Friday, December 31, 2010
Anyway, I haven't found a good weekend video worthy of keeping you from New Year's festivities, so that will resume nexr week. My New Year greetings are set to post at midnight.
As Husni Mubarak leads the way for Obama and the rest of us into 2011, let's glance back at the key points of 2010, the year in which Al-Ahram taught us with the above photo what an "expressive" photo was: what we'd previously thought of as "faked."
They had an "expressive" election, too.
The historian in me resists doing the "biggest story of 2010" sort of wrap-up, since I think you need longer perspective to know what really mattered, They say that when China's Zhou Enlai was asked his opinion of the French Revolution, he said "It's too soon to tell." A useful perspective.
Brian Whitaker chose Tunisia. The Jerusalem Post suggests Stuxnet. Either might turn out to be true, or as evanescent as all the stories you've forgotten about from last winter. Both are pretty recent. The simmering tensions in Lebanon over the STL could blow both off our radar screens in 2011,or might themselves prove overblown.
I do have a candidate for silliest story of the year: the Miss USA is a Hizbullah mole story that riled the far right briefly, until they focused on the "Ground Zero Mosque" that isn't a mosaue and isn't at Ground Zero.
Looking ahead, certainly one of the big stories of 2011 will be which Mubarak Egyptians will be asked to vote for in the fall. The illnesses of senior Saudis may be moving us towards a major transition there, too.
But the one looming story that I've shied away from could be the real bombshell lurking in the wings: the January 9 referendum on independenced in southern Sudan. The secession of southern Sudan — which seems inevitable unless they have Egyptian or Tunisian election observers — is going to shake the region and the Arab world. There's an African precedent (Eritrea from Ethiopia) but not an Arab one, and Egypt is concerned about the Nile. This is the powder keg no one wants to notice even as the fuse burns. Let's hope everyone's really going to respect the results. You believe that, don't you?
Yeah, me neither. Happy New Year.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Brian Whitaker of The Guardian, in his weekly Middle East roundup, offer a strong opinion:
The biggest story from the Middle East this week … No, the biggest, most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year is one that most readers may only vaguely have heard of, if at all. It's the Tunisian uprising . . .Is the Tunisian uprising really that transformative? I'll admit to still having doubts. Perhaps I've seen far too many Egyptian protest movements that fizzled with the appearance of the State Security heavies, and also remember Tehran in the summer of 2009. I remember the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, and now Sa‘d Hariri is making nice with Hizbullah to keep the lid on. Ever since walls fell in Eastern Europe 20 years ago, some Arab reformers have hoped for a similar wave in the Middle East. They're still waiting.
So, what we have in Tunisia today is the birth of a genuine, national, indigenous, popular movement, not against colonialists or foreign occupiers but against their own repressive regime, and one which is not tainted (as in Iran) by international power games.
This is something new, which is why it's so important. For years, writers have complained about the "Arab malaise" – the way Arabs have become accustomed to playing the role of victims, their passivity in the face of home-grown tyrants, and so on. The need, as I explained in my recent book, is for Arabs to stop being prisoners of their history and start shaping their own destiny. At long last, that is what the people of Tunisia are trying to do.
Am I too cynical? Is Whitaker too optimistic? I don't know. But even if — and it's a very big if — this wave of demonstrations led to regime change in Tunis (which I doubt it will), could it spread elsewhere? Tunisia is very different from most of its neighbors. Its secular traditions, dating from the Bourguiba era, are not readily transferable elsewhere. Other than the PLO, which got to know Tunis very well as a headquarters, and Arab diplomats during the Arab League's residence there during Egypt's years outside the league, many Arabs don't know the country well. The Gulf Arabs tend to prefer Morocco for their villas: perhaps the comfort of a monarchy. I'm not sure what happens in Tunis can resonate elsewhere, though some Egyptians are taking an interest.
Don't get me wrong; I hope he's right; I'm just not convinced this will really bring change. But I'd be glad to be proven wrong.
Whitaker raises another issue:
You won't find much about it in the western media (or the Arab media, for that matter) though you can piece together much of the story from snippets on Twitter and videos on YouTube.
It's true that the mainstream media have been relatively quiet, though I've seen items in the Washington Post and LA Times. The Tunisian media are of course controlled, and the international media, France excepted, don't follow North Africa closely. It's also the week between Christmas and New Year, and lots of people have it off. And there are exceptions. Whitaker himself has been covering it closely. This is also my sixth post on the subject in four days.
There have been complaints from bloggers about this silence but in a way it's refreshing not to have the likes of Fox News, Bernard Lewis and Glenn Beck telling us what should be done. In any case, the Tunisians – so far at least – seem to be getting on quite well with their uprising by themselves.
Foreign governments have been similarly quiet and, again, this is something of a blessing: too many activist movements in the region have been killed off by the wrong kind of support from the west.
First is a 2008 report on corruption in Tunisia. Readers of opposition blogs or the French media may have heard much of it before, but it is interesting to see it in an Ambassador's cable. It spells out the extent of alleged corruption, especially among the First Lady's family, the Trabelsis. One example among many:
The numerous stories of familial corruption are certainly galling to many Tunisians, but beyond the rumors of money-grabbing is a frustration that the well-connected can live outside the law. One Tunisian lamented that Tunisia was no longer a police state, it had become a state run by the mafia. "Even the police report to the Family!" he exclaimed. With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system. The daughter of a former governor recounted that Belhassen Trabelsi flew into her father's office in a rage -- even throwing an elderly office clerk to the ground -- after being asked to abide by laws requiring insurance coverage for his amusement park. Her father wrote a letter to President Ben Ali defending his decision and denouncing Trabelsi's tactics. The letter was never answered, and he was removed from his post shortly thereafter.Second, a 2009 report on the state of US-Tunisia relations generally, with a different take than that expressed in official statements. Read the whole thing, but the "Summary" runs:
The third is a report on a July 2009 dinner between the US Ambassador and his wife and Mohammed Sakher El Materi and his wife, son-in-law and daughter of Ben Ali. Materi is often mentioned as a possible successor to Ben Ali if the First Lady has any say in the matter, as she plans to. While Materi is described as cooperative and friendly, we also hear this:
By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not. While we share some key values and the country has a strong record on development, Tunisia has big problems. President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. Extremism poses a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the GOT brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police. The result: Tunisia is troubled and our relations are too.
¶13. (S) El Materi has a large tiger (“Pasha”) on his compound, living in a cage. He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day. (Comment: The situation reminded the Ambassador of Uday Hussein’s lion cage in Baghdad.) El Materi had staff everywhere. There were at least a dozen people, including a butler from Bangladesh and a nanny from South Africa. (NB. This is extraordinarily rare in Tunisia, and very expensive.)It's a revealing report on a man still largely unknown to non-Tunisians.
Set your phone to vibrate before addressing the nation on TV. Set your phone to vibrate . . .
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
I've got to admit to a conflict of interest here: I've known Dr. Romdhani since his days as a young Tunisian Press Agency (TAP) correspondent in Washington; he did graduate work at my alma mater, Georgetown, and was a fixture in DC for most of the 1980s, first as a journalist and then as the press officer of the Tunisian Embassy. He eventually rose to be head of the Tunisian External Communications Agency, and cultivated many French and American journalists, winning Tunisia a lot of good press. He's a good and talented man who deserved to represent a better government. About a year or so ago he became Commumications Minister. Now he's lost that job, apparently for being unable to persuade the foreign press to put a positive spin on the present troubles.
Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, whose resignation has been demanded by the demonstrators, kept his job.
Most of the top 50 are Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, or Qataris. You'd probably be able to guess two of the three Lebanese: Sa‘d Hariri (No. 27) and ‘Issam Fares (No. 45). Jeweler Robert Mouawad, a diamond merchant, is also on the list at No. 43.
The top ranking Egyptian is the Sawiris Family, at No. 28 ($3.55 billion), centered on telecom and press mogul Naguib Sawiris.
The last two mentions are interesting, though Arabian Business doesn't mention it: they're Christians, as is Palestinian contractor Said Khoury (No. 8 with $7 billion), so three of the richest 50 Arabs are Christian. Robert Mouawad is a Maronite I believe; Naguib Sawiris and his family are Copts, and Said Khoury is Greek Orthodox.
Oh, and one of the richest Arabs seems to actually be a Kurd, but who's counting?
Back when the Saudi astronaut went up on the shuttle some years back, there had to be a ruling by religious leaders about what the times of prayer might be when you're circling the earth every 90 minutes or so. The article doesn't say, but wouldn't something similar arise at 90 degrees south, where you're standing in all the time zones at once? I think in the space case they decided to use Mecca time, but may be misremembering that.
The question of future Palestinian leadership at a time when the peace process seems moribund is an important one. Dahlan may have overplayed his hand, though the details are still quite murky. For now, he seems a spent force. But I still think it may be worth watching him.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
He is quick to blame foreign media for blowing things out of proportion:
Though he isn't specific, elsewhere Al Jazeera is being singled out. (Link in Arabic) After blaming the messengers, he goes on to outline economic and development accomplishments of the regime and pledge to help the unemployed. You can find the entire text in English here.
I have been following with anxiety and concern the events that took place over the recent days in Sidi Bouzid.
While these events were triggered by one social case, of which we understand the circumstances and psychological factors and whose consequences are regrettable, the exaggerated turn that these events have taken, as a result of their political manipulation by some sides who do not wish good to the homeland and resort to some foreign television channels which broadcast false and unchecked allegations and rely on dramatisation, fabrication and defamation hostile to Tunisia, requires from us to clarify some issues and confirm the truths that must be taken into consideration . .
So it looks like the question of which Mubarak will run is as unclear as ever.
A video of good turnout in Bethlehem:
A Palestine News Network report on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem:
A BBC report on the usual quarrels over who gets to repair the roof of the Church of the Nativity; it seems the Palestinian Authority is stepping in to get things done. The video doesn't embed so you need to follow the link.
An Al Jazeera report and article:
Another Al Jazeera English report on Palestinian tour agencies taking tourists to different sites:
Another piece on Syrian Christians in Jerusalem:
Monday, December 27, 2010
Most have been in the Sidi Bouzid region in central Tunisia, where at least one protester has been killed, but demonstrations have also occurred in the capital. It may be the most extensive popular protests since the late Bourguiba years in the 1980s. An apparent suicide and an attempted one were among the sparks that set it off.
Tunisian media is tame, and foreign media seem to be having troubles reporting beyond Tunis, but there is, of course, new media. Among them: the Nawaa website, posting news, videos, and the map of purported outbreaks I reproduce here; its posts are mostly Arabic, some French, with a French roundup of news here. There's a collection called tunisians on Vimeo with posted videos; another set of videos on YouTube; and of course, a #sidibouzid hashtag on Twitter.
The usual problems that can be expected when rumors are the main source of information can be found on such sites, claims that some police have sided with the demonstrators, even speculation the government might fall, should be met with caution. Anyone who followed social media during the Tehran troubles of 2009 will know how hard it can be to deal with a determined security apparatus.
The week between Christmas and New Year's is slow, and I was wondering if there'd be much to post about. I guess there will be.
UPDATE: The Moor Next Door on the subject.
UPDATE II: And via The Moor, I've discovered the blog A Tunisian Girl, which is covering the protests with posts in English, French, Arabic and German.
Friday, December 24, 2010
I think I told the story here once before of an Arab Christian who grew tired of being asked by Western hostesses, on learning he was a Christian, "Which missionary group converted your people?" He always answered, "Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles." After all, it started there: the New Testament itself says Jesus was born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and was crucified in Jerusalem; that his followers were first called "Christians" in Antioch, and so on. Yet to Western Christians, the Eastern branches of the faith are a mystery. Yet most historians agree that the oldest Christian liturgy still in use today is in the Church of the East (the Assyrian Church).
Oh, the television networks will broadcast a snippet of the Latin Patriarch's Christmas Eve service in Bethlehem, though the majority of Arab Christians will celebrate on the Eastern date in January.
So here are a variety of the varied Middle Eastern traditions, some recorded in the region and some in the diaspora. One or two are reruns from last year, but most are new.
A Coptic hymn to Mary. The Coptic language, now only a liturgical, tongue, is a descendant of Ancient Egyptian:
In the Antiochian Orthodox tradition, a Byzantine Christmas Hymn in Arabic:
A Chaldean Christmas hymn. The Chaldeans are the Eastern Catholic analogue of the Church of the East (Assyrians):
These two from the Lebanese Maronite tradition:
Syriac Orthodox: An entrance prcession for Christmas 2007/8 at a Syriac Orthodox Chruch in Aleppo: amid traditional sounding Eastern music there's also a singing of Silent Night in Syriac as the celebrants enter.
Church of the East (Assyrian):
For an Armenian Christmas I can't resist a repeat from last year, since it combines a Nativity scene with dancing Santas and mixes Eastern and Western music:
And to recall the ancient Armenian Church's more traditional music, this:
And with that, being a fat guy with a white beard, I have a busy evening ahead. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Bethlehem (Beth Lechem in Hebrew, "house of bread," and the cognate Bayt Lahm in Arabic, "house of meat," from a presumed Semitic root that meant something like "staple food": bread for an agricultural population, meat for a pastoral one) is a pretty town set in the Judean hills a dozen miles or so south of Jerusalem. It has some spectacular views out across the hills and desert towards the Dead Sea, and the "Little Town of Bethlehem" is a crowded city these days, where Muslims and Christians share the town; Muslims are in majority, but the Mayor is, under Palestinian Authority rules, always a Christian.
According to the Old Testament, Bethlehem was the home town of King David, and thus Messianic prophecies became associated with it. Tradition says that Jacob's wife Rachel is buried there, though there are conflicting traditions. But Bethlehem's real claim to fame is of course known to every Christmas caroler: the only two Gospels that describe Jesus' birth agree it was in Bethlehem, despite their many differences in details.
There are reports ahead of tonight's Big Night in Bethlehem that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's efforts to increase tourism to the Palestinian Authority are making this a more optimistic year for the West Bank city, whose primary tourism season is, of course, Christmas. I hope they're right. It's been a rough period for Bethlehem, which is pretty much a one-industry town, or maybe two: pilgrimage and olive wood. If you're not interested in the olive wood manger scenes or crosses, the craftsmen can pull out olive wood crescents, stars of David, or even Menorahs, but religion and olive wood are about the whole economy.
Last year, and most recent years, have been more awkward. The Israeli separation barrier, the Wall, not only blocks the pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, slowing down pilgrimages, but runs right down one side of the main street into town, or what used to be, due to the Separation Wall dividing Bethlehem from Israeli-controlled Rachel's Tomb runs right down what was formerly the road; the satellite view in Google Earth shows just how bizarre the wall is in this part of its course. I haven't personally been there since the wall was built, and from the video and other views I've seen, I think I'm glad.
And Rachel's Tomb is one of Bethlehem's Holy Places. Being Jewish, it is separated by a wall from the Christian ones.
I don't intend to get into all the arguments about the wall here; I do believe with Robert Frost that "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," but I also understand why the Israelis built it. On the other hand, its impact on Bethlehem has been pretty devastating.
A Time video from last year:
And an AlJazeera English video, also on last year's Christmas, on the way the separation fence and other tensions have hurt tourism:
A Palestinian video showing celebrations, demonstrations, confrontations, and parties at home:
Mahmud ‘Abbas at the Church of the Nativity last Christmas:
And on the subject of the wall, there's this video and song I also posted last year, using as background a song by Canadian Christian singer Garth Hewitt:
There'll be one more Christmas post before the weekend, so stay tuned.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
The present government doesn't want it to become a rallying point for old Baathists, who see Saddam as a martyr, but then destroying it might be seen as desecrating the Qur'an. (I would suggest that creating it in the first place amounted to desecrating the Qur'an, but I'm not a faqih or even a Muslim.)
This is one of those problems I'm glad isn't going to be up to me to resolve.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
The King's surgery, and the precarious health of the Crown Prince, have sparked speculation about the line of succession, though the Saudis do not care for such speculation, and a Saudi paper last month decried the British press' speculation about British succession, without, of course, drawing any parallels.
The fact of the matter is that the Family does not discuss its inner dynamics, and however much intellectual exercise we may get from various succession scenarios, no one who knows is going to talk, and no one who's talking actually knows.
But two key Egyptian papers' differing coverage struck me as interesting. Al-Ahram, government mouthpiece but also the paper of record, mentioned them all and shows them all (link is in Arabic):
Salva Kiir is the one wearing the cool hat.
But Al-Masry al-Youm, an independent and usually a better paper for actual news, reports a four-way summit as if it's between Mubarak, Qadhafi, Bashir, and Salva Kiir. (Article is in Arabic.) Their English page does the same and adds insult to injury by cropping the photo to exclude not only the Mauritanian but Salva Kiir as well:
(Note I'm dependent on the websites for now; the hard copy might be different.) Oddly, both Arabic articles call it a four-way summit in their headlines, but from one you'd assume they mean the four Presidents, and from the other three Presidents and a Vice President.
Now, General Ould ‘Abd al-‘Aziz is no hero of mine; he came to power in a coup and is no great democrat. But he's a fellow Arab head of state: why has he disappeared down the memory hole? I'm sure that a great many Egyptians are not even aware that Mauritania is an Arab country, and few think its leader ranks with Mubarak or Qadhafi. But to make him an unperson in the story? To ignore him completely?
I fear Mauritania, far from the experience of most eastern Arabs, is easily forgotten. Once my wife and I attended a reception for Arab military attaches. The Mauritanian attache was in a corner by himself, so we chatted him up. He was pleased we both knew where his country even was, though neither of us had been there. But clearly Mauritania gets no respect. (Except from Qadhafi, whose attentions are not always welcome.) Why the Mauritanian President was there is of course another question (I suspect Qadhafi is part of the answer), but even if he was a fifth wheel at the summit, at least acknowledge he was there.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Offhand I'm guessing this is the usual bureaucratic redundancy familiar to most security services in most countries: of course the Interior Ministry already has such forces, but Intelligence did not. Now Prince Muqrin has one, too.
Monday, December 20, 2010
We'll be talking more about this as January 9 approaches, but my excuse for posting on it today? Civil War buffs and natives of the Palmetto State will know that 150 years ago today, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first southern state to secede from the United States, beginning the inexorable slide into Civil War.
Most white South Carolinians either supported secession or stayed quiet (in the upcountry where there were few slaves, there were Unionists: I had a Georgia mountaineer ancestor who fought for the Union*), but one South Carolinian who didn't was ex-Congressman James L. Petigru, who, when his state seceded, famously said, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."
[*Said ancestor was a Methodist preacher (Northern Methodist no less) so proud of his Union service he later headed one of only two Grand Army of the Republic posts in Georgia. It was the William Tecumseh Sherman post. In Georgia this is known as chutzpah.]
I am not prejudging the choice of the southern Sudanese; that's for them to decide. It's just the date that inspired the reflection.