A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 29, 2010

Stone Pasha and the Khedive Isma‘il's Yanks and Rebs

This is going to be one of my "And now for something completely different" posts. I've mentioned an interest in military history and you know my interest in Egypt. This post combines the two.

At left, Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone of the Union Army, early in the US Civil War. Below, Lieutenant General Charles Pomeroy Stone (Stone Pasha) during his 13-year tenure (1871-1883) as Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army under the Khedives Isma‘il and Tawfiq.

Probably relatively few Americans, other than Civil War buffs and historians interested in 19th century Egyptian history, are aware of Isma‘il's recruitment of a number of American officers, both former Union and former Confederate, in the years after the American Civil War.

It's not hard to understand why the Khedive was interested in Americans. He hoped to keep up the expansionist policies of his predecessors Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha and Ibrahim Pasha, especially in the Sudan; the country was already incurring large debts in Europe, that would ultimately lead to a British (unofficial but de facto) protectorate, and therefore France and Britain were not a good source of military advice since you don't want your potential colonizers to have intimate knowledge of your military. The United States, on the other hand, had no visible interests in the Middle East (except for Christian missions) in those days.

And having just fought the bloodiest war in its history (which proved a temporary boon to Egypt since Southern US cotton was blockaded from the world market), the US also was a source of experienced and underemployed military officers. To the Egyptians, which army they had served in was moot. It would be nice to say it was moot to the Americans as well, but there was one notorious shootout in Alexandria between ex-Rebs and ex-Yanks.

According to the most detailed study of the Americans who served in Egypt, William B. Hesseltine and Hazel C. Wolf's The Blue and the Gray on the Nile (University of Chicago Press, 1961; still some copies listed on Amazon), around 50 Americans eventually were recruited for Egyptian service. A few of them were prominent enough that the average Civil War buff may know them, among them Stone (more on whom in a moment); Henry Sibley, inventor of the Sibley tent and who, as a colonel, led the Confederate invasion of New Mexico until defeated at Glorieta; William W. Loring, who reached Corps command in the Confederate Army; and a few others. Some would make their name in Egyptian service, however, notably Charles Chaillé-Long, who only rose to be a captain in the Union Army, but achieved lasting fame as an explorer of sub-Saharan Africa, serving under Gordon in Equatoria, then exploring the great lakes (he was the second explorer to visit Lake Victoria), and writing a number of books. (Though I suspect Central Africa: Naked Truths of Naked People would not be given that title today.)

Many prominent ex-Confederate generals reportedly considered Egyptian service, among them P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston, but didn't go. William Tecumseh Sherman, General in Chief of the US Army in the late 186os (under the Presidency of his close friend and predecessor, U.S. Grant), encouraged the Egyptian adventure and even released some serving officers to participate.

The driving force of this whole adventure was Thaddeus P. Mott. Before the Civil War he had lived in Constantinople, was a favorite at the Ottoman Sultan's court, married a Turkish wife and was reportedly quite at home in the East. He went home to serve in the Civil War, rose to colonel in the Union Army, then returned to Turkey after the war. There he met the Khedive Isma‘il and soon found himself in Egyptian service in time for the grand opening of the Suez Canal. He became Khedivial chamberlain and went to the US to recruit for the Egyptian Army.

Which brings us back to Charles Pomeroy Stone. Stone had been badly treated by the Army and the political authorities, so much so that later some would refer to him as an "American Dreyfus" for his alleged culpability in the military disaster that was the Battle of Ball's Bluff, up the Potomac from Washington, on October 21, 1861.

Stone's war started well: a West Pointer and a Mexican War veteran, he was considered a favorite of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. He famously secured the City of Washington before President Lincoln's arrival, and helped set up its defenses.

But Stone was no politician, and he fell out with two key figures from his home state: Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and Senator Charles Sumner, both Radical Republicans and abolitionists. The exact details are not so important as that he made powerful political enemies early on, but among the charges were that he returned runaway slaves in Maryland. But Maryland was a Union state which had slavery, and its law required that, as did Federal law.

In October, with George McClellan having replaced Scott, Stone was given command of a "Corps of Observation" and sent up the Potomac to observe the fords of the river. He was ordered to make a "demonstration" against Leesburg, Virginia.

Stone held a position south of Leesburg and sent half his force, under Colonel Edward Baker, to the north to make a landing and push towards Leesburg from the river. Now, Colonel Baker was also a sitting United States Senator from Oregon. (Yes, a sitting Senator was commanding an Army regiment.) But Colonel/Senator Baker had friends in high places. He'd started out as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and had worked with a chap called Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln's son Eddie's full name was Edward Baker Lincoln. Is a picture starting to emerge?

Now it's important to realize that, though ultimate command was his, General Stone was not present at the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Baker was the senior officer on the scene. If you go to the Battlefield today, you will find it still fairly unspoiled (though a Leesburg subdivision is creeping closer) and what you see is this: a steep bluff over the Potomac which required men to physically haul cannon up the cliff face while making an opposed landing on a hostile shore with a river at their back. My nine-year-old daughter has commented that that makes no sense. She's quite right. One look at the position should have been enough to warn off anyone over age nine. Let's see: steep bluffs we had to climb and drag our cannons up, check; superior enemy forces to our front, check; river at our back and no retreat possible, check; let's attack.

At first things seemed to go all right, and then the Confederates noticed the Union troops were there. The Confederate commander was Nathan "Shanks" Evans, who had a reputation (whether justified or not) for sometimes going into battle drunk, but given the situation at Ball's Bluff, that was no impediment to victory.

In the heated battle that followed, the Union troops found themselves pushed off the steep bluff, some falling to the river below. It's said that for a day or two bodies were washing up on the bridges of Georgetown. During the battle, Senator Baker made his only good career move of the day: he got himself killed, heroically of course. (I'm sure the image at right is highly accurate historically.)

Now, here's a powerful Republican senator and old personal friend of Lincoln (despite his actually having beaten Lincoln for a nomination in earlier years). He has proceeded to die a martyr's death. The war was only some six months old at this point and the carnage to come was only beginning. Somebody had to take the blame.

And it wasn't going to be the ruling party's newly martyred Senator/General.

And Stone, remember, had powerful enemies. The Radical Republican-controlled Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a Congressional watchdog, called hearings.

Ball's Bluff was a disaster, and professional officers naturally may expect a disaster on their watch, even if due to a subordinate's incomprehensible decisions, to affect their career. But Ball's Bluff didn't just tarnish Stone's career. Amid charges of suspicious links with Confederates (his wife's father had been a roommate of Jeff Davis at West Point or something like that, but of course Jefferson Davis had later been the US Secretary of War) and hints of treason, Stone was arrested and confined to prison.

That was in January of 1862. He served in various fort-prisons until August when, no charges ever having been filed against him or specified, he was released. No apologies, explanations, or charges were ever forthcoming.

Of course his military career in US service was over. So when the war ended, he was looking for a way to vindicate is reputation. And Mott showed up, recruiting for the Khedive.

Stone became Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army in 1871 and served in that post until 1883, serving Isma‘il and, from 1879, his son and successor Tawfiq. He built up a general staff (though it drastically countered the traditional command structure of Egyptian military forces) and also participated in some campaigns.

Most of the Americans did not stay as long as Stone Pasha. Ultimately, when Colonel ‘Urabi's revolt broke out in 1882, Stone stayed with the Khedive in Alexandria though his wife and children were in Cairo.

The British intervention ended the ‘Urabi revolt, but also brought new masters to Egypt. Frustrated by the emerging British protectorate-in-all-but-name, Stone finally stepped down in 1883.

His reputation seemingly redeemed in his homeland, Stone later directed the construction of the base on which the Statue of Liberty stands in New York harbor.

Since I've shown the US and Egyptian photos of Stone above, it is perhaps appropriate to do the same for one of his Confederate analogs: General William "Old Blizzards" Loring, one of the more senior Confederates in Egyptian service (probably the most senior since he'd held Corps command in the CSA), first as a Confederate General, then as Loring Pasha, variously Inspector General of the Egyptian Infantry, chief of Coastal Defenses, and a field commander. (You may note the empty sleeve in both pictures: he lost his left arm in Mexico City in his first war. For those of you reading this outside the US or Mexico, the US-Mexican war of 1846-48 was the training ground for a lot of Civil War generals, then junior company and field officers for the most part.)

There's a fan site for Old Blizzards in fact, with the motto "Three Flags, Four Continents" (the flags are the US, the Confederacy, and Egypt, though they (correctly for the era) use the Turkish flag. I think the continents are North America, Europe, Asia and Africa).

The name "Old Blizzards" comes from the early days of the Civil War when, opposing George McClellan in what was to become West Virginia, he supposedly gave the battle cry, "Give them blizzards, boys! Give them blizzards!" (Wouldn't have worked in Egypt, I fear.)

The site says he's the only one of the Americans who actually commanded Egyptian troops, but I'm not certain about that as some of the other Americans went on Egyptian operations from Sudan to the Indian Ocean.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sometimes I Can't Resist

BBC Headline:

Is Osama Bin Laden Dead Or Alive?

Well of course, unless he's Schroedinger's Cat, he's dead or alive.

Sorry. Sometimes the Editor in me takes over.

(Don't worry if you don't understand Schroedinger's Cat. Even Einstein couldn't figure out quantum theory and famously said he couldn't believe God played dice with the universe.) You'll find the just and lasting peace in the Middle East formula much sooner, anyway, I'm sure.

Michael Ryan on Yemen

Michael W.S. Ryan is a former Vice President of the Middle East Institute and somebody I first met in the CASA program in Cairo 38 years ago, so I refer you to his piece at the Jamestown Foundation on Yemen.

Egypt Bars New MB Guide from Foreign Travel

Congratulations on being the Eighth General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, but you can't leave the country. Muhammad Badi‘, the new Guide, and other members of the Guidance Council (except those who are members of Parliament), has been forbidden to travel abroad.

It seems they've been accused of engaging in "organizational activities" abroad. Wow. An international organization whose leadership engages in . . . organizational activities . . . internationally?

Now I wouldn't want to be governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, I wouldn't want my daughter to live under them, and despite the fact they once fielded a Coptic candidate I don't think they're the future of Egypt. But I don't have a vote, and they aren't violent, and have a clear, well-organized support structure. Most of the Egyptian press, not so many days ago, was emphasizing how quietist and moderate Badi‘ was, a man who would move the Brotherhood from political activism to social issues.

So is this really necessary? Or just the traditional regime reaction to the Brotherhood? The fact that the organization, despite being technically illegal, is the largest opposition bloc in Parliament and runs a significant social services sector, is as reminder of the strange relationship between the regime and the Brotherhood. I don't really know, offhand, of another such strange symbiosis.

Meanwhile, Badi‘, praised as the non-political guide, can't travel.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ElBaradei's Campaign Website

Well, Mohamed ElBaradei's chances of becoming President of Egypt still don't seem very bright to me, but he's got a slick campaign website up. (Warning if you're in an office: the site plays music.)

Obviously he's a serious candidate, so long as the 2011 elections are open, free, and fair.

Oh, wait . . .

Now We Are One: One Year of the Blog

No doubt a lot of people (at least in the US) went to work this morning thinking this day was of note for one of two reasons: 1) President Obama makes his State of the Union address tonight; or 2) Apple is about to announce something that everyone assumes is the Apple Tablet, or iTablet, or iSlate, or something else, though nobody is sure what it does, but it must be important because Steve Jobs invented it. But for me at least, this day has another significance.

Today marks the first anniversary of my first post. We're past the 900-post mark and 1000 is in sight. Thanks to my readers for the links, kind words, and helping spread the word. The good news is, I'm still having fun. A while back Martin Kramer posted a comment warning me about burning out because nobody can be brilliant twice a day.

I'm supposed to be brilliant twice a day? Maybe that's what Professor Kramer does at his blog. I thought I was just posting whatever I felt like: on the bars of Cairo, Arab bagpipes from Morocco to the Gulf, videos of all sorts of stuff, Qadhafi fashion updates, Fun with Google Earth pics of air force bases, Syriac and Armenian Christmas carols, discussions of Arabic transliteration problems, Coptic Christmas tales, and of course some serious policy and current events commentary in among the rest. Where else (other than the blog I got it from) can you hear Cypriot Maronite Arabic?

I intend to keep doing whatever this is I'm doing. Let me know if you figure out what exactly it is; the good news is it seems to be working. Let's see how year two works out. Thanks for reading me.

Mauritania's Aziz in Tehran

Mauritania is considered pretty peripheral by most Arabs (at least if they've even heard of it), but General Abd al-Aziz, its current military strongman, broke the country's ties with Israel (it used to be a great trivia question: the only Arab states with full diplomatic relations with Israel were Egypt, Jordan — and Mauritania).

Now he's trying to collect. He's been in Turkey (no big problem there) and Iran. Here's The Moor Next Door on the visit. It will be interesting to see what Mauritanian blogger Dekhnstan, who is not General Abd al-Aziz' greatest fan, may have to say.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Prophet Ahead of My Time: Stella's Guide to Cairo Baladi Bars

My earlier post on Black Saturday got me thinking about some of the targets that day. Shepheard's of course, and the Turf Club, and several other British clubs, and cinemas, seen as Western symbols; also a number of bars. I'm told the old Bar Cecil, which survived into the early 1970s, was a target. That led me into some surfing last night on the bars of Cairo, which as you'll note I've posted on before. though not as often as some of my friends claim (of over 900 posts, only three prior to this one involved bars). But in my wanderings I discovered that I was ahead of my time. Back in the 70s, as I've mentioned in those earlier posts, several friends and I — most of us having risen high enough in academia or government as to possibly not want to be identified here — worked on a little hand circulated guide to the baladi or down-market bars of Central Cairo.

Now I find, to my delight, that Stella, the Egyptian beer, has an online and somewhat interactive guide to what they describe as the Baladi bars of downtown Cairo. Now some of these bars are not really baladi, but they aren't in five-star hotels, either; I'm glad to see so many of the old ones are still around.

Here's a recent account that led me there, and I'm glad to know the Horreya is still serving after hours.

Black Saturday, 58 Years On

Fifty-eight years ago today, January 26, 1952, fell on a Saturday. The day before, Egyptian police had clashed with British troops at Ismailia in the Suez Canal Zone, as noted in my post on Police Day yesterday. I have in fact posted previously on Black Saturday back in September. That post has videos and slideshow links which I recommend you check out. I can't figure out how to embed the Movietone newsreel Zeinobia has if you follow the links, but it's British imperial arrogance at its peak. The photos here are from her collection, as well, though they appear in many books on the subject.

The burning of Shepheard's Hotel (before and after views at left) is the most-remembered event of the day, but other British symbols such as the Turf Club, various cinemas (Cinema Metro below right), and bars were also attacked. The old Shepheard's was one of those old colonial hotels that symbolized empire and the survivors of which can still evoke it (the Old Winter Palace in Luxor and the Old Cataract in Aswan were others, as were the King David in Jerusalem, the Peninsula in Hong Kong/Kowloon, and of course Raffles in Singapore), so its destruction was highly symbolic. (I'm sure there are others: those are ones I know personally.) The attack on the King David Hotel by the Irgun in 1946 wasn't precisely a precedent since it was bombed not as a symbol of colonialism but as the headquarters of the British Army in Palestine. Shepheard's was a pure symbol. (Not to defend in any way the bombing of the King David, though.)

Black Saturday has been blamed on the Palace, the King's Iron Guard, the Muslim Brotherhood, the British (who had no visible reason to burn down Shepheard's), the Communists, or just the angry populace. It was, however, the first real rebellious outburst seen in Cairo since the Revolution of 1919, and left its mark on the city for decades. My earlier post may be sufficient, but I thought I should mark the anniversary.

This Looks Interesting: New CNAS Publication

New strategic thinking is always needed and the number of creative thinkers in the field can usually be counted on your thumbs; Abu Muqawama (Andrew Exum) has a post entitled "Tired of COIN? Try the Not-as-Tragic-as-Originally-Thought Commons" which links to this report from the Center for a New American Strategy: Contested Commons: The Future of American Power in a Multipolar World. (PDF File).

And CNAS, as you may know, is the closest thing to a military/strategic think tank allied to the Obama Administration. And it's where Abu Muqawama hangs his plank.

The term "Global Commons" is derived from Alfred Thayer Mahan and the term "Neo-Mahanian" appears in one of the chapter titles. If you understand that reference (even if you, like, me, think Mahan was something of a prophet of Empire and not the best model today, though still worth reading), it may be worth a look. I've only read the summary so far.

If you do not salivate at the word "strategy," have never heard of Mahan, COIN, or "neo-Mahanian" global commons, then as Emily Litella would have put it, "Never Mind." But I do plan to read it all.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Egyptian Police Day

I comment about Egypt so often that I really don't need another post, but today was Police Day, which this year has been promoted from an observation mainly celebrated by the Police to a national holiday with banks closed etc. on a par with Armed Forces Day. A lot of bloggers aren't too happy about the promotion of Police Day; Bikya Masr here and The Arabist here for two in English. And some wry reflections at The Guardian.

Now Police Day has been around; it commemorates the battle between Egyptian police and British forces in Ismailia in 1952, when the resistance of the national Police became a symbol of resistance to Britain's continued presence in the Canal Zone; the next day, January 26, was Black Saturday, when Shepheard's Hotel, the Turf Club, and other British landmarks were attacked. It was the beginning of the troubles that would lead to the July Revolution.

But Police Day has been around; it just wasn't a formal, first-rank holiday when schools and banks were closed until this year. Today the Police — particularly those under the aegis of State Security Investigations — are no longer viewed as the symbol of national resistance to foreign rule. So needless to say many commenters are suggesting that making Police Day a first-level national holiday at this moment in time suggests that the government is celebrating not the Police, but a Police State. Mubarak has used the occasion to come down hard on Hamas and defend Egypt's wall in Gaza.

But there could be a subtext here as well: With Mubarak's age and the anticipation of a succession, the state may well be reminding the citizenry that the Police still have things under control. It could also very well be, with many people talking about a military figure as an alternative to Gamal Mubarak, a reminder that the Interior Ministry is often played off against the military. General Habib El Adly, the Interior Minister, has held his post since 1997, longer than a great many of his predecessors.

Still, the Police of today are being given a higher-profile holiday in commemoration of a moment 57 years ago when the police briefly became the rallying symbol of Egyptian independence. Would that they enjoyed (or, alas, deserved) the same reputation today.

Saudi Study on Student Facebook Use

An interesting Saudi study written up on Al-Sharq al-Awsat's English website: some 68% of young Saudi women do not use their real family names on Facebook, while only 4% of males don't use their real name. Also, some 60% of male students polled use a real picture of themselves, compared to only 5% of females. (Others use no picture, or a famous person, or even a male family member.) Read the whole thing; I leave it to the reader to draw conclusions.

The article notes that Internet access has now reached 36% of the Saudi population. For so rich a country that seems strikingly low; perhaps the fact that the Saudi Internet filterers receive between 700 and 1000 requests a day to block websites might have something to do with it. That article of course says the vast majority (93%) of websites blocked are pornographic. It's the other 7% they never clearly explain. (One could also remark that the Saudis may have a very, very broad definition of pornographic.)

It will be interesting to see if the recent decision by ICANN to expand URLs to include non-Western alphabets will increase access; Facebook has long permitted posting in Arabic script, however, and the study linked above found that among university students, 45% of posted comments are in English, 40% in Arabic (script), and 12% in "Anglicized Arabic" (transliteration). By contrast, among secondary school students, 54% of comments are in English, 40% in transliterated Arabic, and only 6% are in Arabic script. That suggests to me that secondary school students don't write very good literary Arabic, compared to their university counterparts. (Transliterated Arabic posts usually are rather colloquial as opposed to formal Arabic.)

‘Ali Hasan al-Majid Executed

‘Ali Hasan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's cousin and right-hand-man for repression, has been executed in Iraq. He had been given four separate death sentences, though they only executed him once. I am not normally a strong defender of execution, but it is difficult to feel any sympathy for the man behind Halabja and so many other atrocities. The man the press liked to call "Chemical ‘Ali" is gone. He will not be missed.

Wa'el ‘Abbas Threatened with Prison

Blogger/activist Wa'el ‘Abbas is now under threat of prison for an allegedly "non-political" dispute with a neighbor; using alleged violations of obscure laws to silence dissidents is, unfortunately, a rather familiar technique.

Secretary Clinton recently spoke out on Internet freedom; as The Arabist notes, however, citing this report on Arab Crunch, US restrictions have been used to limit open-source software access in countries under US sanctions, sometimes harming dissidents more than governments. Nations are still trying to understand how to regulate (or not regulate) new media, and in general it would seem greater access is normally a good thing. Sanctions that in effect help regimes control their populations unintentionally should be reconsidered.

Denial is a River in Egypt After All

The Arabist on the continuing state of denial about Nag Hammadi being sectarian.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Weekend Air Security Jitters

As I fade away for the weekend, a lot of jitters in the airline security community. Whether justified or not I can't say:

ABC News is reporting that women suicide bombers may be en route to the US from Yemen and other suspicious passengers have been blocked from flying. Britain has, for whatever reason, raised its terrorism alert from "substantial" to "severe." And, on the eve of Republic Day, India is tightening air security, especially for incoming flights from South Asia.

Make of it what you will.

More on US Aid to LAF

I've previously noted the ongoing discussion over at Qifa Nabki on US assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. He now has an interesting comment by a US official, not identified, about the process.

The Iraqi Political Ban: An Update

The Iraqi Presidency, led by President Jalal Talabani, has asked a court to rule on the ban of some 500 political figures from the forthcoming elections, seeking to play down the controversial move. Elsewhere Robert Dreyfus interprets it as an Iranian power play. Meanwhile, Reidar Visser remains the go-to blogger for the details.

The US has wagered so much of its disengagement calendar in Iraq on successful elections that anything jeopardizing a fair election — and it's hard for anyone except a Shi‘ite ideologue to argue that this doesn't jeopardize it — could complicate the whole withdrawal strategy. Talabani's move is presumably intended to find a way of defusing this. I have no idea if it will work.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Roundup of Opinion on Nag Hammadi

I know I've been pretty much all-Egypt the last couple of days, but Misr Umm al-Dunya and all. Anyway, Al-Masry al-Youm's English pages have a roundup of press reports on Nag Hammadi, well titled, "The Discourse of Denial: Spinning Naga Hammadi."

Zahi Hawass on "The Great Treasure Delusion"

In case his constant television appearances don't satisfy your all-Zahi-Hawass-all-the-time needs, here he is writing an interesting piece in Al-Sharq al-Awsat's English website on "The Great Treasure Delusion."

Oh, and from drhawass.com, an article with major name-dropping in the lead sentence:
I travelled recently with Omar Sharif to the Dominican Republic by personal invitation of the president, Leonel Fernandez. I was invited to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the Catholic University in Santo Domingo, as well as to give a public lecture.
Like him or hate him, he's one of a kind.

Defaming Husni Mubarak: in Jordan!

A young Jordanian who was demonstrating outside the Egyptian Embassy in Amman — to protest the steel wall Egypt is building to wall off Gaza — is being charged with "blaspheming" an Arab head of state for saying something about Husni Mubarak.

Now, I know you can go to jail for saying bad things about Mubarak in Egypt. But in Jordan? And I'll assume for a moment that "blaspheming" is not the best translation, since as far as I'm aware even in Egypt, despite some Pharaonic trappings, he hasn't officially been proclaimed the Divine Horus.

Ambassador Scobey Visits Pope Shenouda

This may or may not be significant: US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey has paid a visit to Coptic Pope Shenouda. Officially, this is her visit to provide greetings on the occasion of Coptic Christmas January 7, when Scobey was out of the country. As the linked Al-Masry al-Youm story notes:
According to a source at the papal office, Scobey and Shenouda also discussed the 7 January shooting incident in the Upper Egyptian city of Naga Hammadi, in which six Coptic Christians and one Muslim were killed.
Now a source at the papal office may be seeking to make a sectarian point: this wasn't apparently a characterization from the US Embassy. But it also is useful data: the US may be sending a subtle message here.

The Nozette Case Revisited

Ha'aretz announces that "New documents presented in federal court in Washington, D.C. reveal deep ties (more than was known) between Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Dr. Stewart David Nozette, an American astronomer accused of spying for Israel."

I modestly note that this blog commented on October 22, 2009 that "
The Foreign Company is, apparently, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), for which he has been working for some time. This does not seem to be much of a secret."

I claim no great scoop here. Everybody knew it. The problem is that a great deal of what everybody knows can sometimes take forever to appear in the Israeli press, where military censorship is still in force on many subjects. This means the censors are able to conceal information from all those hostile people who have no access to the Internet.

Both of them.

The Floods

I'm one blogger and I've had a number of key meetings and other things going on this week so my posts have been pretty eclectic, but I should at least note the flash flood problems the region has been facing. Sinai and the Negev have been partiucarly hard hit, and apparently Gaza as well (which needs floods like it needs earthquakes right now); Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt proper and other neighboring regions have also been hit with heavy rains and, as is inevitable in dry desert environments, flash flooding.

With the world's humanitarian focus quite justifiably turned toward Haiti, this isn't getting much attention outside the region, but I thought I should at least acknowledge it's happening.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ban on Tariq Ramadan Lifted

The ban on Tariq Ramadan visiting the United States has been lifted. About time. His appointment at Notre Dame had to be abandoned a few years back because the US wouldn't grant him a visa. I may not agree with everything Tariq Ramadan believes, but I certainly don't think he's outside the bounds of moderate Islamist thought. He's a professor at Oxford. He's Swiss. I never did get it, but it certainly exercised some of the usual suspects a lot when he was earlier offered the Notre Dame job.

The "Where's Prince Bandar?" Rumors

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi Ambassador to the US and all-around foreign liaison for years, hasn't been seen much lately, and in particular seems to have missed the big homecoming of his father, Prince Sultan, to the Kingdom. David Roberts over at The Gulf Blog rounds up a variety of the speculation, some of it wild (he's in prison; he's being held for a coup plot; he's ill) and none of it verified. I share his caution but also his curiosity. His post has the links. His absence from key official functions is at least puzzling.

Oh, and while we're rumor-mongering, also at The Gulf Blog: "Qatar to Buy Manchester United?"

ADC Protests T. Boone Pickens Ad

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is protesting the latest T. Boone Pickens energy message, which apparently uses the Arabic language and stereotypical imagery. The ADC press release is here; I think the message they're talking about is this one. (It allows embedding but I don't want to spread the message via my blog, so to see it you'll have to click.)

Is the Brotherhood Retreating from Politics? Or is this a Journalism Meme?

It may be wishful thinking on the part of the regime, but a fair amount of commentary (not just domestic but international) on the election of new Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Muhammad Badi‘ seems to be focusing on the idea that the MB is likely to retreat from political activism and concentrate on its social and educational functions under its new, conservative leader.

A few examples: a pre-official announcement version in Al-Ahram English (weekly); Al-Masry al-Youm English; the BBC; Abu Dhabi's The National; Al-Jazeera English; and Google will give you many more. Either we are looking at a more docetist, less politicized Brotherhood, or everyone got the same backgrounder somewhere from someone.

Israel and the OECD

If Israel succeeds in its effort to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) it will be the poorest member, according to this story in Ha'aretz.

Sorry, the link was absent for a while there.

Copts Divided in Nag Hammadi Aftermath

Several things continue to simmer in the wake of the Nag Hammadi Christmas Eve killings. Although the arrested bloggers have now been released, protests in the Coptic Community have been building. Georgette Qollini, a Christian Member of Parliament, has insisted in a debate in Egypt's People's Assembly that the government is refusing to acknowledge that the Nag Hammadi killings were sectarian. Some video interviews in Arabic here. Qollini is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party but is not on board with the party's attempts to paint the killings as criminal rather than sectarian in motivation. I should note that Qollini is one of the Presidentially-appointed members of the People's Assembly. The President gets to appoint ten members and usually uses the power to name women, minorities etc. who hae trouble winning at the polls. As both a Christian and a woman, Qollini probably seemed ideal, but now she's splitting with the Party line.

She has also criticized the local Nag Hammadi governor, himself a Copt and an NDP member.

There is also growing criticism by some Copts of their Church's relative silence. Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, who was accompanied by the young men who died and may have been the intended target, is being criticized for not more openly denouncing the government in the matter. Although there are reports that some local priests will sue State Security and the local governor, Pope Shenouda's office in Cairo has been clear in noting that it is not a Papal initiative. I've noted before that Shenouda's closeness to Mubarak and the NDP is not all that popular among some Copts (especially Copts abroad); the latest violence, the bloodiest in some years, is making things worse.

The arrests of the bloggers, who were merely going to offer condolences and express Muslim-Christian solidarity, is a reminder of how nervous this is making the government.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Antiquities Trade Changes in Egypt? Hawass Threatening to Quit?

Ahmad ‘Izz, a senior official of Egypt's ruling party (and a key ally of Gamal Mubarak), has reportedly proposed a law permitting greater trade in antiquities within Egypt. This Al-Masry al-Youm article (in Arabic) claims that in response, both Farouq Husni, Minister of Culture, and Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Indiana Jones Hat, are threatening resignation because it would encourage tomb robbing and other activities that could lead to Egyptian antiquities leaving the country.

This may well be Al-Masry al-Youm in its tabloid mode. Certainly Egypt isn't going to provoke Zahi Hawass to resign since all those History Channel/Discovery Channel/National Geographic programs bring lots of tourists. And I'm not seeing this elsewhere yet. Thought I'd bring it to your attention anyway.

The [Insert Preference Here] Gulf

This is an old story for most Gulf hands, but now the Islamic Solidarity Sports Foundation in Riyadh has cancelled athletic games scheduled for Tehran because Iran insisted on putting "Persian Gulf" on the medals. The Arab world is adamant in calling it Al-Khalij al-‘Arabi, the Arab Gulf, and Iranians are equally insistent in calling it the Persian Gulf, and insist it's always been so-called.

This is a heated issue for Arabs and Iranians. Some of my predecessors as Editors of The Middle East Journal sought to enforce as Journal style what I myself use in my own writing: just call it "the Gulf" and let your readers choose. But Iranian authors tend to go ballistic if you do that, seeing it as a profound insult to Iranians everywhere.

Arabs are equally consistent about calling it the Arab Gulf, and the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, is officially the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council.

In all honesty, without my trying to figure out what the Sumerians or the Achaemenids may have called it (commenters are free to speak up if they like), it's true that the Classical world tended to call it Sinus Persicus or the Greek equivalent, and all the early Arab geographers either called it Khalij Fars or al-Khalij al-‘Ajami, which pretty much mean the same thing as Persian Gulf. Once in a while it was called the Gulf of Basra or some such, but Arab Gulf is a 20th-Century coinage as far as I can tell. Still, names matter to people, and I still call it The Gulf to avoid conflict or offense, unless there's danger of confusing it with some other gulf. (Actually, when there are no Iranians around to argue with, most Gulf Arabs seem to use "al-Khalij" in speech without the adjective.)

But obviously, it's still a hugely divisive issue. As to the irony of the name "Islamic Solidarity Sports Foundation" in this context, you can make up your own comment.

Oh, and I once saw a Pakistani map that showed the huge body of water south of Asia as the "South Asian Ocean", but that doesn't seem to be as big an issue.

TMND on American Muslim Origins

This is more than a week old, so forgive my tardiness. From The Moor Next Door, a very good summary of the role of Muslims from the beginnings of American history, in response to critics of Obama's Cairo speech reference to Islam having been part of the American story from the beginning.

It's a reminder of the historical illiteracy of many (even well-educated) Americans that they are not aware of the Muslim presence, especially in slave populations, in the early republic. This isn't politically correct re-interpretation; it's history. I'm glad to see him remind us of it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Roundup from the Holiday Weekend

Today was the Martin Luther King holiday in the US and I've been busy with family things, but I thought I'd offer a few quick links you might wish to check out:
  • Amira al-Tahawy, one of the bloggers arrested in Nag Hammadi and held in Qena, managed to conceal her cellphone and get a few pictures from captivity: the blog's in Arabic but everybody can figure out the pictures.
  • Anwar Sadat's first wife, Iqbal, has died at age 93. She was the mother of his three eldest daughters, but he divorced her and married his second wife Jihan, who became familiar to the world as Egypt's outspoken First Lady and as Sadat's activist widow.
  • The disqualification of 500 Iraqi politicians for alleged ties with the Ba‘ath has further clouded the prospects for the upcoming elections. I'll post more eventually but in the meantime you can follow coverage of the issue by Norwegian blogger Reidar Vissar, who has published a detailed series of analyses; or see shorter posts such as those by Marc Lynch, and also Juan Cole.
More from me later or tomorrow.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Bad Weekend for ME Bloggers and Social Networkers

It's a three day weekend in the US. But first the Muslim Brotherhood, and now various censors and security services, keep making me blog instead of catching up on my reading.

It's proving to be a bad weekend for bloggers and social networkers in the Middle East. First we had the arrest of the Egyptian blogger delegation, though most have apparently been freed on being returned to Cairo; next, a Jordanian appeals court ruled that the country's press and publications law applies to electronic media; if the quoted post is correct, it suggests a blogger or Facebook poster might even be jailed for a comment posted to their account by someone else. And Jordan is one of the more wired IT countries. And for good measure, Iran's police chief is warning that e-mailers and tweeters organizing protests will be punished more harshly than the protesters proper. And saying that the use of proxies won't protect them.

Did I ever mention that last summer, when Iran cracked down on the protests by virtually shutting down the Internet, my Google Analytics numbers for Iran dropped from a fair number of hits a day to zero. Except that every other day — every other day except Fridays when the Government is closed — I got precisely one visit from Tehran, and nothing from elsewhere in Iran. Who could that be, that had access when everyone else didn't, and Fridays off? Hmm...

In the long run, I think this is King Canute telling the sea to roll back, but in the short run, a lot of people could get jail time.

The Eighth MB Guide: It's Badi‘, not Bayumi

A brief drop-by from a weekend off to note that the press conference announcing the eighth General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, postponed from Thursday till today, announced the appointment of Muhammad Badi‘.

Here's the announcement. More in Arabic. BBC here. Al-Jazeera English here. Here, in English, is his message to the Brothers. No one has yet fixed the English Wikipedia stub that says it's Rashad al-Bayumi "pending approval of the Guidance Council." Guess they disagreed. English Wikipedia doesn't have a bio of Badi‘ up yet, but Arabic Wikipedia does. Here's an official CV in Arabic from the Ikhwan Arabic website. (I haven't located one on the English Ikhwan site yet, beyond what's in the news stories linked above.) UPDATE: The English profile is up.

Some of the folks who follow the Brotherhood closely will no doubt have more, but thought I'd call it to your attention.

More on Blogger Arrests; Three-Day Weekend

Egypt says that the arrested bloggers will face charges due to their having staged a demonstration; apparently they've been "deported" back to Cairo. This just looks heavy-handed. Were they actually violating any actual law?

As I noted earlier this will be a three-day weekend in the US due to Martin Luther King day, so blogging will occur only if events demand it; otherwise, see you Tuesday.

Friday, January 15, 2010

18 Bloggers Arrested Near Nag Hammadi

Eighteen Egyptian bloggers, including prominent blogger Wa'el ‘Abbas, have been arrested in on their way to Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, apparently due to an impending visit by the Sheikh al-Azhar. Is State Security afraid they'll blog at him, or what?

One of them, Amira al-Tahawy, has been quoted as saying they were left without food or water for 10 hours. Also of concern, the Interior Ministry is apparently denying the arrests.

The huge amounts of attention media and Internet coverage have given to the Christmas Eve killings has focused attention on Nag Hammadi, and State Security does not like to work in the limelight. Let's hope this is resolved soon.

More here. The English is awkward but the names are hotlinked to their blogs.

This will be the three day Martin Luther King holiday weekend in the US, though if anything demands it, I'll try to post.

Earthquakes on Their Mind

With the appalling devastation that has struck Port-au-Prince, a lot of people are thinking about fault lines. Ha'aretz headlines that "Israel is Due, and Ill-Prepared, for a Major Earthquake." Unlike the Caribbean, where big quakes are pretty rare, the Middle East is a fault zone, and of course the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley are part of the Great Rift Valley that runs down all the way through Africa.

Most often we associate Middle Eastern quakes with mountainous areas of Iran, Turkey, or Armenia, all of which have had a number of truly devastating quakes. But sometimes they hit the big cities — Cairo 1992 and Istanbul 1999 come to mind, and I knew people affected by both of those, including one who sustained serious injuries — not to mention Yerevan 1988, which accellerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and Armenian independence, so it isn't surprising that Israelis are looking with a certain nervousness at their own fault lines.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Muslim Brotherhood Guide Press Conference has Been Postponed.

UPDATE: I don't know if Al-Masry al-Youm really knows what's going on (it was they who called it for Bayumi; the MB has played the succession very close to the vest), but Muhammad Badi‘, the other candidate besides Bayumi to have made it into the finals, may be surging. Perhaps that's why the postponement.

The election of the new Supreme Guide (or General Guide) of the Muslim Brotherhood is pending, but a press conference scheduled for today has now been postponed to Saturday. It's not clear why but there may be some disagreements. Most of the buzz is that it will be Rashad al-Bayumi. He is awaiting final approval by the Guidance Council, apparently, though his Wikipedia stub lists him as Guide already.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Israel-Turkey Feud Blowback, Continued

Israel's first apology was insufficient, but facing the threat of Turkey recalling its Ambassador, Netanyahu made a more formal apology, and that has been accepted by Ankara.

Zvi Bar'el in Ha'aretz comments:
It is this same public that in 2003 didn't let the Erdogan government permit American use of Turkish airspace en route to Iraq and the same public that turned out in huge numbers to protest Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. It is also the same Turkish public that viewed the Jews as an historic ally, from Ottoman times.

That foundation was shaken this week by treatment that reminded the Turks of the way Ottoman sultans humiliated foreign emissaries. That will be very difficult for the Turkish public to forgive.

The Killing of the Iranian Scientist

I haven't talked about Iran lately and this story's a couple of days old. The murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Massoud Ali-Mohammadi has been blamed, by the Iranian government, on the US and Israel. (Who else?) But in addition to being a nuclear scientist, he was also aligned, apparently, with the Green Movement opposition. So you have one of those Murder on the Orient Express-type situations where everybody had a potential motive. (And of course in that novel, everybody did it.) (And I'm sure you know Agatha Christie's links to the Middle East. But that's for another post.) The BBC explains the complicated suspicions here.

Gary Sick is reminded of the so-called "Chain Murders" of intellectuals in th 1990s, also blamed by the regime on outside forces but apparently carried out by the Intelligence Ministry.

The catch is that Ali-Mohammadi probably wasn't that high up in the nuclear program (no one is sure, at least among those talking), so assuming that Israel took him out is dubious; but despite links to Mousavi and the opposition, he wasn't a prominent dissident either. Somebody wanted him dead apparently, and I take Gary's point that there are parallels to the chain murders. We may never be sure. Was there a grassy knoll in the vicinity?

Coptic-Muslim Tensions Still Running High; Overseas Copts Getting Involved

Sorry to keep coming back to Egypt, but as I've said before, I write what I know. Tensions between Copts and Muslims in Upper Egypt have been running high since the Christmas Eve killings, and now Security has arrested 28 Copts and 14 Muslims in the rioting and burnings that took place in Bahgura (or Bahjura). There's also a newer video of the immediate shooting aftermath on YouTube which is fairly graphic and therefore I'm not embedding it; if you really need to see it you can go here. And Al-Masry Al-Youm has a chronology of sectarian violence in Egypt since 1972. It's not comprehensive or complete, but it's better than anything the official press (or "semi-official" as Al-Ahram is always referenced) would publish.

As the story at the first link above shows, Copts abroad are getting into the debate now. There's some danger here. So far the government has been promising to mete out justice to the killers (remember a policeman also died). But when the overseas Coptic community starts denouncing the Egyptian government, the government sometimes has a tendency to go into the bunker.

As you'll see in the linked story, Morris Sadek of the National American Coptic Assembly has called for the United States to intervene and even noted that Copts were better off under French and British occupation and asked for those countries' intervention too.

I have enormous empathy for the Copts, but this was a local Muslim-Christian vendetta, and since Napoleon's dead and so's Anthony Eden, the British and French reference is only going to alienate Egyptian nationalists (including many Copts). The American intervention idea? Not going to happen. When a minority, however ill-treated, seems to be calling for foreign imperial intervention against its own government, that suggests an uncertain grasp of reality. But it's mostly Copts abroad, or some like Sadek who move between the US and Egypt, who can get away with saying these things.

Back in 1981 when Anwar Sadat deposed Pope Shenouda, it was in part a response to his embarrassment at Coptic demonstrators he encountered on his visit to Washington to see Ronald Reagan shortly before. If Copts abroad get too noisy, the government is likely to react badly. A minority, in the real world of the Middle East, is better off not defying the government.

If the perpetrators are not brought to justice, there will be plenty of grounds for protest. But calling for foreign intervention? That won't happen, so if overseas Copts want to protect their co-religionists at home, don't throw fuel on the smoldering embers. Things are already bad enough.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Lighter Side: Surfing the Middle East

The last couple of days have been pretty heavy with sectarian violence, threats of a new Gaza war, diplomatic insults, etc.; nothing to lighten the load since the great hummus contest over the weekend.

Blogger Abu Guerrilla, who blogs over at the group blog Blogging the Casbah, has a post up about his forthcoming book on surfing Israel and Lebanon. I had previously linked to his "Surfing with Nasrallah" post. So to lighten the load, there you are.

I have not yet actually started a category called "surfing" on this blog, though. Though I'm almost as old as the surviving Beach Boys, I've never surfed.

Turkey-Israel Feud Update

UPDATED AGAIN: Somebody got back on their meds. Ayalon has apologized to Turkey. Somebody above his pay grade (I'd guess Netanyahu since it's hard to picture Avigdor Lieberman doing it) has stepped in here.

The plot thickens. Israel moved the meeting up by several days. This sounds more and more like a deliberate embarrassment.

Yes, there are issues between Turkey and Israel, including the controversial "Valley of the Wolves," but to publicly, in the media, insult the diplomatic representative of the earliest Muslim country to recognize Israel seems downright petty and pretty undiplomatic.

Unlike Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy FM Danny Ayalon actually has considerable diplomatic experience (including Ambassador to the US), though he's also Yisrael Beitenu.

Hokayem on the Lebanese Armed Forces

Over at Qifa Nabki, there's a guest post by Emile Hokayem on the Lebanese Armed Forces. Emile is the Political Editor of The National and a non-resident Fellow at the Stimson Center. He's also an alumnus of the Middle East Institute and a fellow Georgetown grad, among other things. It's a response to this and other posts, I think.

The Lebanese Armed Forces have been a puzzlement since the civil war and the debate over the US role is worthy of some attention. Check out the links, and their links.

A Calculated Diplomatic Insult?

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister apparently made the Turkish Ambassador sit in a lower chair and then publicly called attention to that fact to the press in Hebrew, which the Ambassador did not understand.

Gideon Levy has been speculating about the government's sanity lately, in fact.

Is Another Gaza War Imminent?

By most standards, last year's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza a year ago was a public relations disaster for Israel as well as a human tragedy for Gaza; from the Goldstone Report to the European Union there was a chorus of criticism of the Israeli campaign, and if anything Hamas emerged stronger. Even some Israelis acknowledge this. (I know, Bradley Burston is American born.)

But there is a lot of traffic out there about an imminent round two. Burston (again) here. Al-Ahram in Arabic) here. Daily Star here. Hizbullah's Al-Manar, quoting Hamas, here.

Is it real or is it Memorex? Right now I think it's mostly posturing. But I'm not certain, and neither is anyone else.

What is clear is that if Israel were to do a Cast Lead 2.0, beyond the fact that it might further exacerbate the horrors of the Gaza siege (and I know Hamas is as responsible for that as anyone, but I'm less worried about assigning blame than assuaging human suffering), this time Egypt would be blamed more widely in the Arab world, given the controversy over the Egyptian "steel wall" between Sinai and Gaza. If Egypt is seen as blocking Gaza's only Arab land outlet while Israel tightens the siege and invades, it would be seen by most Arabs as far more complicit in the campaign than a year ago — and lately, Egypt has been increasingly confrontational with Hamas, to the point that its role as an honest broker between Hamas and the PA is in jeopardy.

Let's hope it's posturing. Operation Cast Lead ended last January 18, two days before Barack Obama was inaugurated as President. He didn't have to deal with it then, but would throw a further wrench in the works of the start-stop-stuttering peace process, such as it is.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tamazight Broadcasting in Morocco

An interesting article — you'll no doubt realize that I'm catching up on my reading of The National this evening — on the launch of a Tamazight-language channel in Morocco. The article is of interest, I think, for its content but also for another reason: by my count the word "Berber" only occurs three times: once as an explanation of Tamazight, once in a direct quote, and once in an organizational name. Otherwise, the article always uses Tamazight for the language and Amazigh for the people.

Good. For more on Tamazight see this post and be sure to read the comments, since my Maghrebi commenters know far more than I do on Tamazight subjects. The comments are more informative than the post (not for the first or last time, either).

Abu Dhabi: Closing Shisha Cafes?

From Abu Dhabi's The National: a new tobacco law affecting restaurants may force shisha (water pipe) cafes in many neighborhoods to close.

While banning tobacco in restaurants is doubtless a good idea, the shisha cafe is such a social center — particularly for Abu Dhabi's large expatriate Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese etc. workers — that this seems rather draconian. Even in the US, restaurant smoking bans seem to exempt the little Shisha places patronized by young Arabs (though perhaps they just don't enforce the law here, I'm not honestly sure).

(Even here in Northern Virginia, there are a number of them. One strip mall I know of has one that's clearly patronized by Egyptians, another by Maghrebis.)

Coptic Web Poll on Nag Hammadi

The venerable Coptic weekly Al-Watani in Egypt has had a poll on their website (in Arabic) asking "Who do you think is responsible for Nag Hammadi? The answers as of tonight (from a presumably almost entirely Christian readership): Security, 31%; the Governor, 4%; a "Culture of Hatred," 61%, and "an individual act," 3%.

Nag Hammadi Update

The sectarian tensions in Upper Egypt have been building through the weekend. There were some Christian attacks on Muslim shops in the village of Bahgura, and Christian protests continue. There are signs the government may be ready to try to calm things down by charging the killers with terrorism and sowing sectarian division rather than just murder. (And they did kill a cop as well as six Copts.) If you read Arabic, check out Al-Masry al-Youm's latest story and the earlier links below it. They're giving good coverage.

This is the worst sectarian violence in Upper Egypt since Kosheh back in 2000; in my then-newsletter The Estimate at the time I wrote this analysis on "Egypt's Copts After Kosheh": Part One. And Part Two. It remains, I suspect, my best analysis to date on Coptic-Muslim tensions in Upper Egypt, despite being a decade old.

Kuwait/Jordan Feud Over "Saddam Street"

UPDATED: As noted by a commenter, the decision has been rescinded.

I'm going to be a bit busy today but let's start the week off with a manufactured crisis: Kuwaiti Parliamentarians are up in arms because the Jordanian city of Karak has decided to name a street after Saddam Hussein.

Well, I guess Karak can forget about any direct Kuwaiti development grants anytime soon, but I'm not sure some kind of boycott of Jordan is appropriate because some provincial city council votes to name a street for a dead foreign leader. On the other hand, I get the Kuwaiti sensitivities too. But Kuwait's free and Saddam's dead, and every week or so I drive on Jefferson Davis Highway in Northern Virginia, and on [Robert E.] Lee Highway even more often. Both men fought against the US government, and only one had the redeeming element of being Virginian. Let bygones be bygones. Then again, 1991 may not be all that bygone a time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Breaking: Hummus War Escalates

I really don't usually post on weekends but there are stories that demand it. You may recall the great Lebanese triumph in 2009 when they won the Guinness record for the largest dish of hummus in an attempt to persuade the world that it is an Arab, not an Israeli, dish. (Video here.)

Well, the Israelis have struck back. Some nine thousand pounds of hummus on a satellite dish. Good news for the Arab world: they did it in Abu Ghosh, an Israeli Arab town west of Jerusalem, so it's still Arab Hummus. Here it is:

I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but could we settle all Middle East disputes this way?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Aftermath in Upper Egypt

UPDATED: Pakinam Amer's Twitter feed, already cited below, has been full of rumors of Coptic retaliation against Muslims; she's wisely advising posters to be cautious since explosive rumors spread so readily in these situations. That feed is worth watching. (Also: #nagahamadi.) Vendetta has a long history in Upper Egypt, as I've noted. Also updated: while their current online postings don't add anything not found elsewhere, the weekly Coptic newspaper Al-Watani, which has been around since the Nasser era, should have a new issue Sunday. Their website is here; some pages are translated into Engish or French, though not always right away.

I usually don't post over weekends, and probably won't much this one, but if you want to follow the Nag Hammadi story further, as The Arabist also notes, Al-Masry al-Youm's English language site's reporter, Pakinam Amer, has been posting a series of good reports on Nag Hammadi's aftermath, such as this one, and Amer is also tweeting: the feed is here. Right now her coverage seems to be better than some of the Arabic coverage. The government has now arrested three suspects in the killings. And Al-Ahram has discovered the story since it is, of course, due to the brilliance of the State Security Forces that they were identified.

Don't Leave Me Hanging . . .

I've linked a couple of times to the linguistics blog Jabal al-Lughat, by the Algerian linquist st SOAS Lameen Souag, who's a specialist on Berber and some other Saharan languages. His December 31 and January 2 posts are about Siwi, the Berber language still spoken in Egypt's western Siwa Oasis. That's obscure enough, but he tantalizingly opens his December 31 post with the line: "Just back from a nice evening with the Siwi community of Qatar. A Kabyle friend came along . . ." The post is about the unintelligbility between Egyptian Siwi Berber and Algerian Kabyle Berber, but whoa, did he just say "the Siwi community of Qatar"? Berber speakers from the Siwa oasis are a large enough number in Qatar to constitute a community? Wikipedia and Google fail me, and so does the language reference Ethnologue: at least in English, Siwi and Qatar together only bring up Lameen's posts. I haven't searched in Arabic (and can't search in Siwi), but I've posted a comment asking for info. [He's answered at the comments thread on his post: "Oh, 20-odd people."] I know Qatar may be the most diverse and multinational country in the Arab world, but I didn't know there was a "Siwi community" there. See what you can learn from bloggers?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Still More on Nag Hammadi

I certainly don't want to inflame sectarian divisions, but as more comes out about Nag Hammadi (strictly speaking I should be writing it Nag‘ Hammadi) I'm passing it on; the Gaza confrontations are being covered everywhere; this isn't.

According to this English report in Al-Masry al-Youm, Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi has said he had previously received a message on his cell phone saying "it is your turn." The same article says this is the second-bloodiest sectarian bloodshed, after the 2000 massacre in Kosheh, in Sohag Governorate.

Nag Hammadi is in Qena Governorate, as is the town of Farshout where violence led to the burning of many Coptic shops a few weeks ago after allegations of the rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt.

Meanwhile I should note that Gamal Mubarak attended Christmas eve services at the Coptic Cathedral of Saint Mark last night. Mubarak used to go himself (a practice I believe Nasser started), but lately Gamal has been the designated figure, which may be why Pope Shenouda keeps virtually endorsing his succession.

Wa'el ‘Abbas Talks to Al-Jazeera About Nag Hammadi

Egyptian blogger Wa'el ‘Abbas was interviewed by Al-Jazeera English today about a video that was E-mailed to him of the aftermath of the Christmas Eve shootings in Nag Hammadi last night:

If you want to see the full video with the Arabic background, here's Wa'el's upload to YouTube:

And elsewhere on YouTube, today's funeral:

Obviously a lot of outrage in play.

Impressive that information can get out so quickly. As I write this Al-Ahram's website headlines the story of the Egyptian border policeman killed at Rafah, followed by a report that the Copts are celebrating Christmas today. The independent media were posting stories last night; Al-Ahram will doubtless get around to it eventually, and I gather there may have been more in the print paper, though not headlined. [UPDATE: here on the website: Security says it wasn't sectarian. Nah, shooting Christians coming out of Christmas eve services and apparently hitting some of the bishop's deacon/escorts isn't sectarian. Thank you for clearing that up.] For those who read Arabic, Al-Yom al-Sabi‘ reviews how the various media are treating the story, including its own comments on Al-Ahram's relative silence.

Coptic Protestors Clash With Security Forces

More trouble today in Nag Hammadi: as many as 2000 Coptic protestors clashed with security forces today as they protested last night's drive-by killings. Bear in mind that today is Coptic Christmas. Also see here.

There's some suggestion that this is an outgrowth of the earlier troubles in Farshout, when Muslim rioters burned Coptic businesses after an alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian.

There is a longstanding problem of clashes between Copts and Muslims (sometimes but not always Islamists) in Upper Egypt, where a problem of ongoing vendettas between families is also established. Sometimes wild rumors lead to clashes; sometimes real events.

A Happy Eastern Christmas

For those in the Orthodox churches, the Copts, and others who celebrate under the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian, let me wish Christmas greetings today. (Armenians in the Holy Land will celebrate January 18, but that's another story.)

On the other hand, the violence in Upper Egypt last night is a reminder that things are not always well for Eastern Christians, and this BBC story about Orthodox Palestinian Christians boycotting Christmas in Bethlehem because the Orthodox Church has leased land to Israelis, is another reminder.

This is a longstanding dispute within Palestinian Orthodoxy; Patriarch Theophilos, mentioned in the story, took over in 2005 when his predecessor, Irenaios, was deposed by the Synod. The leasing of land to Israel and Israeli groups is a the heart of it, but another element worth noting is that while the vast majority of the Orthodox clergy in Palestine and Israel (and elsewhere in the Mideast) are Arab, the Patriarch is always a Greek.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Christmas Eve Violence in Egypt

A rough day in Egypt. First there was violence at the Gaza border, in which at least one border guard died. Now, there's been a drive-by shooting in the Nile city of Nag Hammadi, outside a church where Copts were celebrating Christmas eve (under the Julian calendar). Five Coptic civilians and a policeman were killed. There's been an upsurge in violence against Copts in Upper Egypt lately, most notably in Farshout, also in the same general area. UPDATE: This Arabic report from Al-Yom al-Sabi‘ quotes a security source as suggesting this was linked to the Farshout troubles.

If more is known I'll post more on this tomorrow.

New Work on the Haram/Temple Mount

In Ha'aretz from a couple of days ago, a review of a new work edited by Oleg Grabar and Benjamin Z. Kedar, Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem's Sacred Esplanade. Grabar is one of the senior living figures in Islamic art history, now at the Institute for Advanced Study and emeritus, whle Kedar is an Israeli historian. But their edited work includes contributions by Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Israelis, Palestinians, and others, on the great platform in Jerusalem Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and Jews call Har ha-Bayit (the Temple Mount). Probably the most disputed, and arguably the most historic, plot of land on earth.

The review is lengthy and worth reading, though the $75 price is a bit rich for my blood, and nobody will ever ask me to review a book on art history, since it's not my field. Thought I'd mention the review and the book, though.

Key Blog on Yemen: Waq al-Waq

An important blog on Yemen is Waq al-Waq. Well-informed and expert. Read it. One or two posts lean to the let-the-Saudis-do-it idea, which I've suggested is unwise, but otherwise, there's a lot to learn here. I'm also blogrolling it.

The Kings Named ‘Abdullah Club Gets Together

I can't resist this photo from the Jordan Times website, which I think is all the currently reigning King ‘Abdullahs (‘Abdullah II of Jordan and ‘Abdullah of Saudi Arabia) seeming to be communing well despite that little Saudi-Hashemite feud back in the day (Hashemite ‘Abdullah's great-great-grandfather was driven from Mecca by Saudi ‘Abdullah's father in 1924, which also tells you something about generational issues). No other comment here, really.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

More Reasons for Caution in Yemen

I have already linked to Marc Lynch's excellent cautionary post, Don't Lose Perspective in Yemen, and endorse what he says, insofar as anyone has asked my opinion. As he notes, despite some heated rhetoric (Joe Lieberman warning Yemen may be "the next war"), most people realize that with two wars on its hands already the US is hardly able to consider a Yemeni front, even if that would not simply play further into the Al-Qa‘ida narrative that the US is a Crusader power fighting a war against Islam. But I thought there might be some utility in making a few points about the problems associated with various possible scenarios in Yemen. First, as Lynch notes, while our main concern is with Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen is devoting its military resources primarily against the Houthi uprising, which is an entirely different issue, despite some sloppy reporting that has muddied the issue from time to time. The third major challenge to the regime is secessionist sentiment in the south, the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. These fracture lines can be confusing enough but become more so when you include the role of the big neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Which is why the idea of letting the Saudis handle the problem is equally troublesome. Consider some of the ways the various players interact:
  • One division in Yemen is between the Zaydi population in the northern mountains and the Sunni population of the south and the coastline. But to portray the Houthi rebellion as a Zaydi-Sunni split (or a Shi‘ite-Sunni split) is misleading, since President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is himself a Zaydi, and so is a lot of the Army leadership and other elites. In the Houthi case, Saudi Arabia, with a lot of historical friction with Yemen, is actually the military ally of the Yemeni government, mostly to secure their own border.
  • The northern/southern split, between the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, North Yemen) and the former PDRY (South Yemen), two countries with distinct pre-independence histories, remains a complex one. Aden, the major historic seaport, has never fully been integrated with the tribal mountains of the north. The Saudi role is particularly confusing here: the Saudis were, unsurprisingly, happy to see the disappearance of the Marxist PDRY, but not happy to see a unified Yemen on their border; during the 1994 Yemeni civil war, hen the south tried to secede, the Saudis almost openly supported the rebels.
  • As for AQAP, there are Sunni radical Islamists in several parts of the country, and Usama bin Ladin's father came from South Yemen. The fact that the central government has generally had trouble exercising its writ in remote areas means that training camps have sprouted up, often in areas outside government control. Like Afghanistan, Yemen is a mountainous country with many internal divisions.
  • As Lynch notes, the Salih government has been less and less tolerant of dissent in recent years, and Salih, who took over then-North Yemen in 1978 and is thus senior to every Arab fruler except Qadhafi and Sultan Qaboos &mdash he even has three years on Mubarak — is toying with having his son succeed him. As Lynch notes, if you liked Hamid Karzai . . . The economy is in shambles, adding to the separatist sentiments.
  • The "let the Saudis handle it" approach means encouraging the intervention of Yemen's traditional enemy. It was only in the 1930s that Saudi Arabia annexed Jizan and Najran from Yemen, and neither Saudis nor Yemenis have forgotten it. This would do more to unite Yemenis against the Saudis, but that is not the goal we'd be trying to accomplish.
I suspect it's also important to note that a similar PETN explosive from Yemen like that used in the Christmas attempt was used in the attempted assassination of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef last summer, with the bomber blowing himself up but only injuring the prince's finger. So far these bombs have taken a heavier toll of the bombers than of any potential victims, and AQAP has yet to prove itself a very successful terrorist group outside the peninsula. The same Muhammad bin Nayef has been responsible for a major Saudi crackdown on AQAP in the Kingdom, hence their attempt on him.

Free Barghouti Now?

Bradley Burston's column in Ha'aretz: if Bibi Netanyahu wants to hold power forever, Free Barghouti Now. He won't do it, of course — Bibi doesn't take Ha'aretz' advice — but as previously noted here, a freed Marwan Barghouti is probably the only candidate for the Palestinian Presidency who might win both the West Bank and, if Hamas agrees to participate, Gaza. Hamas might have no choice if the popular groundswell were great enough.

But if Bibi wanted to break the logjam (I personally do not think he does, but some disagree), freeing Barghouti would be a game-changer.

New English-Language Mauritania Blog

Via The Moor Next Door, a new Mauritanian English-language blog, a new blog by a Mauritanian whose pic and bio are here, and while he doesn't identify himself obviously his links and bio show he's Nasser Weddady, Civil Rights Outreach Director for the American Muslim Council.I'm not revealing anything here that two minutes of Googling won't give the Mauritanian regime. The blog is called Dekhnstan, which The Moor Next Door called a "clever title." Sorry to say it's too clever for my own knowledge. It clearly is used, from some Googlng, for Mauritanians, but I can't give you a better definition right now. It's new to me. Commenters (including TMND) if you see this: please explain. [UPDATE: The Moor Next Door has commented. See the comments thread. And now Nasser's explained it all. So read the comments.] As I expected, it's the word Mauritanians use for Mauritanians (why would they use the name of a Latin province, after all?) and, apparently, Sahrawis (from Western Sahara) also use. He doesn't know the etymology. Anybody else out there? Arabic Wikipedia gives me some type of millet.]

Oh, and he (the Dekhnstan blogger) doesn't much like General Ould Abd al-Aziz.