A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 29, 2011

No Answers on the Younis Assassination

 UPDATE: A report claiming that Younis was killed while in custody, citing "a witness."
I suggested yesterday that perhaps the questions surrounding the assassination of &Abdel-Fattah Younis might become clearer with time. It's clear that one day is not enough time. The BBC ponders the questions; as does this column by John Simpson, also at the BBC; as does this piece at Al Jazeera English.

 It seems no one even knows where this assassination occurred exactly.

"Friday of Unity" Proves to Be Anything But United

UPDATE II: A leftwing take on today's events with many photos.
UPDATE: Islamists in al-‘Arish have attacked a police post; several killed in clashes. Situation isn't very clear.

Today was supposed to be the "Friday of Unity" in which all the supporters of the Egyptian Revolution would gather in Tahrir to show the unity of the Popular Will. It didn't work out that way. Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyyak,  but also more extreme Salafist groups as well, took control of the demonstrations and chants. By the end of the day a coalition of liberal and secular parties and the Revolutionary Youth Movement declared a boycott of the protest and demanded that the Muslim Brotherhood express support for a secular state. Al-Jazeera English has analysis here; while AhramOnline provided live updates through the day.

What it all means may take a while to become clear, but it looks as if the (always rather awkward) alliance between the Brotherhood and the liberal parties may be at the breaking point. Zeinobia's commentary suggests the Brotherhood let more radical Salafis have the stage (some displayed pictures of Usama bin Laden and Sheikh ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman) in order to make the Brotherhood look more moderate, while SCAF may have encouraged the Salafis in order to justify its own role (the old Mubarak era "look at what the alternative would be" argument to the West). Maybe that's in fact going on here; certainly this may be remembered as the day when Islamists and secularists clearly parted company.

If I try to grasp for a positive spin on this — and  I admit I may be grasping at straws — it would be to argue that this was the day the Islamists overplayed their hand, and may have inadvertently spurred the secular camp to forge a new unity, instead of bickering among themselves.

The Armchair Papyrologist: You Too Can Decipher Oxyrhynchus Papyri!

Time on your hands? Nothing on TV? Bored and goofing off at work? Tired of playing Angry Birds? (Oh, admit it, you know you do.) Oh, yes, and also: Highly competent in the epigraphic and lexical skills for reading fragments of late classical provincial vernacular Greek papyri? If this describes you, then surf on over to Ancient Lives and help crowdsource the decipherment of the Oxyrhynchus papyri.

A hat tip to Arabic translator and Naguib Mahfouz expert Raymond Stock for this link (via Facebook actually), but it may be one of the more interesting (or quixotic?) Internet experiments I've seen.

Now just in case you don't immediately get excited and start salivating when you hear the phrase "Oxyrhynchus papyri," perhaps some background is in order. The basics are here on Wikipedia.

Egypt, as one of the oldest and most continuous civilizations on earth, not only invented bureaucracy but honed it to a fine edge: though most Ancient Egyptian documents that survive are carved on stone, whenever papryus survived in the dry ground it tends to be enormously valuable, since it shows both the libraries of the day and sometimes the administrative documents. Treasure troves like the Nag Hammadi  manuscripts (the greatest library of Gnostic documents in Coptic and Greek) or the Cairo Geniza (which gives an indispensable picture of the correspondence of a medieval Mediterranean Jewish community) have both created whole fields of study in their own right.

Oxyrhynchus was once a major city in Egypt; in Hellenistic times, according to Wikipedia, it was the third largest city in Egypt. The name means "city of the sharp-nosed fish," and Wikipedia offers this:
The town was named after a species of fish of the Nile River which was important in Egyptian mythology as the fish that ate the penis of Osiris, though it is not known exactly which species of fish this is.
Possibly Too Much Information,

Nonetheless, the folks in Oxyrhynchus appear to have been in the habit of taking their old papryi out to a dump site, which two archaeologists eventually discovered. The papyri were mostly Greek (with some Coptic and a few late ones in Arabic), and were all over the map, including Biblical and other religious texts, bits and pieces of the Greek classics, and so on. The link to the papyri article above will deal with some of the most important discoveries.

Though the Oxyrhynchus Papyri have been studied for well over a century now, the sheer number of fragments (in the hundreds of thousands) means not all have been read and translated. The Wikipedia link cited earlier gives links to published works (many now in public domain and available online), and the holder of the largest bulk of the papyri, the Ashmolean at Oxford, has gateways here and here with more.

But there's obviously more to be done, and the various groups behind the Ancient Lives site seem to feel this is a chance to let the scholarly community (or anybody else with a penchant for late Classical provincial vernacular Greek) offer their own comments and translations. It's an intriguing idea.

One of the great lacunae in my life is my nearly total lack of Greek: I have, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, "Small Latin and Less Greek," so I will not be joining in the fun.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Younis Assassinated; By Whom is Still Unclear

‘Abdel Fattah Younis, formerly Libya's Interior Minister, who defected to the rebels early in the uprising, has been assassinated in Benghazi along with two of his aides. The  Transitional National Council (TNC, or sometimes NTC as the English version is sometimes given as National Transitional Council) is apparently blaming Qadhafi supporters, but it is also being reported that Younis, who has been the senior rebel military commander, had been summoned back to Benghazi to be questioned about "military matters," and there are rumors he was about to be arrested; he was killed before arriving. Some are hinting he might have still maintained ties to Qadhafi or been some kind of double agent, but so far the TNC is praising him as a hero.

The situation is far from clear, and doubtless there are many with vendettas against him from his days as Qadhafi's security man, just as the Qadhafi regime itself may have revenged itself for his defection. It's like one of those Agatha Christie tales where everybody had a motive. Twitter is rife with rumors of shots near the National Council, of this being the result of some sort of internal tribal feud, etc. Perhaps the situation will become clearer with time.

Since he was the most senior experienced military man on the rebel side, his killing will presumably be a setback for them at a time when they have been making slow (painfully slow) but steady progress.

Israel to Open Full Ties with South Sudan

Israel, which had previously recognized South Sudan even before its independence has said it will soon establish full diplomatic relations. The article at the link speaks of issues such as repatriation of refugees who had fled to Israel, but says nothing about the historic links between the (now-ruling) Sudan People's Liberation Movement and Israel.  By many accounts, Israel provided covert support, and perhaps arms, to South Sudan secessionists as far back as the 1950s, as part of Israel's cultivating sub-Saharan Africa as a means of outflanking Nasser's Egypt. Before the 1974 coup in Ethiopia this was done via Ethiopia; later on it's not so clear. It was never, of course, openly acknowledged.

Maj. Gen. El-Assar of SCAF Speaks in Washington

I haven't even watched the bulk of this myself yet, but Maj. Gen. Said El-Assar, the Egyptian Deputy Defense Minister for United States Affairs, has been in DC with the white paper delegation Egypt sends every year to lobby for their aid package. I've met with him on some of his past visits, but his importance is much enhanced this year: he's now on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and is, in fact, one of its most visible and audible voices; with so much of SCAF remaining quiet, El-Assar has been one of the most familiar faces, frequently appearing on TV; he may wield more power on SCAF than his title or two-star rank would indicate. As I said, I haven't even watched all of this myself yet (I've seen a bit over half), but he spoke at the US Institute for Peace a couple of days ago, and his comments to the effect that the Muslim Brotherhood does not pose a threat have gotten most of the attention. But the whole conversation, with Bill Quandt, is worth watching:

A Study That Goes Where Angels Fear to Tread

Most of us are aware of the sort of heavily funded study that comes out telling us something everyone already knew, and resent it if they had more funding than we do, but sometimes someone genuinely produces a study which, if fairly intuitive in its content, does say what most are reluctant to say, does go where angels fear to tread. The Population Reference Bureau has just come out with a study entitled, "Facts of Life: Youth Sexuality and Reproductive Health in the Middle East and North Africa," by Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi and Shereen El Feki. The link goes to the press release/summary page; the whole report (PDF) is available here.

No one familiar with the region will fail to recognize the problem. A fifth of the Middle Eastern population is between 15 and 24; in many countries half the population is under 25; in most, it's at least under 30. The phenomenon of "Arab Spring" is in part the result of the frustrations of young people who do not remember their previous President or King; who are educated beyond any of their forebears but despite university degrees have few job prospects; who, in a society where youthful marriage was once universal, must defer marriage because they cannot afford an apartment or setting up on their own. Everyone knows this, and everyone also knows, but few talk openly about, the fact that deferred marriage in a society in which sex outside of marriage remains a major taboo adds an additional layer of frustration. An increasing religious conservatism in the past few decades has actually closed outlets that may have existed a generation or more ago.

I'm pleased to see that two female scholars of Middle Eastern background have been willing to go there.  They are not preaching promiscuity or advocating a Middle Eastern Woodstock; rather they are noting that there is a woeful lack of education among young people, especially young women, to the extent that even the onset of one's first period comes as a crisis. All this seems obvious enough, and given the constraints of a conservative society, it is probably better to advocate greater education rather than greater freedom, though the two may not be unrelated.

Unfortunately, the title itself may prove more polarizing than it should. Religious conservatives will oppose the very idea of the study, or portray it as an attempt to intrude Western mores into the Muslim world; many young women will shy away from the subject altogether, considering it taboo; and sadly, too many single young men will snigger and try to find "the good parts" of the report. (There aren't any.) Over this and the coming years, however, we are going to see a lot more discussion of the role of the youth in not only the Arab revolutions but the economic and social problems that confront the region. This study reminds us what we all once knew: that for the adolescent and young adult prior to marriage, social and economic issues are not the only, or even perhaps the central, issue on their minds.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Syria's Deepening Sectarian Violence

The sectarian aspect of Syria's conflict seems to be deepening Sheikh Ramadan al-Buti, a senor pro-Government Sunni cleric and scholar, was driven out of his own mosque for criticizing the demonstrators. You can find a lot more on the subject5 at Josh Landis's Syria Comment blog on a daily basis via that link, and the more general media commentariat are starting to notice, including this Reuters report,  or this recent piece.

And the violence from the rebel side is worsening, and often is directed at the ‘Alawite community. That has perhaps strengthened support for the government with its ‘Alawite base, and it has allowed the Syrian government to portray the uprisings as a Sunni, Salafi, violent fundamentalist uprising. In at least some parts of the north of the country, that may be a fair characterization, though not everywhere. As I noted at some length last month, the government's brutality is unjustifiable, but it is not all one-sided; in Homs, as earlier in Jisr al-Shughur, there is plenty of evidence of violent attacks on ‘Alawite families, security forces, police, etc. Not all the demonstrators are the peaceful protesters of Tahrir. And although the world was horrified by the mass killings in Hama back in 1982, that was in response to a violent uprising that had seized control and held the city for a week.

The growing sectarian threat allows the regime to portray all its enemies as tools of violent Sunni Salafi radicals. It also gives a weapon to the Asad regime's allies elsewhere in the Shi‘ite world, with Hizbullah and Iran's media also portraying this increasingly as a Sunni-Shi‘a conflict, as in this rabble-rousing report from Iran's Press TV.

There is blame to go around for both sides here, but I fear there is also a real danger that Syria is sliding into a civil war in which sectarian allegiances will be at the forefront: Sunnis against all the minorities, since Christians and sometimes other minorities like the Druze have felt more empowered under ‘Alawite rule and therefore are seen by many Sunnis as pro-government. Sectarian war, as we know all too well in recent decades, is often the most vicious form of war.  Libya (and Yemen) may have divided on tribal lines, but Syria is doing so on sectarian faultlines. Religious war in Syria, like everything else that happens in Syria, would have loud echoes in Lebanon as well. Much as I hope for an end to Asad's dictatorship, I am starting to wonder just what dark jinni is being let out of the Syrian bottle.

Talk About Mixing Metaphors

Revolutionary monopoly? I thought monopolizing property and wealth in the hands of a few was the old system.

Scenes from the Egyptian Revolution

You may have seen some of these before, but Ursula Lindsey has a piece on the visual expressions of the Egyptian Revolution (graffiti, signs, posters, etc.) that's worth a look.

Two Lebanon Links

 Since I was silent yesterday, a couple of readings for you till I have time to write something substantive of my own, both from Qifa Nabki:

More of my own work soon, inshallah.

Wretched Excess Department: Graffiti for the Satellite Cameras

Some people spray paint graffiti on New York subway cars or building walls; some ink slogans on bathroom stalls. Then there are the exhibitionists with money and power: "Abu Dhabi Sheikh's Name Can Be Seen From Space."

Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, is also known for his unusual car collection.

I can't come up with an appropriate comment. This needs a Voltaire.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Light Posting

I'm a bit under the weather today, so posting will be light. Later: Sorry, stomach bug knocked me out today, but I should have more posts later tonight or tomorrow.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Israeli Spring?

Although it's tempting to draw parallels,. there are obviously vast differences between the wave of protests building in Israel in the last few days and the waves of protest sweeping the Arab world. After all, there are people camped out in tents, crowds of protesters blocking highways and streets, chants demanding the leader step down, tensions between religious and secular . . . oh, wait, those are the similarities.

Although Israel has a democratic electoral process inside the Green Line, there is a great deal of frustration over the economy and the government's unresponsiveness, and it has spilled over into the streets. It all has nothing to do with the peace process or the Palestinians, and everything to do with the economy. The main thrust of the protests is over housing, There are tent cities throughout Israel demanding more housing at affordable prices. although some protesters reportedly charge that haredi or ultra-religious Jews are getting most new housing, some haredim have joined the protests themselves. Prime Minister Netanyahu has now canceled a trip to Poland, presumably due to the protests.

Adding to the issue is the fact that a longstanding protests by doctors over low pay during residency has now been turned into  a general strike by doctors.

The protests are essentially a middle class revolt,  but they could seriously undermine what many have taken to be a government that could not lose its majority to one where disillusionment with Netanyahu could weaken his previously seemingly unassailable position, even calling into some question of his leadership of his own party.YNet is quoting "a senior Likud Minister," unidentified but said to be previously known as loyal, as blaming Netanyahu for the problems.

Over the history of Israeli politics, more coalitions have come apart over domestic issues than over foreign policy.

Will Ramadan See an Increase in Violence?

Fridays, as everyone knows by now, have become the days of most intense demonstrations throughout the Arab world, as demonstrators follow Friday prayer with protest. (Governments hardly dare to top the communal day of prayer.)  But what would happen in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere (as well as in still tense Egypt) if there were a whole month of prayer? We are likely about to find out.

Ramadan is expected to begin on or about August 1, a week from today. And when Ramadan falls in August, fasting (including abstention from water) at the season when the days are long and the sun is hot, can shorten tempers (though it can also work to keep people indoors).

Abbasiyya Clashes Mark Growing Rift Between SCAF and Revolutionaries

 Violence broke out on July 23, Egypt's National Day, when Egyptian demonstrators staged a march from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Defense compound in Abbasiyya. Though soldiers and security police sealed off the compound, the demonstrators were attacked by baltagiyya,  the "thugs" who keep appearing \in tense situations and are generally armed with sticks or knives. An Al-Masry al-Youm video shows the march and subsequent clashes:

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) communique 69 had explicitly criticized the April 6 Movement, which led the Saturday march,  and subsequently expressed its thanks to those citizens "who formed a cordon" to protect the Defense Ministry in communique 70.

Increasingly, the demonstrators are chanting against SCAF and Field Marshal Tantawi, while the Army is talking increasingly tough. Many are comparing the clashes over the weekend to the "Battle of the Camel" on February 2, when Mubarak supporters on horseback and camelback (brought from the Pyramids) attacked the encampment in Tahrir.

Another sign of the growing tension: when talk-show host Dina Abdel-Rahman defended a writer who had criticized a member of SCAF, she was summarily fired.

With elections approaching, concerns about the military's willingness to hand over power are naturally growing. The tensions over the weekend have raised the heat considerably.

Friday, July 22, 2011

July 23 Plus 59 Years

It is already past midnight in Egypt and the country's traditional National Day, July 23. This year the bank holiday will be the 24th, but the Army and other institutions will mark the 59th anniversary of the 1952 coup.

A lot of the younger revolutionaries have already expressed their intent to switch the National Day to January 25, when the uprising began, seeing it as more of a Revolution than the military coup 59 years ago, before they were born. It is probably worth remembering, though, that the coup looked revolutionary enough at first, before the enthusiasm of the first moment became calcified into the authoritarian dictatorship that endured so long. And obviously, the January 25 revolution is at best incomplete, and at worst could produce another long period of undemocratic rule.

On earlier July 23rds since I began this blog, I have reflected on the legacy of the Free Officers (in 2009), and of Muhammad Naguib (last year); and on the 40th anniversary of Nasser's death I reflected on the very mixed legacies of the man.

This year, though, I think Egyptians should be looking forward, recognizing how easily the initial enthusiasms of that "revolution" were twisted into a dictatorship, and hoping for better results this time.

Perhaps next year, National Day will be on January 25. Or, perhaps it won't. The story is still unfinished.

More on Yesterday's Tripoli Attack

The Libyan rebels are confirming those rumors of an attack in Tripoli yesterday, but Abdullsh Senussi was not5 seriously injured; instead a former Qadhafi bodyguard, Mansur Daw, seems to have been the main casualty.

Syriac Question Mark: Poor Journalism on Scholarly Subjects 101

Here's an interesting story poorly reported by Reuters. A Cambridge University scholar thinks he has identified the "world's first question mark" in a Syriac punctuation mark known as the zagwa elaya,   a double dot that looks a bit like a colon. (The punctuation mark, not the large intestine.) First, go read the Reuters account. At least in the online version, there is no illustration (well, I'm getting an "Early photos of the Beatles emerge" showing a young Paul McCartney, but I don't think Sir Paul is a Syriac punctuation mark).  Why not SHOW US A PICTURE? Secondly, we find such interesting data as the following
Syriac is thought to have appeared in the Middle East from the 1st Century and boasts a large Christian literature. It declined as a spoken language with the arrival of Islam and Arabic and today is only used in churches.

Thought to have appeared? Syriac is just the late form of Aramaic, the dominant language of the Middle East for close to a millennium, though written in a distinctive alphabet (two really) and it hardly just "appeared". It was written in everything from cuneiform to square letter Hebrew to the various varieties of Syriac scripts, and even occasionally in Arabic.

Nor is it only used in churches today: its  Western form is spoken in four villages north of Damascus, and its Eastern form among the Assyrian communities of Iraq and Turkey. Syriac was once one of the world's great literary languages, and isn't quite dead yet. I have only the slightest smattering (alphabet, basic verb) but the Reuters reporter could have done better than this.

Now, go to the Cambridge University website on the same purported discovery. Here's a nuanced account quoting the academic making the claim with all the nuances intact, and with an illustration, which I reproduce above, and which seems to include the mark in question. (I make no judgment on his claims, which I'm not qualified to address, but at least the Cambridge site doesn't misstate facts.)

Really, what's so hard about that?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Headlines You Don't See Everyday: "Chinese Sufis in Yemen"

Following a link to a new blog called Even Unto China, which seems devoted to Chinese and East Asian links to the greater Islamic world, and clearly takes its name from the hadith of the Prophet, Itlib al-‘Ilm hatta al-Sin (Seek Knowledge, even unto China), I was struck by a post — a tantalizing one since it doesn't go into much detail, but includes photos of an old manuscript — carrying as a title four words I don't think I've ever seen together before: "Chinese Sufis in Yemen."

Attack on Key Qadhafi Aides?

Rumors have been busy today claioming that Libyan rebels targeted Abdullah Senussi, Col. Qadhafi's brother-in-law and intelligence chief, in the Four Poiuts  Sheraton in Tripoli. Some say Senussi weas killed or wounded. Another version has it that Senussi and Sayf al-Qadhafi and two others were wounded, but most of them not seriously.(Link is in Arabic.)

I hate to indulge in rumor-mongering but Senussi and Sayf were both named by the International Crimial Court warrants a few days ago. And if rebels can penetrate a major hotel in Tripoli, it's an interesting development. Of course,it may just be a rumor;

More on Egypt's Electoral Law

Al-Ahram Online has more details on Egypt's new electoral law; besides what I noted yesterday, it would allow any party winning only half of one percent of the vote into Parliament. That could produce a chaotic body, I should think: every tiny faction represented. Also more here on the refusal to allow international election monitors.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Mummy Walks?

UPDATE: More background here. The Supreme Council of Antiquities rejected the proposed successor, but don't want Hawass either. In fact, they want to get rid of the Ministerial position and return to it being under a scholarly body (themselves). (And Hawass hasn't posted to his website since July 14.)

A publication called The Art Newspaper is reporting that Zahi Hawass has returned to his office because the nomination of his successor was withdrawn.  He's still presumably on the way out, but has a reprieve if this report, which quotes  Hawass himself, is to be believed. The man appears to have more lives than a cat.

AJE on Rupert Murdoch's Ambitious Plans in the Middle East

Just when I thought the unfolding Murdoch/News Corp. scandal had everything except a Middle East angle, Al Jazeera English sets me straight, It details his plans for Sky News Arabia, an Arabic news channel, and his links with Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal, who is the second largest shareholder in News Corp.; it also focuses on Murdoch's strong support for Israel.

Details of Egyptian Elections Emerging

Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has begun to spell out the details of the upcoming elections. Statements yesterday by the Higher Committee for Elections Chairman and today by an Armed Forces Spokesman have made a few things clearer:
  • Egyptians will vote using their national ID cards, so no registration process is required, eliminating an element that worked toward rigging elections in the past. No decision has been reached on letting Egyptians abroad vote.
  • The elections will be held in three stages, but both the lower and upper houses will be elected at the same time.
  • The rule that half of candidates for the People's Assembly (lower house) must come from the workers and farmers is retained.
  • Half the seats in the People's Assembly will be elected by party list and half by member-based constituencies.
  • Only two-thirds of the seats in the Shura Council (upper house) will be elected; the other third will remain vacant until after a Presidential election, after which the President will appoint them.
  • Twitter posts are reporting the Army spokesman ruled out international monitoring of the elections as it violates Egypt's sovereignty.
Most of the points strike me as positive or at least neutral, but given the track record of Egyptian elections, the last one is disturbing. Western countries allow international monitoring without feeling their sovereignty has been infringed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don't Forget Tunisia

As if to remind us where the wave of Arab revolution first began, Tunisia witnessed clashes between police and demonstrators in the past few days, and in Sidi Bouzid, the interior town where the revolution began, a 14 year old was killed. Though the violence in Syria, Yemen and Libya is far more dramatic, and the sheer size and centrality in Egypt guarantee we notice every hiccup there, Tunisia's revolution has been mostly off the radar screens for the world media since the departure of Ben Ali.

The recent violence has drawn some attention: a piece in The National  here; an analysis by POMED on the same subject; and a rather optimistic assessment by The Economist. And a piece on the desperation of rhe impoverished south at Foreign :Policy.

I think several things account for the generally better track record of the Tunisian revolution compared to, say, Egypt, despite the continuing economic unrest in the interior. The fact that it was decided early on to elect a constituent assembly first rather than a Parliament means that  there will be a constitution written by elected representatives, rather than a Parliament elected according to old rules or, in Egypt's case, still unclear rules. When the elections were moved from July to October there were few complaints since it was done by a study commission rather than by decree. The choice of 84-year old Beji Caid Essebsi to lead the tradition raised some eyebrows at the time, but in retrospect a respected elder statesman may have been exactly what was needed. (Mubarak having outlived everyone else, there was no such figure available in Egypt.)

Finally, though Al-Nahda leads most other parties in the polls, it is still much weaker than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and unlikely to win a majority, so the secular/religious divisions, while present, are more muted.

Here's a report on the demonstrations from Al-Jazeera English:

Readings on the History of Cairo, Part One: A Few Essential Books

Unless you haven't been paying attention or just found this blog for the first time, I have a lot of interest in and fascination with Cairo, and since the revolutionary events of January and February I've been frequently remembering earlier events in that city's long and fascinating history. Given the fact that this blog is supposed to have an educational purpose and go beyond just commentary, I think it's time to begin an ongoing and perhaps open-ended series on the city's history. One must start with some readings; there will be a quiz. But first some discussion.

When Egyptians say Misr Umm al-Dunya, "Egypt is the Mother of the World,"  they are also giving that attribution to Cairo, since the city and its ancestors have been known as "Misr" at least as long as the country itself has. Some say the Umm al-Dunya phrase originally referred to Cairo, not to the country as a whole. The identification of the country and its capital is not unique: "Tunisia" is a Western term; most Arabic speakers use "Tunis" for both the country and its capital, as they use "Al-Jaza'ir" for both Algiers and Algeria, or as "Al-Sham" is a traditional name for both Damascus and Syria.

Cairo is not just an Arab capital, of course. It is the largest city in Africa (here counting both the Cairo and Giza governorates, which are equally part of the capital and jointly surpass Lagos by a bit), as well as the largest city in the Arab world by far. With a population estimated at 15 million it represents somewhere close to a fifth of the entire population of Egypt.

You will usually read that Cairo was founded by the Fatimids in 969 AD. It is true that the name Al-Qahira (the Conqueror or the Victorious, from the Arabic name for Mars) was coined then, but there have been cities within the general area covered by modern Cairo since the beginnings of civilization: Memphis, On (Heliopolis), Babylon of Egypt, Fustat, al-‘Askar, al-Qata‘i, and finally Cairo. Misr was used for some or all of them, as it is still used for Cairo. Only the name Cairo is as recent as 969 AD. The exact spot where the Nile divided into the many branches that form the Delta has shifted with time and the floods, until stabilized at the Nile Barrages north of Cairo. But because this was where Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley) and Lower Egypt (the Delta) came together, it has always been an essential place for a city. That's why it has the pyramids.

Although the name Cairo is more than a millennium old, the reality of the city is as old as Egypt itself. Few places on earth have such a rich and fascinating history. In this new series of posts on the History of Cairo, I plan to offer suggestions for readings as well as observations of my own.

Each of the periods of Egyptian history — the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of the Pharaohs, the Persian and Hellenistic eras, the Roman and Coptic eras, and the multiple periods of the Islamic era — are integral parts of Egypt, categorized by the rulers and dominant religions and cultures, while many aspects of Egypt have endured unchanged.

Offering suggested readings on this history is no easy matter: there is an enormous literature. It is a well-documented city: Al-Maqrizi's 15th century Khitat painstakingly described every street and every mosque, and Ali Mubarak Pasha's Al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyya did the same at even greater length for the Cairo of the khedives in the late 19th century. Neither of those wonderful books has ever been translated into English, and only bits of Maqrizi have appeared in French. I plan over time to talk a lot about the sources for the city, including those in Arabic, but to begin with let's start at the introductory level.

One could begin with guidebooks; any newcomer needs a good guidebook, maybe three or four (Ancient Cairo, Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo, Modern Cairo). Or one could come to Cairo through fiction. The only Arabic winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the late Naguib Mahfouz, is Cairo's great novelist: his massive Cairo Trilogy captures the city and many of its social classes between the two World Wars, while some of his later works do something similar for the Nasser and Sadat eras. For the long dry Mubarak years, Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building is perhaps the best novel available to the English-only reader. But I'll post on guidebooks and novels somewhere later on (though go ahead and read the ones I've mentioned).

I will, in time, offer detailed readings on every period of the city's history, but for this first post I want to offer four or five titles that everyone should read if they have a serious interest in the city and its history, emphasizing but not limited to the modern city. Here goes. (I'm listing US editions but most should be available elsewhere.)

If you can read only one book about Cairo.

1. If you're going to be living, working, or studying in Cairo you ought to read more than one book, but this is a good place to start; if you're only casually interested and plan to only read one book, it's the one to read This would be Max Rodenbeck,   Cairo: The City Victorious (London: 1998 and New York: 1999.) Rodenbeck arrived in Cairo at the age of two; his parents ran the American University in Cairo Press and he has lived there most of his life. Today he is The Economist's Chief Middle East Correspondent. As you would expect for someone who is a virtual native and who writes for The Economist, his book is informed, accurate, engaging, and intelligent. It is also a lot more fun than most of the books on this list, as entertaining as it is educational. It is your best bet for the first in the door.

Getting more scholarly.

2. My second essential reading is quite readable but aimed at a slightly more scholarly audience and also translated from the French. Don't let that scare you off. This is Andre Raymond, Cairo (Harvard: 2000). Raymond is a social historian who once directed the French Institute in Damascus; he tells the whole history of Cairo in a clear and highly perceptive way. It gives the whole story in a serious but readable form.

Two Books to Be Read in Sequence.

 For those seriously interested in the city, the first of these books is essential, but is now 40 years out of date. The second, while not intended as a sequel, works well as one. If you really want to understand this city, you need to have read them both.

3. Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious. (Princeton: 1971). Sadly, it does not seem to be in print and copies can be expensive. This is the most serious and scholarly overview in English of the development of the city from the beginnings to the date of publication by a serious student of urban development and social history. It is irreplaceable and essential. The only bad thing about is that the Cairo of 1971, just after the death of Nasser, was 40 years ago, and while it seemed enormous at the time, it was a mere foreshadowing of the enormous urban agglomeration of today. But for a real understanding of how the city developed down to 1970 or so, through the Nasser era, this is the gold standard and doubtless always will be. And now, it has what I think is a worthy successor.

4. David Sims, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control. Foreword by Janet Abu-Lughod. (Cairo: AUC Press, 2010). The "Foreword by Janet Abu-Lughod" ought to tip you off that this is a worthy successor to her own great book. Sims is an American economist and urban planner who has lived in Cairo since the 1970s, and given the advances in technology and imaging his book not only has plenty of graphs and tables, but excellent maps and Google Earth photos. He describes all of contemporary Cairo's aspects, but is particularly strong on those things that have developed since Abu-Lughod's book: the "informal" quarters (unplanned slums), the "satellite cities" in the desert and the elite gated communities and indoor malls that were unimaginable in 1970; and he has the statistics and analysis to prove it. He also writes awfully lucidly for an alleged economist. If you read Abu-Lughod and Sims in succession, you'll have a great socioeconomic picture of the city's evolution. And as a 2010 imprint, it's pretty current.

Those are, really, my four essentials: Rodenbeck, Raymond, Abu-Lughod and Sims. If you read all four you'll have a good understanding of modern Cairo and a pretty good grasp of its earlier history. But since five is usually a better number than four for a list, I'll add another recent general book I like a lot, though it doesn't contain much in the way of facts you won't find in the others listed, but packs a potent punch on aesthetics. This is:

5.  Nezar AlSayyad: Cairo: Histories of a City. (Harvard: 2011). This, the newest book on my list, is a fine scholarly work by a Professor of Architecture and Urban History at Berkeley, and published by Harvard, so there's nothing at all wrong with its academic pedigree, and it's (as far as I as a non-aesthete can tell) a fine synthesis of the architectural side of the historical development of Cairo. But part of what makes me include it in my top five, when I analyze it, boils down to the scholarly equivalent of "Oooh . . . Shiny." This is a beautiful book. Color photos of monuments from every era of the city's history from Memphis to the City Stars Mall. Elegant, full-color, historical maps of key regions of the city in each period of development.

If Rodenbeck is read for entertainment, Raymond for a profound historical overview, Abu-Lughod and Sims for the urban socioeconomic history, then AlSayyad does the artistic and architectural side, one of Cairo's greatest strengths.

Those are my top five. But there will be more posts, and more lists, in this Cairo history series.

What Will Egypt Do This July 23?

I know this blog has been Egypt-heavy lately but I make no apologies, since major things have been happening in the Arab World's largest country. But amidst all the Egyptian news I've been scanning, I haven't seen much mention of one thing: Saturday is July 23, Egypt's National Day.

This is the third year of this blog. In my first year, I of course reflected on the mixed legacies of the Free Officers' July 23, 1952 coup, or Revolution as it is called, and in my second year, I did one of my historical posts on Egypt's forgotten first President, Muhammad Naguib. Do read them both if you haven't.

But when anyone says "Revolution" today in Egypt the date that comes to mind is not July 23, but January 25. Yet at the same time, Egypt is still ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the Army sees July 23, 1952 as its finest hour. And since this year, July 23 will fall on Saturday while Friday is the day for intensified protests in the continuing Revolution, it will be interesting to see how the protesters and the Army commemorate National Day.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Some Egypt Notes

  A few notes and links on Egyptian themes:
  • PM Esam Sharaf was rumored today to have had a stroke. Instead, it was apparently just exhaustion. For most of the past week he's been wrestling with the Cabinet reshuffle, negotiations with the Military Council and the protesters, etc., so that seems credible. Meanwhile we're now being told former President Mubarak's "lapsed into a coma" was just low blood pressure. Egyptian doctors are sure working wonders these days.
  • Charles Dunne (no kin, but he is an MEI Adjunct) meanwhile has a new piece on  "Egypt's Turbulent Road to Democracy."
  • An Al Jazeera English video discussion on "Egypt: Revolution in Progress" involving Nawal Saadawi, Essam El Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood (that's an interesting pairing right there), Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and Max Rodenbeck. A high powered if very diverse group.

Hawass Ouster Getting More Press Than Rest of Cabinet Combined

 Usually a Cabinet reshuffle that changes 15 portfolios and includes the Foreign Minister and Finance Minister among them tends to produce analysis on the key changes in key ministries, and my earlier posting on the reshuffle contained links to articles on the new Foreign and Defense Ministries. After all, Egypt's role in the world and its precarious economy are big issues, not only domestically but for other countries as well.

But a totally unscientific sampling of news sites and blogs (just what I've had time to look at so far) leaves me with the distinct impression that for most headline writers, the departure of Zahi Hawass is getting most of the attention.

I realize most people outside of Egypt and many at home couldn't have named the departing Finance or Foreign Ministers. Did the old Finance Minister have his own show on  the History Channel? Does anyone know what kind of hat the Foreign Minister favored? Star Power will tell.

One of the better treatments is Max Fisher's at The Atlantic;he also quotes from an excellent piece by Mohamed ElShahed at al-Jadaliyya, "The Case Against the Grand Egyptian Museum."  Though written before the reshuffle, it has strong criticisms of Hawass. If you're not familiar with the Grand Egyptian Museum, it's an ambitious, perhaps overambitious, effort to move the collections of the cramped Egyptian Museum to a new site, constructed on pharaoniic scale (and likely pharaonic expense) out in the desert past the pyramids. As ElShahed notes, it reflects the emphasis of the Mubarak years on building elite gated suburbs for the wealthy, so they could avoid the inconveniences of the urban core. (Not to mention the common people.)

Is this the end of Zahi  Hawass? I suspect his line of clothing will suffer a setback, and his television career may suffer now that he can't automatically grant the TV access to Egyptian sites. But if he can avoid prosecution I doubt that we've seen the last of him. Recall that earlier this year he resigned (almost certainly just before he would have been fired), then made a comeback as a sudden supporter of the revolution. This time he didn't get the timing right.

Egypt's New Cabinet: First Impressions

Egypt's broad Cabinet reshuffle over the weekend, replacing 15 ministers with mostly new faces, though billed as the "Revolution Cabinet," has not universally pleased the protesters in Tahrir Square, though it does remove some of the figures to whom they most objected. Among the most notable changes are Hazem el Beblawi as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, and Mohamed Kamel Amr as Foreign Minister, Egypt's fourth FM this year and third since the fall of Mubarak.

Oh, and we won't have Zahi Hawass to kick around anymore. Apparently, though, he was jeered by younger archaeologists as he left the Ministry (video via Zeinobia at the link; she also comments on other new ministers here):

I'll no doubt have further comments as events evolve. Already, the expected swearing-in of the new ministers has been bumped from today until tomorrow, to allow further "consultations," whatever that may mean.

Friday, July 15, 2011

It Isn't Just an "Arab" Spring: The Amazigh Awakening

I've been tied up all day so I hope this will provide you with some delayed reading.

On several occasions I've noted the role of Amazigh ("Berber") activism in Libya (here and here for example). While throughout the Maghreb, there is an attempt to revive Tamazight (the Moroccan King's constitutional reforms make it a national language alongside Arabic; Algeria has also made concessions in recent years after years of suppression, and here's a piece on the revival in Tunisia), the real news is in Libya.
In recent weeks the main frontline in the war has shifted to the west, in the Jabal Nafusa south of Tripoli, and that is the country's Amazigh heartland. The flags in the banner above  are, respectively, the Amazigh flag with a character ("Z") from the ancient Tifinagh script (also shown above left), while the second combines it with the rebel Libyan flag, the pre-1969 national flag (right)
 A similar "Berberized" version of the Tunisian flag has also been created, below left.

While I've been beating this drum for some time, the rest of the world is starting to notice since the Nafusa has become the key front. Here's a good Reuters piece that paints the picture quite well.

As it notes, the Tamazight language and Amazigh identity were suppressed in Libya, with Qadhafi claiming variously that it was in "imperialist" language or merely a "dialect of Arabic," and the language openly suppressed. Now, newspapers have sprung up, as have websites (libyatadreft.com is essential) and radio stations. Also, here's a link to a Dutch news video with an English translation in the text.

There is also a YouTube channel called ImazighenLibya,  which has this delightful title:

ⵣ امازيغ ⵣ ليبيا ⵣ ⵍⵉⴱⵢⴰ
ImazighenLibya's Channel

I love it when you get three writing systems in a couple of lines.

And now for some videos:

First, some  Nafusi fighters singing, in Tamazight:

Second, a video about not being able to name your kids non-Arabic  names. There are English captions. the first guy wants to name his son "Massinissa." (But Qadhafi  named one of his sons "Hannibal," which isn't Arabic either. Is there a double standard? Oh, wait, I think I know the answer to that.)

The Imazighen, and particularly the Tamazight languages (it is a family, not a single language), have suffered much from the post-colonial era. In all four Maghreb countries (the Siwi-speakers of Egypt are perhaps too tiny to generalize), nationalism was Arab nationalism, and persuading people to speak Arabic and learn the literary language was a priority. In Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria, the priority was to eradicate French, but the emphasis on Arabic at the expense of French also restricted the use of the various Tamazight languages. In Libya, Italian and to some extent English were in widespread use among the elites, though not to the extent of French to the west.

The irony is that the effort to eradicate French was far more effective at eradicating Tamazight. To this day in Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria, French is still the language of the elites and of commerce and high culture, and permeates even the colloquial Arabic.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Egypt Elections Moved Back?

UPDATE II: Reports are hedging with "may be moved back:" and "registration will start in September." Maybe the Army is sending up a trial balloon.

UPDATE: There still aren't many details, so perhaps we should treat this report with some caution.

An unnamed military official has told the official MENA news agency that elections scheduled for September will be postponed till October or November.

Not many details yet, but only two months out from the theoretical elections there was as yet no agreement on the electoral system (the old constituency system, a proportional representation system, or a mixed system the Cabinet favors but the Military Council has not endorsed).

Whether you're on the "Constitution first" or an "Elections first" supporter, this seems like common sense. Very little had been done to prepare for a vote in September.

The Problem of Revolutionary Puritanism

The information here is so fragmentary that I'm not sure I should even comment, but I will anyway. You may know that an ongoing sit-in has been going on in Tahrir Square in Cairo since last Friday. Thde protesters even blocked access to the Mugamma‘, the huge government building where all the red tape afflicting Egyptian is processed, till ordinary Egyptians who need their paperwork processed had an effect and they announced it could reopen.

According to this report on the Egyptian newspaper/website Al-Youm 7, a man from Suez, entering the Square (which as I've noted before, is round) in recent days, was found by the "Popular Committee" controlling access to the Square to have a bottle of wine with him. He was seized and kicked out of the Square, and if this photo (with the paper's watermark intact) is correct it may have been poured out on his head.

Now who, precisely, controls the "Popular Committees" controlling access to Tahrir isn't clear,  but the relatively brief account calls him ahad al-baltagiyya, "one of the thugs," though it also says he was a worker from Suez who came to Cairo looking for a job. How does an unemployed man from perhaps the angriest city in Egypt become a baltagi? Just because he was carrying a bottle of wine?

The picture here and others at the link don't look like his challengers were Brotherhood or other Salafis; no beards in evidence. I can think of other reasons for their anger, but none are supported by the limited information available:

  • Were the protesters concerned that he would lead the authorities to claim there was a drunken orgy going on in Tahrir?
  • Or were these Islamists without the trademark beards?
  • Or is the issue that he was an outsider and falsely suspected of infiltration?
Or is this a case of revolutionaries showing their puritanical side? In the French and Russian revolutions there was a tension between revolutionaries who believed hedonism  and free love were signs of the revolution, and others who felt these were the vices of the old regime. But the presence of the Islamists means there will be pressure on the moral values of the revolution, and pressures to ban alcohol altogether.

Of course, maybe he was a baltagi, but nothing in the story or pictures suggests so. He looks like a job-seeker caught sneaking wine through a checkpoint.

And given what I've seen of Youm 7, this could be tabloid sensationalism and nothing more. The information's awfully sparse.

Brumberg on Egypt; The Arabist on Brumberg

Dan Brumberg of USIP has a piece on Egypt post-revolution at The AtlanticIssandr El Amrani at The Arabist  has few cavils about Dan's post. Dan was in Cairo recently and Issandr lives there, so I will refer you to both their posts and say I think they add to the discussion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Who's Governing Yemen?

With Salih in Saudi Arabia and the country factionally divided, Jeb Boone at FP's Middle East Channel offers us a tour d'horizon of who is in charge where.

Hey, I Was Quoted in the New York Times

In an article on Zahi Hawass.  Sure, it's a one-line quote in a much longer article, from an interview given several weeks ago, and doesn't say anything I haven't said before here. But they spelled my name right and (for now at least) have a lot more readers than I do.

Morton Klein Follows Abe Foxman in Questioning New Israel .Law

Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has followed Abe Foxman of ADL in raising questions about the wisdom of Israel's new "Anti-Boycott Law."

J Street's also against it, but you knew that already.

Google Translate: Midan al-Tahrir = Field of Editing

As an Editor, I was amused to learn that if you run an Arabic text containing "Midan al-Tahrir" through Google Translate, it translates (at least in one case) Midan al-Tahrir as "Field of Editing." I never rely on Google Translate and usually don't need to, so I hadn't run into this before. Has it done this all along? Anyone know?

"Midan" (Classical Maydan) had an older meaning before it became the usual word for a public square: it meant a large field for sporting events, such as a polo field or a hippodrome. (It's used from Central Asia westward and is probably originally Persian or Turkish rather than Arabic, but I'm prepared for commenters to correct me on that.) And one of the meanings of "tahrir," besides "liberation," is "editing." A muharrar is an Editor; the ra'is al-tahrir is the Editor in Chief. I like to think we aim to "liberate" the author's meaning from the text, but for whatever reason, that's one of the meanings. (And of course there's the old saying that every Arabic word has at least four meanings: a) its usual meaning; b) the direct opposite of its usual meaning; c) a meaning related to sex; and d) a meaning related to camels. It's an exaggeration. But not by much.)

But I'm glad that the Field of Editing has, at least for Google Translate, become the symbol of the Egyptian Revolution.

UPDATE: Well, I did say commenters should correct me. Commenter JP runs rings around me:
 I do not think that Maydan is of Persian origin, and it certainly is not of Turkish - words indigenous to the latter seldom, if ever, begin with "m".

A scan of Hans Wehr for cognates produces a few other Arabic words that look as if they might be related to "maydan" because they carry meanings similarly relative to a wide, open expanse such as a square or a field:

mîdâ2 - measure, amount, length, distance
mâ2ida - table
madâ - extension, expanse, stretch, etc.

With -ân/-ôn being a common Semitic suffix connoting full or utmost possession, I see not to reason to conclude from the existence of M-Y-D and M-D words with related meaning, that maydân is of Arabic origin. I would reference the theory that proto-Semitic had bilateral roots from which the later trilateral roots evolved and also connect M-D-D - a root in both Arabic and Hebrew that connotes physicality and flat space.

However, until this moment, I had always assumed the word was related to madîna - perhaps in a morphed fu3ayl form. Though in post-Quranic Arabic madîna means city, as I think you have noted before, its etymological ancestors in Hebrew and Aramaic have larger geographic meanings of country or province. The common denominator here perhaps being jurisdictions, as it had always been put to me the ultimate derivation of madîna was the root D-Y-N "to judge".
 JP for the win.

Some Hard Truths about Egypt's Economy

Economics may be the. "dismal science," and a lot less inspiring than political change, but the roots of Arab Spring were economic ones, aqnd the future of Egypt in particular will be closely bound up with how any new government, of whatever political coloration, addresses the country's profound economic problems. Jon Alterman at CSIS reminds us of these hard truths. A necessary read.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

This is Strange Even For Qadhafi

There are Israeli reports that a delegation of senior Libyans from the Qadhafi government secretly visited Israel and met with Opposition leader Tzipi Livni and perhaps others.

All I know is what's in the report.  Is Qadhafi really looking for Israeli support? Or is something else going on here? Or is he just being Qadhafi?

Ban Now, Why Take Chances?

Google +, Google's attempt to take on Facebook, isn't even available to the general public yet. Not to worry: Iran has already blocked it anyway.

Anti-Defamation League Criticizes Israeli Anti-Boycott Law

The Anti-Defamation League, in a rare criticism of Israel, has expressed concern that Israel's new "Anti-Boycott Law" could threaten basic democratic rights. A statement by ADL Director Abraham Foxman said the following:
The Anti-Defamation League has a long history of vigorous opposition to any and all boycotts of Israel, and works every day to expose and combat those who seek to cause damage to the Jewish state.  We are, however, concerned that this law may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Among Israel's many assets is its vibrant democracy – a fact clearly supported by the six-plus hour debate of this bill in the Knesset.  To legally stifle calls to action – however abhorrent and detrimental they might be – is a disservice to Israeli society.  We hope Israel's Supreme Court will quickly take up a review of this law and resolve the concerns it raises.
The new law, which allows private individuals to bring suit against anyone calling for a boycott of Israel or of the settlements and their products, had been controversial within Israel; even Prime Minister Netanyahu absented himself from the vote. More on the law here. Bradley Burston in Ha'aretz, admittedly a voice from the left, is downright alarmist:
This is the one. Don't let what we like to call the relative calm here, fool you. When the Knesset passed the boycott law Monday night, it changed the history of the state of Israel.
In real time, a tipping point of great magnitude can sound a lot like nothing at all. But if the Boycott Law makes it past challenges filed by human rights and pro-peace organizations in Israel's High Court of Justice, then anything goes, beginning with democracy itself.
The law will of course be challenged in the courts.

Qadhafi Endgame, or a Feint?

The French Foreign Minister has said that Qadhafi is signaling a willingness to leave. Given everythiung we've seen thus far, it would be wise to treat this "news" cautiously, I think; Juppe made clear there are no "negotiations" as such. It could be a feint, a bargaining maneuver, or just a diversion. But perhaps it's more.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Suez Protests and the Redline: Keeping the Canal Open

Suez was one of the vanguards of the Egyptian Revolution and there have been continuing protests by Canal workers protesting low wages, but the release on bail last week of policemen accused of killing protesters in January has sparked new fury. A good background piece here. But as the fury has risen, things have gotten dangerous: on Sunday Army troops protecting the Canal clashed with protesters tryng to breach barbed wire blocking their access to the waterway.  Now there is a big protest planned for tomorrow with demonstrators coming from Cairo and around the country, and warnings of a "surprise escalation." 

 But, as Zeinobia notes, the Canal is a redline for the military and the interim government. Canal tolls are as essential to Egypt's economy as he Canal's smooth operation is to global commerce. The Armed Forces — which have the Second Field Army based at Ismailia and the Third Field Army at Suez itself — will do what they have to do to to keep the Canal open.

And, while the frustrations of striking Canal workers are no doubt just, mutterings about shutting down Egypt's Canal strike ordinary Egyptians as almost seditious. As Zeinobia and other feet-on-the-ground  supporters of January 25 have noted, the surest way to undercut the revolution is to do something that alienates most of the Egyptian people. Jacobin Revolutionary purity could scuttle the movement before it has had a chance to prove itself.

I've said before that economic and social goals, not just political, are the unreported aspect of the revolutionary movement in Egypt. A real, enforceable minimum wage is a growing demand. But hopes of pushing for real social change could be derailed if the protesters are seen as a threat to an already fragile and struggling economy. Shutting down the Canal won't raise Canal workers' wages; it will put them out of work.

Of course only the oldest Canal workers will recall that the Canal was closed and blocked and the cities themselves became ghost towns from 1967 to 1975, when the Israeli Army was on the east bank, but I do; when I first lived in Egypt in 1972-73 the Canal was the frontline, unapproachable by civilians.

I hope cooler heads prevail on this one.

Bahrain's Pro-Government Press on "Ayatollah Obama"

If you thought the US had been a bit too restrained in its comments on Bahrain's suppression of protests, the pro-government Bahraini media don't think so; instead they're denouncing  "Ayatollah Obama" and the dangers of the staunch US-Iranian-Hizbullah alliance.

It would be amusing if so much were not at stake.

And, via the comments, Part One.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Robert Ford in Hama Today

The US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and his French counterpart visited Syria's dissident city of Hama today. The Syrian government was not pleased, but the people of Hama apprently were:

Have a good weekend.

Welcoming South Sudan

UPDATED: It's past midnight in Juba and South Sudan is celebrating.

 I blogged earlier in the week about the imminent independence of South Sudan, but before I disappear for the weekend I should note that as the clocks tick toward midnight in Sudan, tomorrow is the day the separation becomes official.
The division has been a long time coming, and how the two parts of Sudan will coexist over time remains to be seen. The experience of Eritrea and Ethiopia is not encouraging. But the celebrations in Juba tomorrow will be joyous. Qadhafi's Libya and Iran have said they won't recognize the new state, but Egypt, though nervous about having a new state to negotiate with on Nile water rights, will.

"Persistence Friday"

Tens of thousands showed up in Tahrir Square today; what originally started as a demonstration for a new constitution was transformed by the recent acquittal of three ministers and the release on bail of some Suez police  officers into a broad-based demand for faster trials for those charged with corruption or killing protesters, and faster change. A broad coalition of the old parties and the new rallied; the Muslim Brotherhood, which stayed aloof in January, was there today.

The young revolutionaries are clearly hoping to give their movement a renewed impetus; many are frustrated that so little has changed. Certainly there are tensions being felt: when a jet broke the sound barrier over Cairo Wednesday the city was awash in rumors of a major explosion somewhere; it was only a sonic boom. The acquittals have produced anger and Suez, the city that was one of the fiercest in its uprising in January, is seething again. It could still be a long, hot summer.

Portman Said to Name Her Baby Aleph

Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, is reported to have named her first child Aleph, after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Well, if her second kid is named Bet, I hope it's a girl, because she could go by Betty.

But if she has a third, I fear little Gimel could have a troubled childhood.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

An Interview with Egypt's Last King

A  couple of months old but perhaps still of interest: an interview in French with Egypt's last King, Fuad II. Also see my previous post on Fuad II at his sister's funeral in Egypt in 2009.

Even when interviewed by Arab media, as when he did an Al-Arabiyya interview one time, he always speaks in French. Of course he was only a month old when he left Egypt (his father abdicated to him, and a Regency Council ruled in his name for less than a year before the Republic was proclaimed, but the infant King was in Europe with his parents.) He may have little facility in Arabic.

Salih, Before and After

Yemen's ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih spoke on Yemeni TV today from his hospital bed in Saudi Arabia, and said he had eight operations since the bombing which injured him June 3. Al Jazeera English shows us Salih now (left) and before the attack:

It goes without saying that, while he's proven he isn't dead by appearing on television, he has also undercut attempts by some in his government to minimize his injuries and suggest his return is imminent. Does this appearance strengthen or weaken his likelihood of resuming power? It will be worth watching, I think.

Al-Haqq fawq al-Quwwa wa-al-Umma fawq al-Hukuma

The title of this post means, "The right is greater than might, and the Nation is greater than the government." It's a motto of Sa‘d Zaghloul, founder of the Wafd Party.

The Wafd, of course, is but a shadow of its former self. For too long it was the Mubarak "loyal opposition," with more emphasis on the "loyal" than on the opposition. More recently it has been torn by internal divisions. Now, we find a deputy chief of the party expressing holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the rest.  (Link was missing earlier; fixed now.)

All this from a once-great liberal party that always emphasized the role of Christians as well as Muslims in the Egyptian nation, but today is talking electoral alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

On a related note, the old flag of the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, which has been seen again in recent months and is itself associated with the Old Wafd, is now available on mugs and T-shirts at this site.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Economist on Arabic Dialect Dubbing

This blog has discussed Arabic dialects and the problems of diglossia several times, so I thought I'd note this column from The Economist on dubbing in dialect. Apparently Turkish dramas tend to be dubbed in Syrian Arabic, but Bollywood Indian films are dubbed in Gulf Arabic. (If that surprises you, you've probably never been to the Gulf.)

Added note: as I was adding the topic tags to this post I noted that both the previous post on Jack Shaheen and this one carry the tag "film," In two and a half years of blogging, these are only the fourth and fifth posts tagged film. What are the odds of their appearing in successive posts? (Though the "film" tag also includes my scholarly discussion of the Sex and the City 2 "in CGI Abu Dhabi" trailer last year.)

Two Items About Jack Shaheen and Arab Stereotypes in Film

Jack Shaheen, an academic and media critic who has made a career out of analyzing stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in books, movies, and television, is making news in couple of different ways.

First, Turner Classic Movies is running a series on Race and Hollywood: Arab Images on Film, in which Jack will join with TCM's Robert Osborne to analyze the films. The good news is, it runs all month on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The bad news is, it started last night. The schedule and films are here.

For those of you who've never seen Jack do his thing, he's invariably witty and entertaining, and unless he's mellowing with age I'll be surprised if he doesn't steal the show from the somewhat stuffy Osborne. I've done several programs with Jack, and he always was the star of the show.

In other Shaheen news, he has donated his archive to the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Middle East Studies at NYU and the A/P/A Institute, also at NYU. They have a video in which he discusses his collection and his work:

Acquittals in Egypt Stirring New Outrage

I'm sure if you search for the word "acquittal" on any news site today, the first 10,000 or so hits will be about the high profile US trial of Casey Anthony, a mother accused of killing her daughter, and who will now be free to join O.J. Simpson in searching for the real killer. But while the US was preoccupied with this ultra-tabloid trial, some other acquittals could provoke real problems. In Egypt, the courts have acquitted the former Finance, Information and Housing Ministers of corruption. (These aren't the only charges against them, though.) There's considerable outrage, and earlier, in Suez, police officials charged with killing protesters in January were freed on bail and their trial postponed till September. Suez erupted in protest, and the accused had to be transferred to the custody of the Third Field Army to prevent a lynching.

I don't favor lynching, of course, or drumhead justice of any kind. But I do know that quick acquittals on corruption charges in times like these, or letting accused killers out on bail, can provoke that kind of extrajudicial response. Egypt has a long history of an independent judiciary, much debased in recent years by military courts and the politicization of the bench, This not the time for either the revolutionaries or the old guard to flirt with fire. Any judicial verdict, whether vindictive or exculpatory, will be more credible after restoration of a legitimized system of government. Now is too explosive for acquittals and bail, or for talk of executions.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Saudi Arabia in Yemen

Ellen Knickmeyer at Foreign Policy offers a lengthy post about Saudi influence in/concern over Yemen, that I recommend reading.

Egyptian Cabinet Votes for Mixed Electoral System

Egypt's Cabinet has voted to shift to a mixed electoral system blending proportional representation/party lists  with constituency-based districts. With only a 2% threshold for entering Parliament, a maximum number of parties would seem likely to be represented. The changes would still need approval by he Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

I find it hard to visualize how they can redraw all the constituencies in time for a September vote when it is already July, but at least they're at last addressing the question of an electoral system less skewed towards a single party than the old one.

And really, 2%? There's going to half to be a lot of coalition building.

Anani on Islamism in Egypt and the Proliferation of Movements

Khalil al-Anani offers a useful overview of the changed face of Islamism in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. The proliferation of Salafi and other Islamist parties competing with the Muslim Brotherhood has certainly transformed the situation. I wonder if we will see an emergence of a bloc of competing religious parties somewhat analogous to the case in Israel.

On the Eve: South Sudan Acquires the Trappings of Statehood

Coming out of the Fourth of July weekend, we're entering the week when the world is due to see a new country take its place in our part of the world: the Republic of South Sudan (جنوب السودان‎). July 9, Saturday, is independence day. The Arab world will shrink a bit, though Arabic as well as English will be official languages.

The soon-to-be country already has a flag (above left), a President, Salva Kiir, famous for his black stetson (previous post here and pic at right), a name, the simple South Sudan, not the oft-discussed Nile republic, or Cush, or Azania, or what not,  a national anthem (text at link; MP3 here so you can hear it, an official seal (left), a capital (Juba), and pledges of recognition from the UN and a good many of the world's countries.

And now, they're putting on the finishing touches. (This is not to underestimate the potential for continuing conflict over Abyei Province or anything else, of course.)

As the link notes, they've asked for their own international calling code, which will be issued after UN recognition, and their own top-level domain (TLD: the Internet country extension). They've asked for .ss, which has led to comment since it reminds people of the Nazi SS, but it is of course intended for South Sudan. The Reuters story at the link shows they do, indeed, know this already. (Sudan's is .sd.)  Not all TLDs are obvious: .ch for Switzerland, .ie for Ireland and .ae for the UAE all make a certain amount of sense (in Switzerland's case if you know the country's name in Latin), but aren't intuitive. Obviously, .ss would be easy to remember, and .ss would be far from the only potentially embarrassing abbreviation. I have some good friends in Bermuda and am always mildly amused that the email addresses end in the slightly unfortunate .bm, though perhaps they can lord it over the Bahamians, whose TLD is .bs.

Monday, July 4, 2011

For Arab Spring on the Fourth of July

I'm enjoying the Fourth of July holiday, but in honor of Arab spring, may I offer the one thing, perhaps the only thing, the US might really contribute without offense:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.