A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 31, 2009

31 Years of the Musa al-Sadr Mystery

Lebanese Shi‘ites are marking today the 31st anniversary of the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr, the charismatic leader who vanished on a trip to Libya on August 31, 1978. The Wikipedia article outlines the basic story: Sadr, of Lebanese ancestry though born in the Iranian holy city of Qom, became a popular leader of poor Shi‘ites, first in Tyre and then throughout southern Lebanon. His Movement of the Disinherited and its armed wing, Amal, from which the modern political party grew, were key players in Lebanon until Sadr disappeared while on a visit to Libya on August 31, 1978. He was due to meet with Mu‘ammar Qadhafi that day, but Qadhafi has always claimed the meeting did not occur and Sadr had flown to Italy. The Italians investigated but found no evidence he had arrived there. It is generally assumed that he and Qadhafi clashed and he was either killed or imprisoned, along with two aides who also disappeared.

Sadr's disappearance, with its echoes of the Shi‘ite theme of a missing Imam, made him even more of a symbol in his absence than when alive. The issue is still a sore point between Lebanon and Libya three decades later, and he is a here not only of Amal but of Hizbullah as well.

Here's a comment by Sheikh Qabalan, a senior cleric, in the Daily Star. Here's the report on Hizbullah's al-Manar English website.

Attacker Identified; My Post Gets Some Attention

The assailant of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef has been officially identified by the Saudis, after he had been named by an Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula posting.

While there are still some unclear aspects to the whole story, let me emphasize that my posting of yesterday was not intended to be some kind of accusation or revelation, merely an attempt to clarify some of the ambiguities still remaining. Perhaps because nobody else is crazy enough to post to a blog on the last Sunday in August, yesterday's post has gotten more attention than I anticipated (or it deserved): Marc Lynch, fresh from vacation, bookmarked it, and Gary Sick posted the whole thing to the Gulf 2000 list, which has a lot of readers all over the Gulf region. Thanks, guys, for the attention; I really didn't think the post was all that substantive, and I'm not on some kind of campaign to question the official account. I was trying to summarize some of the comments to my earlier posts.

Anyway, one response on the Gulf 2000 list (which I'm not allowed to quote directly because it's an invitation-only listserv) pointed out that explosives can behave strangely, reminding me of the time the US almost bombed Hamid Karzai into oblivion just as he was coming to power. I'm no ballistics expert and indeed, explosives can behave strangely.

Anyway, the story is gradually emerging.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

More on Muhammad bin Nayef: Questions about the Details

I don't normally post Sundays but the Muhammad bin Nayef story continues to be the center of Saudi attention, and as I've already discussed with a commenter on a previous post, there are some curious aspects to the story as told so far.

Official reports don't seem completely consistent so far; perhaps this is just the natural confusion of reporting on an unanticipated event (remember the wild reports on 9/11). As a commenter who knows the Gulf well noted in a previous post, reports have said that the suicide bomber detonated himself only a meter from the Prince, yet the Prince suffered only minor injuries to his left hand, and there were no other casualties except the bomber, supposedly blown to bits. The photo of the Prince meeting with the King in the hospital afterwards (above left) has only one visible sign of injury: the middle finger of his left hand is bandaged and there's a splint or something similar showing. A picture today, greeting Pakistan's Interior Minister, shows the same: just a big bandage on the middle finger of the left hand. (Second photo.)

Several reports in Arabic have said the bomb went off during taftish, "inspection," presumably a security checkpoint. Is security only a meter away from the Prince, or is the one-meter story attempting to make the attempt sound like it got closer than it did? What kind of explosion can tear the bomber's body apart (according to some reports) but only injure the middle finger of a man a meter away? Some reports have said that the bomb was triggered by a cell phone call; one suggested it might have even been hidden inside the bomber's body. Still, it's hard to picture the geography of all this. If it was a security checkpoint, why were no security men injured, or were they and this has been suppressed? (As far as I've seen, the only casualties are supposed to be the bomber and the Prince's middle finger.) Now, if the man was not armed with a suicide vest or triggered by a cell phone call but was, say, carrying a simple hand grenade, this might be more credible, if his clothing somehow provided containment for the blast (though in Jidda in August I doubt he was wearing a leather coat or anything similar that might impede the shrapnel). Another report says he was "seated to the left" of the Prince, which doesn't seem fully consistent with the other accounts.

The narrative is gradually filling out. Since many readers don't read Arabic this Saudi Gazette article today is a good summary. Note that Yemen is implicated; the bomber (still unnamed) and his brother are among the most wanted men in the Kingdom; he entered from Yemen (from Ma'rib in southern Yemen, an area until recently claimed by Saudi Arabia), and despite his coming in from southern Yemen the article manages to bring in the Houthi campaign in northern Yemen as well. I found this odd:
[The] attack raises concerns that Yemen’s instability could allow Al-Qaeda to carry out cross-border attacks. The Yemeni army is on a near three-week-long offensive on strongholds of Zaidi rebels, also known as Huthis, in lawless swathes around Saada city in the Mareb region.
Sa‘da and Ma'rib, assuming that's what "Mareb" refers to, aren't anywhere near each other.

So the story is still emerging. I'm not sure when we'll have a clear narrative (if we ever do), but it's quite clear that the Saudis are going to use this to further their campaign against terrorism and to evoke popular sympathy and outrage.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Muhammad Bin Nayef Story: Tomorrow's Saudi Media

Unless something major comes out I'm going to let the Saudi media deal with the Muhammad bin Nayef attack this weekend, but tomorrow's headlines just went up at the Al-Sharq al-Awsat website, and besides the main story, the front page has some related links as well, and the local press is also playing it fairly heavily (Al-Riyadh here; Al-Watan; the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat; for those without Arabic, Arab News' front page has several stories; Saudi Gazette here; Al-Sharq al-Awsat's English pages don't have Saturday's headlines up yet as I write this Friday night.) And that's just the first look at tomorrow morning's papers.

A quick early read would be that the Saudi domestic media and Saudi-owned international media have decided to play this up in order to generate outrage, rather than sweep it under the rug or dismiss it.

I've added a "Muhammad bin Nayef" category to the "categories" labels in the right column, by the way, which will bring up all my posts on the subject on one page.


I'm tired of always calling this "Weekend Reading," and my daughter starts fourth grade Monday so we've been talking about the imminent return of homework, so I think I'll call it that for now. Should you feel the need to spend still more time reading about the Middle East, here are some items:

Tom Lippman on Muhammad bin Nayef

I asked my colleague Tom Lippman, longtime Washington Post reporter and more recently author of several books on Saudi Arabia (and currently both an MEI Adjunct and Adjunct Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations), if he had any observations on the Muhammad bin Nayef attack that I could put on the record. Here's his e-mailed response:
There are two things to note:

This attack came while the Saudis were congratulating themselves over the announced arrests of 44 al-Qaeda suspects earlier in August, and should serve as a reminder that the struggle aginst extremism is not over.

Up to now there have been few if any direct attacks against members of the royal family that we know about. I would surmise the Mohammed was targeted not because he is a prince but because he has led a largely successful campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
More if we learn more.

More on Muhammad bin Nayef Attack

The attack on Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (immediately previous posting) is drawing more attention, since it was the first attack on a Saudi royal in a long time, and also came so close to the man running the counterterror operation. Here's a recent Al-Jazeera English update. More to the point, Thomas Hegghammer at Jihadica offers some important background:

Having said all this, I don’t think the incident itself tells us very much at all about QAP’s [Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula's] operational capability or Saudi regime stability. This was essentially a stupid security slip-up, whereby the bomber was allowed to get deep into the building without any security inspection. I would be very surprised if this happened again.

To understand how this could occur, one needs to understand Muhammad Bin Nayif’s role in the Saudi counterterrorism apparatus. In addition to being the top CT official, he is also the main contact point between the state and the radical Islamist community. He is the one that militants go to see when they want to surrender. He has been doing personal behind-the-scenes liaison work with the jihadi community since at least the late 1990s. He has made a point of always being personally accessible to militants wanting to talk. And he has a reputation in the Islamist community (outside of al-Qaida) for discretion, kindness and financial generosity.

Bin Nayif has received hundreds of jihadis in his office in this way, and by all accounts there have never been any security problems. I suspect that over time, this made the Prince and his staff overconfident about their security. In this particular case, the fact that it was 11.30 at night during a popular Ramadan reception probably made security even more lax. The bottom line is that it didn’t take operational genius or a high-ranking mole get close to the Prince.

As many reports have emphasized, the attacker was wanted and had reportedly told authorities he was there to turn himself in to the Prince.

It's also worth noting that Hegghammer says that though the SITE Intelligence group earlier reported that Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula had claimed responsibility, he (Hegghammer) and others have not yet found the claim on jihadi websites. The Waq al-Waq website has the same problem: they doubt that the claim is real.

Claim or no claim, it was still a pretty daring operation to get so close to a senior royal, and the counterterrorism chief at that. As a commenter on my earlier post noted, there have even been suggestions that Muhammad might be better suited than his father Prince Nayef for the throne some day; he's not a minor prince.

Weekend or not, if there are developments in this story I'll try to post on them.

Attack on Saudi Counterterror Chief Muhammad bin Nayef

Saudi Arabia's key counterterrorism boss, Assistant Interior Minister for Security Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, was reportedly "slightly injured" when a man blew himself up in his Jidda offices as he was receiving Ramadan greetings. The early reports don't make clear how far away from the Prince the explosion occurred, but the Prince was later shown meeting with King ‘Abdullah. The picture, and the story in Arabic, from Al-Sharq al-Awsat.

The Saudi Interior Ministry is a family affair; the Minister, Prince Nayef, has also now been made Second Deputy Prime Minister, is Prince Muhammad's father; the Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Ahmad, is Muhammad's uncle and Nayef's full brother. Muhammad's role as counterterrorism chief is often played up in the Saudi media.

500th Post: I doubt if anyone else is keeping score, but this marks the blog's 500th post. I guess I talk too much.

Doings on Other Blogs

A couple of notes from the Middle East blogosphere:

  • Just when there's at least a faint rustling that a Lebanese government might actually be formed sometime in the next few weeks, the fine Lebanon-watcher Qifa Nabki warns that he'll be returning to Harvard and his doctoral studies after a year in Lebanon, and may not be blogging as heavily. I hope he at least checks in when a Cabinet is formed. Of course, it's already been three months since the elections, so he might have plenty of time to get settled. (Seriously, as this Daily Star article notes today, there's concern now that President Michel Suleiman's plans to travel to New York for the UN General Assembly in late September could be jeopardized if there's no Cabinet by then.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Holbrooke-Karzai Confrontation?

The BBC is reporting that Richard Holbrooke and Hamid Karzai had an "explosive" meeting after the Afghan elections in which Holbrooke lectured Karzai about irregularities in the elections. It's interesting to note that while immediately after the elections Karzai was claiming a huge lead, the actual numbers released so far show a much closer race. Clearly the US has a lot invested in the world seeing the elections as fair; so the Holbrooke-Karzai story has a certain credibility, though so far as I know no US source has reported the supposed confrontation.

Hakim's Death

Within only a few days of the creation of a new Iraqi Shi‘ite front, the leader of the most powerful movement in that front, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) has died in Tehran of lung cancer.

As the heir of the powerful Hakim clerical clan and a major figure in Iraqi politics, Hakim's passing will clearly have an impact. If it means that the new National Iraqi Alliance is thrown into temporary disarray, that may strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Da‘wa Party.

Juan Cole's take here; Reidar Visser's here. The BBC's here. And Al-Jazeera English.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Silly Season Continues: More Mermaid News

You may recall my post, "The Silly Season: Mermaids in Israel." The silly season just got sillier. From YNet News, Yediot Aharanot's online English news site, comes this report:
An American organization claiming to defend the rights of mermaids is threatening to appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague against the Israeli city of Kiryat Yam, after its municipality offered a $1 million prize to whoever could provide proof for the existence of a mermaid off the northern city's shores.

A letter received by the municipality over the weekend states that the organization, presenting itself as the Mermaid Medical Association in Brooklyn, New York, was shocked to hear about the prize offered by the city.

This offer, the organization said, "badly and outrageously damages the legendary mermaid legacy."
The Mermaid Medical Association of Brooklyn? I suspect the ICJ in the Hague has better things to do. At least I hope so.

Fun With Google Earth: Middle Eastern Airbase Recon

It's probably just as well that our current IT regimen at MEI keeps me from having Google Earth on my work computer: otherwise I'd spend too much time doing what I was doing last night on the home computer, and which I'm about to explain here. (All images from Google Earth and copyright Google 2009.) And The Middle East Journal would not appear regularly.

Google Earth has given us all the sense that we've got the ability to task our own satellite intel; every schoolkid can get higher resolution photos of just about anywhere than Francis Gary Powers did in his U2* in 1960, and we don't have to worry about a Soviet show trial, prison, and an exchange in Berlin. [*Young'uns: U2 wasn't always a musical group.]

I think most people are at least vaguely aware that Google Earth may edit some of its imagery for security reasons. The roof of the White House may be edited a bit to exclude certain security measures; Groom Lake ("Area 51") doesn't show a lot, etc.

For some time I've been noticing some differences in handling of various Middle Eastern military facilities. This isn't a conspiracy theory: I'm simply noting that often the level of detail seems to be less for Israeli facilities than for Arab and even American military facilities in the Middle East. It may just be a function of available imagery, or it may be a concern for security, or it may be that the Israelis simply know when the satellites are overhead and keep their stuff in hangars.

Anyway, I thought I'd do a little introduction to the game of snooping on airfields via Google Earth. And I'd also like to remember, as a sort of coda to all this, the famous story that during the Cuban Missile Crisis John F. Kennedy was shown photos of Soviet and Cuban aircraft parked wingtip to wingtip on Cuban air bases. He was astounded that they would be left so vulnerable in a period of crisis, until he asked for similar photos of US aircraft in Florida. Also, of course, wingtip to wingtip.

So as not to be accused of bias, let's start with a control: before 9/11 Washington, DC did not even have a combat air patrol umbrella closer than Langley AFB in Newport News, Virginia; since 9/11 we've kept F-16s at Andrews, the same base which houses Air Force One, and they periodically have to intercept stray light aircraft that wander into DC airspace. So the nation's capital's first line of defense is a pretty important security consideration. And it's easy enough to find a good F-16 shot at Andrews, suggesting we don't censor Google Earth:

So what about the Middle East? As I think I've mentioned before I've spent a bit of my career as a defense journalist and covering defense and intelligence issues in the region, which means I still dabble occasionally. This post is such a dabble, and I hope will be entertaining and not get me on too many intelligence services' blacklists. Everything here is from Google Earth and is thus available to all imaginable adversaries of anybody, and is copyright by Google and hereby acknowledged as such.

Anyway, while most of the imagery isn't as sharp as the F-16 at Andrews above, which merely protects the US capital, the differences among the images can be interesting. Again, I'm not proposing any conspiracy theories.

A few years ago, when Google Earth was younger, there was a real anomaly around Israel's big Ramat David air base: just east of the easternmost runway, the imagery visibly degraded, and sharpened again to the west of the base, with everything in between a blur. At the same time you could see and identify aircraft types on Egyptian and Syrian bases. Now that was the time to propose conspiracies, but today the imagery of Ramat David is much sharper. Still, it doesn't show much. Ramat David is a huge base in the Jezreel Valley between Megiddo and Nazareth, but nothing's on the runways except a helicopter, and it's pretty blurred out:

I can't begin to guess even what kind of helicopter it is: something fairly small I suspect. Awfully fuzzy, though.

Lest you think that this is a US conspiracy to keep Google Earth from revealing Israeli secrets, let me assure you that imagery of US forces in the Middle East is much, much more detailed. As an example, the next photo below the Ramat David shot is of US helicopters at the US airbase at Taji, Iraq:

It's certainly possible these are the same type of helicopters, but the US choppers are sharper (and these images, somewhat degraded for web posting, are not as sharp as the originals).

It's not hard to find pretty good imagery of US aircraft on US bases in the region. Take for example a pretty sharp image of a C-17 military transport and a smaller C-130 both parked on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport:

Nice and sharp if I do say so myself.

Of course, Baghdad International is shared with a commercial airfield so it's not terribly secret or anything. And these aren't real time photos so nobody's going to be using them for artillery coordinates.

Still, how about a different combat zone? What kind of imagery is available in Afghanistan, for example?

Now we all know the biggest air base in Afghanistan is Bagram, kindly built for us by the former Soviet Union. (But then, they got to use our naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, so we're sort of even.) Here's a shot of Bagram:

Very clearly a line of A-10s (officially Thunderbolts, popularly Warthogs) on the left, and a C-130 on the right. Close air support and transport: the Afghan mission defined.

Now, again, I'm mostly having fun here, not trying to make any case that Israeli imagery is being especially fuzzed out, though a couple of years go it seemed a bit likelier that that was the case.

So far I've just looked at one Israeli base and a couple of US bases in the region. Let's extend our search a little bit, and see what we can find,

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, air bases in Egypt is Cairo West, where the US has enjoyed acccess facilities in the past. Here are some shots from Cairo West on Google Earth:

Fighters or trainers I think. Not the sharpest shot, but probably identifiable to a skilled intelligence officer, even from the low-res Google Earth shots.

Below is another shot from Cairo West, this time of transports. I think C-130s again, but the point is that a reasonable amount of information can be deduced even from the low resolution shots that Google Earth includes:

What I still find interesting is that the Israelis are either doing a better job of controlling what shows up on Google Earth, or, perhaps, of simply keeping their aircraft in hangers or revetments out of the sight of snooping satellites, than either the Egyptians or the US. Just for the fun of it, let's take a look at a Syrian Air Base, shall we? This is Damascus West, the air base out by the University, and it clearly shows a MiL helicopter that is much sharper than the Israeli helicopter shown above in the Ramat David photo:

But then, I haven't really shown much Israeli imagery so far. Ramat David had nothing on the tarmac except that fuzzy helicopter. And Ramat David is the biggest airbase in the north. Let's try an airbase in central Israel, Tel Nof. Tel Nof has been reported by various Western defense publications as being the location, at least in the past, of Israel's nuclear-armed aircraft. That's not confirmed and not necessarily current intelligence, but it makes Tel Nof a base worth considering. I scoured the Tel Nof imagery and couldn't see anything on the runway, unless the two black blobs below are something:

The trouble is, they could be anything from runway markings, to cars, to something deliberately obscured in the photo. I have no idea what they are.

Okay, I'll admit this post is mostly a fun tour of what you can find on Google Earth. The Israelis may just be better at hiding stuff than others are.

And it's not like there are no aircraft visible on any Israeli air bases. For example, on the air base (and Israel Aircraft Industries testing field) that shares runways with Ben Gurion International Airport, you can find a whole array of C-130s:

But if you compare the resolution of these C-130s with the ones above shown at Baghdad International, Bagram, and Cairo West, you'll see that the imagery is much more low-res or even degraded.

Okay, there's not a major point to be made here, but I've had some fun and hope you've enjoyed it. Now, just to wrap things up, I'll drop something else into the mix. One of the better-resolution Israeli air bases/sites on Google Earth is Palmachim, which is their ballistic missile testing and space launch site. It's hardly a secret since it lies just south of the Palmachim beaches, and sunbathers see every satellite launch or ballistic missile test. Looking at the Palmachim Google Earth images I don't see anything resembling gantries or a space launch pad, though I may be missing it, but I do see two compounds that look like this:

There are four buildings or hangars of some sort (the fourth is partly out of this shot), and another four to the south. They seem to be on short mini-runways of some sort. Not sure if this is connected with the missile program or not. (Maybe hangars for erector/launchers for missiles?) Just throwing it out as yet another of the fun things you can do with Google Earth. I'm also not sure what the structures/vehicles/objects are along the larger runway on the left.

Comments welcome of course, if you can comment without getting me in deep trouble with somebody's intelligence services.

Iraq and Syria Recall Ambassadors

Iraq and Syria haven't been friendly for a long time, even when both were technically ruled by separate branches of the Ba‘ath Party. Then they severed all links. Today they're trying to feel out a new relationship. But after Iraq blamed recent bombings on Ba‘athists, and ran a video of an alleged confession, the situation worsened.

Now they've recalled their ambassadors. A minor political and (rather obvious geopolitical) drama is in play. Worth watching, perhaps transient.

The Tehran Show Trials Get More Stalinesque

I've been pretty quiet about Iran's "show trials" and my post yesterday merely noted Gary Sick's much qualified comparison to the Stalin show trials of the 30s, but stories like this make me wonder. Hajjarian, partially paralyzed by an assassination attempt later pinned more or less convincingly on the intelligence apparatus, is being threatened with the "maximum penalty" — though it's unlikely they'll actuall try to execute him — after a "confession" that deserves the quotation marks.

But I think Gary may be right: the Revolution has come full circle: the regime is becoming the Shah. But I don't think the story's over yet, somehow.

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

I've said it before, but with things escalating rapidly in Afghanistan, it's worth repeating that Abu Muqawama (Andrew Exum, mainly) has been looking at counterinsurgency doctrine, Afghanistan, and their interactions intensively. He's your best source, in my personal opinion, but if you're not reading him, you're not familiar with the situation. (Unless you're there.) His recent conversations with other strategists about the subject is important, and he also has General McChrystal's new "COMISAF COIN Guidance" on Afghanistan, and his own comments on it.

[For those who don't speak Milspeak, COMISAF COIN Guidance means "Commander, International Security Assistance Force, Counterinsurgency Guidance." Okay?]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pakistan's Mehsud Dead (Again)

The Pakistani Taliban, who had previously denied that their leader Baitullah Mehsud had been killed — as widely reported by the US and Pakistani authorities — in a US missile attack August 5 (although they had announced his replacement), are now saying he was wounded in the attack but finally died this past Sunday. So at least there is no lingering mystery: if he wasn't dead already, he is now.

Latest Iranian "Show Trial" Targets Khatami Allies

The latest of the Iranian "show trials" — as they have inevitably been dubbed, because that's what they are — of opposition figures involved in the election protests in June is aiming a bit higher than its predecessors, targeting several people who were ministers or senior officials in the administration of President Mohammad Khatami. This may mean that the trials are less about the election protests than about repudiating the reform movement generally by targeting those close to Khatami, whose two terms as President gave the reformists much encouragement. Khatami himself did not openly participate in the demonstrations as far as I know, and his clerical rank, prestige as an ex-President, and links to the late Imam Khomeini may insulate him personally, but the attack on his aides and allies is pretty clear.

Gary Sick, a veteran of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, wrote a piece a week ago (originally for The Daily Beast but reposted at his blog) that deserves attention. Here's how he led off:

Iran today is doing what all aging revolutionary regimes seem to do—transforming itself into the image of the very regime it displaced. Just as middle-aged men and women look in the mirror and are surprised to see their fathers and mothers looking back at them, revolutionaries are startled to see themselves inexorably turning into the tyrants they thought they had banished forever.

To put it another way, “Revolutions revolve—360 degrees.” This aphorism, invented years ago by Charles Issawi, the late Egyptian-born Middle East historian at Columbia, captures nicely in four words the typical lifecycle of the great revolutions.

The whole thing is worth your time, whatever you may think of the election results. His comparison to Stalin's Moscow show trials in the 30s and the Chinese cultural revolution — while emphasizing that Iran's response is not as excessive as those cases — is a useful take, I think, even if, like Flynt Leverett, you aren't convinced the election was stolen.

New Iraqi Shi‘ite Bloc Excludes Maliki

A new Shi‘ite alliance has been formed in Iraq that excludes Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Da‘wa Party. Maliki is reportedly seeking more influence for Da‘wa and may form an alliance with Sunni parties instead, but for now the new front is dominated by the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. Al-Jazeera's reporting on the new front is here, and the Beirut Daily Star account is here. The new front, calling itself the National Iraqi Alliance, replaces the former United Iraqi Alliance which included Da‘wa.

Juan Cole offers his analysis of the new bloc here. He also links to an extensive analysis by Reidar Visser here. Those two analyses are far more attuned to the nuances of Iraqi Shi‘ite politics than I am, so I refer you to them for the details. Clearly it would seem that Maliki is taking a gamble that could, at least theoretically, cost him the Prime Ministership in the elections early next year. And, of course, a change in Prime Ministers at this juncture could have unforeseen impact on the schedule for the US drawdown. Maliki has proven to be a far stronger figure than many expected when he took office, but this latest development could leave Da‘wa somewhat isolated if nothing changes between now and the elections.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yemen's Scorched Earth Campaign: A Word About Zaydism

I haven't said anything yet about the renewed military campaign against the Houthi rebellion in the northern part of Yemen. The Houthi problem has been simmering for several years, and is an uprising in the Sa‘da region of northern Yemen centered on a religious revival movement of Zaydi Muslims who are followers of a religious figure, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi (or Huthi), who was reportedly killed in 2004. It's a complex tribal issue in a country where the central government's writ traditionally doesn't run very far. Now, the Zaydis of Yemen are followers of a variety of Shi‘ite Islam that is quite different in most ways from the "twelver" Islam of Iran, a variety which ultimately allows any descendant of the Prophet to serve as Imam, and can accept multiple imamates in different parts of the Muslim world. The Imamate which ruled in Yemen until 1962 was a Zaydi Imamate. To refer to the Houthis as "Shi‘ite" is technically correct, but a bit misleading if it implies some identity with the Shi‘ites of Iraq or Iran.

But when I read an article such as this one from Al-Jazeera English, I realize just how confused even other Arabs are about the Zaydis of Yemen. Yes, the Houthis are Zaydis. Yes, a majority of the population of United Yemen is Sunni. But what the Al-Jazeera article doesn't seem to understand is that President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is himself a Zaydi, as is a considerable part of his power base. He comes from a small tribe in the larger Hashid tribal confederation. The Hashid and the other big Zaydi confederation, the Bakil, used to be referred to as the "wings of the Imamate" when Zaydi Imams still ruled in what was then North Yemen. The Houthis are indeed Zaydi, but so are quite a lot of the troops fighting them. Portraying the conflict as a Sunni-Zaydi clash is misleading. Most of the major Zaydi tribes have long since adapted to Yemeni republicanism, but the Houthis, by some accounts, want to restore the Imamate.

In a country where tribal rivalries run deep and vendettas can last a long time, the scorched earth campaign the government is waging in the north raises a lot of questions as to its wisdom. But when even an Arab-based news service portrays this as a Sunni-Zaydi conflict, it merely confuses the issue further. The fact that the Houthis are Zaydi fundamentalists (much as I hate that word) while the government is secular is probably more relevant than that the Houthis are Zaydi. So is Salih.

The BBC tends to muddle the issues too. I don't claim to be an expert on Yemen — I've never even been there — but I think portraying this as a Sunni-Shi‘a fight is misleading in the extreme.

Egypt Succession: Opening Up the Debate

A very interesting post at the Egyptian blogger who calls herself Baheyya, on Who Should Rule Egypt? Her main point is simple but I hadn't seen it put quite this way before: the efforts to provide for succession by Gamal Mubarak have in effect opened up the whole question of who should rule Egypt and how they should be chosen. After the Free Officers' Coup, the idea that the military would provide the country's leadership was long taken for granted, but by supplanting that idea with hereditary succession, the Gamal Mubarak issue has opened up the whole question of legitimacy and who should rule. A thoughtful reflection at a time when the issue is clearly coming to a head.

Libya's Revolution 40 Years On

The Economist has an interesting essay on Libya's Revolution at 40. September 1 will be the anniversary. The release of the Lockerbie bomber by Scotland is going to probably affect how much of the world assesses that four decades, I suspect.

What's particularly striking, if a bit obvious, is the selection of photos at the head of the Economist article. The Picture of Dorian Gray, anyone?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Weekend Reading

I have to think of a clever title for this Friday afternoon links collection that I've been calling "Weekend Reading." Meanwhile, here's the latest installment. And since I've had comments about some of the linked reports, I'll re-emphasize that I'm neither endorsing their arguments nor, in many cases, have I even read much of them beyond the summaries. I'm just keeping my readers informed of what the think tank world is up to.

Ramadan Karim!

We have revealed this [Qur'an] 0n the Night of Power.
And what will explain to you what is the Night of Power?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
Therein come down the Angels and the spirit
By God's permission, on every errand:
Peace! This until the rise of morn!
— Qur'an, Sura 97 (Al-Qadr)
A. Yusuf Ali translation
God's Apostle said, "When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained."
— Hadith of the Prophet, Sahih Bukhari
I began early in this blog to wish all my readers of various faiths and traditions greetings on all the major holidays of the major religions of the Middle East, as well as secular and cultural holidays when I am aware of them. For Muslims, there is no celebration more central to their faith than Ramadan, which, in the United States and most countries in the Muslim world, will begin at sundown tonight, with the fast beginning at sunrise Saturday morning. A few countries will probably have declared that the waxing crescent has been sighted last night (the first night it was astronomically possible), and so will have begun the fast today. Let me wish all my Muslim readers Ramadan Karim, whether you have begun it already or will begin the prayers this evening and the fast tomorrow.

When MEI asked me to start blogging (I'd been pushing for an MEI blog for a while, and violating the traditional "never volunteer" rule, I ended up as the blogger), we agreed that part of our role is to explain the Middle East to the West, as well as vice versa, that while there's a commentary and entertainment element involved here, there's also a surreptitious effort at education without making the reader feel like he/she is in school. I suspect most of my readers already know a lot about Ramadan, but perhaps not all.

During Ramadan I plan to talk occasionally about the traditions of the month, but suffice it to say that just as, for Muslims, the central miracle of the faith is the Qur'an, Ramadan is, as much as anything, a celebration of the Qur'an. The book is read in segments each night, completing a full reading in the course of the month; it was in Ramadan that the Qur'an was first revealed, on the laylat al-qadr, the "night of power," traditionally held to be one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan and an odd-numbered one (the 23rd is popular but not dogmatic), the night referred to in the Sura quoted above. (And yes, "night of power," though familiar, may be a little misleading. Qadr has many powerful meanings and resonances, and "night of destiny" might be more accurate. Or even something like "fate.")

And, while the other Muslim holidays I have noted, and the Christian and Jewish and secular and traditional holidays I have marked, are all important, there is no ritual or celebration that brings as many people together, throughout the Muslim world in the Middle East and beyond, as Ramadan. Not even the other great Muslim ‘id marking the hajj, though that is traditionally the other great annual feast of Islam.

And the Ramadan fast has some aspects that may surprise those familiar with other fasting traditions. In Christianity, Catholic Lent and the far more rigorous Orthodox Lent still retain traditions of fairly strict fasting (especially among the Orthodox), but these are penitential seasons leading up to the triumph of Easter. Ramadan is somewhat different, at least insofar as I, as a non-Muslim, understand it. It really is a celebration, though one marked by deprivation and fasting. It is a celebration of the revelation of the Qur'an, and the sacrifices of the day are balanced by the joys of the night, when one not only may eat but partake of special dishes specific to Ramadan, while reciting the Qur'an.

So: Ramadan Karim, and I'll discuss other aspects of Ramadan as the month goes on.

Uh Oh: Karzai Claiming Outright Win?

This overnight BBC report says Hamid Karzai is claiming that he not only won enough votes to win but that he has escaped the need for a runoff. That worries me. Yesterday I was reading reports that so many ballot boxes had to be brought to Kabul on donkey-back and such that there'd be no reliable numbers for one to two weeks. An overnight claim of outright victory? That worries me a little. Is he getting electoral count help from Ahmadinejad?

I expect Karzai will be re-elected, but I certainly hope it isn't blatantly manipulated. That hurts Karzai, hurts the US, and hurts stability in the region.

The Sheikh and the Saint

An odd little aside here from yet another article about Egypt's controversial ban on mulids, the public celebrations of saints' days, due to swine flu, which I previously blogged about here: the issue is apparently continuing, and this English language report from Al-Masry al-Youm updates the story and, in passing remarks:
Today the people of the Mit Damsees village in Daqahleya begin celebrating moulid of Sheikh Mohamed Abu Bakr el-Seddik and Mar Girgis (Saint George) for five days, after the governor reduced the number of days from eight. The governor is imposing rules, he says, can possibly prevent the spread of H1N1 virus and bird flu, such as banning pork and live birds. Doctors will be available during the celebration.
Did you catch it? Yes, the sheikh and Saint George seem to share a mulid. That's actually pretty common in parts of Egypt and North Africa where there are Christian and Muslim communities in the same town: sometimes they each celebrate a saint of their own on the date of the other community's mulid, or Muslims venerate the Christian saint and vice versa. Islamists and Christian hierarchs, of course, don't approve, but then, Islam and Christianity as practiced at the village level find their own ways of accommodating. Think of the Teutonic pagan Christmas trees and mistletoe (or Easter eggs) and you realize that syncretism is an old, old habit.

Ya'alon Taken to the Woodshed

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon, a former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, has been called on the carpet by Binyamin Netanyahu after some highly controversial remarks in a highly controversial setting. It's the latest of several incidents that suggest that Netanyahu is having more trouble keeping the right wing of his own Likud in line than he is dealing with his curious coalition partners in Labor.

Ya'alon, who's been pretty outspoken since taking off his uniform, managed to say, among other things, that 1) he wasn't afraid of the Americans (perhaps implicitly suggesting Netanyahu was?); that 2) the "elites" and the Peace Now Movement were "a virus," that 3) when he had been in the Army he had said that "the politicians brought the dove of peace and the Army had to clean up after it," and, to round it all out, he said this 4) to a rightwing Likud faction led by Moshe Feiglin, a far right Likudnik and head of the Jewish Leadership Movement faction of Likud. Netanyahu is no fan of Feiglin's (supposedly having called him a "cancer" in the Likud), and finding his Deputy Premier talking to Feiglin's people and insulting "elites," Peace Now, the Americans, and arguably Netanyahu himself was a bit much. Oh, and 5) he apparently said something negative about the Supreme Court as well.

Oh, and to add insult to injury,
In the brutal heat of August, when most of his colleagues, including the prime minister, were on vacation or keeping a low profile, Ya'alon this week gamboled across the hills of Judea and Samaria between illegal settler outposts, and declared when standing among the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh that it should be rebuilt.
That's from this article in Ha'aretz, admittedly no fan of Netanyahu or Ya'alon.

Some additional background from the left-leaning Ha'aretz on Ya'alon's "subpar unerstanding of the media," on Ya'alon and Feiglin, and on Netanyahu's reaction to all this.

Obviously Ha'aretz has its own biases, but it's interesting to see that the more right-leaning Jerusalem Post writes the lede to the called-on-the carpet story thus:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not fire Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon on Thursday for controversial comments he made on Sunday in a speech to the Likud's Manhigut Yehudit forum of Netanyahu's nemesis, Moshe Feiglin.

Ya'alon participated in a high-level consultation with Netanyahu and other top officials after the meeting, indicating that Ya'alon had not been fired from the full cabinet, the security cabinet or the prestigious six-member inner cabinet.

So the best anyone seems able to say is, he wasn't fired.

I'm no great fan of Bibi Netanyahu's but I find myself almost feeling empathy for him: his Foreign Minister, who is by no stretch of the imagination diplomatic, is being investigated and may have to step down; his Deputy Premier has just been taken to the woodshed for seeming to side with an enemy of Netanyahu's within the Likud. All his troubles are coming from the right.

An odd aside I noted in one of the stories: the meeting with Ya'alon, the calling on the carpet, took place at the Defense compound at Hakirya in Tel Aviv. Now the Minister of Strategic Affairs may keep his office there (it's a recently invented portfolio — invented, oddly enough, for Avigdor Lieberman in Ehud Olmert's day — and I don't know where it's based), but that's normally the Defense Minister's turf, and the Defense Minister is Ehud Barak, of Labor.

Anyway, the Israeli right seems to be in disarray at the moment.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

New MEI Podcast: Joost Hiltermann on the Kurds

Tuesday Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group spoke at MEI on "Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line". The link on the title takes you to a page about the event. The podcast is here, and as always I note that when you click on the link, the podcast begins to play.

When Ramadan Falls in August

It's a sticky, hot, humid day today, a Washington August, and given the fact that we're within two days of the start of Ramadan, it was a reminder that the month of fasting and prayer for Muslims is particularly challenging when it falls in the summertime. Muslims refrain from food, drink, and other pleasures during the daylight hours, so when the days are longest, in summer, Ramadan can be more of a sacrifice than when it falls in winter, with cooler, shorter days. (The Islamic calendar is purely lunar and 354 days long, so Ramadan falls about 11 day earlier on the Western calendar each year, and thus shifts around the seasons.) And not only is August hot here in DC, but it's hot in the Middle East too, of course. The days are long, the temperature hot, and the fast prohibits even water. So a Ramadan starting n August is difficult.

Ramadan is expected to begin August 22 this year, though there are usually a few interpretive differences and some countries may start August 21. I'll say more about Ramadan over the course of the month, but the temperature inspired this observation.

The Afghan Vote

Well, it appears the Afghan elections went off tolerably well, at least in the sense that violent attacks were relatively limited. The early reports on turnout seem mixed, ith some areas reporting long lines but others saying the turnout was down from the last elections. Until we get some real numbers it is hard to know. What does seem obvious is that it could have been a lot worse.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More Mubarak

The Project on Middle East Democracy's POMED Wire has a roundup of coverage and opinion pieces related to the Mubarak visit, including some I'd missed.

On the Eve of the Afghan Elections

I haven't said much about the Afghan Presidential elections, largely because it is getting covered elsewhere and I claim no expertise on the country, never having visited it. I've studied its history and followed events there, but others with far more experience than I are around to comment on it. Here's a Reuters rundown on the major candidates, though I get the impression that anyone but Karzai would be an upset, though Dr ‘Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister, may have an outside chance. Anyway, I'll cover it as needed when the results start to come in, but forgive me if I haven't said more about it up to now. I'm a lone blogger with a journal to edit, so I blog on what I know and defer to others when I don't. If my MEI colleague Marvin Weinbaum wants to volunteer something, I'll gladly open the blog to his contribution.

More Bad News on Internet Freedom in MENA

A report at Menassat citing new report showing that Internet filtering is actually increasing in the Middle East North Africa region. The report itself is available in HTML here and as a PDF here. A press release/FAQ is here.

In one sense, there's not that much new here. Back in March, Reporters Without Borders issued a report naming the 12 countries that were the worst "Internet Enemies": seven (Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) were in the greater Middle East. (The other five were China, North Korea, Burma, Vietnam and Cuba. Great company.) On the other hand, the evidence presented in the latest report, compared to a 2007-2008 study by the same group, suggests the filtering is intensifying. The summary of "Regional Trends" deserves quoting extensively:
Internet censorship in the Middle East and North Africa is on the rise, and the scope and depth of filtering are increasing. Previous ONI tests revealed that political filtering was limited in some countries, but 2008-2009 results indicate that political censorship is targeting more content and is becoming more consistent. For example, previous tests found that Yemen temporarily blocked political Web sites in the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections, and Bahrain did the same ahead of parliamentary elections. However, 2008-2009 testing revealed that filtering in these two countries has been consistently extended to include several Web sites run by opposition groups or news Web sites and forums which espouse oppositional political views.

In the meantime, countries that have been filtering political content continue to add more Web sites to their political blacklists. For example, filtering in Syria was expanded to include popular sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon, as well as more Web sites affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood Kurdish opposition groups. Another example is Tunisia, which added more political and oppositional content as well as other apolitical sites such as the OpenNet Initiative and Global Voices Online.

Social filtering is also increasing and is catching up with the continuously growing social Web. Most of the Arab countries were found to have started to block Arabic-language explicit content that was previously accessible. Interestingly, filtering of Arabic-language explicit Web content in the Middle East and North Africa is usually not as fast as that of other languages. ONI’s investigation revealed that the US-based commercial filtering software used by most of the ISPs in the region does not pick up Arabic content as comprehensively as content in English.

Increases in filtering are the norm in the Middle East and North Africa, and unblocking is the exception. Of the few examples of unblocking of Web sites is Syria’s restoration of access to Wikipedia Arabic, Morocco’s lifting of a ban on a few pro-Western Sahara independence Web sites, and Libya’s allowing access to some previously banned political sites. Sudan’s filtering of gay and lesbian, dating, provocative attire and health-related sites was also more limited compared to previous test results.

Another regional trend is that more Arab countries are introducing regulations to make Web publishing subject to press and publication laws and requiring local Web sites to register with the authorities before they can go live. In Jordan, for example, the country’s Legislation Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office issued in September 2007 a decision that Web sites and electronic press must comply with the provisions of the publications and publishing law and fall under the oversight of the Publications and Publishing Department, which announced it would exercise immediate supervision and censorship.

Another example is Saudi Arabia, which announced in May 2009 plans to enact legislation for newspapers and Internet Web sites that will require Saudi-based Web sites to get official licenses from a special agency under the purview of the Ministry of Information. Bahrain already has a similar system that requires local Web sites to register with the Ministry of Information.

The idea that web publication must comply with publishing laws intended for the print media is a reminder that many regimes just don't get it yet: or hope to be able to control new media with the ease they controlled the old. Some will succeed, at least for a while. One of the first points most regimes make to support their Internet filtering is that they must block out the outrageously explicit Western pornography that is easily found on the Internet. That wins over the social conservatives, the religious establishment, and probably a great many ordinary citizens. But once the filters are in place it seems to be the political sites, the critics-of-the-regime sites, that are blocked first, along with the pornography.

There are many overlapping issues here, and I'll leave it to the professional monitors to spell them out in greater detail. But it seems to me unlikely that, in the long run, a country that wants to be an integral part of the global economy is going to be able to block or filter Intenet access forever. Blocking pornography is one thing: the porn sites are hardly likely to be trying all sorts of hacker tricks to break through the firewalls, since there's not much profit in it. But the political sites are another matter. Despite all the coverage of the "Great Firewall of China," Chinese dissidents do get read. And during the Iranian uprising after the elections, all sorts of use of proxies were being passed around through Twitter and other media. I barely understand the technology involved, but the more versatile and flexible a medium, the likelier it is you can evade the censors/blockers.

Shooting the Messenger: A Word About Joe Stork

If you follow the Middle East online, unless you limit yourself to the Arab side of the fence, you've probably run across some of the commentary from pro-Israeli bloggers, Israeli media, neocon bloggers, and conservative bloggers generally denouncing Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. I don't normally get into personalities here at this blog: not my thing. I did write a couple of posts noting that Chas Freeman, back when he was nominated for the National Intelligence Council, was not the Israel-bashing ogre his opponents portrayed.

Now, like a lot of people who've been around the Middle East community in Washington for a long time, I know Joe Stork. Not well — certainly not as well as I know Chas Freeman, which isn't all that well either — but I've known Joe since the late 60s or early 70s when he was a founding father of MERIP Reports, the ancestor of the current MERIP Middle East Report. Joe has always been somewhere to my left politically, often considerably so. In the earlier days, he and I were both no doubt farther left than we are today. I haven't seen Joe in several years, and aside from random meetings at receptions or on the street haven't had an extended conversation with him in this decade. So I'm not defending Joe's positions today. He's perfectly capable of doing that himself.

What I do want to note is that the attacks on him seem to be a classic case of shooting the messenger. Joe, Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, was the author of a much-headlined report HRW issued, claiming that there were instances of Israel Defense Forces shooting white-flag-carrying Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.earlier this year. Here's HRW's press release, and here's the 63-page report in HTML and also in PDF. And here's an HRW response to criticisms of the report's contents.

I have not read the full report. I intend to do so, but suspend judgment on its contents until I have read it, and Israel's responses to it. When allegations of war crimes are made, they should be investigated and judged, based on evidence and testimony. If the allegations are unfounded, they should be dismissed. If otherwise, Israel should investigate them, as it often has when similar allegations of violations of the laws of war by the IDF have been raised.

But while there has been some effort on the Israeli side to refute the basic content of the charges or to impeach the witnesses, there has also been a concerted attempt to blame the messenger and attack Joe Stork ad hominem without addressing the content of his report. And most of the attacks focus on things he said or wrote over 30 years ago, and one thing he did not even sign, if he had any connection with it at all.

The Israeli daily Ma'ariv did a report on the HRW report which focused heavily on Joe Stork's background, and made the rather sensational charge that he had personally defended the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes. The Ma'ariv article is translated in this Commentary piece by Noah Pollak. Others have noted that the "defense" of Munich was in an unsigned MERIP editorial which also said that the morale-boosting element did not justify the violence. But of course, quoting out of context is a common tactic in ideological disputes. But to directly attribute this to Joe Stork seems a bit extreme, but even if he signed off on it (as he well may have) it was 37 years ago. Has anyone asked if he agrees with the point today? The editorialists just seem to say he never "repudiated" his earlier statement, which wasn't signed by him in the first place. Joe has never to my knowledge been a strong defender of Israel (especially its human rights policies), but I've also never heard from him the sort of radical ideas attributed to him in these attacks.

Now, MERIP in their early days were, indeed, old 60s radicals who first called themselves the "MERIP Collective" and were pretty Marxist in their rhetoric. Joe was one of them. But so were Joel Beinin, who has been President of the Middle East Studies Association; Judith Tucker, Editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies and Director of Academic Studies at Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies; and Eric Hooglund, a predecessor of mine as Editor of The Middle East Journal. Bill Clinton didn't inhale, but he figured out a way to finesse his 60s background. I doubt if very many Baby Boomers who graduated in the late 60s or early 70s would like their entire body of expressed opinion in that era to be aired publicly today.

I also remember, however, going to a party MERIP held in (perhaps) the late 70s or early 80s, though I'm not quite sure why I was invited. It may even have been at Joe Stork's house. Much of the conversation was about mortgages. I realized then, that if MERIP was talking about mortgages, the 60s were over.

As I said, Joe can defend himself. But it strikes me as both disingenuous and downright unfair to 1) accuse Joe Stork of holding the same positions he held in the early 1970s; 2) attribute to him a position taken by an anonymous editorial in his magazine and then 3) leave out the qualifiers that denounce the violence.

Or, to put it another way: is this really your best response to the unwelcome message: to attack the messenger? Let's leave Joe Stork out of it and respond to the allegations.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Video of Mubarak and Obama

Here's the video released by the White House of Mubarak and Obama meeting the press.

There've been some reports that in recent public appearances Mubarak seemed distracted, and of course this was doubtless well scripted, but he seemed to do pretty well for an octogenarian. He answered questions in Arabic rather than English, but that probably is for precision. His Arabic is a little colloquializing at times (I'm pretty sure there was a ba‘da kida in there somewhere). He seemed to fidget a bit, but heck, it's the Oval Office. I'm sure I'd fidget too.

Still not a gray hair in sight though, at age 81. Obama, at 48, has a few showing though.

Also, I've now added a short YouTube excerpt from the Charlie Rose Interview video to my earlier post referring to it.

New Site on Arabic Dialects and Slang Terms

Via Arabic Media Shack and an article in The National, I learn of a website with a new, online dictionary of Arabic dialect and slang, called mo3jam.com. The site is called mu‘jam (معجم), the traditional word for lexicon. There's also an English language homepage, here, though most of the user-contributed entries are in Arabic, and I suspect that the site won't be of much interest to those who don't know at least some Arabic.

Since I've previously posted on diglossia and the differences in Arabic dialects, and I know some of my readers have an interest in the subject, let me say that the site is worth a look. It has separate listings for different dialects. I'm just beginning to explore it and will note any interesting entries.

MEI Publication on 1979 "Oil Shock"

MEI has published the latest in its series of Viewpoints focusing on the events of 1979, 30 years ago. The latest is "The 1979 'Oil Shock': Legacy, Lessons and Lasting Reverberations," with contributions by 21 authors. The link just given takes you to a descriptive page; the full PDF is available here.

A Roundup on Mubarak

A roundup of coverage of the Mubarak visit, so far:
  • The transcript of a Charlie Rose interview with Mubarak. "We have never discussed [succession]," meaning he and Gamal. I guess it just never came up? (UPDATED: for those who like to watch rather than read transcripts, here's at least a short excerpt of the Charlie Rose interview from YouTube, and a fuller version is temporarily viewable here):

I'll have more of my own take on the subject a bit later.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mr. Mubarak Goes to Washington

Husni Mubarak's visit to Washington requires some comment, though I suspect it is going to be more symbolic than substantive. It's true that Mubarak hasn't been here for five years — the second Bush term had some rough spots for Egyptian-US relations, but he has already met with President Obama twice, during the Cairo visit (though Mubarak did not attend "The speech") and the G8.

I sense that everyone on both sides sees this visit as having a fin du régime air to it, or at least fin du règne. Not only does it seem unlikely that Mubarak will run for another term in 2011 (when he will be 83), but there are those rumors that he is contemplating stepping down early. Remember he was scheduled to make this trip earlier, in May, but the death of his young grandson led to its cancellation; that death is said to sit heavily on the elder Mubarak.

Whatever his intentions, after nearly 30 years in power the sense of transition is clearly in the air. For what it's worth, note that Mubarak arrived in Washington on Saturday, and had no announced appointments yesterday. It sounds as if he is resting up. Today he meets with Secretary of State Clinton, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, as well as with American Jewish groups (interestingly including not just AIPAC but J Street and the ADL). Tomorrow he meets Obama.

Since most of the coverage of the visit is predictable, it may be a good time to note an interesting piece by Tarek Osman, "Egypt: the Blinkers of Expertise," which argues that conventional media and academic analysis tend to miss certain key developments in the country. It may be an appropriate commentary for the visit.

The US Military and 1) Social Networking, and 2) Middle East Studies

This post is a link to a couple of interesting posts, one of which only indirectly relates to the Middle East. Military historian Mark Grimsley at the Army War College, whose military history blog with the delightful title Blog Them out of the Stone Age is not particularly devoted to our part of the world except for the rather large part of the US military who currently find themselves there, has some posts on the military's wrestling with social networking sites. His latest is here, and it also refers back to this earlier posting. Clearly the Army is opening up a bit to social networking, while the Marines seem to be circling the wagons, if I read this right. As Grimsley notes, the recent use of Twitter by Iranian protesters is a reminder that we should not simply close off channels of communications. As he also notes, servicepersons are free to network on their own personal computers, but when deployed they are dependent on military networks.

In a separate post, Grimsley also notes Marc Lynch's recent post on the possible impact on the Middle Eastern studies field of incoming veterans. I didn't link to the original Lynch post, so I'm doing so now, and here's Grimsley's comment thereon. I think that there has been, for some time, a disconnect between the academic Middle East Studies community and the government/policy community, but since MEI and The Middle East Journal straddle the boundary between the academic and policy communities, I've always tried to talk to both "sides" myself and introduce them to each other. I do suspect a generation of ex-servicepersons coming into the academic world will change the field a bit, probably for the better (my own generation, formed in 60's rebellion, tends toward some increasingly outdated ideological positions and also tends to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian cockpit rather than the current confrontations in the Gulf).

I won't add my own comments beyond what's here; the links are worth your time, though.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Roundup

I was brief on my weekend reading post last Friday because I was out of town and on vacation, but the pickings are still a bit sparse due to the fact that nobody in their right mind is working in August.
  • NPR recently gave us (meaning The Middle East Journal) a bit of a plug by quoting Asher Kaufman, an Israeli scholar at Notre Dame, on the Ghajar issue; Asher has a major piece on Ghajar coming out in the Autumn issue of the Middle East Journal, so the NPR piece is good hype for us. The NPR link has both text and a podcast. I know of only two people in the world who understand the border issues in the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border region: Asher Kaufman and Fred Hof, currently George Mitchell's man on the scene. There may be somebody at the UN, but those are the only two people I know who've spent years on the subject. Asher apparently is now working on a book on the theme.
That's it for now.

The Tears of Isis: Wafa' al-Nil

Last spring I did a post on the Egyptian holiday known as Sham al-Nassim, noting that it was one of only two Egyptian holidays still celebrated that (arguably at least) are survivals from Pharaonic times, and which are celebrated with equal enthusiasm by Muslims and Copts (other than purely secular days like National Day).

Now we're at the other one. August 15 traditionally represents the beginning of the celebration (which lasts for two weeks) of Wafa' al-Nil. Wafa' al-Nil literally means something like "Fullness of the Nile" and refers to the Nile flood. (In earlier times the feast was celebrated whenever the Nile reached a certain height.)

Every summer, since the beginnings of human civilization (and long before), the Nile flooded. Until 1964,when the floodgates of the Aswan High Dam were closed. If you follow the above link on Sham al-Nassim you'll find a comment by my former boss, former MEI VP Ambassador David Mack about his posting in Egypt in 1964-65, when he saw the last Nile flood. I came to Egypt the first time in 1972 — antiquity for many of my readers, no doubt, but after the end of the cycle that created Egyptian civilization. The old-timer expats recounted many tales of flooded basements to us young whippersnappers who'd never see the Nile in flood.

Herodotus said that Egypt was the gift of the river, and the Egyptian dating system was based on the heliacal rising of Sirius because Sirius rose with the sun as the Nile began to rise, and thus had a profound symbolism for Egypt. (Some say we still call August the "dog days" because of the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star, in August.)

The annual rise and fall of the Nile — a mystery to the ancient Egyptians, who had little rainfall and knew nothing of the rains of Equatorial Africa, though by Ptolemy the geographer's time there was a vague tradition of the "Mountains of the Moon," an early echo of the Ruwenzori, or perhaps the Ethiopian highlands — was the lifeblood of Egypt. The silt deposited when the river rose irrigated and fertilized the arable lands of the Delta. The rhythm of the Nile flood was the heartbeat of Egyptian history. The Pyramids were built at floodtime: farmers were unemployed because their farms were inundated, and the broader Nile allowed stones from Muqattam to the east to be carried by boat to Giza in the west. (The usual word for river in Arabic is Nahr, with one exception: historically the Nile has been classically referred to as Bahr al-Nil, the "Sea of the Nile." In flood, with much of the arable land under water, it must have seemed more like a sea than a river.)

Anyone who has seen the Nile valley from the air knows how dramatically the desert is delineated from the sown: where the water goes, there is richness; where it does not, there is arid barrenness. And the flood deposited the silts that made Egypt the granary of the Roman Empire.

The Nile flood until 1964 was the pulse of Egypt, and the pulse of Egypt was the pulse of the ancient world. While I'm not an adherent to Karl Wittfogel's "hydraulic" interpretation of the ancient world, there is truth in the power that the flood gave to a unified monarchy and a common religion: someone had to be in charge of making sure the river flooded. The traditional beginnings of Egyptian history are the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, symbolized in Egyptian art by the lotus (Upper Egypt) and the papyrus (Lower Egypt): both plants intimately associated with the Nile.

The Egyptian God of the Nile, Hapi, was closely linked to the flood. (So perhaps I should wish you a Hapi Wafa' al-Nil. Sorry.) And, of course, there was the mythological explanation of the flood as the river rising from the tears Isis shed for her brother/husband Osiris. And the resurrection of Osiris is itself a symbol of the renewal of life through the flooding of the river.

The flood and its relationship to political power is a common theme. One of the many great Mamluk historical compendia on Egypt, Ibn Taghri Birdi's Nujum al-Zahira fi Tarikh Misr wa'l-Qahira, is a year-by-year chronology of Egypt from the Muslim conquest to his own day, and for every single year, he gives the height of the Nile flood.

Two of the great historical artifacts of Egypt are the Nilometer at Roda Island at Cairo, and another Nilometer at Elephantine Island in Aswan. The Nilometers are just what they sound like: they measured the rise of the Nile each year. One of the great historical compendia of the early 20th century is the multi-volume work by Amin Sami called Taqwim al-Nil, a book theoretically on the measurement of the Nile (the meaning of its title) which gives the level of the Nile flood for each year and describes the river and its dams, barrages and other controls in detail, but also links them to the annalistic history of Egypt's rulers. It recognizes the genuine links between political power and the Nile.

The feast of Wafa' al-Nil has all sorts of pre-Islamic and pre-Christian artifacts related to it. The Copts call it the "Finger of the Martyr" (isba‘ al-shahid) because they once tossed a saint's relic into the Nile each year to assure the flood would occur, to placate the river gods, though as good Christians they would not have put it that way. Some legends say virgins were drowned in the Nile at flood time in ancient Egypt, and Egyptians have continued to drop small paper dolls, called brides of the Nile, into the river at the feast. (Islamists do not approve of this pagan survival of course, and the practice is said to be in decline since the end of the flood.)

For an account of the festival in the early 19th century, there is the classic work by Edward William Lane, in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, and through the generosity of Google Books you can read it online; with the Wafa' al-Nil account beginning on page 496 of the Everyman Edition at the link.

The rhythm of the flood created Egypt; the richness of the river's silt sustained its civilization. There is much fertility symbolism involved with Wafa' al-Nil, of course; the River God Hapi is depicted a male God with female breasts, and the Isis-Osiris-Horus trinity is intimately linked to the river. While Sham al-Nassim is at least arguably a survival of an Ancient Egyptian religious ceremony, there is no question about Wafa' al-Nil.

From the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under either King Scorpion or Menes (Mina) in about 3000 BC until 1964 AD, Wafa' al-Nil was not just an annual excuse for a holiday. It was the country's lifeblood. For the past 45 years, it is merely a symbolic remembrance of an annual event that will not return until, in some hopefully far distant future, the High Dam fails. But Egyptians still celebrate., though the Nile no longer floods.