A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Plot Thickens

The New York Times has a story indicating that the word "Myrtus" is found inside the code of the Stuxnet worm, which seems to be aimed at disrupting Iran's nuclear industry. "Myrtus" can refer to the myrtle plant. The Hebrew name Hadassah, used for Queen Esther in the Bible, also refers to myrtle. Esther was a Jewish queen of Persia who foiled a plot to destroy the Jews.

Coincidence, or an obscure signature? Israel never denies allegations of its intelligence operations, but does it sometimes sign them?

Still More Nasser: An Al-Ahram Photo Gallery

Continuing the 40th anniversary of Nasser's death theme, here's a gallery of photos published by Al-Ahram Weekly (the English weekly) from the 30th anniversary. It seems an appropriate link.

Left: with wife, son, and grandson. Look the gallery over.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shenouda: Apology? What Apology?

Sorry to be so all-Egypt all-the-time this week, but now Coptic Pope Shenouda III, after his apology to Muslims and criticism of Bishop Bishoi, now is saying that he didn't apologize, he merely expressed his regret that Muslims had been offended. (I guess "I'm sorry" is no longer considered an apology?)

I think what's happening here is that Shenouda was widely criticized by Copts for apologizing and seeming to kowtow to Muslim pressure. So now he's saying he didn't apologize, though it sure sounded like it. (Expressing regret and sorrow usually constitutes an apology.)

So now Bishoi has embarrassed not only the Church but the Pope himself, put Shenouda on the defensive, as well as offending al-Azhar and Muslims in Egypt generally. Not to mention having already offended Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

His earlier comments that the Gospels provide support for Husni Mubarak may help him somewhat, but I think Bishop Bishoi's position as what the Italians would call a papabile, a credible candidate for the next Pope, are fading fast. Of course, I'm neither a Copt nor an Egyptian, and may well be wrong.

And since I characterized the Pope's remarks as an apology in my earlier post, I guess I should apologize, express my regrets.

Another Nasser Photo Commentary

As part of the 40th Anniversary of Nasser's death, this has been making the rounds of Arab websites (via The Angry Arab). The caption reads: "The difference: dignity."

I know what they're getting at, but did they have to choose Che Guevara? His romantic revolutionary image came mostly after his death; his "theories" on guerrilla war would have made Mao or Vo Nguyen Giap laugh out loud (and probably did), and he's not exactly one of my role models. Why not choose a picture of Nasser with some revolutionary with less blood on his hands?

Still, I do get their point, and so will many Egyptians.

Meanwhile, the "Where's Husni?" Photoshopping continues apace:

Bushehr Delay Raises Questions

This Ha'aretz report says Iran is now saying the Bushehr reactor won't begin generating power until early 2011, later than originally indicated. Though Iran has played down the impact of the Stuxnet worm, it has acknowledged it, and this article suggests there may be broader sabotage against the nuclear program. Of course it's an Israeli report; make of it what you will.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

40 Years Later: Appraising Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser

I noted the date last September 28, and will not repeat some of my remarks which may still be read there, but this is a more notable milestone: today marks the 40th Anniversary of the death of Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser. It is an anniversary that will be commented upon not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world, for Nasser's appeal was broader than any subsequent aspirant for the title of "leader of the Arab world." Love him or hate him, no one could ignore him. Yet many of those in the Arab world who have grown up since his death may wonder why their parents and grandparents were so fascinated by him.

After 40 years, the term "Nasserism" is still sometimes heard, and people even self-identify as Nasserists (Egypt has a Nasserist Party). No one hears the term "Sadatism," and I suspect that "Mubarakism," if the word is ever invoked, will be seen as a pejorative rather than a compliment. But then, Nasser was only 52 when he died. You may recall this Egyptian commentary I posted earlier this year:

explained here: "The high one built the High Dam; the low one built the Low Barrier [in Gaza]: fair or not, it shows Nasser's persisting image.

Of course, most Westerners never "got" Nasser's appeal. Anthony Eden saw him as Hitler and the Suez Canal crisis as Munich; Western leaders generally (except to some extent JFK) saw Nasser as an adversary (which he often was), a dictator (which he was), and a demagogue (which he was, though more effective at it than most). I remember Nasser only from his later years, and like many my knowledge of his oratory is dependent on old videos, for I was in my first year of Arabic when he died. But I want to try to offer some interpretations today.

He quarreled a lot with other Arabs: with King Hussein, the Saudis, the Syrians when the United Arab Republic broke up. Yet every Arab leader, and five million of his own people, attended his funeral in 1970. When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, three former US Presidents attended his funeral, but only one Arab head of state, Ja‘far Numeiri of Sudan. showed up. (Egypt was then outcast from the Arab League for its peace with Israel; Oman and Somalia did send lower level representatives.) And Sadat's funeral was held in a closed military zone. Here is a YouTube of the Nasser funeral:

When (or perhaps, if) Husni Mubarak does prove to be mortal, does anyone, even he, think he will get that kind of a sendoff? Will his successor trust the Egyptian people to assemble in such numbers?

In Nasser's era, Cairo's Sawt al-‘Arab radio ("Voice of the Arabs") was listened to across the Arab world (and Egypt helped make cheap transistors available at home and abroad), and one saw his picture on kiosks, on T-shirts, and elsewhere in countries far from Egypt.

So what was Nasser's appeal? And why, even today, does he evoke images in the Arab world unlike those of any of the Nasser wannabes who have proliferated since? As I've said before, too often they emulate the worst aspects of Nasserism (the Mukhabarat state, political prisoners, suppression of democracy) and few of the good ones (populism, land reform, inspirational leadership). But other elements of his popularity with the Arab masses as a whole (if not with those who found themselves in his prisons) have to do both with the man and, I think, with the times in which he flourished.

Let me suggest several elements.

First, the man himself was something new. In a country which had been long ruled by Kings, and whose Prime Ministers were wealthy men with "Pasha" after their name, here was an Army colonel who was the son of a minor civil servant (a postal worker). Though he was not the first military ruler: he quickly overshadowed Muhammad Naguib, however, and like Ahmed ‘Orabi long before, he came from a humble background. He pioneered the now routine approach of beginning his speeches in classical Arabic, but shifting into colloquial Egyptian, which even the illiterate could understand. He portrayed himself as a man of the people, and with Nasser, it worked much better than it did when Sadat tried the same image. The latter went for the paternalistic, village elder image, while Nasser sought to appear as more one of the people.

Whether Nasser really led a "Revolution" or just another military coup is still debated today, but he did go through some of the motions of social revolution: breaking up the big landholders' estates, promoting cooperatives at the local level, making "workers and peasants" key symbols of the country, and creating a sense that things were better for those workers and peasants. At a symbolic level, the standard depiction of the "average Egyptian" in political cartoons shifted from "Misri Effendi," a Fez-wearing caricature whose name means "Mister Egyptian" but with a sense of an established gentleman, to "Ibn al-Balad," "son of the country," a galabiyya-clad fellow from the workers or peasants. The fez disappeared, and while many Egyptians kept addressing each other as "Pasha" or "Bey", it became taboo to use such terms officially. And of course, he was a stunning orator who knew how to rouse his people; last year I quoted the old Classical aphorism:"When Aeschines finished speaking, people said, 'what a great orator.' But when Demosthenes finished speaking, people said, 'Let us march against Philip.'" Nasser was of the "march against Philip" school.

But in addition to the man, there were the times in which he lived. The colonial period was winding to an end, and Nasser supported independence movements in Algeria and elsewhere, but more importantly, his confrontation with the colonial powers, Britain and France, over Suez became a potent symbol of defiance and independence. The Cold War rivalry and the willingness of the Soviet Union to back Nasser (despite his destruction of the Egyptian Communist Party) made such posturing possible, in ways it would not be today. It was a heady period of new nationalism, and Arab nationalism, often seen as outmoded today, seemed the wave of the future.

Even the emotions accompanying Nasser's funeral were dependent on the time. It was September 1970, the "Black September" of Jordan's showdown with the PLO, and in the midst of that period of explosive inter-Arab tensions, Nasser hosted an emergency summit of the Arab League in Cairo. His role as effective leader of the Arab world seemed to have recovered from its 1967 defeat, and he had just seen off the last Arab head of state when he was stricken with his fatal heart attack. He seemed to have died in the saddle, in the midst of leading the Arab world through a period of internecine struggle.

Nasser made many mistakes, some disastrous; the 1967 war, which he seems to have never intended, was a disaster for Egypt and haunts the region still. The aspiration for pan-Arab leadership diverted the Revolution from domestic reform and economic progress into a military buildup. The national security state apparatus which he put in place is there still, and is replicated in most Arab countries, long after the land reforms and social welfare innovations were lost or abandoned. Even his remaining admirers tend to find fault with some of his policies today.

But in his day he seemed something more to many, and when he died four decades ago, the mourning extended beyond the valley of the Nile. For all his flaws and weaknesses, he still seems to have played a bigger role, on a larger stage, than any of his later imitators. Aspirants to fill his shoes have ranged from the erratic (Qadhafi) to the despotic (Saddam Hussein), and while Nasser could display both of those characteristics, he had something else as well. Perhaps it is as hard to define as it has been to replicate, or perhaps it is merely a true talent for leadership that shines through even his more reckless and ill-advised blunders. Perhaps even Nasser's enemies would agree with what Lord Clarendon meant when he called Oliver Cromwell "a great, bad man," or the sense that lies behind the enduring British fascination with Napoleon (they have produced nearly as many biographies as the French). He has been dead more than twice as long as he ruled, but his name is still invoked. He still fascinates.

Bishoi Taken to Woodshed by Shenouda

A followup on my earlier posting about Coptic Bishop Bishoi's latest controversy following his daring to venture that Qur'an verses denying the divinity of Christ may not date from the Prophet's lifetime. Go here for the background on the controversy and the man himself.

Anyway, a day after Al-Azhar criticized Bishoi, his boss, Pope Shenouda III, publicly apologized for his errant bishop. The Pope said, "Debating religious beliefs are a red line, a deep red line." He thus acknowledged that while Christians and Muslims naturally disagree about the divinity of Christ, you don't talk openly about it in a Muslim society. And as for Bishoi's reportedly calling Muslims "guests" in Egypt, he suggested he had been misquoted but also said that Copts were the guests because they are a minority. Bishoi's papal ambitions have likely been set back a bit by this round of controversy, which isn't his first.

Many will doubtless see this as surrender to Muslim pressure, but Bishoi clearly said things that Christians have learned not to say in a Muslim country, and has been taken to the woodshed for it. But it's also rather humiliating for Shenouda himself, that the Pope, the heir of Saint Mark, is forced to apologize on television to Muslims for remarks by the head of the Holy Synod, the man who is sometimes described as the number two in the Church.

The interview itself is an unusual public apology for the Pope; his age and frailty come through,a and if I were Bishoi, I'd be rethinking my plans for being the next Pope. For those with Arabic, here is at least part of the interview on YouTube:

Monday, September 27, 2010

Iran Says it's Fighting Stuxnet

In what would seem to be confirmation of those stories suggesting that the Stuxnet worm is a bit of cyber-warfare aimed at targeting Iran's nuclear industry, with Iranian reports saying that the Atomic Energy Organization has met to devise defenses against Stuxnet (also here). While the Iranian reports suggest no major harm has been suffered, the BBC version does say that staff computers at Bushehr (but not the plant's operating system) have been infected.

All this tends to lend credibility to the claims Iran was specifically targeted (though if it's a psyop instead of cyberwar, that could just mean that it's working). Though all very spy-thrillerish, just because Iran is paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't after them.

Former Egyptian FM Ahmed Maher

Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher has died of a heart attack at age 75. President Mubarak led the funeral today.

In addition to serving as Foreign Minister 2001-2005, his diplomatic career included Ambassadorships to Moscow and Washington. He served in the then Soviet Union during its dissolution, and as Ambassador to the US from 1992 to 1999. He seemed both effective and approachable during his Washington tenure. His brother ‘Ali, also a diplomat, served as Ambassador to France.

Both men were grandsons of Ahmed Maher Pasha, Prime Minister of Egypt in 1944-45, who was assassinated on the floor of Parliament.

The Settlement Freeze Expires: Will it be Build, Baby, Build?

Today and the days to follow will be critical to the survival of the recently revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The freeze on settlements expired at midnight Israel time last night. The settlers want to start the bulldozers right away, and while Netanyahu has urged restraint, without an enforceable ban, the settlers will build.

Akiva Eldar today says:

It's no spin. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really is looking high and low for a magical solution to both let the tractors get back to work on settlement lands and leave President Mahmoud Abbas at the negotiating table.

But how do you do that? The US has been openly critical of the reluctance to extend the freeze, but since "openly critical" does not mean taking any actual action (such as stopping US contributions to Israel that go directly to settlement expansion), and won't do more in an election year, it's pretty much up to the Palestinians now: stick with the talks even with the end of the freeze, and hope for some progress, or go through with the threat to walk out and have Israeli apologists blame you for another failed round of peace talks?

More later today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Expressive" Photos Sweep the World

AL-Ahram has now explained its now-infamous Photoshop of Mubarak leading Obama et. al. as an "expressive" photo expressing the role of Egypt leading the way to peace. Egyptians and others have been having more fun with their own expressive photos. I already linked to the first wave of these parodies, but they're proliferating. What Al-Ahram may have intended as simple sycophancy has now turned to widespread ridicule, and I doubt if the President is pleased.

But there's a lot of creative folks out there. For example, a Spanish site here has him running with the bulls at Pamplona:

And, while my Spanish is a little rusty, this must be a photo from Mubarak's youth:

Zeinobia has collected several from the Internet and Facebook, and you can find all of them here, but the one reproduced below is particularly pungent I thought. Yes, that's Gamal on the tricycle. Click to enlarge.

And on that note, have a great weekend.

Is Somebody Cyber-Targeting the Iranian Nuclear Program?

Now this is interesting, if inconclusive:
One of the most sophisticated pieces of malware ever detected was probably targeting "high value" infrastructure in Iran, experts have told the BBC.

Stuxnet's complexity suggests it could only have been written by a "nation state", some researchers have claimed.

It's drawing a lot of attention from tech blogs and security types, especially because, as this graph from the Symantec report suggests, it's targeting one country:

Here's a piece arguing that Iran's Bushehr reactor might be the specific target, though others say there isn't enough evidence yet. And here's a technical piece (far beyond my meager computer skills) on which the argument is based.

Here's another suggesting the enrichment plant at Natanz, not the reactor at Bushehr, is the target.

And here's more on just how sophisticated it is.

Not surprisingly, a few of these articles note this Israeli report last year that Israel was developing a cyberwarfare capability, possibly targeting Iran.

Some reports suggest this is too sophisticated not to be run by a nation-state. It seems aimed at specific factory control mechanisms; some seem targeted at Siemens products.

I suppose Israel and the US would be the first suspects, but the potential for unintended consequences (infecting your own plants?) would seem to be a concern.

And of course, this may all be psywar rather than cyberwar, but then again . . .

Bishop Bishoi in Hot Water Again, This Time with Muslims

It's been a tough few weeks for the Copts in Egypt; the Church has been accused of covering up and hiding a priest's wife who allegedly converted to Islam (both the Church and the Government deny it); a prominent Islamist recently told Al-Jazeera that Copts are stockpiling weapons in churches; and now the Church's controversial Bishop Bishoi has gone and insulted Islam, to hear the press tell it.

I've talked about Bishoi before. He's bishop of Damietta and Secretary of the Holy Synod, and considered (not least by himself) a likely successor to Pope Shenouda III should the frail octogenarian Pope pass on. He's the Church's ecumenical outreach bishop for other Christian churches, but has sometimes raised questions about whether Catholics and Eastern Orthodox can get into heaven, (as for Protestants, it's probably best not to even ask: his English website has a prominent denunciation of Seventh-Day Adventists.) His approach to ecumenism is, one might say, a little limited.

Ah, but as I noted earlier this year, he's quoted the gospels on why Husni Mubarak should be supported, and of course Pope Shenouda has said nice things about Gamal. Bishoi does presumably want to be the next Pope, and the state has an effective if unofficial veto on the succession.

Bishoi has gotten in trouble for comments about Islam before, but he's just gotten in trouble again, at a time when the church is under fire and the Pope's health is uncertain. His foot-in-mouth problem may be undermining his ambitions.

A speech he had prepared for delivery in the Fayyum got leaked to the media, and in it he reportedly questioned whether some verses of the Qur'an were actually revealed to the Prophet or were added after his death. Now, apparently he said that Christianity and Islam were compatible except for a handful of Qur'anic verses, specifically citing one that says that those who say that God is Jesus Son of Mary are unbelievers. While that would clearly seem to be unacceptable to a Christian priest, a Christian priest in a Muslim country isn't supposed to come right out and question the validity of Qur'anic revelation. He also supposedly said that many Muslims believe Christ was crucified (generally they hold, based on the Qur'an, that he only appeared to be crucified and another died in his place), and is also alleged to have said that Muslims should remember that Copts were in Egypt first, allegedly referring to Muslims as "guests" who arrived only 14 centuries ago. He's hardly the only Copt who feels that way, but he's a bit prominent to be saying it in public.

It's said he postponed the formal speech when he learned it had leaked. Anyway, if you read Arabic, there are fairly detailed accounts in Al-Wafd, Al-Dostor, and Al-Masry al-Youm (all opposition or independent papers, none unfriendly to Christians and the last with Copts among the owners). For accounts in English, much shorter and less detailed, here's an article in Al-Masry al-Youm English and an opinion column in the same paper.

This will be the usual flurry of controversy; so far the official media doesn't seem to be piling on. But Bishoi's papal ambitions may not prosper if he keeps opening his mouth.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ahmadi at the UN

I'd been wondering whether to post anything about the various reports suggesting that there were back-channel contacts between the US and Iran, trying to feel out a possible rapprochement. Despite a fair amount of such speculation ahead of the General Assembly, I think Ahmadinejad's rant about September 11 being staged by the US, the evils of the US, capitalism, etc., and the US walkout essentially amount to: Never mind.

At least this year Ahmadinejad could claim the award for ranting from the podium: last year, of course, he was outstaged by Qadhafi's hour and a half stream-of-consciousness happening. Brother Leader isn't coming this year.

Ahmadinejad may have aspirations, but Qadhafi's still the master of the art.

The Internet in Bahrain

Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel has an interesting piece on the Internet in Bahrain today; I'm still pretty busy and will try to have more later.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two Views on Gamal Mubarak

I'm still busy, so a couple of reading assignments for you: a couple of days ago Tarek Masoud posted a piece on the Foreign Policy Middle East Channel entitled "Is Gamal Mubarak the best Hope for Egyptian Democracy?" (Before you make the jokes, read his argument. I don't buy it, but it's not an outrageous position to take.) Now Issandr El Amrani in Al-Masry al-Youm has responded with "The Case Against the Case for Gamal Mubarak," which takes on the argument directly.

More on Yesterday's Demonstrations

I'm loaded with editorial work today so posting will be thin, but this report on yesterday's protests in Cairo contained an interesting aside:

Qandil had earlier estimated that 30 activists were arrested on Tuesday.

Some were later released on the desert road between Cairo and Ain Sokhna, others in Al Moqattam and on the Cairo-Ismailia road.

Don't bother locking them up: just drop them out in the desert and by the time they get home, the protests are over.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wrapup on ‘Orabi Protests

The ‘Orabi protests seem to have evolved about the way such demonstrations usually do: several hundred demonstrators assemble with signs and chants; thousands of police and State Security (and non-uniformed toughs from the ruling party) show up as well; there are some arrests, a few people roughed up or beaten with nightsticks; some women demonstrators are manhandled; and that's the end of it. Reuters' story is here. You can find a lot of streamed cellphone videos posted here; they mostly show helmets and demonstrators with signs.

One thing I find interesting is that the Reuters link above only mentions he ‘Orabi connection late in the article, and many of the accounts I've seen don't mention it at all. Perhaps this is because the reporter has no idea who ‘Orabi was, or assumes at least the readers won't, thus missing the historical symbolism the demonstrators were trying to evoke (see my earlier post). (The actual link, by the way, which I omitted earlier, is that September 21 was the date of ‘Orabi's death in 1911.)

We talked last year of the problems of "presentism" and lack of familiarity with regional history, culture and languages as impediments to understanding the region today, and I think that the reports that omit or downplay the ‘Orabi connection are an excellent example of this.

Sadly, so is the fact that historically, most Egyptian street demonstrations don't lead anywhere.

In the Spirit of Ahmad ‘Orabi: The Protests

Ahmad ‘Orabi [‘Urabi] Pasha was an Egyptian Army officer who led a revolt in 1881 against the Khedive Tewfiq, a revolt which was eventually quelled by British intervention. He remains a nationalist hero, and since he was of fellah origins when the Army was dominated by Turkish and Circassian officers, is also seen as a symbol of real Egyptian identity.

In a famous incident in September 1881 ‘Orabi and his supporters stood in front of Abdin Palace and read their demands, with ‘Orabi proclaiming that free men had been turned into slaves.

Today, Egyptian reformers of a variety of stripes are trying to repeat the affair, assembling at Abdin Palace in central Cairo and at a spot in Alexandria demanding change. The Twitter hashmark #Oraby2010 has the tweets in English and Arabic.

While it's clear already the police are present in force to keep things from getting out of hand, it's worth noting the subtext of choosing this particular symbol of Egyptian nationalism: the ‘Orabi revolt was the first time since the suppression of the Mamluks that the Egyptian Army sought to intervene against a ruler. Coming as it does in the wake of the posters touting ‘Omar Suleiman for President, it suggests a theme that runs just below the surface of some of the opposition rhetoric: recognizing that the regime will not support a democratic transition, some people seem to be longing for the military to step in. Indeed, the one thing that seemingly stands between Gamal Mubarak and the Presidential succession is uncertainty about how the military, and the equally important security services, would react to a civilian with no military background.

Of course, many of the protesters may simply see ‘Orabi as a potent symbol of Egyptian nationalism, of a peasant standing up to a monarch.

Then again, he was an officer.

Not a Good Time for Gulf Sh‘ia Clerics

The ongoing crackdown against Shi‘ite opposition elements in Bahrain in anticipation of Parliamentsry elections, and pressures on Shi‘ite populations in the Gulf generally, has been escalating. In Bahrain, Ayatollah Sheikh Hussein al-Najati, a leading cleric and representative in Bahrain of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani, has had his citizenship revoked and the passports of himself and his family canceled.

Meanwhile, Kuwait has similarly revoked the citizenship of a London-based but Kuwaiti-born Shi‘ite cleric, Yasser al-Habib, accused of insulting the Prophet's wife ‘A'isha and others of the Prophet's companions. He has served sentences previously for similar offenses. (In fact, Shi‘ites traditionally denounce the first three Sunni Caliphs because they kept ‘Ali from his rightful role as Imam, and the Prophet's widow ‘A'isha because she led a revolt against ‘Ali in the Battle of the Camel in 656 AD. But Shi‘ite clerics living under Sunni rule usually don't raise the subject frequently; from his London exile, he has apparently been quite vocal on the subject, even accusing ‘A'isha and Abu Bakr and ‘Umar of conspiring to assassinate the Prophet.

These aren't really parallel cases (one is mostly political, the other religious), but they are both a sign of growing sectarian division in the northern Gulf states.

Monday, September 20, 2010

IRGC Denies their own Story

Sometimes the fact that I rarely post on weekends keeps me from jumping to conclusions. A story went around for a while yesterday claiming that Iran's Fars news agency had reported that seven US soldiers and two Iranians had been captured inside Iran in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Fars may have been repeating something that has also been attributed to the Javan agency associated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), according to this rather detailed attempt to locate the origin of the report. Then the Pentagon, NATO, and Pakistan all denied the story. Then Fars denied the story, Javan retracted the story and apologized, and the IRGC denied he story. So what looks like an IRGC leak ends up being disowned by the IRGC, and the story vanishes.

Good; I'm glad there's no new crisis. But what happened here? A propaganda effort gone haywire? A confused report of some mistaken-idenity incident? A psychological op of some sort, by somebody? Or something like a covert team that were captured but then managed to be extracted?

Or, nothing at all.

I doubt we'll learn from internl Iranian sources, so we may never know.

A Troubling Weekend in Lebanon

Lebanon moved closer to the brink over the weekend. Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of Lebanon's General Security Directorate, and who spent four years in prison without charges in the Hariri assassination investigation, has been attacking Sa‘d Hariri and his Mustaqbal movement for supporting "false witnesses" against him. Until this weekend many had dismissed Sayyed's rhetoric as his own vendetta, representing neither Syria nor Hizbullah, his sometime allies. This weekend, however, he returned to Beirut, throwing down the gauntlet to enemies; amid threats that he might be arrested, Hizbullah met him at the airport with an armed escort in what their opponents called an "invasion" of the airport; he gave a press conference after commandeering the VIP Lounge, and Hizbullah then escorted him to his home. It would appear that Hizbullah, still apprehensive about expected Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictments of some of its members, is prepared to risk open confrontation.

General Sayyed's defiant return has a whiff of Mussolini's March on Rome in it; once one of the most powerful security men in the country, he could be a potent allly for Hizbullah in any new confrontation.

It's a trying time for Lebanon right now, and misjudgments can easily lead to violence.

Qifa Nabki here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur

For my Jewish readers, the 10th of Tishrei, 5771, begins at sundown: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Since observant readers really aren't supposed to be browsing the web after sundown, I will acknowledge the day now.

On Yom Kippur last year I noted
the links between Yom Kippur (the 10th day of the Jewish New Year) and the feast of ‘Ashura (the tenth day of the Muslim New Year, which before it became the great Shi‘ite feast of mourning, was alrady a Muslim day of fasting.) I won't repeat myself but will refer you there.

G'mar Hatima Tova. An easy fast and a fulfilling Yom Kippur to those observing it.

It's Edward William Lane's Birthday Again

It is, once again, Edward William Lane's birthday. For those who weren't reading this blog a year ago, you should first read my post of last year on the great Orikentalist, author of Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, and a once famous translation of the 1,001 Nights. Lane, shown at right, is a sprightly 209 today.

Since we share a birthday, I mark his in a futile hope of ever producing anhything comparable to his body of work. Though he'd have probably been a great blogger.

Probably the best way to observe Lane's birthday is to dip randomly into Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, a superb description of the Muhammad &lsuo;Ali era which should be resd by anyone with an interest in Egypt, anyone who has drunk from the Nile. Fortunately, these days, thanks to Google Books, you can do that from the comfort of your keyboard.

Since I covered most of the basics in the previous post, I though I'd talk a bit more about Manners and Customs. A work of cultural anthropology before the field existed, it was an elaborate description of Egyptian society from the inside, by an Englishman who lived as a merchant-class Egyptian and seems to have been privy to a great deal of detail about everyday life. As a portrait of Egypt on the eve of Westernization, when Muhammad &lsuo;Ali was modernizing but before Europeans arrived en masse, it captures a transitional moment. Some of the things it described are still practiced today — the shaduf for raising water appears on Pharaonic toms and is still in use among the fellahin even today (left).

Other practices are long gone, and bear little resemblance to current practices; still others have clearly evolved from the Lane era, but are still recoghizable.

I would caution anyone about to go to Egypt not to read Manners and Customs before leaving; unless you have a time machine set for 1830, you'll never recognize the place. But once you're there, and know your way around a bit, you'll start to recognize the continuities. They don't say Misr Umm al-Dunya (Egypt is the mother of the world) for no reason.

It's a big book, very detailed, illustrated with the woodcuts you see a few of here. Like the country itself, it's worth the voyage.

As I've already noted, Lane also gave us two other classics, his eight-volume Arabic-English Lexicon, which he died before completing, and his translation of the 1,001 Nights, with profuse notes. But it's still Manners and Customs that endears this long-dead chap whose birthday I share to me.

For one thing, where else can you possibly find a drawing of an Egyptian parade in honor of a circumcision, shown below?

Good Morning Israel

A quick Israel roundup from this morning's Ha'aretz:

New IDF intel head and other new appointments as the change of command approaches.

A pizza order disrupts West Bank checkpoints, gets reporters detained.

And — no, a caption contest would be wrong, but this photo — no, it's better without comment:

It's on Ha'aretz main web page. Complain to them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Al -Ahram Aren't the Only People with Photoshop

The Photoshopped Mubarak Picture is still drawing lots of comment, and has drawn the attention of the Photoshop Disasters website, while The Guardian says Mubarak was left red-faced by the move, but I haven't seen the slightest apology anywhere, or hint of embarrassment. Maybe the Brits just assume anyone with a conscience would be embarrassed. (Maybe the red face was Photoshopped?) (Another note: I linked to blogger Wael Khalil's breaking of the story in my first post on the subject, but as often happens when a story breaks in Arabic, not everyone is giving credit where it's due, so I'll repeat the link. (Even The National seems to think Al-Masry al-Youm broke the story. Hell, I was either ahead of them or pretty much simultaneous with them, but I gave credit. Or is it just that print media can't stand acknowledging being scooped by a mere blogger?)

For another thing, Al-Ahram aren't the only people with Photoshop. Egyptians and others have been weighing in, for example with "Mubarak's New Album," or this posting by Sarah Carr of Mubarak's neglected role in other historical events. (For the captions, you need to know that the original fake — as opposed to these fake fakes — was captioned "The Road to Sharm al-Sheikh." More, please.)

But when you live in a bubble, are you able to hear the laughter?

Al-‘Arabiya Chief Resigns, Unresigns

The Gulf media has been busy today buzzing about the resignation of the chief of Al-‘Arabiya satellite television following criticism of the founder of Wahhabism and of Saudi Arabia by a guest on one of the network's shows. But he has since withdrawn his resignation after the chairman refused to accept it. Director General Abdul Rahman al-Rashed admitted that "serious errors" were made. Rashed is considered a liberal by Saudi standards, and also writes a column for Al-Sharq al-Awsat, of which he was formerly Editor. Before it was announced that his resignation had not been accepted, there were unconfirmed reports that he had also lost his newspaper column and that other resignations, in sympathy, were forthcoming at Al-‘Arabiya.

Al-‘Arabiya's own account in English is here, but it never cites what the "serious errors" were. Here's a more straightforward backgrounder.

You need to know that although Al-‘Arabiya is based in Dubai, it is owned by a Saudi media empire and funded by the Saudis; it is generally considered to have been founded to offset the influence of Al Jazeera, which the Saudis see as hostile. One of the most influential Saudi Royals, Prince Salman, the Governor of Riyadh, had openly criticized the anti-Wahhabi remarks.

Rashed has a reputation for provocative comments — he has been one of the few Arab editors to urge that the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" not be built — and the subtle jockeying between Saudi liberals and the religious establishment usually remains below the radar. This time the comments (which were not Rashed's own, so far as I can tell), crossed a red line and brought the wrath of the Kingdom down.

He may keep his job after all, but I think he's probably gotten the message. It's a reminder that the satellite channels, however free they seem most of the time, still have their red lines: Al Jazeera doesn't attack the Qatari government and Royal Family, and Al-‘Arabiya, though in Dubai, doesn't criticize the Saudi system. Or had better not.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

But are they the Earps or the Clantons?

The continuing debate over this photo and its Photoshopped version made me look at the original more closely and made me notice something new (though I'd subconsciously thought it reminded me of something): The way they're striding earnestly forward, with serious expressions and their hands hanging free at their sides like they're ready to slap leather: it's the Gunfight at the OK Corral! But who's on the other side? Hamas, Hizbullah, and Ahmadinejad?

And are these guys the Earps or the Clantons?

Photoshopped Pic Drawing More Comment

The rather obvious Photoshop job I noted yesterday, moving President Mubarak from the rear to the front of the group when Al-Ahram felt a White House photo needed work, continues to draw comment. THe independent Al-Masry al-Youm also ran both versions, while the BBC says "Egyptian Newspaper Under Fire Over Altered Photo."

I'm not sure Al-Ahram is "under fire", exactly, since they probably don't care, but "makes itself a subject of widespread ridicule" would seem fair.

At Least They're Still Talking

After the round two meeting yesterday in Sharm al-Sheikh, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have moved to Jerusalem.

A sign of the problem facing these talks is that we've reached the point where we're inclined to interpret the fact that the talks haven't collapsed after two meetings as an optimistic sign, when in fact the lack of visible movement on the settlements issue means any real breakthrough seems unlikely. It's possible Netanyahu will have some sort of de Gaulle moment and decide he wants to be a peacemaker. (Whoever thought Ariel Sharon would give up Gaza?) Or unicorns could appear, persuading everyone to make peace.

It's long been a cliche to say that the peace process has become all process and no peace, so I'm not being very original in saying it again, but it says something about the process that what passes for good news is "they're meeting for a third time and no one has walked out yet!"

More on the Turkish Referendum

Over at the Middle East Channel, more analysis of the Turkish referendum. Again, knowing my own weaknesses, I'm simply referring you to those who know Turkey well.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mubarak Takes the Lead, Via Photoshop

From an Egyptian blogger, via the always readable The Arabist, some Photoshopping by Al-Ahram.

First, the original White House photo:

Natural enough. Obama leads the way in his White House, and since these are Israeli and Palesintinian peace talks, Netanyahu and ‘Abbas come next, and then Mubarak and King ‘Abdullah.

But that's not good enough for Al-Ahram. Egypt must lead, even if only via Photoshop:

Do they think nobody will notice, or do they just not really care if they do?

The Turkish Referendum

Turkey's referendum this past weekend has passed a number of constitutional reforms that either democratize the military-imposed constitution or impose a system which will institutionalize the ruling AKP Party, which those who argue the latter case portray as an Islamist Party disguised as a democratic one. I'm no Turkey scholar, but I lean toward the earlier translation.

I won't try to comment. There are too many people around who know the subject far better than I, so let me send you their way: first, in-house, MEI's own Gönül Tol, a pre-referendum piece found on our website but which first appeared on Foreign Policy's Mideast Channel last week. Read it where you will. The Middle East Channel also had a piece by Hatem Ete on "The Battle over Constitutional Reform in Turkey," also written before the vote.

Turkish interpretations in English here and here (both Hüriyyet) and here (Zaman).

Israelis generally don't like Erdogan very much, but Amos Liel in Ha'aretz says the referendum ranks him "second only to Ataturk" (heads are exploding in the Turkish military). The Jerusalem Post is less excessive but swallows hard and notes Erdogan won a major victory.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Return of the Death of Arabic Strikes Back Revisited, Part VII: The Next Generation

For those alarmed by the (supposed) rapid* death of Arabic, which I've frequently questioned, some new cause for alarmism: Abu Dhabi is going to require instruction in both English and Arabic, beginning with three and four year-old preschoolers. Now, it's a bilingual curriculum, beginning from the early years and phasing upward, and Abu Dhabi has a huge expatriate population from South Asia whose common lingua franca is English, and its indigenous population hopes for international jobs so this, uh, makes a lot of sense on the surface.

*And as Qifa Nabki noted, it's been rapidly dying since the great lexicographer Ibn Manzur lamented its decline in the 12th century AD.

The UAE is doing a lot to preserve its cultural heritage and traditions, and this does not strike me as a particularly bad idea, but with all the Arabic-is-dying the-sky-is-falling talk lately, this fuels the fire.

Or as Barbie might put it according to one urban legend: "Arabic is hard. Let's go shopping."

Now go back and learn those weak verbs and broken plurals.

Saudi Women Drivers Do Exist

Arab News has a piece noting that in Saudi rural areas, it's not uncommon to find women drivers, despite the Kingdom's ban on women driving. This seems to be taken fairly much for granted by some of the people, male and female, interviewed in the article.

Campaigns to overturn the ban by women's activists are frequent and there have been claims that King ‘Abdullah may favor repeal, but the ban has remained in place. Ironically, as has often been poin\ted out by reformers, Saudi women often have to depend on foreign male drivers, thus placing them in a car with a man who is not a family member, a major taboo.

Egyptian Papyrus found in Irish Bog

Longtime readers may recall my post of Saint Patrick's Day 2009 on the "Irish-Egyptian connection," the faint traces of early links between Coptic and Irish Christianity. Well, the traces may not be so faint any longer: a psalter dug up in an Irish bog, though written on vellum, has an Egyptian leather cover with a papyrus lining. It dates from the eighth century.

I won't say "I told you so." Oh, wait, I guess I just did.

[Correction: for most of the day this said "dug up in an Irish blog." Freudian slip: an Irish bog.]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11

It's Coptic New Year, and ‘Id continues, but it is also, of course, September 11. I live a few miles from the Pentagon and on that clear September morning nine years ago, we had watched the first of the twin towers be hit, dropped our daughter at day care, heard about the second tower, and I started in to work along US 50 in northern Virginia. I saw a large, dark pillar of black smoke rising directly in front of me, and instantly new something similar was happening here. Unable to get a cell phone signal I turned around and headed home. We picked up my daughter, then only a year and a half old, from day care, and spent the day, like most Americans, glued to the television.

For those of us who try to educate people about the Middle East, it has obviously been a challenging nine years, two wars, and much rhetoric. The ability to distinguish between real enemies who pose a threat and an entire global culture remains difficult for some people, as the current controversies over the "Ground Zero mosque" (which isn't at Ground zero and isn't a mosque) and the Qur'an-burning furor remind us. Nothing that has happened since, however, detracts from the shock of the original terrorist act in a country that had long felt secure from attack behind two oceans.

Remembrance is necessary, but those who try to exploit the day for their own goals should be ignored.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Something Completely Different for ‘Id: Queen Elizabeth II's Descent(s) from the Prophet Muhammad

In honor of the ‘Id al Fitr (‘Id Mubarak once again since by now everyone is celebrating it), and to take your mind off the whole US Qur'an-burning nonsense (why is the media giving so much attention to an obscure renegade "pastor" who supposedly has only 30 to 50 members of his congregation? Why give him an audience? Now he's canceling/uncanceling/keeping in the headlines), I thought I'd bring up something that many people have heard of but that still tends to catch most people totally off guard: the fact that Queen Elizabeth II is reportedly a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

No, really. It comes up from time to time. Juan Cole noted it a couple of years ago, but it often turns up in genealogy texts and the like. When you go back far enough, everybody is related to everybody else, after all. I've also heard that something like 80% of people with northwest European ancestry have a direct descent from Charlemagne; it's just most of us can't document it, while the aristocracies can. I've dabbled in my own genealogy since high school and have heard of the Queen's descent for years, but thought I'd bring it up now, when Islam and the West often seem to forget just how intertwined their histories are.

Anyway, she apparently doesn't just have just one descent from the Prophet, but multiple lines of descent through several of his children and through several of QEII's own rather varied ancestral lines. Here's one version of her several lines. There are lines from the Prophet's daughters Ruqayya and Umm Kulthum, and a couple of lines through his grandson Hussein (so she could add "Sayyida" to her royal titulature), one of which also passes through the line of the Shi‘a Imams to the 10th Imam (and a sister of the 11th), and yet another through Hussein's brother Hasan (so she's also a Sharifa), and some other variants of these.

The key is that several descendants of the Prophet married into the Umayyad Caliphal house, and when the last Umayyads fled to Spain (al-Andalus) in 750 AD they carried several Prophetic descents with them. The usual intermarriages of daughters and sisters of the Caliphs with various local rulers in Spain eventually included some marriages with local Christian rulers, which in turn put the Prophet's DNA into some of the local dynasties of what became Portugal and Castile, and also into the Hapsburg line. Given all the usual intermarriages, she ended up with multiple descents, some coming through Edward IV, but others coming in through various German and other houses later on, the latest through Mary of Teck, wife of George V and the Queen's grandmother.

One reason that this can be pretty confidently documented is that descent from the Prophet was taken very seriously in classical Islam: the sayyids and sharifs received subsidies from the state, so genealogical trees were carefully kept. (King ‘Abdullah of Jordan's family tree, which isn't hard to locate online, is probably absolutely sound, since the Sharifs of Mecca, his ancestors, kept the official records.) The Queen's being a multiple descent, it is almost certainly valid in some if not all lines.

This really isn't surprising given the intermarriage, even across religious lines, of European aristocracies, so that the Umayyads of Spain infused Prophetic descent into many European ruling houses (others came into other European lineages via Sicily and the Crusader states), combined with the fact that if we all knew our ancestry as well as the royal houses do, we might all (those of European or Middle Eastern descent, anyway) find out we're descended from rhe Prophet. (Rev. Terry Jones of burn a Qur'an day has the good Welsh last name of Jones, and the Welsh had lots of kings; I wonder . . . )

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Crackdown in Bahrain

I haven't been posting about the ongoing crackdown on the Shi‘ite opposition in Bahrain in preparation for Parliamentary elections in October, but it seems to be time to note it; now that government has sought to dissolve the Bahrain Human Rights Society's Board "for failing to represent all segments of society" (that is, for being Shi‘ite oriented), it has drawn demands from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that it rescind the order. Over the pasr several weeks at least 250 people have been charged with involvement in a terrorist network, including the head of the al-Haq opposition movement (essentially the a major Shi‘ite political party grouping), prominent bloggers, and Shi‘ite activists. The government has implied that Iran is behind the alleged network. The GCC Foreign Ministers have asked Britain to expel Bahraini activists on the grounds they support terrorism.

Tensions between Bahrain's Shi‘ite majority and the Sunni-dominated government have been simmering for years, but the current tensions in Bahrain are unusually high, and seem to be relating to an overall increase in sectarian tensions in the Gulf, perhaps related to tensions with Iran but, in the Bahraini case, by fears of Shi‘ite gains in the October elections. It deserves watching as there is a potential for more serious confrontations.

Maj. Gen. Israel Tal, Israel's Armored Theorist and Father of the Merkava Tank, 1924-2010

Major General (Reserves) Israel Tal, nicknamed "Talik," the creator of Israel's Merkava tank, Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF during the last part of the 1973 war, a key military theorist of armored warfare, a tanker's tanker, and a man who famously refused an order to attack Egyptian troops after the 1973 ceasefire, costing him higher rank though he was ultimately vindicated, died yesterday just a week short of his 86th birthday.

Israel is known for its armored prowess, from the 1956 Suez War onward, and some of the biggest tank battles in the post-World War II era (since Kursk) have been fought in the Sinai and Golan in 1956, 1967, and 1973. Tal was Israel's armored prophet, its analog of J.F.C. Fuller, Basil Liddell Hart, Charles de Gaulle, Heinz Guderian, Erwin Rommel, or George S. Patton. He is remembered as the father of Israel's indigenous main battle tank, the Merkava ("chariot" in Hebrew), and he developed armor doctrine that proved dominating in Sinai in 1967, based on mobility, long-range fire, and rapid penetration. When Arab military academies study Israel's tank tactics (and they do), they are studying Tal.

Some have suggested the triumph of armor in 1967 led to a weakening of the infantry arm and the consequent fallback of Israeli forces from the Suez Canal in 1973; but it was armor which struck back across the Canal and turned the tide in the war.

Here's Ha'aretz' obit, here's the Jerusalem Post's, and here's his Wikipedia bio, The Jerusalem Post obit says that "Tal was named one of the top five armored commanders in history at The Patton Museum of Cavalry and Armor in Fort Knox, Kentucky, along with Maj.-Gen. Moshe Peled, General George S. Patton, Creighton Abrams and German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel." Two Israelis in the top five seems a bit much (Patton and his protégé Abrams were probably givens at the Patton Museum), and some Brits and Russians might object, but he was in that class.

Tal deserves to be remembered for another matter: after the ceasefire in the 1973 war, in his role as Officer Commanding, Southern Command, he received an order from Chief of Staff David Elazar and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordering him to attack Egyptian troops. Viewing it as an illegal order after the ceasefire, he refused to obey, demanding confirmation from Prime Minister Golda Meir and the Supreme Court.

In the aftermath of the war he was vindicated, but the seeming insubordination probably kept him from ever occupying the Chief of Staff's position.

We may not hear any acknowledgment of it, but I suspect many Arab tankers who fought against him will quietly note his passing as one of the great tankers of the 20th century. If he can be criticized, it is probably for making Israel too armored-mobility dependent in its military theory in the 1960s and 1970s, a tactical leaning which would be of limited use in Lebanon in the 1980s or in the far different conflicts which have followed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

‘Id Mubarak wa/va Shona Tova

In the Middle East and Europe, but not necessarily North America, ‘Id-al-Fitr, the end of the Ramadan fast and the first day of the lunar month of Shawwal, will be observed at sundown tonight. For most North Americans, due to differences in observing the new moon, it will begin tomorrow night. ‘Id Mubarak wa Sa‘id to Muslim readers.

In addition to the new moon bringing the month of Shawwal, it is also the first of the month of Elul in the Jewish calendar, the new year 5771, the first day of Rosh Hashonah (or Rosh Hashanah). Shona Tova to Jewish readers.

Is Arabic Hard? The Latest Silly Controversy

There's a new controversy in the Middle East blogosphere over an Israeli study that claims that Arabic is harder to read than other languages because the detail of the characters means people use only the left side of their brain, rather than both sides, thus creating learning difficulties. The original study is apparently not online, but there's a BBC report here, and a summary from the University of Haifa.

Well, of course there's been a lot of reaction. Brian Whitaker reflects on the subject here. A roundup of various comments from around the blogosphere is over at Global Voices. As'ad AbuKhalil, the Angry Arab, is angry of course, calling this a "colonial study." (Obviously, too, there's a loaded element in that the study came from an Israeli university.)

My own reaction is puzzlement and wondering what motivated the study. Only 40 subjects were studied, all university students. Learning a language in adulthood is, of course, always more difficult than acquiring a first language as a child. Some of the students spoke only Hebrew; others already "knew Arabic well", though it's not clear if they were native speakers. It's also clear that the study is talking about the writing system, not the language itself.

Many commenters have already taken the natural tu quoque approach and noted that some of the things that make Arabic hard to learn — being written from right to left, not writing the vowels — also hold true for Hebrew. (And I'd note that handwritten Hebrew script diverges from the printed character much more than does handwritten Arabic.)

And what about the thousands of characters in Chinese? Japanese kangi? (Here again the difficulty is the writing system, not the underlying grammar.)

I personally suspect this is just another case of an academic study that had funding and decided to prove what it already assumed to be true, but I shouldn't impute motive I suppose. The summary seems to suggest that the Arabic language itself creates a learning disability, which has naturally infuriated some people. Of course it's harder for an English speaker to learn Arabic than say, Spanish; it's a different language family and a different script. But it's an alphabetic script and once learned seems pretty readable to me. Admittedly as my aging eyes struggle with small diacritical marks I prefer to read newspapers online, where Control++ magnifies the letters, rather than on paper. But I have the same trouble with small print in English.

Enough of this silly discussion. Go do your Arabic homework.

"Take Five Goats and 200 Chickens . . ."

Iftar in Ras al-Khaimah. If you're fasting, don't read this till sundown.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Peter Gubser, 1941-2010

I was saddened to learn of the passing of my old friend Peter Gubser after a battle with cancer. For 29 years, Peter was President of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), working with Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon. Academically, he was a specialist on modern Jordan and Lebanon, trained at AUB and Oxford, though in retirement, he turned to an earlier period, writing a book on Saladin. Long prominent in the community of Middle East hands here in DC, Peter was also a great resource for anyone dealing with Jordan or the West Bank, and a great conversationalist. He will be missed, and my condolences are with his wife Annie and his children and grandchildren.

John Duke Anthony remembers him here. An Arab News appreciation here.

UPDATE: ANERA's appreciation here. I understand something will appear in The Washington Post tomorrow.

Egyptian Non-Campaign Gets Dirtier: Trying to Smear ElBaradei

As I was enjoying the last three-day weekend of summer (Labor Day here in the US), the Egyptian campaign for the Presidency (which, of course, doesn't exist, there being no official candidates) got dirtier. In the wake of Gamal Mubarak accompanying his father to Washington (the Egyptian Foreign Minister has denied Israeli press reports that "Jimmy" met with Bibi Netanyahu) and the curious wave of ‘Omar Suleiman posters around Cairo, somebody (I wonder who?) leaked the private Facebook photos of Layla ElBaradei, Mohamed ElBaradei's daughter, by posting them on an open Facebook group, leading to their publication in some Egyptian newspapers. Since her privacy settings are reportedly intact, either her page has been hacked or one of her Facebook friends leaked the screenshots and photos. So far more Egyptians and others seem offended by the violation of family privacy than by anything in the photos.

The leaked photos themselves are here
. I link not to further the smear campaign but so readers can see what the fuss is about (and how innocent the pictures are: safe for work unless you work for the Taliban). Though captioned "ElBaradei's Family Secrets," they're not particularly shocking: mostly wedding photos of her marriage to her British husband, and some beach photos where she's in a relatively modest bathing suit. But in increasingly puritanical Egypt the presence of apparent wine glasses at the wedding reception, and the swimsuit photos, as well as a party photo of her and female friends with champagne bottles, may cause some scandal, as could a screenshot of her Facebook Info page in which her political views are listed as "very liberal" and her religion as "agnostic." She's obviously not running for office, and her views may not be shared by her father, and her Facebook page was supposed to be private anyway.

ElBaradei has accused the government of being behind the campaign, which seems to be a widespread assumption. His National Association for Change says it will take legal action.

The Muslim Brotherhood backed ElBaradei on this, saying the following:

Given the realities of modern political campaigning, it should come as no surprise that the candidates most likely to use negative ads are the ones who feel most challenged . . .

However, there has been speculations such allegations may have been initiated by the Egyptian security apparatus, in an effort to influence the public negatively toward El Baradei, playing on both their emotional and spiritual stance. It may have also been seen as a shot to weaken the stance of the popular political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports El Baradei in his appeal for political change, but it will not tolerate such allegedly unislamic behavior. If this proves to be the fact, it will reveal that security is bidding on the publics' religious & sentimental values.

Undoubtedly, for most Egyptians, choosing a ruler whose criminal security apparatus focuses on beating and killing civilians, and who shows no regards to human rights, freedom and dignity is far more than dangerous than electing the father of a bikini-clad daughter.

A lot of bloggers are making similar points, and the violation of a family's privacy seems to have offended many; the ruling National Democratic Party has distanced itself from the affair. Blogger Zeinobia wants ElBaradei to slap somebody. The breach of etiquette seems more controversial than any wine glass on a table.

Egypt isn't used to down-and-dirty electoral politics, at least above the local constituency level where real competition does sometimes occur; with the uncertainty about the 2011 Presidential elections, there's something like a campaign going on, but without a lot of precedent or legal underpinning. The Suleiman posters remain a puzzle. The smear on ElBaradei not only involves an invasion of privacy (were there wine or champagne bottles at Gamal Mubarak's wedding? No one knows: no pictures ever were published), but also attacks the man for his (adult, married) daughter's alleged behavior/religious leanings, and thus crosses all sorts of lines, including hitting at him through a female member of his family. The fact that the group that would normally have most objected to the pictures and information page, the Muslim Brotherhood, has denounced the whole ploy, suggests that whoever was behind this has miscalculated. If this was indeed an attempt by State Security or Gamal's supporters to smear ElBaradei, it may have backfired.

Galant Gets IDF Post Despite Controversy

In the wake of the "Galant Affair," the leak of a forged document (earlier posts here and here) aimed at discrediting Major General Yoav Galant (OC Southern Command) from the running for next Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, it was perhaps inevitable that the whole affair helped secure Galant's appointment, supposedly against the will of current IDF Chief Gabi Ashkenazi. The Cabinet approved Galant on October 5, and Ashkenazi denied reports that he would step down early; his term expires in February and he was not offered a renewal.

In the wake of the appointment, Ehud Barak has been ordered to put a hold on his personal investigation of the "Galant Affair." A mid-level (field rank) officer, Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz, reportedly carried out the forgery.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Week of Holidays

This weekend has been Labor Day in the US, the traditional end of summer long weekend. As we return to work and my daughter returns to school after summer break, our region is about to celebrate holidays this week as well: for Muslims, ‘Id al-Fitr for the year 1431, marking the end of Ramadan, should start at sundown September 8 in the Mideast and at sundown September 9 in North America (due to differences in when the new moon becomes visible). Also linked to the new moon, Rosh Hashonah 5771, the Jewish New Year will begin the High Holydays at sundown September 8 as well. And if Christians feel left out, Saturday, September 11, will be Nayrouz, the Coptic New Year for Year of the Martyrs 1727. (And, a commenter adds, also Ethiopian new year, the church of Ethiopia being a daughter church of Alexandria, only separate since the mid-20th century.. For them, it's apparently 2003.)

Whether you're celebrating in 1431, 5771, 1727, 2003, or just plain 2010, I'll post suitable greetings.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Three-Day Weekend

This is the beginning of the three-day Labor Day weekend in the US, which runs through Monday. I'll return to blogging Tuesday unless something happens.

What's With the ‘Omar Suleiman Move?

I didn't fully appreciate, in my note yesterday about the ‘Omar Suleiman posters popping up around Cairo, that this happened when both the President and "Jimmy" (Gamal) were in Washington peaceifying. That is, indeed, a curious piece of timing, and there's a whiff of grapeshot coming from it all: is the intelligence community/Armed Forces sending a message here?

The internal machinations of the Egyptian elite (and, since the Sadat era, especially the military relations with the political sphere) are as opaque as the internal dynamics of the Saudi princes: those who think they know what's going on are almost certainly wrong. But reflecting on the timing — ElBaradei's star is fading; Gamal in in DC getting a taste of diplomacy; Saad Ibrahim gave Gamal a big PR boost, willingly or no — this is interesting timing.

A comment on my post of yesterday, and my response thereto, are worth repeating:
aron said...

"The fact that Suleiman still has his job suggests ... that he's not behind it"

Shouldn't he, well, say that? If it's really that clear where he stands on succession, one can't help but think a public statement would be in order. The absence of one is what's really perplexing.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Perplexing,yes, but typical. Suleiman almost never speaks for the record, never says much to the press, and then ONLY on Israeii-Palestinian issues, the one part of his portfolio that he's allowed (or perhaps chooses) to comment on publicly. His rare public appearances are off the record; I attended one some years ago, but have to respect the ground rules, though he said nothing of substance you don't already know. He's a classic spook. Say nothing much, and say even that on deep background.

I don't think he could make stump speeches: the aversion in professional spooks is pretty ingrained.

Now, the early commentary is interesting. Zeinobia is concerned, wondering why the supposed supporters of Suleiman say (I haven't found that quote) that security (presumably State Security, thus, the Interior Ministry) is supporting Gamal. She wonders if there is a rift between the Interior Ministry and the Military. It's a good question, but if this is some kind of ploy while Mubsrak is out of the country, it seems unlikely to be initiated by Suleiman. But then, if it's not, why doesn't he repudiate it?

Suleiman, at 74, is no youngster, has close links with the US and Israel (particularly with their intelligence bodies), and until a few years ago had no public profile whatsoever. Does that make him qualified to be President? (Well, I suppose if you compare him to Gamal . . .)

There's a new Facebook campaign, including as a starter a detailed hio of the man.

So who is this guy?

He was born in the Qena Governorate of Upper Egypt in 1936, and that makes him the rare Upper Egyptian in a regime whose elite are mostly from roots in the Delta, many from Menufiyya like Mubarak (and Sadat). He attended the Military Academy and served in the War in Yemen and the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, though his exact role is not stated. He served first in Military Intelligence, rose to command it in 1991, and in 1993 shifted to the General cntelligence Service (in US terms, shifting from DIA to CIA, but with both agencies far more powerful inside the regime).

In June 1995, he was in the car with Mubarak when it was attacked by assassins in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Mubarak reportedly credits Suleiman with saving his life, and the two men have been personally close ever since. Traditionally the head of General Intelligence is never mentioned, but since about 2000 when he began to be involved directly as an Israeli-Palestinian mediator, he's regularly appeared in news photos.

Still, he's a man of the shadows, and there's little to suggest he wants the Presidency, though as the commenter above notes, it's time for him to say so if he doesn't. If he really is moving for the Presidenxcy and/or there's a split between the military and Interior Ministry over the succession, this could be important.