A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, April 30, 2010

Amanpour's Egypt Show

I missed it on CNN, but Egyptian bloggers have been commenting on Christiane Amanpour's show on Egypt in which she interviewed Mohamed ElBaradei, ruling party figure Ahmad Ezz (a close ally of Gamal Mubarak), and Saad Eddin Ibrahim. It's on YouTube in several parts, the first of which is here (or, as a commenter notes, the whole thing is in one place here):

If nothing major intrudes, I'm off for the weekend.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? A Liberal in the Saudi Hay'a?

Who guards the guardians? Saudi Arabia has been abuzz lately over remarks by the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice for the Mecca region is under fire for suggesting that it's time to end gender segregation in the Kingdom. And now he's denying that he's been fired, though he notes he's out of the country and that indeed, his house has been attacked back home.

That's right. The fellow in charge of the religious police (the folks who patrol the streets to avoid gender mixing and other sinful behavior) in Islam's holiest city, has made liberalizing comments. The Commission — Saudis just call it that, the hay'a in Arabic — is usually seen as a particularly oppressive aspect of Saudi society, but Sheikh Ahmad al-Qasim al-Ghamdi has stirred up a hornet's nest by suggesting that the concept of absolute gender separation is not based on very sound hadith, that is, it isn't an absolute Islamic requirement.

While it's not quite up there with, oh, I don't know — the Pope announcing he's dating a Holywood starlet? The Dalai Lama joining the Communist Party of China? — it's the sort of thing that gets attention in Saudi Arabia.

This story's been slowly simmering and I haven't dealt with it yet. A Non-Saudi account here, Saudi ones here and here, all in English. Various accounts have said he was fired, not fired, or fired and reinstated. He's returning to the Kingdom today, so we may learn more.

One does wonder if he had some sort of green light from above to float a trial balloon. Or was he just interested in exploring another line of work?

Odds and Ends

A few, perhaps a little offbeat, interesting reads:
  • Nabil Fahmy — ex-Egyptian Ambassador to the US, now a Dean at AUC, son of Foreign Minister Isma‘il Fahmy — one of Egypt's top diplomats and a man who knows the West very well — weighs in at Foreign Policy on his own take on Aaron David Miller's recent, glum piece which I mentioned here. It's thoughtful and well informed. And I'm delighted that Ambassador Fahmy, instead of waiting in the wings to maybe become Foreign Minister some day, decided to take a job in academia. He can express his own ideas now. FP has been spinning off the Aaron Miller piece (which they published, after all, so let them capitalize on it) with a "So Why Have We Failed?" series of posts on their Middle East Channel. A collection of short takes here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"From Pro-Israel to Anti-Israel Apologist": . . . Martin Indyk?!?

You just can't make this stuff up. From The Jerusalem Post, this piece by Isi Leibler, entitled "From Pro-Israel to Anti-Israel Apologist." He's talking about . . . Martin Indyk.

Yes, that Martin Indyk. Formerly of AIPAC, formerly of WINEP, former Ambassador to Israel, former Assistant Secretary of State, Vice President of the Brookings Institution, etc. etc.

It's because of Indyk's New York Times op-ed, "When Your Best Friend Gets Angry."

So now when Israel's friends in the American Jewish community criticize policies of this particular Israeli government, that makes them anti-Israel apologists?

Perhaps the author should read the message again.

The Iraqi Electoral Mess

I haven't written much about the Iraqi electoral stalemate lately, figuring that specialized bloggers like Reidar Visser and Juan Cole are providing the details so I don't have to. ‘Iyad ‘Allawi's latest proposal — an interim government and new elections — might make sense in a mature democracy facing such a stalemated result, but it is sternly opposed by (sitting) Prime Minister Maliki.

Although the US military keeps saying the drawdown of US forces is on track, it's hard to see the US simply leaving if there's no semblance of a government in place.I hope that various upcoming judicial and other rulings will clarify things, but if they don't, I am starting to worry that we may have an emerging problem here. I'm not so alarmist as to start talking about incipient civil war, as some pessimists do at the drop of a hat, but I do think Iraq needs to find a way out of the present stalemate sooner rather than later.

So far, the US seems to be keeping hands off the process, which is probably good. (‘Allawi already has the problem of being seen as America's man; he doesn't need us to reinforce it). But this can't go on forever.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Censorship and Stupidity: Egyptian Lawyers Want to Ban 1001 Nights

This is a rant about trying to censor classical literature. If you have no time for a rant you may skip it, but I intend to have my say.

There's an anecdote about Dr. Samuel Johnson and his dictionary (perhaps from Boswell?) that I can't Google precisely but that goes something like this: a well-bred lady complained to Dr. Johnson that she was shocked (shocked!) to discover the number of vulgar words that appeared in his dictionary. Dr. Johnson, to whom critics, women, and critical women ranked only a notch above the Scots and two notches above Americans in his hierarchy of contempt, said something to the effect of, "You must have spent a great deal of time looking for them." This story suggests the anecdote, even if I don't have it exactly right.

Hisba, roughly "supervision" or "oversight", is a traditional Muslim principle that relates to enforcement of shari‘a and other elements of Islamic practice. In the classical period, there was public official called the muhtasib, the enforcer of hisba, whose role, while it may have had some elements of the Saudi religious police of today, also included things like making sure that weights and measures in the marketplaces were legitimate.

Today, the concept of hisba is being employed by some Islamists to bring legal cases against things and practices which they consider violate Islamic requirements. They've generally had mixed success.

But, as Bikya Masr notes, the latest incident of such an approach in Egypt is particularly attention-getting: a group of lawyers wants to ban the publication in Egypt of the 1001 Nights.

Now, Alf Layla wa Layla is probably the Arabic work best known, for the longest time, in the West, and still revered in some circles in the East (coffeehouse storytellers, folklorists), though it was never considered high literature. Although it sets many of its stories in the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid (and some, like Aladdin, in China or other far places), it has long been recognized that this is Mamluk Egypt in its overall environment: this is the Cairo of Baybars, not the Baghdad of Abu Nuwas. Though the stories originate in India, Iran, and some of the Sindbad stories are direct steals from the Odyssey, in many ways it is a particularly Egyptian work, and the old Bulaq edition remains a standard.

Now, could 1001 Nights be published in Egypt today? Probably not. It contains vulgar language, some (rather sophomoric) sex scenes, a fair amount of immoral activity of one kind or another, because it is a portrait (perhaps an irreplaceable portrait) of life as it was lived by those the storytellers in the coffeehouses actually knew. Of course there's plenty of mythology, but if you take out all the jinn and the Sinbad stories, you can get a pretty good sense of daily life in some era, probably Mamluk Cairo. (Though al-Mas‘udi, d. 956 AD, well before the Mamluk era mentions the collection by name. Of course the stories evolved over time.)

It's an enormous collection, and Sir Richard Francis Burton's 17 volume collection, while almost unreadable compared to the Lane translation, not only includes all the dirty parts but brings in some that weren't in the original. His notes may help those who come to the work for the first time and are only looking for the "good parts." (Hint: start with The Porter and the Three Women of Baghdad. It might have shocked my grandmother, but since she grew up on a farm perhaps not.)

I would also note that, in a particular Orwellian note, the lawyers' group are called the "Association of Lawyers without Restrictions." I'd hate to meet the Association of Lawyers with Restrictions, but I don't have an Arabic version so I'm not sure what's being translated as "restrictions."

Part of this, of course, is typical of censorship in any language or any culture. Our word "bowdlerize" comes from Thomas Bowdler, who wrote a cleaned-up version of Shakespeare lest the bard lead the young astray. (The "French lesson" in Henry V is, I confess, pretty bawdy, but only funny if you know French, and like most double entendres, only funny if you already know enough to get the joke, and Hamlet's "country matters" pun is just juvenile, but still easily missed. Bowdler wasted his time since the young only read Shakespeare if they're forced to.) Others went on to bowdlerize the Bible, lest the young be led astray by God's suggestive language.

And, of course, there's the fact that language changes, and yesterday's taboos become today's shibboleths, and vice versa. A generation or so ago in America, strong old Anglo-Saxonisms relating to sex and excrement were absolutely taboo except in works by Joyce or D.H. Lawrence, but ethnic slurs were common; today you'll get in far more trouble for what we euphemize as the "n-word" than for the "f-word." (I euphemize not from cowardice but to avoid computer filters.) (And do you realize how many people of my parents' generation read all the way through Ulysses only to discover the bad word's at the very end?: clever of Joyce I think: he made them read a great story.) But our ancestors were not so squeamish. People would read Chaucer more I suspect if the dirty words were easier to recognize in their Middle English incarnation. Thus, words you could not print in the 19th or early 20th century turn up in Robert Burns, when they were probably common in everyday Lallans Scots.

So also I suspect is the case in 1001 Nights. Most of the "dirty" words are in the classical lexicons and, sometimes, even in the shari‘a codifications. I don't think there's a single one I haven't heard in spoken Arabic, even from elite figures.

I mentioned Burton's translation of the Nights. Burton had to make up his own dirty words. It was the Victorian era, but he was determined to relate the tales in all their explicitness. It makes it seem even more artificial.

I cannot imagine Egyptian courts will ban a work of Arabic literature that dates from the late Middle Ages. If so, it's time to get a full Arabic version online.

Oops! World's Best Intelligence Service Posts Secrets on the Internet. Again.

For the second time, the Knesset website has posted classified intelligence information; in this case information that permitted the identification of Mossad and Shin Bet agents whose identity is classified by law.

The idea that Israel has the world's most professional intelligence services persists, but this is hardly the first chink in their armor.

Of course, no one's immune. We've posted detailed plans of nuclear reactors online, and, as Israel has, closed the barn door only after there's been plenty of time for the horses to escape.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New MEI Viewpoints on Iraq's Petroleum Industry

MEI has another new Viewpoints out, entitled Iraq's Petroleum Industry: Unsettled Issues. That link takes you to the descriptive page. The full text (.pdf) is here.

The Debate About Arabic, Continued

Everybody's talking about Arabic again. And they're doing it mostly in English.

Not long ago I posted about a recent article in The National lamenting the state of Modern Standard Arabic. Now The Economist has noted the same article (which, I need hardly emphasize, was published in English in an English-medium paper), and, like me, found it a bit overstated.

That article was about the (alleged) decline of Modern Standard Arabic. Another debate is summed up in the headline at Arabic Literature (in English): "P.S.: Is Colloquial Arabic Destroying the (Literary) World? Or is it the Internet?" It in turn spins off earlier discussions and debates here at Qantara and this debate between two Arab novelists.

I've touched on the diglossia issue several times on the blog, but as you can see, there's still a lot of discussion. And despite the irony that these links are in English, Arabic is still around. But the fact that literate Arabs care about the language's future is also self-evident from these debates.

You Might Want to Change the Phrasing . . .

The Arabist posts this with the headline "no comment":

I'm reminded of Marc Lynch's discovery last year that if you went to the Middle East Partnership Initiative's (MEPI's) page called "Supporting Democracy," and clicked on the "Read about examples of success stories" button, you got a "An error (404 not found) has occurred."

Nabi Shu‘ayb: Greetings for a Druze Feast

I almost missed a holy observation which I missed entirely last year; from the 25th to the 28th of April the Druze make their ziyara or pilgrimage to the tomb of Nabi Shu‘ayb (Nebi Shueib), at Hittin near Tiberias in northern Israel. (Oh, and Hittin is also the namesake of the Horns of Hattin of Crusader fame, but then, in Galilee, history keeps tripping over itself.) Nabi Shu‘ayb is also a Prophet of Islam but plays a smaller role there as the Prophet sent to the Midianites; he is often equated with the Biblical Jethro (Moses' father-in-law, if you haven't watched The Ten Commandments lately). (And there's a rival tomb in Jordan more popular with Muslims than the Druze site in Galilee.)

Today the Druze are divided among Israel, Lebanon, and southern Syria and adjoining parts of Jordan, and generally only those in Israel and the West Bank (and officially some from Jordan) can get to the Prophet's tomb at his feast. But I almost missed one of the few Druze holidays that is not also a major Muslim feast, so I should belatedly include it here. I'll be honest: I don't know precisely why Nabi Shu‘ayb is so big among the Druze, whose religion is largely secret. He's seen as one of the emanations of God, since the Druze have a bit of Neoplatonism, a bit of Gnosticism, and a whole lot of Isma‘ili batini theology in their (apparent) beliefs. If those terms mean nothing to you, let's leave that for another day, now that I've marked the holiday. Shu‘ayb, apparently, is one of the emanations of the Divine Mind, along with others culminating in the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, whom most Muslims consider a lunatic but the Druze consider an emanation of the Godhead. As I say, we'll address Druze beliefs another time. But Shu‘ayb is very big.

We'll talk about the Druze another time.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fred Halliday, 1946-2010

Fred Halliday, one of Britain's most prominent authorities on the Gulf and the Mideast generally, has died of cancer at age 64. The Guardian's obituary says much of what needs to be said. I didn't really know him except through his books and one or two occasions when we did joint interviews on the phone during the first Gulf War, he in the UK, I in the US, and the interviewer wherever. I don't think I ever met him in person, though I may be forgetting something.

Halliday's early works on the Gulf, such as Arabia without Sultans and Iran: Dictatorship and Development, were critiques from the left of traditional Arab monarchies and of the West's role in the region. Reading them today out of context, you might picture Halliday as a sort of looking-glass version of J.B. Kelly, a well-informed polemicist only from the anti-imperial rather than the imperial school. (He and Kelly were both transplants: Kelly from New Zealand, Halliday from Ireland.) But Halliday was never a simple ideologue. He supported the first Gulf War against Iraq; he backed US intervention in Afghanistan. His critiques were always informed by profound knowledge of the region and its languages. Even when one disagreed with him, it was clear he was making a solid contribution to the field. RIP Fred Halliday.

The Spring 2010 Issue of The Middle East Journal

The Spring 2010 issue of The Middle East Journal (Volume 64, No. 2) is now available online. If you are a subscriber and have not used the electronic version before, this link explains how to activate the electronic subscription for individuals or institutions. (Non-subscribers may purchase individual articles for download.)

The main page for the issue is located here. The abstracts of the main research articles can be read on their own pages:
And, as always, the Chronology and the Book Reviews.

Weekend Roundup

A few bits and pieces from over the weekend to get the week started (later today: links to the spring issue of MEJ).
  • Three anniversaries yesterday. Egypt celebrated Sinai Liberation Day, the anniversary of Israel's 1982 withdrawal from Sinai under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; Australia and New Zealand celebrated ANZAC Day, which today marks their dead of all wars, but still is held on the date of the landings at Gallipoli in 1915, so it has a Middle Eastern link; and yesterday also marked (though was largely unmarked) the 30th anniversary of the debacle at Desert One during the Iranian hostage crisis, which occurred over the night of the 24th-25th, and was revealed on the 25th.
  • Never mind: That Scuds to Hizbullah crisis? Not so much.
  • Mubarak Speaks: Husni Mubarak made his first public address since his surgery, venturing out of Sharm al-Sheikh as far as Ismailia, where he addressed the Second Field Army's commemoration of Sinai Liberation Day (see above). He promised free elections, among other things. Interesting his first venue was military, though.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Jordan's ‘Abdullah Meets Mubarak

Joining the parade of Arab leaders meeting Husni Mubarak in Sharm al-Sheikh, Jordan's King ‘Abdullah II visited today.

They discussed "regional development and the future of peace talks." I rather suspect that Grad rocket that hit lsquo;Aqaba might have come up, too, especially if it originated in Sinai, which Egypt denies.

Barring major breaking news, I'll be off for the weekend.

Missile from Nowhere Hits Jordanian Warehouse: Belated Comments

I held off this story yesterday because it wasn't at all clear what actually happened. It's still as muddy, but I guess I shouldn't ignore it forever. Yesterday something — first reports said a mysterious explosion, later ones said a Russian-designed Grad missile — hit a warehouse in the Jordanian port of ‘Aqaba. Israeli reports suggested it was aimed at Israel's port/resort of Eilat, which adjoins ‘Aqaba on the West. Jordan and Egypt promptly denied that it had been fired from their territory. (Some early Israeli reports claimed it was fired from Sinai.)

It's still pretty hard to determine the facts here. Some reports keep repeating that the Jordanians first identified it as a Katyusha but then as a Grad. But the Grad is essentially a Katyusha, a multiple-launched, pretty unguided artillery rocket. They are notoriously inaccurate, so aiming at Eilat but hitting ‘Aqaba is nost in the slightest unlikely. But where was it fired from?

If it's really a Grad, it couldn't reach either Eilat or ‘Aqaba from Gaza or any part of the West Bank, so Sinai and Jordan (or somewhere in the Israeli Negev or northwestern Saudi Arabia, both seemingly unlikely due to heavy security in both countries) are the options. Both Egypt and Jordan denied all before much information was even available. I suspect Israel, given the rocket barrages it has faced from Gaza an southern Lebanon in various conflicts, has a pretty good reverse-tracking artillery system, and knows where it came from.

I do note that a few days ago Israel urged Israeli tourists to leave Sinai because of a claimed plot to kidnap Israelis there. Could they have detected a threat from Sinai but misread its nature? Don't know, but this Jerusalem Post piece notes the same coincidence.

No one was hurt, but barring something really weird, somebody managed to penetrate either Egyptian or Jordanian territory.

Unimpeachable Source Says Husni Mubarak in Good Health

Stop your rumor-mongering. An unimpeachable source — pretty literally so — has said that Husni Mubarak is in excellent health and will soon begin a tour of the country.

Of course, the source is Gamal, so take this as you will.

Women's Dress, Earthquakes, the Internet, etc.: Protest Busting Out

If you're easily offended, don't click the links. I'm just reporting the news. In the wake of this story, on the Iranian cleric who blamed earthquakes on provocatively dressed women, the Internet has of course done what it does so well, and reacted with this story, with the idea originating here, and has spread to Facebook and, inevitably, Twitter. The goal is to get as many women as possible to show as much cleavage as possible on the Internet [apparently in public, not online] on Monday. It has acquired the name "boobquake." (If you're in the fatwa issuing business, it's neither my term nor my idea.)

I rather suspect this is not what the Hojatolislam expected. Under the law of unintended consequences he will probably be chagrined (or feel vindicated), but the protest may be, um, busting out all over.

I'll not dwell on this further; I'm not trying to titillate my readers. Just trying to keep them abreast of the latest news, so to speak.

If there are earthquakes Monday, we'll know why.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Emirati Seeks to Be First Arab Woman at North Pole

And now for something completely different . . .

Via BoingBoing, I learn of Elham al-Qasimi, who is determined to be the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole. She's from Dubai (where else?). She has an online blog of her journey, enough commercial sponsors to make NASCAR proud, and, of course, a Twitter feed.

Good for her.

Disappearing Summit?

Despite reports in several Arab and Israeli papers, no Sharm al-Sheikh summit seems to have happened. Of course, the timing could be off, or it could be kept quiet till it's over. Hmm....

UPDATE: A commenter points me to an article in Syria's al-Watan strongly denying the oriignal reports. (Arabic.)

Sharm Summit on Scuds?

Supposedly there will be an Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi summit today at Sharm al-Sheikh (Egypt's apparent new capital since Mubarak remains ensconced there) over the story of Syria transferring Scuds to Hizbullah. No confirmation I've seen yet, and it's getting late in the day in Egypt, but the story was in a number of papers.

This Scud story has taken on legs though the US has not, officially, said they can confirm it, and not only does Syria deny it, but so does Lebanese PM Sa‘d Hariri (who is hardly pro-Syrian and is pretty much Saudi Arabia's man — or more precisely, he knows Saudi Arabia better than the country of which he is Prime Minister.)

Yesterday, Mubarak met with Mu‘ammar Qadhafi, continuing his speed-dating round of Arab summitry even though he's too ill to meet Nicolas Sarkozy. Both men, of course, have preternaturally black hair for their ages.

I'm still reserving judgment here. If it's true it's extremely provocative, but I'd like to know what the evidence is.

Admiral Mullen Fudges a Question: Would US Shoot Down an Israeli Aircraft Overflying Iraq?

A young Air Force ROTC cadet at West Virginia U. asks the JCS chairman an awkward question: since we've declared Iraqi airspace a no-fly zone except for us and some commercial aviation, and since Israel would probably have to overfly Iraq to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, would the US shoot down Israeli aircraft?

Admiral Mullen of course said what he had to say: we don't address hypothetical questions, we have strong relations with Israel etc. etc.

I hope the AFROTC cadet enjoys doing his active duty at a radar station in northern Greenland or the South Pole, but it was a good question, wasn't it?

My own guess: they'd overfly Turkey or Saudi Arabia since their air defenses aren't as sophisticated as ours in Iraq, assuming they were doing it without informing us first and defying us. But I still doubt they'll actually do it.

High Speed Bumper Cars: Saudi Road Warriors

We all know about traffic and driving in the Middle East. The first time I visited Lebanon, now nearly 40 years ago, we all told ourselves that the taxi drivers on the Beirut to Damascus highway must be really expert drivers to be able to drive so fast on such a winding mountain road. Then we noticed the burned out hulks on the mountain below us. I know that it's easy to be stereotypical about Middle Eastern driving. (And to avoid ethnic stereotyping, let me say that if there are any taxi drivers on earth more reckless than Arabs, it's Israelis. I once was driven from Haifa to Jerusalem in about a third the time that was physically possible.)

But here's an article in a Saudi paper on driving in Saudi Arabia: 16 people die in traffic accidents
every day; 275,000 are injured annually. The article says reckless driving accounts for 60% of the accidents and speeding through stoplights (that's not reckless driving?) accounts for 34%. Road accidents cost 26 billion riyals a year, or four percent of Saudi Arabia's gross domestic product.(Remember: we're talking about Saudi Arabia.)

A modest proposal:

  1. Even King ‘Abdullah is said to believe that it's time to give women the right to drive.
  2. Then take it away from the men.
  3. Or just move everyone to downtown Cairo or Tehran, where the gridlock will keep speeds down.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Aaron Miller on Mideast Peace

Aaron David Miller has a lengthy, rather pessimistic, but thoughtful article at Foreign Policy called "The False Religion of Mideast Peace: And Why I'm no Longer a Believer." Few people have worked within the nuts-and-bolts of the peace process as long as he did, and it's clear that he is pessimistic about the US' ability to achieve much, at least right now. It's a long piece (multiple pages online) but worth a read, though it won't brighten your day.

An International Force in Israel/Palestine? CNAS Goes There . . .

Every now and then it's nice for somebody — preferably other than me — to toss a fox into the henhouse, in order to provoke a lot of discussion and probably a fair amount of apoplexy. The Center for a New American Security, which is sometimes characterized, rightly or wrongly, as the defense think tank of the Obama Administration (at least a lot of its former denizens entered the Administration), has come out with such a provocative study: Security for Peace: Setting the Conditions for a Palestinian State.

The whole report can be found here (PDF). Unless you started studying the Middle East, say, midmorning today, the reasons I call this a fox-in-the-henhouse document will be obvious. Israel's worst nightmare is an "imposed settlement," and an international peacekeeping force sounds like someone other than the IDF is going to be policing the peace. And since it just came out, I've read only the contents and introduction, so don't jump all over me for what I haven't gotten to yet.

Marc Lynch, who wrote one of the chapters, has some background on it. Andrew Exum, who edited it, didn't have anything up as of last night on his Abu Muqawama blog, but I'm sure he will. But the contents are as follows 1) Introduction by Andrew Exum; 2) case study of East Timor by Scott Brady; 3) case study on South Lebanon by Exum and Kyle Flynn; 4) case study on Kosovo by Richard Weiz; 5) military lessons learned by Bob Killebrew; 6) political lessons learned by James Dobbins; and 7) Conclusion by Marc Lynch.

As Lynch's blog notes, they aren't urging creation of such as force, but this will likely cause some Israeli and pro-Israeli elements to go into high-damage mode. Many Israelis will not like seeing their theater compared to East Timor or Kosovo (nor will many Arabs, for that matter).

But, given the fact that current peace process efforts seem pretty stagnant, perhaps it's time for someone to propose some different approaches. CNAS is pretty careful to say it isn't urging an international peacekeeping force; it's just looking at what it might entail if tried.

Random Thoughts on Vulcanism, Terrorism, and Pliny the Elder

We have said we got three major al-Qa‘ida figures in Iraq — the two top leaders of Al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, and another senior honcho — but all our efforts in Iraq, however costly in irreplaceable human lives, have not cost the West financially as much as a bunch of Icelandic magma has.

Radical groups can kill people, but volcanoes, however few fatalities they may cause, can do a hell of a lot more destruction.

Oh, and while I'm erupting a little here, did you know that volcanologists or whatever they're called have a term "Plinian" derived from the fact that Pliny the Elder died in that Pompeii unpleasantness a while back? Neither did I, but since I doubt that many non-Latin-students read The Natural History today, I thought I'd mention it.

Bakiyev in Belarus

Though the last I heard he was still insisting he was the democratically elected President of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has decided to take up asylum in that citadel of democracy, Belarus. That eminent democrat Alexander Lukashenko, so beloved of those folks who still miss Stalin even though he was a little soft at times, says he'll be safe there.

I imagine he will. No color revolutions in Minsk. Color is the enemy of the state. There's probably a Yakov Smirnoff joke here but I can't think of one right now.

Women's Dress and Earthquakes

Okay, I've been avoiding this story because it seemed 1) stereotyping; 2) using a fringe statement to demean an entire community; and 3) picking the low-hanging fruit. But since even BBC is running it, I guess I should note that a "senior Iranian cleric" has noted that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes.

Sediqi is one of the more inflammatory preachers — he's an interim Friday Prayer Leader in Tehran and has the rank of Hojatrolislam, which may count as a "senior cleric" but not necessarily as a mujtahid or someone who can teach in his own right.

Respectful theological question to the Hojatolislam: If Iranian women showing an occasional wrist or ankle are causing massive earthquakes, why hasn't the French Riviera sunk into the sea by now?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Quick Egyptian Roundup

Several quick takes on Egypt, courtesy of Al-Masry al-Youm's English site:
  • Farouk El-Baz, the Egyptian-born ex-NASA scientist who was critical to the US space program (so much so that in at least one Star Trek episode there's a shuttlecraft named the El-Baz: no kidding), and brother of Usama El-Baz, who was Egypt's foreign policy guru for decades and still commands attention (in short: smart family), has spoken to students at Cairo U and said that "over the past 7000 years Egypt has never been as backward as it is now." I suspect this is normal Arab exaggeration: nobody could read or write 7000 years ago, though indeed that marks the beginnings of Egyptian civilization.

UAE Student Filmmakers on National Taboos

Interesting, though I'd like to see the video: "Student Filmmakers Lift Lid on Taboos of National Life."

Unseen, it at least sounds daring for the Gulf.

Israel at 62: Some Sober Voices among the Triumphalist

Israel's 62nd Independence Day (Yom ha-Atzma'aut) was marked yesterday evening. Already there's no shortage of triumphalist rhetoric, but as a fellow 62-year-old, I thought it might be worth noting that not everyone is as defiantly cocky as Bibi Netanyahu. Even as Netanyahu was speaking tough words over Jerusalem, listen to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin:
"Specifically at a time of cultural openness, we are witness today to a dangerous process of intensifying fortification of every group within its four walls," he said. "This fortification brings with it not only cultural or political polarization, but also fatal segregation in everyday life. For example, look what Jerusalem has turned into in the last decade: separate neighborhoods, separate public transport, separate shopping centers for haredi and secular [residents], Arabs and Jews. Ghettos and more ghettos, separated by walls of alienation, not by walls of cement."

Before lighting the first torch, the speaker said that the Jerusalem reality was a far cry from the vision for "the city that was bound together" - a reference to the biblical Psalm 122. He said fear for the "other," whether Arab or Haredi, was "contrary to the very essence of Zionism."
And Rivlin is from Likud. I think he's talking more about haredi/secular divisions than Arab/Jewish, and he did proclaim the eternal unity of Jerusalem, but it still is more cogent than some of the rhetoric used by others in his party.

And Ehud Barak, who for reasons perhaps only he understands is still a member of the Netanyahu government, is saying the occupation must end (and I'm deliberately citing Al Jazeera rather than the Israeli press):
"The world is not willing to accept - and we will not change that in 2010 - the expectation that Israel will rule another people for decades more," he said.

"It is something that does not exist anywhere else in the world.

"There is no other way, whether you like it or not, than to let them [the Palestinians] rule themselves."
Israel's Memorial Day and Independence Day are marked according to the Jewish calendar. Though they began together, it rarely if ever coincides with Nakba Day, the day Palestinians lament the nakba or catastrophe of 1948, which is marked on May 15 of the Western calendar, the Western date that coincided with independence in that year.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mubarak Lives Again

Since a lot of people were drawing the same conclusions I was about the Sarkozy cancellation, the Egyptian media is scrambling the defenses, and Husni Mubarak met with Mahmoud ‘Abbas today. In fact, though I missed it, he met with Yemen's ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih yesterday. Thus, to steal Marc Lynch's line from recent weeks, they continue to show that he is still very, very, very not sick.

He does look a bit thin in the picture, but he's at least not white haired like Abu Mazen, who's seven years his junior.

Now I could be cynical — in fact I will be — and note that meeting Arab heads of state, where everybody's got a common interest in keeping secrets, doesn't give as much away, while meeting with Western heads of state means the West gets a better chance to appreciate the situation. If he met Sarkozy I'm sure the DGSE would do everything they could to evaluate his health, and pass that on to other Western intelligence services.

Bashar al-Asad is supposed to meet with him sometime soon. I'm sure he'll have a number of meetings, but it's still a case of keeping it within the family as it were. Why the Sarkozy cancellation, though? Are these Potemkin summits rather than real? Or are we all just being paranoid because, well, the secrecy seems more heavily laid on this time?

Thoughts on April 19

A generation or two ago, before the United States became as embroiled as it is today in the Middle East, when the US was admired for not having indulged in imperial ventures in the region and for supporting many decolonization movements, it was still possible for many in the region to see the American Revolution as a revolution to be emulated, the first great anti-colonial gesture. There are still a few folks in Tehran and elsewhere who may still think so.

So perhaps it is worth noting that it's April 19, and remembering the daring it took for a few farmers to stand against the world's greatest Empire on Lexington Green and at Concord Bridge 235 years ago today, and how what they stood for can still inspire others today. Or as Emerson put it his dedicatory poem on this date in 1836:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Sarkozy Cancels May Visit Due to Mubarak's Health

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has canceled a planned visit to Egypt due to Husni Mubarak's health problems. But the visit was planned for next month. Mubarak's "Cabinet meeting" last week got only a few stills and the brfiefest of videos (and involved four ministers), and he remains in Sharm al-Sheikh. The Sarkozy cancellation is sure to fuel speculation that he's in worse shape than is being admitted. The fact that we aren't even seeing the usual "recovering rapidly" pictures is continuing to cause jitters. This bears watching if Sarkozy thought (or was told) he wouldn't be able to meet even in several weeks' time.

More Trouble in Kyrgyzstan

After a period of consolidation, new violence has erupted in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev has left the country, but this isn't over yet.

Eyjafjallajökull and the Middle East

The eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced, I assume, as if having a convulsive sneezing attack) has not just disrupted transatlantic traffic. Obviously, Middle Eastern traffic to Western Europe is also disrupted, and that's a key bit of Gulf business, not to mention that Europeans are a key to tourism in many Middle Eastern countries. Some of the damage: some 48 flights from Cairo and the Red Sea Port of Ghardaqa cancelled as of yesterday; many tourists stuck in Egypt; 15 flights a day out of Hariri International in Beirut canceled; a whole list of UAE flights cancelled yesterday (though there's the good news that Dubai will not fine tourists for overstaying their visas); Emirates Airlines has already lost $50 million; while Arab News says that Arab airlines as a whole were losing 50 million euros a day. (That seems a lot given overall losses have been reported as $200 million a day for all air carriers, but I suspect everyone is still guessing.)

They'll be talking about this for years, but they'll be saying "that volcano in Iceland," because I just don't think "
Eyjafjallajökull" is going to become a proverbial phrase, even for those of us who know an ‘ayn from a ghayn.

Correction. All morning I had it spelled
Eyjafjallajokull. It should have been Eyjafjallajökull. Sorry.

And for those who really want to know how it's pronounced, see here and here.

Is Israel's IPad Ban for Security Reasons?

A Knesset member (a right-wing member from Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu no less) is claiming that the Israeli IPad ban is not about European standards but that the IDF is behind it, worried it will interfere with military communications.

The plot thickens.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Scuds to Hizbullah Story

I haven't said anything about the allegations that Syria has provided Hizbullah in Lebanon with Scud missiles because, so far, the allegations from Israeli leaders, echoed by some in the US, haven't been backed up with satellite photography or other evidence.

Before adding some comments of my own, a few other takes on the matter. Andrew Tabler of WINEP, posting at Foreign Policy, has a moderately hawkish take; Josh Landis of Syria Comment, also writing at Foreign Policy's Middle East channel, offers a more cautious, skeptical take. The Arabist understands why Hizbullah might want them, and Qifa Nabki satirizes the whole story. Syria has vehemently denied the story, and Hizbullah says it's none of Israel's business.

The whole thing has cast a shadow over US efforts to open dialogue with Syria, and could delay Robert Ford's Senate confirmation as the first US Ambassador in Damascus since the Hariri assassination. (The Foreign Relations Committee cleared the nomination earlier this week; it goes to the full Senate.)

I have no direct knowledge of what evidence may exist; US sources are quoted as not being sure the missiles have entered Lebanon. There were earlier reports that Syria had transferred Igla-S shoulder-launched SAMs to Hizbullah, but that's clearly a defense weapon against low-flying aircraft, not a long-range surface-to-surface missile.

Even the SCUD-D, supposedly involved here, is not very up-to-date technology, but their transfer to a non-state actor would be provocative at a time when Israel seems to be itching for an excuse to go another round with Hizbullah. I'm therefore skeptical and would like to see some evidence. When you're talking about a game-changing move, as Israel is seeking to portray this, you need pretty convincing evidence. I know SCUD launchers are easy to hide. But if Israel has photos (satellite, RPV, or otherwise) they should release them. Think Adlai Stevenson putting up the U-2 photos at the UN during the Cuban Missile Crisis while the Russians floundered about their denials.

With that, I'm off for the weekend.

Alive and No Gray Hair Yet: Mubarak Reappears (Briefly)

From Al-Ahram today (in an article about raising government salaries), Mubarak's meetings with Field Marshal Tantawi and some members of the Cabinet yesterday in Sharm al-Sheikh.

The first thing to note is that, a couple of weeks short of his 82nd birthday and after a lengthy convalescence from surgery, his hair is still black.

I've been searching for video (I've read that state TV showed about a minute of video but haven't found anything linkable.) Anyway, yes, he lives. And he has blacker hair than any of his ministers. (Though Tantawi, at 74, may be hitting the shoe polish or Grecian Formula a bit, too.)

(And yes, it's possibly sour grapes since I'm snow white at 62, but Mubarak's pushing this beyond the credibility horizon.)

Internet Outages in UAE

There are Internet outages in the UAE apparently due to seawater seepage into the cable, causing a short out. This doesn't seem to be on the scale of the outages back in '08 when there was a lot of lost linkage when no fewer than three cables got cut, allegedly by dragged anchors, but it seemed odd it all happened at once. This seems mostly limited to the UAE, but any disruption in the Internet in intensely active business and trading centers is, of course, a concern.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

No Fishing?

Israel is considering banning fishing in the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) for two years because the lake is overfished.

In addition to fishing having long been a major occupation there, Christian pilgrims have long liked to photograph fishermen on the lake, evoking memories of Saint Peter. So there could even be tourist impact.

More on the Israel IPad Ban

I noted earlier the reports that Israel was banning imports of Apple's IPad. It's still a bit confusing but they are apparently seizing them at customs, even from tourists, because it hasn't been properly certified for working with Israel's Wi-Fi networks. This may be a reflex of Apple's famous pre-release secrecy, but there's still something rather mysterious about it all.

On the other hand, reportedly only 10 IPads have been confiscated, and since the IPad hasn't officially been released in Europe yet and Israel seeks to conform to European standards, maybe that will clear things up.

Mubarak Meets Cabinet

Well, as promised, Husni Mubarak has held his first Cabinet meeting since his surgery, in Sharm al-Sheikh, not Cairo. I can't find pictures just yet, but see they discussed (gasp) wheat subsidies, Nile water sharing, and inflation.

His long convalescence had been starting to raise eyebrows again. And his 82nd birthday will be May 4, which will give everyone the opportunity to break out the succession stories yet again. Right now, Mubarak may be all over the state media, but ElBaradei owns the news cycle and the independent media. I suspect he'll either become more visible or drop some clues to his plans; the longer he does neither, the more uncertain things become. He's already caused flutters in the Egyptian Bourse over rumors of his condition.

IPad Banned in Israel (for Now)

Huh? I'm not sure I get this. Did Apple miss something, or the Israeli bureaucrats?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mubarak to Host Cabinet

Husni Mubarak will host his first Cabinet meeting since his surgery tomorrow. He will hold it in Sharm al-Sheikh, where he has been recovering since his return from Germany late last month. Since the videos of him arriving in Sharm al-Sheikh, there have been few if any pictures of his recuperation, leading to continuing rumors about his health, which have led in turn to speculation he may have to clear the air on the succession issue, perhaps naming a Vice President.

There had been speculation he would return to Cairo this week, but instead, the Cabinet will go to him in Sharm. The fact that he is meeting the Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Tantawi, before the rest of the Cabinet is a reminder of the important role the Army still plays.

Sudan's Elections

I haven't written anything on the Sudanese elections, which took place over the last three days. They are the first multi-party elections in 24 years, though some parties are boycotting, and the South is more interested in the referendum early next year on possible independence. We won't know any results till Sunday, but I thought I'd refer you to some background from people who know the country better than I do:

Bradley Burston: How to Tell When a Mideast Expert is Lying

Interesting column by Israeli-American Ha'aretz columnist Bradley Burston: "How to Tell When a Mideast Expert is Lying." (And no, the answer is not, "his lips are moving.")

Of course it's a bit of a loaded argument since he uses official Israeli and close-to-the-PA Palestinian sites to show that they weight their answers according to their own ideological agenda.

My biggest problem: does anyone consider either the Israeli Foreign Ministry or miftah.org "Mideast experts" as opposed to say, sources of regime propaganda? There are dozens of Israeli and Palestinian figures who could genuinely explain things, but they weren't asked: this isn't really about "Mideast Experts" but about polemicists. Of course, the Western media doesn't always distinguish between those groups.

Cairo Streets Erupt

What didn't happen on April 6 seems to have happened on at least a small scale in Cairo yesterday. A few hundred demonstrators from the opposition Kifaya Movement (joined, some Twitter posts claim, by the general public) clashed openly with police in downtown Cairo. YouTube videos from Sarah Carr at Daily News Egypt and other posters to YouTube give samples:

Videos can distort and exaggerate since from within a small crowd the crowd seems to go on forever, but yesterday's demonstration seems to have been more effective (in terms of visibility, not of producing tangible results) than those April 6.

Saudi Religious Body Denounces Terrorism and Financing

Critics of Saudi Arabia often claim that the Kingdom facilitates the financing of terrorism even as it fights it internally. The Saudi Supreme Council of ‘Ulama' has now issued a blanket condemnation of terrorism, including efforts that aid financing of it. For those who read Arabic, a much fuller account here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Two Pulitzer Prizes Go to Online Media for First Time

This isn't a Middle East story but it is of interest to all of us in publishing and blogging. Two Pulitzer prizes went to online venues this year rather than to the legacy print media. Congratulations to ProPublica and to sfgate.com for their Pulitzers. At MEJ our electronic-only subscriptions are increasing while our dead-tree subscriptions are stable or shrinking slightly; the good news is the increases in electronic subscriptions (which have no incremental marginal costs for production) are growing a lot faster than the print numbers are shrinking.

It's a brave new world, and the Pulitzers just caught on.

Coptic Bishop (and Pope Wannabe) Bishoi Jumps on the Mubarak Bandwagon

Bishop Bishoi, Coptic Metropolitan of Damietta and Secretary of the Church's Holy Synod, has given an interview to Al-Masry al-Youm in which he cites the gospels on why one should support Husni Mubarak, (article is in Arabic). Now, this seems pretty self-serving (blogger Zeinobia is calling him "the Salafi bishop"), but there's more than meets the eye here.

As Secretary of the Holy Synod for the past 25 years, Bishoi is a powerful figure and a strong candidate to succeed the aged and ailing Pope Shenouda III. He's also a polarizing figure. Though he's been active in ecumenical talks with other Christian churches (his website has links here), he's also made remarks to the effect that Catholics and Protestants cannot go to heaven (Arabic reports here and here; the Wikipedia article on Bishoi addresses the issue.) Shenouda has been very active ecumenically, has met with Roman Popes and Greek Patriarchs, and talked intercommunion. Bishoi seems more divisive. (One reason that Al-Masry al-Youm frequently covers Coptic issues is that some of its primary funding and leadership is Christian.)

But Bishoi is not a minor figure, and if anyone in the Coptic church can be said to be "running for Pope," it is he. His episcopal website, in English and Arabic, is here.

This blog has discussed both Pope Shenouda's politics and his fragile health several times. Bishoi, though he has a very different style than Shenouda, seems well-positioned to be a strong contender for the succession. (Traditionally, when a Coptic Pope dies, three candidates are chosen as proposed successors. Their names are put in a container from which a child draws one name, presumably with the guidance of the Holy Spirit; coincidentally however, the name drawn is always someone approved by the Presidency of the Republic.) There is another issue in that ancient canons say the Patriarch should be chosen from the monks, not from the bishops. But Shenouda was a bishop when chosen, as were several other modern Popes. (Shenouda, however, was a "general bishop" without a geographic see, while Bishoi is Bishop of Damietta.) Still, don't count Bishoi out as the next Pope.

And he's clearly making it known to the regime that he's utterly reliable on Mubarak's (presumably father's or son's, since Shenouda has endorsed Gamal) infallibility.

Of course, he's gambling on the race over which octogenarian passes from the scene first: Mubarak (who turns 82 on May 4) or Pope Shenouda (who's 86).

The Walt-Satloff Feud: All I Plan to Say

The Middle East Journal and its mother ship, The Middle East Institute, have always sought to offer a forum for multiple opinions on the region. We don't tend to give folks like Bin Ladin a pulpit, but we do try to promote civilized discourse.

The Arab-Israeli cockpit being what it is, fierce debate does occur. As anyone following the Middle East blogosphere in Washington already knows (though some of my overseas readers may not), there's been a lot of sniping between Steven M. Walt (of Harvard and Foreign Policy) and Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) over WINEP's relationship to AIPAC, in the wake of Laura Rozen's post at Politico on opposition to Dennis Ross within the Obama Administration. Walt and Satloff are both intelligent and articulate spokesmen for their points of view, which rarely overlap. M.J. Rosenberg of Talking Points Memo, who says he was present at the creation of WINEP within AIPAC, has chimed in as well. This is a very, very inside-the-Beltway sort of fight, even if Walt is in Cambridge. I have my own personal opinions, but officially I don't have a dog in this fight. For the record, though, I thought I should note it for anyone who's missed it so far.

I do suspect many of my readers will lean more towards Walt and Rosenberg than toward Satloff, so to balance the account let me note that, though I missed the premiere, PBS has done a television version of Rob Satloff's book Among the Righteous, a groundbreaking book about Arabs in Vichy North Africa protecting Jews from the holocaust. Rob Satloff can be a polemicist but he can also do solid original scholarship. That said, here's the main course of the food fight so far:

Laura Rozen's original Politico post on Dennis Ross that started it all.

Walt's original post on Ross.

Satloff's response to Walt defending Ross and WINEP.

Walt's response to Satloff on WINEP.

M. J. Rosenberg chimes in on having been present at the creation of WINEP.

And Rosenberg chimes in again on WINEP as an "AIPAC cutout."

I doubt if we've seen the last of this. But at least unless I have to, that's all I have to say. Make your own judgments.

A Murky Chain of Custody?

Now that the gag order has been lifted on the Anat Kam security leaks case in Israel, Ha'aretz, the recipient of the leaked materials, is reporting the case extensively. Latest report: Shin Bet can't find the two CDs on which Kam supposedly copied 2000 classified documents. Can you say "chain of custody," Shin Bet? Of course I suspect Israeli security case law does not have the same chain of custody requirements as the US, with the fourth amendment and all that, but this case looks more and more embarrassing as it emerges.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Traditional Storytelling in Abu Dhabi

Traditional Arabic storytelling — the Hakawati tradition — is being celebrated as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. It's good to know that one of the richest and most modern of Arab countries is also preserving its traditional language arts traditions. (Oops. The editor in me just noticed the redundancy.)

Lamenting Ignorance of Modern Standard Arabic

Here's a piece from The National from a few days ago, lamenting how poorly many Arabs speak Modern Standard Arabic. It opens with the oft-cited problems Lebanese Prime Minister Sa‘d Hariri had in addressing Parliament.

We've had occasion to discuss the diglossia issue several times on this blog, and I refer you to those earlier posts for background and details. I suspect that this article (which is, of course, published in English) somewhat overstates the case. Yes, many Arabs do not have a fluent command of Modern Standard Arabic, for the well-known reason that it is no one's native tongue. It is a learned tongue, a classicized form of the colloquial Arabics everyone really speaks. The problem may be worse in Francophone countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon, where the colonial language enjoys great influence, or in the Gulf, where English is the language of business, and large numbers of expatriate workers speak little Arabic.

But it has long been true that most Arabs other than radio and television presenters, journalists and college professors, really had more need to read MSA than to write it. I'm sure Sa‘d Hariri speaks colloquial Arabic fluently (though probably Saudi rather than Lebanese dialect); King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan had the same problem when he ascended the throne after only a short tenure as Crown Prince; born of an English mother and educated abroad, his military career had presumably not required regular communication in literary Arabic.

But it seems extreme to suggest, as the editorialist does, that Modern Standard Arabic will die out if not emphasized more. The fundamental thing that has bound the various dialects of Arabic together, so that they do not separate as the Romance languages did from their Latin roots, is the Qur'an and the fact that the dialects are not themselves normally written (except for occasional plays or political cartoons). While that has impeded the spread of literacy, it has maintained a certain unity for the Arabic language, intimately tied, as it is, to Islam through the Qur'an.

And this is not a new circumstance. A century ago the colonial languages, English or French, would have prevailed; a bit earlier than that, Ottoman Turkish. But Arabic has not died out.

Tough Criticism of Israel's Defense Reporters

This morning's Ha'aretz has a harsh verdict by Yuval Elbashan on the silence of Israel's military and defense correspondents in the Anat Kam/Uri Blau leak/gag order/classified documents investigation.

I agree. I worked with an earlier generation of Israeli defense correspondents when covering Israeli defense issues back in the 1980s. I fear the late Ze'ev Schiff is uneasy in his grave. This thing undercuts Israel's whole claim to be an open society (always a bit exaggerated), but thankfully the gag order is lifted and the debate is on.

Cognitive Dissonance

Next Sunday the US Embassy and (not clear from post who?) are showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in Old Cairo, the old fortress of Babylon/Fustat area. That is an ancient, traditional, even pre-Islamic section of the city.

If any readers attend, I would love a report. Other than that, I will refrain from comment.

Friday, April 9, 2010

ElBaradei, Mansura, and the Friday Prayer

I'm off for the weekend and it's my daughter's birthday, so anything short of peace breaking out won't lure me back, but here's a story to leave you with. It relates to last Friday, not to today, but here's the tale: Mohamed ElBaradei was making a visit to the Delta city of Mansura last week, his first major foray out of Cairo to promote his reformist agenda. Plans were for him to attend Friday prayer at a mosque that can accommodate 3000 worshipers, but surprise, for "security reasons" he was told to attend a mosque that can hold only 500.

As the linked Al-Masry al-Youm English report notes, regular worshipers at the mosque were surprised to see a new preacher in the pulpit. He repeatedly cited the Qur'an Sura IV, 59, " O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you."

He also prayed for the health of Husni Mubarak, that his Presidency would continue, and noted that Mubarak had made Cairo as significant as Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

I'll let Muslims comment on the propriety of that remark, but my own reaction is: subtle. Subtle as an atom bomb. Do they think this helps their case?

Oh, and also: doesn't the government keep saying the Muslim Brotherhood can't run as a political party because it's wrong to mix Islam and politics?

Some Thoughts on Kyrgyzstan after 48 Hours

I don't intend to rush to judgment on the Kyrgyz revolution/revolt/civil war/coup d'etat/whatever after only 48 hours, but I think a few conclusions can be drawn, tentatively and assuming the provisional government holds on to power:
  1. While the US keeps saying it doesn't see this as an anti-American change, Russia does seem to see it as a pro-Russian one. Russia was the first country to recognize the new government, whereas during the Tulip Revolution of 2005, it denounced the ouster of President Akayev as illegitimate. In fact, this is the first of the various color revolutions in the ex-Soviet space (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan 2005) that Russia has applauded rather than denounced.
  2. That may not augur well for the future of Manas. (Kyrgyzstan is unique I think in that it hosts both an American and a Russian air base.) Bakiyev was going to oust Manas last year after a major Russian loan to Kyrgyzstan, but then when the US tripled the rent, he kept both bases. Now there's talk of revisiting the agreements and possibly shortening the lease, though everything is still up in the air.
  3. Rome may not have been built in a day, but Bishkek fell in a day. From the outbreak of violence to the flight of Bakiyev from his capital was a sharp, violent day, though tensions had been building for a while. In fact, the Iranian opposition is already looking at the contrasts between their frustrated protests and Kyrgyzstan's remarkably successful ones.
  4. The lingering tensions between the north (where the provisional government is most popular) and the south (Bakiyev's home base) also emphasize the geopolitical oddity that results from Kyrgyzstan's odd shape. As the map shows, the Ferghana Valley, the rich river valley famous in classical Islamic history, is divided among three countries: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the Uzbek and Tajik portions cut deep into western Kyrgyzstan, separating the north from the south. When tensions lead to border closings (and all three countries have had bouts of instability), communications between northern and southern Kyrgyzstan are disrupted. It's a relic of Soviet divide-and-rule gerrymandering combined with the fact that Uzbeks and Tajiks do live in the Ferghana valley as well as Kyrgyz. But when regional tensions are high, as they are right now, the geography is an exacerbating factor.
  5. Let's not rush to jump to conclusions. Shots were still being heard in Bishkek I understand, and who controls what is still far from clear. Folks who don't know the country — and I definitely include myself — shouldn't be too quick to assume they understand the narrative. After the weekend it may make more sense.
Oh, and discussing the Ferghana Valley reminded me that my post of Wednesday on Kyrgyzstan news resources neglected one important one: the English pages of the website ferghana.ru. (Also available in Russian and Uzbek if you're able.)

The Anat Kam Case Comes Out of the Closet: With a Flood of Detail

Now, this is Israeli democratic values at work, as the press finally breaks the lock of the government censors.

As expected, Israel has wisely lifted the gag order on the case of arrested IDF whistleblower Anat Kam. Accordingly, Ha'aretz, which is itself in the middle of this case but was previously barred from publishing details, is starting to gush with detail: Uri Blau, the Ha'aretz correspondent who published the leaked material and is now sitting in London for fear of prosecution if he he goes home, offers his own story; a Ha'aretz editorial says the Shin Bet broke its word to Ha'aretz and the IDF violated a High Court order; and some of Ha'aretz' star commentators come out swinging and take no prisoners: Akiva Eldar on the cult of secrecy; and Gideon Levy plows into the IDF and Shin Bet.

On the other hand, the Jerusalem Post emphasizes Shin Bet's claims that the leaked material clearly jeopardized Israeli security.

And meanwhile, Netanyahu has decided not to attend the nuclear security summit in Washington, apparently because Egypt and Turkey — both of which have diplomatic relations with Israel, of course — planned to mention the fact that one Middle Eastern country acquired nuclear weapons before anyone else did. (Ahem: Clears throat.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

GoogleAds Strikes Again

There are a lot of stories about GoogleAds (which throws up ads based on context of the web page, but which has done things like put ads for Muslim matchmaking services on Islamophobic sites and the like). It may vary from page load to page load, so linking doesn't work, but a screen capture does.

Today's BBC reporting on Kyrgyzstan has included headlines about "chaos," uncertainty, confusion, looting, and the like, and on several occasions has also displayed this ad:
I wonder if they're getting a lot of clicks. It is well timed for students looking for something different to do on spring break.

Update on Manas

The US has said that flights from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan have been temporarily suspended; Acting Prime Minister Otunbayeva has said that the base can remain open though some issues will be looked at anew; more on the subject here; the Pentagon press release here; the Manas Transit Center's website is here.

Meanwhile, of course, we have an unstable situation with Bakiyev in the south claiming he's still President; a new government in Bishkek (in the north); and an uncertain situation in between. Stay tuned.

Roza Otunbayeva and the US

As I've been noting since the apparent success of the whatever-color-this-one-will-be-named-for Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, I'm not a Central Asianist. I doubt if I've actually ever met and talked to more than two or three Kyrgyzstanis (though I know Americans who've served there in diplomatic or military capacities). Oddly enough, one of those two or three that I've met and talked to seems to be the new Acting Prime Minister of the interim "People's Government" that controls the capital of Bishkek and perhaps at least the northern part of the country.

Roza Otunbayeva was Kyrgyzstan's first Ambassador to the United States back in the 1990s after the implosion of the Soviet Union. I was running my own newsletter at the time, and was approached by some retired US diplomats about possibly starting one on Central Asia. Nothing ever came of it except for a series of meetings with Central Asian diplomats, including on one occasion, Ambassador Otunbayeva. She's since served as Foreign Minister on a couple of occasions, was instrumental in the Tulip Revolution of 2005, and later went into opposition.

She seems to have a reputation for professionalism in a country increasingly dominated by corrupt local criminal gangs factions. She certainly knows the United States well. But there seems to be a perception among many Central Asia experts that the US supported the increasingly repressive and corrupt Bakiyev regime in order to hold on to the base at Manas, which was threatened with closure by the Kyrgyz Parliament last year (my posts on Manas are collected here); I hope if the new government manages to consolidate, US support for Bakiyev doesn't translate into a new anti-Americanism. Otunbayeva's knowledge of the US is a plus; but once again we have allied ourselves with a pretty edgy regime for broader geopolitical reasons, and may pay a price.

Israel and Turkey: A Strategic Shift of the First Order

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being quoted all over the place as saying, while on a visit to France, that Israel is "the principal threat to regional peace" in the Middle East. In return, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says the problem is not Turkey, it's Erdogan; Lieberman is comparing Erdogan to Mu‘ammar Qadhafi and Hugo Chavez. (But Erdogan's AKP won 341 of 550 seats in the 2007 Parliamentary elections, which would seem to suggest he's got the voters behind him.)

Now my views of Avigdor Lieberman's diplomatic skills are easily found in the archive; and Erdogan's AKP party's Islamist credentials are well known; and Lieberman may be deliberately playing to the Turkish military. But the point I want to make is that one of Israel's prime strategic achievements in recent decades has been its ability to forge a strategic alignment with a Muslim country in the Middle East, Turkey, that in effect outflanked its Arab neighbors, put an Israeli ally and traditional Syrian rival at Syria's back door, and created a geopolitical reality that was clearly felt in Damascus (and Beirut). In recent years, as Turkish-Syrian relations have warmed, Turkey has become a key interlocutor between Israel and Syria.

Israel has made what I and many of its friends (and a great many Israelis) think are profound blunders in recent years: the Gaza operation, which helped sour the Turkish friendship; the open battle with the Obama Administration over settlements; and a profound alienation in its ties with the European Union. But the souring of the Turkish link may be the most strategically and geopolitically unwise of them all (unless the quarrel with Obama worsens to the point of souring the US alliance). And some of it was unnecessary. The Danny Ayalon insult to the Turkish Ambassador (earlier reports here and here and here) was a deliberate diplomatic affront that led to a threat by Turkey to withdraw its Ambassador.

Of all the diplomatic and public relations gaffes of the Netanyahu government and the Lieberman/Ayalon Foreign Ministry, the deepening spat with the US is at least over a fundamentysal difference: the settlements issue. The Turkish quarrel is much more peripheral and seems to amount to petulance over Erdogan's criticisms of Operation Cast Lead. The latest remarks by Erdogan and Lieberman raise the probability that Israel is throwing away its one ally in the Muslim Middle East over a spat. It strikes me as a strategic blunder of the first order.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Israel Takes My Advice

Well, presumably not directly. But Yossi Melman in Ha'aretz says that the government (the IDF, Shin Bet, and the State Prosecutor) are going to ask the court to lift the gag order I vented about earlier today. Since everyone could easily learn the details, it only makes sense to quash the gag order.

Like I said.

Kyrgyzstan News Resources and Videos

I am not a Central Asianist, but given the importance of Kyrgyzstan to the US (due to Manas, Manas, and Manas, but mostly Manas), I thought I'd offer a few useful links for those looking for background or current news updates on what seems to have been another ex-Soviet "color revolution" (their last one was Tulip: what will this one be?):
Some video reports. Al-Jazeera English is reporting that President Bakiyev has left Bishkek and has "relocated" to Osh, his power base:

Two English language news reports with dramatic video from RT's YouTube channel: