is also hard to look at the Egypt of Black Saturday and feel much nostalgia. What is indisputable is that the coup and the Nasser era shaped not only Egypt but the entire Arab world for decades to come.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ahmadinejad Defying Khamene'i?

It looks as if Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is going to fight on for his choice of Vice President, despite his candidate's rejection by Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene'i. This would seem to be a case of the hardliners who backed Ahmadinejad in the election crisis trying to impose their own choices on the President.

This will probably resolve itself, but the fact that the President is showing some independence here (and that it is he who has chosen a "moderate" candidate that the hardliners object to) is worth noting. It's also a reminder that the events of the past month-plus have opened fissures along several of the fault-lines of the clerical system, not just between the reformers and the hard-line camp, but apparently within the hard-line camp itself.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

‘Ammar ‘Abdelhamid

The well-known Syrian dissident and analyst ‘Ammar ‘Abdelhamid — who first made his name as a dissident blogger inside Syria before being exiled to the West — spoke at MEI today about reform, dissent, and comparing the Arab world with events in Iran. The podcast may be worth your time. The description of the event is here. The podcast is here, and as usual starts to play when you click on the link.

Can Egypt Successfully Ban Mulids Over Swine Flu? We're About to Find Out

An interesting article on the English site of Al-Misry Al-Youm on Egyptian resentment of the government's efforts to cancel the Mulid Sayyida Zaynab, one of the major festivals of the Egyptian year when the Sufi orders celebrate one of the patronesses of Cairo. Not surprisingly people resent the ban on public celebrations, and tonight would be the big night for the mulid. Can fear of the flu stop one of the biggest popular festivals in Egypt? We're about to find out.

Oh, I don't expect the revolution to begin tonight or anything. But when for any reason (even public health) you start cracking down on public celebrations, you're playing with explosive materials. This particular celebration is particularly interesting because it is traditionally one of Cairo's biggest, brings lots of money into a relatively underprivileged neighborhood, and is particularly popular with women. A little background is in order.

I've not commented much on the swine flu controversy in Egypt lately, though it got a lot of coverage from me earlier, collected here; what changed is that swine flu actually reached Egypt, and thus the overreactions were a little less absurd than when there hadn't been a single case in the whole Middle East.

But one of the government's reactions was to ban the traditional mulids, (mawlids in Classical Arabic), the holy days honoring saints (literally "birthdays" because that's usually the date chosen). The mulids are major popular festivals in Egypt, not just in Cairo but in many provincial towns, each of which has its own traditional saint or saints. Cairo has several. The biggest may be Imam al-Shaf‘i, who is buried in the sprawling southern cemetery known as the City of the Dead; there's an irony in that one because Imam al-Shaf‘i, founder of one of the four Sunni legal schools, didn't like the veneration of saints very much. And now he is one.

But alongside Imam al-Shaf‘i, there are several other patron saints of Cairo, among whom are Sayyidna Hussein, the Prophet's Grandson, whose shrine mosque near al-Azhar is also the scene of a major mulid right in the Khan al-Khalili quarter. Along with Hussein (who is mostly buried in Karbala, Iraq, though Cairo claims some part of him, I think his head), there are two other venerated saints usually more venerated by the Shi‘a than the Sunni: Sayyida Zaynab, granddaughter of the Prophet, and Sayyida Nafisa, a later descendant of the Prophet, great-granddaughter of Imam Hasan.

The point here is that Egypt had its Shi‘ite era: when the Isma‘ili dynasty known as the Fatimids ruled the country. During that time veneration of the Prophet's descendants buried in Cairo became very popular, and continued so when Egypt returned to its Sunni roots.

Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyida Nafisa ("sayyida" tends to become "sitt" in colloquial) are also popular saints among women, because they are women, in the Prophet's line.

The Sufi orders — the tariqas — are very influential in Egypt, and they come out in strength during the mulids. An extremely important expression of popular piety, they have been somewhat eclipsed by political Islamists (who tend to be very anti-Sufi), but they are still a major element in pious religious expression at the grass roots.

The link above to the newspaper account notes the resentments about the cancellation and the intentions of some to try to celebrate anyway. It also notes the fact that some people are going to lose money over the cancellations.

I'm not sure this will work. Popular religious piety tends to override government decrees, in Egypt as elsewhere. This is an unpopular move by all accounts. Cancelling Sayyida Zaynab is like the Grinch stealing Christmas.

I don't think there'll be some huge political result, not immediately and perhaps not ever, but it's still something worth flagging, I think.

Lieberman Goes to South America to "Curb Iranian Influence." No, Seriously.

Avigdor Lieberman is embarking on a ten-day trip to South America. Quote from AP on the Haaretz website: "The Foreign Ministry said Monday that FM Avigdor Lieberman is heading to South America to curb Iranian influence on the continent." Day Two: Take Down Hugo Chavez? Day Three: Cure the Lame?

Seriously though
Lieberman's 10-day visit to South America, the first in several years by an Israeli foreign minister, is set to begin today with Brazil, before moving on to Argentina, Peru and Colombia.

. "Lieberman is a racist and a fascist," Valter Pomar, secretary of international relations for the Workers Party (PT), told Haaretz. "The Brazilian left is organizing protests against him and against the policy he represents."

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also a PT member, will meet Lieberman today in Brasilia. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion," a spokesman for the Brazilian foreign minister said. "Pomar's view certainly does not represent the government's position."

The president of Brazil's Jewish community, Dr. Claudio Luiz Lottenberg, said he had not heard about planned demonstrations. "We haven't had state visits for a long time and a bad environment has been created. Now we need to restart relations with a fresh attitude," he said.

Lottenberg, who will host Lieberman in Sao Paulo, said he will tell the foreign minister to try to refocus relations on "more than just trade."

Lieberman's trip to South America is aimed at helping curb Iranian influence there, the foreign ministry said.
Good luck, Yvette. (That really is his nickname, or more correctly the popular spelling of his real Belarussian name, which is Evet, now transformed into Avigdor.)

Summer Issue of The Middle East Journal

The Summer Issue of The Middle East Journal is now online. Subscribers may access it at the Ingenta Connect website; if you haven't previously set up an account you'd need your member number (from the mailing label if you subscribe the hard copy; online-only subscribers should have received one when they set up their account.)

There are articles on electoral issues in Egypt (women voters) and Morocco, and three articles looking at various aspects of Qatar: the dynamics of royal politics, expatriate labor, and relations with Israel.

The articles are (you can read the abstract at the link; nonsubscribers can buy the article online):
Our lengthy book review section leads off with a review by called "Bridging the Divide: US Efforts to Engage the Muslim World," Mona Yacoubian of the US Institute for Peace reviews two recent books by Juan Cole and Emile Nakhleh on engaging the Muslim world.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Qaddoumi's Transcript

The transcript that Farouq Qaddoumi claimed showed Abu Mazen (Mahmud ‘Abbas) and Muhammad Dahlan conspiring with Ariel Sharon to kill Yasir ‘Arafat (my earlier posts are here and here) has finally been released by Qaddoumi and, while its genuineness is still quite suspect, even on its own face it doesn't seem to be quite as damning (except to Sharon) as Qaddoumi implied.

The transcript has been translated by Toufic Haddad as an exclusive for The Faster Times, so I refer you to that site to read the text, but as The Arabist notes in his own analysis, the transcript itself has some ambiguities. In fact, while it's clear that Sharon (in the transcript, the genuineness of which I still question) wants to kill ‘Arafat, it sounds as if Abu Mazen and Muhammad Dahlan are arguing against it, on the grounds that it would create more problems than it solves. ("In this way, we will inevitably fail..."; "If Arafat dies before we have control on the ground ... we will face great complications" "In this way we will fail entirely, and we will not be able to accomplish anything from the plan. Rather the situation will explode without control over it.") If the transcript is genuine then their presence in a meeting where Sharon raised the subject might be considered controvrsial and disloyal, but even on its own face the transcript does not show them supporting the idea.

As others have noted before me, this is part of an internal struggle within Fatah, and the transcript may be disinformation or outright fabrication. But even if it's genuine, it isn't quite the smoking gun Qaddoumi originally seemed to claim.

The Mauritanian Elections

There seem to be real questions about the Mauritanian election results, despite a multi-party agreement to try to hold a fair and free vote. General Abdelaziz has apparently won comfortably.

I pretend no expertise on Mauritania, so for all your Mauritania needs, I refer you to The Moor Next Door, who follows it closely. Most of his posts over the past few days have related to the results.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite and the Middle East

Oh my. Ask and it shall be answered. In my immediately previous post I noted that everybody I've posted under the "obituaries" label so far has been pretty ambiguous in their historical legacy but that perhaps I'll have a chance to offer some unreserved praise. Then I heard from my wife, who was watching TV while I blogged, that Walter Cronkite had died. And he had a major role in one particular event in Middle Eastern history. And if you've got something bad to say about him, please say it somewhere else.

My generation needs no introduction to Uncle Walter. Before I got here he was dropping with the paratroops in Market Garden, the disastrous Arnhem operation of World War II. He was the newsman of my youth, and his You Are There introduced me to the history of my parents' generation. And that moment in November 1963 when he took off those black horn-rims, looked up at the clock, and announced that John F. Kennedy was dead, with a catch in his voice, will live forever. He helped us through it. And he got us to the moon. And when Uncle Walter turned against the Vietnam war, it was the beginning of the endgame. Even Lyndon Johnson famously said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." (Google it. It's Friday night. I don't want to take the time. It'll be in all the morning papers, anyway.)

And he died in the midst of the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a day after the anniversary of the launch, three days before the anniversary of the landing. (Historical irony? Synchronicity? Interesting anyway.) We could not have gone to the moon without Walter Cronkite, could we have? When he retired, the space program got boring. He made things official, somehow. When he said "That's the way it is," we knew that that was the way it was.

There will be a lot of memories of Walter Cronkite over the next few days (though it won't match Michael Jackson), so I'll limit myself to remembering why Uncle Walter was important to the Middle East: in 1977 he cornered first Sadat, then Begin, in TV interviews to agree to a direct meeting. Oh, sure, the Egyptians had been working through Moroccan back-channels for a long time, but the fact that Cronkite asked Sadat directly, on US TV, if he would actually go to Israel, and he said yes, and then Cronkite asked Begin, who didn't have much of an out . . . the point is, the process was already afoot, but Cronkite pushed the leaders in public, and Sadat's native showmanship was such that he accepted the challenge. It would have happened anyway, but Cronkite made it happen sooner. (Be patient, when I can find a YouTube of it I'll link.)

I'm not immediately remembering other major Cronkite involvement in Middle Eastern history, but what more do you need? He pushed Sadat and Begin together. And my generation hasn't really watched network news that much since Uncle Walter retired. (We watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox depending on our tastes, but is there a Cronkite among them?) No one in the Internet era has that authority, that solid grandfatherly reassurance.

Any young folk who don't understand my signoff, ask your elders:

And that's the way it is, Friday, July 17, 2009.


Ex-Mossad Chief Meir Amit Dies at 88

Before disappearing for the weekend, a few comments on the passing of Meir Amit, who has died at age 88. The Haaretz article linked to offers most of the basics, though the Jerusalem Post obit also is worth reading. (Image at left from Wikipedia.)

Amit was one of the legendary figures in Mossad, which has spent a lot of time cultivating its legend. In his day of course the head of Mossad was never identified publicly during his tenure; it was a far cry from today, when Mossad has not only a website, but an English language webpage of its own with a message from Director Meir Dagan, complete with a picture. "M" would never approve. (Of course the real model for James Bond's "M", the SIS' "C," is also now a public figure. At least he has an appropriate James Bond name, Sir John McLeod Scarlett.) The Mossad chief was colloquially known as the meimouneh, roughly, the "responsible one" or "boss".

Amit was head of Military Intelligence when he was named head of Mossad in 1963; for a while he held both jobs at the same time, an unprecedented and unrepeated factoid. He succeeded the famous Isser Harel, who ran Mossad from 1952 until 1963 and was best known for the Eichmann capture, among other things. Amit, most notably, was the head of Mossad during the 1967 war.

Both linked Israeli obits note that some of his services to Israel are still classified. They do note that he ran Eli Cohen, a famous Israeli spy in Syria ultimately hanged by the Syrians. He also arranged the defection of an Iraqi Christian pilot to Israel, bringing his then-unseen-in-the west MiG-21 Fishbed to Israel intact.

Specifics aside, Amit has a reputation as a man who worked up a significant human intelligence (HUMINT) capability in the Arab world, providing the information needed for the pre-emptive strike of June 5, 1967, which destroyed the Arab Air Forces. At least some of his HUMINT network presumably were never identified, and he may have been behind the recruitments of many senior persons who long remained in senior positions in the Arab world. As is perhaps appropriate in an obituary of a spy chief, it's hard to know for sure. (If, as some have claimed, Nasser's son-in-law Ashraf Marwan was the source for tipping off Israel about the 1973 war, one wonders if he was recruited in Amit's day. But the Marwan story is more muddled than anything John Le Carré ever come up with: the Wikipedia entry is a reasonable recapitulation of all the claims and counterclaims. And there's an odd note about his 2007 death, falling from the balcony of his London apartment:
One witness, who was on the third floor of a nearby building, told police that he saw two men "wearing suits and of Mediterranean appearance" appear on the balcony moments after Marwan's fall, look down, and then return inside the apartment. Police are also reported to have lost Marwan's shoes, which could hold clues on whether or not Marwan himself jumped from the balcony.[6]
Marwan is the fourth Egyptian of note to die in London in a similar way. The others, all of whom were involved in Egyptian politics between 1966 and 1971, are: Suad Hosni, the actress; Al-Leithy Nassif, the Egyptian ambassador to Britain; and Ali Shafeek, secretary in the office of former Egyptian Vice President Abdel Hakim Amer.
(Moral: If you're an Egyptian with vaguely spooky ties, stay off London balconies.)
Meir Amit may never have had anything to do with Ashraf Marwan, who may have had no connection with Israel and in the 1980s ran Egypt's defense industry. But Amit moved comfortably in the shadowy world of deep-cover agents in Arab countries, and reportedly had highly placed agents in several Arab capitals. After Harel himself, he is probably more responsible than any later Mossad chief for the high (perhaps overblown) reputation the agency has long enjoyed, not least in the Arab world, where it is seen as the prime mover behind everything.

It's always hard to know what to say when somebody whose accomplishments are still classified passes away. A certain throat clearing and a note that somebody once quite important for reasons that may not be fully known for decades has passed on, may be the best response.
By the way: in earlier obituary for Nabawi Isma‘il I noted that:
So far, by the way, the label "obituaries" on this blog brings up only Ja‘far Numeiri and Nabawi Isma‘il. I hope eventually to find someone I can say unreservedly good things about, but not this time.
Since that time, my "obituaries" label have been for posts about Robert S. McNamara and now, Meir Amit. Maybe you just don't get a name in the Middle East if there's nothing ambiguous about your career, but I keep hoping.
UPDATE: See Following Post on Walter Cronkite. I hope I didn't jinx him. (Oh: good. He died before I posted this.)

Weekend Reading Roundup

It's mid-July so the weekend reading suggestions are a little light this week: the think tanks take vacations too.

Rafsanjani's Friday Sermon

Based on the early reports it sounds as if Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran was, more or less as I suspected, more conciliatory than confrontational, but nonetheless acknowledged that something needs to be done to erase doubts about the election results. His call for freeing the prisoners from the demonstrations is clearly a sign of that. Mousavi's attendance at the Friday prayer service also seems to be his first public appearance since the crackdown.

A lot of coverage around. Nico Putney at Huffington Post is still live-blogging events, one of many good ways to keep up. Al-Jazeera's take isn't much different from the BBC's. A pro-government semi-official site here. And an interesting eyewitness account on the National Iranian-American Council site here.

My not-entirely-thought-through first reactions:
  • Pretty characteristic Rafsanjani: basically cautious but still critical, clearly aligning himself with the opposition and warning that Iran is in crisis, though, thus making clear he is not on board with the results. But not encouraging violence: calling instead for reconciliation, for restoring "one family" of Iranians.
  • The overall event was non-violent. There were arrests, and apparently Mehdi Karrubi was jostled and his turban knocked off, but none of the thuggish Basiji violence that characterized some earlier demonstrations. UPDATE: There do seem to have been some confrontations in the streets after the prayer was over.
  • Overall message: this isn't over, and the regime has some work to do to restore confidence, but on the other hand, change will come from within the system, not from revolution, at least if Rafsanjani can call the shots.
  • While characteristic, it is the first time in some years that Rafsanjani has been quite so openly outspoken, and may be a sign he is declaring himself with the opposition to work within the system. A billionaire, he knows his own future is dependent on remaining at the heart of the system, not bringing it down.
There's a lot out there on the speech and I haven't seen it all, but those are my first impressions.

The Palestinian Authority's Al-Jazeera Blunder Deepens

Talleyrand is usually credited (though others also claim the phrase) with having remarked of Napoleon's execution of the Duc d'Enghien that it "was worse than a crime, it was a blunder." The same might be said of the Palestinian Authority's closing of the West Bank Al-Jazeera offices in retaliation for Al-Jazeera reporting the Farouq Qaddoumi charge that Mahmud ‘Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan had conspired with Ariel Sharon and unnamed Americans to murder Yasir ‘Arafat. I first posted on the Qaddoumi affair on Wednesday, when it was still gathering steam. I didn't write anything about it yesterday, but Marc Lynch had a good summary of events up to that point, including the remarks that:

That's a major mistake, and all too typical of the way the Palestinian Authority and most other Arab governments have approached critical media over the years. Shutting down critical media outlets represents the bad habit of the official Arab order, which has never adjusted to the contentious new media (whether al-Jazeera or political blogs).

The PA decision is more troubling than the run of the mill story of Arab regimes hating free media, though, because it comes at a time when the contours of an emerging Palestinian state are being shaped. Salam al-Fayyad's role in the crackdown is particularly disturbing, given the great hopes which the U.S. has placed on him personally. The reflexive hostility to a free media shows yet again why the Palestinian Authority in its current configuration is a poor foundation for building a viable Palestinian state and the need for major political and institutional reforms. What does it say for the hope of building a political system on the basis of the rule of law and political freedoms when its U.S.-backed leadership cavalierly closes down media outlets it doesn't like?

He also noted that in defending itself, Al-Jazeera was running more on the story than would have been the case if the story had just been ignored. That is still the case today on Al-Jazeera's front page (though I've linked to the main page so it will change hourly or daily).

I certainly agree that the closing of the Al-Jazeera offices represents the traditonal Arab regime's view of media reportage as something that can be contained and controlled, and a failure to understand that new media — even if satellite television was the new media a decade ago more than today — is not as easily controlled as in the old days of only state-run channels. The fact that Al-Jazeera's closing is not only being reported by Al-Jazeera, but by all the internatonal Arab media and online as well, makes it virtually impossible to contain the story. And it shows that the old guards still don't understand.

Of course, there are plenty of regimes who don't like Al-Jazeera. The Saudis see it as an enemy of their Kingdom; the Egyptians aren't much more favorable, and there are many Americans (mostly those who've never seen it) who think it is anti-American. But closing the bureau because it reported on a public statement to the press made by a longtime public figure (and as Al-Jazeera was quick to note, also quoted all the denials) is indeed more than a crime, it is a blunder. In the first place, it is clearly shooting the messenger, since Qaddoumi's statement was public and was going to be reported in Jordanian and pan-Arab media. In the second place it was not Al-Jazeera's story, merely a public story they reported.

But in the third place, an accusation that might have been dismissed like any other conspiracy theory in the Middle East (and there are plenty of those) is now in its third or fourth day of high visibility publicity. If it had simply been dismissed as nonsense without any other action being taken, it might have gone away by now.

Instead, the sheer overreaction of the Palestinian Authority is going to make many people wonder if there could be something to the story after all. I personally think it's nonsense, the silly kind of conspiracy theory the coffeehouse domino players and shisha-smokers delight in trading. But Qaddoumi is sticking by his story and says he has documents, transcripts of a meeting, and he challenges Abu Mazen and Dahlan to disprove the documents.

The funny thing is, first, that the closing of the Al-Jazeera offices just gave Qaddoumi more credibility, though I still think it's nonsense. It will make a lot of people wonder why the PA overreacted, though really they reacted the same way Arab autocracies have traditionally done.

As Lynch and others have already noted before me, this also sullies the escutcheon of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is the Great Moderate Hope of many in the US Administration: it was his office that ordered the closure.

Although I have Asad AbuKhalil's "Angry Arab News Service" in my blogroll, I don't think I've actually linked to any of his posts; he's usually a little too Angry for my own tastes, but this whole affair is right up his alley. He had a right-on-target post yesterday, though, including this:

As you all know, the Abu Mazen collaborationist regime shut down AlJazeera offices (and I am glad that the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the closure). But you need to read the Orwellian official statement that was issued by Salam Fayyad (the same guy who was dubbed "reformer" because he strictly follows orders from the World Bank and from Elliott Abrams). The statement justified the closure in the name of "the Supreme Palestinian interest". The language used was the same as that used by Saddam Husayn's regime or the regime of Enver Hoxa. It was classic terminology of tyranny.

After that he gets angrier, but that doesn't make him wrong.

I just looked at my page of RSS feeds of Middle Eastern bloggers and just noted — pretty much randomly — two posts by Zenobia at Egyptian Chronicles: "The Poll of the Month No. 1: Who Killed Arafat?" and "Arabic X-File: Who Killed Yasser Arafat?" These may not be typical; I'll try to track various blogs on this, but if I find more as the day goes on I'll update. Watch the comments too. (And that blog is in English, usually more restrained than some of the Arabic ones.)

This may still blow over sooner rather than later, since eventually Qaddoumi needs to either produce evidence or fold his hand, but he is a respected senior figure in Fatah, and one uncompromised by participation in the Palestinian Authority's sometimes dubious dealings. He's not a fringe figure, though Israelis would like to think he is, and so would many Americans. But I think it's already clear that this thing has lasted longer (in the regional media, not in the West) than would have been the case if the PA had attacked Qaddoumi but left Al-Jazeera alone.

Of course, the fact that the conspiracy theories have shifted from blaming Israel for ‘Arafat's death to blaming Israel, Abu Mazen and Dahlan, means the Palestinians are once again in circular firing squad mode, attacking each other. And that's probably not good for anybody, including Israelis.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Every Analyst Has Days Like This

Thomas Hegghammer at Jihadica has done the world yet another service: preserved in PDF form a CBS News Terror Monitor posting that CBS News has, not surprisingly, apparently taken down since it apparently was posted in March. So click on the PDF. (In his roundup of links/posts he has gathered over the past week or so, it's the final one.) The same roundup includes his take on the recent online debate about Sheikh Qaradawi's new book.

As Thomas notes, we've all wanted to post something like that sometimes.

Now Lieberman in Feud with His Own Ministry

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, no stranger to controversy, now seems to be in a feud with his own Foreign Ministry, which, of course, he heads. According to this report in this morning's Haaretz, a number of highly critical reports about Foreign Ministry officials and serving diplomats have appeared on a Russian-language website known as IzRus. Lieberman is himself Belarussian and his party, Yisrael Beitenu, draws much of its support from Russian immigrants, so the Foreign Ministry staff apparently believe Lieberman is behind the leaks.

It would appear these charges are not just of ordinary misconduct or corruption, according to the report in Haaretz quoting the website:
Several very negative reports about the ministry appeared on IzRus, considered one of Israel's five leading Russian-language Web sites, in the past few days. But the diplomats' anger reached its peak Wednesday morning, after the publication of an uncredited article, with the headline: "Orgies, bribery and fights in the Foreign Ministry: The Liebermans would not be accepted there."

The story claimed the ministry and its overseas missions are fertile ground for "orgies, sex with minors, sexual harassment and bribery." The author even claimed that most of the cases are still being hidden from the public. In addition, the writer accused the ministry of discriminating against immigrants, and Russian-speakers in particular, in appointments and admittance to the diplomat training course. The article also states, however, that Lieberman's appointment as foreign minister has changed the situation, increasing optimism among Israeli diplomats with a Russian background. "Native-born Israelis, especially at the highest levels, were scared their property had passed into foreign hands," the unknown author wrote.

After senior officials demanded that Gal reply to the vilification, the director-general's office told Haaretz Wednesday: "We are disgusted by the claims in the report on the IzRus Internet site and deny them completely. Foreign Ministry employees are a dedicated and professional group that operates around the world day and night to advance the affairs of Israel."
Lieberman's tour as Foreign Minister continues to be, well, interesting. I have no idea if he is in any way involved personally in these charges, and since I don't read Russian I won't link to the site lest I link to something inappropriate.

Fred Hof and Israel-Syrian Peace

Via Syria Comment, a translated piece by Israel Policy Forum from Yediot Aharanot on George Mitchell's man on Syria-Israel-Lebanon border issues, Fred Hof, visiting Israel with some fleshed-out proposals. Fred knows the border issues as well as anyone, having done a lot of serious historical work on their history and having worked that field for years, and this is an interesting report, if accurate. One minor quibble: Having known Fred since undergraduate days at Georgetown in the late '60s, and even worked with him for a time in the '90s, I have to tell the translator that it's "Frederic Hof," not "Frederick Hoff." Interesting piece, though, and it sounds quite credible.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Qaddoumi Affair

There's a new flap involving the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Al-Jazeera, and former high PLO figure Farouq Qaddoumi. The short version: Farouq Qaddoumi, one of the original leaders of the PLO and one who has refused to return to the Palestinian Authority, spoke to reporters in Amman and accused Abu Mazen (Mahmud ‘Abbas) of conspiring with Israelis and others to kill Yasir ‘Arafat.

Naturally, the Palestinian Authority reacted, denying and denouncing the story. Then they closed Al-Jazeera's West Bank bureau because the network reported the story. There are also reports of a rift between the PA and Jordan.

The Middle East has been rife with rumors about what killed ‘Arafat since the onset of his final illness, never clearly identified. So long as those rumors simply blamed Israel, they appeared in the Arab media with impunity. But accuse Abu Mazen — and the accusation seems wildly improbable, to say the least — is to cross a red line. But it was Qaddoumi who said it, not hte Jordanian government, and closing the Al-Jazeera offices is simply blaming the messenger, though by now they're used to that.

New MEI Viewpoints: The Islamization of Pakistan

There's a new MEI Viewpoints collection up on "The Islamization of Pakistan, 1979-2009," with contributions from 18 authors. It's the latest in a series of publications on 30 years since the many major regional developments of 1979. The link page is here and the full document in PDF is here. (Or you can just click the graphic of the cover page on the left.)

Meanwhile MEI's new Center for Pakistan Studies is gearing up for major activities, including an online forum to launch in a few weeks and a series of events. Stay tuned for more or check their site at the link.

More Israeli Suez Canal Transits

Two more Israeli warships have transited the Suez Canal. Warship transits, while guaranteed under the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, are rare, given the fact that Israel is concerned about security. As anyone who has seen the canal knows, it is narrow, and warships passing are easily viewed by civilians and others along its banks.

While newsworthy and perhaps a warning shot to Iran, these transits, of two Saar 5 corvettes (one of which, the Hanit, was famously damaged by a Hizbullah anti-ship missile in 2006, and the other of which, the Eilat, carries the name of a destroyer sunk by Egypt in 1967), is not as newsworthy as the earlier transit of one of Israel's Dolphin class subs earlier in the month. As I noted then, that was noteworthy because it was the first time Israel is known to have sent one of its Dolphins through the canal, and the usual assumption has been because a transit (which must be done surfaced) would reveal too much about the sub's armament, widely believed to include nuclear-capable ship-to-shore missiles.

UPDATE: Hizbullah's al-Manar website has run a wire service story on this, but illustrated it with a photo of an aircraft carrier passing through the Canal. I'm sorry to say this is the kind of old-guard sensationalist reporting that gave the Arab press a bad name a generation or more ago. The Israeli vessels were two corvettes, sometimes classed as frigates but rather lighter, and Israel of course has no aircraft carriers.

(Added note: trying to read the number in the photo on the bow of the carrier, I think it's 68, and if it's CVN-68 it's the USS Nimitz.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Marc Lynch's Tour de Force

Readers of the Middle East blogosphere probably know this already, but since it's provoking a lot of commentary I guess I should say something, though I'm really feeling like an old codger on this one. Lynch did an extended interpretation of the feud between rappers Jay-Z and the Game as applied to the debate over American global primacy, with a fair number of IR comparisons. It has to be seen to be appreciated, (the language is mostly asterisked out but is strong). Today he has a roundup of reactions.

It's certainly an extended tour de force. Not being up to date on the rap scene (I still miss Elvis and my daughter is in a Jonas Brothers phase), I must defer to those better attuned to the age. But bravo, I think.

Rafsanjani to Lead Tehran Friday Prayers

‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani will lead the Friday prayers in Tehran this Friday, (and see Juan Cole's commentary on it here). Cole offers a good summary of recent developments, including Mohsen Reza‘i's call for a compromise, and I agree that too much has been made of Ayatollah Montazeri's criticisms; Montazeri is under house arrest and has little influence in the senior clerical establishment today.

Rafsanjani's cautious silence has only been broken occasionally since the elections, and then with statements that could be seen as conciliatory or confrontational depending on one's reading of them. So Friday should be an interesting test: will he throw down a gauntlet to the hardliners (frankly, it's not usually his style), or will he call for some kind of compromise as Reza‘i has done? The visible divisions among the clerical class is damaging the system, and I suspect both sides would prefer a resolution that doesn't endanger the clerical system itself. But I won't be so bold as to predict what exactly Rafsanjani will say. He keeps his own counsel until he is ready to move.

The Church Bombings: New Sectarian Strife?

Sunday saw a wave of bombings of Iraqi churches — six in the Baghdad region on the weekend, at least one in Mosul on Monday — leading to new concern about sectarian violence. Attacks on Shi‘ite targets have increased lately as well, suggesting Sunni insurgents, perhaps what's left of Al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, are striking out in the wake of US troop withdrawals from city security duties.

Any sectarian attack is deplorable, including those aimed at Sunni targets. But where as the Sunni and Shi‘ite populations have their own defense mechanisms in their militias and in the Iraqi security forces, the Christians are particularly vulnerable and Iraq's ancient Christian population has declined rapidly due to emigration since the war. Ironically, Christians did pretty well under the secular Ba‘ath Party, co-founded by a Christian (Michael Aflaq, who ended his days living in Iraqi exile from his native Syria); Saddam's longtime senior aide — Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister — known to the world as Tariq ‘Aziz, was a Chaldean Catholic whose real name was Mikhail Yuhanna. (Michael John, basically.)

Attacks on Christians were common in the bad old days of 2004-2006 or so, when sectarian strife was predominant. But things got better as life in the Iraqi cities calmed down in the past year or so. Whether this particular wave of church attacks is the beginning of a new campaign or just a one-shot affair remains to be seen.

Let me be clear about one thing: No Iraqi religious, ethnic, or linguistic minority (or majority for that matter) should be attacked; those of us of Christian background may naturally empathize with a Christian minority under siege, but Sunni-Shi‘i violence is equally disturbing, as is ethnic Arab-Kurdish-Turkmen violence in Kirkuk or elsewhere, and the Yazidis have been hard hit during the last few years because they have little external support base.

But after a period of seeming amelioration in Christian-Muslim relations, the church attacks are another symptom of the insurgents testing the government in the wake of the US pullback from the cities. Not good news, I should think.

Note: I haven't seen any indication yet of the sectarian nature of the Christian churches. Several Catholics (whether Latin or Chaldean are not specified) are quoted in some of the news reports, but it isn't clear that any specifric Christian denomination was targeted more than others. That may be worth determining, however.