A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Is Sharaf Unhappy with his Cabinet?

Al-Masry al-Youm reported this week that Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has asked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for permission to replace seven members of his Cabinet he considers working at cross-purposes to the Revolution, and has been turned down. If true — it has not, so far as I know, been confirmed — then it's yet another suggestion that Sharaf has little real power, and the military is calling the shots. Earlier, Sharaf had suggested he supported a new constitution prior to elections, then backpedaled and played down his comment, noting it wasn't up to him to decide.

The fact that SCAF remains for the large part silent on many subjects, at least in public, clearly conceals the degree to which it is pulling the strings. One expects some bumps in the road in any transition, and a certain amount of two-steps-forward-one-step-back, but with the clashes this week in Tahrir, there may be more and more collisions between impatient revolutionary activists and the Army. That could be troubling for the future of the transition. The clashes this week have mostly been with the Central Security Forces, not the Army, but if Sharaf cannot reform the Interior Ministry and its police elements, the honeymoon between the protesters and the Army could be nearing an end.

The STL Indicts

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has finally issued the indictments for its four suspects in the Hariri case. For the moment I'm going to refer you to the always astute Qifa Nabki's comments, since I think he captures the complexities of the situation. It's a different world and a different Lebanon from when the STL began its work, and I'm sure the Mikati government would like it to just go away.

Trita Parsi on the MEK

Trita Parsi (an MEI adjunct scholar by the way) has a good post up at The Huffington Post about the People's Mojahedin of Iran/Mohahedin-e-Khalq (PMOI or MEK) efforts to get themselves off the US terrorism supporters list. His lead says it all succinctly:
In the 10 years that I have lived in Washington, I have never seen lobbyists for al-Qaeda parade through the halls of Congress. I have not seen any events on Capitol Hill organized by Hamas. And I have not seen any American politicians take campaign contributions from the Islamic Jihad.
But the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an organization with the blood of Americans and Iranians alike on its hands, freely does all of these things, despite being a designated foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
I've been here a lot longer than ten years, but I share his view. The MEK have been lobbying hard in Washington since the 80s at least, despite being on the terrorist list for killing American diplomats and military personnel in the days of the Shah. They're slick, they're well funded (how?) and they seem able to persuade Congressmen who would never respond to an Arab group in the same way. Yet besides their track record of killing US personnel in the Shah's day, they are based in Iraq, fought on t he side of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, maintain to this day a cultlike "Camp Ashraf" in Iraq that the Iraqi government is pressuring to leave and threatening to deport to Iran, have a true cult of personality about their leadership, and are uniformly hated by every Iranian I know who isn't one of them, from Pahlavi restorationists to leftists to liberal democrats to people who support the current system. After all, they fought for Saddam against Iranians, and are traitors in the eyes even of those who hate the clerical regime.

Their PR skills are good. In my journalism days they used to drop by regularly to try to cultivate me, and while I listened politely, I had too many US military friends who'd served in pre-revolutionary Iran and knew them as their primary nemesis. (The MEK claim that was because their current leadership was in jail under the Shah, and all the bad stuff was done by somebody else.)

True story: I've only been in Iraq once, for about five days in 1989 in between the Iran-Iraq war and the Kuwait war. I was getting in an elevator in the Sheraton Hotel when a smallish man in an impeccable suit stepped in and asked if I was an American. My first thought was, gosh, he looks and carries himself just like the MEK guys in DC. Guess what? That's exactly who he was. With exactly the same missionary spiel.

These are not democrats or freedom fighters. The more you get to know them the more they seem closer to some kind of odd, almost Manson-like cult. Maryam Rajavi is their leader and she (her husband yielded to her years ago since the mullahs don't treat women well and a woman leader impresses Westerners) will be President of Iran when they somehow sweep away the clerical regime. Not through election, through acclamation. She's the Evita Peron of Iran, or at least a wannabe.

I have no brief for the clerical regime, but these guys worry me, especially for their strange, Svengali-like power over members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. I applaud Trita's warning here. Let the Buyer Beware.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wretched Excess Department: Abu Dhabi Moves into Caviar

From today's New York Times: "The Fish that Lay the Golden Eggs,": "Abu Dhabi is talking caviar on a scale that would make czars blush." They're building the world's largest indoor caviar factory which, at full production, could account for over a quarter of global production.

I guess if you're a major consumer you ought to get in on the production end as well, but so much for dispelling stereotypes about the lavish lifestyles of the rich and Emirati.

Watching My Old Street Erupt

There's been a second day of clashes and confrontations in and around Tahrir Square, with much of the trouble seeming focused around the American University's old downtown campus and Mohamed Mahmoud Street. A lot of the pictures and videos are focused on that street. Back in 1977-78. a long time ago I know, during a year at the American Research Center in Egypt, I lived in an apartment building at the corner of Yusuf al-Gindi and Mohamed Mahmoud, across from AUC. Though my apartment building is long since gone, most of the other buildings I'm seeing in the scenes of the clashes are places I used to pass every day (though the stores have changed on Tahrir itself). Even nearly 35 years later, it still is a strange sensation.

Tahrir the Day After

There were more than 1000 injuries and reportedly one death in last night's clashes in Tahrir. Zeinobia rounds up pictures and videos; Ursula Lindsey summarizes the course of events.
And, once again, my tax dollars at work: the inevitable pictures of spent tear gas canisters "Made in USA"

Weird Cairo: Qasr al-Baron in Heliopolis

Qasr al-Baron
Quick now: if you don't recognize the building at left, where do you think it stands? The tall tower certainly echoes Angkor Wat, and there are other distinctly Cambodian elements to the place.

But it's not in Southeast Asia, it's in Cairo, in the modern (early 20th Century) suburb of Heliopolis, built there by one of the originators of that distinctive and European suburb, the Belgian Baron Empain. He called it the Palais Hindou and modeled it on Angkor Wat and a Temple at Orissa in India. Egyptians today call it Qasr al-Baron, or the Palace of the Baron, though I've also heard it called Qasr al-Magnun (Palace of the Madman.)

Another View
He was, however, no madman. He designed the tramlines of many European cities, and Cairo's, and conceived, with an Egyptian partner, the idea of Heliopolis. Though Heliopolis has a charming, early 20th century European feel to it (especially the neighborhood still known, from an early theatre, as "Roxy"), with a lot of interesting architecture, the expansion of Cairo to the northeast has seen it increasingly surrounded by Egyptian Army and Air Force bases and academies, and along with adjacent Nasr City it has become a major residential center for senior military officers (and many senior political figures as well).

The US-Saudi Relationship and Arab Spring

Paul Mutter guest-posts at The Arabist a lengthy and thoughtful essay on "The US-Saudi 'Special Relationship' and the Arab Spring."

Some will applaud and some won't, but it's a thoughtful and provocative contribution. Read it, please.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tahrir Violence Tonight

There are new eruptions in Tahrir Square tonight; the Ministry of the Interior is blaming "thugs" but the demonstrators are saying a peaceful demonstration was attacked by police and Central Security Forces with teargas.  Too many narratives are in play to discern the truth from here tonight, but let's see how it's handled in the morning papers. Meanwhile, #Tahrir on Twitter.

ALSO: A curated site here is archiving the tweets and translating the Arabic ones.

AND:\ More here and here, this one with videos.

Iran Plans to Launch Monkey into Space

No joke here: Iran's space program has announced plans to orbit a monkey in the next month or so. Iran's space program is increasingly ambitious, though after only two successful satellite launches it may not augur well for the future of the monkey. Back in 1957 the Soviet Union sent the dog Laika up on only the second Sputnik, but with no intention of bringing her back. It isn't clear if Iran expects to recover the monkey.

Egypt's Workers and the Revolution

Here's a useful article on how Egypt's laborers are feeling frustrated and left behind as the elites concentrate on political reform rather than such issues as minimum wage. I think the young intelligentsia and elites should recall that strikes across the country and especially in Mahalla helped start the protest movement, and that the workers were part of the demonstrations from the beginning. Yet they've seen few changes.

Treasure Trove: AMIR

I've encountered this extremely useful website before and if you haven't you need to. Access to Middle East and Islamic Resources (AMIR) is just what it says: a site containing links to useful online resources dealing with the Mideast and Islamic world. their postings for June 27 ALONE include these links:
And that was for yesterday.

I also discovered a wonderful link: the Claremont Graduate University is posting the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by the late, great Aziz Suryal Atiya. (He guided a bunch of us ARCE [American Research Center in Egypt] fellows to the Wadi Natrun monasteries back in the late 70s.) An invaluable resource. AMIR is now in my blogroll.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Egypt: A Sunni Country with More than its Share of Shi‘ite Saints

This article in Al-Masry al-Youm on how Egypt's minuscule Shi‘ite community was allowed to celebrate the birthday of Sayyida Zaynab, the Prophet's granddaughter, this year for the first time since the fall of Mubarak, set me to thinking about Egypt's, and especially Cairo's, extensive links to Shi‘ism and Shi‘ite saints for a country that is overwhelmingly Sunni. In part this is a legacy for the two-centuries long rule of the Fatimids, an Isma‘ili Shi‘i dynasty who founded Cairo in 969, but only in part.

Today, Egypt's Shi‘ites are a tiny percentage; 1% of the population is sometimes heard. They were much harassed under Mubarak, mostly by State Security which suspected them of being a potential pro-Iranian fifth column. Some are indeed of Iranian or Pakistani origin, but there are indigenous Shi‘ites as well. Some of the often quoted activists are, in fact, converts from Sunnism.

Shahada on the Bab al-Nasr
But the irony is that if by "Cairo" we mean Al-Qahira bearing that name, Cairo is a Shi‘ite foundation. The earlier towns of Fustat, al-‘Askar, and al-Qata‘i became outer suburbs of the new, walled, Fatimid city. Of the three surviving Fatimid gates to the city, one of them, the Bab al-Nasr, carries an explicitly Shi‘ite shahada inscribed on it (There is no God but God; Muhammad is the Prophet of God; ‘Ali is the Wali of God). Later Sunni dynasties never removed it, perhaps because the Kufic is high off the ground and hard to read. Al-Azhar itself, the great mosque/university that became the bastion of Sunni Orthodoxy, was actually a Fatimid Shi‘ite foundation.

Sayyida Zaynab, being honored by the celebrants described at the link, was the Prophet's granddaughter, daughter of ‘Ali and Fatima, sister of Imams Hasan and Hussein. She is also one of the "patron saints" of Cairo, and her tomb there is a popular place of pilgrimage, especially for women. Her birthday is one of he great mulids or saint's days in Cairo, celebrated by Sunnis and marked by the Sufi orders, though explicitly Shi‘ite observations have been suppressed. (Like certain other highly venerated saints, Muslim as well as Christian, she is too popular to be buried in only one place. She also has a highly visited tomb in Damascus. Her brother, Imam Hussein, is held by most Shi‘ites to be buried in Karbala' in Iraq, but the Sayyidna Hussein mosque in Cairo says they have his head. Christians should not be cynical: do you know how many places have John the Baptist's head?)

In fact, Cairo's most popular "patron saints" are almost all of them Shi‘ite figures: Sayyidna Hussein, mentioned already, though today his celebrations are primarily an outlet for the Sufi orders; Sayyida Zaynab; her half-sister (daughter of ‘Ali by a wife other than Fatima), Sayyida Ruqayya (who, like her sister, is also buried in Damascus); and Sayyida Nafisa, a great-great-great-granddaughter of the Prophet who, so far as I know, is only buried in Cairo.

Ironically, of Cairo's great city patron saints, all but one are highly venerated descendants of the Prophet and thus Shi‘a saints as well. The one unambiguously Sunni patron saint is Imam al-Shafi‘i, founder of one of the four great legal schools of Sunni Islam. His tomb is also a major pilgrimage site. The only irony there is that the Shafi‘i legal school does not wholly approve of venerating saints' tombs and holding pilgrimages.

An oddity: Anwar Sadat in his last years allowed a modern Indian Isma‘ili group to refurbish the Fatimid  Mosque of Al-Hakim, creating a Shi‘ite (but not a "Twelver") presence in the ancient Fatimid city.

Despite some heated propaganda when the Mubarak regime was denouncing Iran, there is little likelihood of a major rebirth of Shi‘ism in Egypt. But the bits and pieces of its history still play a role in the daily popular (and Sunni) religious life of the city, especially for the popular city saints.

About the Lion Guy ...

Remember the Egyptian who was going to wrestle a lion? Well, he sort of did it, and J. Hammond tells the story. He still comes across as a clown but at least the lion survived, as did he. Can his 15 minutes of fame be over now, please?

Egypt and the IMF/World Bank Decision

Egypt's decision not to borrow from the IMF or World Bank at this time, despite its economic problems, has raised some questions; apparently it plans to rely on budget support from the Gulf instead. The Arabist offers some musings.

I Guess it Could Get Worse; It Just Did

The whole Gay Girl in Damascus hoax should have caused enough embarrassment by now to just simply let it die. But there's more. There are allegations that a defender of the hoaxer was, in fact, yet another sockpuppet of the original hoaxer, since the postings came from his ISP address. He defends himself, but at this point the story needs to end. Pay no more attention to this, or this guy, or this site, or this site's defenders. It's distracted us all from what's really going on in Syria, and that verges on the criminal.

I, for one, will not mention this blogger again unless it is determined he (formerly she) is a conscious agent of the Syrian government. He has certainly been an unconscious one. Shame.

I have to make a presentation today at noon at the World Affairs Council of DC on the Egyptian Unfinished Revolution, so my posting today, other than this one, will be late-ish.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Readings on ‘Alawite Self-Identity

Over at Syria Comment Josh Landis has posted a number of items dealing with the sectarian issues involved in the Syrian conflict. One particularly interesting one is this post by "Khudr," dealing with ‘Alawite identity. Khudr also links to a 2005 post on another blog, on the same subject.

They're useful reading. Most non-Syrians tend to characterize the ‘Alawites as a typical religious minority that has dominated Syria for decades.  Beyond the standard textbook definition, its clear that a lot of cultural and class baggage is part of that identity, regardless of personal religious convictions. (Though that's true of most minorities in the region, Druze, Maronites, Copts, etc.) But useful background in understanding Syria's ordeal.

Have a good weekend

Amin Maalouf is Second Arab Elected to Académie Francaise's 40 "Immortals"

Amin Maalouf, the well known Lebanese novelist, journalist and all-around writer who writes primarily in French, has been elected to the Académie française. (Link is to the L'Express story which, appropriately for a story about the Academy, is in French.)   The Academy, which is the ultimate protector and promoter of the French language, has only 40 members, who serve for life and are elected by the current members. He takes the 29th seat, vacated by the death of Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2009. A good profile of Maalouf is here.

Maalouf is not the first Francophone Arab in the French Academy. That would be Assia Djebar, an Algerian novelist, elected in 2005.

I wonder if Cardinal Richelieu, the original patron of the Academy, would be surprised. My first thought was, would he find it strange that two Arabs were among the 40 "immortals," as the Members are styled? Then I recalled that, though a Cardinal of the of the Roman Catholic Church, he brought France into the 30 Years War (the last religious war) on what was otherwise the "Protestant" side. So, nah, probably not.

Jeans, Jinn, and Iran's Morality Police

I'm paying too little attention to Iran lately and need, sometime soon, to address the growing conflicts between the Supreme Leader and the President. But for right now something a little lighter, which, however, may be a reflex of that struggle: "Jeans 'are named for jinns and can make you infertile', Iranians told."  Now a couple of caveats first: a UAE newspaper like The National has its own agenda on Iran, of course. And it does bother me to see any newspaper in the Arab world, even one in English, use "Jinns" in a headline, since jinn is already a plural. It's like saying "geeses" or "feets" or something. (The singular, of course, is jinni, as in the "genie" of the Lamp.)

But on to the story itself. Arguments over dress code, it claims, are part of the Khamene'i/Ahmadinejad power struggle, and Iran has a developing morality police that seem akin to Saudi Arabia's mutawa‘in, if more selective.

Two further thoughts on the jeans/jinn question: first, do young men really find infertility (as opposed to impotence of course) a bad thing? Until they're ready for kids, at least?

And secondly, please don't tell them jeans were popularized by Levi Strauss. Imagine what they might do with that.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

That Might Explain It

Reading this piece by Abraham Wagner at the Huffington Post on Saudi Arabia, I was struck by this passage:
Clearly change is coming, whether by death or revolution. King Fahd, never an enlightened or benevolent monarch, suffered a stroke in 1995 and has not been "dealing with a full deck" in years. His relatives and potential heirs aren't much better.
King Fahd, of course, died on August 1, 2005, so that might explain it. And King ‘Abdullah, who as Crown Prince pretty much ran things from 1995 to 2005, has been King for nearly six years. Always glad to see expert and up to the minute analysis of the Kingdom, especially when discussing it in the context of Arab Spring.

TMND Charts Algerian, Tunisian Parties

Kal at The Moor Next Door posts very useful charts and graphics: his latest posting is of Tunisian Leftist Parties and Algerian Political Parties. His Charts and Graphics Page includes charts on other such subjects, including one of Tunisian Islamist Parties. You can view them or download PDFs, and they're very useful guides. You can't tell the players without a scorecard.

Salih Attack Confirmed as Planted TNT

The attack which wounded Yemeni President Salih on has been confirmed as having come from a planted explosive, not a mortar or rocket attack as originally reported. Investigators found traces of TNT planted in the mosque. It had been reported previously but now has apparently been confirmed. The ability to plant explosives inside a mosque in the Presidential compound suggests eithe4r an inside job or a security lapse.

Meanwhile, Salih remains in Saudi Arabia, and many reports say the Saudis are pressuring him .to step down but he and his sons are resisting.

Strange Bedfellows: The Brotherhood, the Wafd, and Other New Best Friends

As Egypt engages in a debate over whether to write a  new constitution before  holding elections, or to proceed as currently planned and hold elections in September and then  revise the constitution, the liberal political parties have generally favored the constitution first, while the Muslim Brotherhood prefers the \present schedule. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was widely quoted as saying he favored the constitution first approach, but subsequently backpedaled and said he had been misunderstood and besides, it wasn't up to him, suggesting possibly that the Army Council had overruled him.

Further muddying the waters is a curious multi-party alliance recently forged, or perhaps not. A few days ago, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wafd Party, and a group of other parties in Egypt (a total of 18) announced an alliance of sorts, though exactly what sort remains unclear. (They "discussed" running a unified list of candidates, but apparently didn't actually announce they would form one.) The Economist notes some of the ironies: though the Brotherhood and the Wafd forged an electoral alliance in 1984, at that time the Wafd was the senior partner and the Brotherhood technically illegal. The Wafd traces its origins to the 1919 Revolution, and the crescent-and-cross flag of that uprising (left) is echoed in the Wafd's more modern logo (right). The Brotherhood, far from proclaiming a secular and non-sectarian message, has as its motto, "Islam is the solution."

The alliance also includes other Islamist parties and even the leftwing Tagammu‘ party, not to mention several new parties of varying political coloration. It seems clearly to ber an electoral maneuver to capitalize on the fact that the Brotherhood does not plan to run candidates in every Parliamentary race. Issandr El Amrani used his weekly comment in Al-Masry al-Youm to analyze what he calls "a dalliance, not an alliance," and ashe notes, it's far from clear what the parties have agreed on. "Sandmonkey" (Mahmoud Salem) calls it an unholy alliance and offers some good observations, though he reads it as if the parties have agreed to run a unified list, whereas I read it only that they have agreed to "discuss" one.

This article in Arabic on the Muslim Brotherhood website lists all 18 parties to the agreement. If it is an agreement.

My own take at this point is that most of the party-alliance maneuvering right now will evaporate quickly if a constitution first approach is taken; a shift back to a proportional representation system from the current constituency system would transform everybody's calculus.

But Sharaf's seeming shift in his position suggests the ultimate decision, at least for now, may with the men behind the curtain, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces. In public at least the Giza sphinx remains more talkative than they do, but all indicators are they support elections first, and no delay in the September schedule. The Brotherhood prefers early elections before the liberal and secular parties have time to fully organize, and that lack of organization seems evident in this electoral maneuvering.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Egypt's New Foregn Minister: More Cautious?

Muhammad El ‘Orabi has been named Egypt's new Foreign Minister. The job had fallen vacant when Nabil ElAraby, who'd been holding it, was elected the new Secretary-General of the Arab League. 

Though several other candidates had been mentioned, ‘Orabi, a former Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs,  may be a logical pick as a transitional Minister until an elected government can be formed, but that also means, as this analysis laments, he probably will not rock the boat or diverge much from the policies of the Mubarak era. ElAraby, on the contrary, had pursued new courses, with policies less aligned with the US and more critical of Israel. ‘Orabi, who served as a deputy chief of mission in Tel Aviv in the 1990s, is likely to be less confrontational. A former soldier and son of a former Chief of Staff, he is likely to be trusted by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, though reports like the last link above saying he was personally close to the Mubarak family and supportive of Gamal's succession, he may not sit so well with he revolutionary youth.

Two Items of Middle East Internet Interest (Or Perhaps Profound Concern)

 A couple of recent items of interest for those concerned about the Internet in the Middle East. Make of these what you will.
  • A Tunisian court has stepped in to reinstate the blocking of porn sites in Tunisia post-revolution. The Tunisian Internet Agency apparently had lifted all censorship, but the courts are ordering it reinstated. The concern among Tunisian journalists and reformers is not, of course, that they are being deprived of porn (they have French and Italian satellite channels for that), but that Internet censorship justified on the grounds of blocking pornography quite often (See Saudi Arabia, China, etc.) becomes the instrument for blocking political expression. If you have a filter, you can decide what to filter out. The blocking of the Internet and social media in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and most recently Syria has not prevented ongoing dissent there (any more than filters have completely blocked access to the Internet-savvy anywhere), but it has certainly been used as much for political and repressive ends as much as to protect the youth from pornography.
  • Speaking of censorship, the world champion enforcers of morality, who not only guard against porn but also against such Western decadence as cinemas, women driving, and unveiled women, Saudi Arabia's Hay'a or Agency for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, AKA the Religious Police, are getting interested in using social media to promote their efforts.  (The link, to the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, is in Arabic.) To summarize the rather brief (and apparently, unlike this post, devoid of irony) report, they are looking into how to use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (all named in the report) to further their mission. Now, I've posted before on the clumsiness of some old-guards in the Middle East trying to venture out into social media, such as the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' publishing their communiques to Facebook, but just putting up an image of their communique as if they were sending a fax (that's still how they're doing it). But the mutawwa‘in on Facebook or Twitter? It defies the imagination. No, sorry, on reflection it doesn't: Orwell would have gotten it immediately: what better media for letting people denounce their neighbors for their sinful ways? A tweet, a private Facebook message, a visit from the Religious Police, and the Prevention of Vice (if not the Promotion of Virtue) is accomplished.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

More Takes on the Moroccan Constitutional Proposals

Yesterday I offered a roundup of links to opinions on the Moroccan constitutional proposals. 

Here are some more. Issandr El Amrani (The Arabist), who's of Moroccan-American background though based in Egypt, offers his own roundup of links, as well as a translation of a detailed post by Moroccan blogger Larbi on why he is opposed to the proposal, more or less article by article. If you prefer to see Larbi's article in the original French, or check out his blog more generally, go here.

On the positive side of the coin, Ken Pollack at the Saban Center at Brookings gives a more optimistic view here.

I'm still reserving judgment. After nearly 12 years on the throne Muhammad VI has earned something of a reputation as a reformer, and the worst abuses of his father's reign have been tempered, but he has also not appeared to be prepared to abandon historical royal prerogatives. Keep reading both sides and keep watching developments would be my recommendation. That's what I intend to do.

Two Anniversaries in Egypt

Besides being the first day of summer, today also marked a couple of landmark anniversaries in Egypt: It was the birthday of the late,  great Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, who died at only 47, but it is also the tenth anniversary of the mysterious death of the popular Egyptian actress Soad Hosny, who was at one time reputedly romantically linked to Hafez. Hosny died in a fall from her apartment window in London, and there have long been rumors that it was no accident; her diaries and memoirs reportedly disappeared, and there were rumored links to Egyptian intelligence. (If it sounds surprisingly similar to the tale of Ashraf Marwan, the Nasser son-in-law who fell, jumped, or was pushed from his balcony in London in 2007, others have noted the resemblance.   Both Egyptian intelligence and Mossad have been blamed for that one. (Oh, and his memoirs, which he'd been working on, were never found, either.)

Blogger Zeinobia recently noted that there is talk of investigating Soad Hosny's death in the wake of the fall of the powerful Safwat al-Sharif. If so, we might gain some insight into some of the murkier moments in the modern Middle East.

An Egyptian Ambassador to London and a secretary to Nasser's Vice President Abdel Hakim Amer also died mysteriously in London. Egyptians living there really need to exercise care around windows and balconies, at least until we see how much has changed since the revolution.

Inconceivable: So It Can't Be Happening

Fans of the cult movie The Princess Bride will recall the exchange between a character who keeps using the word "Inconceivable!" for every unanticipated development and another who responds, "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."

I was reminded of that when reading this exchange:
The officer looks stricken. "I don't know what to do," he says plaintively. He has never been faced with a female driver before. "If I raise it up [the issue of her driving] it is wrong. If I let you go it is wrong." Maha al Qatani just stares him down.
After a tense half hour, Mohammad al Qatani returns with the cop at his side. Maha shifts to the passenger seat, and Mohammad takes the wheel. He silently hands her a yellow sheet of paper. Maha al Qatani stares at it for a moment, her brow furrowed in confusion. Then she breaks into peals of laughter.

Raising her fists in a victory salute, she shouts, "It's a ticket. Write this down. I am the first Saudi woman to get a traffic ticket."

I didn't post last week on the Saudi women's driving protest, and if you're not familiar with it you can read this and also this,  but this poor cop didn't have a clue what to do when pulling over a Saudi woman whose husband was in the car. It gives me an opportunity to get my two cents in a bit belatedly.And of course there's the inevitable Facebook page here.

I'm no lawyer but if I understand correctly it is religious edicts, not legislation proper, that bars Saudi women from driving, though the obvious conundrum is that this means most Saudi women require (male) chauffeurs, usually foreigners (Pakistanis and such) who are unrelated, though otherwise they're not permitted to be in the presence of unrelated males. Other Muslim countries, even rigorous ones like Iran, or so far as I know even Afghanistan under the Taliban (which was content with keeping women out of schools) have not banned driving. It's persistently rumored that even King ‘Abdullah favors change, but if so he must be intimidated by the religious establishment.

It may be that the "Arab Spring," bringing down governments and provoking civil wars elsewhere, may have a much lower goal in Saudi Arabia: women drivers. Somebody somewhere on TV said, "Ladies, Start Your Engines," but I can't give proper credit because I can't remember who. (Diane Sawyer maybe?) I agree of course, but this is actually a fairly strange and unduplicated restriction, and I can't believe it will stand forever. The "foreign male driver" issue may be the cause for its eventual fall, but whatever works and all that.

I'm about to head to an awards ceremony marking my daughter's last day in fifth grade and her promotion to Middle School, so my other posts today will be this afternoon and evening.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Ophthamologist and His Eye Chart

I'm not sure where this came from but Wael Ghonim posted it to Twitter. I hope I'm not infringing and will credit the source if anybody knows it. The art looks familiar so it's probably from a paper I see now and again.  Bashar al-Asad is, of course, an ophthamologist. (See also this earlier graffiti.)

Ben Ali: Claims He Didn't Plan to Stay in Jidda

Make of this whatever you will: Through his lawyers, ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali now says that he intended to fly his family to Jidda in January and then return immediately to Tunisia, but his Presidential plane, told to wait for him in Jidda, took off without him. So what was the whole flying to Europe/turning around and refueling in Sicily Sardinia/then flying to Jidda thing all about?

Of course he's just been sentenced in absentia, along with his wife, to 35 years in prison, so maybe that Saudi guest house in Jidda won't look so bad after all.

Dueling Views on Morocco's Constitutional Changes

King Muhammad VI of Morocco's proposed new Constitution is receiving mixed reviews at best. Before linking to some of the interpretations, you may want to read the King's speech and the proposed constitutional document:

King's Speech: EnglishFrenchArabic

Constitutional Document: French, Arabic (I can't find the English version yet)

The punditry on the subject is all over the map. Morocco's protesters say they'll continue to march, though the King's supporters are now confronting them.

Marina Ottoway at Carnegie and Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times offer fairly middle of the road assessments (hope but a healthy skepticism); Moroccan blogs are worried (link in French). Ahmed Charai at the Foreign Policy Research Institute offers a strongly pro argument, though I fear he may have the King confused with Thomas Jefferson.

I am indeed from Missouri, and I've got to be shown. I'm willing to wait and see, however. I wonder if Moroccans are?

Mubarak's Long-Rumored Cancer is Finally Confirmed

Husni Mubarak's lawyer has now confirmed what was rumored throughout most of last year, that the former Egyptian President is suffering from cancer. Rumored since his gall bladder surgery in Germany in March 2010, especially during his long delay in returning home, it was vehemently denied by Egyptian officials at the time.

But things have changed, and now Mubarak's health is the one thing keeping him from facing trial on a range of charges including corruption and sanctioning the killing of protesters. And it just may be enough, since the ruling Military Council is not eager to put a former officer on trial.

Updates on the Juan Cole Story

Last week's story about the Bush White House seeking information from the CIA seeking information aimed at discrediting Juan Cole has not gone away. Be sure to follow Juan's Informed Comment blog for the latest stories relating to the issue; I'm not linking to the individual posts as he now has quite a few; just scroll down and you'll fi them interspersed with his usual Middle East analysis.

Asad Speaks Again

UPDATE: Josh Landis at Syria Comment aggregates a lot of commentary about the speech.

Bashar al-Asad has made another national speech promising vague reforms  but also taking a hard line on protesters. The Arabist offers first reactions to the speech, while Josh Landis takes a look at Turkey's role.

Despite growing warnings from Western countries as well as Turkey, this still seems far from any kind of end game, at least as far as I can tell.There are reports which suggest there was heavy fighting in Jisr al-Shughur last week, which may go to the question I addressed cautiously last week as to whether what is going on in northern Syria is an armed uprising, rather than merely peaceful protests.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The King's Speech

King Muhammad VI of Morocco has announced the constiutional reforms he promised in March, which would strengthen the Parliament and make the Prime Minister more responsible, and would also make Tamazight (Berber) an official language alongside Arabic. The proposals will be put to a referendum July 1.

Some reformers are skeptical about whether the reforms will go far enough. What actually happens once they are implemented will determine whether Morocco truly becomes a constitutional monarchy.

It's the Father's Day weekend and I'm planning on spending my time fathering. Have a good weekend.

Al Schwimmer and Israel's Air Force and Aviation Industry

Adolph "Al" Schwimmer died on June 10 in Tel Aviv at age 94, but the obits appeared in the last day or two. Schwimmer, an American who violated US laws to provide aircraft to Israel at its birth, later became the first President of Israel Aircraft Industries (now Israel Aerospace Industries), and is generally considered the father of the Israeli Air Force. Ironically, he died on his 94th birthday.

Born in New York in 1917, Schwimmer worked for Lockheed Martin and TWA, and in the Israeli War of Independence helped smuggle surplus US military and other aircraft through Europe to the new state of Israel. Some credit him with the birth of the Israeli Air Force. He returned to the US after the establishment of Israel, and was tried and convicted of vi9lations of the Neutrality Act, and stripped of his right to vote, though not imprisoned. David Ben Gurion invited him to Israel, where he founded the country's aviation industry. He headed Israel Aircraft Industries until 1978.

In the 1980s, when I was working on Middle Eastern defense production issues, I got to know IAI pretty well, and Schwimmer was legendary, though I never met him.

The Jerusalem Post has a much more detailed obit here.  Along with the photo at right of Schwimmer in a cockpit with Ben Gurion.

The Press Under Fire in Afghanistan

From Al Jazeera English, some uncomfortable details about the press in Afghanistan.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Juan Cole, the Bush White House, and the CIA

The New York Times quoted a former CIA official as saying that the George W. Bush White House asked the CIA to gather information on University of Michigan Professor and Blogger Juan Cole in order to discredit him. If true, this would have echoes of the Watergate era, when the Nixon Whte House tried to use the CIA domestically against  American citizens, a clear violation of the law. Juan's own take on the story is here, and there's little I can add to that. I've read Juan's blog from its early days and have also published his academic work in the Journal, and about all I can do other than repeat what he has said is to join in deploring any use, or even suggestion of using, the CIA against American academics.

Ma‘arat al-Nu‘man

Northern Syria is a landscape of ancient cities, many of them long since abandoned to the desert, but others still going concerns. As the campaign in Idlib Governorate continues, we are reminded of its deep history.

Yesterday Syrian forces were massing around the town of Ma‘arat al-Nu‘man after clearing Jisr al-Shughur, presumably preparing to move in.

This ancient city is known historically for an earlier atrocity, and for its most famous son.

The atrocity, in 1098, occurred when after a long siege Crusaders in the First Crusade, after granting terms to the town, not only massacred the inhabitants, but, starved for supplies, famously resorted to cannibalism, even by the Crusaders' own testimony. Rarely mentioned by Western histories (though it was admitted at the time), it was not forgotten in Syria.

But fortunately, Ma‘arat al-Nu‘man is famous for another reason: the great poet/philosopher Abu al-‘Ala' al-Ma‘ari (973-1058 AD), known for his poetry and his freethinking philosophy, came from there.

Let's hope whatever is coming is more in keeping with the poet's vision than the Crusaders'.

A Brief Non-Middle Eastern Opinion: CNN's "Elvis or Johnny Cash?" Question

This has nothing to do with the Middle East, that I can immediately come up with, but I'm going to post it anyway. Besides, Marc Lynch has dropped Rap references into his blog posts, so there's a precedent.

Apparently during the US Republican candidates' debate on Monday, John King of CNN sought to break the seriousness of the debate by asking "Tea Party" star Michelle Bachmann whether she preferred Elvis or Johnny Cash. She fudged by saying "both," which is a correct answer to be sure (though I don't agree with her politics generally), but seems to ignore the real answer, which is to cite the "Million Dollar Quartet" jam session of December 4, 1956, in the Sun Records studio in Memphis. (Your blogger has stood in that studio, and yes, he's been to Graceland, and even to the King's Birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi.) On that day Carl Perkins (the great country/R and B singer who first recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" but is mostly forgotten) was jamming at the studio with a young, then-unknown piano accompanist named Jerry Lee Lewis, when Johnny Cash dropped in to pick up a guitar and sing along. Then Elvis, who had left Sun (which discovered him) for RCA, dropped in for old times' sake, and the four decided to wing it together. Conflicting contracts and licensing issues kept it from the public for decades, but when it was finally released as "The Million Dollar Quartet" it became a classic. Photo above (Perkins is second from left; if you can't recognize the others you're too young to be reading this).

By the way, B.B. King, the greatest of the Blues artists, was also a Sun artist at the time, too. Oh, what would we have had if he had dropped by? Memphis perfected: rock and blues and country and R and B which are all actually the same roots music when you get down to it. We can only dream.

Now that is the only correct answer to "Elvis or Johnny Cash?" Sorry, I needed to vent. Back to the Middle East. I have spoken.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Iran Launches its Second Satellite

Iran has reportedly launched its second satellite into orbit. It's called the Rasad 1. Its first satellite, Omid, was launched in February 2009,

Some Hard Questions About What's Going on in Northern Syria

 "Just  because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you." — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

"When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." — Kenyan proverb

I want to be careful what I say here and how I say it because I absolutely do not want to give aid and comfort to the Asad regime in Syria, which has responded brutally to many clearly peaceful protests in Dar‘a, Homs, and elsewhere, that were genuinely seeking democratic change. And its refusal to allow outside journalists to report from Syria means that YouTube videos and rumors drive the ongoing Western narrative of what is happening in Syria, so the regime has itself to blame for the image presented to the outside world. But I also think there are increasing questions about whether what is going on now in Idlib Governorate along the Turkish border, and especially in Jisr al-Shughur, is the brutal crushing of a peaceful movement (which the Asad regime is clearly capable of doing), or is, as the government paints it, the brutal crushing of an armed uprising. Heavy fighting has been reported; has it entirely been tanks against unarmed civilians?

 If you didn't read it yesterday I'd urge you to peruse it now. Next, let me refer you to As'ad AbuKhalil (The Angry Arab) on the question of "Who is behind the violence in Syria?" His first point is that the regime is responsible. His second point is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has not been a peaceful organization in the past, so why assume it is now? (the Syrian Brotherhood is not the MB in Egypt or Jordan, despite common origins; its history with regimes led by people named Asad is not a gentle one). His third point deserves quoting at length (punctuation and capitalization as in the original); my comments after:
3)  There are from what I am hearing Wahhabi and Salafite groups with money and weapons who have been active in Syria.  I won't be surprised if the Harirites are involved too.  I find it very likely, in the service of Hariri agenda.  A reliable informant of this blog in Syria tells me (I am translating from Arabic):  "Yes, there are professional, trained, and organized gangs which are controlled by clerics who all have lived in Saudi Arabia, like `Adnan Al-`Ar`ur, and they kill and use violence against other sects...In Latakia, there are professional elements which used to live a normal life like sleeper cells and they perpetrated acts of sabotage and sectarian sedition and I saw that myself as i was there then...In Tell Kalakh, there are splinter groups from Fath-Islam which are moved by Hariri money, and not Hariri men as spread by Syrian media.  In Banyas, it is said that there are officers from Saudi Arabia and UAE and a Mossad element who are now in custody of the security service.  There were booby traps there because it has a generator and an oil refinery and a pipe line from Iraq.  In Homs, there are extremist pockets from prior to Ba`th and it has been reactivated and is still strong with Saudi money.  Now Idlib is all in flame and Turkey is supplying all with weapons and with fighters.  Army is facing difficulty advancing because all passages and bridges have been booby trapped."  This last passage is from my informant and I have no way of verifying the information.  And as they used to end books of Islamic theology, I say: And Karl Marx is the all-knowing.

PS Nir Rosen added this:  "there is also the iraq and zarqawi factor syria was a key staging area for zarqawi types, they had safe houses in damascus and allepo, they had a network of facilitators, as the americans like to say and i'd love to know whats happening in the border area with iraq's anbar where families have close ties on both sides and where zarqawi people had safe houses. the town of abu kamal for example, which borders the iraqi town of husseiba in al qaim. the americans raided abu kamal a couple of years ago and killed some key al qaeda guy. abu kamal had an uprising against the regime a couple of weeks ago. i think the zarqawi factor is an important one. these people always spoke about how the final battle will be in Sham".
Now As'ad AbuKhalil in his Angry Arab mode can come on a little strong, and the scattershot implication of everyone from Mossad to Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq to the Hariris to the Saudis may seem a conspiracy theory of the first order. Nor does his invocation of Saint Karl Marx impress those of us who prefer Groucho, Chico and Harpo as our Marxist icons. But all those elements he cites do harbor a certain enmity for the Asad regime. I don't think they're all involved here of course,but some of them may be stirring the pot.

Now since the Syrian uprising got rolling I've alluded to the Hama massacre in 1982 a number of times, usually to deplore it. Thousands died, even by the most cautious estimates, perhaps 10,000 or even more; the city was virtually destroyed. But Hama was not really analogous to what happened in Dar‘a or Homs in recent weeks and months. Whether it's analogous to what's happening up north is the question here. In 1982 the elder Asad (or really his younger brother Rifa‘at, who was the "bad cop" of that era as Bashar's younger brother Maher is the "bad cop" of this one). didn't just roll up the artillery and start shelling the city to rubble because they felt like it. They fought a battle lasting some three weeks to retake a major city that had risen against the regime. The results were a humanitarian disaster, and have deservedly stained the Asad name ever since, but it was an armed uprising that came close to lynching the governor and was the culmination of a sustained assassination campaign against the ‘Alawite establishment. Whether the uprising was justified or not is a matter of debate, but it was not a peaceful protest, it was an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafis to proclaim the liberation of the city as a first step in dismantling the ‘Alawi grip on power. The brutality of its crushing has overshadowed the nature of the revolt. And while the regime at the time blamed everybody in sight for subversion, including the usual suspects (the US and Israel), some arms did flow from Lebanese Christian militias and from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, both deep enemies of Asad.

The regime keeps trying to paint what's been happening up north in those terms: an armed uprising, even an attempt to seize Idlib Governorate and create a Libyan situation with a secessionist region. If true, that doesn't justify the ferocity of the response, at least not necessarily, but it does alter the narrative a bit. And let me note that during the extended conflict in northern and central Syria between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood that extended from the late 1970s until the suppression of the Hama revolt, Idlib was an area of Islamist dissidence, and there was at least one government operation in Jisr al-Shughur, in March of 1980. And I say this as a historian by training who wants to know what's really happening, not out of any empathy for a brutal regime.

A Graphic Novel on Operation Ajax

Having learned to read from comic books, my first grade readers being far more boring and simplistic, and having been introduced to great literature by the Classics Illustrated comics of the 1950s, I have no intellectual disdain for what today are called "graphic novels," though I don't tend to read them. So I thought I'd call your attention to this item about a graphic novel series focusing on Operation Ajax, the CIA/British orchestrated coup against Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. The author is making the first episodes free on the ITunes store for IPad users. Here's the trailer:

The link and the trailer are all I know right now.

As an aside since somebody may bring it up anyway, Kermit ("Kim") Roosevelt, who helped orchestrate the coup and wrote a memoir about it, served as President of the Middle East Institute for a short while may years later.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Cairo Zoo and a Great Cairo Blog

A relatively new blog about Cairo called CairObserver and devoted to "Architecture/Urbanism/City Life" is one I've been meaning to recommend for some time, so I see no reason not to do it with this ode, with lots of pictures, to the Cairo Zoo in Giza, once a Victorian gem, now gone to seed but with its old grandeur still showing through in places. Any old (or new) Cairo hands will want to browse the other postings, too.

Is Qadhafi Hiding Arms at Leptis Magna?

There are reports that Libyan rebels are claiming that Qadhafi is hiding Grad rockets among the spectacular Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, between Tripoli and Misurata. As a result, NATO is refusing to rule out air strikes against the ruins if they are concealing weaponry.

With so many human atrocities on record already in Libya, preservation of antiquities is naturally not anyone's priority, but Leptis Magna is a World Heritage Site and one of the best-preserved Roman cities anywhere. (North Africa as a whole, like the Middle East in general, often has far better preserved Roman ruins than Italy does.) I certainly hope it isn't damaged.

Trivia note: the name of Tripoli itself came from Latin Tripolis, the three cities, referring to Oea (Tripoli proper), Sabratha, and Leptis Magna.

Archbishop of Canterbury Expresses Concern for ME Christians

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in an interview with BBC, has expressed concerns that while the disorders associated with Arab Spring may in the long term bring about more democracy, in the short term they may pose a threat to Middle Eastern Christianity. He noted attacks on Christians in Iraq, church-burnings in Egypt, and growing concerns abojut sectarian violence in Syria.

One of the ironies of the situation is that the democratic movements themselves have generally sought to embrace minorities; the cooperation of Copts and Muslims in Tahrir Square was a potent symbol. But the salafi Islamist elements also gaining a new voice have provoked clashes in Egypt, while in Syria the Christian community has often been seen as aligned with the ruling ‘Alawite minority, and thus resented by the Sunni majority.The situation differs from country to country, but the ironic reality is that Christian communities, as noted by the Archbishop, are indeed often the victims of spreading democracy.

What Happened at Jisr al-Shughur?

Syria has reported heavy fighting at Jisr al-Shughur, and the question is who the Army has been fighting: is it a scorched earth campaign or, as the Syrian government claims, has there been heavy armed resistance? Josh Landis offers some commentary and a good roundup. There's certainly a humanitarian issue with the refugee camps along the Turkish border, but the lack of independent reporting on the ground and huge discrepancies between the government and opposition narratives probably deserve a certain amount of caution. I put nothing past the Asad security forces, but I'm also not sure of what has been happening or who has been controlling the town. Just because the government is capable of atrocities doesn't mean there isn't an armed opposition. Let's watch this one.

Patrick Seale Interview on Syrian Situation

Patrick Seale, the veteran British correspondent (long with The Observer) and author of two of the key works on modern Syria (The Struggle for Syria and Asad), is one of the great generation of British Arabist correspondents who brought a journalist's writing style along with a scholar's expertise to their coverage. I crossed paths with him occasionally, mostly back in the 1980s. He knows Syria intimately.

And he's spoken with Syria Today about his views of the present conflict. I strongly recommend you read his (cautious and measured) words.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lebanon Finally Gets a Cabinet

Prime Minister Najib Mikati has finally named a new Lebanese Cabinet almost five months after the fall of its predecessor. Naturally, Qifa Nabki is on the case, and has the lineup and analysis.

"Amina" Evaporates into Sockpuppetry; The Tragedy in Syria Remains Real

A week after the blogging community (and not just Middle East bloggers, including me) were horrified by word that Gay Girl in Damascus blogger Amina Arraf had been abducted by security men, the story has gradually been eroded by growing skepticism and now has apparently entirely evaporated. The author of the blog appears to be neither gay, a girl, nor in Damascus. Other than that, says the  confession on the blog, "While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone -- I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about." Other than that, other than not being gay, or a girl, or in Damascus, or abducted, it was all "true and not misleading"? HUH?

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

The brief confession signed by Tom MacMaster includes the lines, "This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism." Whatever exactly that means, the creation of an imaginary sockpuppet blogger and then the claim that said blogger has been abducted would seem to offer little to really educate Westerners out of their  ignorance (undisputed: it's the reason for this blog, which bears my real name and identity and my employer's real name and identity) or to help the plight of gays, women, or dissidents in Syria; if anything it may have focused the security forces' attention on those very communities. It also plays into the regime's hands: this particular "dissident" was apparently a man and woman living formerly in Georgia and currently in Edinburgh, Scotland but traveling in Turkey. I can see the regime claiming, if they are clever enough to capitalize on this, that the "dissident movement" is a creation of the West, just as "Amina" proved to have been.

Okay, I'll admit. I was fooled. So were nearly 15,000 followers on the Free Amina Abdalla Facebook site. Before I comment further, let me echo theirs:
Be assured administrators of this site - who were friends with "Amina" online - are just as angry as everyone else over the revelation made by Tom MacMaster. This foolish and cruel hoax has distracted from the real issue in Syria - that the Syrian people are sacrificing their lives for calling for an end to a regime that silences, disappears, tortures and murders its people, a regime that has repeatedly fired directly into peaceful demonstrations. Thousands of political prisoners are being held by authorities, with many of them undergoing torture right now. The world should know about the courage and suffering of these innocent Syrians and stand with them.
Someone behind that blog knew Syria pretty well, and wrote convincingly. I'd been reading "her" blog even before the "abduction" and had even linked to it. Credit must go to those who smelled something fishy early on: by last Wednesday there were already red flags, raised first (so far as I am aware) by NPR's Andy Carvin, followed soon by Robert Mackey at the NYT's the Lede (link is to an updated version.) Liz Henry was also on the case early on, and as near as I can tell she, along with The Electronic Intifada,  are the people who finally ran this thing to ground. Read their posts for the evidence. Some other reactions here. 

It gets still stranger. A lesbian-oriented website called The LEZ Get Real which helped promote Amina has also published an apology. But The Electronic Intifada investigation has also raised questions about the existence or non-existence of the purported Executive Editor of that website, "Paula Brooks", whose real world identity seems a bit thin. Are we completely in sockpuppet (linked above, but essentially a false online identity) country here? [Later Update: "Paula Brooks" was a guy, too. Are we learning about some new Internet fetish here, or what?]

Of course like anyone moderately familiar with the culture of the Internet I realize that what you see is not, always, what you get, and that the idea of the "sockpuppet"  can rarely be excluded. The famous New Yorker cartoon of some years back, at left (I hope The New Yorker copyright lawyers will see this as fair use) summarizes it perfectly.

Anonymous blogging is fine. Many of the finest bloggers in the Middle East either started out, or remain, anonymous for good, survival-related reasons; but I assume when I read them that their basic personas are real; even if I don't know their names. The guys are guys; the women are women; the young people are young. Those that have unveiled their real identities in the age of revolution have pretty much matched up with their anonymous persona. I didn't care if the "Gay Girl in Damascus" was really named Amina or not: as her story crumbled a lot of us waited, fearing she was a real person who'd used a fake name and stolen somebody else's Facebook photos, but might in fact be in a Syrian jail. As online sleuths demolished first her photos, then her not very detailed biography (searching Virginia and Georgia records for her claimed background and finding no records), it became clear that both her photos and her name were fake. A 2007 blog under the same name offered fragments of autobiography, with a birth in Staunton, Virginia, and being raised in Damascus and Virginia. That blog admitted it included fictional elements. (It does, however, show a familiarity with the real Shenandoah Valley, especially the Harrisonburg-Dayton-Bridgewater area. If I have anything to add to this overall investigation it is to say that her (fictional) childhood town of "Riverport" is almost certainly Bridgewater, a town I know well. The description, the neighboring towns, the river and the Old Order Mennonites pretty much nail it.)

But as long as there was a chance there was a real person, with another name and another photo, in a Syrian prison (or worse), I didn't want to pile on. But now that we see this as a complete invention, with no real person involved, I want to see more than a brief apology that says we meant well. Harm has been done to the communities involved and, worse, the international press has been diverted from a humanitarian horror in Syria by a blogger-driven diversion.

What makes it worse is that I contributed to it, and inadvertently committed the prestige of The Middle East Institute and Middle East Journal as well. So did a whole lot of other good folk and true, who are hoping for real change in Syria. Shame on these insensitive hoaxers who. whatever their misguided intentions,  may have cost lives among the real people who live in the real Syria. There are real gay girls in Damascus and in Syria, but you cannot speak for them. We are not they. During the Tahrir days, many Westerners said "We are all Egyptians."  No we aren't, and no we weren't; our butts weren't on the line and nobody was threatening us with live ammunition. Pretending you're a frontline dissident is like pretending you're a Medal of Honor Veteran: it steals from those who really are, and it demeans you.  Fiction hurts those whose butts really are on the line, and all Syrians who are living a real nightmare and are really being abducted. Shame.

Jordanian King Makes Major Concession, One of These Days

 I'm really not sure if this is good news or bad news; King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan has agreed to a major demand of the opposition: a Parliamentary system under which the Prime Minister and Cabinet will be chosen by the elective Parliament, not by the King. That's been a major demand of protesters and is pretty much what defines a constitutional monarchy. He made the announcement, and the promise, but didn't set a time frame for fear of  "chaos." That's the bad news part.

A few months ago, the Moroccan King made similar promises. OK, your majesties, if you're really the "enlightened" monarchs you want us to think you are, let's deliver on these promises. They're where you start, not where you finish.

Marc Lynch: Report from Egypt

Marc Lynch is just back from Egypt. He shares his first impressions. Essential. Read it. I have spoken.

Turkey: AKP Again

Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has easily won a third term in Turkey's elections, but early returns indicate it is several seats short of being able to unilaterally writre a new constitution. The CHP, the old Kemalist Party that's reinvented itself as a social democratic movement, ran second, and the rightwing nationalist MHP ran third, with independents (many of them from Kurdish parties) rounding out the results so far.

I'm no expert on Turkey, but I think this is both an unsurprising and probably a hopeful result. The AKP seems popular, but hasn't been given a carte blanche to do what it wants, either. More here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Jisr al-Shughur

The city of Jisr al-Shughur on the Orontes, where Syria claims 120 security forces were killed by protesters and has pledged vengeance, has apparently been under fire all day. Much of the population has fled either into the neighboring mountains or across the Turkish border. Apparently anyone appearing in the streets is fired upon by helicopters or armor. What really happened earlier this week is still unclear, but many reports suggest a military unit went over to the protesters and then was shot by loyalist troops, or something similar.

We are seeing a real worsening of the situation in Syria, and may be entering Hama 1982 territory in  terms of the government's level of ruthlessness. But even that was a real uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood,while by all accounts except the government's the current demonstrations are unarmed.

I'm off for the weekend unless events compel me to post.

On the Eve of the Turkish Elections

Sunday Turkey will go to the polls. I do not hold myself out as any kind of expert on Turkey; MEI has its own Turkish Studies Center and other think tanks around town do too, so I will not presume to preempt their genuine expertise. On the other hand, I can't ignore the impending elections, so I'll link to folks who might know what they're talking about.

I'll start here at MEI.  Taha Ozhan, Director General of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) in Ankara, recently spoke at MEI. Here's the YouTube video (Part 1 of 7), or if you prefer you can download a podcast of his talk here.

It seems to be generally assumed that Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP are likely to win a third term. That does not please everybody. The Economist has actually endorsed the CHP, the opposition Republican People's Party that started life as the sole party in the days of Kemal Atatürk, but which today is seeking to recreate itself in a social democratic image. (Also see H. Akin Unver and Soner Cagaptay on a similar theme.)

At Foreign Policy, Mohammed Ayoob argues that these fears are misplaced. He specifically criticizes the "neo-Ottomanism" critique of Turkey's increasingly eastern-oriented foreign policy, a characterization reflected in Firas Maksad and Soner Cagaptay's "Uncomfortable Ottomans."

Personally, and again as a decided non-expert on Turkey who notoriously has had trouble trying to use a traveler's phrasebook in this language which, unlike Arabic, makes so much depend on vowels, I see nothing very "Ottoman" about the AKP, either in the old imperial sense or the footstool sense. I do suspect Turkey, rebuffed and pretty much dissed by the European Union, is finally recovering from the Kemalist insistence that it is part of Europe and has nothing in common with those lesser folk to the east. If this is "Ottomanism," it's also reality. Turkey borders Syria and Iran, and has religious and cultural links (not to mention historical ones) binding it to its eastern neighbors for good or ill. You can ban the fez and the veil and the Sufi orders, change the alphabet and even the language of the call to prayer (at one time), but you can't really deny your history.

I am not a Turk and I will not be voting. Whether the Turkish people choose the AKP again, or the reincarnated CHP or someone else is not my choice, but I assume those who see another AKP victory have some basis for their expectations. I do welcome democratic elections whenever and wherever they occur in the region. Vote wisely, Turkey.

For All Your Mauritania Needs

I'll admit, in this age of Arab revolutions, I've been neglecting Mauritania. In case you have, too, The Moor Next Door offers us some updates and links.

Obligatory Link to the Lion Guy in Egypt

Oh well, everybody else has posted about the Egyptian guy who plans to fight a lion at the pyramids, so if you've somehow missed it so far, here it is, in an English language interview. 

He wants to do this to bring tourists back to Egypt. If you understand that logic, let me know.

I'm not sure what to say except that he seems to have a downright Western, even American, sense of how to manipulate the press and get his 15 minutes of fame. If he comes out of this as something other than Lion Chow, he may have a future in US reality TV. Unless PETA or the Egyptian government decides that circuses should stay in tents, not at the pyramids.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Belated Shavuot Greetings

I'm barely getting this in before sunset, but a belated greeting to Jewish readers for the feast of Shavuot.

New MEI Viewpoints Publication

There's a new MEI Viewpoints out: "Creating a Legacy of Understanding through the Visual Arts: The Istanbul Center of Atlanta's Art and Essay Contest." You can read more about it here, or download the full text in PDF here.

Dubai Beats DC, but Not by Much

The official high in DC today was 102 F. The official high in Dubai was 105 F. We're gaining on them!

This Blog Now Available in Optimized-for-Mobile Version

Thanks to a new Blogger feature (not any tech genius of mine), if you are so addicted to this blog that you access it from a mobile device like a Smartphone, you'll get the optimized-for-mobile version, which shows the headlines and short intros, smaller photos, etc. It will look like the image at left, only smaller. If you access it on a computer you'll still see the usual version. If anyone out there actually accesses me from your phone, let me know if you prefer this version (I can turn it off, but sort of like the way it looks). It works fine with Android at least; if you have problems let me know.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Azerbaijan (?) Removes Husni Mubarak Monument (??)

Here's an Al-Ahram Online story that raises more questions than it answers: Azerbaijan has removed a monument to Husni Mubarak from a park near Baku. Note the details:
The statue of the former Egyptian president sitting in an armchair in front of three pyramids was taken away from a park in the town of Khirdalan near the capital of the ex-Soviet republic on Tuesday.
Questions: Why on earth would they have a statue of Mubarak in Azerbaijan? Surely not due to the huge quantities of Egyptian aid flowing to Baku. Why was he sitting in an armchair in front of three pyramids? Even the pharaohs were usually shown standing. If there was going to be a statue of Mubarak in Azerbaijan, why was it in a town outside Baku and not in the capital? Why does the story not explain these questions?

Why is this probably the only post this blog has ever run in which the labels include both "Azerbaijan" and "Husni Mubarak"?

Could the Amina Story Be Some Sort of Hoax?

The reported abduction of "Gay Girl in Damascus" blogger Amina Abdullah Arraf has provoked concern and outrage around the world, including on this blog, but today the story took an unexpected term with some Internet speculation that Amina might not even exist. NPR's  Andy Carvin lays out the evidence and cautiously comes down on the side of her really existing; Robert Mackey at the NYT's The Lede also reviews the question.

I think it goes without saying that certain of the questions, such as her use of a picture that is apparently of someone else, can be explained as self-protection; her blog certainly seemed convincing and had built up a following. Perhaps I've spent too much time in the region, but my first thought when I saw these stories was that the Syrian government would very much like us to believe that she doesn't exist, which makes me suspicious about the speculation. Perhaps she camouflaged her identity for obvious protective reasons. Of course, I could be wrong, but if her blog was a hoax  it was a convincing one. I'm not convinced she's not real, but may be proven wrong of course.

Time Out for Something Completely Different: Punic and Berber Influences on Etruscan?

Deep in your heart, do you sometimes get tired of the latest bloodshed, the latest rhetoric, or the latest political analysis of the current scene? Not to mention the latest peace plan or human rights atrocity? Do you wish, momentarily, for something older, more cerebral, but still relevant to the Middle East? Do you ever ask yourself, "were there any Punic or Berber loan words in Etruscan"?

No? Really? Never? Not even when contemplating the geopolitics leading to the First Punic War? Well, me neither, at least until now.

But, rest assured, someone cares. Here's a piece called "Ancient African Adstrate in Etruscan." I might quibble with "Ancient African," since Punic is Phoenician to all intents and purposes, and thus Middle Eastern, and yes, I had to look up "adstrate" too. Apparently linguists use it in contradistinction to superstrate and substrate, and it means loans between languages which were of equal influence or prestige. Berber is indeed an indigenous African language, or rather family of languages, on the other hand, so "Ancient African" can stand.

Now, the first thing to keep in mind about Etruscan is that nobody can read Etruscan. Well, that's not strictly true; we can read it, since the alphabet mixes Greek and Latin; we just haven't got a clue what the words mean. When I look at Finnish, I recognize all the letters, but other than "Nokia" and certain vodka labels I can't recognize any of the words. But Finns can read it, and there are dictionaries. Etruscans aren't around to help out. All of us are like that in Etruscan, since the alphabet is readable but the root language is unknown. the numbers have been deciphered and Roman sources give us a few more words, but no one can read Etruscan texts unless there's a Latin bilingual, and that's mostly limited to tombstones.

But before the rise of Rome, Etruria and Carthage were the dominant powers of the Western Mediterranean, so some borrowing would make sense. And the Berber (which is more what is cited in the article than Punic) could have come via Carthage. Though the article doesn't caption the two paintings there, they are reconstructions, I'm pretty sure, of the Naval Harbor at Carthage. Despite the good job the Romans did on Catoizing Carthage. its outline remains visible even today.

This link deserves a hat tip to Abu 'l-Rayhan al-Biruni on Facebook, who is a prolific linker for a guy who died in 1048 AD.  I don't know who his current incarnation is.

Anyway, sometimes I need to remind myself I'm a historian. And it gets the mind off the carnage in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

Vulcan Intervention in the Middle East: Live Long and Prosper

Via Juan Cole: at long last, Spock has finally addressed the Arab-Israeli question. Can I retire now? Can the Federation Council take it from here?

Coptic Pope Shenouda's Absence Becomes an Issue: Politics or Health?

A couple of weeks back,  on May 22, the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, went to the Cleveland Clinic for his regular  checkup; the Pope has acknowledged back problems, is rumored to have kidney problems, and at 87 (he'll be 88 in August) is someone whose health is not only of concern to his flock, but to Egyptians generally at a time of sectarian tension. His succession is likely to be a thorny and disputed issue. (Relevant previous posts can be found here.)

Rumors have been floated that the Pope's visit to the US was extended because he was deliberately absenting himself in the wake of recent anti-Coptic violence in Egypt as a protest; the Church's Holy Synod has strongly denied this, but their explanation that his medical tests are taking longer than expected raises separate questions: was something unexpected found? Field Marshal Tantawi sent his own solicitations, though rather recently, so there may in fact be health issues here.

At the  moment, given the sectarian tensions in this transitional period and the fact that one of the most prominent potential successors, Bishop Bishoi of Damietta (see the links above) is anathema to many Muslims, many Egyptian Muslims might want to join with their Christian fellow countrymen in praying for the aging Pope's health, at least until things stabilize a bit.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Jumblatt Shifts with the Current Yet Again

The inscrutable sage of Middle East Politics, Walid Jumblatt, has done it again: shifted his allegiances with the prevailing winds. Qifa Nabki, to whom credit for the Yoda Photoshop at left also belongs, traces the Druze leader's shifting stance, from pro-Hariri to pro-Syrian and now, with events in Syria, seemingly tacking back in the other direction. Qifa also has links to many of the earlier shifts in allegiance of the man who, as I have noted before, is probably the only member in good standing of the Socialist International who also was, for a time, a darling of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.